Uncovered is probably the album that many of Beth Nielsen Chapman’s numerous fans have been dreaming of. Gathering together 12 of her best known songs, many of them US Top Ten hits, with seven that have reached the coveted number one slot, none of which she has actually recorded and released herself before. In making the album, she’s recruited an amazing guest list and also turned it into her own Transatlantic Session, recording with the help of some exceptional musicians in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and her own Nashville studio. The production team includes long term collaborator Annie Roboff, with Vince Gill, Darrell Brown and Phil Cunningham and Beth herself, who have done an incredible job of bringing together a collection of songs that defines an exceptional songwriting career.
You could of course say that there’s something delightfully perverse about Beth Nielsen Chapman. She’s unquestionably the extremely talented songwriter, who can claim all of those Top 10 hits, albeit recorded by other people. Furthermore, other songs have famously been covered by Elton John, Neil Diamond and stellar names far too numerous to list. Yet if you look at her recording career over the last decade, it includes an album, Hymns, sung in Latin, another double CD, Prism, which looks at the world’s religions and features Beth singing in nine different languages, a DVD shot in St Paul’s Cathedral, with the London Oriana Choir that includes Prayers Of An Atheist and a CD, described as being, “For children of all ages,” about the universe and the science of astronomy, co written in part by Rocky Alvey, the director of the Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory and called The Mighty Sky.
It may be hard to keep up with Beth’s creative twists and turns and that sequence of releases will have doubtless confused her fans along the way, but the strange thing is that all of them have their merits. The latter, for example, perfectly lives up to its billing. Prism may be a lot to get your head around but contains some excellent songs and somehow tells a very human story about what we, all of us, share in common. The DVD, meanwhile probably won’t win any awards for its production values, but contains some genuinely spine tingling moments as Beth interacts with the choir and the acoustic of the cathedral.
Perhaps more than most, her success has earned her the right to follow her creativity where it leads her. She regards the creative spark as a gift and something else we all share, needing just a tinder strike to kindle it in anyone of us. What she does seems both heartfelt and a genuine quest for freedom of expression. We could do worse than to trust Beth’s instincts in that regard, even if we reserve the right to pick and choose from her recorded output.
[pullquote]Uncovered then perhaps finally satisfies many people’s craving, as Beth takes a dozen of the hits she’s written or co-written for others and finally records them herself.[/pullquote]It’s probably helpful that sandwiched amongst all of the above are the albums Look and Back To Love, which are far more straightforward. Back To Love, released in 2010 in particular did much to reconnect Beth with those who struggled to keep up. It worked on both sides of the Atlantic, with Radio 2 even giving Beth a prestigious Friday Night Is Music Night live slot with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The station can claim a minor credit here too as our very own Bob Harris suggested the title to Beth. By doing so it seems he gave Beth the focus to whittle down more ambitious plans for a boxed set to a single CD. Uncovered then perhaps finally satisfies many people’s craving, as Beth takes a dozen of the hits she’s written or co-written for others and finally records them herself.
You might also contend that chart toppers, especially American chart toppers, country chart toppers at that, don’t belong here. I might sympathise with that point of view too were it not for the fact that Uncovered is so goddamn good. Of course I need to explain that and yet I’m not sure if I can adequately define what makes it so. We all of have those moments when a songs melody, a voice, an instrumental hook, lyrical line or a couplet grab us. When all of those elements start working together then a song just sounds so… well, simply right. In fact to borrow a line from the opener, “The simple things just are…” And here they are again, again and again.
There’s the slide up a semitone towards the end Here We Are and the way that the female backing vocals come in. It’s another simple device, but works a treat. Vince Gill takes some credit for production and slotting in, much as the guest do through out, in sympathy and harmony. Of course some are more obvious than others and Duane Eddy makes his obvious baritone twang a feature of the rootsy Sweet Love Shine, a song Beth wrote with the late Waylon Jennings.
Maybe That’s All It Takes is another co-write, this time with Darrell Scott that deals, as most of these songs do with the trials of love. Some how despite it all, love will triumph, even if there are slamming doors and tears along the way. The lyrics throughout have a broad brush, everyman-woman appeal, yet manage to avoid trite sentiment by retaining sufficient honesty and bite to keep them interesting. Lines like, “Cinderella said to Snow White, ‘How did love get so off course?’ All I wanted was a white knight, with a good heart, soft touch, fast horse,” have a certain je ne sais quoi, putting a little humour into the heart ache with a nice rhythmic skip. It’s also the only pop song I know of to mention centripetal force.
[pullquote]Nothing I Can Do About It Now, brings to mind Loretta Lynn or Nancy Sinatra singing Lee Hazlewood, which suddenly jumps into a touch of Tex-Mex, with a hint of Flaco like accordion from Phil Cunningham.[/pullquote]Somehow the songs just have that flexibility, which is probably at the root of their success. Nothing I Can Do About It Now, brings to mind Loretta Lynn or Nancy Sinatra singing Lee Hazlewood, which suddenly jumps into a touch of Tex-Mex, with a hint of Flaco like accordion from Phil Cunningham. Meet Me Halfway is at least as sassy, with it’s moody bass line and electric guitar lines. It features backing vocals from Bekka Bramlett, who definitely seems to be continuing the family line.
It’s worth noting that as well as Phil Cunningham, duties for the Scottish sessions co-feature top grade musicians including Duncan Chisholm, John McCusker, James Mackintosh, Euan Burton, and Matheu Watson. I really should also credit Maartin Allcock , who recorded his parts at Squiggle Studios in Harlech, Wales. The legendary bassist and former Tull and Fairport alumnus is also a long-time sideman on Beth’s UK tours and plays on several tracks here. They contribute to the beautiful Pray, which I love for its swelling melody, and another more traditionally country styled tale of loves triumph in adversity, Strong Enough To Bend.
One In A Million pushes the accelerator pedal, heading for cruise control, window down, it’s a classic slice of Americana. The vocal arrangement is particularly clever and it has that simple boy meets girl motif. It makes the acoustic guitar intro of Five Minutes all the more devastating. The ultimate ultimatum song, the suit case are packed and, “ Now I’ve got your attention, here’s what I’ve got to say you’d better do some talking ‘cause my taxi’s on the way.” Still there’s hop as the middle eight suggests, “You can start with please don’t leave me and end with I love you.”
Almost Home, a trio of ladies who two or three years back toured as Wine, Women And Song. Gretchen Peters, Matraca Berg and Suzi Bogguss played at the QEH in London and I got the chance to go, which I did under the mistaken impression that I liked the first two, but not the last named of the trio. Suzi, sure as hell proved me wrong. In truth though it’s still Gretchen I admire the most for her exceptional songwriting. Where I to pick another name from the current crop of American, female singer songwriters I most admire to add to that list then it would be Mary Chapin Carpenter, who by coincidence (or not) has the co-write credit for this song. Enough said.
So, where does Beth rate in all of this, well I hope by now you might have guessed that Uncovered has put her right up there. I’ve probably got more patience than most for her more experimental side, but like everyone else I’m simply a sucker for a great song, well written, well sung and well played and there are a dozen shot through with that magic here.
Review by: Simon Holland
<>h2>UK Tour Dates
Wed Feb 12th – Pocklington, Arts Centre – 01759 301 547
Thu Feb 13th – Harrogate, Royal Hall – 0142 3502116
Fri Feb 14th – Gateshead, The Sage Gateshead – 0191 443 4661
Sun Feb 16th – Sheffield, City Hall Ballroom – 0114 2789789
Mon Feb 17th – Liverpool, Philharmonic – 0151 7093789
Thu Feb 20th – Cambridge, Junction 1 – 01223 511 511
Fri Feb 21st – St Albans, Alban Arena – 01727 844 488
Sat Feb 22nd – Brighton, St Georges – 01273 709709
Mon Feb 24th – London, Barbican – 020 7638 8891
Tue Feb 25th – Cheltenham, Town Hall – 0844 576 2210
Thu Feb 27th – Salisbury, City Hall – 01722 434434
Fri Feb 28th – Birmingham, Town Hall – 0121 345 0600
Sat Mar 1st – Basingstoke, The Anvil – 01256 844244
Sun Mar 2nd – Norwich, Epic Studios – 01603 727727