The four years since Emeli Sandé’s debut album have been tumultuous, both personally and professionally, but there are signs a new voice is emerging from the polished pop
Emeli Sandé: Long Live The Angels ***
Martha Wainwright: Goodnight City ****
Yip Man: Braw Power ****
Even though she can churn out an earworm hookline like nobody’s business, Emeli Sandé is an unlikely pop star, more comfortable in the rehearsal room than the limelight. This shy Aberdonian singer/songwriter was, unsurprisingly, overcome by the phenomenal success of her debut album Our Version Of Events and the high-profile demands on her time, with performances at the White House and the Olympics just the tip of the iceberg.
And, as Debbie Allen once told us, fame costs. For Sandé, it led to the break-up of her marriage which, in turn, put any thoughts of a follow-up on the back burner until she could channel that pain. Previously a buttoned-up presence, she claims to be letting it all hang out here, describing her comeback cri de coeur Hurts as “real talk”.
In the interim, she also travelled to Zambia with Oxfam, visiting her father’s village, where her grandmother still lives, and meeting her African relatives for the first time. She describes the experience as “cleansing” and its influence on her new album can be heard most clearly on Tenderly, an acoustic slice of Afro soul pop, featuring her father Joel and her cousins, collectively dubbed the Serenje Choir, and more subtly on the opening Selah – a peaceful, understated and powerful choral incantation.
The soothing mood is followed through into Breathing Underwater, its stoned pace and quavering strings reminiscent of a glossier Massive Attack. It’s just one of a number of songs with a gospel backbone but even this most cathartic of musical traditions is generally handled with care, if not outright caution.
However, Sandé does spread her wings on Long Live The Angels, not least on the contemporary R&B track Garden, which finally hauls her out of the middle of the road. There is an almost inscrutable sultriness to its less-is-more template, enhanced by considered spoken word interludes (as opposed to raps) from guests Jay Electronica and Áine Zion.
This time round, it’s more about delayed gratification. She holds back the big fail-safe pop hooks until later in the album – Every Single Little Piece and especially Highs & Lows have surely been earmarked to peel off as singles – and even when she does deliver a more declamatory vocal, as on Shakes, it is couched in a tastefully understated backing of tremulous strings and sombre piano.
Four years on from mainstream ubiquity, we are now inching towards a more sophisticated portrait of Emeli Sandé.
Martha Wainwright recovers her quirky musical character via songwriting collaborations with her aunt Anna McGarrigle and cousin Lily Lanken among others on new album Goodnight City, channelling the free spirit of Stevie Nicks through the commercial rootsy pop of Franci, properly flexing her expressive voice, which vaults from a wistful sigh to a harpy scream on the rapturous Before The Children Came Along (accompanied by the sound of a thousand parents nodding) and putting her idiosyncratic stamp on songs as diverse as the hypnotic, melodramatic, Beth Orton-penned Alexandria, the dirty, hectic rock’n’roll of Go Down and the blushing romanticism of Francis, written by brother Rufus.
Speaking of characters, Yip Man is the superhero alter ego of former Le Reno Amps frontman Al Nero, birthed on a trip to China but inspired, it seems, by strictly western musical traditions. This beanie-hatted street philosopher disseminates his mots justes via the evergreen medium of lo-fi rock’n’roll. Braw Power is stuffed with infectious garagey pop punk nuggets delivered in frayed vocal style and embellished with gonzo keyboard breaks and handclaps. If he went east in search of spiritual inspiration, Nero certainly returned with creative riches at his fingertips.
Anne Sophie von Otter: So Many Things ***
Anne Sophie von Otter returns to crossover with an album combining soft spun modernist classical with classically-treated pop by the likes of Sting, Björk and Rufus Wainwright. Von Otter’s vehicle is the nimble Brooklyn Rider string quartet. Among the classical numbers, Cant Voi L’aube has a distinctive beauty and charm. Cast around the lyrics of an ancient trouvère song, Caroline Shaw’s musical narrative is touchingly archaic. Colin Jacobsen’s For Sixty Cents is whimsical with a demure coating. Nico Muhly’s So Many Things lives by its jazzy overtones and fitful energy, set neatly in front of Anders Hillbog’s dreamy, sultry Kväll.
Björk’s Cover Me combines icy dissonance with lugubrious vocal line. In Kate Bush’s Pi, the string writing lapses occasionally into classical Beatles style. Towards the end, Von Otter warms to the seductive shapeliness of Brad Mehidau’s Love Sublime. Finally we have Sting and Rufus Wainright: the former’s Practical Arrangement and the latter’s Les Feux D’artifice T’appellent. A likeable, if mixed, release.
Paulo Fresu & Omar Sosa: Eros ****
Following their glowing Alma collaboration of four years ago, the Cuban keyboard wizard and Sardinian trumpeter combine again to sumptuous effect in Eros, once again in the company of Brazilian cellist Jacques Morelenbaum, and joined this time by Egyptian-Belgian singer Natacha Atlas and the strings of the Quartetto Alborada.
Sosa and Fresu have established themselves as a beguiling combination, with the former’s ethereal keyboard voicings couching Fresu’s richly belling tone or muted rasping. Atlas, meanwhile, delivers a strikingly melismatic cover of Massive Attack’s Teardrop, and she lets her voice undulate rapturously in My Soul, My Spirit, before things switch from Middle-Eastern into Latin-American in Sosa’s La Llamada.
Moods and soundscapes shift constantly, through the rolling keyboard and strings of Zeus’ Desires and the languid drift of Sensuousness to the gentle Fender Rhodes chordings, pensive trumpet and plangent cello slides of Who Wu and a drop dead gorgeous instrumental account of the Peter Gabriel song What Lies Ahead.