Having already impressed once with an off-beat album of collaborations – 2010’s The Life of Birds, David Rotheray returns with another interesting concept and another impressive line-up of guest vocalists. Answer Ballads (which is “created and curated” by Rotheray) gives a voice – and a right-of-reply – to the often-silent central characters of pop songs.
It’s a neat idea, and Rotheray’s guest-vocalist device makes perfect sense – each can lend their personalities to the characters they portray. Rotheray’s first success is in assembling such an incredible line-up of singers. The chosen 13 could make the phone book sound compelling, if they put their minds to it.
Fortunately, they have Rotheray’s keenly observed, imaginative retorts to work with instead. The former Beautiful South man has a knack for the vivid details of a story, and a particular talent for the female voice.
Perhaps the most well-known subjects on Answer Ballads are Maggie (from Rod Stewart’s Maggie May), Roxanne (the would-be red light illuminator from The Police’s song of the same name). Eliza Carthy puts in a typically classy performance on the former, reminding cocky Rod that “you can’t read my book just by counting the pages”.
Kathryn Williams’ rejoinder on the latter is even sharper. A gentle, pulsing beat and spiky slide guitar allow her faint-but-strong vocals centre stage as she sarcastically refers to herself as “poor old depraved me” and suggests he “save all your savings for someone else”. That’s you told, Sting.
Without overdoing it, Rotheray cleverly incorporates the occasional musical reference to the song that’s inspired him. So, as John Smith sings from beyond the grave as the character from Johnny Cash’s Don’t Take Your Guns To Town, a wild west whistle or two – and Cash’s trademark boom-chicka beat – seem appropriate.
It turns out answering songs can be a complicated business. Chuck Berry has already written a sequel to Memphis, Tennessee (in the form of Little Marie), but Marie’s Song is particularly moving – thanks in great part to Josienne Clarke’s frankly stunning voice. And Dr Hook’s Sylvia’s Mother gets two replies – a perfectly-cast Jackie Oates as the caring Mrs Avery and Bella Hardy as Sylvia herself. Rotheray introduces a garden, a cat and several layers of humanity, to the story.
Elsewhere, Rotheray’s classy piano gives a solid backing to Lisa Knapp’s prettily fragile voice, Lucille’s Song (sung by Mary Coughlan) has a smokey jazz club feel, thanks to its brushes and sparing saxophone, while Pearl’s Song (featuring Gemma Hayes as the songstress from Elkie Brooks’ Pearl’s a Singer) swings along memorably, thanks to its catchy “I don’t wanna go to a movie” chorus. Alasdair Roberts is somewhat rushed through Dino’s Song, however.
Overall though, even if you’re not familiar with the ‘question songs’ (I’ll confess to only knowing about half of them off the top of my head – though looking the ones I didn’t up was an interesting journey in itself), it’s a rewarding listen. There’s nothing here as joyously catchy as The Sparrow, The Thrush & The Nightingale from The Life of Birds, but Rotheray succeeds not only in creating new and engaging work, but also in adding a further layer to the songs that have inspired him. Which is quite an achievement, really.
Answer Ballads is out on October 14 on Navigator Records