From time to time you hear something that is an absolute joy. A record that through its simplicity of purpose and purity of delivery makes it stand head and shoulders above the morass of over-produced, contrived garbage that clutters the airwaves. This is one of them. Peppermint Radio is UK singer-songwriter Kate Walsh’s fourth studio album and there isn’t a single song from her purple pen on it. Instead it is a collection of songs from her formative years, chosen no doubt for their individual memories and resonances. To call it a covers album is a slight misnomer as Ms Walsh adds her matchless imprint on each song to the extent that several are unrecognisable from the originals while all get her signature treatment.
The collection of eleven songs spans 20 years from the early ’80s to the turn of the millennium. It stretches from Duran Duran’s “Save A Prayer” from the album Rio to “Feeling Oblivion” by Turin Brakes which creeps into the new century. Olly Knights, one half of Turn Brakes, has sung with Walsh live and on record. The record is in a way a radio broadcast in itself highlighting individual British artistes who have left their mark on Kate Walsh; a snapshot of her musical development, you could say. The album title honours an imaginary station Walsh pretended she worked for as a child, using her sewing machine in lieu of a mixing deck. The charm encapsulated in that very notion pervades this record from start to finish.
Peppermint Radio concludes a project begun in between recording her last self-penned album, Light And Dark, and touring, during which she released two EPs featuring a selection of these songs. The response to her inimitable take on chiefly classic songs provided the impetus to commit them to a complete album, opening with “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, one of a handful here that hardly requires an introduction. The Radiohead classic from OK Computer is given a melodramatic yet warm treatment with interweaving piano and cello, highlighted by Walsh’s sweet, wispy vocal, double-tracked here and there to great effect. The combination accents the Beatles-ish melody lines, which recall “Lucy In The Sky”.
Walsh’s regular producer, Tim Bidwell, brings a near-telepathic touch to the subtle arrangements that compliment her vocals without him ever taking the reins fully. At times things are pared down to a simple piano accompaniment, with a burst of mournful strings as on “Unbelievable”. This was a US No 1 Billboard hit in 1991 for British band EMF, but that takes some decoding from Walsh’s version. Similarly “Beetlebum” by Britpopers, Blur, is a surprisingly choice but Walsh’s take on the song works and the unique quality of her voice makes you ponder every word. Her treatment of “Move Any Mountain”, reworked as a tender piano ballad that sounds like Walsh wrote the song herself, is light years from The Shamen’s original dance anthem.
For quite different reasons, The Cure’s “Lullaby”, “Who’s That Girl” (the Eurythmics song, not Madonna’s) and Duran Duran’s “Save A Prayer” all sail closer to their earlier shores. Walsh and Bidwell add skilful individual touches to each to ensure the songs are not worked as straight covers. “Lullaby” succeeds especially well with Walsh’s breathy, sometimes whispered vocal bringing a rare, almost childlike intimacy while Bidwell adds some unexpected accordion and carefully chosen sound effects to the mix.
Kate Walsh’s ability to feel and breath every word, almost like her voice is an instrument in itself shines throughout this album. It’s hard to pick highlights as everything here is so finely crafted but I fell in love with her interpretations of the Prefab Sprout classic from Steve McQueen, “When Love Breaks Down” and Erasure’s “A Little Respect”. The former talks of how working hard to achieve something great is detrimental to relationships and Walsh voices those sentiments as a shared experience, making them real and believable. The Erasure song gets a beautifully tender treatment, a million miles from its hi-energy roots, and the way Walsh’s voice dies away at the end of some words adds a genuinely heartfelt touch.
The final two songs on the album are less well known but fit this collection perfectly and bring the tempo up a notch or two. Both are great songs in their own right and are not overshadowed by their bedfellows. “Feeling Oblivion” ebbs and flows in country fashion and is hallmarked by a characteristically sweet Kate Walsh delivery. The singer serves a more upfront vocal on “Monochrome” by The Sundays, straying into Joni Mitchell territory but retaining her own stamp and showcasing her vocal range, effortlessly through the register.
Taken as a whole, there is a sense that Kate Walsh is searching for the next step in her life with this record. Despite the hype that accompanied her becoming Britain’s only unsigned artiste to achieve a No 1 album on iTunes in 2007, her career has not developed along mainstream lines and she remains an enigma; proudly independent without compromise. Whatever the future holds though, Kate Walsh has unwrapped a jewel in Peppermint Radio.