Sunday, 26 August 2007

Top 100 Albums - #70: Peacetime (2007)

Eddi Reader makes her second and final appearance on the chart with Peacetime, her most recent offering.After the release of her BRIT Award-winning self-titled second album (#75), Eddi Reader continued to release a steady stream of albums which received less attention in the press but were well-received by critics. Their quality ranged from the fragmented and formulaic (Candyfloss and Medicine (1996)) to the sublime and enchanting (Angels & Electricity (1998)). After a wave of studio and live releases in the first years of the 21st century, in 2003 Reader teamed up with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The resulting album, Sings The Songs Of Robert Burns (2003), featured music set to the Scottish 'bard''s lyrics and led to a resurgence in interest in the figure. After being awarded an MBE for services to music and spending most of 2006 touring in Australia, Reader returned to the studio to record Peacetime, her first non-live release in four years.

The album opens with the cleverly titled 'Baron's Heir and Sadenia's Air'. Beginning with a wonderful accordion, this has a more overtly Celtic flavour than any of the pre-Burns material. There are some lovely multiple acoustic guitars layered over each other, each of which compliments Reader's voice. Her voice has aged extraordinary well, with the accent as endearing as before. The production is immaculate, as John McCusker balances the ornate layering of instruments with a laid-back folk feel.

'Muddy Water' continues the focus on acoustic and vocals, to its benefit. This is more repetitive, and just as rigidly structured as the opener. But this does not make it a bad song. If anything it creates hooks to prevent the listener drifting into a satisfied daze. This in turn means that some of the more comprehensible of Boo Hewerdine's lyrics - Who said anything about time?/ Well, it's not yours and it's not mine - to break out of the confines of the melody.

'Mary And The Soldier' is a traditional classic which benefits from Reader's unique delivery. The combined efforts of the guitar and mandolin create a jolly atmosphere over which Reader can croon the Glaswegian lyrics oh-so sweetly. This is folk of the quality and style that bands like Show Of Hands have maintained so well. Reader here takes this successful, well-kept format and adds a Scottish twist to create something which is absolutely charming.

Despite all the praise which 'Mary And The Soldier' deserves, the honour of best track must go to 'Aye Waukin-O'. The reason? Aside from anything else, this is the first number to achieve completely that which the album is meant for. The whole of Peacetime is an intended synthesis of Eddi's earlier solo work - like Eddi Reader (1994) - designed to chill you out, with her Robert Burns work. This achieves both in spades - it's irresistably Celtic and at the same time it avoids being overpowering, allowing you to drift into a welcome slumber without a hint of boredom or dejection.

Both 'Prisons' and 'The Shepherd's Song' continue and extend the aim of relaxation. The former is littered with simple rhymes and ever simpler guitar, over which Reader and Hewerdine harmonise the forgetable but soothing melody. The latter has somewhat more substance to it, thanks to a brass section - perhaps the Black Dyke Mills Band, who knows? It's a little longer, too, which allows the listener sufficient time to get the message even if drifting in and out of a soft slumber.

'Ye Banks And Braes O' Bonnie Doon' is the first real slip-up on the album. It begins with more upbeat folk reminiscent of Martin Joseph's 'Can't Breathe' (see my review of Deep Blue (2005), #94). This suffers from the same problem - the faster tempo does not suit Reader's voice, certainly at this age. And the pipe instrumentals over the (relatively) loud drums make this sound a little too like Big Country to be taken seriously.

'Should I Pray?' restores focus. With an opening reminiscent of later efforts by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, this makes good use of the piano and violin, complimented by the gentle brushes on the drums. Reader is on top form in this very gentle, soothing number about faith and doubt, which concludes with the exquisite line Lose a life, lose a love, lose it all my friend. Equally deserving of praise is 'The Afton', though in a different way. Here, the guitar returns to the foreground to accompany the violin, and the drums are heavier. This rolls along very gently, giving an incident of what it would have been like if Rick Wright had been into folk instead of jazz.

'Leezie Lindsay' is a second step backward. It's a little too laid back, even for Reader. And that's not all that's wrong with it. Here the Scottish dialect is a little strong for all but the experienced listener, and musically this is quite stripped back. While on many folk tracks this may work well, with Reader it does not when we have been thus far exposed to a delightfully polished studio sound.

Thankfully, 'Safe As Houses' takes the record back where it belongs, at the apex of Reader's repertoire. As on 'Muddy Water', the lyrics are a lot more memorable here; you could almost call the chorus catchy. Almost. With some gentle, understated percussion and a silkish delivery from Reader, it's a good return to form. But, as it turns out, it's wasted because 'Galileo (Someone Like You)' falls back into the same traps as the other tracks did. It's rambling both lyrically and musically, with little to salvage it on either count which has not been heard at least half a dozen times before.

The closer and title track is a good choice, an ideal choice to sum up the album. It sees Reader completely at ease, contented with the niche she has carved for herself in her late-middle-age. Here the accordions return to the mix over the guitars to create some sort of musical motif to link this rather sprawling album. But, as we discover, it is not the end. The hidden track - 'The Calton Weaver or Nancy Whisky' - is a full-blown reel, a more down-to-earth version of the Irish reels which Peter Gabriel sampled on OVO (2000). It's catchy, very repetitive, and will make you want to arise from your place of rest and dance around your coffee table.

As a summary of Reader's later career - post-Burns, that is - Peacetime achieves its tasks. It does, with a few notable and overblown exceptions, synthesise her earlier 'ambient' folk with the Celtic tinges of her work in the 21st century. As on Eddi Reader, there are several points where Reader slips up or becomes downright self-indulgent, but these are the outright minority of cases. For the best part, Peacetime is a record that will sooth you through and through, calming the casual listener and providing enough meet for the devoted folkist. One criticism would be that the album is too long; then again, if you're not a music critic, you won't really want to care.

3.77 out of 5

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