For some, this may be their first introduction to the music of veteran English singer/songwriter Claire Hamill – for others a continuation of this artists’ output that began in 1971 with the album “One House Left Standing.” That first album featured musicians as diverse as John Hawken on keyboards (Strawbs, Renaissance), the late singer-songwriter John Martyn, guitarists Terry Reid / David Lindley and Paul Buckmaster who orchestrated many Elton John songs. There’s also drummer Simon Kirke from Free / Bad Company.
The Kinks’ leader Ray Davies produced and appeared on her “Stage Door Johnnies” album. So, Claire has always been in good company on many of her recordings through the decades.
I’m a little late getting to this new one but with the glut of releases that come out every year it’s easy to miss a jewel among bits of glass. Better late than never.
For a moment, I want to further substantiate, for those unfamiliar with Claire, what kind of musical shoulders Ms. Hamill has rubbed against throughout her career. Ms. Hamill worked with Wishbone Ash, appeared with Yes’ Jon Anderson and Vangelis on the album “The Friends of Mr. Cairo.” Also — collaborated with Yes’ Steve Howe, performed or collaborated with Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, King Crimson and Gary Numan. Good friends to have and a resume any musician would be proud of.
Now, fast forward to 2012 and Claire releases a new album – “The Meeting of the Waters.” After starting her career as a singer-songwriter, dabbling a little in New Age music Claire returned to melodic story driven songs. The result is an LP filled with memorable tunes with a variety of flavors.
Let’s begin with “Wild Swimming,” and it’s intense violin strains as they pour like waves and Claire’s crystal clear vocals that ripple between them. She sounds like a potential new age Joni Mitchell — but even that’s not an accurate description. Claire always had a “sound” that was shaped by her own intuition. She can have that far out appeal like Laurie Anderson, or the folksy new age enchantment of a Sally Oldfield, but there’s always a little vein of ambitious originality that sets Claire apart from all comparisons.
The title track “The Meeting of the Waters,” develops between the webbed fingers of the piano and acoustic guitar into a sad melody that can be uplifting. The music could’ve been written hundreds of years ago in England, Ireland or Scotland, and sung by Sandy Denny in her Fairport Convention days. It touches the hem of lullaby and Claire’s sincere reading, with what is perhaps double-tracking of her vocals, is smooth. As ideal a song as this would be for a Judy Collins – Claire’s version is already definitive.
More upbeat is the samba-esque “Lets Chase the Sun.” Here, her voice is reminiscent of the late folk singer Judee Sill. The chorus of female voices is full and driving. When the strings break it becomes quite infectious. Claire sounds like she was enjoying the song as she performed it.
“Charlie Boy,” is pensive. A story-song with fluid instrumentation. Claire’s years as a singer shows discipline and she maintains the quality that made many singer-songwriters of the 70’s a creative curiosity the way today’s artists are not. When she sings “…soft against my skin,” it was with a voice that gave me chills. Kris McKay did that years ago when singing a particular line in her song “If Ever You Need Me,” and it just added so much sincere value to the song – it elevates a lyric to a different realm.
A change of voice — Claire gets a little aggressive and sings “The Lily Field” with a exhilarating percussion. If you don’t bop your head to this one you must be dead.
“Human,” slows things down and the layered vocals are warm. A brief, sharp harmonica run anchors the verses. Again, Claire’s songwriting is so developed that it sounds like no other artist. Simplistic — yet with splendor. This is my favorite Claire Hamill voice.
As the strains of the harmonica drain from “Human,” Claire, who plays keyboards and guitar, comes in with a jaunty – I guess you could call it a jig – “Irish Blanket.” Very upbeat fiddle and accordion driven. A Kirsty McColl type swing. The fiddle is fiery on this and well recorded. I’m guessing it may be more than one fiddle. The song made me want to go out and get a pint of Guinness. If that was Claire’s aim – she succeeded.
“Pour Me Out on the Pavement,” continues with an old-traditional fiddle style and a razor sharp acoustic guitar strum. With the addition of the sing-a-long vocals I thought Claire should have sung this effectively with Shane McGowan (The Pogues). The little tale is also compelling and a great, great drinking song:
Pour me out onto the pavement…the liquor has gone to my head…You sure look fine but maybe it’s time…That I was at home in my bed…You’ve been a handsome replacement…a lover, a joker, a friend…So call and come over, tomorrow when I’m sober…and we can start drinking again!*
If The Pogues, Black 47, The Toasters, Dropkick Murphys — or any other randy band ever covers someone else’s song, this would be one.
The next tune has a Dory Previn-oriented song recipe but with potent Claire Hamill ingredients. Old-fashioned, harmonica driven show tune – think: Bette Midler or Bernadette Peters. While it’s not a bawdy song it is a saloon song. “Since You’ve Been Gone,” stretches Claire’s style and convinces me she likes to wear many hats in her music and she isn’t done by a long shot. This one was performed quite effectively and the perfect follow-up to “Pour Me Out on the Pavement.”
“Derry Boy,” is more introspective, a sophisticated Doris Day-sincere vocal. It has that Robin Ward “Wonderful Summer,” sadness thread. A hint of the old traditional Danny Boy melody used so respectfully it sounds as if it was written today. Claire’s vocals are quite marvelous here. She renews the song, refreshes its importance and embellishes it with renewed beauty. It’s like getting a piece of cheesecake, inhaling it and wanting another piece. You can’t get enough…at least I couldn’t. Her vocal gymnastics are controlled, penetrating and arouses emotions in any listener who has a heart to reminisce. You don’t even have to be Irish. It’s a universal feeling that this melody possesses. The way Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling In Love,” is. The way Andrea Boccelli and Sarah Brightman’s “It’s Time to Say Goodbye,” is. The way Timi Yuro’s “Interlude,” is. Claire’s resurrection of this old tune is faithful. Worthy of many listens.
And there’s no comfort when your heart is aching
There’s no release, no peace, no warmth, no joy
And no piper plays a tune that can climb the prison walls
That surround my Derry Boy*
“Truth, Beauty and Happiness,” continues with a compassionate melody and touching lyrics. It’s not easy to follow up a song like “Derry Boy,” but, this song has similar undercurrents. If you’re a romantic – bring a box of tissues.
“You Take My Breath Away,” is a bonus track. Claire had been a number of years between studio albums. So, she must have a motherlode of many great songs under her mattress. This is probably the most commercial I ever heard Claire and it works well.
Claire Hamill can be thoroughly enjoyed on YouTube and rdio – but, it’s best to support independent music.
Discography and more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claire_Hamill
*Lyrics copyright Claire Hamill
Image of Claire Hammill above originally appeared on Reverbnation and is subject to copyright.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / November 2014