Debut from young guitar/vocals duo, assisted by the likes of Ian Shaw, Guy Barker and...
Kathryn Shackleton 2004
Singer Gwyn Herbert and guitarist Will Rutter met at university in the north of England, and headed to London to seek their musical fortune. The duo didn't find the streets of Soho paved with gold, but they did happen upon Peter Wallis at the Pizza Express Jazz Club. Peter was so impressed by their demo EP that he signed them up to his new Dean Street Records label to record this debut album.
First Songs opens with "Little Red Rooster", but this is no scratchy-throated Howlin' Wolf cover. It's a sinewy and seductive take on the blues. Will plays Clapton-esque acoustic guitar against solid percussion, while Gwyn's sultry vocals start off breathy, and become belting and dangerous. Gwyn's voice can be youthful and light, but it also has a hint of maturity that recalls Claire Martin's molasses at the bottom end and Helen Reddy at the top.
British vocalist Ian Shaw has arranged and produced almost all the tracks. He skilfully avoids over-dramatisation, while drawing out Gwyn's surprisingly broad range of expression. Costello and Bacharach's "My Thief" is soft and drowsy, Gwyn deftly extracting the humour and the grief from the lyrics, while "I Was Doin' Alright" gets a jaunty, air-head treatment. By plumbing the deeps in her voice in "Calling You" and "Beguiling Eyes", though, Gwyn subtly conveys fragile intimacy, developing into urgent need.
Gwyn's flexible vocals work well with the lineup at the core of First Songs (guitar, bass and percussion), but fourteen tracks is enough. Occasional support from Ian Shaw's mini-Moog and Fender Rhodes and Ben Godfrey on trumpet doesn't add the variety needed for us to be left wanting more.
Nevertheless, the instrumental high point is a great Cuban-tinged Latin-to-swing arrangement of "Trains & Boats & Planes" featuring Guy Barker on trumpet. Gwyn's control, Ian Shaw's inventive arrangement and Guy's rhythmic and melodic sense combine to give this track an unexpected individuality.
Though still in her early 20s, Gwyn has already been writing songs for fifteen years. She and Will's own "Sweet Insomnia" features dramatic, intelligent lyrics and a vocal duet with Universal wunderkind Jamie Cullum. Backed by a quietly abrasive cello, Jamie's early morning rasping vocals snake around Gwyn's as both work the lyrics beautifully to present a gritty cameo of sleep-sapping obsession.
First Songs is a lovingly crafted debut. The self-penned numbers are coherent, perceptive and quietly dramatic, and though the instrumentation lacks variety the arrangements are top-notch. With the patronage of Ian Shaw and Peter Wallis and co-stars like Jamie Cullum and Guy Barker, First Songs won't be Gwyn and Will's last.