With 50 million album sales and nine Grammy awards to her name, Mary J Blige has chosen to jump on the London bandwagon with her 13th full-length record.
Mary J Blige
The London Sessions
Star rating: ****
Following her guest vocal on a version of London dance duo Disclosure’s track F For You, the two acts’ plans to record some more together saw Blige stay in London for a month. Her producer and fellow US import Rodney Jerkins has stated the aim was to take on board the “Nineties house vibe” which is currently in vogue in the UK, presumably to deliver a fresh sound to the EDM-loving US.
The result is still more Blige than Blighty, however, despite contributions from a host of contemporary British talents. First up is Sam Smith, a background presence on the moody doo-wop gospel of Therapy, whose lyric extols the virtues of lying on a therapist’s couch twice a day rather than getting hung up over a man. Smith is also a co-writing contributor to Not Loving You, a simple and direct piano ballad which is elevated by the mighty peaks of Blige’s voice and the smart lyrical reverse of the closing line.
There are two contributions from Disclosure here, Right Now and Follow, which both fulfil Jerkins’ original brief as sleek and punchy pieces of shopping mall electro-house which sound precisely like their times and their country of origin, albeit with Blige’s voice still their defining instrument. Amid these pleasing experiments lie a few ballads which sound as though Blige is attempting to channel Emeli Sandé, which is ironic considering Sandé’s co-writing and performing guest appearances are on the boldest tracks here: the saxophone-soaked UK garage of Pick Me Up and the stark tale of domestic abuse survival, Whole Damn Year.
Download: Pick Me Up, Whole Damn Year
Idris Elba Presents Mi Mandela
Star rating: ***
The weird and the wonderful collide in this distinctive group of songs from artistic polymath and star of The Wire and Luther Idris Elba, collectively inspired by his taking the role of Nelson Mandela in Long Walk To Freedom. The record features so many collaborators (James Blake’s warm tones are in there, Mumford & Sons wrote Home, Mr Hudson co-produced with Elba, Maverick Sabre guests on a couple of tracks, Dan Muir of Edinburgh’s Bwani Junction plays some guitar) it can be hard to pick out Elba’s smooth soul croon, although he does offer an odd spoken word anecdote. With its rich and resonant blend of soul and African pop, though, quality just wins out over self-indulgence. DP
Download: So Many People, Hold On
TV on the Radio
Star rating: ****
This is TV on the Radio’s first album since 2011’s Nine Types Of Light, and also the Brooklyn hipster contingent and sometime David Bowie collaborators’ first since the death of their bassist, Gerard Smith, from lung cancer that year. It’s a veil they shrug off quickly, however, for Seeds stakes a claim to being their finest album yet, one which comes enshrouded in a warm fug of guarded optimism. “I’ll care for you / careful you,” croons Tunde Adebimpe over Careful You’s gently surging synths. Could You, meanwhile, is a surging psych rocker, and there are further unashamed anthems in Happy Idiot and Ride. Each song is insistent, melodic, but still driven by Dave Sitek’s distinctive and inventive production: you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re making a pitch for the mainstream. DP
Download: Careful You, Trouble
Cocktails At Dusk: A Noir Tribute To Chris Connor
Star rating: ***
A strange one this, which requires explanation. Chris Connor (1927-2009) was an American jazz vocalist with a husky, low voice and intimate, cool style who made her name during a brief tenure with the Stan Kenton band in the 1950s and then released several popular albums under her own name. This CD is a project by her friend, pianist and composer Ran Blake, another cultish figure who is known for his unique blend of diverse influences, including film noir – hence the atmospheric, filmic quality to this CD, which features tunes associated with Connor (notably her hit All About Ronnie), mostly performed as piano solos, though there are some lovely duets with singer Laïka Fatien. Tenor saxophonist Ricky Ford’s contributions spoil the mood, however. Alison Kerr
Download: All About Ronnie
Blue Rose Code
The Ballads Of Peckham Rye
Star rating: ****
This collection of songs from Scots exile in London Ross Wilson references both William Blake, whose angels first appeared in a tree on the titular Common, and Muriel Spark, whose novel The Ballad Of Peckham Rye deals with an altogether darker kind of supernatural force. Wilson expounds his life-enhancing messages in original arrangements performed by Scots folk and jazz stalwarts such as Aidan O’Rourke, Karine Polwart, Dave Milligan, Colin Steele and Rachel Newton, among the 18 vocal and instrumental guests. It’s not really “Scots Gospel” as Wilson asserts, but the music is heartfelt and often moving, although his vocal lead can sometimes be indecipherable, even as the songs remain musically powerful. Norman Chalmers
Download: Oh North
My Personal Favourites
The Jacques Loussier Trio Plays Bach
Star rating: *****
Celebrating the 80th birthday of the classical jazz pianist Jacques Loussier, this two-CD album brings together works some will remember from his groundbreaking 1959 album Play Bach as well as newer performances. Here, Loussier and colleagues perform in an updated style that is, if anything, more improvisationally minded than his earlier renditions of Bach’s works (a parallel double album, TEL 35342-02, includes works by Vivaldi, Debussy, Mozart and Schumann). For those who remember his version of Air On The G String, as used for a TV advertisement for a brand of cigars, the more freewheeling version recorded here with bassist Vincent Charbonnier and drummer André Arpino may come as a surprise, but, if anything, as he has grown older, Loussier’s style has involved ever-more complex variations of attack and thrust. Alexander Bryce
Download: Pastorale In C Minor