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Album review: David Rotheray “Answer Ballads” (Folk Radio UK)

October 1, 2013

David Rotheray "Answer Ballads"For his latest project, Answer Ballads, David Rotheray (ex-The Beautiful South) has collaborated with a number of well-respected singers to write an album of very different-sounding songs which nevertheless are united by the core concept.

The premise is quite simple: take a classic pop song – for example, Dolly Parton’s Jolene – and create a response (Answer Ballad), written from the perspective of the original subject. The result is a surprisingly unified collection, despite the diversity of its sound.

The country-tinged Mrs Jones’s Song – loosely based on the character from the song Me & Mrs Jones – opens the set with Lisa Knapp’s plaintive voice interacting with some neat call-and-response harmonies in a striking contrast to the following Maggie’s Song (inspired by the song Maggie May). It’s one of my favourite songs from the album and features Eliza Carthy’s full-throated roar over what sounds like an early incarnation of The Band.

Kris Drever’s Daniel’s Song is squarely in country ballad territory, playing the role of older sibling in his confident yet thoughtful response forty years after Elton John’s Daniel waved him off at the airport.

Roxanne’s Song dispenses with The Police’s original tango and replaces it with a ghostly piece of Americana, Kathryn Williams’ careworn voice carrying an angry lyric spiky with grace and sarcasm in equal measure, while the electric piano of Pearl’s A Singer is retained in Pearl’s Song, Gemma Hayes’ mournful musing on life after the bright lights of stardom have faded.

John Smith’s contribution, Billy Joe’s Song, a reply to Don’t Take Your Guns To Town, is a medium-paced minor key shuffle which sounds as if it’s come straight from a spaghetti western, complete with lonesome whistling and manly backing vocals. Marie’s Song takes Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee as its starting point with Josienne Clarke’s crystal voice telling the tale of how Marie’s father never made it home to her. Long distance information, indeed! Meanwhile, in Bobby’s Song, Naomi Bedford gives us Bobby McGee’s perspective on matters with a strong performance that is steeped in its 1970s heritage but successfully avoids pastiche.

Lucille’s Song is another of the highlights of Answer Ballads; its subject is the character in the Kenny Rogers song You Picked A Fine Time To Leave Me, Lucille with Mary Coughlan offering up a spellbinding performance of a tune which sounds like a torch song heard through the locked door of a downtown speakeasy in 1920s America.

Shel Silverstein’s autobiographical Sylvia’s Mother gets two responses: Jackie Oates’ chamber-folk arrangement of Mrs Avery’s Song elegantly sugar-coats a lyrical bitter pill to offer one of the most insightful and sharpest putdowns I’ve heard in a long time. Bella Hardy opts for a slow waltz which is perhaps musically closer to the original while still managing to give Mr Silverstein’s irritating nice-guy the character assassination that has, quite frankly, been a long time coming.

The subject of Dino’s Song is Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town; Alasdair Roberts resists the temptation to rock out, preferring instead to let loose some eloquent slide guitar playing over some well-placed chord changes before we arrive at the album’s closing track. A slow, poignant ballad, Jolene’s Song is full of a deep heartbreak which the passing years have made more painful, not less, and Julie Murphy’s performance is starkly beautiful and utterly compelling.

David Rotheray’s original concept, although apparently simple, generates a complexity of ideas which are more than sufficient to sustain it effortlessly across the musical diversity of these thirteen songs. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the original songs, Answer Ballads is still well worth the price of admission; it’s a hugely enjoyable record that works perfectly as a standalone compilation featuring some of the best singers around today.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (01 October 2013)

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