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Eddi Reader: From Gang of Four to "Gang Agley"

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Eddi Reader: From Gang of Four to Gang Agley
Scottish singer Eddi Reader's strange odyssey has taken her from Annie Lennox to "Annie Laurie," Gang of Four to "gang agley," as in the Robert Burns line, "The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men/ Gang aft agley." She began her improbable rise singing on the streets of her native Glasgow; cut her teeth in the British punk scene of the '80s; and recently fronted the Royal National Scottish Orchestra, performing the 18th-century songs of Burns, Scotland's national icon.
        It is remarkable how utterly at home Reader's soft mezzo feels with songs by Burns or modern rockers. On her new album, "Peacetime," she moves like hot honey from traditional Scottish songs to edgy anthems by the Trashcan Sinatras' John Douglas.
        Her secret may be that she doesn't care a whit where a song comes from. Burns once famously wrote that "A man's a man for a' that." Reader treats songs with the same egalitarian verve.
        "I don't see a time difference in any of the songs I sing," she says. "I'll monkey around with anything that feels melodically and lyrically beautiful. It's all completely current to me."
        She always sounds like she's whispering in our ears, using her four-octave soprano and enormous technical savvy to bring us deep inside a song. On the new album, there is nothing archaic about the sexual longing she breathes into the ancient line, "Oh laddie, would you love me?"
        She is particularly brilliant at balancing conflicting emotions. On Douglas's bitingly modern "Prisons," her halting falsetto electrifies the lyric's fearful ambivalence. In the traditional "Calton Weaver," her sly, phrase-ending hiccups emphasize the ballad's odd meld of drunken boast and drunkard's lament.
        As a teenager, Reader left her working-class Glasgow roots, and soon found a gig as backup singer for Lennox's Eurythmics. She then joined the punk band Gang of Four, followed by Scottish popsters Fairground Attraction.
        When Reader heard recordings by the late cabaret legend Edith Piaf, she longed for a more direct, acoustic sound. Following a string of acclaimed solo records, she moved back home, and fell madly in love with Burns.
        "Burns' punk polemic is remarkably similar to what I found in the rock world," she says. "He was a rebel, and also quite a goodtime guy. When I was a wee girl, he was presented as this highbrow, establishment figure. But when I started singing his songs, I got a real sense that he was like Johnny Rotten in his day. He absolutely laughed at pretension."
        In 2003, Reader released an album of Burns songs. She worried that its contemporary groove would draw criticism. But the BBC called it a "glorious collection," praising how "fresh and urgent" she made the old songs. It brought her legions of new fans.
        That, of course, posed another problem: that she'd be pegged as the new voice of Burns. It was rule-breaking time again, but that's her favorite game. With the new CD uniting her modern and traditional tastes, she's now happily musing about a cabaret album: "Just double bass and piano, lovely, huh?"
        "I want to be a bit more Louis Armstrong about things," she says brightly, "try on anything that makes me feel joyous."
        [Originally appeared in the Boston Globe]

updated: 6 years ago