Barb Jungr – Every Grain of Sand – The Times
Was there ever a more fastidious school of amateur pop critics than the Bob Dylan fan club? As obsessive as professors of hieroglyphics, his admirers will have plenty to say about Barb Jungr's new album of Dylan songs. Responses will no doubt soon be winging around the many websites dedicated to the grand old man of the singer-songwriter set.
For those of us who have never signed up to the appreciation society, Jungr's collection, Every Grain of Sand, comes as a quiet revelation. If, like me, you have always found Dylan's reedy voice an insurmountable obstacle, Jungr's sensual performance casts the songs in a fresh light. Acclaimed as an ambassador for the neglected art of chanson, the Rochdale-born singer views the material through the prism of Leo Ferre and Jacques Brel - two of the artists who inspired her last album, Chanson: The Space in Between.
The British never quite know what to make of performers who interpret cabaret and theatre songs as well as jazz. So Jungr has for the most part operated below radar level in this country, quietly building a following through appearances at events such as Pirate Jenny's, the monthly cabaret showcase organised by singer-songwriter Des De Moor. (The pair recently collaborated on De Moor's absorbing show, Darkness and Disgrace, devoted to the music of David Bowie.)
Jungr has spent so much time championing the virtues of European song that she seems almost embarassed that her latest venture draws its inspiration from the other side of the Atlantic. But she also happens to be an authority on American popular song - she is a contributor to the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Blues and Gospel. And given her interest in approaching songs as "texts", she made a logical candidate.
When the time came to assemble the Dylan songlist, she initially rifled through the celebrated LPs such as Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks (which respectively yielded up I Want You and Tangled up in Blue). But she was also draw to the less fashionable, later work. One of her favourites, Sugar Baby, comes from last year's release Love and Theft. It is, Jungr insists, one of the finest songs she has heard in the past 25 years.
Even so, it took her a while to come to terms with Dylan's idiosyncratic singing voice: "I used to dislike his voice for all the reasons people usually mention," she explains. "It seemed very nasal and whiny, and it was impossible to hear a word. And then there's the harmonica playing, of course.
"But I've actually come to believe that he's a really good singer. There's a lot of subtlety in his singing that I wasn't aware of before. I will say the arrangements on the albums were not the best in the world - you get a lot of bog-standard rock. But the more I heard, the more I realised I was wrong about his voice.
"I think you have to listen to him in the context of the blues, and then you understand what's going on. If you listen to a song like Isis, for instance, you find he's doing this extraordinary thing which you hear in a lot of blues performers. he's going through these tiny glissandi all the time. If you scored it all out, you'd be amazed."
It is somehow typical of Jungr's passion for music that she can wax lyrical over a song which is not actually on her album. Other singers would be focused on self-promotion; Jungr simply follows wherever her enthusiasm carries her. It is just as well she is so bouyant, because much of the time she is swimming against the tide. She tours constantly abroad; here she is working at the margins.
"The rest of Europe is much more receptive to singers," she says. "I don't know why it is, but this country is overly focused on youth culture. We have an age problem which makes it difficult to find room for anything else. I went to see Barbara Cook in the West End last summer. She was wonderful - I was so moved I cried. But the theatre wasn't even half full on the night I saw her. That's absurd."