Album reviews: Gorillaz | L Pierre | Alex Rex | Willie Nelson

Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett are the main architects of virtual band Gorillaz
Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett are the main architects of virtual band Gorillaz
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Guest stars led by Grace Jones line up to help virtual band Gorillaz with their funk and doom laden vibe, while Willie Nelson pays touching tribute to his late friend, Merle Haggard

POP

Gorillaz: Humanz Parlophone ***

L Pierre: 1948- Melodic ****

Alex Rex: Vermillion Tin Angel Records ****

Willie Nelson: God’s Problem Child Legacy ***

Has it really been seven years since Gorillaz last released an album? Those cartoon creations haven’t aged a day – though their revival was entirely dependent on repairing the relationship between the virtual band’s principal architects, Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett.

As before, much work has gone into the latest instalment of the Gorillaz concept, though Albarn’s plaintive voice, as delivered through skinny avatar frontman 2D, is a common thread. Humanz is an apocalyptic party record with a heaving guest list, thanks to Albarn’s somewhat scattershot approach to collaboration. The magnificent Bobby Womack has passed but, in his place, soul heavyweights Mavis Staples and Anthony Hamilton, actor Ben Mendelsohn, plus newer voices such as Benjamin Clementine and a host of upcoming US hip-hop and R&B artists contribute to Albarn’s dystopian vision of a world in which Donald Trump becomes US president. Well, we know how that one worked out…

Musically, Humanz mixes electronica, hip-hop and dub as before, but moves deeper into dance music territory. The carefree deep house of Strobelite, breezy Funkadelic vibe of Ascension and dub odyssey Saturnz Barz, featuring Jamaican dancehall artist Popcaan, are among the more satisfying tracks in an overloaded collection.

Reigning over the VIP room, the imperious Ms Grace Jones purrs dangerously on the fuzzy, distorted Charger, which is more hook than song, but Albarn recovers his capacity for a lovely tune on the requiem Andromeda and luminous ballad Busted and Blue, while the pacey We Got The Power, featuring Jehnny Beth from Savages and an uncredited Noel Gallagher, is the one to hum.

Gorillaz are not the only alter egos in town this week. Former Arab Strap frontman Aidan Moffat retires his solo L Pierre incarnation with one final cheeky yet beautiful concept offering – a sleeveless, vinyl-only sampling of a 1948 recording of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto In E Minor, just slightly tilted off its mournful axis (though that might be the perils of sampling the recording direct from YouTube) with a locked groove at the end so the music need never end (hence the open date of the title).

Meanwhile, the idiosyncratic Alex Rex, better known as Alex Neilson, driving force behind folk prog outfit Trembling Bells and drummer for hire, releases his debut solo album, with a little help from his Trembling Bells compatriots Lavinia Blackwall and Mike Hastings, featuring his trademark psych folk invocations (“horror heaped on horror”), the gentle rolling plea of Please God Make Me Good (But Not Yet), rollicking psych country rocker Postcards from a Dream and abundant fuzzy guitar solos, recalling the fecundity of The Marble Downs, his band’s unfettered 2012 collaboration with Bonnie Prince Billy.

It is tempting to say that Willie Nelson is getting sentimental in his old age but there has always been a sentimental streak to this country outlaw’s music. Such is his integrity that he can get away with the mawkish likes of Old Timer and schmaltzy Latin-tinged crooning on A Woman’s Love. He pays touching tribute to his recent collaborator Merle Haggard on He Won’t Ever Be Gone and is joined by fellow veteran Tony Joe White and the late Leon Russell for the moody blues of the title track. That title hints at something more impish and he delivers in the shape of Delete and Fast Forward, his sardonic response to political developments in his homeland, and the twinkly humour of Still Not Dead with its emphatically factual observation that “I woke up still not dead again today”. Praise be for that.

CLASSICAL

Bach: Cantatas for Soprano Harmonia Mundi ****

It was in Weimar, as court organist and Konzertmeister, that Bach wrote his earliest masterpieces and began to hone the easeful, inspired craftsmanship that marked his later glorious Leipzig days. Among his supreme achievements at the Weimar Court are a number of solo/duo cantatas which demonstrate his unique gift of transforming technical dogma and textural complexity into the most exquisite euphoric sentiment.

Soprano Carolyn Sampson is sole protagonist in the two solo soprano cantatas on this stylish Freiburg Barockorchester disc, the cheerfully buoyant wedding cantata Weichet nur, betrübt Schatten and the serene density and ultimate optimism of Mein Herze Schwimmt im Blut. Sampson colours these with engaging purity, joined in Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn by Andreas Wolf’s airborne bass-baritone. Petra Müllejans gleans soulful precision from the svelte German orchestra.

Ken Walton

FOLK

Cormac Begley: Cormac Begley

Own Label ****

The Begleys are renowned tradition bearers of west Kerry’s Dingle peninsula and this scion’s debut solo album of concertina music shows him to be utterly earthed in family, place and tradition and impressively limber in performance.

Begley gives potent expression to the grainy, free-reed voicings of a litany of concertina types – Dipper Bass, Lachenal Baritone, Suttner Treble and a Lachenal Piccolo – that fairly trills the closing reel set. There’s the wonderful, locomotive wheezing of the bellows as he gets into his stride with an opening set of reels, then he’s into his native realm of fast and furious Kerry polkas with the lightsome, harmonica-like strains of the Frenzy Polka and the lissom skip of his own Polka John.

Plangent bass groans underpin The Fermoy Lasses reel and a set of Kerry slides; the bass concertina chosen, too, for two airs, the ambulatory Rocking the Cradle and the tender lingering of Beauty Deas an Oilean.

Jim Gilchrist