CD reviews

Barb Jungr – Bob, Brel and Me

Barb Jungr – Bob, Brel and Me (Kristalyn KLCDO6/Absolute. CD Review by Richard Lee)   Barb Jungr‘s readings of (as she’s put it herself) “the men she loves” (male songwriters in this context) are respectful, fresh, heartfelt and intelligent. Yet she also does not hesitate to treat their lapses with a dash of wry scrutiny and, on occasion, a supportive but unsparing woman’s perspective. She has previously applied this approach to work by Cohen, Sting and most enjoyably of late, Lennon & McCartney, but – with the exception of the latter’s Come Together album with John McDaniel the albums don’t always seem to carry the same heft as her live performances. The variety and the depth of the canny selection of songs on Bob, Brel and Me, and her excellent band certainly bode well for the live show.  Barb already has considerable form with Dylan & Jacques, so it’s pleasing to see her own compositions making serious ballast. It’s definitely a “me” album, with Barb’s own songs providing a vital cement for the more well-known covers. They’re variously written in collaboration with Mike Lindup, Jonathan Cooper, Jamie Safir (who also provides excellent keyboards on most tracks) and most poignantly, with the late Michael Parker, and mostly feel as if they’re responding to or commenting on the Dylan & Brel numbers. Together, they’re very much her own reflections on what she calls a collection about “Love, in all its myriad shapes and flavours”. The album too is made of a similar variety, not necessarily driven by a jazz sensibility, but always informed by one. First up is a terrific, rousing opener by Barb and Mike Lindup, the kind of earworm Van Morrison uses to affirm his current band and Rise & Shine really does that for this ensemble. It’s followed by a radical change of feel in Brel’s Jacky led by Rod Young’s crisp drum rolls and Jenny Carr’s ringing piano in her louche arrangement. Barb’s delivery glides over this beautifully, pulling out the deprecating humour in the first of Robb Johnson’s fabulously witty, contemporary Brel translations. Much as the Scott Walker version is burned into my memory from an early encounter, Johnson’s “To be once more for just that one hour, so beautiful and such a twat again” is so much more appropriate, not least because of Barb’s theatrical delivery. I’d like to think both Walker and Bowie would’ve preferred this text. Similarly, memories of Bob & The Byrds recede as Carr & Youngs set about giving the first Dylan tune, Mr. Tambourine Mana solid driving impetus. Pete Horsfall’s trumpet and Mark Lockheart’s tenor set the tone here, particularly in the latter’s snaky accompaniment of Barb’s vocal. Next, Incurable Romantic seems to be her and Lindup’s tribute to Dylan’s 70s period: I hear elements of Forever Young in the tune as well as the refrain, and I’m sure – or at least would like to think so – that Jamie Safir’s organ references The Band’s Garth Hudson. Whatever the echoes, it’s a love song that signposts the next third of the album.

Much as you might be tempted to pull out tracks by your favourite composer, I’d leave the shuffle-button alone: the album benefits from listening to it as programmed. The next four tracks – a pair of Dylans sandwiched by Brels – display all that myriad variety promised in Barb’s notes. Brel’s The Tender Heart features Horsfall’s wistful horn, though personally, the choral backing is a little bit too Francis Lai for me. But The Cathedral – Brel’s elaborate metaphor for the work of art – works so well in Johnson’s translation and Barb relishing the tale to Safir’s delicate piano. The lines about sailing to England as a place of free thinking will break the hardest heart… Between these come Bob’s Buckets Of Rain and One Too Many Mornings. Barb has essayed many Dylan tunes across a number of albums but says she’s “never really grabbed the love songs before”: I don’t think that’s entirely true – I Want You and Lay Lady Lay were very fine stabs on earlier albums, but in the same way that Dylan has found new things to say through old songbooks, as his voice moves into its third age, Barb too has the measure of old songs made fresh. Her voice is anything but wracked though: it’s simply found a slightly lower register which conveys more authority and control: shades of Annie Ross, perhaps. She has certainly cracked these two, the first as a ballad with another majestic organ and Davide Mantovani’s sure-footed bass backing Carr’s gentle accordion.Then in the rockier One Too Many Mornings Barb lets rip, joyfully stretching the word “thousand” (miles behind) before launching into a superb harp solo that Bob would be proud of, matched only by Lockheart’s cracking, just-so tenor spot.

No-one Could Ever Wear Your Shoes is, as Barb says, “getting to grips with loss” but is also where “me” becomes “us”. This Jungr & Parker song gains from being set among her more famous peers, and again, we hear how Bob and Brel have influenced the songwriters that followed, even unconsciously. It really holds its own, Barb singing with a delicate power, and is also well served by some lovely trumpet motifs in Carr’s arrangement. After that, the move to a jaunty Simple Twist Of Fate in what might be a Horace Silver setting didn’t work for me immediately, but over time has crept up and found me dancing at the keyboard. I can see that it acts as a firm separator for the final pair of Barb’s songs, the super-slinky Sometimes where Pete Horsfall mutes and rasps so well you can see the rain-soaked streets that Brel would recognise; then the upbeat Secret Spaces, showcasing co-writer Jamie Safir’s driving piano.

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The album finishes with a pair of Brel songs: the deeply moving To See A Friend Break Down and Cry underscored by Gabriella Swallow’s cello; and If We Only Had Love which features The Fourth Choir, London’s LGBT Classical Choir. I have to confess this was, for me, too much of a schmaltz-fest. Both are perfectly played and sung and it’s still a pleasure to hear Johnson’s new translations, but neither song has the fire of the final Dylan song that separates them – a version of This Wheel’s On Fire that may lack brass and reeds, but retains Dylan’s Basement Tapes energy and unashamedly reminds us of the superb Julie Tippetts (nee Driscoll) & Brian Auger Trinity version from half a century ago.  A real celebration.

There’s a hint in Barb’s notes that this might be her final album. I can’t, and don’t want to believe that. She’s now reached a maturity as an interpreter of the contemporary songbook that it would be criminal to deny us the rich possibilities of other writers. Perhaps she and Robb Johnson can mine the rest of Brel and his contemporaries? For my part, I’ve longed for someone to revive interest in David Ackles whose last public tribute to my knowledge was a duet by Elton John and Elvis Costello for the latter’s fascinating Spectacle series a decade ago. Criminally ignored, his Americana, laced with echoes of Copland, Weill and the post-war chansonniers would, I’m sure, find new life in Barb’s ever-thoughtful and emotionally powerful settings. And after all, Julie and Brian’s follow-up single was Ackles’ imperious Road To Cairo, one of those bloke songs that women as good as Tippetts and Jungr nail every time.

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