When I spoke to Rachael Sage a couple of months ago, we spent quite a lot of the interview talking about this album. At the time I’d only heard two or three tracks that were being featured and we talked a lot about the songs that would appeal to the lyrical dancers that form a large part of her following. I realise now that we talked about less than half of the album. As good as the uptempo ‘colourful chamber pop’ (that’s Rachael’s definition) songs are, there are slower, more introspective songs that have more emotional depth while still featuring inventive textures and combinations of instruments centred around Rachael’s classical piano style.
The album opens with the slightly faster songs such as the whimsical “Heaven is a Grocery Store Clerk” and the weightier “Loreena”, before “Try, Try, Try” pulls you in with its naggingly insistent and maddeningly catchy fiddle hook. The powerful anti-bullying song “I Don’t Believe It” follows the album’s anthem “Home (Where I Am Now)”, which also appears towards the end of the album in a stripped-down, acoustic version. Beyond this, the album moves into darker, more personal songs taken at a slower pace and evoking the American singer-songwriters of the seventies, particularly Carole King, whose song “So Far Away” Rachael covers in almost a Carpenters style to close the album. And talking of the seventies, I thought I caught a scent of Randy Edelman’s pop piano style in there as well.
As the album progresses, the songs range through empowerment (“French Doors”), the end of a relationship (“Clear Today”) and obsession (I’ve Been Waiting”) before finding the tragic emotional depths of “7 Angels”, with its segment of Hebrew lyrics. The only way the album could possibly go from here is the redemption of “It Would be Enough” and a Carole King cover.
If sounds a bit sombre, it really isn’t; when the subject matter of the songs is dark and adult, the instrumental arrangements act as a counterbalance to the lyrics, featuring the usual rock instrumentation plus cello, trumpet, glockenspiel, oboe, English horn and accordion and Kelly Halloran’s melodic violin contributions, which shine out whether she’s playing catchy riffs, counterpoint or a duet with the lead vocal on “It Would be Enough”. “Choreographic” is a hugely varied selection of songs played superbly by a great bunch of musicians. It’s hard to believe most of it was written over a week in a hotel in Camden.
I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted it this way, but Doug and Telisha Williams have tapped in to the zeitgeist with this album released so soon after the latest atrocity in Florida. “Radiant” has more than its fair share of message songs including one that deals with sexual intolerance and another that has references to gun massacres and sexual intolerance (and lots of other things). By a strange coincidence, those two songs, “Love Is Not a Sin” and “Unplug the Machine” are among the standout songs on the album, but by no means the only ones. The playing and the vocals are perfect throughout as Doug and Telisha are supported by Megan Jane and Fats Kaplin and their overall sound is beefed up by Doug’s switch from acoustic to electric (Telecaster, of course).
The album covers a variety of styles, from the sixties-styled, reverb-soaked opener “Born with a Broken Heart” to the pure country of “Mom and Pop” and the lyrics range across message songs, revenge songs and songs about Catawba tree watching over generations of families and silently witnessing the changes in their circumstances in “Tower and the Wheel”. “Radiant” is full of songs that are superbly crafted and arranged, particularly a section of three songs in the middle of the album.
“Mom and Pop” is country all the way, with a lead vocal from Doug, as it tells the story of a small-town store forced out of business by the big retail players. It’s powerful social comment made more poignant by the little details about the creaky floorboards the owner never got round to fixing and the relief that Mom and Pop aren’t around to see the end of their store. “Unplug the Machine” is raw power from the start, the verses spitting out a rapid list of the world’s ills in the style of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” before erupting into the catchiest chorus I’ve heard in ages; you’ll be singing along at the top of your voice. It’s an anthem. “The Night We Never Met” drops down through the gears to a sixties girl group sound with a story that’s an alternative take on Goffin and King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”, where the lovers don’t actually meet. It’s a lovely (and very clever) song which captures the style perfectly.
“Radiant” combines a passionate commitment to social and environmental issues with lovingly-crafted songs to create an album that inspires a questioning attitude without sounding preachy; that’s quite an achievement.
“Radiant” is out I the UK on Friday June 24th on No Evil Records (NER003).
They’re also touring the UK and Europe at the moment and you can catch them in these places .
In November 2014, we reviewed “Wild Skies”, Linda Sutti’s debut album, released on Cable Car Records and produced by Henrik Freischlader. Allan was really impressed by the album so when we discovered that Linda was in London for a few days just before Christmas, we sent him out to the wilds of Camden (well, The World’s End) to have a chat with her about her first album, working with Henrik Freischlader, her songwriting influences and a few other things as well. This is what happened:
AM – So, you’re from Piacenza in Italy, you sing and write in English and your album was produced by a German, Henrik Freischlader; how did that all happen?
LS – I don’t know; I’ve tried to figure out how it worked out but I still don’t know. I had many chances to make music and I was always in love with English as a language and that’s why I started to write in English. Also, I was a member of a blues band and it’s unusual to write Italian blues; as for the German thing, it was just good luck to meet Henrik.
AM – I suppose if you sing in English, it gives you a wider audience as well.
LS – That wasn’t the main reason; I didn’t think of anything other than my love for English music and American-English music and songwriting in general when I was writing my songs.
AM – So that actually brings me quite neatly on to the singers and songwriters you listened to when you were younger; who influenced you?
LS – I loved and I still love the British folk scene, Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention and Donovan and generally the music of the sixties. That’s why I fell in love with folk music after flirting first with the blues.
AM – From the album sleeve notes, it looks like you were into music from a very young age; is that right?
LS – In my very first band, when I was sixteen, I was playing with another musician and we played covers in English and Italian and I wrote two songs in Italian and then, with other musicians we formed a blues band when I was eighteen/nineteen years old.
AM – It also sounds like your family really supported you as well.
LS – Yeah, very much. My father used to play guitar in a band when he was younger; he had a big band called Sunflowers but they weren’t famous at all. It was very fashionable in Italy at that time to have a big band at that time and, yes, my family has supported me all the way.
AM – On your first album, “Wild Skies”, there are some great arrangements from Henrik; did you have a lot of songs before that you were performing before that as solo acoustic songs.
LS – Last October (2013), I was invited to Opole Songwriters Festival in Poland and that was my first chance to play my songs outside Italy.
AM – I’ve been reading a very good book recently, exploring the ways different songwriters work (“Isle of Noises”) and I wondered how you approach songwriting.
LS – I don’t have a particular recipe; I don’t really have a structure. Basically it comes from the music; I start with a chord progression and some words will come out and then I try to fill in the blanks.
AM – A lot of it sounds very personal in the singer/songwriter tradition of the seventies; James Taylor and Carole King. Do you write about your own life?
LS – Yes, of course, from my personal life and from my friends’ life stories because it’s easier to express ideas about being single, for example, if I write while I’m single.
AM – I have to ask; what was it like working with Henrik on the album?
LS – It was great because I really felt from the start that he understood what I wanted to express, not only with my music and songwriting, but also with my idea of being an artist. Also Cable Car Records is very careful about the personality of the artist. It was amazing and I learned many things about music and about working in the studio, so it wasn’t only about making an album, it’s about growing as an artist and a person; it was great.
AM – And he’s a great player, isn’t he?
LS – Yes, he’s amazing and me and the other artists on Cable Car are so lucky because he plays bass, drums and guitar so when you start to work, he knows everything about the song and he has it all in his mind so you can trust him from the start.
AM – I’ve always had this idea that Henrik works that way; he doesn’t think about different parts, he hears the whole thing in his head.
LS – Yeah, it’s amazing. And the backing vocals as well; he does all the backing vocals on the album.
AM – And what was it like touring with Henrik on his final tour?
LS – It was very special because, as you say, it was the last tour, so I was very honoured. I really felt that the audience was very close to him and it was great to be a part of that atmosphere. For me as an artist, it was a great moment and a great occasion to grow and learn.
AM – And I know that Henrik’s audience is open to listening to different styles of music and I imagine they gave you a good welcome.
LS – I was very grateful to play to the audience and I knew that, me and Henrik, we have different styles (and volumes, we all know how powerful the band and Henrik’s playing is) but the audience was great with me because Henrik allowed them to make room for my music. He always introduced me before he played and I appreciated that very much. I think the audience was also prepared because he produced the album (“Wild Skies”).
LS – (laughs) Thanks.
AM – The strings on the album were great as well, weren’t they?
LS – It was a particularly moving afternoon when we recorded the strings; they’re played by two musicians, one plays violin and one plays cello and the parts they wrote sound like an orchestra. It was amazing.
AM – So that’s the first album done now, where to next?
LS – I don’t know; I’m still focussed on promoting this one. I hope I’ll be touring this album soon. I have many songs in store but, you know, you have to move one step at a time.
AM – Well, let’s hope we get to see you in the UK sometime soon; that would be something to look forward to.
LS – (laughs) I would love it; I’m ready. If you want me call me, I’m here.
AM – There are certainly a few places in London and around the UK where your music would work really well.
LS – I’m looking for places but there are so many musicians here so I think I may have to wait a while.
AM – Well, we’re looking forward to seeing you.
The first and last tracks on the third album by US female singer songwriter White Hinterland act as a misleading but appropriate prelude and postscript to the bulk of “Baby”. Misleading as, apart from one revisit to the downcast “David”, these tracks do not resemble the songs that they bookend in musical style at all. The album opener, “Wait Until Dark”, is tense and paranoid; unaccompanied vocals are finally joined by a lone, dominant piano which seems to circle the neighbour block referred to in the song’s lyrics. It’s a dramatic and attention-seeking opening and shows how far Casey Diesel has come as a performer since White Hinterland’s debut in 2008; she sounds fantastic. The last track “Live With You”, again just piano and vocals, sees some sort of resolution and tells of domesticity and a realisation of love, it’s warm and inhabits the soulful world of Laura Nyro or Carole King. So what of the remaining eighty per cent?
“Dry Mind” opens with heavenly voices, fractured and bouncing vocal samples and a thick, mid-tempo beat. More elements are introduced; further vocal loops, cut and reversed electronics and a melody and rhythm that are more in keeping with indie r’n’b as opposed to the more straightforward Kate Bush art rock that introduces the album. “Ring The Bell” continues with these big, busy extrovert musical themes and brings some gorgeous brass along with it. Diesel soars high above the whole thing and just about manages to take control of what almost teeters on the edge of chaos. These tracks, the style of which makes up the majority of the album’s playing time, are reminiscent of early My Brightest Diamond, a less rigid St Vincent and the playfulness of Tune-Yards but without the world music bias; vocally dominant women who successfully dally in multiple genres, refusing to commit to just one.
“White Noise”, the brassiest track here and also the most forthright, and “Metronome” (about alcoholism and sex respectively) are beat-heavy and uninhibited, delirious but thought-out tunes that serve as the absolute highlights of the set; they also serve to emphasise the shortage of solid songs here. Whilst these tracks grab your attention and maintain it from start to finish they also have tunes that will pop up in your head long after you’ve finished listening to the album and because of Diesel’s incredibly felt and centrally-placed vocals this is a collection of tracks that cry out for melodies that support the strength of her performances. Tracks like “Baby” and “No Devotion”, although drenched in fantastic effects and details, make little lasting impact and even following several album replays it’s as though they are being experienced for the first time everytime.
Enclosed within its acoustic shell, “Baby” is an album full of amazing, buzzing sounds and enduring passions. With each subsequent album Diesel has upped the ante and from the humble, lo-fi beginnings of “Phylactery Factory” to the present, the soundscape has grown to almost a full spectacle. On occasion it’s a little on the rich side; there’s nothing wrong with that but when opulence forsakes structure and a high is sometimes followed by amnesia then a wish for stronger melodies occasionally prevails. Instant impressions based on the aforementioned opening and closing tracks also dictate that the album is listened to in full to avoid what could be considered by some as a nasty surprise. White Hinterland has made something that is, I suspect, deeply personal and with a palpable sense of freedom which is liberating, sometimes garishly so, but despite its shortfalls there is still plenty here to enjoy.