Album of the week : Through The Night - Ren Harvieu

How often do you see doctors thanked alongside family, managers and fellow musicians on a pop star’s CD sleeve? Ren Harvieu wouldn’t be releasing her debut album Through The Night if it were not for the staff at Stanmore Spinal Injury Unit in north London. “Thank you for taking me in and putting me back together,” she says in the booklet for the album

Her career was all set to take off last summer when disaster struck. A freak accident on a night out in Manchester - a friend vaulted over a hedge, and landed on top of her - left her with a broken back.  Happily for us, after emergency surgery, she’s made an astonishing recovery. And that’s by no means the only hardship suffered by Ren - short for Lauren, in her 21 year old life

Her French-Canadian father departed the family home before she was even born, leaving young Ren to be brought up by her mother. As a pre-teen, she used to watch old Disney films and obsess about “the princesses and the heroines, because they epitomised everything I wanted to be. I was just this scruffy child from Salford, and they were graceful and beautiful and could sing”.

But she really doen’t need any back story. The only introduction Ren Harvieu needs is her own voice – it’s all there in that vocal, sitting astride a throne of luxuriant, orchestral production on Through The Night

Some of the singer’s seductive orchestral pop songs sound so timeless in their simplicity and poise that you become convinced that Dusty Springfield or Carole King must have recorded them first. But these are not covers - they are contemporary classics that could put Harvieu in the same league as other British stars who have mined a similarly vintage vein, like Adele, Duffy and Amy Winehouse. Some would say, NMTBP amongst them, that she’ll surpass all of these

Ren Harvieu isn’t a singer-songwriter per se. Her name does appear on some of the writing credits on the album but the vast majority of those credits fall to collaborators who include Dave McCabe, formerly of The Zutons and the man who wrote Valerie, which became a hit for Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson. He has written Harvieu’s single Open Up Your Arms. Five more great tracks were written by another Liverpool contact, Howie Payne, once a member of The Stands

Unsurprisingly after her brush with disaster, her music feels imbued with her new sense of freedom, adopting an invigorating carpe diem attitude on  ‘Open Up Your Arms’ in which she implores ‘Let me in before it’s too late’. The album as a whole speaks of independence and strength, with a musical and lyrical maturity which seems well beyond her 21 years

Early standout ‘Tonight’ is s like a Shirley Bassey Bond theme, resting on the laurels of sumptuous backing vocals. It’s the bright lights and glamour of high-living, a romancing of romance itself. As she puts it on the next track, ‘Do Right By Me’, “how many times do I have to tell your sweet heart?” - but it’s this album that’s the real sweetness, and one that’s hopeless to resist

The record’s strongest moment comes with ‘Walking In The Rain’, a song tinged with all the theatrically of Broadway crossed with the scope and grandeur of the broad American west. There’s an enthralling storytelling tint to Harvieu’s music, painted here on the largest, most elegant of backdrops. Sepia tinged, flickering away in the backroom of the cinema, the song eventually fades out on heavenly surges of Ennio Morricone-esque strings

On title track ‘Through the Night Harvieu’s vocals are paradoxical as she sounds both detached and sultry, cold yet simmering at the same time. Her voice is a joy to behold as she switches from coy and innocent in verses which slip effortlessly into a chorus which enable Harvieu to reveal hidden desires in a love song which is brilliantly executed

Jimmy Hogarth’s production gives the album a convincing retro feel whilst being firmly contemporary at the same time. Rather than using female backing vocalists he uses male backing singers on the album and this gives the album’s overall sound a great warmth as the backing vocals blend with Harvieu’s voice. On ‘Forever in Blue‘ this sound is particularly evident as a slow, stripped back torch song with echoing backing vocals over a simple arrangement

Harvieu is allowed to show a darker side on ‘Twist the Knife and Dancing on Her Own’. On the former Harvieu’s ability to emote effortlessly is displayed perfectly as she lets a lover know his new girl won’t love him like she does. On the latter the tempo goes up a notch with a dash of ’70s quirk,and Harvieu sings over strident guitar riffs stretching over timely percussion. Once again the vocals rely on tone and timing to convey emotion and Harvieu pulls it off with aplomb

‘Holding On’ makes great use of those male backing singers again but with a well used horn section and simple piano backing this time. This has a bit of a country vibe to it and Harvieu gives the whole song a sultry, late night radio sound that works very well

The final two tracks on the album are both beautiful, lush and hugely romantic. Summer Romance’ is an epic teenage love song which in places will remind you of some of Roy Orbison’s best songs of nearly 50 years ago. When Harvieu sings “please don’t let me hear you say goodbye” it’s convincing as her voice reveals a timbre which conveys a deep longing and some good old teen angst in that charmingly innocent way pop music used to do. The arrangement is so good you can almost see Harvieu on a beach with waves crashing around her as she sings this

The album ends with Love is a Melody’ which retains the orchestra from the previous track. Harvieu’s vocal range is shown to best effect on this song as she uses orchestral references when singing about her romance. Her vocals soar here yet even when hitting the high notes her voice remains as effortlessly cool as it is throughout the album

Ren Harvieu’s take on pop-soul is gloriously out-of-time, with scant regard for modernisation. Through the Night, doesn’t just nod to the past, but is steeped in it. Her songs whip up the orchestral scale and romantic melodrama of classic 1960s stars such as Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey, complete with the often desperate emotional landscape on which the appeal of that era’s singers surely rests.

You often hear albums being described as summer albums. Through the Night is an album for the spring–time; a refreshing breath of life which promises more to come.

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May 18, 2012

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