Album reviews: Neil Young | Richard Thompson

Neil Young. Picture: Amy Dickerson/New York Times

Neil Young. Picture: Amy Dickerson/New York Times

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NEIL Young’s recent musical utterances have been patchy, curious curveballs, ranging in scope from big band album Storytone to a concept love letter to his car to the excessively lo-fi A Letter Home, recorded in a vintage Voice-o-Graph booth. But at least they have been interesting.

Neil Young

The Monsato Years

**

In the last couple of weeks alone, Young has swiftly disassociated himself from Donald Trump’s use of his track, Rockin’ in the Free World, to launch his bid to be the next American president. The timing was either misjudged or juicily ironic, as Young’s latest album is a bilious riposte to big business and its excessive influence in the political sphere.

If The Donald were to have come across this virulently anti-corporate concept collection, he might have thought again about his choice of campaign song. Indeed, several of the corporations targeted on The Monsanto Years have already seen fit to respond to the accusations in Young’s lyrics, not least eponymous agrochemical company Monsanto whose genetically modified products are Young’s chief bugbear.

Taking Young’s side are his guest backing band Promise of the Real, whose line-up features Willy Nelson’s sons Micah and Lukas. Together, they have created a frustratingly rough and ready album, as seems to be Young’s way these days – no time to finesse the lyrics, recording or production, gotta just get the message out there.

A New Day For Love could only be Neil Young. It’s a dynamic stew, comprising that brooding, stormy guitar style, his increasingly cracked, half-spoken vocals in contrast to the soft soulful backing crooning and a lyrical mix of hippy positivism and targeted ire.

Big Box takes grizzly aim at Walmart’s low wage culture – “too big to fail, too rich for jail” coos the placard-waving chorus – and there are no prizes for guessing the anti-heroes of A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop, which combines the enforced jollity of a whistling hookline, verses which sound more like an essay than song lyrics, a mock solemn chant of “Monsanto, mothers want to know what they feed their children” and the rudimentary rhyme of “GMO” with “Monsanto”. If all publicity is good publicity, then Monsanto are dollars in.

The message is clear long before the title track plods into view. Young also drags his heels right through If I Don’t Know with only the occasional keening guitar riff or plaintive vocal line to break the tedium.

One has to salute Young for at least stepping up to the plate once more and writing an album with fire in its belly when musicians half his age wouldn’t touch controversy with a hazmat glove. However it is worth bearing in mind that the greatest protest songs are great songs first, proving emotionally resonant enough to touch subsequent generations. In comparison, The Monsanto Years sounds more like musical hack work. FIONA SHEPHERD

Richard Thompson: Still

Proper

***

Another quietly authoritative album from the redoubtable Richard Thompson, encompassing the likes of yearning folk ballad Josephine, the sparse but pacey nonsense ditty Pony in the Stable, the offbeat blues of All Buttoned Up – with its shades of David Byrne – and the languorous, pleading proggy Where’s Your Heart.

Still was produced by Jeff Tweedy, another fine guitarist/songwriter, who provides little flourishes but mostly leaves Thompson’s songs to breathe. But Thompson takes full advantage of Tweedy’s vast guitar collection when he pays homage to Django Reinhardt, Hank Marvin and Chuck Berry (among others) on Guitar Heroes. FS

Trembling Bells: The Sovereign Self

Tin Angel

****

Glasgow’s Trembling Bells are fearless psych folk stylists, who may put off as many as they attract with their musical indulgences and elevated language. Where else, beyond a mid-70s Jethro Tull album, would you get a title such as (Perched Like a Drunk on a) Miserichord?

The darkly playful fol-de-rollery of O Where Is Saint George, the motorik prog wigout of Killing Time in

London Fields and the rockabilly rumble of Bells of Burford are bold and beautiful, while the influence of former collaborator Will Oldham pervades the psychedelic country blues of The Singing Blood. FS

Classical

Eddie McGuire: Entangled Fortunes

Delphian

****

There’s an elemental purity in Eddie McGuire’s music that is prominent in the five works represented on this new recording of his chamber music by the Red Note Ensemble. The single-note prominence of Elegy, the fresh crystalline optimism of Euphoria, the folk-fed minimalism embedded in the String Trio, the affectionate melodic lines and autumnal counterpoint that open the title track Entangled Fortunes, and the meditative and quirky intellectualism of Quintet 2, all add up to a composer of immense sincerity, supreme craftsmanship and creative integrity. Red Note’s warm and sensitive performances are an equal match. KEN WALTON

Folk

Shooglenifty: The United Knot

Shoogle Records

****

Groove-driven exuberance, trancy interludes and that ringing fiddle and mandolin front line, all shot through with electronic flickers and echoes ... It can only be Shooglenifty, marking 25 years as purveyors of “acid croft” with their seventh studio album, which comes complete with cover art by music-loving Renaissance man John Byrne.

They’re joined for the first time by a guest vocalist, Kaela Rowan’s puirt à beul intoned over insistent banjo, bass and drums, while other band members join in the occasional wordless chorus.

Overall, it’s a recognisably vivid and multi-textured Shooglenifty soundscape. The Samhla Reel set, for instance, kicks off with a panto Persian market chorus before Angus Grant’s fiddle and Ewan MacPherson’s mandolin take off with characteristic smeddum, joined by growling guitar, buzzing Jew’s harp and much else. The Highway Carpark emerges sinuously out of big guitar twangs, while exotic chimes and shawms herald the High Road to Jodhpur, with Rowan shifting between Indian vocables and Gaelic mouth music. Never a dull moment. JIM GILCHRIST

JAZZ

Andy Sheppard Quartet: Surrounded By Sea

ECM

****

Saxophonist Andy Sheppard adds the spacy sounds of Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset to his Trio Libero of double-bassist Michel Benita and drummer Sebastian Rochford, bringing ambient shades and echoes while further opening out the group sound.

The result is an album which is still and restrained in tempo but rich in tonality and sparely considered phrasing. Sheppard’s sax is haunting but always warm-toned, in the spare, descending notes of his composition Origin of Species, in winsome meditation over a background susurrus in Elvis Costello’s I Want to Vanish¸ or running on the tide of Rochford’s shifting drum and cymbal patterns in another Sheppard composition Medication.

Spliced through the album in three sections is the band’s lingering elaboration on a Gaelic song air, Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir, saxophone lyrical against at times almost Pink Floyd-ish backdrop, while Rochford’s cryptically titled They Aren’t Perfect and Neither Am I sees all four instrumentalists in a rich colloquy of chimes, murmurs and yearning reed sound. JG

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