"Red Blues" - 2002
1. There is no love in the heart of the city
2. Blue Light Boogie
3. You can leave your hat on
5. I’d rater go blind
6. Black Coffee
7. Pull up to the bumper
8. At last
9. She’s got a way with men
10. One for my baby
11. Strange fruit
"Start the motor – shut the motor off...” Mary Coughlan sings in her trademark laidback style on one of the new tunes of her new T & M album RED BLUES. It’s a line that could well be applied to the many starts and stops in her own career. After all it’s no secret that the personal life so closely intertwined with the artistry of Mary Coughlan has been marked by highs and lows. The RED BLUES project is her first work for TRADITION & MODERNE and presents another act in the second go-round of her career. The first act ended quite abruptly with a breakdown and treatment for alcoholism in 1993.
In 1997, Mary Coughlan returned to music in a revived and cleaned-up fashion with her album AFTER THE FALL. She has been back on track ever since and today her singing is no less affecting and seductive than before. A listening session to her first albums TIRED AND EMOTIONAL and UNDER THE INFLUENCE from the late 80s confirms this point. These initial smashes catapulted the temperamental singer from Galway to the top league of the Irish music scene.
Mary Coughlan is 46 years old now and she has seen a lot of life, indeed. If it’s true that dedicated jazz and blues artists are close to real life, then Mary Coughlan should be even more real today than she was before she went through her darkest period. To anyone who has ever witnessed Coughlan perform, it’s pretty obvious that this Irish singer knows how to hit an audience’s nerve and she does just the same with this new album.
Some of these new recordings are renditions of songs she has done before, some are new ones. All of them have one thing in common. La Coughlan sings them with her own special mix of dignity, emotion, humour, honesty and integrity. It seems that Mary Coughlan has a knack for making everything she sings her own. One would be hard pressed to think of another European voice who could render Billie Holiday’s "Strange Fruit” a cappella in a way that does not evoke the classic original version from the 1940s.
"Strange Fruit” is the closing tune on RED BLUES, but Billie Holiday’s name and art is a thread that runs through Mary’s career not only in terms of repertoire. The grand staging of the multi-media "Lady Sings The Blues” production in Dublin and London put Mary Coughlan back on the map in terms of success and recognition of her talents as an interpretative singer. Delivering more than thirty songs associated with "Lady Day” as a personal homage to a mentor was a creative rehabilition of no small dimension. Holiday passed away in 1959 at the age of only forty-four. Mary Coughlan is pretty alive in 2002, even if it looked as if she would not reach her idol’s age for quite a while.
RED BLUES was recorded on just four days in Bremen, Germany, with the participitation of Mary’s regular accompanist Peter O’Brien on piano, Londoner Frank Mead - from Bill Wyman’s current band - on saxophones, and the US rhythm section of Bill Rich (bass) and Kester Smith (drums) – both known from various bands of Taj Mahal. For just one day the Canadian string wizards of the Tri-Continental group joined the proceedings: Bill Bourne, Lester Quitzau and Madagascar Slim were touring Northern Europe at the time and their contribution moved quite a lot of strings in a very short period of time. T & M owner Petra Hanisch produced the record and with this project again she was able to work with an artist who had previously guested in Bremen for the "Women in (E)Motion” festival. Following AFTER THE FALL and LONG HONEYMOON, recorded in New York with ex-Tom Waits cohort Greg Cohen, this is Mary Coughlan’s third studio production after returning to the scene.
For the new album Mary Coughlan again collected songs from a variety of genres – blues, jazz, soul and pop. The opening track "Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” is a 70s soul classic by Bobby "Blue" Bland, while"Blue Light Boogie” comes from the repertoire of 40s jump blues pioneer Louis Jordan. Randy Newman’s "You Can Leave Your Hat On” is being snatched away from the realms of "Cockerdom” and Coughlan transports it to a much more sympathetic and intimate environment. It’s no secret that Coughlan likes to tackle surprising repertoire every once in a while, so her interpretation of Grace Jones’ sexy club hymn"Pull Up To The Bumper” should not come as a surprise. "Portland” is a new song by Tri-Continental’s folk-blues expert Bill Bourne and with "At Last” and "I’d Rather Go Blind” two classics from the great Etta James’ Chess catalog are included. Even Peggy Lee’s indestructible "Black Coffee” is given all the new life it quite rightly deserves. Another interesting gender-swap is presented on "She’s Got A Way With Men”. The original ("He’s Got A Way With Women”) comes from Western swing/honky tonk pioneer Hank Thompson. Two"all-time greats” are finishing up RED BLUES. The all-time Sinatra classic "One For My Baby” and "Strange Fruit”.
The end result is one more excellent album by Mary Coughlan. She’s still Ireland’s most prominent blues and jazz stylist and RED BLUES is excellent proof to the point that gaining more experience in life will eventually result in more experienced music. This is how Mary Coughlan sums up her career today: "It could have been worse. If I were dead today, you wouldn’t want to write anything about me...” With robust humor still intact, Coughlan has not changed – or has she? Judging by the clear light of day, she might have become a bit older, wiser and tougher after all.
She’s perfectly aware about the gift of her voice but does not see herself with any trace of vanity. She does not regret her public frankness in the slightest bit: "It’s a wonderful feeling to know you’ve been honest and open, especially if people have been helped from that honesty... I’ve learned so much and I put it all there so other people might learn too. It’s important to say it, otherwise people think they’re the only ones with the problems.” Candid words from an artist who has a lot of integrity. Mary Coughlan knows what she is talking about and RED BLUES is her wonderful new album. Out now on TRADITION & MODERNE.
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