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Erja Lyytinen: The Sky Is Crying. CD review

Years ago, when I was sent a marvellous retrospective collection of the recently-deceased Little Jimmy Scott for review for Songbook, I wrote, “Such is the quality and pitch of his voice that in comparing him with the best, those comparisons must be with Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holliday and Peggy Lee”. Similarly, it would be unfair to compare Erja’s take on Elmore with Elmore himself.

Erja, you see, is from Finland, where a forward-looking government, appalled by the incidence of heart disease, carried out research and concluded that the juicy berries that ripen during Finland’s short growing season were a missing essential part of the North Karelian diet, that smoking should be discouraged and cholesterol reduction should be a health priority. It’s worked, and young, healthy Finns, like Erja, are thriving.

What’s the point of this? Just juxtapose the healthy lifestyle of an energetic, blooming child of the 70s with the disease-ridden carcass that Elmore James had become by his death in 1963, of heart failure, of course. Elmore was only 45, just seven years older than Erja’s current age. That Elmore’s life was wracked by poverty, poor healthcare, chain-smoking, excessive self-distilled moonshine consumption and the lifestyle of an itinerant black musician is in no doubt. There can also be little doubt that the alcohol and tobacco over-consumption contributed to that voice – hoarse, husky, timbrous, soulful and pleading.

Erja Lyytinen doesn’t sound like that when she sings. We know from previous releases that she is a fine, developing blues singer with estimable expressive abilities, an ear for those evocative blue notes. Fans hope that she has a long and successful life in front of her. It is unfair therefore, to compare her (or most musicians) vocally with Elmore James, and we must appreciate her own unique contribution to the blues and be happy that she is in the prime of life.

Leaving aside Erja’s singing which is passionate and sympathetic to the material, and is developing into a very fine instrument, she makes a fair fist of interpreting nine of Elmore’s finest cuts on The Sky Is Crying. In paying humble tribute to this innovator, Erja dazzles in celebrating Elmore’s other fantastic attribute, bottleneck guitar, yet nearly always sticks closely to original release arrangements with any embellishments tasteful and in keeping with the oft-imitated James attack. In resisting the temptation to add modern studio polish and trickery, Erja maintains the rawness that is so essential to the emotion and desolation of James's delivery. Why meddle with what, to many, is perfection?

In amassing over a decade’s worth of experience as a blueswoman, she has the understanding, sensibilities and feel too for Elmore's classic sides to do them more than justice. In so doing, she has not merely changed the third person pronouns to emote the finest of Elmore's recordings from a woman's perspective, but has naturally brought female nuances to songs which are in the DNA of the blues. Erja is able to affect subtly the feelings originally expressed in the 50s and 60s where male dominance and machismo held sway. 'Baby Please Set A Date' in Erja's interpretation has a wholly different feel to Elmore's reading Both are pleading and longing, but in the 2014 recording, the female vocal lends an almost 50s pop-soul feel to a sprightly and personal take.

On occasion, changes are made which differentiate slightly the James recordings from the Lyytinen cuts, but these have not been made without considerable thought having gone into the arrangements. The extended soloing in ‘It Hurts Me Too’ is well-judged, superbly-pitched, displays sublime Elmore tone and is never indulgent. A slowing of the pace of the mournful ‘The Sky Is Crying’ lends it an increased desolate ambience, a heightened sense of emptiness and hopelessness and may be the most atmospheric of all eleven cuts.

Got To Move’ is probably most at odds with the James recording, here arranged as an enjoyable low-key funk workout driven by Roger Inniss's bubbling bassline. ‘Erja's Contribution To Jazz’ takes Elmore's instrumental of (almost) the same name as a platform before the Lyytinen stamp is imprinted. After a note-faithful introduction to the original, she makes it her own, demonstrating along the way that she not only understands technique, but phrasing for atmospheric and emotional effect. She also demonstrates an admirable empathy with the irreplaceable giant that is Elmore James, proven by a full-octane tour de force live ‘Dust My Broom’, a fitting coda to a beautiful tribute.

http://www.erjalyytinen.com

http://rockhall.com/inductees/elmore-james/bio/

http://www.irishhealth.com/clin/ffl/finland.html

 

 

 

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November 2017

1
JW Roy & The Royal Family
80 pts.
A Room Full Of Strangers
Royal Family Records
EM,BH,RST,LK
2
Chris Hillman
79 pts.
Bidin' My Time
Rounder
BP,FS,HD
3
Turnpike Troubadours
46 pts.
Long Away From Your Heart
Bossier City Records
HM,TK
4
Jolie Holland & Samantha Parton
36 pts.
Wildflower Blues
Cinquefoil Records
TJ
5
Eilen Jewell
34 pts.
Down Hearted Blues
Signature Sounds
 
6
Lucinda Williams
31 pts.
This Sweet Old World
Highway 20/Thirty Tigers
BR,MW
7
JD McPherson
29 pts.
Undivided Heart & Soul
New West
JS
8
Mark Martyre
26 pts.
Rivers
Independent
FC
 
Tom Russell
26 pts.
Folk Hotel
Frontera Records-Proper Records
SP
10
Anna Tivel
25 pts.
Small Believer
Fluff And Gravy Records
MG
 
Margo Price
25 pts.
All American Made
Third Man Records
JB
12
Fred Wickham
22 pts.
Mariosa Delta
Thirty Days Records
RK
 
Joe Henry
22 pts.
Thrum
Ear Music
HVB,PJ
 
Whitney Rose
22 pts.
Rule 62
Six Shooter/Thirty Tigers
 
15
Dick LeMasters
18 pts.
Incompatible Things
Longneck Road Music
HDB,JJ
 
Jim White
18 pts.
Waffles, Triangles & Jesus
Loose Music
LM,SZ
 
Peter Gallway
18 pts.
Feels Like Religion
Gallway Bay Music
CVL,DHO
18
Thomm Jutz
17 pts.
Crazy If You Let It
Mountain Fever Records
 
19
Kris Delmhorst
16 pts.
The Wild
Blue Blade Records
 
20
Daniel Crabtree
15 pts.
In The Shadow Of His Wings
Independent
 
 
Jeremy Pinnell
15 pts.
Ties Of Blood And Affection
Sofaburn Records
 
 
Julien Baker
15 pts.
Turn Out The Lights
Matador
EZ
23
Amber Cross
14 pts.
Savage on the Downhill
Independent
 
 
Chris Blevins
14 pts.
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Horton Records
 
 
David Rawlings
14 pts.
Poor David's Almanack
Acony Records
 
 
Grainne Duffy
14 pts.
Where I Belong
Independent
GC,RW
 
Jeff Crosby
14 pts.
Postcards From Magdalena
At The Helm Records

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