CD review

Julia Biel – “Black and White, Vol. 1”

Julia Biel_Black and White_300pxJulia Biel – Black and White, Vol. 1
(Rokit Records/Ankhtone Records RKT060/AKH005CD. CD review by Adrian Pallant)

Where to categorise the music of Julia Biel (if, indeed, that were necessary) – rock, pop, R&B, jazz…?

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Three albums – Not Alone (2005), Love Letters and Other Missiles (2015, MOBO-nominated) and Julia Biel (2018) – demonstrated Biel’s strength as an emotive singer/songwriter. Working in an indie rock/pop environment with the eclecticism that musicians including Jonny Phillips, Rob Updegraff, Samy Bishai, Idris Rahman, Seb Rochford and Jasper Høiby bring, her live shows in the UK and Europe have included opening for Bob Dylan in Stuttgart.

Now, mostly including interpretations of original songs from those albums, she releases this distinctly heart-on-sleeve solo collection – self-accompanied at the piano – which perhaps directs her music more towards jazz than before. The title, Biel explains, reflects the black and white piano keys of this performance, as well as her heritage as a British-born British/German national with South African roots. Her intention: “to reach beyond the polarising concept of division along skin colour lines, to remind the listener of and to confront them with their own emotions – to take these two colours and transform them into a landscape of sonic colour in the process.”

So, does a polychromatic metamorphosis take place? Hearing Biel’s three band-based releases, her approach is individual, not least because the register and dry, expressive timbre of her voice is initially quite striking (reference points might include Amy Winehouse, Björk, Nina Simone, Kate Bush). But especially in this album, the sincerity is soon apparent, only requiring her own, sometimes relatively open piano arrangements to support such obvious lyricism. Consequently, many of these songs become more focused, more poignant, than in their original guise, with a pervading mood of melancholy, even raw reflection.

Themes of vulnerability and reassurance frequently surface. The line “Hurt people gonna hurt people” to augmented and diminished chords recur through Broken Little Pieces; there’s a beautiful piano-in-a-room simplicity to Diamond Dust; and then the “choking on all that I said to you then” pain of The Wilderness (all with a hint of Chris Martin in the earliest, indie-feel Coldplay albums – no bad thing). The lyric is clearly important to Biel, Three Little Words’ rubato shaped from her inner emotions; and delightful birdsong introduces the ebb and flow of quietly romantic Shhh… (“What’s to say, when you’re holding heaven?”).

The spare presentation of her aching, solo stories might even be reminiscent of Peter Gabriel or Roger Waters. 2015’s grooving Licence to be Cruel translates well into full-sounding piano and vocal; and the contrasting drive and crying phrases of Little Girl might easily garner radio play, as would the memorable, comforting hook of Say It Loud (“…whatever this is all about and we will work it out”). Finally, wearisome You Could Turn a Rainbow Grey, with downward semitonal motif, throws various, seemingly tongue-in-cheek lines into its soulful, balladic mix (“You bring me January in June and I don’t know what to say to you”).

Across this album, produced by long-term partner Idris Rahman, it’s Julia Biel’s heartfelt, almost conversational emotion which engages, especially when experienced in the silence required to pick up detail and message. ‘Vol. 1’ hints that there’s more to follow in the project (Biel is a guitarist, too) and, on past evidence, this voice also has the potential to rock.

Black and White, Vol. 1 is released on 28 February.

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