Female singer/songwriters dominate the sounds of summer
by Gregg Shapiro
While we all sit and wait patiently for indecisive Lily Allen to make up her mind about whether or not she’s going to permanently retire from music, we have Eliza Doolittle (born Eliza Sophie Caird) to hold us over. Also exhibiting flashes of Kate Nash, Amy Winehouse, and V.V. Brown, Doolittle’s self-titled Capitol debut is a genuinely good time—due as much to her flair for co-writing catchy pop songs as her ability to sell them with her expressive voice. Whether she’s shaking her moneymaker on “Moneybox” or skating away on “Rollerblades,” making excellent use of vintage samples on “Go Home,” “Skinny Genes,” “Missing,” and especially “Pack Up,” or wailing soulfully on “So High,” Doolittle does a lot to earn a listener’s attention.
Like Eliza Doolittle, Oh Land (aka Nanna Øland Fabricius) performs under a pseudonym. As the latest Swedish pop import, Oh Land actually complements the musical circuitry of fellow Swedes Robyn and Lykke Li on her eponymous Epic debut. In fact, she doesn’t really a break a (cold) sweat until “Sun of a Gun,” the third track—and what pleasant perspiration it is. “Voodoo” will make you feel like someone else (Oh Land, probably) is directing the movement of your limbs while you are dancing to it. “Human” is sure to get your blood pumping, and “We Turn It Up” sounds like it comes from “out in the streets.” In her frostier moments, such as “Rainbow,” “Break the Chain,” and “Lean,” Oh Land still radiates delightful warmth. [Editor’s note: Oh Land is one of the featured artists performing Saturday, August 6, at Houston’s Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel, warehouselive.com.]
Lady Gaga shouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Cherry Tree labelmate Ellie Goulding pulled up alongside her on the dance charts with a number of cuts from her debut disc, Lights (Cherry Tree/Interscope). The glowing title cut is not only a sunny dance track but also an object lesson for the religious fanatic electro artist who goes by the moniker Lights. As you might expect, an acoustic guitar is at the center of the dance tune called “Guns and Horses,” while the dreamy “Starry Eyed” glitters like a mirror ball. “Animal” invites you to let your inner beast loose on the dance floor. Goulding’s lovely piano and vocal rendition of Elton John’s “Your Song” lives up to the bonus in bonus track.
Anna Calvi knows her way around a guitar and proves it on “Rider to the Sea,” the instrumental opening number on her self-titled Domino debut. Calvi maintains the moody and haunting spirit of the opener on “No More Words,” “Suzanne & I,” “First We Kiss,” “I’ll Be Your Man” and “Love Won’t Be Leaving.” But it’s the breathtaking showstopper “Desire” that has to be heard to be believed.
Is it fair to ask whether or not model-turned-singer Karen Elson would have a recording career if she wasn’t married to the ubiquitous Jack White (of White Stripes, Raconteurs, Dead Weather and more fame)? Discuss. Whatever you decide, the fact of the matter is that Elson proves to be both a decent songwriter and performer of her songs on The Ghost Who Walks (Third Man/XL). In addition to the strong title cut, other highlights include “Pretty Babies,” “Cruel Summer,” “Garden,” “A Thief at My Door,” and “The Last Laugh.”
It’s been a long time since a singer came along who deserved even the smallest comparison to the legendary Nico, but Anika earns it with her self-titled Stones Throw/Invada debut album (produced by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow). Aside from “Officer Officer” and the dubby “No One’s There,” a pair of Anika originals, the disc consists of an unusual cross-section of cover tunes, including Yoko Ono’s “Yang Yang,” a pair of ’60s girl-singer tunes (“Terry” and “End of the World”), and distinctive renditions of songs by Bob Dylan (“Masters of War”) and Ray Davies (“I Go to Sleep”). Anika is novel, but more than just a novelty.
Growing more crowded by the minute, the female singer/songwriter circle continues to expand. In order to stand out, artists need to do something to distinguish themselves from the rest. Stacy Clark comes close to doing that with songs such as “Fireworks,” “Not Enough,” “White Lies,” “Touch & Go,” “Anywhere,” and “Don’t Take What’s Mine” from her full-length debut disc, Connect the Dots (Vanguard). But it’s the kind of album that makes you wonder what else she has up her sleeve.
Farmer’s Daughter (19/Jive), the sterile and predictable debut disc by Crystal Bowersox, the “American Idol runner-up” (and why in the world is that a badge of honor anyway?). For a singer/songwriter who first made her name on the coffeehouse circuit, Bowersox sounds remarkably eager to put some distance between that identity and that of an American Idol contestant. In addition to an unnecessary remake of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” (to which she adds nothing), most of the remaining songs aren’t particularly memorable—which should suit the short attention span of her suburban audience just fine.
Not only does out cabaret diva (and life partner of Kelli Carpenter) Anne Steele have a gorgeous and powerful voice, but she has fascinating taste in music on her debut Strings Attached (PS Classics). Sure, she dips into the standards pool on “Tennessee Waltz,” Sondheim’s “Move On,” and the overly performed “Smile.” But she also takes a number of risks that pay off unexpectedly. Her version of Jon McLaughlin’s “Indiana,” Sara Bareilles’ “Gravity,” and Jason Mraz’s “If It Kills Me” are three examples. Her interpretation of Lady Gaga’s “Speechless” and Pink’s “Sober” fares better than Britney’s toxic “Toxic” (paired with Duffy’s “Mercy”) or “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” which falls flat. Steele closes the disc on an uplifting note with “Falling Down,” written by Kenny Davidsen, who plays piano on the disc.
Naomi Greenwald’s fittingly named debut disc, Darkbloom (Transom), opens with “Evan Williams” and “Price You Pay,” a pair of twangy tunes. But before you get too comfortable in the saddle, she shifts gears and goes in a piano-pop direction with the ethereal “Don’t Forget Hallelujah.” But don’t bother getting down on your knees, because Greenwald is going to need you standing so that she can kick your ass on “Cautionary Tale.” This kind of variety, which continues on the retro-reflection of “Dark Times” and the rocking “Desire to Fall,” is what makes Darkbloom such an enjoyable listening experience.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.