Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Florence Rawlings - A Fool In Love Album review (2009)

Mike Batt has a keen ear for talent. Not content with working with the hugely successful Katie Melua, and helping to shape her into a unique and interesting musician, Batt has now turned his craft to Florence Rawlings. Having toured with Batt on his ‘Songwriter’s Tale’ promotional tour, Rawlings now has her chance to prove herself with the debut album A Fool In Love. As you might expect this is a bluesy, soulful, jazzy, rhythm and blues collection of original songs and covers in (almost) equal measure. Chuck Berry, Ike Turner and Allen Toussaint all feature, and all are delivered in a similar predictable style.

The first noticeable highlight is Rawlings herself. A voice so strong, so full of power and depth, it rarely oversteps it’s boundaries. At times, the barometer swings the other way and the singer sounds nonchalant and distant - probably something to do with the material. The covers are a wild adventure for the most part but the original songs don’t generate the sort of connection between vocalist, musicians and writer that you get in a well-established band. Not to say it doesn’t gel but the arrangements are ambitious and often a simpler production is needed.

Thankfully some of the best moments come from Batt. The Only Woman In The World feels like a modern take of an old classic, with a powerful arrangement and a quirky harmonica break. Rawlings sings with incredible control and presence. Jump On The Wagon is a solid guitar-led rhythm and blues number, pulling in bits of everything to form something new. And Wolf Man is more blues and a subtle arrangement to create a new unique take on the Three Little Pigs story. Again Rawlings makes the most of a basic idea, adding her own sultry personality to the tale. In spite of the repetition, she adds more and more to each turn.

The odd single Hard To Get tries to sound smooth and silky but the vocals are very laboured, the arrangement is a mid-tempo drawl and Batt does not deliver his best writing. Can’t Hold Your Hand is much better, slowing to a smouldering crawl. If anything it would benefit from less not more. The overused backing vocals could go and a simple piano would suffice. A Fool To Love closes with Batt’s earnest ballad Love Can Be A Battlefield, another example of a singer making the most of an average song. A slow, and at times clumsy, arrangement distracts from some great lines and a strong central piece: “Love can save you, it can make you whole. It can enslave you, it can take your soul. It can break you, take your world apart. If you let it, it will break your heart”.

As for the rest, opener Wouldn’t Treat A Dog is nothing more than a great introduction to a great voice as the disjointed arrangement is delivered like a patchwork quilt of sounds and ideas. In an attempt to tone things down from the outset and not throw too many ideas in the pot, the effect is lacklustre and a bit too ‘laid back’ in the first half. Riverboat is a decent attempt to ‘jazz’ up the Toussaint classic, adding in guitars and gospel backing singers. It works but has a ridiculously long thirty second fadeout.

The title track is a controversial choice, the Ike & Tina Turner debut single from 1960. It turns out to be one of the best songs on the album, with some excellent guitar work, blasts of brass and soft backing vocals. Rawlings in no Tina but it’s a decent effort. Moving into more difficult territory, Gladys Knight’s Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me is excellent, as is Chuck Berry’s Can’t Catch Me - one of the only fast-paced songs, expertly performed and thoroughly enjoyable.

An oddball in the mix is A Dollar Of My Pain, written by guitarist Chris Spedding. The problem here is that it’s not sure what it wants to be and although full of Spedding’s wonderful guitars, he never upstages his singer. Lyrically it kicks off with “I’ve invested all my time in you, at no dividend; Interest is so low, baby, I got nothing to lend” which sounds like a trendy accountant.

The old and new on A Fool In Love compliment each other thanks to Mike Batt’s attention to detail. He clearly understands Rawlings and the two never try to outpace each other. The singer respects the material and the writer compliments the voice. As it should be. And this feels like the early days of a burgeoning relationship and not just a musician giving one of his backing singers a quick break. What would be great now is if Florence Rawlings started writing and arranging her own songs. Only then will a great artist be born.

-- CS (for Altsounds)

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