Rag’n’bone Man’s debut album has been given the slick, radio-friendly treatment, but just enough grit and soul have been left intact
Rag’n’Bone Man: Human ***
Tinariwen: Elwan ***
Graeme Miller & Steve Shill: The Moomins ***
Rory Graham, aka Rag’n’Bone Man, is a bear of a bloke with the words “soul” and “funk” tattoed on his knuckles, though there are moments on his debut album where both qualities are smothered by the slick pop production.
Graham is a new face but an experienced hand, starting out as a rapper in his native Sussex before discovering his bluesy pipes and eventually teaming up with Bastille producer Mark Crew to create a commercial amalgam of soul, pop and hip-hop.
Breakthrough track Human found its way on to the X Factor radar and Graham has already taken receipt of the Brits Critics’ Choice Award which, going on the form of previous recipients from Emeli Sandé to Sam Smith, means his mainstream success is all but assured.
This debut calling card fits comfortably into the trend for safe, manicured, radio-friendly soulful pop music as practised by the likes of James Morrison, Leon Bridges et al. However, Graham has a grittier tone matched here to a pretty chunky set of songs with lyrics inspired by, among more conventional topics, Game of Thrones.
The title track is a decent taster, allowing Graham to show off a degree of bluesy angst within the framework of a strong pop hook, while Innocent Man showcases a softer, smoother old school crooner flavour and Bitter End his sweeter upper register.
However, a number of tracks are swallowed up by the sort of big MOR production which is lavished on Adele records and which once turned Seal into a prematurely bland proposition. The trebly drums, frothy synths and tinny strings on Be The Man grate against Graham’s earthy tones.
Ego is at least more of a marriage of styles, wrapping up hip-hop, jazz, gospel and psychedelic soul in a more atmospheric package and nothing extraneous gets in the way of his rendition of the gospel standard In My Time Of Dying (titled Die Easy) which closes the album in untainted a capella style.
For an undiluted draught of the blues, try the latest release from Tinariwen, the band of Tuareg nomads who have become world music stars over the past decade. Elwan, meaning “the elephants”, explores their musical links with another desert rock tradition, being recorded partly at the famous Rancho de la Luna studios in California’s Joshua Tree National Park – a safe desert region, unlike their homeland on the border between Mali and Algeria. Their longing for home is expressed on Ténéré Tàqqàl, meaning “what has become of the desert?” and through the expressive blues guitar and weary, downtrodden vocal on Ittus. Mark Lanegan, no stranger to Josh Homme’s Desert Sessions, lends his parched voice to the acid-tinged Nànnuflày and Fog Edaghàn finds common ground with the psychedelic noodlings of west coast legends The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane, but the percussion and unison vocals are distinctly Tinariwen.
Meanwhile, over in curiosity corner, the long lost soundtrack to a cherished kids TV show finally gets a commercial release. The stop-motion animated adaptation of The Moomins was originally broadcast in the mid-1980s with a lo-fi synth soundtrack bizarrely composed by a couple of musicians from the Leeds post-punk scene. Graeme Miller and Steve Shill fashioned a naïve but charming mix of DIY electronica using an early digital synthesizer and incorporating various world music influences, including Alpine whistles and what sounds like didgeridoo drone, to create a diverse soundscape, from the brooding ambient Comet Shadow through the shamanic jam Midwinter Rites to the spindly Piano Waltz.
Elgar & Bax: For the Fallen *****
The Hallé Orchestra’s Elgar project under music director Sir Mark Elder has proved a musical treasure trove, and this latest disc, For the Fallen, which revolves around the theme of “the departed”, is no exception. It takes us through more obscure areas of Elgar, not least the late, great choral work The Spirit of England, which Elder injects with his characteristically urgent yet fluid musicianship. Musically, its roots lie in The Dream of Gerontius, to the point of unashamed borrowing, but in itself it is as moving and original a creation as the better known work. The Hallé Choir are on glowing form, topped by the rapt central performance – To Women – of soprano Rachel Nicholls, a movement touched by Elgar’s most sublime invention. Another fresh insight follows in the melodrama A Voice in the Wilderness, affectionately narrated by Joshua Ellicot, and lit with cinematic fluidity by Elgar’s soft-spun score and the sweet soprano of Jennifer France.
The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra & Bill Evans: Beauty and the Beast ****
SNJO director Tommy Smith’s suite ain’t no fairy tale, rather a struggle between elements of the human psyche: think Jekyll and Hyde rather than Disney romance. Recorded live at Dundee’s Caird Hall, the band hits the ground running, powered by Alyn Cosker’s drumming and the urgent mutter of Kevin Glasgow’s electric bass, while brass and reed ranks are in biting form. Evans, an old friend of the orchestra, is allowed full scope for his virtuosic playing on tenor sax and particularly on his mercurially shrilling soprano instrument, which swoops, chatters and scolds, for instance, in a brooding second movement which culminates in volcanic uproar. Things subside in the fifth movement, allowing sax to ruminate briefly over glimmering piano before the action picks up for a playful-sounding sixth part and things build gradually to a sudden, resolution. This is the SNJO in full-blown mode: it rocks and it roars.