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Wednesday, 27 June 2007 00:00

Women to watch

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By Chris Cooper

In the mid 90’s it would’ve been nearly impossible to write about “new to the scene” female artists without mentioning Paula Cole. You know, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” and all that.

And even though she just dropped a new disc, all I can really think to say about it is that if ever you’re finding it difficult to nod off one evening, put Cole’s latest effort on the player and you’ll be in a coma by track two.

Even names like Herbie Hancock, Tony Levin and Steve Khan in the credits can’t save Courage from its mostly somnambulistic leanings and uncomfortably glossy, dated feel. Of course, new-age trumpet strangler Chris Botti also makes an appearance or two, so maybe it’s best to blame it all on him.

Thankfully this decade’s wave of female singer/songwriter/rockers has a few real knockouts in its midst — most recently the sometimes acerbic but emotionally riveting Brandi Carlile and Belgrade born, Stratocaster slinging blues belter Ana Popovic.

 

Brandi Carlile: The Story

Oh, you’ve heard “The Story” a few times, right? It’s that song that starts so politely, so sweetly with those crooned vocals only to completely turn on you in the second verse. By the last chorus Carlile is shredding her vocal cords and working through something much deeper and darker than the lyrics might suggest, at least on the surface.

Crumbling friendships, isolation and loneliness — nope, The Story isn’t exactly the feel good hit of the summer. But what it lacks in sunshine and rainbows and happy endings it more than makes up for in absolute sincerity, many tunes and vivid portraits of pain and longing that demand for you to relate to them. Behind Carlile’s vocal theatrics is a deep well of emotional power, so even when she’s screaming at the top of her range she’s doing so because the songs require it, and because she has no other choice — it’s never to simply wow you with her chops.

The album’s production, thanks to the illustrious T Bone Burnett, draws a fine line between contemporary smoothness and well-chosen simplicity. Even when the songs get huge (and they sometimes do, as on the title track and “My Song”) they crackle with the grit of an actual band playing every note, rather than the standard tactic of surrounding a singer with too slick session musicians that might’ve phoned in the performances instead of actually feeling them.

The middle section of The Story offers somewhat of a reprieve, if only sonically, with the rolling folk of “Have You Ever” followed by the gorgeous “Josephine.” Taken as a whole, Brandi Carlile’s latest effort offers the listener a set of razor sharp tunes sung by one of the most recognizable and compelling new voices in pop, and doesn’t stumble even once in all of its 53 minutes. Quite good.

 

Ana Popovic: Still Making History

All right, the Hendrix comparisons are a tad over the top. And the pictures in the liner notes with Popovic mugging it up with her guitar, while wearing gloves for Pete’s sake, could be enough to warrant a complete dismissal from the running by most musicians. But just cue up the bonus track, a smoky blues rendition of the album opener “U Complete Me,” and put away the CD insert for a minute. Yeah, maybe she should fire her management, but damn — she can play.

The term contemporary blues tends to make a lot of people queasy, and with good reason. How can you possibly repackage this music as “new and improved” and possibly still refer to it as blues? The flipside is that it affords the performer a wider playing field than in a traditional format — something that Popovic takes full advantage of throughout Still Making History. Reggae, swing, Latin jazz and Little Feat-inspired strut all make strong showings here, each underpinned by Popovic’s authority as a guitarist, be it screaming wah-wah solos or bubbling bop runs on an archtop jazz guitar.

When things tone down a bit, as on the title track, you get a better view of Popovic as an artist. Over a simmering funk groove she sounds less like she’s trying to prove something to the listener than just doing what’s right for the song.

Some tunes just don’t go anywhere, or come off a bit half-baked, like her paean to good loving, “My Favorite Night.” And lyrically there’s occasionally something missing as well, but when she’s interpreting classic material like “You Don’t Move Me” and “How’d You Learn To Shake It Like That?” things fare much better.

With incredibly tight arrangements on several songs by the Texacali Horns, even tunes that trip over themselves have redeeming musical qualities that keep you listening, and if nothing else you may find yourself fast forwarding to the guitar solo to hear what she’s going to do next — like the head turning licks she whips out in “Sexiest Man Alive.”

Not mind-blowing, but a solid set of performances from a unique talent.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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