Julia Fordham,
Concrete Love
(Vanguard, 2002)

Concrete Love, Julia Fordham's seventh album, was finally released in June 2002 after residing for almost a year in record company limbo. Originally completed for the Division One label and scheduled for a fall 2001 release through Atlantic, Concrete Love finds Julia at her best, having written some of the strongest material of her career, in great voice, with perfect production by Larry Klein and fantastic session players. Ironically, parent company Time-Warner-AOL closed down Division One just before this album was to be released, and after a bit of label shopping, Julia landed at Vanguard. The delay turned out to have a silver lining; advance pressings circulated in the recording industry for the past year, one of which found its way to singer India.Arie who liked it so much that she offered to add harmony vocals to the title track. Julia could not have been more thrilled with this contribution and the happy result can be heard on the Vanguard release.

Julia is a gifted and very British singer-songwriter who is possessed with an amazing voice, hitting high notes that other singers only dream of. But when she drops deep into her lower register on the first track "Love," singing "In my blood, you're in my bones," and "I'd take a bullet for you, I'd walk a million miles in anybody's shoes, just to be with you," the sexual intensity level goes off the scale. As strong as her singing is, her vocal talent is only exceeded by her ability to write great songs.

Looking over the 11 new songs here, it's hard to select standouts because they are all so good. "Concrete Love" is the song most likely to get initial airplay; it's the first single, the title track, and it has the guest vocal by India.Arie. In addition, it's a wonderful piece of work, slow and sultry with a great sounding combination of Billy Preston's Hammond B-3 organ with some nice guitar work by Larry Klein.

"It's Another You Day" should also be a great single; not only is it an exuberant love song, but it's got a signature guitar line that plays off the melody in a way that grabs you and won't let go; when the song ends, don't be surprised if you have the urge to play it again. If you're unfamiliar with Julia, comparisons are difficult because she doesn't really sound like anyone else, and no one else really sounds like her. Think perhaps of a British Joni Mitchell, circa Court & Spark.

"Wake Up With You (the I Wanna Song)" has lyrics that Julia's mom might not have initially approved of, but with a wonderful melody and a great keyboard counterpoint, this song is typical of the renewed inspiration that totally permeates this record. "Missing Man" is a compellingly reluctant breakup song. "Foolish Thing" has another classic Julia melody with great lines like "I almost fell in love with / the man you almost are" and "now I hear you're hanging round / with some mousey girl / from some small town, foolish thing." The songwriting, production and background vocals bring to mind a similar pop gem, the Elvis Costello-Burt Bacharach collaboration "I've Still Got that Other Girl" (in my head), with "Foolish Thing" seeming to describe the same relationship from the female side. "Italy" and "Butterfly" are also priceless additions to the Julia catalogue.

"Something Right" is so elegant in its simplicity, with such a memorable melody that it could well turn out be one of those songs that people use in weddings. The spare arrangement of the first verse features just acoustic guitar and voice, so well recorded that it sounds like she's right there in the room with you. Then additional instrumentation kicks in nicely, with a guitar solo by Dean Parks that is intense but subdued at the same time. The next to last track, "Roadside Angel," is about singer Minnie Riperton and is dedicated to Minnie and her husband Richard Rudolph, who together wrote Minnie's worldwide hit "Loving You" back in the 1970s. Julia explains that, when she was young, singing along with "Loving You" not only helped her discover her vocal range, but also provided the initial inspiration, along with some encouragement from a childhood friend, to become a professional singer. Later in her career she had the opportunity to speak with Richard and learned that Minnie, who died of breast cancer at a tragically young age, also had the middle name Julia. Thus inspired, "Roadside Angel" is a beautiful song and a fitting tribute to the late singer. "Loving You" is the only song Julia performs that she did not write herself, and she includes her version here as a hidden bonus track. "Alleluia" nicely concludes the disc, featuring a guest vocal turn by Joe Henry.

Thanks to expert production by Larry Klein, the sound of this disc is a pure delight and the musicians are all totally up to the task. Previously Joni Mitchell's husband, bassist and producer, Klein really outdid himself here, producing and also playing bass and keyboards, with additional keyboards provided by Jim Cox and Billy Preston. The superb guitar work throughout is handled by Mark Goldenberg and Dean Parks. Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowen also provide background vocals; you may remember their fine work as lead vocalists with Was (Not Was). These are all the cream of session musicians; each of their huge credit lists reads like a book of who's who in popular music. My only quibble might be the lack of a live drummer, but the quality of drum programming has apparently improved to the point that this does not noticeably detract from the overall sound of the record. OK, one more little quibble: this album deserves better than the slightly out of focus photography on the CD package.

Julia's first two albums, Julia Fordham and Porcelain, were both excellent records from start to finish, and I'm happy to report that Concrete Love is not only every bit as good, it's her best yet. I give it my highest recommendation.

[ by William Kates ]
Rambles: 14 September 2002

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