If listening to an album from start to finish is becoming a thing of the past, online radio stations, song-shuffling and diminished attention spans should toll the death knell for concept albums. But with the release this year of The Decemberists’ masterful folk-rock opera The Hazards Of Love and Katy Carr’s new release, Coquette, a collection of songs relating stories of love, death, flight, fighting and flirting in World War Two, perhaps there is life in the concept album yet.
A versatile performer and writer, Katy Carr’s work is infused with diverse influences including folk, music hall, burlesque, standards… and experience as an RAF pilot. These disparate influences are tied together in a strong, well realised persona – kind of like Lady Gaga meets Vera Lynn.
Acapella opener Star Song and following track Sparkle are mysteriously seductive tracks in the style of Julee Cruise. The urgent Berliner Ring provides reminisces about Marlene Dietrich (“I saw her smoking a cigar”) and the exodus of people who were able to flee before the oncoming tempest of war. The imagery is as powerful as Dietrich’s was, and the instrumentation and arrangements urgent and moving.
Erotic Days is an aural burlesque – grand vocal gestures interspersed with the musical equivalent of a hip wiggle. As the guitar notes are bent and the orchestra’s strings plucked furtively, you can almost hear the elbow-length gloves being teased off and the stockings rolled down. It’s Carr’s ability to suggest moods, settings and scenes that creates the atmosphere needed for this concept to work.
Violetta, a mysterious French love song with Carr’s husky breathy vocal accompanied by a staccato accordion and swooping strings, has a classy, stylish, sexual energy that sits in contrast to the downbeat Butterfly, which tells the story of another flight, two new lovers hesitant to flee but seizing their chance to see how their life together might work out.
Carr is equally capable of voicing the roles of vulnerable ing�nue or and femme fatale. The arrangements of strings, multilayered vocals and other instrumentation are used to great effect to evoke times past, palpable emotion, tense relationships and life and death decisions.
The album suffers from the affliction of any concept piece in that, if taken out of context, the songs lose their relevance. Numbers such as Orchidophile are strange enough in the context of Coquette, but on their own run the risk of seeming meaningless or, worse still, overly contrived.
But the superlative instrumentation and performance mean even though they seem odd alone, the songs remain beguiling. While it seems like something of a fruitcake idea, the attention to detail in evidence throughout Coquette ensures that it remains a compelling, fascinating and rewarding album.