Artist: Julia Biel
Album: Julia Biel
Genre: Soulful Jazz / R&B
Quality: mp3, 320 kbps
Say It Out Loud 04:51
Wasting Breath 04:51
Something Beautiful 05:45
Critical Condition 04:50
Diamond Dust 04:59
The Wilderness 04:29
Feeling Good 03:42
Dead Slept Rough 04:27
Hymn To The Unknown 05:31
You Could Turn A Rainbow Grey 04:58
The career of singer, songwriter and instrumentalist Julia Biel has been something of a stop / start affair. The London based artist first came to the attention of the British public in 2005 with the release of her début album “Not Alone”, a charming collection of songs co-written with Oriole guitarist Jonny Phillips and performed by a band packed with F-ire Collective luminaries including Phronesis bassist Jasper Hoiby and Polar Bear drummer Sebastian Rochford.
The album attracted a considerable amount of acclaim and Biel, a former winner of the Perrier Vocalist of the Year award seemed destined for a bright future, the success of “Not Alone” also leading to a nomination in the ‘Rising Star’ category at the 2006 BBC Jazz Awards. Biel also performed live on a regular basis around this time and I recall seeing her leading her own band in Cardiff and also guesting with Oriole at the 2006 Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
Unexpectedly Biel then seemed to disappear from view as a solo artist as Phillips decamped to Spain to explore the worlds of Latin and flamenco music more fully. Meanwhile Biel worked intermittently with guitarist and songwriter Ben Watt, once of the band Everything But The Girl. She also sang with Soothsayers, the group co-led by her life partner, the multi-instrumentalist and producer Idris Rahman.
In 2015 Biel re-emerged with her second album “Love Letters and other Missiles” which featured Rahman as her main creative partner. The songs were mainly all Biel’s but Rahman was to play a significant role on the album thanks to his multi-instrumental and production skills.
The music on “Love Letters…” was very different to that on its predecessor. With Phillips no longer involved there was less emphasis on folk and Latin music forms and a more obvious pop/soul/r’n’b feel, elements that were present on “Not Alone” but which were much more tangible and overt the second time around.
At the time of “Love Letters…” Biel was being managed by Burkhard Hopper, the man behind the phenomenal success of the innovative Swedish piano trio E.S.T. Hopper ensured that Biel toured extensively in mainland Europe as well as the UK, her schedule including a number of prestigious festival appearances.,
“Love Letters…” was lavishly packaged and garnered a similar degree of critical acclaim to the début. The songs were intelligent and often highly personal with Biel’s singing and writing again evoking comparisons with Billie Holiday, Bjork, Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones, Nina Simone, Sarah Gillespie and others.
Due for release on 9th February 2018 Biel’s eponymous third album builds upon the success of “Love Letters…” and is again built around the creative partnership of Biel and Rahman. Also central to the music is the playing of drummer Saleem Raman (different spelling, presumably no relation) who is a member of Biel’s regular working trio.
I was fortunate enough to witness this trio give an excellent performance in Brecon Cathedral as part of the 2015 Brecon Jazz Festival. Idris Rahman was playing electric bass rather than the various reed instruments he is normally associated with and the performance had something of an ‘indie rock’ feel and attitude about it. The performance also acted as something of a revelation as regards Biel’s instrumental skills as she played piano and electric guitar with equal competence in addition to giving a superb vocal performance. It may have frightened some of the jazz purists but I was hugely impressed. The material was largely sourced from “Love Letters…” with just one song surviving from the “Not Alone” days. There were also a number of newer songs, several of which appear on this new CD.
“Julia Biel” features our heroine on vocals, piano, guitar and tambourine with Idris Rahman adding bass and clarinet plus backing vocals as well as being heavily involved in the arranging and production processes. Saleem Rahman is in the drum chair and the album features a clutch of additional musicians including guitarists Marco Piccioni, Rob Updegraff and Laurence Corns, oud player Andy Gibson, and Sami Bishai on violin and viola. The new album also includes the input of the French recording engineer Laurent Dupuy who has worked with Angélique Kidjo and Salif Keita among others. The choice of the eponymous title is telling ” I feel as if I have finally arrived at the place I always wanted to be artistically – a sonic identity that sounds like who I think I am’” says Biel who cites the influence of artists as diverse as Billie Holiday, Radiohead, Pink Floyd and Talk Talk on the recording.
The album commences with “Always” with its lyrics addressing the twin polarities of betrayal and longing with Biel delivering a sensuous, yearning vocal above an arrangement featuring Bishai’s lush strings and a clutch of guitars including Piccioni’s lead and Corns’ acoustic.
“Say It Loud” was one of the then new songs performed at Brecon and features a streetwise lyric delivered by Biel with a Winehouse-esque inflection as she addresses the subject of
of openness in human relationships (or the lack of it) and the English national trait of reticence and emotional suppression. The instrumental arrangement includes Rahman’s clarinet and Updegraff’s lead guitar.
The single “Wasting Breath”, a co-write with Idris Rahman, finds Biel dismissing an errant lover, the bitterness of the lyric contrasting neatly with the buoyant underlying groove and the lushness of the string and backing vocal arrangements. Updegraff’s lead guitar and Gibson’s oud are also included in the mix.
That bitter-sweet quality imbues much of Biel’s work including “Something Beautiful” which features Biel’s voice, piano and string arrangement, the latter realised by Bishai. “There’s something beautiful in believing nothing’s changed” sings Biel wistfully in this tale of a slowly disintegrating relationship.
The atmospheric “Critical Condition” is a more direct account of a relationship breakdown with a lyric that addresses the subject of jealousy and the extremes of love and hate. Like the majority of the songs on the album the piece makes effective use of what is credited as “ambient electric guitar”, in this case played by Piccioni.
“Diamond Dust”, written from the perspective of a wedding guest places a more optimistic slant on love and the human condition, but with the underlying sense of melancholy that pervades much of the album still present in a typically atmospheric arrangement.
“The Wilderness”, which I misnamed as “Wild Horses” in my Brecon review thanks to the line “Wild horses fly through this wilderness”, features a wistful Biel vocal and a keening, needling lead guitar hook courtesy of Piccioni.
The only cover at Brecon was “Feeling Good”, a song written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse but most closely associated with the great Nina Simone. Biel’s arrangement of the song slows it down, playing with mood and meter while retaining the essential spirit of the song.
Also performed at Brecon “Dead Slept Rough” adds a political element to Biel’s writing, her accusatory lyrics matched by a forceful arrangement that taps into that newly discovered indie rock aesthetic.
The piano led ballad “Hymn to the Unknown” was played solo by Biel at Brecon in a haunting performance, even I did misname it as “Beyond My Control”, the first line of the chorus. The song is classic Julia Biel and the recorded version features a full band arrangement with Biel doubling on ‘ambient electric guitar’
The playful “Emily” is dedicated to Biel’s young niece and is suitably childlike with a catchy, if somewhat throwaway chorus.
The album concludes with the piano led “You Could Turn A Rainbow Grey” (great title) with its atmospheric guitar and string arrangement. An evocative, image laden lyric alternates between the dismissive and the sympathetic. Emotional depth is characteristic of much of Biel’s output and there’s a discernible poetic quality about her writing.
“Julia Biel” is a worthy addition to this artist’s body of work. The songs are intelligent, personal and poetic and the performances excellent. Biel and Rahman, together with Bishai and Dupuy have invested the arrangements and production with a great deal of care and the recorded sound is excellent throughout.
The album is a worthy follow up to “Love Letters…” and will appeal to those listeners who enjoyed the previous recording. However as its title might suggest “Julia Biel” is probably a little too introspective and personal to transform Biel into a mainstream artist – although each album campaign has been launched with the hope that this might happen. Instead Biel seems destined to be an artist with a cult following, her genre straddling music is a little too hard to pigeon-hole for the mainstream audience. Nevertheless she’s an artist who despite all the comparisons has very much found her own voice and “Julia Biel” is an album that bears repeated listening.
Reviewed by Ian Mann