Little Annie - TraceLittle Annie is back with Trace, an album successfully crowdfunded and subsequently released by Tin Angel. Unlike her previous albums Genderful and State of Grace which were collaborations with Paul Wallfisch and Baby Dee respectively, on Trace Little Annie hooks up with three different sets of songwriters including the musician and improviser Ryan Driver, the Brooklyn based electronic outfit Opal Onyx with one song written with Paul Wallfisch, her key partner on Genderful. From CRASS to On-U Sound, Little Annie surrounds herself with great collectives and Ryan Driver brings a stunning jazz ensemble to bring a new element to Little Annie's torch singing. And as such Trace, for the most part, beds Little Annie's torch singing in elegant jazz structures but it's not all jazz.
Trace unfolds to the icy electronics of 'Cold World' with Little Annie's earnest intonation "don't let this world tear you apart, don't let this cold world rip out your heart" before seguing into 'Dear John', all dressed up in showbiz descriptions, as she recalls a lost love, amidst the jazzy piano chords, gentle organ chime and soft wails of muted trumpet. Written with Paul Wallfisch, who was her key collaborator on Genderful, it captures the smoky atmosphere of late night clubs with Little Annie centre stage pouring out her heart. You can hear the pain in Annie's cracked fragile tones as she remembers a dear departed lover, who could be her early hustler boyfriend Billy Italy. It's this absence of friends and lovers who have crossed paths with Little Annie that permeate Trace, and those characters include alls sorts of hustlers, hookers, vagabonds, drug addicts and outsiders.
Over light touches of piano and bass, Little Annie toys with her inimitable phrasing on 'My Old Man Trouble', veering from half-sung murmurs to a sneery New York drawl, before it all goes cabaret-esque with swinging clarinet and saxophone flourishes taking it into Brechtian territory. While the lyrics of 'My Old Man Trouble' contain a brazen honesty about the chaos and calamity that has dogged her life, 'Nought Marie', which opens to a chorus of a cappella voices, is much more heartfelt and compassionate. In hushed breathy tones, like a mother singing her child off to sleep, Little Annie tells of a broken and abused child over low-key piano melodies, vibraphone and soft-brush rhythms. Little Annie's love of love and love of God shines through in its words of angels and light.
Her one-time love of drink - which lasted a long-time - is found on the opening lines of 'India Song', the first of two covers featured on Trace. Originally sung by Jeanne Moreau in the 1975 Marguerite Duras film of the same name it is given the Little Annie treatment with Little Annie in great form singing in French shrouded by a chorus of male harmonies. The other is the jazz standard 'You Don't Know What Love Is', which like 'India Song', is sung pretty straight and sung pretty, which is something rare for Little Annie. This one has been sung by all the greats: Billie Holiday, Chet Baker, Marvin Gaye, Ella Fitzgerald (whose version is closest to Little Annie's) and Little Annie has certainly lived the life and earned the right to sing it. Just listen to those opening lyrics: "You don't know what love is, Until you've learned the meaning of the blues, Until you've loved a love you've had to lose, You don't know what love is". She does it beautifully. Over piano and vibraphone with louche bass movements and ringing guitar tones its lyrics concerning a departed lover are delivered in Little Annie's well-lived smoky hues, with that voice which enraptured audiences at her residency in Joe's Pub many years ago in New York.
In recent years Little Annie's solo material from Songs From A Coal Mine Canary, the cover version album When Good Things Happen To Bad Pianos to Genderful - sorry I missed State of Grace with Baby Dee - and to much of Trace has focussed on piano based songs but both 'She Has A Way' and 'Bitching Song' almost hark back to her earlier solo work with On-U Sound and Legally Jammin'. Both tracks were written with the Brooklyn electronic project Opal Onyx. The skittering electronics and atmospheric drone of 'She Has A Way' has a skeletal framework matched by a distant stark vocal, subject to echoes and background accompaniment, as Little Annie sings of one of her outsiders; a drugged up smalltown starlet who lived her life as if it was a film covering her bruises with make-up. 'Bitching Song' is even better. Against droning dub electronica and rhythmic clicks, Little Annie rhymes off a list of bitches in a roll call of careers, highlighting their personality quirks, ranging from singers, librarians, clock makers, artists throwing off some great lines: models - "bitches over 5' 11", who do not eat"; web designers - "bitches who never leave their room". And that's before she starts railing against the establishment in the form of politicians, the CIA, the FBI, and even, unsurprisingly, record companies - "don't get me started!". Bitchcraft, it's bitchcraft, and this is Little Annie at her most, uh, bitchy.
She smoulders in hushed tones over the tinkering piano and jazz chords of 'Break It You Buy It' as it swings to a late-night Latino jazz club beat amidst clarinet and vibraphone passages, while string arrangements surround 'You Better Run', with Little Annie almost confessing to a career of getting away with it. Its delicate passages belie the years she endured gobbing and all sorts of debris being hurled at her while singing, under the name Annie Anxiety, with CRASS, and her early years as a solo artist. But let's not forget, and this is why we're still listening, she also managed to forge something of a career, rechristened by On-U Sound as Little Annie.
'You Better Run' almost acts as a prequel to 'Midlife Lazarus' which sounds like a mission statement for Trace. 'Midlife Lazarus' almost tells the story of the album, reading like a confessional for Little Annie; a middle-aged woman who tells it straight, as someone who sees life as it is. Direct in its honesty, its played out not as expected, and as much of Trace has been, bathed in jazz instruments but over waves of guitar, distorted and extended, reflecting the ageing physical body: "Make-up kinda harsh and beauty kinda blurry, Shoulders kinda slumped 'cause her wings be so damn heavy, Tiny bit broken but she ain't busted, Edges may be blunt but she can still cut you". It glides out in a chorus of voices against discordant guitars which soar into the void.
Things come full circle on the title track as Little Annie deals with the world that has torn her apart, highlighting the vulnerability and pain found on Trace. Hushed and emotive, Little Annie's fragile tones invoke a lost lover over warm guitar chords and soft organ chime. Described in painterly hues, a considered nod to her other alternative career as an artist, she seeks solace and some form of redemption with the memories of all those she has loved and have passed.
Trace sees Little Annie pushed by Ryan Driver to mix with the greats singing with an understated warmth, while the electronics pushed into dub realms are a reminder of her past solo works. Producer Jean Martin has done a great job on Trace in bringing together the disparate elements of the musical contributors. Having given up her beloved and now gentrified New York for the warmer climes of Miami, what remains is that voice and those songs fuelled by memories of a past, of love and loss, portrayed with honesty, passion and love. Listen, remember and empathise in its words and delivery. No-one does loss like Little Annie these days. For more information go to Tin Angel