OUR music critics cast their eye over the latest releases by Neil Diamond, Jerry Lee Lewis and The Twilight Sad, plus new albums from the worlds of classical, jazz, folk and world.
Neil Diamond: Melody Road
After more than 40 years at Columbia Records, the baritone bard of Brooklyn finds a new home at Capitol Records and celebrates with an album of quietly optimistic songs which often hark back in feel, arrangement and chord progression to some of his biggest hits – Alone At The Ball carries musical shades of Solitary Man, Marry Me Now uses similar chords in similar style to Song Sung Blue.
The front porch feel of 12 Songs and Home Before Dark, the age-appropriate albums he made with Rick Rubin this past decade, is retained in respect of Diamond’s undiminished ability to make a direct appeal to the listener with his rich but straightforward vocal delivery. Some of the songs are relatively unadorned, such as the opening title track, a simple song about the resonant power of songwriting, complete with simplistic rhyming lyrics (“melody from the heart, melody from the start”) and even a whistling interlude.
However, in the hands of producers Jacknife Lee and Don Was, who has been hustling to work with Diamond for the past quarter century, Melody Road is much more a gentle pop album than a stark confessional. The inoffensively jaunty and catchy likes of Something Blue breeze by leaving no impression, while Sunny Disposition is daubed with a subtle touch of Tex-Mex. First Time harks back to optimistic 1960s pop with its beat rhythm, guitar twang and Hammond organ (from Tom Petty wingman Benmont Tench) and is a note to self and others never to lose that frisson of doing something for the first time.
The more introspective songs also bear a nostalgic hue. Although not to be confused with the track of the same name by The Flirtations, Nothing But A Heartache has a Phil Spectorish torch song quality, with a wonderful sonorous guitar solo. (Ooo) Do I Wanna Be Yours could be a title from Diamond’s days as a Brill Building songwriter and Seongah And Jimmy, a rather sentimental ode to his brother-in-law’s cross-cultural kitchen sink love story with a Korean woman, written specially for their wedding, gets the full easy listening country production with swelling strings and trilling flute.
In short, Melody Road is an undemanding yet satisfying album for the long-term fans and a passable introduction to the Diamond oeuvre for the minority of souls who have thus far managed to avoid his masterful mix of songwriting credibility and showbiz glitz.
Jerry Lee Lewis: Rock & Roll Time
As the last surviving member of the “million dollar quartet” of original Sun Studio rock’n’rollers, Jerry Lee Lewis has his pick of collaborators lining up to play on his new album – young bucks such as Keith Richards, Neil Young and Robbie Robertson. Lewis sticks to what he knows – country, blues, rock’n’roll – in his selection of material, be it the rollicking country title track by Kris Kristofferson or the classic blues swagger of obscure Bob Dylan number Stepchild, and inevitably this comfort level is reflected in performances which are spirited but not especially stirring.
The Twilight Sad: Nobody Wants To Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave
On their fourth album, The Twilight Sad move forward steadily but not spectacularly with a meticulously forged sound, intended by the band as a satisfying blend of the various styles – from indie noise to goth electro – they have employed to this point. So an atmospheric use of synths, akin to a non-pomp Simple Minds, and James Graham’s pleasingly moody voice, smoother than your average angst-ridden frontman, are applied to the terribly serious and somewhat plaintive likes of It Never Was The Same and Leave The House. But the introverted songwriting relies too much on repetitive downbeat hooks to be arresting.
Franz & Richard Strauss: Horn Concertos
Just as intriguing as the two horn concertos of Richard Strauss here is that of his horn-playing father, Franz Strauss. It is miles apart from the expansive Romanticism of his son’s mature music, but there are periodic pre-echoes – flamboyant warm-hearted melodic flourishes – that give away the family connection. Franz’s concerto belongs unmistakably to the showpiece artistry of the mid-19th century, played here with golden tone and awesome virtuosity by soloist Samuel Seidenberg and the Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sebastian Weigle. So, too, does Richard’s early First Concerto. It’s in the later Second that we hear the mature Strauss, and a performance firmly in line with its fulminating brilliance.
Peggy Seeger: Everything Changes
The title track may be elegiac, but Peggy Seeger, now in her 80th year, demonstrates that her lifetime of song-making is in no way behind her in an album brimming with life, melody and shot through with articulate reflection, observation and wit. More associated with her own guitar and banjo accompaniments, she’s accompanied here by an excellent band, including her son, Calum MacColl, who produced the album.
Moods and topics vary engagingly. Swim to the Star is about the Titanic (and with echoes of the “folk song vérité” of the old Radio Ballads), Go to Sleep a mellifluous lullaby spun out over soft African chimes, while Nero’s Children is an ominously toned observation of humankind’s propensity for playing with fire, and Miss Heroin, with its echoing cellar vibe, a litany of the horrors of addiction.
There’s satirical vaudeville as well: childhood myths punctured with droll relish in Do You Believe in Me? and the wonderfully slinky You Don’t know How Lucky You Are.
Simon Phillips: Protocol II
The former Toto drummer has played with a long list of some of the biggest names in rock and jazz, but can’t be accused of rushing out his own records. It is 14 years since his previous recording as a leader, and just over a quarter of a century since the release of the original Protocol album (literally a solo effort on which the drummer played all the instruments) in 1988. Writing new material that he felt was worth recording following a fallow period provided the catalyst for this disc, and he assembled a powerful band for the occasion, featuring guitarist Andy Timmons, keyboard player Steve Weingart and bassist Ernest Tibbs. Each player makes a full contribution to the music, and together they cook up a set of high-octane old school electric jazz-rock, brimming over with in-your-face soloing, muscular energy and rhythmic drive.
Kasse Mady Diabate: Kirike
No Format! Records
Salif Keita hailed Kasse Mady Diabate as the greatest singer in Mali, and this album bears out that claim. Produced by the French cellist Vincent Segal, this is the third in a series of recordings born out of the friendship between him and the kora maestro Ballake Sissoko, who here contributes his take on the style of the Casamance region. The mix is enriched by the balafon of Lansine Kouyate and the ngoni of Badje Tounkara. Kasse Mady’s baritone voice is sweet and intimate, as is the whole of this lovely record.