Album reviews: Van Morrison | Pixies | Fiona Soe Paing

Van Morrison
Van Morrison
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Van Morrison has made no secret that he just wasn’t made for these (recording) times, when painstaking perfectionism has long replaced live spontaneity, and there’s no guarantee that the albums will keep flowing. But in case we missed the memo, the title of this follow-up to 2012’s Born to Sing does sound like a bit of a pledge to keep on keeping on, one which is backed up with ample musical evidence that Morrison still has much to give.

POP

Van Morrison: Keep Me Singing ***

Caroline Records

Pixies: Head Carrier ***

Pixiesmusic/Play It Again Sam

Fiona Soe Paing: Alien Lulllabies ***

Colliderscope

Keep Me Singing mostly features good times Van. Not that you can actually hear he is enjoying himself – that would be too much to ask. But this is the sound of Morrison at ease with himself, exuding easy soul and simple, touching lyricism, ideal for Indian summer listening.

There are no Paul Simonesque adventures in form and arrangement here, just the same old blues, folk and jazz tools applied with laidback familiarity. There is a natural elegance to the mellow soul sway of Every Time I See A River, with bittersweet sentiments penned by Bond lyricist Don Black. Likewise, the measured, old-fashioned blues Out In The Cold, with a lyric which gets straight to the heart of rejection but coats the melancholy with the romantic, cinematic sigh of strings.

Morrison doesn’t sweat the light bluesy strut of The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword nor the gospel-infused southern soul of the title track. The dreamy psych soul reverie of Holy Guardian Angel unapologetically harks back to his hero Sam Cooke, while Going Down To Bangor sounds like it is actually located somewhere around the Mississippi delta.

Memory Lane is another of Van’s location songs – he’s just not sure where that location is anymore as he experiences the unreliability of memory and nostalgia, and helplessness at the pace of change. He then lets that nostalgia run wild on In Tiburon, his celebration of past sojourns in San Francisco and the various characters of the Beat Generation, but it is executed with such warm affection that he captures some of the mood of those times rather than simply harking back with rheumy-eyed impotence.

Speaking of which… Pixies have, perhaps understandably, lost a fair chunk of their edge and eccentricity as they kick back and enjoy their distinguished middle age. Head Carrier is the second album of their second life, and the first with latest bassist Paz Lenchantin, who slips into the melodious co-vocalist role with insouciant cool and even takes the lead on the rather ploddy All I Think About Now, bizarrely singing Black Francis’s words of concession to her original predecessor Kim Deal. Francis is still screaming fit to burst a blood vessel on Baal’s Back but the punky urgency which fuelled their first rush has largely been replaced by a likeable, loose pop grunginess, exemplified by the Pixies-by-numbers Oona with its familiar interplay of male and female vocals, and Joey Santiago’s economic interventions on lead guitar.

So if you are looking for something less predictable and more experimental, best to try the debut album from Scots-Burmese singer/producer Fiona Soe Paing. The appropriately titled Alien Lullabies features mostly brooding electronica, written on retreat in New Zealand and delivered in an androgynous jazzy alto, but thrown slightly off axis by rogue elements such as the eerie theremin wobble on the stealthy Tamin Sah Pade or creepy gothic guitar on Tah Stin Koh Mpor, and the ritualistic, shamanic quality of tracks such as brooding tribal incantation Two Sisters.

CLASSICAL

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet *****

LAWO Classics

Vassily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic have followed up their recent wonderful debut release of Scriabin Symphonies Nos 3 & 4 with an equally magnetic recording of the complete ballet music of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. What you get here – compared to the traditional orchestral suites – is wholesome narrative, a sense of storyline over two CDs that is sharply coloured and nuanced by Petrenko’s incisive direction and the virile responsiveness of his players. Just listen to the steely, electrifying heat of The Quarrel, the supersonic dash of The Fight, the warm lyricism of the Madrigal or the gut-wrenching intensity of the Love Dance, and the emotional scope of this interpretation is instantly tangible. It’s a difficult score – deemed overly so for its original postponed Bolshoi premiere – but one, in such a golden embodiment as this, that takes you on a multi-sensory trip of a lifetime.

Ken Walton

FOLK

Pete Coutts: Northern Sky ****

Fitlike records

This debut album under his own name features North-East music and songs of smeddum composed by Aberdeen mandolinist, guitarist and singer Pete Coutts, with collaborators including Jonny Hardie, Ali Hutton on whistles, pipes and guitar, Brian McAlpine on accordion and Ross Ainslie on cittern.

Stand-out tunes include In & Oot and Villa Rosa, the latter with Hardie’s fiddle singing alongside mandolin, while Hutton adds edge to the jig time of Boink! with his piping and contributes lyrical whistle playing on Under the Table. Coutts’s best songs also have the ring of authenticity. His animated Sail & Oar is a fisherman’s anthem with the feel of a traditional number, delivered with nice vocal harmonies from Jenny Sturgeon and bright guitar and mandolin work. Belhelvie recounts a tragic agricultural accident, while the title track is a heartfelt love song, as much to landscape as to any individual.

Jim Gilchrist