Today finds me feeling not at all well, so i’ve kept myself occupied making a new mixtape, with a theme i’ve wanted to explore for a while: female vocalists. At a guess, i’d say i listen to more female singers than male, and the content of this mix reflects a combination of artists with whom i’ve become familiar only recently, and others i’ve loved for many years.
The wonderfully-named Scout Niblett (who sounds as though she ought to stand four feet tall) takes a refreshingly sparse approach to her brand of rock; she also plays both drums and guitar, and her songs have a basic, elemental quality to them; that’s certainly the case in “Hot to Death”, a song that moves abruptly from soft fragility to raging fury. Peaches needs no introduction; her hypersexual songs vary wildly in their ratio of credibility to crassness, but 2003’s Fatherfucker is, i think, her best achievement, with the claustrophobic (and, for once, sex-absent) “Operate” its standout track. Better known under her initials AGF, Antye Greie-Fuchs brings a demonstrably poetic sensibility to her electronic experiments; her most recent release, Dance Floor Drachen, available free (link below), contains some of her most rhythmically engaging work to date; “TURN IMPOTENT” is enhanced further with stomach-wobbling bass pulses. “Hyperballad” remains one of Björk’s best songs, as well as one of her most remixed; this version is courageously simple, eschewing almost any kind of rhythmic movement, allowing the powerful words to attain a hypnotic vividness. No less hypnotic is Fovea Hex‘s Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent trilogy, which must rank as one of the most imaginative song-sequences ever made. “We Sleep You Bloom” palpably betrays the handiwork of Hafler Trio’s Andrew M. McKenzie underscoring Clodagh Simonds vocals; it’s simply exquisite at every moment. Occupying slightly darker but equally dreamy territory is Julee Cruise, the singer particularly beloved of David Lynch; her distinctive voice (with barely a trace of vibrato) is as integral to Lynch’s Twin Peaks saga as Badalamenti’s dark string writing. Her first album, Floating into the Night, dates from the same time as Twin Peaks, and could well be thought of as an offshoot from the series; “The Swan” is the album’s most poignant moment, the melancholic harmonies left without resolution. Deeper melancholy still from Daisy Chapman, whose new album, The Green-Eyed, is launched at the end of this week (more about this soon). “Words in Dirt” is one of her most subtly layered songs, the simple piano writing enveloped in floating additional voices, with Daisy’s own powerful vocals at the core.
After which, something of a nostalgic episode, beginning with She and Him, whose country-folk stylings suit Zooey Deschanel’s slightly sharp voice perfectly; i’m no fan of country music at all, but She and Him do something rather different with it. Whereas The Pipettes do something rather different with 1950s close harmony pop—at least, they did, before one member after another left the group resulting in the disastrous parody currently masquerading under that name. This song is from their finest hour, the line-up of Rosay, Gwenno and RiotBecki; it’s just unfortunate that such a beautifully soft-edged song should only appear on the US version of their album, which has been grotesquely compressed beyond all proportion; the quality of the song shines through though, i think. And yet more pasticherana in the form of Melissa McClelland, whose rich voice does nice things with blues; “Victoria Day (May Flowers)” is a delight, a kind of gentle knees-up. Set within orchestral trappings is the voice of Nynke Laverman, a native of the province of Fryslân in the northern Netherlands. Laverman sings in her native Frisian language, which combined with her unique style of vocal delivery, fills “De ûntdekker” (‘The Discoverer’) with a bewildering array of phonetic glitches and trills. Her latest album, Nomade, is one of the best i’ve heard this year. Back into the world of electronica with Ladytron‘s “Runaway”, from their excellent album Velocifero; it’s a track that lives up to its title, the rhythmic drive never letting up for a second; it’s worth mentioning how well Helen Marnie and Mira Aroya’s voices compliment each other. Scandinavian pop pixie As In Rebekkamaria should have been mentioned on here sooner; her 2008 album Queen of France didn’t quite make it into my Top 40 of the year’s albums. She’s characteristically quirky, but this isn’t the limit of her interest, and “Twin Baby” shows off her unusual voice in a trademark beat and bass-laced cocktail. i can’t claim to be a fan of the Sugababes, but “About You Now” simply has to be one of the best pop songs of the last 10 or 20 years, which comes as little surprise seeing as it’s from the pen of Cathy Dennis. All credit to the girls, though, who sound nothing short of superb, especially in the high parallel countermelody added to the chorus towards the end; it’s the most amazingly infectious song i’ve ever heard. A leap back in time for the next two tracks, starting with Transvision Vamp; my love of this group has already been mentioned in my article about Velveteen; “Down On You” comes from this fine album and finds singer Wendy James at her most surly, her fantastically weathered voice snarling at every turn. Dubstar merited an entire retrospective here on 5:4, where i’m glad to see i said nice things about this song; “Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton” is far too good a song to have been relegated to the land of B-sides; it’s a rare but genuine ray of optimism in Dubstar’s otherwise scarred and pessimistic musings on life.
Next, three singers whom i’ve only begun to listen to in the last twelve months or so. Australian Sarah Blasko didn’t impress me much with her new release As Day Follows Night, but i was sufficiently intrigued to investigate her back catalogue. Both of her earlier albums, The Overture and the Underscore and What The Sea Wants, The Sea Will Have are far superior, with “True Intentions” one of the best tracks from the former. There’s a hint of Emiliana Torrini in her voice, which is usually surrounded by fascinating instrumental textures; this song has a distinctly languid, even tired sound, reminiscent of Radiohead. Quite how i feel about Catherine A.D.‘s music i’m still not sure; she either engages me powerfully or bores me to tears; “Crave” is a gorgeous miniature yet, sadly, isn’t available at the moment, but one can only hope she might re-release some of her earlier work. Sol Seppy never fails to fascinate, especially in this song, where she sounds even more fragile than, say, Polly Scattergood; this simple little song is a cogent testimony to the fact that a really good melody supports itself, needing little to accompany it. It’s a shame that someone with as good a voice as Rachel Stevens should have been served up so much mediocre material in her career. i’m not thinking so much of her S Club days, but her first album Funky Dory contained only a single good song (“Blue Afternoon”, which is a quiet masterpiece). Thankfully, second album Come and Get It bears little resemblance, laden with top-rate tracks; “I Will Be There” shows off Stevens’ voice beautifully, as well being a really lovely song. i hope she’ll consider returning to music at some point, but if this turns out to be her final album, it’s not a bad swansong by any means. Now, i almost feel like apologising in advance, including as i have a song by Lily Allen; her latest album It’s Not You, It’s Me was unsurprisingly filled with yet more “cheeky” banalities trotted out in her familiar but seemingly parodic Estuary English; two songs on that album, though, were a revelation, “The Fear” and “I Could Say”. Both are inflected with a new, electropop sound, and show Allen in an entirely new light; “I Could Say” is clearly modelled on New Order (tenuously connected, of course, with her father), but is no bad thing for that, and in any case takes a few harmonic twists en route that New Order would never have thought of. Electropop is nothing new to Freezepop; indeed, they epitomise synthpop, thoroughly plastic, but thoroughly polished too; “Thought Balloon” is a deliciously twee little track from their, to date, only release of consistent quality, Future Future Future Perfect.
Autumn Grieve is a singer whose work i’ve only just begun to explore; her work is released in beautifully crafted, highly limited editions (the latest can be bought here), and i like what she’s doing. It seems a bit trite to summarise it as ‘folk’, as there’s definitely more going on, but it’s refreshing to hear music so steadfastly analogue in sound. Caught somewhere between analogue and digital is Imogen Heap, whose new album Ellipse happily lives up to the unrestrained brilliance and originality of 2005’s Speak For Yourself. “Little Bird” places Heap’s voice far into the foreground, flecking it with pointillistic electronic notes; no-one makes music like this, and it’s utterly delightful. Choosing a song by Tori Amos is almost an impossible task, seeing as so much of her output is so good; this is an evocative, folk-like little improvisation from one of her “Legs and Boots” series of concerts. It may seem brutal to follow it with Amanda Palmer‘s “Guitar Hero”, but Palmer’s pugilistic punk cabaret doesn’t sit comfortably among any other music, which is one of the reasons i like it. While her solo music retains much of the spirit and style of The Dresden Dolls, she has her own distinctive sound, and i love the barely suppressed hysteria of her vocals, always seeming to teeter on the edge of laughing and screaming. i intended to write an article on Bats for Lashes around the time of the posts about Daisy Chapman and Polly Scattergood, but unfortunately that never happened. While her first album Fur and Gold left me a bit lukewarm, 2009’s Two Suns is one of the best releases of the year; “Sleep Alone” shows off her voice particularly well, both her lower and beautifully floating upper register. Elsiane are responsible for one of the most breathtaking albums i’ve ever heard, 2007’s Hybrid; the title track brings the album to an end with a heavy, labouring flourish, its melody largely going round in circles, from which Elsianne Caplette occasionally soars out, like vocal solar flares. Caplette’s voice is one of the great oddities of modern song, simultaneously obfuscating the lyric content while expressing its sentiments directly through her unique vocal manner; i can’t think of another singer who comes across in that way. Ending with Joanna Newsom may seem an easy choice, but i make no apologies for it; Newsom is one of the few musicians for whom the word ‘genius’ doesn’t seem like a cliché. Her music crosses every conceivable boundary, it is wild and untamed, yet pensive and often difficult; she marries folk-like simplicities to epic structures (all but one of the songs on Ys are around or in excess of 10 minutes’ duration), complex rhythms and a superbly wide vocabulary. She is nothing less than a marvel, and by far the most exciting female singer-songwriter of the decade.
All told, these ladies sing for just a touch under two hours — here’s the tracklisting in full:
• Scout Niblett – Hot to Death (from Kidnapped By Neptune)
• Peaches – Operate (from Fatherfucker)
• AGF – TURN IMPOTENT (from Dance Floor Drachen)
• Björk – Hyperballad (Girls Blouse Mix) (from It’s Oh So Quiet, CD2)
• Fovea Hex – We Sleep You Bloom (from Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent, CD1: Bloom)
• Julee Cruise – The Swan (from Floating in the Night)
• Daisy Chapman – Words In Dirt (from And There Shall Be None)
• She & Him – Take It Back (from Volume One)
• The Pipettes – Baby, Just Be Yourself (from We Are The Pipettes, US version)
• Melissa McClelland – Victoria Day (May Flowers) (from Victoria Day)
• Nynke Laverman – De ûntdekker (from Nomade)
• Ladytron – Runaway (from Velocifero)
• As In Rebekkamaria – Twin Baby (from Queen Of France)
• Sugababes – About You Now (from Change)
• Transvision Vamp – Down On You (from Velveteen)
• Dubstar – Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (from I (Friday Night), CD1)
• Sarah Blasko – True Intentions (from The Overture and the Underscore)
• Catherine A.D. – Crave (from Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke)
• Sol Seppy – Injoy (from The Bells of 1 2)
• Rachel Stevens – I Will Be There (from Come And Get It)
• Lily Allen – I Could Say (from It’s Not Me, It’s You)
• Freezepop – Thought Balloon (from Future Future Future Perfect)
• Autumn Grieve – Shades (from Stray Birds)
• Imogen Heap – Little Bird (from Ellipse)
• Tori Amos – Improv (Live In Syracuse 10/13/07) (from Legs and Boots: Syracuse, NY – October 13, 2007)
• Amanda Palmer – Guitar Hero (from Who Killed Amanda Palmer)
• Bat For Lashes – Sleep Alone (from Two Suns)
• Elsiane – Hybrid (from Hybrid)
• Joanna Newsom – Cosmia (from Ys)