Back in November — it may have even been October — a CD arrived in the post, addressed to me at DJ Alchemi Ltd. It was the new Barb Jungr album, Walking in the Sun. Now Lucy and I both count ourselves as Barb fans, so this was an unexpected pleasure. But it was also unexplained: no note or anything with the CD, no return address. The only thing I could think of was that someone had seen my Mark Abis album review, and wondered if I might review this one as well. I have no way of knowing whether that was the intention, but, three or four months later, here is a review.
Barb Jungr may need some introduction, as she’s not as well-known as she deserves to be, particularly outside the UK. Though Barb is often tagged as a ‘chansonnier’ and therefore associated with a continental European repertoire (think Brecht and Brel), I think I first came across her via her album of Bob Dylan covers, which is a special favourite of mine, and she’s also done an Elvis-Presley-themed album.
Blues and gospel music are the obvious themes of Walking in the Sun, though it also captures a broader sense of the American South: one that encompasses the voodoo imagery of the first song, Who Do You Love? to Randy Newman’s Old Testament satire in God’s Song. This gothic and/or spiritual feel suffuses even self-penned songs like Beautiful Life and the version of Many Rivers to Cross with its re-written lyric about the white cliffs of Dover.
There is just one point where this suspension of disbelief slips, in my view, and it’s a surprising one. Since 2002’s Dylan covers album, Barb Jungr has managed to work a couple more Dylan songs into each new album (even the Elvis one), and Walking in the Sun is no exception. The first one is a song I didn’t know and couldn’t have immediately recognised as Dylan: Trouble in Mind, which I assume must be an out-take from Slow Train Coming or Saved. It slots into this album perfectly. But later Barb does Blind Willie McTell, the song that Caspar Llewellyn Smith rates as Dylan’s single greatest achievement, and the arrangement isn’t right. The a capella section is fine, but the accompaniment sounds like Brecht-plays-blues, and, to my ears, it doesn’t work.
That apart, the album swings while retaining a savvy and critical intelligence throughout. If you call this kind of music ‘sophisticated’, there’s a suspicion that the term is meant in the sense that Sade, satin and swish upholstery are sophisticated. But I’m thinking more of sophisticated like Saint Etienne or Tom Waits. As you might expect from an album released on hybrid SACD by a label that is owned by a hi-fi manufacturer, it’s beautifully recorded.
Just before Christmas I had the opportunity to see Barb Jungr sing many of the Walking in the Sun songs at the great Vortex Jazz Club (I paid full fare!). Live, the performance is less polite than on CD. There’s also a lot more of Barb’s Rochdale roots between the songs, and correspondingly less bayou atmosphere. But I’d still recommend that you go to one of her gigs if you can. CDs are always on sale at the end of the show.