Album reviews: Marc Almond | Jimmy Somerville

Marc Almond. Picture: Contributed

Marc Almond. Picture: Contributed

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ALBUM OF THE WEEK

Marc Almond: The Velvet Trail

Cherry Red

***

Five years ago, Marc Almond mooted that his album of the time, Varieté, would be his last collection of his own songs. He was effectively retiring from songwriting, though not from singing and performing. Since then, he has concentrated on theatrical song cycle projects such as Ten Plagues with playwright Mark Ravenhill and The Tyburn Tree with composer John Harle.

But an LA-based songwriter and producer had other ideas for Almond’s career. Chris Braide, who started out writing for a bunch of British pop acts and has more recently worked with Britney, Beyoncé and Lana Del Rey, composed a handful of backing tracks, what he referred to as “black eyeliner songs”, and sent them on for Almond’s consideration.

One can just imagine Almond being tickled by the overtures of a mysterious stranger tempting him out of self-imposed songwriting retirement. And relative strangers they remained – in a rather romantic twist on their transatlantic relationship, they did not meet nor even speak to each other until the album was finished. Perhaps if they had, the results would be less awkward.

Unsurprisingly for a gifted storyteller like Almond, The Velvet Trail is conceived to be listened to as a whole and arranged into three acts, connected by brief orchestral instrumentals. Yet there is every chance, given the patchy nature of the material, that fans may simply cherry-pick their favourite songs from the collection.

The throwaway Bad To Me is not an auspicious opening, despite Almond’s attempts to sprinkle some lyrical spice on its tinny synth pop. The thin electro beat persists through Zipped Black Leather Jacket, Almond’s rather creaky ode to rock’n’roll iconography, and Pleasure’s Wherever You Are, a tender paean to transgression.

Act Two opens with Almond wrestling with animal instincts on Minotaur and sticks with the mythology on electro torch song Earthly, Almond delivering melodramatic lines such as “you came out of the ether like a mythical creature” with his customary commitment and relish.

That intrusive click track all but wrecks The Pain Of Never, a sincere, sumptuous pop lament about unrequited passion, while Demon Lover sounds like a pale version of Soft Cell with its chiming synth melody and wouldbe lusty backing vocals. It’s as if Braide is straining to make the archetypal Marc Almond album but coming up short. A synthpop duet with The Gossip’s Beth Ditto should be a better match than it is.

But The Velvet Trail does turn up some gentle gems in the closing stages, such as the valedictory Winter Sun and the nostalgic title track where finally that ever-present pulse feels fitting. There’s no mid-life crisis on Life In My Own Way as Almond declares, “I like a nice cup of tea and walks on the beach” in that cabaret chanson style which suits him so well. If nothing else, he has hopefully been persuaded to keep that pen sharpened.

POP

Jimmy Somerville: Homage

Cherry Red

***

The homage in question is to Jimmy Somerville’s most beloved genre of music – disco. His career, from Bronski Beat through The Communards to the somewhat leaner solo years, has been scattered with disco cover versions; now, he adds his own songs to the canon, all lovingly gussied up with authentic horn blasts, disco strings and Somerville’s skyscraping voice, as affecting and effective as ever. Strong Enough features a lithe brass breakdown as infectious as the horn hook on Uptown Funk, the smooth, carefree Bright Thing could happily find a home in Kylie’s catalogue and easy soul ballad Learned To Talk brings the party to a slow dancing close.

Matthew E White: Fresh Blood

Domino

****

Virginian vocalist Matthew E White is a cool cat with a silky baritone whisper who remains sanguine in the face of Fresh Blood’s simmering passions. His second album makes full use of the house players and singers from his Spacebomb Studio to craft the slow southern soul smooch of Take Care My Baby, freewheeling rock’n’roll groove of Rock & Roll Is Cold and lustrous string arrangements on Golden Robes, placing him among an exciting breed of young Americana musicians, such as Mac Demarco (at the lo-fi end of the spectrum) and Father John Misty (orchestras and everything) who are ambitious enough to make their own bids for inclusion in the great American songbook. FIONA SHEPHERD

CLASSICAL

Guitar Works of John Maxwell Geddes

XOLO CD 1040

****

German guitarist Stefan Grasse and guest duettist Yvonne Zehner explore the divergent musical world of septuagenarian Glasgow composer John Maxwell Geddes through his guitar music. Some of it amounts to delicate archaeological reconstructions of Renaissance melodies from the 
17th century Skene Manuscript – Ane Buke O’Courtlie Ayres and Dances of the Scottish Court – further transformed from Geddes’ original brass quintet realisations into guitar duets by Philip Thorne. Then there 
are the original works – the luminescent modernity of Callanish V & VI and Stars over Carnac, and the gently lyrical Nocturne. The performances are both robust and charming, and true to the freshness of Geddes’ creative mind. KEN WALTON

FOLK

Punch Brothers: The Phosphorescent Blues

Nonesuch

****

Listening to the Brooklyn-based Punch Brothers’ sometimes bewilderingly smart new album can be like spinning the tuning dial of an old radio, as tracks fade in and out, changing mood and tempo in mid-flow, and a bluegrass standard gives way to a Scriabin prelude.

Familiarity sets the tone with pulses of string sound shifting under mandolinist Chris Thile’s world-weary vocals, before building into vocal harmonies that recall, as elsewhere on the album, the Beach Boys in full chorale. Thile’s quicksilver mandolin and Gabe Witcher’s fiddle flicker and glow throughout, while in Julep, Noam Pikelny’s banjo murmurs languorously like an African kora.

Before you know where you are, they’re having their busy, string-driven way with from Debussy’s Passepied, before hitting the slap-drive histrionics of Magnet.

It’s a shock to the system when they touch base with the old bluegrass holler of Boll Weevil, while in the concluding Little Lights, Thile’s distinctive falsetto virtually goes off the scale alongside soaring fiddle and an epic chorus. JIM GILCHRIST

JAZZ

Wolfgang Haffner: Kind of Cool

Act Records

***

While the title pays direct homage to Miles Davis, the German drummer aims to tip his hat more widely to the music of the 1950s, as his selection of compositions from the repertoire of not just Miles (So What, Summertime), but also the Modern Jazz Quartet (Django), Bill Evans (Autumn Leaves), Nat Adderley (One for Daddy O) and Chet Baker (My Funny Valentine) make clear, although Billy Eckstine’s Piano Man, with singer Maximilian Mutzke, sounds a little out of context here. His evocation of a period that sparked his own ultimately more wide-ranging interest in jazz also includes three of his own tunes, inspired by the Cool Jazz ethos. He has assembled a fine band for what is a highly enjoyable recording, including veteran trumpeter Dusko Goykovich, the excellent Christopher Dell on vibes, and pianist Jan Lundgren. KENNY MATHIESON

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