"Mischievous Moon," Jill Barber (Outside Music); "Way Down Low," Kat Edmonson (Spinnerette)
Over the past two decades female pop singers have tended to be belters or over-emotive vocal gymnasts. Too often a vocal performance is something akin to emotional gargling. Then there are those whose recorded vocals are composites pasted together by talented producers. Is there a real voice there at all?
That's why the return of the chanteuse is such a welcome event. Lana Del Rey (who is far better than her "Saturday Night Live" performance would indicate) may be getting the most press, but Jill Barber and Kat Edmonson, who both have new albums out this month, may be the artists with staying power.
Jill Barber, who is already a known artist in Canada, is definitely retro. Her new album, "Mischievous Moon," is a gorgeous throwback to lush arrangements and strong songwriting of the 1950s and early 1960s. Her voice and style is a little bit Brenda Lee, a little Blossom Dearie, and maybe a little Margaret Whiting — sweet, a little cute, but sturdy and soulful. While Barber's sound gives nods to several styles it's not so specific that she seems like a novelty. Instead, she makes you wonder why it's been so long since you've heard someone create new music in the classic pop style. No young artist since k.d. lang got torchy has delivered this kind of music so well. Just as importantly as Barber's sound, though, is that she writes top-notch songs. All co-written by Barber, the songs are mostly classic pop with a little country of the Patsy Cline variety. The title track is something that could've been a favorite from the 1930s through the '60s. "Tell Me" smolders with little mid-'60s soul. And "Oh My My" combines spiritual (with backing vocals by The Sojourners) with jazz.
But, the most refreshing thing about Barber is that she doesn't feel compelled to constantly prove what a good voice she has. Instead, she gives each song exactly what it needs and doesn't spend time showing off.
Kat Edmonson is even more subtle and economical. She seems to relish the silences between notes as much as her own voice.
Edmonson's touchstones are more modern. She may cover the 1940s pop song "Whispering Grass" and perform a lounge-sounding pop samba in the song "What Can I Do" on her new album, "Way Down Low," but she's more of a cross between a singer-songwriter of the 1960s and early '70s and a modern jazz vocalist. Lyrics are sometimes almost spoken rather than sang.
Sometimes Edmonson seems so intent on creating tension that she raises the hair on the back of your neck. She slows down "Whispering Grass" so much and gives it such a spooky treatment that it sounds like it could be the 7-minute testament of a schizophrenic. Then again her duet with Lyle Lovett on "Long Way Home" is lovely and sweet and the disc's kick-off track "Lucky" with its vibraphone accompaniment and quirky background vocals is a blissful charmer. The highlight, though, may be "I Don't Know" with its pretty melody and breezy delivery.
Discs by both Edmonson and Barber deserve to land on fresh ears.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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