Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Play, Unwind and Repeat: Elizabeth Shepherd’s Rewind

Before anyone carps about my lack of credentials, let me be explicit: I have no formal musical knowledge. I simply like what I like and appreciate what brings pleasure to my ears. Any attempts to impress on the basis of harmony, composition and clever arrangement are generally lost on me. What authority have I to review a jazz album, then? Ostensibly, I have none. But I’m remarkably similar to many of the consumers browsing HMV or surfing iTunes; I’m looking for an opportunity to escape the banality of life through something beautiful. So I hope most readers will find value in the words that follow. To you true jazz connoisseurs, I do apologize.

In the world of popular music, it seems all you need is a pretty face, appealing voice and good connections to be successful. Here, Elizabeth Shepherd’s handsome looks, classic voice and original recordings are an anomaly. Many fans were surprised to hear that her most recent album Rewind is, according to Shepherd herself, a collection of “songs that I have learned and loved and [that have] grown with me over the years.” In other words, it’s a cover album. However, Shepherd also promises to “treat them with my own sound to make them fully mine.” She succeeds.

The first track is Cole Porter’s classic “Love for Sale” from the 1930s Broadway hit The New Yorkers. The passionate vulnerability inherent in Shepherd’s voice brings life to the lyrics, lyrics that were originally written to be sung in the voice of a prostitute for the musical. Shepherd’s rendition is suitably faster and more modern than Billie Holiday’s classic, but not quite as spicy and sultry as the version Sophie Milman recorded in 2009 for Take Love Easy. Shepherd’s jaunty beat-boxing and her addition of the “sweet love” choral interlude definitely make for one of the most original and enjoyable recordings of this song.

“Feeling Good” is another track originally written for a musical (1965’s The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd) that Shepherd appropriately appropriates. With emphatic vocals and solidly punctuated percussion, there is little doubt that this woman is feeling good. Her use of chimes is a particularly magical touch. The strategically placed pauses, which are both breathless and breathy, re-inject sensuality into a song that Michael Bublé both popularized and butchered (he sounds angry and looks constipated in his pathetic James Bond spoof of a music video).

Naturally, you’re not a true Canadian chanteuse without including a French song or two on your album. Shepherd includes two, “Pourquoi Tu Vis” and “Les Amoureux des Bancs Publics.” The latter, translated as “Lovers on Public Benches,” was stuck in my head for days although I understood only a handful of the lyrics. Through Andrew Downing’s simple yet expert accompaniment on cello and double bass, I was effortlessly transported to Parisian alleyways and cafés. Oddly enough, it’s the one original song on this album where Shepherd falters. “When you are Near,” composed with Bobby Hutcherson, borders on flabby and approaches whiny. It could almost drift into the category of background music if not for the excellent trumpet accompaniment by Kevin Turcotte and a stellar base line.

Shepherd celebrates the fact that she was in the throes of pregnancy while producing Rewind. Indeed, there is something anticipatory about the album. Right now, I can’t help but anticipate Elizabeth Shepherd’s next record. In the meantime, I won’t mind rewinding this one and playing it over and over again.

– Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.

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