February Album Review (part 1) – Marika Hackman, Susanne Sundfør, Rae Morris and Rhiannon Giddens

The big question we are asking this month – why is all the most interesting music being made by women?

I’m not talking super-obscure stuff; I’m talking fairly or very successful artists. If you look over the last couple of years, then we have had Lorde, Lykke Li, Beyonce, Lana Del Rey, Sharon van Etten, Laura Marling, EMA, Angel Olssen, Bork (back again), Baby Mellor. All of them are making music that has an edge to it, pushes at the boundaries in some way. Even in the mainstream, I would argue that Jessie Ware and Ella Henderson are just that bit more interesting than Sam Smith. It’s hard to make a list of blokes in a similar vein.

So this weekend we will have a showdown. Four albums from the girls, four from the boys. Let’s see who comes out on top ... today, the ladies.

At first sight, 2015 has continued with this trend for the more innovative stuff to come from female artists. Let’s start with Marika Hackman, overcoming her brief modelling career and friendship with supermodel Cara Delevingne to become a serious artist with the very impressive We Slept At Last. This is tuneful electro-folk, with more than a nod to her mentor Laura Marling, but a little less strident, yet still with unsettling and unusual touches. Credit to the producer also, for getting a lot of variation into what might have been a set of somewhat similar mid-tempo mainly minor key songs. It’s one of those albums that is pleasant enough in the background but can really draw you in if you listen. Not bad at all for a debut. 8/10

A little further out there is Norwegian Susanne Sundfør. She is huge in her home country and Ten Love Songs is likely to grow her reputation further around the world. But it is not going to make her the next Lady Gaga because it is just a bit weird. Not so much in terms of individual songs but more in the mix of styles and songs on the album. I’m not sure I have heard anything that goes from lovely Abba type melody to a full 5 minute orchestral work-out (within Memorial, one 10-minute track), then a Euro-disco banger like Fade Away, then a rather unsettling discordant song like Insects that Radiohead might have rejected as being a bit too strange. But there is a true talent here, and if you can be open minded to the variation it is unlike anything else I’ve heard for a while. 8.5/10

Rae Morris with Closer has, like Hackman, delivered an excellent debut from a young British singer-songwriter. She has worked with Bombay Bicycle Club, and there is some of their quirky indie-dance vibe in there, as well as echoes of Florence & the Machine and Ellie Goulding. She has a great voice and her mainly keyboard based songs are strong, catchy and range from dance to ballads. There are some really beautiful moments - Morne Fortuné is gorgeous, and on some of the songs, she brings to mind a previous generation – Beth Orton on that song, certainly Kate Bush, and even Carole King. It is a very mature, enjoyable and promising album, and in a crowded field of talented young British singer-songwriters, it stakes her claim to be amongst the best. 8.5/10

But saving the best till last – Tomorrow Is My Turn by Rhiannon Giddens is in some ways a more conventional album than any of the others, with all but one of the tracks a cover version. In fact, the one self-penned song, Angel City, stands up well by comparison too, which is a hopeful sign for her future solo career. But it is actually a bold and though provoking album. Giddens sings and plays fiddle in revivalist US band The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and here, she covers songs from the last 100 years or so of American popular music, putting her own stamp on the songs but showing a continuity of themes, including a strong nod towards civil rights and struggles of various kinds.

And when we say her own stamp, that is a simply tremendous voice. She can sing everything from deep south soul and blues to Gaelic folk songs, with a purity of tone yet real emotion that is breathtaking at times. It’s not a pop or rock album – the nearest parallel I can give is Robert Plant’s more recent works - but if you are interested in the development of the popular song, if you appreciate real artistry and top-class singing, then this will be a treat. And her performance on the Letterman show below is a show stopper – I love Letterman’s stunned reaction at the end! 9/10

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