Album reviews: Stereophonics | Chris Biscoe Profiles Quartet | John Grant

Stereophonics
Stereophonics
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Our roundup of the latest releases

Stereophonics: Graffiti On The Train

Stylus Records, £12.99

***

You can often hear the graft that goes into Stereophonics’ music but while blue-collar rocker Kelly Jones might take that as a badge of authenticity, is group always sound better when they hang a little loose, as here on the mean quasi-Oasis garage form of Catacomb.

Elsewhere on their eighth album, they are trying very hard to be dynamic, manoeuvring from would-be blockbuster end credits soundtrack Roll The Dice through the fusty blues of Been Caught Cheating to the sleek designer rocker In A Moment. David Arnold lays the string arrangements on thick in a number of cases but simple closing ballad No One’s Perfect is the album’s most charming moment by some stretch.

John Grant: Pale Green Ghosts

Bella Union, £13.99

****

Former Czars frontman John Grant garnered a host of adoring new fans with his debut solo album Queen Of Denmark. This follow-up applies his creamy baritone and frank, irreverent lyrics to a predominantly electronic soundtrack, resulting in some deliciously synthetic instrumental breaks and an overall sound akin to a processed Carpenters crossed with potty-mouthed Rufus Wainwright.

On Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore, he conveys melancholy portent like Dead Can Dance’s Brendan Perry, with guest vocalist Sinead O’Connor warbling in the Lisa Gerrard role, but contrasts this with the unsentimental, often caustic wit of You Don’t Have To and I Hate This Town and the all-out retro synthpop satire of Sensitive New Age Guy before he returns to the piano for the graceful closing Glacier.

Various: Sound City – Real to Reel

RCA, £12.99

***

Dave Grohl accompanies his documentary about the now defunct Los Angeles studio where Nirvana recorded Nevermind with this community-minded soundtrack, which gathers a number of big-name collaborators and many of his peers, most of whom recorded in the studio at some point, into scratch groups who were given 24 hours to compose and record a track using the studio’s old console.

Paul McCartney turns in the stodgy Cut Me Some Slack (sorry Sir Paul, no can do), while Stevie Nicks is unmistakable. No-one pushes the boat out but at least old hands Rick Springfield and punk veteran Lee Ving produce hi-octane performances and Slipknot’s Corey Taylor makes a surprisingly soulful contribution.

Ronald Stevenson: Piano Music

Divine Art, £24.99

****

From this bulky three-CD set of piano music by Ronald Stevenson (born 85 years ago last week), pianist and Stevenson aficionado Murray McLachlan draws out several key aspects of the Scots composer’s colourful character.

There’s the art of transcription, which Stevenson saw as central to his own role as an active pianist, etched out large – in a Busoni-like way – in imaginative redrafts of Bach, Mozart, Purcell and Ysaye, among others. There’s the love of melody, expressed abundantly in both volumes of L’Art nouveau du chant appliqué au piano, among them a free but obvious treatment of Novello’s We’ll Gather Lilacs. But more generally, there’s that singularity of mind that colours all Stevenson’s work with a nagging absurdity that is both charming and unsettling. McLachlan does an impressive and honest job. Some of the piano production quality is edgy; but so is this eccentric music.

The Chair: The Road To Hammer Junkie

Own Label, £11.99

***

No, I don’t know where or what Hammer Junkie is either, but there’s never a dull moment with this irrepressible Orcadian septet (bolstered here by various guest bassists). There seems to be some confusion as to track order between the outer and inner sleeve notes, and the whole thing is pretty unremittingly beaty, but generates plenty of excitement. The Hup Set, for instance metamorphoses from jigs into funk and back, the band puts a compelling spin on the Scariest Room while the drums ease off briefly for some exuberant multitracked fiddles to introduce that old Irish standard Humours of Tulla. The sweet and sinuous drift of Furmiston Ruby contrasts with fiery Orcadian bluegrass fiddle lacing the song The Hamars o’ Syradale, and the eccentrically titled Knees of Fire is indeed a bit of a knees-up, of the Celtic-swing variety.

Chris Biscoe Profiles Quartet: Live at Campus West

Trio Records

*****

The English saxophonist Chris Biscoe follows up earlier album projects on two of his abiding obsessions, the music of Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus, with this live set combining material by or associated with both musicians. The Profiles Quartet features Biscoe on alto saxophone and alto clarinet alongside Tony Kofi on alto and tenor saxophones (both show clear Dolphy influences in their approach to alto), with Larry Bartley well featured on bass, and Stu Butterfield on drums.

They form a cohesive, highly energised unit, but allow themselves ample freedom to explore the material, which includes compositions by Thelonious Monk and Oliver Nelson associated with Dolphy. Lengthy investigations of Monk’s Epistrophy and Dolphy’s Out To Lunch and Potsa Lotsa are among the highlights of the set, recorded at the Welwyn Garden City venue Campus West in 2011.

The Rough Guide to Acoustic Africa

World Music Network, 
£8.99

*****

As the liner note to this excellent compilation points out, all but three of its tracks include a guitar, with the remaining ones opting for other plucked instruments – the kora, the oud, and the valiha: “So ubiquitous is the sound of slapping strings and strumming chords across the African continent that acoustic music curls into practically every corner of life and culture there.” Disenchanted by the crudeness of amplification, musicians (and listeners) are rediscovering the sounds of the pre-electronic age. This is not to say that electronica is totally abjured: Etran Finatawa, a nomadic band hailing from the desert sands of Niger, blends electric guitars with acoustic instruments, though with the gentlest rock-steady beat.

Every track has its charm, and if the prevailing mood and momentum is evenly smooth, their musical sound-worlds display a rich variety. The Malagasy singer Lala Njava’s soft and breathy timbre is perfectly complemented by an accompaniment on guitar and kora; the singing of Monoswezi’s Hope Masike finds an exquisite foil through her magic with the mbira thumb-piano; Mory Kante’s song about the pain of hunger in his native Guinea is refracted through the gentle tones of his backing chorus. It’s nice to be reminded of the authentic sound of palm-wine music thanks to its oldest survivor Koo Nimo – for that is the origin of everything from Afrobeat to highlife hip-hop today – and it’s good to get a whiff of Arabic swing and swagger from Sudanese singer and bandleader Abdel Gadir Salim. Further pleasures include Shiyani Ngcobo’s guitar-picking brilliance, Eyuphuro’s warm harmonies, and Mabulu’s melodious paean to health education.