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Julia Biel - Love Letters and other Missiles Rating: 4 out of 5 An album that draws the listener deeper into its distinctive soundworld with each fresh listening and a record that deserves to revive Biel's career and bring her to the attention of a wider audience.

Julia Biel

“Love Letters and other Missiles”

(Rokit Records RKT 030)

It’s been a whole decade since the singer and songwriter Julia Biel first came to my attention with the release of her excellent début album “Not Alone” in 2005. At that time Biel was a member of the then highly fashionable F-ire Collective and “Not Alone” generated a high degree of critical acclaim and also enjoyed fairly healthy sales for what was nominally a jazz record.

“Not Alone” featured a collection of songs co-written by Biel and guitarist Jonny Phillips, leader of the group Oriole, a band that occasionally featured Biel as a guest vocalist. The songs explored several music areas including both jazz and folk plus Phillips’ ongoing fascination with Latin music and rhythms. Biel was compared to everybody from Billie Holiday to Bjork and looked very much to be a rising star with a glittering career ahead.

It’s always been something of a mystery to me that things didn’t quite pan out that way. Writing partner Phillips decamped to Spain to explore Latin music more fully and even Oriole was put on hold for a long time. Meanwhile Biel worked intermittently with Ben Watt, once of the band Everything But The Girl and also sang with Soothsayers, the group co-led by her life partner, saxophonist and clarinettist Idris Rahman.

Rumours of a second album appeared periodically but only now has it finally emerged, a collection of twelve mainly self penned songs - there are three co-writes which we’ll come to later. Biel also plays piano and guitar and her main creative ally this time around is Rahman who adds guitar and piano as well as the reeds he is normally associated with. An excellent core group is completed by guitarist Marco Piccioni and a Rolls Royce rhythm section consisting of of bassist Jasper Hoiby and drummer Sebastian Rochford, both long term associates of Biel and both leaders of their own highly successful groups, Phronesis and Polar Bear respectively. Other performers include guitarists Alan Weekes and Dave Pearson, violinist Samy Bishai, trumpeter Robin Hopcraft, trombonist Trevor Edwards and pianist Zoe Rahman (here playing Wurlitzer).

Biel is managed by Burkhard Hopper, the man behind the phenomenal success of the innovative Swedish piano trio E.S.T.  Thus “Love Letters…” is lavishly packaged and Hopper has ensured that Biel has toured extensively in mainland Europe as well as the UK, her schedule including a number of prestigious festival dates, among them Brecon Jazz Festival on August 9th 2015. I’m looking forward to attending the Brecon show and hoping that it will erase the memory of a disappointing performance in Cardiff back in 2006 when Biel and her band were ill served by an unsympathetic venue. Reports suggest that the Julia Biel of 2015 has been delighting audiences across Europe so I have high hopes for this forthcoming show which will, of course, be reviewed on the Jazzmann in due course.

Turning now to the music to be heard on “Love Letters…” and one immediately notices that the album sounds very different to its predecessor, “Not Alone”. With Phillips no longer involved there is less emphasis on folk and Latin music forms and a more obvious pop/soul/r’n'b feel, elements that were present on “Not Alone” but which are much more tangible and overt here. This time round the most obvious comparison seems to be with the late Amy Winehouse, due both to the Cockney inflection of Biel’s voice and the emotional directness and honesty of her lyrics. Most of these tunes are “relationship” songs and Biel has explained the album thus;
“all these songs are inspired by feelings arising from every day occurrences that hit hard. Things that hit harder more often than they should and harder than the people responsible can ever imagine most of the time. I wanted a title that reflected that everyday emotional violence that we do to each other”.
This quote is sourced from an interview with Biel on the Blue in Green blog http://www.theblueingreenblog.blogspot.co.uk
The Blue-in-Green Blog runs alongside The Blue-in-Green Sessions - a soul/funk/jazz show that airs live every Sunday morning 8-10am (GMT) exclusive to Starpoint Radio [www.starpointradio.com].

The sparse opener “When the Sun goes in” features the “atmospheric” guitar of Piccioni and Rahman’s piano as Biel sings with a yearning vulnerability that recalls both Holiday and Winehouse.

“Nobody loves you like I do” was issued as a single in 2014. It’s a song whose lyrics have a poetic frankness that again recalls Winehouse at her best and an expansive but exquisite arrangement featuring Biel on piano, the guitars of Piccioni and Weekes, the horns of Rahman, Hopcraft and Edwards plus the strings of Samy Bishai. It’s an excellent song but is probably a little bit too subtle to ever become a major commercial hit.

The lyrics of “We watch the Stars”, a song co-written with Idris Rahman, are even more confessional and again evoke comparisons with Winehouse. It’s the song that Biel elected to put on Soundcloud, implying that she considers it to be one of the album’s strongest. A highly personalised vocal performance is enhanced by an innovative arrangement incorporating massed guitars and strings, the kind of “sonic sunburst” referred to in the album’s press release.

A similarly widescreen arrangement graces the barbed love song “Licence to be cruel” , this time with Biel and Rahman providing most of the sounds themselves via a variety of guitars, pianos and Biel’s multi-tracked vocals.

Piccioni’s guitars dominate the arrangement on the graphic and claustrophobic “Til tonight” which also features a terrific performance from the always excellent Rochford. In general “Love Letters…” is a far more forceful record than “Not Alone”, a quality epitomised by this hard hitting track.

That said there are still moments of quiet introspection such as the tender, piano led “You made me write a love song” which combines traditional “songbook” virtues with modern production values to haunting effect.

The break up song “Secret party”, co-written with John Beck and Steve Christanthou, combines Biel’s wistful vocals with an arrangement featuring her own piano and acoustic guitar allied to softly enveloping strings and horns.

“Little girl” combines a bleak lyric and an impassioned vocal performance with a powerful, chugging rock arrangement that places guitars, bass and drums to the fore.   

The mood of self introspection continues into “You do my head in” with its dynamic changes and epic arrangement featuring Bishai’s strings, Piccioni’s guitar and Zoe Rahman on Wurlitzer.

By way of contrast “Playing you” finds Biel relishing the role of the vengeful lover, getting her own back at last.  Sultry vocals, hip hop style grooves and a sassy horn arrangement invite comparisons with another aspect of the Winehouse persona.

“Out Of Control”, co-written with Idris Rahman, is similarly playful as Biel asks her lover to buy her a “mojito with a cherry on” and to “take me to oblivion”. Yes, this is Julia Biel “rocking out” but there’s a hint of caution in the lyrics too, this song is more mature than it might first appear.

The album concludes on an elegiac note with “Fallen” whose simple but poetic lyrics are an expression of both redemption and valediction. The sparse arrangement features Biel’s piano, the woody whisper of Idris Rahman’s bass clarinet and the soft caress of Rochford’s brushes. It’s a good way to close an excellent album whose songs and performances more than justify its long gestation.

As on “Not Alone” Biel has taken a rich variety of musical influences and elements and fused them into a style that is very much her own. It’s hard to pigeon-hole Julia Biel’s music and the poetic economy and frankness of her lyrics also helps to make this album a very personal one. Biel’s vocal performance is excellent throughout combining the technical excellence of a former Perrier Vocalist of the Year with a distinctive delivery capable of conveying a variety of moods and emotions ranging from the vulnerable and desperate to the outright playful and many points in between. Biel also makes a substantial instrumental contribution to a record that is further enhanced by some great playing all round allied to some excellent arrangements. The engineering and production, much of it involving Biel and Idris Rahman, is also first class. 

“Love Letters…” is an album that draws the listener deeper into its distinctive soundworld with each fresh listening. It’s a recording that deserves to revive Julia Biel’s career and bring her to the attention of a wide audience across a variety of musical genres. I’m now looking forward to seeing this music being performed in a live environment.

 

 

Love Letters and other Missiles

Julia Biel

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

4 out of 5

Love Letters and other Missiles

An album that draws the listener deeper into its distinctive soundworld with each fresh listening and a record that deserves to revive Biel's career and bring her to the attention of a wider audience.

Julia Biel

“Love Letters and other Missiles”

(Rokit Records RKT 030)

It’s been a whole decade since the singer and songwriter Julia Biel first came to my attention with the release of her excellent début album “Not Alone” in 2005. At that time Biel was a member of the then highly fashionable F-ire Collective and “Not Alone” generated a high degree of critical acclaim and also enjoyed fairly healthy sales for what was nominally a jazz record.

“Not Alone” featured a collection of songs co-written by Biel and guitarist Jonny Phillips, leader of the group Oriole, a band that occasionally featured Biel as a guest vocalist. The songs explored several music areas including both jazz and folk plus Phillips’ ongoing fascination with Latin music and rhythms. Biel was compared to everybody from Billie Holiday to Bjork and looked very much to be a rising star with a glittering career ahead.

It’s always been something of a mystery to me that things didn’t quite pan out that way. Writing partner Phillips decamped to Spain to explore Latin music more fully and even Oriole was put on hold for a long time. Meanwhile Biel worked intermittently with Ben Watt, once of the band Everything But The Girl and also sang with Soothsayers, the group co-led by her life partner, saxophonist and clarinettist Idris Rahman.

Rumours of a second album appeared periodically but only now has it finally emerged, a collection of twelve mainly self penned songs - there are three co-writes which we’ll come to later. Biel also plays piano and guitar and her main creative ally this time around is Rahman who adds guitar and piano as well as the reeds he is normally associated with. An excellent core group is completed by guitarist Marco Piccioni and a Rolls Royce rhythm section consisting of of bassist Jasper Hoiby and drummer Sebastian Rochford, both long term associates of Biel and both leaders of their own highly successful groups, Phronesis and Polar Bear respectively. Other performers include guitarists Alan Weekes and Dave Pearson, violinist Samy Bishai, trumpeter Robin Hopcraft, trombonist Trevor Edwards and pianist Zoe Rahman (here playing Wurlitzer).

Biel is managed by Burkhard Hopper, the man behind the phenomenal success of the innovative Swedish piano trio E.S.T.  Thus “Love Letters…” is lavishly packaged and Hopper has ensured that Biel has toured extensively in mainland Europe as well as the UK, her schedule including a number of prestigious festival dates, among them Brecon Jazz Festival on August 9th 2015. I’m looking forward to attending the Brecon show and hoping that it will erase the memory of a disappointing performance in Cardiff back in 2006 when Biel and her band were ill served by an unsympathetic venue. Reports suggest that the Julia Biel of 2015 has been delighting audiences across Europe so I have high hopes for this forthcoming show which will, of course, be reviewed on the Jazzmann in due course.

Turning now to the music to be heard on “Love Letters…” and one immediately notices that the album sounds very different to its predecessor, “Not Alone”. With Phillips no longer involved there is less emphasis on folk and Latin music forms and a more obvious pop/soul/r’n'b feel, elements that were present on “Not Alone” but which are much more tangible and overt here. This time round the most obvious comparison seems to be with the late Amy Winehouse, due both to the Cockney inflection of Biel’s voice and the emotional directness and honesty of her lyrics. Most of these tunes are “relationship” songs and Biel has explained the album thus;
“all these songs are inspired by feelings arising from every day occurrences that hit hard. Things that hit harder more often than they should and harder than the people responsible can ever imagine most of the time. I wanted a title that reflected that everyday emotional violence that we do to each other”.
This quote is sourced from an interview with Biel on the Blue in Green blog http://www.theblueingreenblog.blogspot.co.uk
The Blue-in-Green Blog runs alongside The Blue-in-Green Sessions - a soul/funk/jazz show that airs live every Sunday morning 8-10am (GMT) exclusive to Starpoint Radio [www.starpointradio.com].

The sparse opener “When the Sun goes in” features the “atmospheric” guitar of Piccioni and Rahman’s piano as Biel sings with a yearning vulnerability that recalls both Holiday and Winehouse.

“Nobody loves you like I do” was issued as a single in 2014. It’s a song whose lyrics have a poetic frankness that again recalls Winehouse at her best and an expansive but exquisite arrangement featuring Biel on piano, the guitars of Piccioni and Weekes, the horns of Rahman, Hopcraft and Edwards plus the strings of Samy Bishai. It’s an excellent song but is probably a little bit too subtle to ever become a major commercial hit.

The lyrics of “We watch the Stars”, a song co-written with Idris Rahman, are even more confessional and again evoke comparisons with Winehouse. It’s the song that Biel elected to put on Soundcloud, implying that she considers it to be one of the album’s strongest. A highly personalised vocal performance is enhanced by an innovative arrangement incorporating massed guitars and strings, the kind of “sonic sunburst” referred to in the album’s press release.

A similarly widescreen arrangement graces the barbed love song “Licence to be cruel” , this time with Biel and Rahman providing most of the sounds themselves via a variety of guitars, pianos and Biel’s multi-tracked vocals.

Piccioni’s guitars dominate the arrangement on the graphic and claustrophobic “Til tonight” which also features a terrific performance from the always excellent Rochford. In general “Love Letters…” is a far more forceful record than “Not Alone”, a quality epitomised by this hard hitting track.

That said there are still moments of quiet introspection such as the tender, piano led “You made me write a love song” which combines traditional “songbook” virtues with modern production values to haunting effect.

The break up song “Secret party”, co-written with John Beck and Steve Christanthou, combines Biel’s wistful vocals with an arrangement featuring her own piano and acoustic guitar allied to softly enveloping strings and horns.

“Little girl” combines a bleak lyric and an impassioned vocal performance with a powerful, chugging rock arrangement that places guitars, bass and drums to the fore.   

The mood of self introspection continues into “You do my head in” with its dynamic changes and epic arrangement featuring Bishai’s strings, Piccioni’s guitar and Zoe Rahman on Wurlitzer.

By way of contrast “Playing you” finds Biel relishing the role of the vengeful lover, getting her own back at last.  Sultry vocals, hip hop style grooves and a sassy horn arrangement invite comparisons with another aspect of the Winehouse persona.

“Out Of Control”, co-written with Idris Rahman, is similarly playful as Biel asks her lover to buy her a “mojito with a cherry on” and to “take me to oblivion”. Yes, this is Julia Biel “rocking out” but there’s a hint of caution in the lyrics too, this song is more mature than it might first appear.

The album concludes on an elegiac note with “Fallen” whose simple but poetic lyrics are an expression of both redemption and valediction. The sparse arrangement features Biel’s piano, the woody whisper of Idris Rahman’s bass clarinet and the soft caress of Rochford’s brushes. It’s a good way to close an excellent album whose songs and performances more than justify its long gestation.

As on “Not Alone” Biel has taken a rich variety of musical influences and elements and fused them into a style that is very much her own. It’s hard to pigeon-hole Julia Biel’s music and the poetic economy and frankness of her lyrics also helps to make this album a very personal one. Biel’s vocal performance is excellent throughout combining the technical excellence of a former Perrier Vocalist of the Year with a distinctive delivery capable of conveying a variety of moods and emotions ranging from the vulnerable and desperate to the outright playful and many points in between. Biel also makes a substantial instrumental contribution to a record that is further enhanced by some great playing all round allied to some excellent arrangements. The engineering and production, much of it involving Biel and Idris Rahman, is also first class. 

“Love Letters…” is an album that draws the listener deeper into its distinctive soundworld with each fresh listening. It’s a recording that deserves to revive Julia Biel’s career and bring her to the attention of a wide audience across a variety of musical genres. I’m now looking forward to seeing this music being performed in a live environment.

 

 


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