Wednesday, 25 June 2014

A very guilty adventure: Guilty (1980) - Barbra Streisand

There was a brilliant article in the telegraph a month or so ago by Anne Billson on the subject of guilty pleasures, referencing its use in the film industry and how it is something of a ‘henious cliche’ and a ‘yellow-bellied euphemism’ to mask the fact that a viewer might enjoy a critically dubious film on its own merits.

I would like to take this a step further and apply it to the world of music, especially music that came out of the ten year period between 1975 - 1985, and for the purposes of this article one album in particular... Guilty (1980) by Barbara Streisand. It is an album that I am extremely fond of for nostalgic reasons, but which now reigns supreme as the king of camp kitsch.

When I was growing up in the early 1990s (I was born in 1987), cassette decks were still the norm in cars up and down the country and the personal CD player was still very much in its infancy, clunky and prone to skipping if moved a mere fraction from a dead flat surface. It was also a time where petrol stations also doubled as rudimentary record stores, selling a patchy array of contemporary and no-so-contemporary albums for ‘bargain’ prices. It was from these purveyors that our Saab’s music collection was formed, albeit a limited one.  The main stars of this lesson in 80s pop music were: No Jacket Required by Phil Collins, Foreign Affair by Tina Turner, Brother’s In Arms by Dire Straits, No Parlez by Paul Young and of course Guilty by Barbara Streisand. 

Of course, all the above albums share the same thing in common: in their day they were best-selling records (some with more critical acclaim than others) and all of which now seem to draw sniggers and derision from numerous different quarters. However, there is one that sticks firmly in my memory, taking me back to those long car journeys down to the Lot-Garonne region of France where we used to holiday and that is Guilty. It's a now critically overlooked gem in the career of one of America’s most successful recording artists. 

Guilty was born out of a very astute judgement of cultural trends in the late 70s and early 80s and also the pairing of two acts who were riding a crest of popularity. Essentially it was the combination of USA’s original diva (Streisand) and the world’s most popular group at the time (The Bee Gees). If there was anything to be said about Streisand her business acumen should not be underestimated, especially her decision in 1979 to approach Barry Gibb to compose and produce the songs for her next album, the project which would subsequently become Guilty. 

The Bee Gees ruled the radio waves in the late 70s with killer albums like Main Course (1975), Children of the World (1976), Saturday Nigh Fever OST (1977) and Spirits Have Flown (1979). All albums contained a string of global chart toppers, positioning the band as one of the top draws of the time. Masters of harmony and crafting gloriously lush pop songs they were a perfect fit for Streisand who was in need of some reinvigoration by 1980. Using a crack team of musicians and engineers they created an album which appealed to Barbra’s powerful voice, drenched in soaring strings, silk Bee Gees background vocals and full of the rhythm heavy feel of the time - this is up their with Benson’s ‘Give Me The Night’ as a wonderful snapshot of the musical zeitgeist of the time. 

The title track opens the album with a seductive, understated drum roll that descends into a slow, funky and distinctly naughty tempo. Essentially it’s a Bee Gees track, but the duet, which she performs with Barry Gibbs cannot help but bring a guilty smile to the face of the listener... it glistens with tackiness, one of the most ironically un-seductive tracks ever written but yet one of the best produced, best written and best performed duets of all time... the I said it! Guilty as charged. It would definitely be on my Desert Island Discs! 

‘Woman In Love’ is the most famous track of the album, a chart topper in 1981 and garnered a number of awards. It’s another great Bee Gees song performed by another artist, up there with Dionne Warwick’s ‘Heartbreaker’ or Diana Ross’s ‘Chain Reaction’. The song is heavy on the Fender Rhodes and gives Streisand a chance to flex her vocal chops. 

I warn listeners looking for an upbeat listen that slow tunes dominate. In an interesting interview with Barry Gibb a few years ago he claimed that during this period the band wanted to be seen not just as a disco act but also recognised for their soulful music and ballad - there is a preponderance of the latter: ‘Run Wild’, ‘The Love Inside’, ‘What Kind of Fool’ (with Barry Gibb), ‘Make it a Memory’. They are all great songs and showcase the song writing abilities of the Bee Gees, as always they are full of strings with rise and fade into the firmament, inflected by the occasional, mournful guitar solo. 

My personal picks, outside the title track are, firstly, ‘Promises’, an unashamedly camp dance song with one of the most brutally dated synthesiser riffs every committed to record and a distinctly disco-esque bassline. One feels that there was a conscious decision to include this track on the album for club play as it is the only cut that would sit comfortably on the turntable... It’s no slouch for that though, it’s a very infectious number.

Last but not least is ‘Never Give Up’, a filler track it may be but it’s one of the best, overlooked tracks on the album... it’s never mentioned in any reviews! It’s corny, uplifting and not the most challenging of numbers but it never fails to lift my spirits. It’s also got some of Barry Gibb’s best backing vocals on it, his refrain on the chorus is gold dust... I could go on...

Kitsch though it is, I cannot recommend this album to music appreciators enough, let’s put it this way, it wasn’t Streisand’s best-selling album for no reason. For that I feel it needs an urgent reappraisal, guilty pleasure or not! I like to think that it will still have a pride of place in my record collection to afflict on any future family I might have in years to come!

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Chez Bruce... a truly epic dining experience

There are some meals that linger in your mind long after you have eaten the last morsel and quaffed the last drop of wine. Such was the case with the meal that I had at Chez Bruce last Friday lunchtime. 

As with all memorable meals, it was a celebration. I had recently secured a new job and my success was being toasted by my family with gusto. I had been to Chez Bruce a couple of times before over the years so I was already familiar with the excellent cooking that comes out of the kitchen in this legendary South London restaurant. Arriving early I supped a half pint on Sambrook’s excellent Junction and cast my thoughts to the treat that was in store for me. 

Of course, there have been plenty of reviews of Chez Bruce over the years, a lone Michelin Star in what was the veritable gastronomic desert of South West London (having grown up in Wimbledon and Southfields this is no understatement). Established on the same site as the legendary Marco Pierre White venture Harveys (1987 - 1993), Chez Bruce was opened in 1995 by Bruce Poole, a chef who has an incredible pedigree across many of London’s top restaurants during the early 1990s. The food, to my mind is a modern interpretation of European classics, supported by one of the most interesting and inventive wine lists of any restaurant I have been to. 

Chez Bruce has been very popular since its establishment and the fame of its kitchen has spread across the country, but it still maintains the feel of a local institution. It is not an overly large restaurant and its position on Wandsworth Common gives it a welcoming, village feel. 

One o’clock soon came around and I entered into the cool, contemporary dining room with good acoustic and a clean feel. Usually I am not a particular fan of silver service and fine dining but Chez Bruce deliver it well without being intrusive. There is something quite pleasing about a crisp white linen table cloth, good quality napkins and sturdy cutlery, and I am pleased to write that the restaurant delivered on all counts. 

I was the first to arrive and whilst I waited I enjoyed a well-chilled glass of Meantime’s very reliable London Lager and some home made cheese straws, flecked with poppy and toasted sesame seeds. It was not a long wait and soon my mother and a very good family friend arrived to present me with a box of ten Montecristo No.4 cigars! Very nice indeed, the first of the box would be enjoyed post lunch, to aid the digestive progress. 

As it was a celebration a bottle of Champers was ordered with immediate effect. The Gratiot-Pillière, Tradition, Brut slipped down smoothly and was a much better foil for the cheese straw than the beer. I’m not a regular Champagne drinker but this was exceptionally good with a lovely light colour and a dry edge which lightly stroked the tongue rather than stripping off the tastebuds. 

Starters were ordered and and were thankfully presented after a reasonable gap, to allow us to enjoy our first drink. It is refreshing in an age where restaurants harry customers through their meal, so they can fill as many covers as possible throughout the day that, at Chez Bruce, you do not feel rushed in the slightest. The atmosphere was relaxed and the staff seamlessly glided through the restaurant being unobtrusive but also available at the diner’s request. 

My starter of crispy pig’s head with poached loin, celeriac, apple and sauce ravigote was very tasty. The unctuous croquette of pigs head with its meaty, slightly gelantinous texture disappeared quickly. The delicate, thinly slice loin was countered by a silky smooth quenelle of celeriac puree and some crisp matchstick of apple tossed through with Ravigote sauce (a vinaigrette with capers, herbs and cornichon), giving an acidic note to cut through the richness of the pork. My mother had a marvelously fresh chilled tomato consommé which was textbook in its preparation and held the concentrated flavour of fresh tomatoes, a spoonful of which would transport you to a cottage garden on a hot summer day. Our family friend had the Fishcakes with cmoked Haddock and clam  chowder, pancetta, pickled cucumber and chives, I didn’t try this but was assured that it was excellent. This was accompanied by more Champagne. 

We all chose Plaice fillets with beurre noisette, capers, warm charlotte potato salad, samphire and shrimps and accompanied this with a bottle of 2011 Soave Classico, La Rocca, Pieropan. What can I say... the head chef,  Matt Christmas and his team pulled out all the stops for this dish. It is definitely one of the best fish dishes I have ever, ever had. The plaice was so fresh that it reminded me of the quality of the catch served at the Hotel Atlantique in Wimereux. A more-ish beurre noisette (brown butter sauce) was dotted with sweet little shrimps and scattered with al dente samphire giving some pleasantly salty notes alongside the occasional caper. It was a triumph and it was all that I could do to resist licking the plate clean. A perfectly proportioned place, it was not too little and not too much, like baby bear’s porridge in that classic fairy tale, it was just right! 

I usually have something sweet for pudding but this was one of the rare occasions that I went for the cheese over Chez Bruce’s excellent Creme Brulee (to my mind, it’s by far the best in London). A plate of époisses, cerney and chällerhocker, was presented with some Membrillo (quince jelly), grapes and a basket of homemade fruitbread and oat biscuits. A lovely selection cheese, I am particularly fond of epoisses and this one was ripe and pungent, well offset by the hard chällerhocker which was somewhat like a Manchego and a surprising cerney, which is a creamy goats cheese and worked well on the fruit-bread. Oh and I finished of half of the velvety creme brulee my mother couldn’t manage, so it was a win-win situation. 

Coffees, homemade truffles and featherlight shortbread that melted on the mouth. What a brilliant meal. If you have the chance, make sure that you head down to Wandworth Common for some of the best food in the capital, cooked with skill and aplomb. As I sat in my garden afterwards with a cigar and a glass of Bruichladdich I ruminated on the meal, the perfect balance of the dishes and the convivial ambience of the restaurant. This was definitely a meal to remember!