Little Annie & Paul Wallfisch - Genderful [Southern - 2010]What is it about the smoky, after midnight cabaret of small, dark, jazz and blues clubs that attracts the maturing post-punk reveller? From Kurt Weill’s theatrical chansons through the raw emotions of Nina Simone to Tom Waits hobo vaudeville, the tradition is now being faithfully continued by a new generation. But no one would have expected this most established of styles to be upheld by musicians with roots in the anti-establishment.
The likes of Nick Cave, Marc Almond, Current 93, Diamanda Galas, Lydia Lunch, Einstürzende Neubauten and Gavin Friday have all focussed on their own refinements of the form as they grow older and wiser and move further away from the chaotic cacophonies and subversive verse that first put them on the map. And the same can be said for Little Annie whose journey that started with releases for anarcho-punkers Crass and dubheads On-U Sound has more recently arrived in the same lounge as her crooning contemporaries. And Genderful, her second album with pianist Paul Wallfisch, certainly holds its own amongst this illustrious cast.
Faithful to the form, Wallfisch’s accompaniments always place Annie’s vocals in the spotlight. While his piano ranges from tender refrain to bold flourishes it is never the focus but more a sympathetic frame for a voice that has marinated over the years in black coffee and cigarettes to produce a unique tone, both fragile and confident in its half-spoken, half-sung stories.
Also true to form are many of the sad, painful subjects that Annie has chosen to tell, often with a casual, chatty lucidity that nimbly hides a more cerebral, poetic core. Coping with the end of a relationship is explored in at least three out of Genderful’s eleven songs, while tales of New York lament its past (‘Billy Martin Requiem’), lambast the shallowness of its present (‘Cutesy Bootsies’) and look to its future (‘Tomorrow Will Be’). In fact, names of famous New Yorkers pepper the entire album: Denzel Washington, Billie Holiday, Houdini and Bob Fosse (choreographer and director of Cabaret, appropriately enough) all feature, drawing comparisons to Lou Reed’s fondest subject that the closing track, Adrianna, reinforces further with its tale of a struggling, homeless transvestite.
The more resolute songs are sumptuously thickened with strings and even a horn section pumps things up on the delightful ‘The God Song’, a hymn rendered as a seductive mambo! But it is the saddest of songs on Genderful that are the most affecting, needing nothing more than Wallfisch’s assured piano for accompaniment. ‘In the Bar Womb’, ‘Zexy Zen Zage’, and ‘Adrianna’ would not be out of place on an Antony & The Johnsons or a Baby Dee album in their bare, soulful solace. So it’s no surprise to find that Baby Dee will be working with Little Annie on her next project.
Genderful’s craftsmanship in song makes it both highly accessible and engaging but can also seem familiar the first time around, such is the faithfulness to its influences. Those who still enjoy the waywardness of Annie Anxiety’s roots may find themselves yearning for more delirium and less precision, but as Annie puts it on ‘In The Bar Womb’: “The magic of the blues is that its pain that entertains”.Russell Cuzner