BBC – Music – Review of The Civil Wars

In February 2012, The Civil Wars – a duo comprising Joy Williams and John Paul White – won two Grammy Awards: Best Folk Album for their debut album, Barton Hollow, and Best Country Duo/Group Performance for its title track. It’s easy to hear why.

Originally released in the States last year, Barton Hollow’s love-torn, life-worn songs have finally dragged their weary, tired bones across the Atlantic just in time to soundtrack the onset of spring – or, rather, the end of winter. Because, in these original songs – and even in a bonus track, a quirky yet elegiac take on Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean – there’s a both a sense of finality and new beginnings, the ebb and flow of life and love.

Much of this is down to the interplay between Williams’ and White’s vocals – soft, dulcet, tentative whispers of musical conversation that, alone, sound scared and vulnerable but, when they sing together, are stronger and more powerful.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the record’s highlight and centrepiece, Poison & Wine, a plaintive, forlorn swirl of conflicting emotions. “I don’t love you,” the pair sing in unison on its searching, wistful chorus, “but I always will” – and immediately that paradox comes alive through the aching, trembling, brittle frame of the song and the defiance of its lyrics and vocal delivery.

20 Years is an equally stirring and haunting tribute to the past that cuts heart strings with each pluck of the guitar, while the gentle, stirring chug of C’est La Mort drifts like ashes scattered onto a river.

It’s not all tears and tragedy, though – the country jangle of the title-track, the neo-classical instrumental of The Violet Hour and the sparse waltz of Falling all add texture to the duo’s takes on that ageless, ever-inspiring theme of love.

A timeless, anachronistic record, Barton Hollow could be from 30 years ago, or it could be from 30 years hence. What’s certain, though, is that you truly feel it in the here and now.

BBC – Music – Review of Pritam

When it comes to the creation of both chartbusting soundtracks and subtle melodious scores, Pritam is the man many Bollywood filmmakers turn to. Having worked on over 70 movies so far, including hits like Dhoom, Gangster and Jab We Met, actor-turned-producer Saif Ali Khan no doubt thought he was placing his second home production, Agent Vinod, into a safe pair of hands.

Having struck gold with Love Aaj Kal in 2009, creating the music for a Bollywood Bond-meets-Bourne action-packed thriller should have been a simple mission for Pritam. Yet judging by the questionable originality of some of the five new songs and six raucous remixes that make up this album, the gamble has only narrowly paid off.

Standing out not just for its dubious title and lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya and Neelesh Misra, but also for its source of inspiration, is I Will Do the Talking Tonight. As an official Hindi remake of Boney M.’s 70s disco hit Rasputin, it’s a cheesy but catchy update. You can’t help but tap your toes along to its infectious beat, despite it sounding like the confused lovechild of Boney M. and Enrique Iglesias, with a hint of Punjabi and Europop heritage.

Hot on its heels is Dil Mera Muft Ka, a modern reboot of the classic ‘mujra’-style number commonly found in Bollywood films since the dawn of the industry. It’s by far the best track of the album, Pritam bringing out his creative edge by mixing Nandini Srikar’s husky vocals with a qawwali, rock and electro arrangement.

Pungi springs out like a Jack-in-the-box thanks to Mika Singh’s animated delivery. As a saucy ‘tapori’ track aimed at lusty male listeners, it works a treat, as does its remix. However, both could do without the nonsensical raps by comic actor Javed Jaffrey.

Toning down the tempo and volume is Raabta, a soft romantic ballad featuring Hamsika Iyer, Arijit Singh and Joy. Distinctly ordinary, it fails to connect, despite its title meaning just that. Just why four versions are needed is anyone’s guess. The Agent Vinod theme is a livelier affair, but it falls short compared to title tunes from recent A-list Indian action films, such as Ra.One and Don 2. Ultimately, this is a loud, brazen bevy of songs that will attract some and repel others.

BBC – Music – Review of Raul Malo

Is Raul Malo taking the smooth classicism too far? Is he venturing beyond a quite possibly self-aware kitschiness, deep into the crimson heart of easy listening? The authentic, smoothly tonsured article? Is the selection of A Man Without Love (as popularised by Engelbert Humperdinck) just a step too far? Well, all right, Malo did play it back in his Mavericks days…

This live recording has the finesse of a carefully controlled studio session, whilst retaining the atmosphere that buzzed on the night, between audience and performers. Malo and his core quartet were joined by the Northern Sinfonia at The Sage in Gateshead, during July of 2011.

His soaring voice is always absolutely central, his guitar sometimes downed, whilst the keyboards, bass and drums are naturally subdued to merge discreetly into the grand spread of strings and horns. Michael Guerra’s accordion features prominently, upholding the expected south-of-the-border qualities. The sound is exquisite. The ladies are now throwing Malo their tear-stained handkerchiefs, where they used to cast their panties onto the stage. All artists naturally mature, it seems. Malo sings archetypal ballads in what is becoming an increasingly archetypal style. Beyond country, beyond Mexican and beyond rock’n’roll, gliding into a classic romantic zone.

The album’s towering song is Every Little Thing About You, a sweeping epic of grandiose melancholia, yearning on a gradually increasing curve of melodrama. At other times, the jaunty cheerfulness can be too much to take, the melodies over-stuffed with optimism. There’s a pensive reading of Bésame Mucho, but it’s chased by A Man Without Love. Once again, Moonlight Kiss is almost too chipper, but its schizoid exchange of lines is darker than we first assumed, as voices in Malo’s head take corporeal form in the backing chorus responses. There’s frequently a darker side to the glitter.

As the concert reaches its climax, the audience claps along, and the old Mavericks number Dance the Night Away precedes an equally rousing Guantanamera. The title track calms down to a minimalist conclusion, with Malo framed by just accordion and bass, gently fading into the darkness. He represents the epitome of emotional sincerity.

BBC – Music – Review of Henry Mancini – Breakfast at Tiffany’s

It seems extraordinary now to think that Moon River almost didn’t make it into the final cut of Blake Edwards’ iconic 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. However, when a Paramount executive suggested it be deleted after an early screening, it was only at the insistence of the film’s star, Audrey Hepburn, that the song was kept in. Of course, the rest is history. Moon River went on to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song, alongside the film’s other Oscar, for Best Score.

Henry Mancini’s soundtrack is certainly a work of musical storytelling genius. As brassy big band numbers rub shoulders with slinkily suave city sophisticate ones, you find yourself submersed within the 1960s New York It Girl glamour to which Hepburn’s character, Holly Golightly, aspires. Then, amidst all this jazzy energy and upper Manhattan class comes Moon River. Simple, wistful, strummed on a guitar as Golightly perches over the fire escape, it’s a striking encapsulation of the culture divide between her New York existence and her country roots.

Fast-forward to the present day and, whilst Mancini’s music itself sounds as alive and evocative as ever (with the exception of the bizarre Mr Yunioshi theme), it’s hard to make a new recording look fresh and desirable when it’s been on the market in one form or another since 1961. That said, Jackpot Records have made a pretty good fist of it by offering more bonus tracks than any previous or existing recording. In addition to the soundtrack itself, there are seven Henry Mancini Orchestra tracks, featuring songs such as Misty and Blue Satin. Then, there are five extra Moon River recordings, performed by Danny Williams, the Eddie Harris Quartet, Jerry Butler & Orchestra, the Grant Green Quartet, and finally Audrey Hepburn’s version extracted directly from the film.

Less impressive is the fact that whoever compiled these extra bonus tracks did so by the powers of logic rather than of musical flair, grouping them into two distinct sections. Most people would agree that five Moon Rivers in a row is a bit much even for the most enthusiastic Tiffany’s fan. Still, it’s all good stuff, and if you don’t yet own the soundtrack this will be the version to go for, not least because it’s cheaper than the others. You may want to do a bit of re-sequencing, though.

BBC – Music – Review of Jónsi

We Bought a Zoo, the movie, left a slight impression on the stateside box office over Christmas 2011. Based on the real-life story of the Mee family from Devon, who purchased and refurbished Dartmoor Zoological Park in 2006/07, it attracted plaudits for Matt Damon’s performance as Benjamin Mee, and was the sixth-biggest draw of its opening weekend.

We Bought a Zoo, the soundtrack, is rather more interesting: composed by Sigur Rós’ Jónsi at the request of the film’s director Cameron Crowe, it’s the second score that the Icelander has been involved in following his group’s work on the 2002 documentary Hlemmur. But with his solo stock higher than ever, this set is a rather more significant release – not least because one new track, Gathering Stories, is a co-write between musician and director.

Crowe and Sigur Rós go back a decade – he used the band’s music in his 2001 movie Vanilla Sky – and Jónsi’s material was already influencing the atmosphere of We Bought a Zoo ahead of the man’s signing on the dotted line. Actors were instructed to listen to tracks from his catalogue ahead of certain scenes, to create the ‘right’ energy. It’s fair to think that, just maybe, this adulation might lead to ego on the artist’s part hindering his ability to deliver an effective end product, but such thoughts are soon enough dashed by familiar motifs which reassure the listener that Jónsi is on form.

The intro to Why Not? sets a trademark tone, with crystalline chimes topped by shimmering cymbals. It’s box-ticking behaviour from its maker, but once the piece opens up, from pinhole to widescreen, he has the senses truly suckered. A brand new song ‘proper’ follows, Ævin Endar, built around gentle piano lines and sung in Icelandic.

Boy Lilikoi, Sinking Friendships and Go Do are brought across from his solo LP, Go. They fit neatly enough into the ordering here, likewise Sigur Rós’ only hit single Hoppípolla, but aren’t the USP of this release – that’s the ‘themes’ penned exclusively for the film. Brambles is pretty music box percussion and background scratches; Whole Made of Pieces is a swooning, sumptuous affair with strings swaying in a solid mix; and the titular track feels like a lost interlude from the Sigur Rós catalogue, building to a break of vocal gibberish and subtle electronic bleeps before strings sweep in and carry the piece skywards. It’s measured, comfortable writing – but effective all the same.

Gathering Stories is no disappointment, but its busy chatter lacks the sparkle of the Icelander’s best work. If it points a curious few back to the magnificence of Svefn-g-Englar, though, it’ll be a case of job well done for all, as well as a dream come true for Crowe.