Beth Rowley – Little Dreamer (2007)
Born to missionary parents in Lima, Beth Rowley is a woman of the world who has paid her dues. She started at the very bottom, navigating the Bristol music scene, playing in pubs and clubs to those who don’t necessarily want to listen. She also studied under Soul singer, Carleen Anderson (who spent years in Paul Weller’s band) and also, as a schoolgirl, provided backing vocals for Ronan Keating and Enrique Iglesias. Excuse my cynicism, but if that isn’t paying your dues, I’m not sure what is.
The point being this – Rowley has a thickened skin because she’s not one of those artists who sang karaoke on The X Factor then became a star. She’s roamed the open-mic nights, packed her own gear into the boot, played the job-gigs and used such experiences to work out who she is and what she does. She’s also soaked up a wealth of musical and cultural influences on her passage to this record – primarily Blues, Soul, Gospel and singer-songwriters such as Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Jamie Cullum. You can tell – and some would hold this against her – that she has swallowed the posthumous Eva Cassidy output too, though this makes the whole concept more charming for me.
Some of the highlights include Rowley’s take on Nobody’s Fault But Mine, a song first recorded by Gospel Blues artist Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. There is a sincere warmth in her voice, and it feels like she means it when she sings “And if I should die / And my soul becomes lost / Then I know it’s / Nobody’s fault but mine”. It’s pretty damn convincing, and the music doesn’t intrude. The other cover, Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released borders on a little giddy for the thematic nature of the song, but it’s still charming with its reggae slant.
The main issue here is the safe production. Some of these tracks could really soar at the risk of making some Radio 2 listeners spill their tea, and it’s a shame that the production team decided not to gamble. It doesn’t take much away from the song-craft though, or how well Rowley and Ben Castle (yes, son of Roy) have put their influences in a blender and spilt them all over this lovely record. It’s certainly refreshing to see a young artist realise such a traditional, authentic sound. Beth Rowley is certainly a great Soul singer – not at all an impersonator or imposter.
The two stormers on the record are Sweet Hours & Oh My Life. You can tell that she’s the daughter of missionaries by the fervour in her voice, and her vocal performance is no better across the record than on these two tracks. I’ve read reviews that criticise Rowley’s menace when singing these deeply spiritual songs, but for me her pitch is where it needs to be – somewhere between lost in music and gentle thunder. Again, I must touch on the fact that the production is so safe that it almost prevents Rowley from striding out of the shadows of her influences and assuming her own identity. I fear that this will forever be a bargain bin purchase for middle-of-the-road oh isn’t that lovely music (un)listeners, and it’s so much better than that.
Or, certainly it should be.
Top track trio:
Nobody’s Fault But Mine
Oh My Life