Album reviews: Ezra Furman | Woody Woodgate

Ezra Furman. Picture: Contributed
Ezra Furman. Picture: Contributed
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ALTHOUGH Ezra Furman has been recording and gigging for the past decade, this cross-dressing minstrel from Chicago remains largely unknown on home turf.

Ezra Furman: Perpetual Motion People

Bella Union ****

His fortunes are rather different on this side of the Atlantic, however, where he is starting to pick up a cult following with giddy word of mouth leading to sold out shows.

Furman has been described by his label boss, ex-Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde, as “my zero my hero” which is as succinct a summation as any of the geek love he generates. Jonathan Richman is a commonly cited reference point, with justification. Furman is a dorky troubadour with a refreshing directness, wicked wit and a handbag of neuroses. He deserves our love simply for choosing to pen a song called Wobbly in which he raggedly expounds on the feeling.

The title of his latest album is a testament to his restlessness. Furman moves around a lot (his current base is San Francisco), and often changes his look – this season, he has mostly been wearing thrift store chic – and his band, although current incumbents The Boyfriends just have to be keepers, so brilliantly do they realise his manic muse with off-the-cuff gleefulness.

Like an indie E Street Band, Furman and his Boyfriends get their musical kicks from rock’n’roll, mainly the 70s glam iteration, splashed with an affectionate dash of doo-wop and some punky saxophone blasts from Tim Sandusky. Furman lets it all hang out with lyrics which are as unfettered as the music.

His pithy, poetic observations on the state of the nation/world/his head tumble out over Lousy Connection en route to a glorious chorus, which sounds like a skinny white boy’s take on rhythm’n’blues. Restless Year is an indie rock handjive with a throwaway fuzz guitar solo and some contagious bubblegum backing vocals, Haunted Head another adorable slice of glam rock’n’roll with dark lyrical matter, and Hark! to the Music a 90 second scrappy pop treatise on the liberating power of music, like Belle & Sebastian at double speed.

Pot Holes amps up the doo-wop with a booming bass backing chorus supporting a saloon bar combo of piano, banjo and sax, while Furman literally and figuratively contemplates those uneven surfaces that trip you up in life. He has a hugely enjoyable way of tackling the tough stuff.

But his slower, more considered compositions are equally arresting. One Day I Will Sin No More is a country gospel lament about his Jewish guilt – talk about pluralism. The plaintive country rock confessionals Hour of Deepest Need and Watch You Go By strike the same effortlessly accomplished and affecting chord as the ballads of Neil Young and Ryan Adams. And Can I Sleep In Your Brain delivers the best of both worlds – a heart-on-sleeve ballad which revs up halfway through with righteous rhythm’n’blues jubilation. What a sonic tonic.

FIONA SHEPHERD

POP

Woody Woodgate: In Your Mind

DW Records ***

Madness’s eternally youthful drummer Daniel Woodgate makes his solo debut with this easy listening collection of breezy psychedelic pop, weighted with some melancholy. Woodgate had previously collaborated with younger brother Nick as The Magic Brothers before the latter’s mental health put their joint effort on ice, and the likes of Magic Train and the title track suggest that his sibling is still very much in his thoughts and music. Woodgate’s light voice and retro pop inclinations put his music in the same Beatley ballpark as The Lightning Seeds’ Ian Broudie but he also doffs the pork pie hat to his Madness compadres on the hazy ska pop of Friday Night to Sunday Morning.

Siobhan Wilson: Say It’s True

Reveal Records ****

Upcoming Scottish singer/songwriter Siobhan Wilson is a magnetic performer, who has held large halls rapt with her contributions at various tribute events in recent years. Now she releases a debut EP of her own songs and they compare well to her bewitching cover versions.

Glasgow-based Wilson, fresh from her Glastonbury appearance, is a classicist so the affected, winsome pop of the title track sounds a bit faddish in the company of coquettish chanson Terrible Woman, plangent country torch song You Make Everything Better and mournful, sonorous piano ballad Desperate Thing, all of which speak to her potential.

FIONA SHEPHERD

CLASSICAL

Schoenberg: Gurrelieder

Hyperion *****

Accept Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder for what it is – a rich and Romantic post-Wagnerian love story set in a musical language as distant from the composer’s later atonal works as chalk is from cheese. That’s certainly what Markus Stenz and the Gurzenich-Orchester Koln do in this opulent and wholly engrossing recording. The opening Prelude shimmers with magical luminescence; the main protagonists, soprano Barbara Haveman (Tove) and tenor Brandon Jovanovich (Waldemar) coat their alternating songs with molten ecstasy; the entire performance, which features six Koln choirs, is immersed from head to toe in a sea of late-Romantic excess. Compelling.

KEN WALTON

FOLK

Dean Owens: Into The Sea

Drumfire records ****

This impressively assured sixth solo album from the seasoned troubadour of Leith-rooted Americana finds him recording in Nashville, Tennessee, with a classy bunch of US musicians and singers including his long-time collaborator guitarist Will Kimbrough.

These are highly personal and generally catchy songs, informed by country and indie rock sensibilities and opening with the purposeful drumbeat and guitar reverb of Dora, a tribute to his circus girl grandmother, while the yearning of Evergreen, is enhanced by guest singer Kim Richey’s keen harmony. The Only One sounds straight out of a Sixties hit parade, going for a retro Everly Brothers sound, and a bonus re-working of his early song, I’m Pretending I Don’t Love you Any More sees Owens in classic country duet with Suzy Bogguss.

There’s full-blooded delivery from both singer and band in Up on the Hill, slide guitar howling, while the mighty outpouring of It Could Be Worse was recorded in just one take, straight from the heart.

JIM GILCHRIST

JAZZ

Ivo Neame: Strata

Whirlwind Recordings ****

Having established his credentials with the Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset, the Anglo-Scandinavian trio Phronesis and his own octet, pianist Ivo Neame has come up with an imaginative and richly multi-textured quintet album, in which he also plays synthesisers and accordion, joined by saxophonist Tori Freestone, Jim Hart on vibraphone, bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Dave Hamblett.

Things get off to a flying start

with Personality Clash, austere introductory piano chords and sax flourishes giving way to a hectic bass run, over which piano and vibes flash and ripple. Freestone’s flute rippling along with the vibes brings a breezily avian quality to the intensely churning Crise de Nerfs, while in Eastern Chant, Neame’s increasingly busy piano lines progress over a sombrely ascending bass.

Neame’s accordion comes into effective play in the Balkan-inflected Folk Song, while the title track creates a magical sound world of its own, with steady piano chimes and humming synths opening out for Freestone’s warmly fanfaring sax over piano, vibes and busy drums.

JIM GILCHRIST