Talking with Strangers - Reviewed by Ian Maun

Judy Dyble – Talking with Strangers – Brilliant/FIXIT Records - FXTR CD113

Talking With Strangers Album CoverLife ain’t easy. It has its ups and downs, its triumphs and its tragedies, and it takes courage to put one’s experience into recorded form for posterity. But that is just what Judy Dyble  has done on this album. This is a record that creates moods, drawing heavily on Judy’s personal experience – music, love, death – it’s all there, out in the open for all to hear.  It is an album which has been long in the making, guided by the hand of Tim Bowness of No-man and Alastair Murphy. It’s a real-showcase for Judy’s vocals, which show a maturity and assuredness befitting a lady of wide professional experience gained over four decades in the music business.
It is a tribute to the respect in which Judy is held, that, if the cast-list of backing musicians on this album were to be assembled for a gig, it would be an instant sell-out. There are members past and present of King Crimson, Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Trees  and All About Eve - musicians who have all been around for a few years, and then there are more recent newcomers to the scene – Tim Bowness, the producer, and John Gillies of the Conspirators, to name but two.
To guide the listener through the events that influenced the songs here, Judy has penned a brief autobiography that records her time spent with Fairport, early Crimson and, more recently, forays into the recording studio with Marc Swordfish for her Enchanted Garden, Spindle and Whorl albums. In between lie the experiences of life, the great universals that enable us to share and empathise with others. These ‘sleeve unravellings’ as Judy describes them, form an essential backdrop if the listener is to extract the most from this autobiography-in-sound.
Neverknowing opens the album, a simple clear vocal over Simon Nicol’s silvery acoustic guitar. The melody is the cantata, for which Harpsong will later become the fugue.
The melody segues into the slightly harsher Jazzbirds, a song inspired by a painting by Jill Swarbrick-Banks (wife of the great English fiddler) and which is reproduced in its gaudy, tropical colours on the inlay. Tim Bowness adds some breathy sighs in a vocal style slightly reminiscent of the late, great Nick Drake.This is the first of three numbers in 3/4, which shows that Judy is not afraid to move away from the plodding 4/4 that characterises so much contemporary music. The vocal backing is rich, and to this are added some subtle drumming and a phased guitar. Ian McDonald’s flute adds a gentle, jazzy feeling over Judy’s subtle autoharp. Jacqui McShee!!!
For one who was once described as a ‘cut-glass chanteuse’, Greg Lake’s C’est la vie is a highly appropriate choice of song for the singer. Here one finds Parisian echoes of Juliette Greco and Françoise Hardy. Rachel Hall’s violin plays a longing, nostalgic air, and Judy is backed by members of the ‘Astral Goddess Choir’ – Celia Humphris and Julianne Regan. The song, which evokes shades of French café culture, is one of resignation and loneliness.
Talking with Strangers is essentially a duet for piano and voice. The song reaches out to other human beings, moving away from the sadness and isolation of the previous track with beautiful vocal slides that show Judy’s abilities to measure and control her voice.
 Dreamtime waltzes elegantly across the speakers with shades of Judy’s 1970 band, Trader Horne. There are faint echoes of Elizabethan music, as Judy’s autoharp sweeps like a harpsichord in the background, but the whole is brought forward in time with percussion (bongos or congas?) and that folk-jazz flute which is so evocative of the transition from the 60s to the 70s, a period that effortlessly blended folk, jazz and rock into a curiously English vision of rurality, urbanism and urbanity.
Grey October Day is a song of minor-key sadness, in which would-be lovers cannot quite get it together, so uncertain are they of the other’s feelings. Tim joins Judy on vocals, trading verses seen from the male and female viewpoints. Laurie A’Court’s saxophone is reminiscent of a black-and-white film of the urban nineteen-sixties, and Mark Fletcher’s bass has just the right acoustic quality to suggest that ‘period’ jazz feeling which characterises that era of uncertainty and revolutionary transformation.
The epic of Harpsong is the major work on this album, a fugue which reprises the cantata of Neverknowing and then takes and develops the theme into realms undreamt of. This is the autobiographical summary, the life on record. Twinkling acoustic guitars introduce the music of the North London of Judy’s childhood. Judy’s and Tim’s voices blend into a bright tapestry of optimism - ‘Nothing can go wrong’ - but, like the heady days of the 1960s, the mood cannot last, and the lyrics relate changes in people’s circumstances, lives lost and lives ruined along the way. The change to the piano as lead instrument marks the transition from an era of music to an era of silence and separation, a period of 30 years in Judy’s life in which the creative spirit lay dormant. Music’s hold is then regained, welcomed back with a heavenly choir and an up-beat saxophone solo. As if to mark this return, the music modulates into a percussion-led instrumental, in which Pat Mastelotto, the drummer with King Crimson, gives a master-class in the playing of 7/4, driving the guitar and sax melody with force and verve. Robert Fripp adds atmospheric guitar, and then the wild yet controlled orgy of sound fades into ‘ambient’ gentility, before Judy’s vocals return to reaffirm that even beyond the death of a much-loved husband, there is a musical future, a future heralded by a swinging waltz in which tubular bells chime as if for a wedding - ‘Nothing can go wrong’.
The music on this album is far less rigid than the synthesised loops which characterised EG?,Spindle and Whorl. Tim and Alastair have produced an album which is more carefully moulded to Judy’s vocal style, rather than pouring her into a prefabricated mould of electronic sound to which she adapted. Backing tracks are rich and sweeping, or pared to a minimum, as befits each song.  The production is characterised by a real depth in the layers of instrumentation, but no clarity is lost in blending a wide variety of instruments and effects. Great care has been lavished on getting everything exactly right.
In addition to the music, Koldo Barroso’s evocative drawings, reminiscent of Jan Pienkowski’s silhouette drawings, bring a visual element to the elements of Judy’s life recorded on the disc. Judy has always had a fondness for greyhounds – she once featured on ITV’s ‘Pet rescuers’ with her dogs – and this is reflected in John Hurford’s delightful colour painting which forms the cover of the CD, as well in Barroso’s illustrations for the songs. These latter capture a fairy-tale world of mermaids and fairies, phantom ships and abandoned autoharps, and the borders composed of thorns evoke a princess sleeping in a castle for a hundred years. Dark and almost disturbing, they reflect aspects of the singer’s life, but fail to capture the upbeat optimism of Judy’s approach to life and to music.
Just remember those final words of Harpsong. ‘Nothing can go wrong’.