Monday, January 10, 2011

Righteous Reconfiguration: Emilie-Claire Barlow's The Beat Goes On

In December 2008, my wife and I saw Canadian jazz singer, Emilie-Claire Barlow, perform a Christmas-centric concert at Markham Theatre north of Toronto. Markham Theatre is a wonderful place to see concerts because the acoustics are great and the space is relatively intimate. Barlow on that night was in a fine fettle. She sang wonderfully (in English and French) and had a great deal of off-the-cuff fun with the audience. As befits a concert in Markham, afterwards Barlow spent another hour in the lobby signing CDs for audience members. When we got to the front of the line my wife, who is trilingual (English, French and Spanish), asked Barlow if she spoke French. Barlow admitted she did not and that she always sang the songs phonetically.

Talking afterwards, my wife and I were astonished how near perfect her phrasing was, not just in her English-language songs, but her French ones too. This near-perfect phrasing is evident all over her new CD, The Beat Goes On. The CD is Barlow's jazz tribute to the pop songs of the 1960s. She's not the first jazz singer to do this, but this might be the best. Ranging from Burt Bacharach to Buffy Sainte-Marie to Sonny Bono to Bob Dylan, Barlow's choices are frequently inspired. She has taken many very recognizable tunes and, with skilful rearrangements, crafted songs I may have liked at one time, but since have grown tired of (Bacharach's “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”), or songs I never liked to begin with (Neil Sedaka's “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”) and given them a spin that makes them fresh and rejuvenated.

Doing all her own arrangements, she sometimes reduces the start of songs to just her voice, hand claps and double bass (Donovan's “Sunshine Superman”) creating an aural soundscape that brings you into the song anew. She completely alters Sonny Bono's mildly irritating “The Beat Goes On” by combining it with snippets of Bosso Nova beats, plus snatches from the theme song to the old Canadian game show, Definition (via the rap band The Dream Warriors' 1991 reinterpretation), to make it into an exhilarating creation.

Emilie-Clair Barlow and bassist Ross MacIntyre
She even takes a whirl at Portuguese in her interpretation of “Little Boat (O Barquinho)” when she sings one verse of the song, impeccably, in that language. The only misstep on the CD is with the Buffy Saint-Marie song, “Until It's Time for You to Go.” The English version, which I always found too pleading, is given a beautifully wistful reading here. Unfortunately, her decision to do it again, in French (under the title “T'es Pas Un Autre”), was too much. Again, her phrasing is wonderful, but the song comes across like filler or a sop to the Quebecois market.

That probably is just nitpick, because if an album of 13 tracks has only one misstep (albeit a well-sung misstep), that is still quite an achievement. Barlow is gradually developing a career that I can easily see following the same path of Michael BublĂ© or Diana Krall. I just hope she keeps her big, funky heart firmly in place.

David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com/ for more information.

3 comments:

  1. I regret that Easy Barlow no longer has a jazz group with her father, drummer Brian. I saw her several times at various locations in Toronto (e.g., Montreal Bistro) -- she was self-conscious with her clothing, but she had a wonderful voice that played with the all-jazz musicians. She was dynamite on "Aquas de Marco", brilliant phrasing.

    Too bad she appears to be going the Krall route, but that's where the recognition -- and money -- is.

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  2. David Churchill responds: Hi Dean, thanks for your comment. Having seen Barlow live and heard all her CDs, I think it's highly unfair to call her "Easy" Barlow. There ain't nothing easy listening about her arrangements or her phrasing. Sure, she may not be recording jazz that satisfies traditionalists, but neither is she doing jazz to snooze by.

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  3. Hi David. For the record: Among her early jazz fans, the reference to "Easy" refers to her first names (E-C) AND the fact that she makes the songs and scats all sound so easy because of her use of phonetics. It has nothing whatsoever to do with an easy or lazy singing style. Having said that, I think we might have been prescient in the matter as she moves on to a more Krall-sh pop sound. I can only give you a borrowed quote to highlight this: her past is a foreign country -- she did things differently there. Hey, "conditions have changed".

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