Released: 28-04-2014 on Navigator Records
Album Review: By Ryan Mitchell-Smith
If you do not yet know who Fiona Bevan is, then you are in for a real treat. This is a little like when you are telling someone about a favourite TV show like The Wire, or Breaking Bad and how you are almost jealous that the person you are telling to watch it has got all of those amazing episodes to look forward to and you wish you could watch them unknowingly all over again. Yeah. That.
Fiona Bevan is an artist who should be in your life, like, yesterday.
You are in safe hands.
I slap the CD in the machine and take my position in my favourite listening seat and hit play on the remote.
The album starts much like the chance meeting of two strangers passing simultaneously through the doors to some busy hotel reception with the opening track “Rebel Without a Cause”. Bevan has chosen this track to be the second single from the album for official release, on May 18th 2014, it’s a stunner, and a great choice. The first official single was “The Machine” released on March 9th, 2014.
Fiona’s iconic nylon string guitar says hello with a catchy minor riff that places a vision of two people in love creeping across a divided city in the dead of night firmly in the mind. Her voice dances in with a captivating tone, singing the word “thumbs” with a delicious mannerism which captures Fiona’s unique voice and style perfectly. There is a musical tip of the hat to the danger and conflict from the same titled film but it is obvious that lyrically this track is about something altogether very different. This is a love song in all it’s glory.
Bevan cleverly reflects conflict with minor riffs and melodies which switch delightfully to major lifts within the space of the verses before gratifying the listener with a delicious melody, surrounded with beautiful orchestration for the conflicted but hopeful chorus. This really is wonderfully mature song writing which doesn’t dawdle and spend too long waiting until the end of the song. In fact all the songs throughout the album are as long as they should be.
The song has a definitive attitude to it which balances with Fiona’s sweeter side. The trick is that her song writing is refined, and therefore she is not scared to take the structures and spin them around as she pleases, yet she has a consistency that leaves the listener trusting her completely.
The chorus is wonderfully bouncy and the song ends with a submissive section which relieves all the previous tension in an extremely beautiful and giving outro, painting a picture of two caged birds that have at last been released to fly away together.
This song is a brilliant song in its own right, but sets up the album as a first track wonderfully well.
The album continues into the cheerful and hopeful “Slo Mo Tiger Glo” (Track 2). Another catchy masterpiece. This is a nodding whilst smiling song, even though it is more hopeful in content than obviously *cheery*. The switch to half-time during the “please time go slo mo” section illustrates a deeper understanding of word painting within the context and fibres of the music and is a rather genius use of feel and timing, leaving the listener tantalised with tension, but I will revisit why this is *so* successful later on.
Suddenly we get a different direction… An almost urgent ticking begins full of mystery with “Us and the Darkness” (Track 3). It is now we begin to see some of Fiona’s influences coming out more obviously. There are many moments of wonderment within this song, all delicately placed like some petal covered Panna Cotta in a Michelin restaurant. From the beautifully simple call and response from the haunting piano… to the glorious swelling orchestral sections which carry you away completely with cellos hugging you warmly as if given from a favourite uncle… This song is incredible. Any fans of Lou Rhodes (Lamb) would be delighted with this album, as Fiona shares a similar maturity of writing and singing, and has managed to elevate her unique vocal sound in the same way with what she has stunningly produced here.
The fourth track “The Machine” takes us back in time with a Spanish feel solo nylon string guitar which oozes a haunting aura. Fiona again enters vocally with a short flutter, like a bird hovering at the bedroom window in the morning sunlight, before suddenly an industrial beat cracks the whip of The Machine and a military style snare enters and lifts a beautiful canopy of rich strings and vocals. Wow. Those vocals! The harmonies in the chorus are to die for. We’re talking about Kate Bush levels of expertise here, mixed with a Björk-like knowledge of instrumentation, what to include and when. Again, fans of both would appreciate this album and this track hugely.
The bridge to “The Machine” utilises a beautifully put together vocal rhythm that Bevan delicately dances with amongst the quiet dynamic of the founding guitar part, which serves as a perfect build up to the chorus, but also gives yet another knowing wink to the listener of Fiona’s level of skill and the love she has for her craft.
Here is the stunning video for “The Machine”:
There is something special happening here as the journey of the album unfolds. The attention to phonetics that Bevan uses so naturally adds yet another level to this album. It comes down to attention to detail and it is clear that attention to detail is what Fiona is ALL about. From the very last “T” sound to a perfectly controlled squeak that *always* lands in tune at the right volume for the right amount of time, every sound this lady makes is planned and intended and is delivered with utmost care. The album has captured that beautifully, and puts it on display for all to see.
The bridge contains some seriously amazing lyrics and musicology, which lifts this section to be truly magical in many ways, and thus it deserves a little more attention.
“Listen, listen, don’t lose the rhythm, cos if you’re not with them, who’s the loser then?
Listen, listen, don’t lose the rhythm, cos if you’re not with them, you’ll lose…”
The lyrics are extremely well chosen, focussing on phonetics once again Bevan makes sure that she plays to her mannerisms and strengths. She very cleverly highlights the similarity of sound at the end of the word “rhythm” and the word “them”, turning the words into some delicious mouthful which emphasises the rhythms she chooses to use here in an incredible way. This whole section is absolutely captivating, and it should be. Bevan wanted it to be, and clearly spent a long time finalising and perfecting the way in which she sang this section.
The lyrics themselves belong to the song in a deeply meaningful way and Bevan doesn’t leave them there. At the end of “The Machine” the section is repeated but developed even further on a semiotic level.
“Listen, listen, you’re not a victim, if you use your rhythm then you’ll outwit them.
Listen, listen, you’re not a victim, if you use your rhythm then you’ll outwit…”
The meaning and interpretation (semiotics) of the music is very important here and Bevan relies upon the connotations of the lyrics whole-heartedly. The first time round the lyrics seem to take an advisory role to the listener, and yet the development of those lyrics later on invite a solution to the problem posed by the song like a teacher softly and patiently encouraging a lost student to find their way. Expertly done and duly noted.
In both these sections Bevan uses metric modulation to give the impression that the timing and tempo of the song has changed when in fact it hasn’t. Metric modulation gives the illusion that the tempo has doubled/halved when in fact the note durations themselves are halved or doubled in value over time instead. This means that minims turn into crotchets which therefore fit into each other perfectly causing this lovely musical phenomenon. It’s a clever and brave person who has the confidence to play around with timing and feel in the way Fiona does here. This is advanced composition mixed with delectable restraint to an incredible level.
Bevan also uses the metric modulation technique rather more obviously earlier on the album during the song “Slo Mo Tiger Glo”. This time rather than linking the word “rhythm” to the use of this excellent timing tool, she utilizes the other side of the meaning of time, and uses it when she mentions *real* time in the slowing down sense within the chorus during the phrase “Please time go slo mo”. Here it is much more obvious that the tempo remains the same but that the metric modulation keeps things ticking along in a way that creates the illusion of time slowing down. In this case the 1 beat crotchets change to 2 beat minims whilst the semi-quavers from the percussion accent the change in feel over the top. This is executed with absolute ease and shows a much higher understanding of composition and how to make the very most of lyrics in the context of the music which is supporting it.
“Gold” (Track 5) walks in and is much more subtle and restrained, but is a masterpiece of a song. It’s here that you can hear Fiona’s life experiences and hard work all paying off in what is one of the finest songs I have heard in years. The jaunty and flyaway nature of this song is impossibly hard to achieve on a record, and Fiona has absolutely got this one right. It’s clear from this that this lady is absolutely on fire with her song-writing and performing. This lady knows what she is doing. Wow.
“Gold” uses an extremely mature and developed chord progression which highlights Bevan’s understanding of harmony and lets the informed listener know that she has incredible ears and vast musical knowledge behind her seemingly easy song-writing skills. This is far from easy. This is refined in the same way that Bevan uses her impeccable vocals.
Hard work. Lots and lots of hard work.
The track ends with a stunningly beautiful solo guitar played by Bevan… Phwoar.
“Dial D For Denial” (Track 6) is a stupendously gorgeous song that takes us back to the Pop side of things which contrasts “Gold” really nicely. The song writing is again matching the same quality, and it is only here that I personally found anything like a hiccup. It’s not even a hiccup. It’s just a personal preference thing. I’ll explain.
When I first heard about Fiona, it was down to a friend (Antonio Lulic) who covered Fiona’s song Dial D For Denial at his own house gig. I fell in love with the song instantly as I watched a live stream of it. I then heard Fiona’s version and fell in love with it all over again. For me, the version I heard on the “Us and the Darkness” EP was so absolutely wonderfully done, that hearing something other than the haunting piano and muted guitar rhythms that I’d got so used to, means that the new xylophone on the album version distracts me when it shouldn’t. It’s a great version on the album… don’t get me wrong, but my word… I just adore that haunting piano on the EP version, especially with the muted guitar strings over the top of the piano. What can I say?
What I can say, is that this song utterly breaks my heart and often brings me to tears, whichever version I listen to. This is wonderful song-writing at its very best, whichever version you prefer.
A gorgeously rich guitar brings us back to “Monsoon Sundance” (Track 7) with resonating bass strings that massage the earlobes with another beautifully well-produced soundscape. Congratulations and a round of applause to ace producer Shawn Lee. The album was recorded in his Bloomsbury Studio on analogue equipment in its entirety and you can really tell the difference on high end speakers especially. There is warmth within the soundscapes and recordings that scream analogue gear and the vocals have clearly been recorded using vintage top quality high-end wonder-microphones. The clarity in Fiona’s voice is superbly yet easily captured and lovingly placed within the mixes with a very restrained and sensible use of some glorious reverbs.
“Monsoon Sundance” initially reminded me of Beth Hirsch due to its Balearic guitar lilt. The song takes us on a journey across tropical islands and stormy seas and leaves us laying on the beach in the glorious sunshine.
“Exorcist” (Track 8) takes us down another road altogether with a piano taking the lead with a haunting role. This song is a beautiful example of dynamics and use of tension. I found myself being utterly drawn into the songs story. This really is “Pop in disguise”, a phrase Fiona has used of her own music. She’s not wrong.
Uh-Oh. Title track time!
“Talk to Strangers” (Track 9) begins with an electric guitar that I was totally not expecting at all. It is full of attitude and has an organic soul flavour to it which again only goes to highlight Fiona’s rich arsenal of influences and styles which she taps into at will when needed. There’s a good reason she can do this with so much success. She plays many musical instruments, including guitar, violin, double bass, accordion, and harp amongst others, and has a really well developed sense of when to use these and in what textures and at exactly the right times.
The guitar is joined by a bluesier Fiona and we are told a fresh story, again full of mystery. This is a song about having the heart to trust people you do not know, and the way the song develops in orchestration and dynamics raises the hopeful nature of the good that trusting someone can bring. That’s my interpretation anyway.
“Pirates and Diamonds” (Track 10) brings us another bouncy ear-worm. A more obviously ‘poppy’ song which still maintains a fabulous disguise, as Fiona executes this with such delicate taste that you simply cannot stop humming this song for ages afterwards.
The Spanish influence re-joins the fray with “Forwards”(Track 11) and the pacey train-like momentum of this track really gets your attention. The structure takes you on a brilliant journey as Bevan again shows expert placing of major lifts and minor drops with some sections sounding as though they would not be out of place on a film soundtrack, like Run Lola Run. I start to wonder if there is anything this lady cannot do!
Then a sultry piano pushes me back into my chair with a beautifully simple and haunting version of “Last Days of Decadence” (Track 12). This is such a powerful and moving song that it made the hairs on my neck stand on end. Fiona sings this with such passion and conviction, with beautiful low notes which raise and dance up to high descending melodies with impervious ease.
As the last track on the non-bonus version of the album, this was a wise and beautiful choice to leave the listener with… Like a kiss on the cheek before you know you won’t see a loved one for a long time, only you can skip back to the start of the album, and listen all over again. That’s what I want to do. I bet that is what you would want to do to, if you took the chance to get a copy.
I got my version pre-ordered on iTunes, and so it contains the two bonus tracks “Love in a Cold Climate” and “Drive”.
“Love in a Cold Climate” (Track 13) is such a happy-go-lucky song that it serves as a perfect tonic to the haunting yet hopeful nature of “Last Days of Decadence”. This is a warming the heart song, which is filled with glorious harmonies and simple instrumentation. If you are like me, you’ll be humming this one for ages too.
“Drive” (Track 14) finishes my bonus copy with a piano ridden piece of beauty. I feel like I have just had the perfect encore at the end of an extremely well-conceived gig. It is another heart warmer that pulls at the heart strings with every mile we go into the song.
As a complete package this album is designed as a journey. On the way we see a beautiful landscape of “Pop in disguise”, thanks to the inventive and well-chosen structures Bevan uses as a vehicle, which is driven by one of the most beautifully unique and characterful voices I have ever heard. Bevan is in full control at the wheel, having masterminded a long and hard journey of gigging and writing music and accepting and making the most of the right opportunities.
The album has come together beautifully and is hugely successful from beginning to end. The highlights for me personally will differ from yours, but the vocal work simply cannot be denied. This is no accident. This lady is seriously talented on another level completely. I am utterly convinced that this is only the start of her worldly journey. This album is going to propel her to stardom on a level beyond anything she has experienced already and she hasn’t been idle as it is. I foresee Jools Holland appearances, and anyone who has been aware of Fiona for any amount of time will be totally aware that the buzz surrounding this lady is there for a good reason. She’s the real deal.
If you hadn’t heard of Fiona Bevan, then you have now. But you probably already had done to be honest. She co-wrote “Little Things” with Ed Sheeran for One Direction which went to number one in the charts for the band all over the world.
This is no accident. There is a pool of talent emerging, and has been doing so for some time now. This renewed recent burst seemed to start around the time Sheeran was buzzing just before he released his PLUS album. The connections seem to have something in common, and that is that these artists are working incredibly hard, harder than ever before to gig and get their music out into the world in the only way that works… to gig as often as possible.
It was during one of these gigs that I so nearly met Fiona myself. I was playing Harmonica for Antonio Lulic at his debut EP launch “Never Or Tonight” back in February 2011 at The Light Temple in Shoreditch. I was cunningly invited by Antonio to help myself to a beer from the *artists* fridge which was in the dressing room. After plucking up some courage I went for it. I sneaked through, even though I was allowed, and found myself in a big kitchen. “Dressing room?” I thought. Hah! I went to look for the fridge and as I did so I was caught red-handed even though I was allowed. Two ladies entered the dressing room kitchen and were deep in conversation together, laughing and joking at the same time. Both had distinctive blonde hair but with very, very different styles indeed. One had shaved her head at the back and had a gorgeous sweep of long hair swooshing forward across her forehead. The other lady had the biggest curliest blonde hair I have ever seen in my life. It was mesmerising. As it turns out.. I had been stumbled upon by the delightful Kal Lavelle, and the delicious Fiona Bevan…
I managed a smile and an excuse me as I sheepishly negotiated my way around them with my dodgy bottle of beer in my hand, as I went to get up on stage and assist my colleague with the aid of a nerve-quelling beer.
Since then I have missed every opportunity to catch Fiona at a gig, but have since played my harmonica with Kal Lavelle, which is a wonderful experience and memory which I will never forget. I am told that Fiona and Kal are doing a gig or two together and I for one intend not to miss that for anything.
Details for that tour can be found here:
Or check Fiona’s gig list to make sure you don’t miss her:
I highly recommend that if you are in the business of buying fantastic albums, that you consider the purchase of Fiona Bevan’s “Talk to Strangers”.
It’s absolutely bloody brilliant.