Sunday, March 27, 2016
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ERIN COSTELO - DOWN BELOW, THE STATUS QUO
The future is now, and any doubts are answered, any small concern now moot, gone. Down Below, The Status Quo takes us way past any easy retro-soul label, no matter how much one loves that classic sound. Soul music is still the base of what Costelo does, but this is so clearly her own big, wonderful, ambitious, exciting music. Seriously, these are 10 cuts that take you through a variety of emotions, with grand rave-ups, gorgeous, sweeping ballads, and a new mix that is all her own. That Southern soul is still there, but so is a big-city jazz feel, plus intense, emotional singer-songwriter lyrics. Plus, there's a great flow to the order of the tracks, the sequence of the songs, taking us from fun to quiet to climax to denouement.
You can tell Costelo worked exceptionally hard on these songs in the production phase, and yes, she is the producer. The arrangements and the chosen instruments and voices are placed perfectly, the tempos can shift in a moment, and seamlessly. But she also doesn't rely on these elements to carry the song; the strings don't soar, she does, her voice carrying all the drama, the instruments adding the colour. It's a piano album for sure, but one where the keyboard is used almost equally as a percussion element as a melodic one.
Here's a snapshot, dropping in on a couple of cuts: The song Low, third on the album, comes in with crafty percussion and bass, a dark mood, a flute thrown in before a first blast of intensity, a rising chorus with Costelo and singers doing stabs of "high, high, high" before sinking low. Funky horns step in when needed, and it feels like Shaft, only more sophisticated. Next comes Fighter, a slower tempo, as Dave Marsh from The Emergency lays down a tough beat and Costelo comes out swinging, as mean as Nina Simone. Then Clive MacNutt stings like a bee on the craziest guitar solo you can imagine, yet it works perfectly.
The second-to-last song, Titanic, is written with Stephen Fearing (the pair have done several together the past few years), the only co-write on the disc. It's the emotional high point of the collection, a quiet, soft ballad that features a stunning instrumental moment between sections, with a fluttering harp, strings from the Blue Engine String Quartet, and orchestral percussion, which made me catch my breath. That's about the time I noticed the "String and Horn arrangements by Erin Costelo" credit. An ocean of soul, and beyond.