Album reviews: Simple Minds | Neil Young | The Willows

Simple Minds' vocalist Jim Kerr performing in Vienna. Picture: AFP
Simple Minds' vocalist Jim Kerr performing in Vienna. Picture: AFP
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IT WAS Mike Scott of The Waterboys who claimed the term “the big music” back in the early Eighties for a track of the same name on A Pagan Place,encapsulating his band at their most emotionally panoramic.

Simple Minds: Big Music

Caroline International

***

As a label, it spoke of an unabashed desire to create something musically epic, and bombast be damned. Simple Minds are natural custodians of the Big Music, along with their Eighties stadium contemporaries U2 (though Bono and co have faltered lately, producing a new album of decidedly Middling Music).

That big, beefy Minds sound has influenced many along the way – not least the Manic Street Preachers, whose frontman James Dean Bradfield recently presented Simple Minds with the Q magazine Inspiration Award.

Big Music initially sounds intent on living up to its moniker. Opening track Blindfolded arrives in grand style with Charlie Burchill’s mountainous, elegantly distorted guitar sound bolstered by emphatic keyboards reminiscent of their New Gold Dream/Sparkle In The Rain era. Jim Kerr, however, holds back on the booming vocals, preferring a more subtle delivery while keeping his head in the game.

He consciously pulls back further on the single Honest Town, originally written with Iain Cook of Chvrches for Kerr’s solo Lostboy incarnation. Its wistful remembrance of his mum was inspired by a drive around his native southside of Glasgow and it’s not much of a stretch to discern the city’s inspiration on Broken Glass Park, one of the better songs of this fairly patchy batch.

Let The Day Begin – a cover of a song by American band The Call – trumps several of the Minds originals with its stronger, tuneful hook. And the title track itself is a would-be bruiser but is built on shakier foundations.

Even at the height of their pomp, around the Once Upon A Time album, Simple Minds always packed a good tune on which to layer their sound. Here, the likes of On The Rooftop and Imagination flex their mid-Eighties muscles without quite mustering the melodic heft of All The Things She Said and its ilk.

Big Music also references an earlier period of their catalogue, being co-produced by Steve Hillage, who worked on Sons And Fascination back in 1981, and making full use of those chunky analogue synth sounds which Chvrches have so gleefully resurrected themselves on the other sultry Cook co-write, Blood Diamonds.

POP

Neil Young: Storytone

Warner Bros

***

With typical unpredictability, Neil Young swings straight from his scratchiest recording, the ultra lo-fi A Letter Home, to one of this most lavish in a matter of months. Storytone was recorded with a 92-piece orchestra and features the unexpected sound of this most reluctant king of the swingers backed by a sassy big band on Say Hello to Chicago. Elsewhere, he continues to man the political barricades, although his version of Who’s Gonna Stand Up, released to coincide with the recent worldwide climate marches, sounds rather sentimental with its Disney strings. FS

The Flaming Lips: With A Little Help From My Fwends

Bella Union

***

In recent years, The Flaming Lips have pulled back from hello-sky-hello-trees cuddly psychedelic pop troupe to darker and arguably even more eccentric territory. This charity release (proceeds go to subsidise pet care in their native Oklahoma City) is a quite barking tribute to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band recorded with “fwends” famous and less so – Moby, MGMT, Tegan & Sara and, most weirdly of all, Miley Cyrus – which appears to be fuelled by all the substances which inspired the original Beatles album and more besides. Another oddity to add to the Lips’ cabinet of curiosities.FS

CLASSICAL

Messiaen: La Fauvette Passerinette

Delphian

*****

Delphian was awarded Label of the Year at the recent Gramophone Awards, and here’s one good reason why. This latest release combines imagination, adventure, discovery and consummate artistry. At its broadest level it is a beautifully sequenced set of 20th-century piano works, from Ravel’s delicious Oiseaux Tristes to the more challenging language of Stockhausen, Julian Anderson, George Benjamin and others. But central to its fascination, among several Messiaen pieces, is the newly discovered La Fauvette passerinette of 1961, which the pianist – and outstanding soloist here – Peter Hill found and completed. It appears to have signalled a newly developed use of the composer’s signature birdsong, which he never quite followed up in his piano music. It’s quite a revelation.KEN WALTON

FOLK

The Willows: Amidst Fiery Skies

Elk Records

***

This second album from the young Cambridge-based band features mainly self-composed songs in an impressively cohesive amalgam of English traditional with contemporary and bluegrass influences – the latter manifesting itself in the plangent dobro slides which insinuate themselves through some numbers. Much of the band’s appeal is down to Jade Rhiannon’s beguilingly delicate yet poised singing, accompanied by guitars, banjo, fiddle and drums which just occasionally risk overwhelming things. The standard is set by the stirring opener, Red Sands, a song of sad ghosts and cherished memories, with its triumphal fiddle coda from Prue Ward. Roseville Fair also grabs you immediately with its warmth and spirit, while the traditional Irish Maid of Culmore is delicately treated. Things take on a more western tone in Shores, while, staying on the far side of the Pond, Utah Phillips’s Goodnight Loving Trail is handled with full-voiced warmth. Closer to home, The Visitor vividly recounts an epic storm rescue off the North Yorkshire coast. JIM GILCHRIST

JAZZ

Geoff Eales: Invocation

Nimbus Alliance

****

Geoff Eales should be familiar to anyone who has followed the UK jazz scene of the past couple of decades, but perhaps the pianist is not as well-known as his work merits. This disc of 12 improvisations for solo piano is the latest in a succession of fine recording projects that began in 1999, and is an impressive and enjoyable showcase for his virtues as both pianist and improviser. Although rooted in jazz, his frame of reference here is considerably wider, and much of the music might appeal equally to classical music listeners. As in his most recent handful of projects, the music is all his own, and each piece was recorded in a single take with no editing or patching. He is an instinctive melodist with a lovely touch and refined technique, and builds his improvisations with an unerring sense of purpose. KENNY MATHIESON

WORLD

Tashi Lhunpo Monks: 17 Golden Greats

30 IPS / Tashi Lhunpo Monastery UK Trust

****

This is not something to half-listen to. It’s an entire ritual, beginning with the pure ringing tone of two tiny cymbals which draw the mind into a state of concentrated calm. Thereafter the tracks grow deeper and darker as the mood progresses inwards. In the 14th century the Tashi Lhunpo monastery was one of the most important of Tibet; after the Chinese invasion in 1949 and the monks’ escape into exile, its tradition was sedulously preserved, hence this benignly powerful disc. MICHAEL CHURCH