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albums - february 2014


Dear Reader – We Followed Every Sound

Dear Reader's We Followed Every Sound is one of those rare beasts: an orchestral re-interpretation of songs which manages to breathe some new life into the originals without taking anything away from the way they were intended to be heard. Singer-songwriter Cheri MacNeil (aka Dear Reader) has built a career out of thoughtful folk-pop since the arrival of 2006's The Younger, recorded with producer and bass player Darryl Torr (under the unfortunately-named Harris Tweed!). Originally from Johannesburg, MacNeil who is now based in Berlin often conjoins themes of the the 'personal' and 'political' in her songwriting. Essentially flying solo after the departure of Torr in 2011, Idealistic Animals was an ambitious concept album which constructed an ideology out of zoologically-themed songs. A certain tweeness in the music actually sugarcoats a darker somewhat tortured imagery in the songs, like opener 'Fox (Take Your Chances)' despairing of the randomness of existence, or 'Mole (Mole)' describing the darkness closing in, and the title track 'Man' sees an admission by the songwriter that we've fallen short as a species. Gasps of hope at the end can't really disguise the bleakness of the album, as MacNeil attempts to re-construct her own shattered belief system within these songs.

Equally ambitious Rivonia released last year draws together strands of history, mythology and MacNeil's personal memories of growing up in South Africa under apartheid (Rivonia was the Johannesburg suburb police raided in 1963 to make high profile arrests of ANC members, and happens to be close to the songwriter's home). With some neat tricks of chronology, MacNeil places the listener in her own narrative, and the multi-layered approach to her music combining orchestral, choral and folk music cries out for a theatrical score. We Followed Every Sound is the orchestral riposte to Rivonia, a concert re-working of many of the album's songs, recorded towards the end of the year with the Potsdam-based Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg (conducted by Bernd Wefelmayer) who MacNeil and her band are currently touring Germany with.

The album is a showcase for the songs from Rivonia, the orchestra with its pedigree for crossover recordings along with jazz and film scores lending a cinematic air to the whole proceedings. 'Took Them Away' describes the ANC arrests from a bystander's point of view. MacNeil and her company of singers (that include Emma Greenfield, Caoimhe McAlister and Sam Vance-Law) stir the emotions with their vocals and re-worked version takes on a new lease of life with all its orchestral flourishes. Meandering ballad 'Good Hope' is more piano-driven, while 'Down Under Mining' is based on a repeated choral line, but both are treated sensitively by the assembled players and build to strong choruses, particularly the latter with its pizzicato strings and gentle brass and woodwind. All 3 songs relate aspects of South Africa's troubled history, and with the emphasis on the African style of rhythms and singing in the music, contain a flavour similar to Paul Simon's classic 1986 Graceland album with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. There's a sense of the dramatic and theatrical about ballads like 'Teller Of Truths', with its references to Zulu legend Shaka, and the more pastoral 'From Now On', which twinkles like a Sondheim musical with the various elements of the orchestra.

The old songs blend into the new. 'Dearheart' from 2009's Replace Why With Funny flies along with the march of a drum, the pureness of MacNeil's alto sounding like the 80s jazz singer Carmel, and builds to orchestral crescendo with a mighty oomph at the end, while 'Great White Bear' is another standout with its heavy symbolism and “youthful dreams of escape”. The singing on 'Man' from Idealistic Animals now sounds more circumspect and philosophical, while the music for the re-worked version sounds 'colourful' and upbeat. Oddly-titled 'Whale (Boohoo)' from the same album is elevated by the players to a big band epic.

Interestingly 'Man Of The Book' and 'Back From The Dead', both standouts on Rivonia, bookend We Followed Every Sound. The former sea shanty with it's piano-accordion sounding uncannily like Eddi Reader and Fairground Attraction is now infused with be-bop jazz and again some strong choral work provided by MacNeil and her singers. The latter on the other hand remains piano-driven, the Kate Bush-like ballad with the powerful chorus and uplifting message of hope and determination rounding off the whole concert performance dramatically (an improvement on being sandwiched in the middle of the album):

“I never thought that I'd be someone/who prefers the clouds to the warmth of the sun/the chill of the autumn, the silence indoors/those eyes are barred windows, and smiles are rare birds/I never thought I'd come undone/By a weight that won't wane, that I'd be overcome/No, I never dreamed I'd turn out this way, No way/I'm coming back from the dead, you can't hold me down here”

Orchestral performances are often full of bombast, collaborations between the classical and pop world egging each other on in what generally remains an uneasy marriage. Dear Reader's performance with Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg on We Followed Every Sound works well by allowing MacNeil to realize the widescreen ambition of her songs, while retaining their central platform and the singer's beautiful interpretation of them. For MacNeil herself, one would think a musical beckons!

Matthew Hadrill