When Amanda Palmer was nine months old, her parents divorced. Growing up, she saw little of her father. However, years later, when her band, The Dresden Dolls, began to start enjoying success, she invited him to a gig in DC. He turned up and, given that he didn’t blow a fuse on hearing Half Jack, the song she’d written about him, she started to invite him to others. Eventually, now having gone solo, at one show she invited him onstage to play a Leonard Cohen number with her. This became a regular occurrence and, several years after jokingly saying they should record together, they actually did. Booking into a New York studio for a week, the result is You Got Me Singing, an album of covers they’d performed together on stage, some suggested by him, others by her.
Appropriately, it starts with the, trading verses on the Cohen title track (though, ironically, this wasn’t one of those they did live), Jack revealing a warm Johnny Cash-like bass-baritone, accompanied by simple acoustic guitar and piano, the basic template for the arrangements. In complete contrast Wynken, Blynken and Nod is actually a fantastical Victorian children’s poem, previously set to music by Lucy Simon who recorded it with sister Carly for their children’s album. Jack’s arrangement is slower and whisperingly sung to musical box background, suggesting something more likely to read under the bedclothes than in a playgroup.
It’s not the oldest number here, though, that honour going to the traditional Scottish lament Skye Boat Song, Amanda providing harmonies to her father’s lead on a song she says essentially embodies her mother’s origins sung in her father’s voice.
The other song choices are equally eclectic in both their origins and themes. There are, as anyone familiar with the younger Palmer’s work might expect, strong social and political threads. Running seven-and-a-half minutes, the piano accompanied duet, Glacier, is a modern day gay rights anthem by John Grant while, currently in the headlines, the Black Lives Matter movement is brought into focus on two numbers. First up is Palmer senior’s lyrical update (“Another black kid facedown in the road whose life did not seem to matter”) of Phil Ochs’ folk protest number, In the Heat of the Summer, the other being Amanda’s starkt banjo-strummed arrangement of Sinead O’Connor’s Black Boys On Mopeds, a song written in 1983 in response to the fatal shooting of Colin Roach, a young black man, and the subsequent acquittal of the British police officers responsible.
Remaining with motorbikes, but on a far lighter note, Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning gets retooled, both by dividing the narrative into two voices and altering the rhythm, replacing the nimble fingerpicked guitars with a fluid, almost classical, piano figure that’s played at a different tempo to the slower vocal delivery. A definite highlight.
An icon of the flower power generation and a unique voice, these days Melanie is a sadly somewhat overlooked artist, so it’s nice to hear Amanda turning the spotlight on one of her lesser known songs, Again, a slow waltzing number about love and loneliness that, as well as her father’s guitar, features mellotron, glockenspiel and vibes.
Digging into dad’s collection, another legend, this time from country music, Tom T Hall provides Louise Was Not Half Bad, Jack giving his finest Cash warble, while, strummed on ukulele (?), All I Could Do, a song about pregnancy by Kimya Dawson from Moldy Peaches, was a singularly pertinent choice given that Amanda was herself eight months gone at the time of recording.
Of the remaining two tracks, one comes from one of my favourite under-appreciated female singer-songwriters, Kathleen Edwards. Originally featured on her 2005 Back To Me album, Pink Emerson Radio was written about the day her flat burned down and her defining choice to save her guitar and violin. Palmer takes the slow swaying pace down a notch further for a languid, bluesy reading that, with Rob Stein on pedal steel, conjures images of heat hazes rising from the sidewalks.
Things end on an obscure note, but one which, with its ‘I can sing’ lyrics, brings it full circle, minimal piano backing tremulous and whispery vocals by Jack and Amanda, respectively on I Love You So Much written by Noah Britton, a friend’s autistic songwriter ex-boyfriend who’s part of the Aspergers R Us comedy troupe, and, in its emotional heart, a beautiful end to the father and daughter reconciliation story that backdrops the album’s genesis.
You Got Me Singing is Out Now