Beth Rowley: Little Dreamer

[12 November 2008]

By Aarik Danielsen

In 2002, Norah Jones reminded us of the greatness which has arisen from smooth and sweet jazz-inflected pop. With 2006’s Back to Black, Amy Winehouse gave listeners on both sides of the pond the chance to reignite their love affair with the soulful sounds first expressed on the great Motown records of the ‘60s. Even before that, in the mid- to late-‘90s, Sarah McLachlan and several incarnations of her traveling troupe reintroduced the American public to a spectrum of folk rock sounds through the Lilith Fair concerts.  It seems fair, then, to say most of the stylistic renaissances the music world has experienced in the last decade or so have come at the hands of incredibly talented, incredibly confident female artists with a knack for the music they love.

In 2008, there’s ample reason to believe this cycle of succession and success can continue through the music of UK singer-songwriter Beth Rowley. Rowley’s music revives the persona of the bluesy chanteuse, the sweet and self-assured temptress that hasn’t been as fully realized since some of the great performances of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Rowley’s list of influences includes Mahalia Jackson, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Roy Orbison. While those influences are certainly felt on Little Dreamer, the sum total of Rowley’s experiences and inspirations comes across as being more in the vein of a bluesier Marianne Faithfull or a gospel-infused Dusty Springfield.  With a microphone in her hand and a soul to bare, Rowley delivers the goods much in the same way her predecessors did, making Little Dreamer one of the strongest and most soulful records of the year.

Start to finish, the album has all the makings of an indelible gem. Even from the album’s opening bars, Rowley and her very talented band of cohorts put the listener on notice that they’re in for something very special. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”—a traditional blues tune arranged by Rowley—quickly establishes the smoky sensitivity in her voice, casting her as one acquainted with heartbreak and breaking hearts. Three softly plucked bass notes are all the introduction Rowley gets and certainly all the introduction she needs; while the instruments behind her (from the tight swing of drum and bass to expressive organ and colorful piano) are all masterfully played, they serve primarily to lay a foundation, a basic emotional setting which she embraces and later splits at the seams. With a groove reminiscent of The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” and Rowley’s stellar vocals, the song soars soulfully.

For all the greatness in those opening moments, there is no dropoff going forward. The next two tracks (both co-written by Rowley), “Sweet Hours” and “So Sublime”, are equally effective in declaring her presence and proving her ability to navigate through a variety of material. The first tune in that pair opens with buoyant piano and yearning vocals. As rock guitars introduce themselves, the song approaches a Fiona Apple-meets-Norah Jones feel. The later rivals “Nobody’s Fault…” as one of the clear highlights of the record. “So Sublime” is all feel-good, Brill Building pop with a transcendent chorus and sweetly complementary backing vocals.

Other noteworthy moments include Rowley’s lilting, exotic cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”, the retro-soul feel of “Oh My Life”, and a poignant treatment of Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”. Some artists can only write, some only find greatness in illuminating the works of others. That the album’s highlights include both covers and fresh material underscores the truth that Rowley is both an excellent interpreter and creator, incorporating any tune that suits her musical vision.

While Rowley is clearly the story here, she is surrounded by talent on every side. Frequent contributor and co-writer Ben Castle adds depth and heart to the sound through his saxophone and clarinet playing, especially on “Oh My Life” and “You Never Called Me Tonight”.  Rowley’s stable of backing vocalists make several memorable appearances, reinforcing the depth and power of emotion contained in each cut.

In her bio, Rowley shares her understanding of the clear retro-contemporary connection in her sound: “I love that old-school sound of PP Arnold and the Ronettes, so there had to be some kind of throwback to that, but we also worked hard on getting the balance right. It’s a real leveller between the past and the present – and somewhere in between my sound emerged.”

An album with its heart in the past and its eyes turned toward the brightness of the future, Little Dreamer succeeds much like efforts by Jones and Winehouse have: the record bridges the gap between styles and sounds audiences will love and clearly establishes the star of the performer whose life and presence infuse the music.

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