THE Scotsman’s music critics review this week’s album releases
Laura Marling: Short Movie
Star rating: ****
If this album were a short movie, it would be an atmospheric, episodic indie road movie, full of entertaining, eccentric encounters and thoughtful insights delivered with charm and playfulness, easily on a par with its director’s previous acclaimed work while breaking some new ground.
Short Movie marks a slight change of sonic scenery for Marling, now in her mid-20s, though she has always been something of an old soul. Two years ago, she moved, seemingly on a whim, from London to California, running away from the personal intensity of her previous album Once I Was An Eagle and, briefly, from her life as a jobbing musician.
Scrapping an initial bunch of recordings with her regular producer Ethan Johns, she went out and lived a bit more, then wrote about it on her shiny new electric guitar and set about producing herself. So where in the past Marling would tap into mythology and English folklore, here she draws on modern myths and experiences on her travels around the States to compose songs she describes as “creative non-fiction” such as False Hope, a dynamic radio-friendly number set on a restless night in New York during Hurricane Sandy, and Easy, a first person odyssey around California, which is by turns blissful and yearning.
Opening track Warrior could have been left over from the rootsy Once I Was An Eagle. Like so much of her work, it sounds familiar yet exotic, ethereal yet visceral, serene yet resolved as she contends that “I can’t be your horse anymore”. The default Joni Mitchell influence is strong but manifests with a timeless quality. Marling’s music hardly rips up the songwriting blueprint yet she presents time and again with her own distinct voice.
Feel Your Love is familiar and folky, her speedy strumming and picking overlaid with elegantly trembling strings. But elsewhere, she is unafraid to make herself vulnerable, stretching for notes she can’t quite reach on Walk Alone or trying out some sing-song beat poetry on Strange over a cantering backing. “You must keep moving…do your best to be a good man,” she advises sagely.
The freewheeling Gurdjieff’s Daughter is also full of self-help suggestions, mostly of a spiritual nature and cribbed from the titular guru’s offspring. But it’s also notable for the assured twang of electric guitar, a new development for Marling who has previously always worked her effortless, dexterous magic on acoustic.
You can hear her new plaything most prominently on Don’t Let Me Bring You Down, the exciting rumble of distinctly psychedelic guitar giving the track a rough, ready and spontaneous feel. Could Laura Marling be poised to rock out? Or return to more of a comfort zone?
“I’m going back east where I belong,” she sings at one point. East, west, acoustic, electric, Marling exudes a quiet authority wherever and however she expresses herself.
Errors: Lease of Life
star rating: ****
Glasgow trio Errors – Steev Livingstone, Simon Ward and James Hamilton – float further into a soothing world of analogue synth soundscapes on their latest album. Lease of Life is a stress-busting listen with ambient, New Age, post-rock and prog influences pleasingly blended into a beatific whole which encompasses cleansing instrumentals such as Colossal Estates and the melodic 80s synth pop of Slow Rotor. The title track and 13-minute epic Through The Knowledge of Those Who Observe Us make use of reverberating choral vocals over a gently propulsive electronica backing with enough scenic features to engage rather than switch off the mind. FS
Star rating: **
Talk about sticking to your Guns. Since reforming in 2008, these no-bones commercial rockers have simply picked up at the already anachronistic point they originally left off in the late 90s with another batch of vein-popping foot-on-the-monitor rock with the grease and grime all slicked off. New single Labour of Life, a sub-Stones tale of a girl who likes to party, sounds like it has beamed in from some Sunset Strip theme bar. They do sensitive of sorts on Seraphina, a more starry-eyed paean to their object of desire, and round off with a rootsy rock ballad, Never Knew What I Had, souped up with brass fanfare. Gun haven’t aged a day – but then, they were born old.
Mahler: Symphony No 9
Hallé HLD 7541
Star rating: *****
Mahler’s Symphony No 9 incorporates a universe of emotions, from the balanced to the perverse, from jagged agitation to peaceful acceptance. The secret is to contain such explosive ammunition within the bounds of taste. Mark Elder does exactly that with the Hallé Orchestra in this magnificently proportioned live recording. The detail is phenomenal; Elder’s control of Mahler’s mercurially shifting textures and dynamic expression is masterful from start to finish. But mostly it is the sheer command and self-belief of the Hallé’s playing – characterful edge from the wind and wholesome richness form the strings – that places this performance among the most fulfilling and accomplished.
Courtney Pine: Song (The Ballad Book)
Star rating: ***
Ballads are not the first thing that spring to mind when English saxophone hero Courtney Pine is mentioned, but he fulfils a long-held intention with this release. He chooses to focus entirely on the lustrous sonority and depth of the bass clarinet in a beautiful, pared down duet, accompanied by Zoe Rahman’s supportive and inventive pianism. I have felt in the past that the studio context encourages a discipline and focus in the saxophonist’s playing that often gets swamped in live performance, and their treatments of a range of material – including Amazing Grace, Ellington’s Come Sunday, Thad Jones’s A Child Is Born, Sam Rivers’ Beatrice, A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square and Pine’s companion piece, Song, the Chaka Khan hit Through The Fire, and Donny Hathaway’s Someday We’ll All Be Free – are sensitively phrased and articulated.
MAÍRÍ MACINNES: GRÀS
Star rating: ****
Thirteen years is a long time between recordings, but this album by Gaelic singer Maírí McInnes proves itself to be well worth the wait. It opens with a storm and ends with a prayer, bookending songs of substance, sadness and childhood delight.
A singer combining warmth with delicacy, she is accompanied here by experienced sessioneers including producer Hamish Napier on piano and whistles, Aaron Jones on bouzouki and James MacKenzie on Highland pipes, while Paul McCallum and Capercaillie’s Karen Matheson guest on vocals.
There’s a strong sense of generational continuity: the stirring Còmhrag – “Battle”, for instance, opens with Mackenzie playing a piobaireachd ground that leads into a stirring song about those killed at St Valery in 1940, while, in a truly moving congruence of past and present voices, MacInnes duets with an old recording of her great uncle, Angus John MacMillan, who was captured at St Valery, singing the reflective Meòrachadh.
Gràs means “grace” in gaelic, and grace is what much of this album is about.