Album reviews: Idlewild | Steve Earle & The Dukes

Scottish indie rock band, Idlewild. Picture: Contributed
Scottish indie rock band, Idlewild. Picture: Contributed
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A FIVE-YEAR break has done Idlewild the world of good, writes Fiona Shepherd

ALBUM OF THE WEEK

Idlewild: Everything Ever Written

Empty Words

****

Knowing when to give it a rest is a delicate consideration, especially for a successful and much loved band with the traction to keep on trucking. Idlewild gave it a rest for five years, taking time out to pursue other projects and interests, to live life, and have come back changed and recharged. When frontman Roddy Woomble claims that “Idlewild is a new band to me”, he means it both literally and creatively.

In addition to the Idlewild core of Woomble, guitarist Rod Jones and drummer Colin Newton, there are two new members in the latest line-up – guitarist Andrew Mitchell of The Hazy Janes and keyboard player Luciano Rossi – both of whom have had an impact on the sound of this new album.

Rossi’s skills as an arranger are immediately apparent on opening track Collect Yourself. First, it’s chunky, then it’s funky, with anticipatory drone giving way to a meaty, melodic riff, Woomble’s beseeching vocals and eventually some proggy, distorted keyboards. Come On Ghost is equally muscular power rock, infused with that precision-tooled Idlewild mix of folk and alt.rock plus – wait for it – a wailing saxophone break.

Idlewild have not mutated into the E Street Band in the interim but they do sound like a thoroughly reinvigorated force. There is a pugnacious confidence about this return which should give them a renewed momentum. But it has come at their own pace, not in response to the demands of their fans, some of whom attempted to hasten the end of the band’s hiatus by urging a boycott of their solo projects.

The lesson here is don’t mess with the musicians. Everything Ever Written is all the greater for its jazz trumpet trills on All Things Different, embellishing what is otherwise a very recognisable slice of Idlewild inquiry, or the dissonant fiddle on soulful country rocker So Many Things To Decide, its mid-life angst – “do you ever get the feeling that I made important decisions far too late in life?” – complemented by the natural maturity of the sound.

This freedom from constraints results in a satisfying mix of recognisable markers and unexpected twists and turns. The motorik blues of (Use It) If You Can Use It rubs up naturally against the commercial rootsy indie Radium Girl and old school melodic grungey belter On Another Planet. Even the familiar indie folk canter of Nothing I Can Do About It has a certain charged atmosphere before the album mellows out in its closing stages on the lovely Left Like Roses and the restless, undulating piano ballad Utopia.

Like a meeting with an old friend, there is a certain comfort to Everything Ever Written but also lots of exciting stuff to catch up on.

POP

Steve Earle & The Dukes: Terraplane

New West Records

***

With the news that his marriage to fellow country singer Allison Moorer is over, you might think there is no more appropriate time for Steve Earle to be singing the blues. While the blues has always had a presence in his music, he has rarely tackled the tradition as directly as he does on Terraplane (after Robert Johnson’s Terraplane Blues). “I guess I should have known that I’m better off alone,” sings this veteran of seven marriages (including twice to the same woman - a very blues-worthy statistic). But Earle is far from beaten. There is more confident strut than emotional desolation to the rocking electric tracks and plenty of storytelling character on bluegrass number Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now and western swing duet Baby’s Just As Mean As Me.

Kate Pierson: Guitars and Microphones

Kobalt

***

For the past 40 years, Kate Pierson has been much-loved as the flame-haired half of The B-52s’ devastating female vocal pincer attack unit. While her gloriously unfettered voice doesn’t quite have the same strident magic on its own as in “harmony” with Cindy Wilson, it’s still a pretty fearsome tool on this solo debut. Guitars and Microphones is less transgressive and trashy than the best of her band but its combination of acid pop attitude, wry cultural commentaries, sexual politics, a splash of nostalgia, naïve electro pop and tough but heartfelt balladry plays to her artistic strengths. FIONA SHEPHERD

FOLK

Ian Carmichael: Ten Years On

Splitrock Music

*****

This intriguing and engaging offering from Irish-based Scots banjo player Ian Carmichael makes a pretty convincing case for the five-string instrument’s capabilities in playing non-bluegrass or old-time repertoire. Carmichael, here supported by such established Irish musicians as guitarist Garry O’Briain, percussionist Tommy Hayes and bassist Paul O’Driscoll, has an open, unhurried style, as he demonstrates in the opening track, a nice Scots-Irish reel pairing.

Hearing a dobro whine behind a pipe march certainly made me sit up, but the only real mismatch between instrument and repertoire is in the popular pipe strathspey Devil in the Kitchen, which sounds pretty uncomfortable on the banjo, although things perk up considerably as Carmichael shifts into the pipe reel Lexy McAskill, which fairly sails along.

Elsewhere he picks bright cascades of notes in tunes such as Fiddle Cushion and Whiskey Before Breakfast, the latter reverting cheerfully to the banjo’s more customary American repertoire, as does the gentle chiming of Colored Aristocracy. Jim Gilchrist

CLASSICAL

Mozart & Mendelssohn String Quartets

Harmonia Mundi

*****

The Chiaroscura Quartet are well-named. Playing with gut strings is one thing; playing with such assuredness and golden musicality on them is another. And in both these minor 
key quartets – Mozart’s No15 in D minor, and Mendelssohn’s No2 in A minor – they exude a genuine feeling for subtly shifting shades and colours.

There’s an inner spirit in the Mozart they capture deliciously, the whimsical delicacies of the final allegretto variations, for instance. And the Mendelssohn is an absorbing journey, from the underlying sobriety of the opening to the fiery drama of the finale. KEN WALTON

JAZZ

Troyka: Ornitho-Phobia

Naim Jazz

****

Troyka utilise the familiar soul-jazz organ trio instrumentation of organ, guitar and drums, but the similarities with traditional approaches to the format pretty much end there.

The trio’s highly textured music is an energised and creative gumbo of experimental jazz, rock, blues, electronica, spacious cinematic minimalism, hip-hop and multiple other shades of dance music, and just about anything else that takes their fancy.

The title reflects guitarist Chris Montague’s fear of birds, woven into an implicit dystopian narrative revolving around a mysterious and menacing avian flu shutting down London.

Montague, organist Kit Downes and drummer Josh Blackmore self-produced their previous recordings, but brought in musician Petter Eldh in that role on this project, including two mixes he created in his Berlin studio. It’s a 
diverse and kaleidoscopic session that is likely to find its most appreciative listeners beyond the core jazz audience. KENNY MATHIESON

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