Friday, September 17, 2004

Julia Fordham - That's Life (Vanguard, 2004)

Julia Fordham is totally in the zone. Two years ago Concrete Love was remarkable in that it represented the second masterpiece of her career, following her earlier gem Porcelain by more than a dozen years. The better an album is, the greater the odds that the follow-up will disappoint, thus it was hard to approach her new album without some trepidation. Happily, such worries proved needless because That's Life makes it two in a row, continuing the magic of Concrete Love with a set of ten wonderful new originals.

All eight Julia Fordham albums are special but what elevates these three is the consistent combination of memorable melodies, compelling lyrics (usually about love), her unique vocal ability, and perfectly conceived and executed production. The latest two albums reflect the fine work of producer Larry Klein who not only has a firm grip on how to make these songs sound their best, but selected a stellar combination of studio talent with many of the same players from Concrete Love back for That's Life. Billy Preston is back on Hammond organ, Dean Parks returns on guitar, Vinnie Colaiuta plays drums and Klein doubles on bass. Jeff Young contributed background vocals and some additional keyboards.

"Sugar" picks right up where Concrete Love left off, totally "groove-ilicious" as Julia describes the sound. Just as "Love" started the last album with a sensual jolt, you'll never think of sugar in quite the same way after hearing this. Young co-wrote and played Hammond organ on "Jacob's Ladder" which adds some tasty horns to the soulful mix. David Ricketts (David & David) co-wrote "Perfect Me" and did the string arrangement which nicely complements Fordham's classic melody defined mostly by her lovely voice and Parks' baritone acoustic guitar.

Preston's Hammond organ propels "Jump" in a style that is so perfectly suited to this song and voice that it's scary. "Downhill Sunday" begins with the spare sound of just piano and vocal, and a lyrical device that at first seems simplistic but is coupled with a melody so well developed that it makes the song unstoppable. For "Walking on the Water," Fordham's voice combines with organ, bass and drums to fire up another great soul groove with more horns, too. The groove continues unabated on "Connecting," another treatise on love, emotion and sensuality that starts with a smoldering guitar (or maybe a keyboard).

"That's Life," co-written by Gary Clark (Danny Wilson) stands out, even in a field of excellent songs and it's immediately clear why this song gave the album its title. The gorgeous melody sets up great lyrics that use the movie metaphor to best advantage, "Welcome to my movie, I have cast myself as fabulous and lonely, roll the reel to the end, will the good guy come back for the girl again?" After a few listens, you'll have a hard time keeping the chorus from getting stuck in your head, "and I get no points for being right, and you lose ten, for giving up the fight, but that's life, my script says we belong together, forever."

"I'm Sorry But…" has another classic Fordham melody, and a power level similar to the song "Concrete Love." The album closes with "Guilty," a soft and beautiful song with a totally infectious melody. The only possible knock on this album is the relatively short forty-one minute running time which is actually the same length as a typical vinyl album, only when compared to the capacity of a CD does it seem short. The cohesiveness of this collection and the uniform excellence of the songs is reason enough to accept the artistic vision as given; some lengthy CDs could benefit from a little self-editing.

What really makes this music great is that once you become familiar with the songs they ingrain on your consciousness and sound better and better with each successive listen. Concrete Love is still sounding awesome two years down and That's Life can't help but do likewise. It's sad that Vanguard has been seemingly unable to expose this music to a wider audience than Julia's existing fan base. Music this good needs to be heard and it's a crime that these albums are almost flying under the radar. Norah Jones' recent success has tapped into a huge segment of the population not usually considered to be record buyers; I should think that these last two Fordham albums would appeal to a significant portion of that audience if they only knew. That's Life may well be the best album that anyone releases this year.

Website: http://www.juliafordham.com/home.php

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