Album reviews: Iron & Wine | David Bowie | Steve Earle

Steve Earle. Picture: Getty
Steve Earle. Picture: Getty
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Iron & Wine: Ghost On Ghost

4AD, £13.99

***

“Deep inside the heart of this troubled man there’s an itty bitty boy tugging hard at your hand,” sings South Carolina songwriter Samuel Beam in the most impossibly delicate, yearning voice on the track Joy, just one of a number of moments of low-key but transcendental beauty here. The styles aren’t necessarily mould-breaking – some jaunty indie-pop on Grace For Saints and Ramblers, the horn-driven country funk of Singers and the Endless Song – and this sometimes saps the tension from the music, but Beam’s evocatively drawn lyrics and clear emotional focus pull this fine record together.

David Bowie: Aladdin Sane

EMI, £14.99

****

Following in the wake of Bowie’s “surprise” 24th studio album, The Next Day, released earlier this year, this re-issue of 1973’s Aladdin Sane will be seen by some as a bit of a cash-in. Forty years since its creation, however, the follow-up to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars deserves to be revisited. The album’s most familiar highlights are the mighty carnal thrust of The Jean Genie and the expert futurist nostalgia of Drive-In Saturday, as well as a wired version of the Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together. The rest is patchy in places (the sludgy Panic In Detroit), but customarily unique, notably the mean glam strut of Cracked Actor and jazz pianist Mike Garson’s brilliantly incongruous contributions to the title track.

• David Pollock

Prokofiev: The War Sonatas

Onyx, £14.99

****

With Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin in Glasgow this week with the BBC SSO, his recent solo issue of Prokofiev’s War Sonatas – Nos 6, 7 & 8 – is worth getting to grips with. The wartime allusion is misleading, these works being more about Prokofiev’s personal conflicts of the early 1940s – his dying relationship with his wife, his new relationship with a woman half his age, his paranoia in relation to Stalin’s purge of the cultural elite – than the war itself. In these probing performances, Kozhukhin truly awakens the personality of the sonatas: the sorrowful shades underpinning the thrust and driven excitement of the Sixth; the mournful exuberance of the Seventh with its achingly beautiful central Andante; and the refreshing tenderness of the Eighth. Kozhukhin has the grasp of Prokofiev, no question.

• Ken Walton

Djønne & Børsheim: Toras Dans

Fivreld, online only

****

Toras Dans is the debut recording by this well-matched pairing of seasoned Norwegian artists, Hardanger fiddler, guitarist and singer Annlaug Børsheim and button accordionist Rannveig Djønne. They play with rare, unhurried feeling, with Djønne’s accordion, rather than the fiddle, tending to dominate the instrumental palette, while for non-Norwegian-speakers, Børsheim’s singing comes over with persuasive clarity and lyricism.

This contemporary folk music, largely from their native Hardanger area, is introduced by the clear ringing of Børsheim’s multitracked guitar, as she delivers the opening song, Dans, with real authority, followed by the plaintive unwinding of Desember, while the title song, based on a poem by Per Olav Kaldestad, has the Earth wheeling round the Sun to a jaunty polka tune.

There are some nice instrumental tracks, notably the gently rolling Da Lounge Bar, in tribute to Lerwick’s famous session rendezvous, and the gently restrained waltz time of Berlinervals.

• Jim Gilchrist

Trilok Gurtu: Spellbound

Moosicus Records, £14.99

****

The late Don Cherry and his instrument, the trumpet, are presiding spirits in this disc from the eclectic Indian percussionist and multi-instrumentalist, Trilok Gurtu. A snippet from a recording of the two men in an improvised duet opens the disc, and Cherry’s spoken voice closes it. In between, Gurtu explores a set that is more directly jazz-oriented than much of his recent work, in collaboration with a handful of guest trumpet players, including Paulo Fresu, who will join him on live dates in Scotland later this month. The music is a potent mix of Gurtu’s tunes with jazz classics, including Cherry’s Universal Mother with Ibrahim Maalouf and Brown Rice with Fresu, Dizzy Gillespie’s Manteca with Hasan Gozetlik, a powerful invocation of early-70s Miles Davis with Nils Petter Molvaer, and Davis’s classic All Blues in an unusual time signature with Ambrose Akinmusire.

• Kenny Mathieson

Azerbaijan: Children Sing Mugham

Key Production, online only

****

This CD makes an unusual addition to the ethno­musicological library, and it opens a window on a musical world about which little is known outside Azerbaijan. Mugham is that country’s traditional court music, a refined art for royal entertainments and ceremonies that has been passed down through the generations since medieval times.

Despite the political and social disruptions of the 20th century, it is still popular today, as an accompaniment for everything from intimate family events to state celebrations. Its preservation is in part thanks to the Soviets’ decision not to erase it as a feudal relic, but to incorporate it into the school curriculum – one of their divide-and-rule tactics being to encourage each client-state’s homegrown culture.

Before 1920 it had always been taught privately, but the transition worked well because tuition in this art always started at an early age. Alim Qasimov – the Azeri superstar who has become famous in the West – is one of the very few mugham singers not to have started in childhood. The Uzbek musicologist Razia Sultanova has accordingly collected together a group of singers aged between ten and 14 who here show what they can do, and there’s a wonderful freshness about their voices and what they do with them.

They may be “normal” children, but a love of this ancient music has been instilled so deeply into their souls that they grapple remarkably competently with its challenges. And it’s by any standards a difficult genre, with its long-breathed melodies and rich vocal ornamentation. On the other hand the backing group consists of mature professionals: their ensemble melds the sounds of those quintessentially Azeri instruments, the kamancha spike-fiddle, the tar lute, the balaban oboe, and the daf frame-drum.

• Michael Church

Steve Earle: The Low Highway

New West Records, £13.99

***

A kind of bluegrass Springsteen from Texas, Steve Earle has built a huge reputation among country listeners in the US while not quite enjoying the same success on the other side of the Atlantic. This album demonstrates why. Although it shows off a righteous surety of purpose, whether he’s joking about a surplus of poverty in 21st Century Blues, turning out a gritty rocker in Calico County or trying his best Woody Guthrie meets Bob Dylan impersonation on Remember Me, his tight version of the country style so favoured by the put-upon blue collar American everyperson doesn’t escape from all the clichés of the genre.

• David Pollock