MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Spell Songs, Full Bush, Eva Gardner, Mary Wilson and a Bonus Book

Welcome to Audiofemme’s monthly record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. Every fourth Monday, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

Spell Songs II: Let the Light In (Quercus Records), the second album by the Spell Songs ensemble, is a magical release. The performers first came together to create a musical accompaniment to the book The Lost Words, written by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris; the new album is inspired by their subsequent book, The Lost Spells. The books celebrate the wonder of nature, and the performers are drawn from the cream of the British-based folk scene.

In “Bramble,” Karine Polwart’s cool, precise vocal depicts a city slowly becoming engulfed by “thorn arches;” in “Moth,” her recitation of moth names becomes a kind of poetry (she describes the lyric as “a moth mantra for banishing fear, and conjuring delight”). The light-hearted harmonies on “Daisy” take you back to childhood days of making flower chains. The haunting “St. Kilda Wren,” sung by Julie Fowlis in the original Gaelic, is a poignant yearning for the return of the bird to the Scottish archipelago. The song titles reveal the simplicity of the subjects: “Barn Owl,” “Silver Birch,” “Oak.” The performers (also including musicians Kris Drever and Jim Molyneux, cellist Beth Porter, harpist Rachel Newton, and Senegal-born multi-instrumentalist Seckou Keita) create sublime music to reveal the beauty within.

Philadelphia foursome Full Bush return with the EP Movie Night (Brutal Panda Records). They’re the kind of post punk that’s reminiscent of Throwing Muses—raucous enough to have an edge, but with decided pop underpinnings that draw you in. Which means that while the opening track “Spooky” might start off in a quiet, even eerie fashion, the melodic hooks are so strong that by the time the raging chorus kicks in, you’re more than ready to go along for the ride.

The EP’s five tracks are something of a study in contrasts. An especially nice juxtaposition comes when the murmuring end of “Sweet and Low” — “Tell me how to love you, tell me what to say” — is abruptly followed by the snarling opening line of the next song, the EP’s title track: “You don’t understand shit!” There’s some wonderful lyrical imagery, such as the line “I’m not drunk, I’m just speaking in cursive,” from “Wild Heart.” They finally let loose on the final song, “One Second,” a coolly contemplative number that builds to an explosive finish. More, please!

Eva Gardner began her career in Mars Volta, and went on to play bass with the likes of Veruca Salt, Moby, Cher, and Pink. But the multi-instrumentalist steps out on her on her second EP, Darkmatter (self-released). “Is Love Enough” muses about the vagaries of romance against the backdrop of jangling guitars. Conversely, “California Bliss” is keyboard-based, an ode to escapism (“I want to stay here/away from the trouble”), with the kind of laid-back beat that conjures up visions of waves gently lapping at the shore.

Pop hooks abound; the playful “London Nights” has the lush sound of Dream Police-era Cheap Trick. There’s also an upbeat breeziness to the songs, even those expressing some trepidation about love (“Anywhere But Here”). The dreamy harmonies of “High Moon” lead into the tougher rhythms (and more jangling guitars) of “Let’s Call It a Day,” a call to lay down one’s metaphorical arms, bringing things to a conclusion on a conciliatory note.

The Supremes were one of the most successful all-female vocal groups of all time, and Mary Wilson was the only member who was there for the entire run, from the days of pre-Supremes group the Primettes in the late 1950s to the final days of the Supremes in 1977. Mary Wilson: The Motown Anthology (Real Gone Music/Second Disc Records) is the first set highlighting her work, right up to the present day.

The first track goes back to the Primettes era with “Pretty Baby,” the B-side of the group’s first single, “Tears of Sorrow,” released in 1960. “Pretty Baby,” which features Wilson’s lead vocal, is very much in the style of other “girl group” records of the period (the Chantels, the Shirelles). There are four previously unreleased Supremes songs featuring Wilson on lead, the best of which is her spirited take on “Son of a Preacher Man.” Other unreleased gems include two previously unreleased songs from the penultimate concert of the Diana Ross-Mary Wilson-Cindy Birdsong Supremes lineup in Las Vegas on January 13, 1970, sublimely smooth versions of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” and “Falling in Love.”

The two-disc set also features her underappreciated 1979 Mary Wilson album, making its debut on CD. You’ll also find what sadly turned out to be her last single, the reflective “Why Can’t We All Get Along,” released this past March, a month after her sudden death on February 8, 2021. This well-annotated set will likely stand as the definitive package of Mary Wilson’s musical accomplishments.

Looking for a way to educate younger listeners about the music of Black female artists? Take a look at She Raised Her Voice: 50 Black Women Who Sang Their Way Into History (Running Press Kids) written by music journalist Jordannah Elizabeth and illustrated by Briana Dengoue. It’s a fun, lively series of portraits of singers and musicians from Bessie Smith to Beyoncé, Leontyne Price to Poly Styrene, Tina Turner to Angélique Kidjo. It’ll surely inspire you to revisit the music of your old favorites, and seek out the tunes of the artists you’re not as familiar with; a great way to spend the holidays.

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