The Scotsman’s music critics review the latest album releases, including Elton John’s Wonderful Crazy Nights and Runrig’s final studio full-length
Elton John: Wonderful Crazy Night | Rating: ** | Virgin EMI
Unlike some other artists of his vintage, Elton John seems earnest in his desire to engage with the world and push things forward. In the last couple of years alone, he has spoken out in favour of dissident artist Ai Weiwei and conducted what he believed to be a bona fide phone conversation with Vladimir Putin about Russia’s poor record on gay rights. The latter intervention turned out to be a hoax, but the good intention was there.
And when he could be sitting back and counting his millions, he also continues to produce new music, and at least talk an enthusiastic game, even if the results are fairly leaden.
His latest album, he contends, is stuffed with purposefully perky songs as a reaction to the more introspective Diving Board album of 2013, and features John looking dementedly jolly on the cover.
However, not everyone has shared his positive outlook – in fact, his label, Capitol Records, decided to drop him when they heard this latest batch of material, recorded in a mere three weeks with the familiar team of lyricist Bernie Taupin, producer T Bone Burnett and longtime guitarists Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnstone around him.
John has likened the album to his vintage 1970s output, and there are echoes here and there, such as a brief burst of chugging pomp pop on bonus track England & America. But the execution is far more heavy-handed these days. He attacks the keys with boogie-woogie-for-beginners zeal on the title track, a musically staid recollection of an apparently wild night which shares a certain old man nostalgia with Rod Stewart’s recent musical reminiscences.
Following the bluesy pop/rock of In the Name of You and the mid-paced Claw Hammer, which drags along despite some jangling guitar, the album takes a turn for the MOR with Blue Wonderful and I’ve Got 2 Wings, a country-flavoured melody with a dash of Tex-Mex accordion. Good Heart is also a bit of a plod, with John over-egging the vocal. He’s not yet fully in pub singer territory, but there are regular moments when he makes an inarticulate meal of the delivery.
In this company, the very basic boogie of single Looking Up sounds positively heady, though the rhythm could be peppier still and that jaunty central piano hook could take a long time to get out of your head.
Beyond this cheery earworm, Wonderful Crazy Night doesn’t deliver those purported upbeat kicks. But it does end on a couple of easy listening musical metaphor numbers in the Neil Diamond Play Me vein, both of which have their charms, relatively speaking. Tambourine is a lighter folk tune featuring ample shakes of said percussion, and Open Chord is airily arranged with pizzicato strings, pedal steel and tinkling piano. “You’re an open chord I want to play all day” runs the lyric.
The same cannot be said for this album.
POP: Runrig: The Story | Rating: ** | Ridge Records
Here’s where the story ends for Scotland’s most successful Celtrock crossover band – at least in terms of albums. Following the celebration of their 40th anniversary in 2013, Runrig have decided to record one last studio album. The Story features all the tried-and-tested Runrig elements – sentimental-verging-on-mawkish lyrics in Gaelic and English performed over a mainstream pop/rock backing shot through with commercial Celtic flavour. It’s a slickly produced amalgam which also flirts with mainstream dance pop on the backing for the title track and Simple Minds pomp and Springsteen sax on Onar. Whatever new horizons await the band, they are not evident here.
The Cult: Hidden City | Rating: *** | Cooking Vinyl
Hoary old rockers The Cult are in (relatively) mellow mood on their tenth album. Rock’n’roll is still their medicine, but this time they are sticking to the recommended dosage. Hidden City is less stodgy than previous efforts though arguably just as indulgent – according to reliably pretentious singer Ian Astbury, the album is “a metaphor for our spiritual and intimate interior lives”. Astbury usually sounds like he is doing battle with a giant, marauding ball of phlegm but shows a tantalising tender side on the bare piano ballad Sound and Fury, suggesting a whole new torch song direction if they were ever persuaded to take the pedal off the metal. FS
JAZZ: Charles Lloyd & the Marvels: I Long to See You | Rating: *** | Blue Note
At 77, there’s no stopping the ever-questing US saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Here with regular accompanists bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland, he indulges his love of fretwork by recruiting eclectic jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and steel guitarist Greg Leisz, who add beguiling colour to an enjoyable if occasionally bemusing recording.
In a superbly moody version of Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, Leisz’s stealthily whining steel and Eric Harland’s drum batter work up tension before Lloyd’s tenor sax sounds out arrestingly. Frisell’s edgy guitar colours the Latino Sombrero Sam, while Lloyd brings unhurried lyricism to old chestnuts such as Shenandoah and Abide With Me as well as his own, yearning Barche Lamsel, which steadily builds up drive, all avian flute and guitar shimmer, before bringing in the sax.
Two somewhat incongruous vocal contributions are Willie Nelson’s wavery account of Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream and Norah Jones lending silky tones to You Are So Beautiful to Me. Jim Gilchrist
CLASSICAL: The Deer’s Cry | Rating: **** | Coro
There are so many discs of William Byrd’s and Thomas Tallis’s sacred choral music, finding a unique way to present these works is perhaps the greatest challenge. Harry Christophers is never short of ideas, and this coupling of the two Elizabethan giants with three intertwined tracks of Arvo Pärt’s sublime, ancient-meets-modern writing works a treat. On their own, the Byrd and Tallis motets – specially chosen for the canonic and other games the composers play with their construction – are as deliciously pure as they are characterful, from Byrd’s silken Miserere Mihi and Tallis’ When Jesus Went, to the extended magnificence of Byrd’s Tribue, Domine. But the telling, ritualistic harmonies of Pärt’s The Deer’s Cry and the narrative potency of The Woman in the Alabaster Box are both refreshing and complementary in the company of old masters. Ken Walton
FOLK: Mairearad Green: Summer Isles | Rating: *** | Buie Records
A touch of island magic and clearly a labour of love from accordionist, piper and singer-songwriter Mairearad Green, who celebrates the little islands off her native Coigach peninsula in Wester Ross. Running through it all are pulses and shimmers of keyboard and accordion, introduced by the opening instrumental, Island Folk.
The real hook song of the album is the catchy, optimistic beat of Star of Hope, in which King Creosote guests on lead vocals. Green has a plaintive if fairly low key voice and her other songs include The Island (co-written with poet Jan Kilpatrick), with its swelling choral harmonies, and the atmospheric Blessing on Tanera, while Grace Darling, presumably the famous Northumbrian lighthouse keeper’s daughter, makes a slightly puzzling appearance (more sleeve notes please) in an eponymous song with fairly mournful vocals by Hector MacInnes.
Seanchaidh introduces a stirring piobaireachd theme on pipes, while Red Throated Diver has Jo Nicolson’s clarinet sounding reedily along with Green’s accordion, to paddle off in elegant waltz-time. JG