sat 24/02/2024

CD: Zara McFarlane - If You Knew Her | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Zara McFarlane - If You Knew Her

CD: Zara McFarlane - If You Knew Her

British singer spotted by Gilles Peterson comes good with a bold, spare album that takes the best from jazz and soul

Zara McFarlane's album If You Knew Her

The pared-down beauty and integrity of this remarkable new album is all the more exciting given the quantity of stylistic clutter typically associated with its two principal genres, jazz and soul.

Showing excellent taste and artistic self-confidence, McFarlane has stripped away warbling vocal ornaments, stale generic phrasing and redundant backing tracks, trusting the assured, true-grained timbre of her voice to carry the emotional weight of her potent and original writing.

A handful of these songs are surely destined to endure in the repertoire. They balance McFarlane’s exposed voice and dignified lyrics against a bare, haunting beat working in opposition to the vocal rhythm, creating a kind of melancholy swing. The publicity material cites Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald: she has something of those singers’ vocal control and emotional authority.  

The opening track, “Open Heart”, is the perhaps the best. Clever, honest, pain-drenched lyrics are delivered with a surgical precision befitting the subject matter, and accompanied only by the hang, a softer, warmer version of the steel pan. Heartache hangs in the air like heat haze over the desert, while McFarlane’s unadorned voice glides with muscular assurance.

Of the rest, “Police and Thieves” is a treat: McFarlane’s precise articulation and measured delivery restrains the rage seething beneath. It’s a masterful demonstration of how less can be more, and a reminder that alongside a mostly personal focus, she has political instincts too. “You’ll Get Me in Trouble”, meanwhile, modifies “Open Heart’s” combination of lyrical potency, spare accompaniment (on guitar, this time) and trance-like swing to a song about obsession. The repetition of the word "trouble" is deliciously narcotic.

A certain amount has been made of McFarlane’s Dagenham upbringing and (relatively, compared to the current norm for jazz academicians) uncloistered training. It does, perhaps, help her to get to the heart of the matter more directly. To say more than that would be to patronise a release that deserves to hit the mainstream like a runaway truck.  

Heartache hangs in the air like heat haze over the desert, while McFarlane’s unadorned voice glides with muscular assurance


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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