Chief [Release date 12.03.13]
Jo Harman is a ‘singer’s singer’. Everything about this album is tied up with her evocative phrasing, pristine diction and a husky voice that swamps the lyrics in honey.
‘Dirt On My Tongue’ is a surprisingly mature album for an artist at the beginning of her recording career. Songs such as ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ and ‘Fragile’ evoke Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ album. Jo is a first class interpreter of song, as evidenced by the delicate cover of James Maddock’s ‘Fragile’ (taken from his hugely underrated ‘Sunrise On Avenue C’ album), which she imbues with her own delivery and feel.
Nothing is rushed, as she gives herself space, time and plenty of breath to bring out the nuances of 11 songs. The album is intuitively produced by her co-songwriter and guitarist Mike Davies, who has the good sense to layer his guitar parts as if colouring a palate, rather than dominating it. It’s only on the majestic slide break and mixed back solo of ‘Better Woman’ that he finally cuts loose as part of a gospel finale, as Jo reverts to being a backing singer on the extended outro.
‘Dirt On My Tongue’ is a brave album, as it eschews stylistic considerations and ignores the common wisdom of carefully sequencing tracks to facilitate a flow. The album is a triumph because of Jo’s ability to convey meaning and emotion though effortless phrasing.
She soars, swoops, and digs deep for introspective moments. She’s just as happy singing stripped down arrangements as she is being an integral part of a full blown gospel chorus. Her intrinsic ebbs and flows, subtle dynamics and shifts of emphasis lead the listener into songs that they might otherwise skip.
‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ sets the standard with a piano, voice and guitar triumvirate. Jo’s expansive phrasing is perfectly captured by Mike Davies’s clear production on an intuitively arranged slow burner that resolves itself in a gospel flourish.
The Harman/Davies songwriting team contribute 6 tracks to an album with an after hours feel. ‘Worthy of Love’ is full of uplifting phrasing, double tracked vocals, potent bv’s and a good hook, while ‘(This Is My) Amnesty’ is a gently voiced love song, with scraped acoustic strings, slide and piano. The song’s two parts are linked by an aching tremolo figure and a majestic choral and string arrangement, which ironically might make it just a tad too long for radio plays.
‘Heartstring’ brings a change of pace on a crisply recorded relationship song that opens with a jagged, percussive rhythm track. Jo soars on a beautifully recorded vocal with a catchy gospel chorus. The sudden but effective drop-down to a funky keyboard figure and brushed stroke shuffle, leads into the chorus via Jo’s guttural scream.
The fleeting moments of rock, soul, blues and jazz are all subsumed by the presence of a vocalist who on ‘Sweet Man Moses’ – an ode to her late father – shows she also has real ability as a song writer.
The band stretches out on ‘Underneath The River’, and just when you think the guitars have taken over, Jo offers another exclamatory soul inflected scream on the outro to remind us of her presence. On ‘Cold Heart’, she even brings weight and substance to recycled couplets such as: ‘Cos I’m treading on broken glass’ and ‘You got warm hands and a cold heart’. The clever juxtaposition of a mid-number crescendo and the sudden drop-down to voice and piano and back again, gives the song an unexpected musical tension that she uses as spring board for another gospel finish.
‘Better Woman’ is carried by a slide break that conjoins the main body of the song with a spirited gospel finish and an unexpected coda
Jo Harman makes every song her own, irrespective of the tempo, style or arrangement. Her resonant timbre, subtle changes of emphasis, occasional elongated vowel and seamless shifts from front line to backing singer, confirms her versatility and range.
‘Dirt On My Tongue’ combines startling vocal performances with sufficiently strong material, for the listener to forget about the respective styles and simply recognise the fast rising talent of Jo Harman. ****(4/5)
Review by Pete Feenstra
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