Beady Belle is one of those bands of which you can't help but think that if there had been any justice in the world (and we all know that there isn't, by any stretch of the imagination), they would have been world famous stars. Few other artists can blend pop, soul, R'n'B, funk, funk, jazz, and even country music into a mix so accessible yet advanced at the same time that it should be intriguing to fans of all these genres... and more...
And it's not like they are totally unknown to the world. The band travels the world and plays to good crowds of devoted fans. Still, it is easy to think that their label Jazzland Recordings may lack the marketing punch to take Beady Belle to the next level. On the other hand, Jazzland Recordings is probably the kind of label that can give artists the artistic freedom to create this wonderful musical blend that Beady Belle has given us over the years.
And after fifteen years their seventh release provides for a nice opportunity to look back at how they have evolved. "Songs from a Decade" is a 3CD album containing a "best of" compilation" over two CDs plus a live CD.
During the 90s the voice of Beate Slettevoll Lech became widely recognized in Norway through the duo project Folk & Røvere with Ulf Nygaard. Folk & Røvere (which still exists and releases albums, now with Lech's younger sister Therese Lech on vocals) broke through with a very urban 90s sound, often with Nygaard rapping or singing in his own urban Oslo dialect. Lech's lush and soulful voice with lyrics in her own dialect from Volda on the western coast of Norway created a perfect contrast, and was very unusual in Norway at the time.
After a while Bugge Wesseltoft approached her and gave her the freedom to create something that should be entirely her own to be released on Wesseltoft's Jazzland label. Lech grasped the opportunity with both hands and started composing and arranging. Gradually her boyfriend (now husband) Marius Reksjø, a highly in demand bass player who, among other projects, were at the core of guitar maestro Eivind Aarset's band for several years as well as being part of Bugge Wesseltoft New Conception of Jazz and Bugge 'n' Friends, got more involved with the arrangements and later also the compositions. The original idea of releasing the album in Lech's name was abandoned, and instead the duo Beady Belle was born. Their debut album "Home" was released in 2001.
"Home" was a natural next step after leaving Folk & Røvere. Many of the elements from F& R like the club music atmosphere were still there but the focus on melody was much stronger, moving the focus from groove orientation to melody orientation. This is not to say that there's a lack of groove. On the contrary, the groove is very strong indeed, but melody takes priority. It is a very "produced" album, with many musicians involved and a very "big" sound. It was a very good attempt at making a commercially attractive album with elements from soul, R'n'B and jazz. The power of Lech's voice is at the foreground from the very start, showing what an exceptional voice she has. And Lech and Reksjø had really put a lot of effort into the arrangements. On "Songs from a Decade" there are three songs from "Home", all of them on CD1. The most well-known one is definitely "Ghosts", with lyrics by Ulf Nygaard, and this song and "Moderation" has a drum'n'bass feel. The recurring flute theme from Jørund Fluge Samuelsen on "Moderation" is a stroke of genius and makes it a stand-out track. "Lose and Win" has a similar atmosphere with more of a heavy R'n'B influence. All three are extremely catchy songs with a clear hit potential, but unfortunately they never received the attention they deserved.
The second album, "CEWBEAGAPPIC" (Jazzland, 2003), is for me their masterpiece. The title is a constructed "word" trying to describe the essence of Beady Belle's music as being a balance between many elements (Complex + Easy, White + Black, Electronic + Acoustic, Groovy + Ambient, Played + Programmed, Improvised + Composed). And this balance was perfect on that album. Also Beady Belle did some essential changes from "Home", bringing Lech's voice closer to the listener and toning down the production somewhat to create more breathing space in the music. There are four songs from this album on "Songs from a Decade", all of them on CD2. Where the three tracks representing "Home" are up-tempo songs, the four songs from "CEWBEAGAPPIC" are more of the melancholic kind. And even though the spectrum of music on both albums are broader than what is reflected on "Songs of a Decade", there is no doubt that "Home" had more power and was out to impress in a way that "CEWBEAGAPPIC" wasn't, so the chosen tracks really represent the respective albums quite well.
Even though one may say, and rightfully so, that Beady Belle has been constantly evolving throughout the years and that no two albums are the same, for me there was a shift between "CEWBEAGAPPIC" and their third album, "Closer" (Jazzland, 2005). Gone was the club atmosphere, the drum'n'bass influence and most of the electronic effects. Instead the band took on an almost "chamber orchestra" approach to the arrangements. Much more sharp and precise sound from fewer instruments gave the listener the impression of being placed much closer(!) to the music(ians). The vocals harmonies from Lech were still there, as were the string arrangements, even though the latter were more quiet and to the point than the bigger sound on the previous two albums. Both the title track, "Skin Deep" and "Irony" represent this album on "Songs of a Decade". They give a good picture of the common denominators of the album as described above, as well as the variations. "Skin Deep" is a funky, "Closer" is a soul ballad, while "Irony" has a chorus with a string arrangement immediately drawing attention to European chamber music smack in the middle of a funk tune.
Another big change on this album, was that drummer Erik Holm had become a full time member of the band, even though he had been playing with Beady Belle from the very start, expanding Beady Belle to the trio it is today.
About this time, during a tour in the UK, British jazz "super-star" Jamie Cullum came backstage and declared himself a big fan of the band. He invited them to be the supporting act for his tour across Europe. This was a big opportunity for a band that normally played to around 500 people pr gig, whereas Cullum filled venues with 6-7000 pr gig. Later the American soul star India.Arie in an interview named Beady Belle one of her favorite bands. Apart from these two tidbits giving the band some well-deserved attention from the press, the band seized the opportunity to ask the two artists to work with them. Beady Belle's fourth album, Belvedere (Jazzland, 2008) therefore could boast both the track Self-fulfilling", a duet with India.Arie, and the single "Intermission Music", a duet with Cullum. The single got high rotation on Norwegian radio, and suddenly Beady Belle broke through in their home country and played to sold-out venues. Both of these tracks are of course included on "Songs for a Decade". Another reason for the success in Norway, may be that the sound of the album had moved even more away from the earlier albums. The band had brought in Anders Engen as co-producer, and he brought in a style that had proven to fare well with a "mature" audience through artists like Bjørn Eidsvåg and Odd Nordstoga who are extremely popular in Norway. Bringing in Geir Sundstøl, one of Norway's most used session musicians, on lap steel and guitars, the music on the album is grounded on a mix of elements from folk and blues, which are very prominent on this release, on the one hand, and from more modern soul, R'n'B and jazz on the other. Also, where all vocals had been done by Beate Lech on the earlier albums, she now shared backing vocal duties with the then up-and-coming soul maestro Jarle Bernhoft, giving a slightly different edge to the backing vocal arrangements than what had been the case earlier. The songs "Apron Strings" and "A Touch of Paradise" also included on "Songs from a Decade" should, together with the two aforementioned duets, illustrate the span of this album quite nicely.
The fifth album, "At Welding Bridge" (Jazzland, 2010), retained many of the qualities of "Belvedere" but also included clear references to the aesthetics of country music, not least thanks to Geir Sundstøl having been brought in yet again to grace this album with his signature sound. Beady Belle produced the album alone, and was responsible for all arrangements, including the wind arrangements where Lars Horntveth (of Jaga Jazzist fame) was brought in to play bass clarinet and flute together with Hild Sofie Tafjord's french horn. This worked extremely well, and together with the introduction of David Wallumrød as the main guy for the keyboard work, these were the most significant twists to this album sonically. Clearly there has been put a lot of effort into bringing all the different influences and ingredients, both sonically and musically, together. The title track and "Runaway Mind" are included on "Songs from a Decade" and clearly illustrate the country influences on this album, whereas the beautiful ballad "Turn Back Time" shows the more conventional Beady Belle sound augmented by Horntveth's bass clarinet magic.
The largest change on their sixth and to date latest studio album, "Cricklewood Broadway" (Jazzland, 2013), is actually on the lyrics side. This is a concept album based on the book "White Teeth" by Zadie Smith. And instead of the numerous guest musicians they had used on the previous albums, they went for a fixed and stripped-down cast of the trio plus David Wallumrød on keys and Torun Eriksen doing backing vocals with Lech. This meant, for instance, that this was the first album since "CEWBEAGAPPIC" that didn't include Jørn Øien at all, even though he has been a regular member of Beady Belle's live line-up all the way, also after this album release.
The country references are gone on this album, and we're more back to the soul and funk landscape again, as can be heard on the tracks "Saved" and "So Far So Good". Also, to emphasize the drama in the lyrics, the band reintroduces sound effects of a kind they hadn't used since "CEWBEAGAPPIC", although in a more minimalistic fashion. The best example of this is the track "My Name on the World", an extravagant tune that fits the lyrics perfectly and brings out a side of Beady Belle that hasn't been heard since "Stools and Rules" on "Closer".
"Songs from a Decade" summarizes Beady Belle's album catalogue perfectly with a very representative selection of tracks that shows the journey they've been on to steadily refine their music where the emphasis is on good melodies and ditto lyrics, and trying out different ways to arrange the music in a way that brings melody and lyrics to the foreground without blurring the picture with unnecessary stuff. The albums hold a remarkable high quality throughout, and the band obviously takes a good old craftsmanship approach to shaping the sculptures that are both the different albums and the individual songs. And "Songs from a Decade" gives a thorough introduction to this catalogue in a way that makes this collection essential to everyone that are not familiar with this band and their music.
But that is not all.
What makes this album essential also to the fans of Beady Belle, is the inclusion of the third CD, the live CD aptly titled "A Night at the Theatre". This is a selection of eight tracks from a concert at Oslo Jazz Festival in 2013.
The line-up consists of the trio plus Jørn Øien and David Wallumrød on keyboards. The sound of this live recording is crystal clear and very sharp, making for a brutally honest experience where no nuances are lost in the very intimate and stripped-down arrangements. But the musicians pull this off beautifully.
Five of the tracks also appear in album versions on CD1 or 2, making for an interesting comparison between studio arrangements and live arrangements.
It is interesting to notice how true Reksjø and Holm are to the music, always playing only what the music demands, nothing more, nothing less. This means leaving most of the virtuosity to Lech, Øien and Wallumrød, even though both Reksjø and Holm are excellent musicians. Lech is clearly in charge and leaves no doubt about her voice being every bit as strong as heard on the albums. No studio magic involved there. Lech really gets to stretch her vocal cords on "Skin Deep" and "Come Home", whereas Øien's solo abilities comes to the foreground on "Shadow", "Come Home" and "Half Truth". Wallumrød keeps himself more in the background here, though he plays a vital role in shaping the funky sound through the clavinet and the Hammond B3. But it's not until "Never Mind" that the band really gets groovy, with Wallumrød's clavinet and B3 in a funky show-off with Reksjø and Holm. "My Name on the World"'s catchy flirt with Eastern music starts out quietly but soon lifts to become the highlight of the set, with Lech really pulling out all the stops towards the end. The live CD ends in the same quiet mood as it started, with the beautiful "Every Moment", with Øien, Wallumrød and Holm joining Lech on vocals for the chorus.
Whether you are familiar with Beady Belle's music or not, there is no excuse for not checking out "Songs from a Decade".