Our round-up of the latest releases
Ethan Johns: If Not Now Then When?
Three Crows Music, £11.99
Ethan Johns is best known for his production work on albums by Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams and Paolo Nutini but he steps out from behind the mixing desk with this rhetorical question of an album which is as unassuming as its title. Johns’ voice is limited in expression but with a slight gruffness which suits his blues and Americana-influenced material. The songs scrub up well enough but are not particularly arresting. Morning Blues and Don’t Reach Too Far follow well-trodden blues and rhythm’n’blues riffs faithfully, while Whip Poor Will is an aimless five minutes. Nevertheless there is a peaceful, easy feeling to the California roots rock Willow and southern soul amble of Red Rooster Blue.
Foals: Holy Fire
Among the many cerebral indie bands to emerge in recent years, Foals somehow managed to take themselves most seriously of all. But on their third album they have learned to stop worrying and love left-field pop music, creating a gleaming, confident and, at times, intriguing soundscape in which the Afro pop-styled guitars and slightly angsty vocals can happily nestle. At its best, there is a Talking Heads insouciance to Holy Fire although it does run out of steam and songs towards the finishing line, souping things up with indie-friendly club track Providence before the navel-gazing Stepson and Moon dampen the party.
As You Like It: Shakespeare Songs
Resonus Classics, web only
From Purcell, Haydn and Schubert, through Britten and Tippett, to bluesy numbers by John Dankworth and Peter Dickinson, this panoply of Shakespeare settings says as much about the universality of Shakespeare as it does about the supreme versatility of Scots tenor Nicky Spence, accompanied here by fellow Scot Malcolm Martineau. Spence’s voice is naturally thrilling, radiant and luminescent in just about every second of this programme, crossing stylistic boundaries with the silvery ease of a born entertainer. If anything, the recording production level is a little in-your-face at times, but there’s no getting away from the charismatic listenability of this ultra-svelte performing duo.
Pat Metheny: The Orchestrion Project
Nonesuch Records, £15.99
Guitarist Pat Metheny responded to the challenge of a solo project by coming up with his remarkable Orchestrion, a mechanical-electronic robotic orchestra activated from his guitars. The original studio album is now followed by this live 2-CD set, featuring the suite that made up the earlier release and “orchestrion” versions of some more familiar Metheny material, including Antonia, Unity Village and a linking of 80/81 with Ornette Coleman’s Broadway Blues (a tantalising glimpse of a potential different direction for this project). Pat-heads will want it for the superb guitar playing alone, but overall the results are mixed. It is often fascinating in textural terms, but at times can sound like a great guitarist with a rather pedantic rhythm section. There is a separate film version on DVD, which might add a significant visual dimension to the experience.
Éamonn Coyne & Kris Drever: Storymap
Reveal Records, £10.99
Lau singer and guitarist Kris Drever and Scots-based Irish banjoist Éamonn Coyne (Treacherous Orchestra) take the lead here, joined by collaborators including fiddler Megan Henderson and Nico Bruce on double bass, in an engaging album showcasing the string-picking prowess of its two main protagonists.
The “map” and “story” of the album title are the theme and variations of the nicely paced Kitty O’Neill’s Champion Jig, while elsewhere come some great, rolling reels like Abe’s Retreat, driven by snappy guitar. Another set leads nicely from the old pipe quickstep 72nd Highlanders Farewell to Aberdeen, into an Irish retreat march before accelerating into a fine pair of Irish reels.
One doesn’t readily associate the banjo with slow airs, but Mickey Finn’s is delicately picked out, and there is a gentle lyricism also to Drever’s singing, supported by Eliza Carthy in the whaler’s valediction, Farewell to Stromness, and giving a winsome account of Isle of France.
Eels: Wonderful, Glorious
E Works/Vagrant Records, £11.99
On his tenth outing as Eels, Mark Everett is on fine lyrical form from the get-go: “nobody listens to a whispering fool – are you listening? I didn’t think so”. He sounds older than his 49 years on the likes of wistful pop country number On The Ropes but underestimate this introspective soul at your peril – even when he’s feeling Kinda Fuzzy he sounds a bit cantankerous. As always, there is bite to his sound too. The marvellous distorted crunch of Peach Blossom is complemented by some twinkling keyboards – a sonic testament to his ability to mix musical ideas as fluently as he combines droll humour and barefaced vulnerability.