Album Reviews

Gwyneth Herbert – Bittersweet And Blue

(Decca) UK release date: 27 September 2004

Gwyneth Herbert - Bittersweet And Blue The tag “Britain’s Norah Jones” undermines the great jazz talent that Gwyneth Herbert is in my books. Jones spells out coffee table jazz for a laidback day, while Herbert embodies all the smoky jazz boozers she’s ever sung in and tacitly commands you to prick up your ears and listen. Where Jones has a honeyed wide-vowelled voice redolent of a fading summer, Herbert’s is a warm rust-coloured voice of a rich autumn.

No, if 22-year-old Herbert were to follow a current jazz template it would be that of Diana Krall. They have a similar aura of a strong blonde belle belting out jazz in a husky voice that at times oh so delicately whispers heart-rending lyrics. Krall also records classic covers while cutting her own original material – just like Herbert has done with First Songs, her debut album with musical partner Will Rutter, and now with her solo debut Bittersweet And Blue.

The originals and covers have evidently been carefully selected for their poetic lines, rich melodies and contrasting emotions, one giving rise to heel-kicking pizzazz while the other then lulls the listener into goose-pimpling melancholy. Notably the songs also stem from a gamut of eras and musical backgrounds, making for a tapestry richly woven indeed.

Kicking off with Peggy Lee‘s lusty Fever, the album starts on a blood-boiling high with a smooth jazz cat double bass line and Herbert singing with vixen-like sultry prowess. It’s your traditional jazz opening that then makes way for a sentimental version of Tom Waits‘ (Looking For) The Heart Of Saturday Night.

After Herbert’s own mildly turbulent title-track, with its warm string arrangements punctuated by solitary piano chords, comes a superbly seedy jazz cover of Portishead‘s Glory Box. The song is tinged with discordant jazz notes and swathed in high melodrama with macabre violins, Herbert’s voice smouldering and cushioned by the ghostly music behind her.

The mood swings again to melancholy in Everytime We Say Goodbye, with gossamer thread guitar strums and Herbert’s warm and whispery but sad vocals. It’s back to happiness with Almost Like Being In Love starring a yellow cocktail brass band and a sprinting double bass. Her cover of Janis Ian‘s At Seventeen isn’t far removed from the original but her version of Into Temptation by Crowded House is impressed with the Herbert stamp – a dry double bass punching the rhythms with shuffling drums, soft strings and a soothing voice that clips the ends of words like she’s distracted and gazing into the distance.

The belting hand-clapping vocals in A Little Less, another Herbert original, shakes you back to consciousness before experiencing the delicate melodies drizzled over by soft melancholy in Fallen – Herbert’s own composition sung like a caring mother whispering a lullaby to soothe her child to sleep. Ending with tear-stained singing in Neil Young‘s Only Love Can Break Your Heart, the album finishes in the opposite mood that it started out with.

As the last song fades into silence you feel like you’ve been on a roller-coaster ride, stopping off in pub-crawl fashion at jazz haunts along the way. This album affects you, sweeping you up and then gently placing you back to where you were. It’s a stunning album from a sassy young lady who has been heralded as a “rising star”. Now there’s a description I do agree with.

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Gwyneth Herbert @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Gwyneth Herbert – Bittersweet And Blue