While a number of artists continue to add merit to their material these days by employing melodic and arrangement elements of 1960s and ‘70s soul, some of such efforts sound half-hearted due to reliance on the modern-day trickery of computer sequencing and lyrics that are far more affected in nature than the passages of yesteryear. A notable exception to this trend lies in the debut CD of UK vocalist Diane Shaw, who has teamed up with a golden ensemble of live musicians to produce a strikingly memorable collection of songs remarkably pure in both sound and message.
Shaw’s bold, crisp vocal tones are beautifully unaffected—whether softly delivering lines or belting a climax with restraint. The 11 selections on Love, Life & Stringsallow her to cover a thorough landscape of relationships with melodies free of gimmickry, with a rhythm selection that complements her tone every step of the way. Indeed, strings do play an important role in conveying the messages of love and life, creating a full-bodied backdrop for the opening “Leave a Little Love” and “Today I Started Loving You.”
From the outset, it’s clear that Shaw relates to the line between romance and heartache. On “Leave a Little Love,” she cautions, “If I’m just a toy you’re gonna play with/If I’m not the girl you’re gonna stay with/Then don’t take all my love, don’t let me give you all my love.” In keeping with that sentiment of protecting the insides, she asserts, “This ain’t no rehearsal, baby/You won’t get a second chance” on the subsequent “Never Been Hurt.” While there’s innate tenderness evident in her phrasing, there’s also an unmistakable knowing and truthfulness that comes across when she’s relaying such feelings.
Many of the nuggets found on Love, Life & Strings are steeped in the vibrant, symphonic tradition of the early ‘70s; but several moments also center around a distinctively atmospheric vibe that calls upon additional influences. Take, for example, the sultry and lush “That Thing You Do,” which strides along with cool guitar licks, bright horns, and yes, romantic strings set to a groove that would do the Brand New Heavies proud. In this slightly more contemporary vein, Shaw feels just as at home with a stylishly nuanced performance on both lead and background vox. Meanwhile, she goes directly to a time-honored source on a glowingly heartfelt rendition of Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer.” Adapting the melody with some breezy high notes, she manages to retain the feel of the original without simply copying it. It’s a fine example of how to properly cover a much-loved classic.
Shining with both the nostalgia of Motown and Philadelphia International in an impressively fresh fashion, the contemplative and effortlessly building “Don’t Promise Me Sunshine” is a highlight which perfectly exemplifies Shaw’s commitment to preserving the authenticity of soul with intuitive energy. As with the remaining gems featured on Love, Life & Strings, there’s a fluent, unforced chemistry between her and the band which sets the tune apart from many modern recordings striving for a similar feel. Equally impactful in this fashion, but at a festive pace that is destined to resonate on Northern Soul dance floors, is the sprightly “You Let Him Get Away.” Here, the shuffling drum work is interspersed with staccato horn jabs that acutely color Shaw’s emboldened handling of the no–nonsense lyrics.
Love, Life & Strings is an ideal addition to the collection of any fan of Northern Soul, classic soul with a symphonic core, or simply top-notch female vocalists with no trendy strings attached. The marvelous meshing of a sophisticated vocalist with meaningful repertoire and classy arrangements makes for an enduring listen under any circumstance. Highly recommended.
by Justin Kantor
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