A former competitor on a TV talent show singing Billie Holiday songs? Are you sure? What sounds like a car crash waiting to happen, is actually an intriguing, if not always successful, journey in the hands of UK artist Rebecca Ferguson, a singer whose alluring tones envelop and frame most things in a jazzily smoky fashion. As a voice that immediately invokes smoke-filled nightclubs and heartache, it is clear why she chose to have a run at these great songs, but in this year that marks 100 years since Lady Day's birth, what does Ferguson have to add to the already lengthy list of covers of these songs?
It is worth remembering that just as this undertaking could have been intimidating for Miss Ferguson, so it is the same for anyone reviewing. Lady Day stands tallest amongst the flowers of jazz singers, only equaled by one or two. So making any comparisons pointless. Instead, this project must stand on its own two feet as a collection of 17 classic songs, sung by an adept, husky-voiced, soul-pop singer, mostly from Holiday’s Lady Sings The Blues album, along with a sprinkling of very familiar songbook tunes, to the accompaniment of a safe, but rather obvious big band-style orchestration.
The most success comes where her naturally melancholy rasp matches the more lovelorn or heartbroken sentiments of the song. Opening track “Get Happy” feels forcibly jaunty and sits less well alongside her intonation, but despite the opening misstep there are highlights to be had here, later in the collection. “Fine and Mellow” offers an upturn in proceedings immediately, with Ferguson smoldering nicely. But “Embraceable You” helps only to cement that initial thought that heartbreak and being done wrong are the best foils for her vocal tones. Swooning romance and sweet lyrics, while performed here with gusto, don’t quite connect in the way that misfortune and pain do. The cliched sweeping strings and piano accompaniment hardly help matters, as it struggles to stand out from the countless other versions of the song.
A healthy dose of sass threatens to break out on “That Ole Devil Called Love,” but again the accompaniment banishes any thought of that rapidly, leaving Ferguson working hard against all the odds. And that is the abiding feeling of the album. “Blue Moon,” “I Thought About You” and “All Of Me” are all performed with total effort and utter conviction, but they somehow don’t connect. Ferguson can undoubtedly sing and the songs have classic, timeless status, yet the accompaniment is safe, obvious and leaves the talented singer struggling to be remembered in a sea of singers who have had a crack at these songs.
On the plus side, “Summertime” offers a chance for those prowling vocals to sidle beautifully. “Willow Weep For Me” showcases a delicate, earthly quality to sit alongside the more usual melancholy feel of Ferguson’s voice, and “My Man”s gentle handclap percussion ensures it sails smoothly by.
It is “Don’t Explain” that is the standout track. That this coincides with the most stripped-back musical accompaniment is not a coincidence. Her intimate purr works best alongside this pared back sound of piano, bass and brushed drums and offers a glimpse into what a braver, less obvious musical approach could have offered. She hits the "world weary, yet besotted" feel beautifully and is rewarded with a restrained, muted accompaniment that propels the song to heights unseen elsewhere on the album. Sometimes less is more.
All of that notwithstanding, this is a better collection than perhaps you may imagine. Her voice has a timbre that is instantly embracing and she carries the songs ably, with a panache that would escape the vast majority of pop singers. While it’s doubtful anyone will be remembering these efforts 100 years from now, if it prompts one person to investigate Billie Holiday herself further or, indeed, the sultry-voiced Rebecca Ferguson, then it is a job well done.