Our team of critics lend their ears to the latest chart-bothering releases...
Marcus Collins: Marcus Collins
THE unseemly haste with which the latest X Factor runner-up’s debut album has appeared would seem to indicate that he’d better enjoy the fun while it lasts because Marcus Collins is no long-term investment, even by throwaway reality TV standards – a pity, because this self-titled effort is a whole lot more fun than anything else to come out of the competition in the past couple of years.
With his sweet and accomplished soul vocals and natural pep, Collins has predictably been squeezed to fit the Cee Lo Green/Bruno Mars mould, right down to the reggaefied take on The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. There are some bland missteps along the way but overall this is a classier effort than the cynical lowest common denominator singalongs of Mars’s debut.
The Magnetic Fields: Love At The Bottom Of The Sea
FOLLOWING a self-imposed “no synths” moratorium on the past three Magnetic Fields albums, Stephin Merritt, aka the baritone bard of Brooklyn, returns to a signature lo-fi electro pop backing for his sardonic, sophisticated lyrics and entertaining song titles (I’ve Run Away To Join The Fairies, All She Cares About Is Mariachi) which promise a little more than they deliver. This latest collection of arch love songs encompasses the blithe vitriol of Your Girlfriend’s Face, gender confusion love song Andrew In Drag, abstinence satire God Wants Us To Wait, a Flight of the Conchords-style spoof of earnest early 1980s synth pop called Infatuation (With Your Gyration) and The Machine In Your Hand, a deadpan equivalent of Rufus Wainwright’s Vibrate, all of which appeal to the head more than the heart.
GRIMES, aka Vancouver-born, Montreal-based Claire Boucher, is to be saluted for getting creative within her own limitations and following her own resolutely DIY path to produce this hypnotic suite of oriental-flavoured electronica garnished with her featherlight falsetto cooing. Visions is her third album in two years and was recorded in a blackout environment. Its repetitive nature, broken only by the chill-out dance track Be A Body, won’t suit everybody but she should find favour with fans of her equally mercurial contemporaries Joanna Newsom and St Vincent.
Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony & Serenade to Music
Harmonica Mundi, £13.99
IN HIS London Symphony, Ralph Vaughan Williams painted the city of London as a bright, bustling metropolis with variable undertones of cheeriness, peacefulness and gloom. All these qualities are present in this vivid recording by the Rochester Philharmonic under its chief conductor (and one-time BBC SSO conductor) Christopher Seaman. From the awakening call of Big Ben and the tuneful cacophony of the urban morning defined in the opening movement, to the gaunt reflectiveness of the second, the folksy playfulness of the scherzo, and the gripping summation of the finale, Seaman paints a convincing aural picture. The ensuing pastorale loveliness of the Serenade to Music, with 16-strong solo vocal team from the Mercury Opera Rochester is the ideal complement.
Brad Mehldau Trio: Ode
THIS latest outing is Mehldau’s first studio recording with this trio since 2005, and features none of the trademark covers of music by the likes of Nick Drake or Radiohead that we have come to expect of the pianist. Instead, the compositions are all his own, and were written specifically for this well-established unit with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard. Several of the tunes make reference to individuals, including musicians Michael Becker and Kurt Rosenwinkel and the pianist’s wife and son, but also less obvious subjects in the shape of the character played by Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider (George Hanson) and Aquaman, a comic character remembered from the pianist’s youth. Mehldau’s characteristic singing melodies, intriguing harmonies and supple rhythmic grooves are all firmly in place, and draw out a high level of creative interaction and response in the three musicians.
Gren Bartley: Songs to Scythe Back the Overgrown
Fellside Records, £12.99
THIS second “solo” album from Manchester-based singer-songwriter and accomplished guitar-picker Gren Bartley blends a young and tuneful lyricism with seasoned singing and occasional echoes of some English folk elders. The opening Leaving Our Mark establishes eloquently wry credentials, with a catchy melody over chiming guitar that evokes Nic Jones, and effective vocal harmonies from the album’s fiddler, Katriona Gilmore. Other discreetly deployed personnel are Andy Whittle on keyboard and harmonica and additional vocals from Robert Hallard.
There’s beguiling swing and real heart to Sweet Traveller, the contrasting My Time Is Nearly Over works up an ominous work-song slog, with ghostly background vocals, while a Carthy-esque, chugging guitar drives the brief but engaging instrumental, Can’t Finish What I Started.
Bartley also shows himself well able to cover other writers’ material as in his wistfully lingering interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s The Last Time I Saw Richard.
Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard: I Will Not Stand Alone
World Village, £12.99
ONE of the unexpected by-products of the revolution which overthrew Iran’s Shah in 1979 was the remarkable resurgence of Persian classical music. This went hand in hand with the ban on Western pop, as official support was granted to the ney flute, the kemancheh spike-fiddle, the tar and setar lutes, and the goblet-shaped tombak drum. Four decades ago the kemancheh seemed to be finished – ousted by the violin – but now kemancheh schools have opened in all the big cities. For Persian musical traditionalists, it’s boom time, and for none one more than kemancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor, who has done more than any other musician to both revive his ancient art and to find new pathways through which it may grow.
It’s a music which is all about improvisation within strict forms; it’s as much about mood as technique, with the aim being to express inner mystical fire. It has no octaves, nor even tones which correspond to those of the West: while the Persian semitone is smaller than its Western counterpart, the Persian whole-tone is larger. Well, that’s in its classical form: what Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard purvey here does have octaves, and the intervals sometimes correspond comfortably with those of Western tonality, but, as Kalhor says, this album arose out of the “dark period” of Iran’s recent political unrest, and it’s his way of reaching out to a larger audience than the rarefied one he began with. He has commissioned from the Australian instrument maker Peter Biffin a new form of kemancheh which he has dubbed the shah kaman: its tone is darker and more atmospheric than the smaller standard instrument, and the sound-world created by this and the bass santour (hammered zither) is richly evocative.