LORI CULLEN WITH SEXSMITH SWINGHAMMER SONGS
“How strange is this life?”
Oh, what joy it is to feel physical pleasure while listening to an album. Lori Cullen’s Sexsmith Swinghammer Songs is an audiophile’s dream, and this wonderful, unexpected jazz/folk album has sneaked its way into contention for one of the best albums of the year.
Sonically, it sits comfortably among Getz and Gilberto, Joni Mitchell, and Nick Drake, and is the closest thing to perfect production you can find all year, with richly textured instrumentation vibrant enough to hit your solar plexus but restrained enough to bring serenity. The silence sparkles, mixing the instruments in at just the right volume, and floating you up on good vibes.
Which is to say nothing of the subtle, nuanced, and rich compositions by Ron Sexsmith and Kurt Swinghammer, written especially for Cullen. The keyboards are sweet and delicate; the bass rumbles like a playful uncle; the guitar holds the line with bright, compelling, chord changes. The minute movements, one-note chord changes, and tiny subliminal movements that barely register consciously take on the weight of revelation. Once you reach the final track, you’ve taken a journey, winding and complicated, without ever knowing you took a step off the path.
She turns major chords to diminished on a dime, and the moments of joy and sorrow in the lyrics are done with hairpin precision.
Above it all is Cullen herself: her voice–like this album–hides its power within the gentle, flowing compositions. The moments of breathiness suggest the moments of power. On tracks like “Strange is this Life,” you get the full range of her abilities, from barely voiced lullaby to full-strength mezzo-soprano. She turns major chords to diminished on a dime, and the moments of joy and sorrow in the lyrics are done with hairpin precision. At no point do the overtly optimistic turns on tracks such as “New Love” feel at odds with the overtly pessimistic “Face of Emily,” or “Beginners Luck.” Each song is necessary, stays as long as it needs to, then, waves goodbye.
For me, listening to this record is like watching the sunset cross your lover’s face as it falls into night, on the beach. It’s that specific shade of orange too beautiful for daytime, touched just-so with gold and shadow that magnifies in the presence of the face it falls onto: balanced, beautiful, and slightly melancholy. The only imperfections are the last few tracks, which emotionally stutter just a little. Unfortunately, the previous balance achieved compounds the noticeability; they are not bad, but they do not shine quite as bright. But goddamn, it feels nice to unabashedly enjoy an album for once.
Until I ride on carousels of summertime
R2 Magazine Review by Ian Taylor, Jan 19, 2017
The Whole Note review by Lesley Mitchell-Clarke, Nov 28, 2016
Contemporary jazz/pop vocalist Lori Cullen’s latest release is an appealing and innovative project that is the result of an inspired collaboration between Cullen herself and two noted musicians – composer/guitarist Kurt Swinghammer and composer/lyricist Ron Sexsmith. It was Sexsmith who first suggested to Swinghammer that they write an album together specifically tailored for Cullen. The 12 tracks on the CD all feature lyrics by Sexsmith and are rife with Swinghammer’s carefully placed stylistic elements of the artists who defined the fertile pop eras of the 1960s and 1970s, including tips of the hat to Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Produced by bassist Maury Lafoy (who appears on the project), the musicians also include drummer Mark Mariash, keyboardist Robbie Grunwald and Swinghammer on guitar. Although Fender Rhodes and guitar are central to the instrumentation, the compelling, acoustic arrangements by Swinghammer also involve an array of diverse instrumental contributions, including finely crafted enhancements on trumpet, trombone, oboe, clarinet, vibraphone, marimba, English horn, recorder and more.
Cullen’s angelic voice wraps itself around each sumptuous melodic line and every composition has been constructed to highlight her superb, crystalline vocal instrument and intuitive knack for delivering frank emotional content and a quirky lyric. Memorable tracks include the gently swinging and faintly ironic The Face of Emily, which features a lush vocal arrangement, and the groovy, lighter-than-air bossa nova, New Love. A true gem is the heartrending duet between Cullen and Sexsmith, Off Somewhere.
This thoroughly pleasing and unabashedly romantic recording is a triumph for all three of these gifted artists and a stunning example of creative, musical symbiosis.
Uncut Review by Gavin Martin Jan 2017 8/10
Delirious Canadian combo centred on jazz chanteuse and national treasure
Justly lauded as one of her generation’s purest voices, Cullen’s scale-swooning smoothness and jazzy agility here prove the perfect foil for two celebrated fellow countrymen fans. The landscape of Jobim/Bacharach pop is reimagined with Ron Sexsmith’s ever curious and naturally psychedelic lyrics on “Strange Is The Life”, along with the off-kilter soulfulness of inspired arrangements by Cullen’s husband, the excellently named Kurt Swinghammer. The cherry on the cake could be Ron and Lori’s “Off Somewhere”, but everywhere here these sensual, swinging and sashaying songs provide pleasure-centre-assailing treats for any season.
CD Review by Kevin Bryan for Messenger UK, Dec 12 2016
Lori Cullen, “Sexsmith Swinghammer Songs” (True North Records)- This distinctive offering finds Canadian vocalist Lori Cullen applying her pure and unaffected tones to a selection of songs penned by the writing duo of Kurt Swinghammer and Ron Sexsmith. The finished product represents a conscious throwback to the work of similarly gifted creative figures from the sixties such as Burt Bacharach and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Sexsmith himself duets with Lori on one of the album’s stand-out tracks, “Off Somewhere.”
Review: Michael Barclay – Waterloo Region Record, Nov 25, 2016
Fans of Ron Sexsmith and Kurt Swinghammer, his long-time friend and frequent guitarist—the two once covered each other’s songs in a project called Sexhammer—will know that they share a love of the songwriting master of Burt Bacharach and the bossa nova pioneer Antônio Carlos Jobim. Sexsmith is also a big fan of Swinghammer’s wife, Lori Cullen, who has six previous albums to her name. Ergo, Sexhammer reunited to write a full album for Cullen, one that’s a full-on tribute to the breezy, sophisticated pop of their heroes. The instrumentation is perfect: plenty of nylon guitar, trombones, Rhodes piano, the most featherweight percussion, and the occasional clarinet or oboe to further remove it from any modern pop norms. Mia Sheard and Jennifer Foster chime in on backing vocals. It adds up to a series of love letters between incredibly accomplished musicians: both between friends and between generations.
REVIEW: Kerry Doole – Exclaim, RATING: 8 out of 10. Oct 26, 2016
Sexsmith Swinghammer Songs, the new release from acclaimed pop/jazz chanteuse Lori Cullen, is a collaboration between three formidable talents. She sings, husband Kurt Swinghammer composed and arranged the music and Ron Sexsmith wrote all the lyrics. Longtime friends Sexsmith and Swinghammer used to work together (as Sexhammer!), and their clear empathy shines through in these well-crafted compositions.
Sexsmith and Cullen combine for a charming duet on “Off Somewhere,” and the album is produced with clarity by Maury Lafoy. He also plays, alongside Swinghammer and such notables as Robbie Grunwald and Mark Mariash. Horns are used in discreet yet effective fashion, adding atmosphere to the gently paced material. Cullen’s subtle yet warm delivery proves a perfect delivery vehicle for the songs, some of which have a gentle bossa flavour.
Most of the compositions clock in at three minutes or less, a length that suits these concise portraits that often focus on the redemptive power of love (“Love’s gone and chased this shadow from me,” goes “New Love”) and the delights of family (“Then There Were Three,” “Miracle Home”). Sexsmith Swinghammer Songs is an understated but tasty treat.
Lori Cullen with Ron Sexsmith: Off Somewhere
By Adam Carter, CBC News Posted: Nov 19, 2016 11:00 AM ET
This track from Lori Cullen and Ron Sexsmith just feels timeless. It has a bit of a Tony Bennett-like quality, but still manages to feel contemporary at the same time. I’m honestly blown away by the vocal performances here.
Top 100 Canadian Singles Blog by Bob Mersereau Thursday, Nov 10, 2016
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LORI CULLEN – SEXSMITH SWINGHAMMER SONGS
It must have been a no-brainer for Cullen to take up her friend Ron Sexsmith’s suggestion that he and Kurt Swinghammer write all-new songs for her to record. Not only were they all friends, they’re all on the A-list of Toronto talent. So we have the beautiful jazz-folk vocalist performing 12 songs featuring Sexsmith’s words and Swinghammer’s compositions.
The writers weren’t holding back on their A-list material or ideas at all. Sexsmith comes through with some of his killer images and lines. Miracle Home offers up “We turned a house of cards into a miracle home,” while “Some Part Of Me” includes “I’m tired of eyes that give it all away/Kill the surprise of living each day.” Opening track The Face Of Emily is a classic bit of Sexsmith writing, the lines on a stranger’s face meaning another sad story as a woman grows older, unknown to most. Heck, he even says it in the words, “It’s a lonely world.” But several songs here are about the celebration of love and family, including Miracle Home, New Love and Then There Were Three. More proof he’s not the gloomy Gus he gets labelled far too often.
Swinghammer responded to the project by placing the songs in a 60s pop world, with lots of Bacharach and bits of Jobim. There are lots of electric keyboards and moody horns and woodwinds, clarinet and fluegelhorn parts, plus vibes and marimba to add ringing percussion. It’s far away from the rock combo; instead it’s the pop orchestra. Cullen’s voice is a wonder, never showy or dominate but simply lovely, the sound of love and joy and warmth. This week especially, what the world needs now…
Lori Cullen Sexsmith Swinghammer Songs
By Darryl Sterdan, Toronto Sun, Friday 11, 2016
How many Canadians does it take to make a Lori Cullen album? At least three: Kurt Swinghammer to write winsome ’60-style jazz-pop tunes reminiscent of everyone from Jobim to Bacharach; Ron Sexsmith to contribute lyrics that are every bit as romantically sunny as these melodies; and vocalist Cullen to croon them sweetly and sincerely. A triple treat.
RATING: 3.5 (out of 5)