HILARY JAMES – You Don’t Know (Acoustics CDACS 070)

HILARY JAMES You Don’t KnowAfter the explicit Englishness of her previous album Hilary James has taken an old direction. Those of you remember Spredthick will be very comfortable with this album – a collection of 20th century standards and classics.

There is an argument that Hilary’s voice is rather too pure for some of these songs. ‘Skylark’, one of three Hoagy Carmichael titles here, is perfect for her. You can imagine her at the microphone in a smoky 1940s nightclub, the band in white tuxedos with an audience of servicemen and their dates enjoying a few hours’ respite. It’s much more difficult for her to roughen those beautiful notes. She manages it for a while on the traditional ‘Frankie & Johnnie’ and uses the lower part of her register for Utah Phillips’ ‘Rock Salt And Nails’. Her version of ‘Need Your Love So Bad’ owes something to Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac although here it is stripped back to guitars and bass and doesn’t resort to massed strings.

Other songs here that really suit Hilary’s style are ‘They All Laughed’ and Patrick Sky’s ‘Separation Blues’ and she opens the album with one of her pieces, ‘Last Show Tonight’ – the break-up of a relationship cast as a performer’s valediction. I really hope it isn’t autobiographical. The final track from which the album’s title comes, is ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’, Hilary following Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday in covering this late night weepie.

Hilary’s band includes many of her regular supporters including lead guitarist Phil Fentiman and the multi-talented Simon Mayor (the original Spredthick). Simon Price plays drums but is replaced for one track by Dave Mattacks and Brendan Power adds harmonica to ‘Deep River Blues’. These musicians have worked together for so long that it’s second nature to them and You Don’t Know shows how good that can be.

Dai Jeffries

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THE TWO SISTERS – Songs & Chansons (Acoustics CDACS 064)

2SistersMany artists attempt this sort of melange of styles and sources but few do it with the panache of Hilary James and Simon Mayor. The titular sisters are Hilary and Janet Giraudo but Simon must be mentioned sooner rather than later simply because he’s the whole of the orchestra with Hilary’s guitar and bass and a little added percussion from Simon Price.

The album opens with John Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’ in a new setting by Mayor followed by the 30s hit ‘What A Little Moonlight Can Do’ in sparkling ragtime style. Next comes ‘Auberge Au Crépuscule’, a French tango from the same period. Janet has lived in Provence for many years and both sisters sing in French like natives. From here the net is cast even wider. ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’ is followed by a French baroque song, an excerpt from Vivaldi’s Gloria and a traditional English song. The ragtime classic ‘Hot Time In The Old Time Tonight’ follows ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ and the record finishes with a Provençal carol and another English traditional song, ‘My Faithful Johnny’ collected from a Singing Together book – hands up if you remember those! Actually, there is a bonus track but I’m not going there.

Some might find this all a bit sweet, maybe even a touch twee, and in less capable hands I might agree but you have to consider the élan and the pleasure with which it’s done. The arrangements (by Mayor) are detailed without being overwhelming – there’s a delightful violin solo on ‘I Live Not Where I Love’, for example, which keeps the melody intact but teases with classical hints. Songs & Chansons is an album for listening in the garden with a pitcher of Pimms and the petits fours to hand.

Dai Jeffries

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Artists’ website: www.twosisters.eu

HILARY JAMES – English Sketches – Acoustics Records CDACS 059

“Pastoral” is the word that first comes to mind when discussing Hilary James’ new album. In fact, ‘A Song & Jig For Good Measure’ which appears in three versions, could provide the soundtrack for a Shakespeare play were the RSC not currently using Elvis hits. The fact that Hilary and Simon Mayor wrote the music and the words came from Sabine Baring-Gould in no way invalidates this.

The record isn’t all shepherds and milkmaids, however. ‘The Two Ravens’, with music by Hilary and Simon marries grisly subject matter with a pretty tune and the beautiful ‘Bredon Hill’ hides a dark secret, for death was never far away from A E Housman’s mind. ‘Young Benjie’ doesn’t even try to hide its gruesome truth.

Other words come from William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and John Gay. Elsewhere, Hilary lifts ‘The Bold Fisherman’, which can be a dreadful plodder, with a few grace notes and reintroduces us to ‘The Bell Ringing Song’, a delightfully bucolic piece which has fallen out of favour in recent years.

The band includes Simon Mayor, Paul Sartin and Paul Hutchinson with Nick Cooper on cello, Phil Fentiman on double bass and Simon Price on drums – a line-up that can be as powerful as you could wish. “Pastoral”, yes, but the net curtains are twitching in the village.

Dai Jeffries

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