BRETT ANDERSON: BRETT ANDERSON **
DROWNED IN SOUND, 10.99
AS SOMEONE who was once gladly, utterly seduced by Suede, I take no pleasure in their former frontman Brett Anderson's steady creative slippage over the years. He just won't be told that retirement is the graceful option. Here is a man who would keep on pedalling long after he has fallen off his bike.
Painful though it may be to admit, Anderson has been merely marking musical time for the last ten years. Suede, the one-time audacious progenitors of Britpop, limped on far longer than was dignified, let alone wise. Although there was a continuing muscularity to their live performances, with no new songs worth getting excited about, the last days of Suede became merely an excuse to indulge in some early 1990s nostalgia.
Latterly, they were missing something, most likely the participation of original Suede guitarist and Anderson's songwriting partner, Bernard Butler. He was edged out of proceedings around the time of the band's second album, Dog Man Star (still Anderson's finest moment) and left, acrimoniously. But Anderson's eventual reunion with Butler (whose post-Suede catalogue has also been patchy) in The Tears failed to recapture the rare magic of their early partnership. The band lasted for one album before quietly dissolving.
So now it's time for Anderson to try the solo route - an inevitable move, pregnant with possibilities. One can hope, anyway. Anderson's musical accomplice on this occasion is Norwegian writer/producer Fred Ball, who has previously collaborated with Cerys Matthews and KT Tunstall. On this evidence, he is less a foil than a vacuum.
Things start positively enough with lead single Love Is Dead, a song Anderson optimistically places on a par with 1996 Suede offering Trash as an example of a track which perfectly encapsulates where he's at - feeling pretty sorry for himself as it turns out. "Nothing ever goes right, nothing really flows in my life," he bemoans over a stately string arrangement.
The warning bell sounds briefly at his reference to "plastic people wear imaginary smiles". Anderson is persistently guilty of delving into a Scrabble bag of certain stylised phrases which he has been recycling for the past 15 years, a practice which has become less forgivable the longer it continues, particularly when it results in such tired metaphors as "I am the needle and you are the vein" from Dust And Rain.
On the plus side, Love Is Dead boasts a beautiful vocal, an easy, sustained, languid mood and a melody which manages to hang around longer than the scent of cheap air freshener. But surely he is capable of better than this mere pleasantry? Apparently not.
One Lazy Morning has a certain elegance, but Anderson has already explored the subject of pottering about doing nothing much with more charm on Suede's Lazy a decade ago. Strangely, he doesn't mention dashing off a solo album's worth of songs as one of the pursuits of said lazy morning.
As the mournful piano refrains and tasteful string arrangements stack up, whole songs start to drift by without making any impression - the listless, can't-be-bothered Intimacy, a bunch of other ones - and the realisation dawns: this isn't going to get any better; Love Is Dead really is the pinnacle of this terribly disappointing album.
Unlike the waste-of-space likes of Scorpio Rising, the clumsily-titled anti-consumerist waltz The More We Possess The Less We Own Of Ourselves at least appears to have some guiding idea behind it. With a bit more oomph in its arrangement and delivery, it could have had some of the storytelling swagger of the songs of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. But let's not get too ambitious.
Anderson has now reached that age in his life when it is incumbent upon him to pen a track called Song For My Father. Though he fails to muster the simple poignancy of other paeans to deceased parents such as Manic Street Preachers' Ocean Spray or The Proclaimers' Act Of Remembrance, this closing track is still the closest he comes to tapping into some resonant personal emotion and musical scope. But he is hardly going out on a flourish, as there is nothing to celebrate about this album.
Anderson is still something of a live draw, with his first solo dates in London easily selling out. Devotion to such a charismatic figure dies hard, and he is still an impeccable, distinctive vocalist. But his problem remains a lack of dynamic material.
It would be very satisfying to see Brett Anderson find a post-Britpop niche in the way that his old nemesis, Damon Albarn, the Blur frontman, has, but it's sounding highly unlikely with this squandered opportunity to go on. Surely a first solo offering from someone with as eventful a life to draw on could have produced a more atmospheric, confessional, comedown album rather than this insipid, say-nothing affair.
THE ALIENS: ASTRONOMY FOR DOGS
PET ROCK RECORDS, 11.99
THESE Aliens are pretty familiar - ex-Beta Band members John Maclean and Robin Jones have teamed up with their long-time chum Gordon Anderson to create this psychedelic patchwork, encompassing straightforward garage pop, some blatantly Beatley moments, both mellow (Tomorrow) and bouncy (The Happy Song), beautiful, woozy acid country on She Don't Love Me No More, fleeting, delicious horn arrangements, the psych-funk of live favourite Robot Man, somewhat tamed in its recorded incarnation, and the jabbering reverie of Only Waiting, which comes closest to the hypnotic strains of The Beta Band. Far out.
ENTER SHIKARI: TAKE TO THE SKIES
AMBUSH REALITY, 11.99
WELL, here's the sort of dog's breakfast you don't come across every day. Enterprising four-piece Enter Shikari have hit on the wizard wheeze of teaming the vein-bulging, muscle-flexing power of hardcore metal with the anthemic euphoria of rave music and come up with an album which sounds like... standard chest-beating heavy metal with ravey keyboards tacked on. Presumably, this whole lark sounds a lot better live. The Kids certainly love it - Enter Shikari managed to sell out London's Astoria a few months ago without a record deal. No mean feat; unlike this album, which sounds like the result of a marketing department brainstorm.
THE CINEMATICS: A STRANGE EDUCATION
TVT RECORDS, 10.99
GLASGOW-VIA-DINGWALL quartet The Cinematics expound the art of stylish indie pop with a post-Franz strut on their debut album. A Strange Education sounds more than a little influenced by the dark, epic guitar style of such 1980s bands as Echo & The Bunnymen and The Chameleons - an impression enriched by the distinguished vocals of frontman Scott Rinning and encouraged by the classy work of New Order producer Stephen Hague. It's all very sleek and accessible, with a number of songs which will slip very neatly on to radio playlists, but there is nothing here to really grab you by the lapels.
GRECKI: STRING QUARTET NO3, OP67
REMEMBER Henryk Grecki? In the early 1990s, his music - principally his Third Symphony - burst into public consciousness thanks to unceasing airplay on Classic FM. Its hypnotic stasis struck a chord with mass audiences. Then the music stopped around 1993, when the Polish composer turned 60, and barely anything new has emerged since.
He was, it transpires, writing a Third Quartet for the magnificent Kronos Quartet, who had already inspired the first two, finishing it in 1995 but refusing to let it out until ten years later when the Kronos premiered it in Poland. This Nonesuch recording proves the wait was not in vain, even to those (like myself) previously unconvinced that Grecki's retrenchment from avant-garde serialism in the 1950s to a kind of submersed minimalism was genuinely a move forward.
This quartet convinces me. It is long and unravels with painstaking patience. Subtitled "... songs are sung", it evokes the waning of life in soft tones of hope and acceptance. Pungent sonorities set consonance against dissonance in a tonal conflict that is measured to perfection. The music's underlying morbidity somehow engenders optimism, bursting forth literally only in the abrupt central movement. The performance is beautifully paced and achingly intense.
BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO7
ATMA CLASSIQUE, 13.99
STILL in his early thirties, Canadian-born Yannick Nzet-Sguin is fast making a name for himself on the European circuit. Recently appointed as musical director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, he makes his debut with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra next month. This new Bruckner recording, however, is with his home orchestra, the Orchestre Mtropolitan du Grand Montral. Nzet-Sguin's deeply considered and authoritative approach casts this symphonic giant as a tameable and cohesive entity. He combines noble majesty with easeful relaxation, and holds back obvious temptations to fulminate. The long Adagio is masterfully gauged in tempo and dynamic, the scherzo offering perfectly-proportioned respite. At either end, Nzet-Sguin shapes the opening and closing movements with quiet but powerful sense of the dramatic. If occasional moments are underplayed, there is much more to be admired in a performance that breathes fresh air into a potentially cumbersome edifice, and demonstrates a clarity of purpose and texture that is rare among Bruckner interpretations.
METHENY MEHLDAU: QUARTET
LAST year's debut collaboration between guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Brad Mehldau was one of the jazz albums of the year. If anything, this follow up is even better. The players reverse the priorities of the earlier record, with seven quartet tracks and four duets (the first disc featured mainly duets and only two quartet tracks), and the presence of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard ensure not only top class playing, but also a richer and fuller soundscape. Mehldau delves deeply into the harmonic possibilities of the music (all by one or other of the leaders) in his usual intense and exploratory fashion, while Metheny is in characteristically lyrical form, spinning his sinuous melody lines across the richly textured accompaniments. He adopts the harp-like sonority of the 42-string guitar on The Sound of Water, and turns to acoustic guitar on Don't Wait and guitar synth on two other cuts.
RORY CAMPBELL: INTREPID
VERTICAL RECORDS, 13.99
STRONG and expressive music in an outward-looking contemporary folk idiom from the Barra-born piper and singer. Campbell has featured in a number of bands, notably Deaf Shepherd and Old Blind Dogs, but this album places him front and centre, with support from Jonny Hardieon guitar and drummer Donald Hay. The instrumental sets range widely, taking in tunes from Brittany, Galicia, Northumberland and the USA alongside Corrina Hewat's Bass Strathspey and several of his own tunes, including dedications to his son in Innes Campbell and his wife in Anya. His playing on pipes and whistles places him in the top rank of current practitioners, while his exploratory musical sensibility ensures that he pushes beyond the predictable in imaginative fashion. His selection of songs includes the very traditional Oran nam Mogaisean, originally from Newfoundland, a dreamy version of Bjrk's Jga, and his own Dreams (sung in both English and Gaelic) and Sunny Outside.
THE ROUGH GUIDE TO WORLD MUSIC: AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST
ROUGH GUIDES, 9.99
THE Rough Guide to World Music books have become Bibles for world-music fans, whatever their inclination: the combination of historical and cultural analysis, allied to critical CD lists, means that it's as much a tool as a pleasure to browse through. To coincide with the new Volume One, here is the accompanying record, which, despite the impossibility of encompassing a quarter of the world in 74 minutes, represents an illuminating tour. It begins in America, with a voice from the Ethiopian diaspora: Gigi's R&B-inflected sound comes hot and strong, to be followed by some Afro-beat and Congolese pop. Then it's the Senegalese hard stuff from Baba Maal plus fellow griot Mansour Seck, who segue into King Sunny Ade from Nigeria, followed by Mori Kante and Oliver Mtukudzi. This is very much an easy-listening introduction, and intensely convivial: nothing to scare off neophytes, or frighten the horses.
FALAK: THE VOICE OF DESTINY
DRAWN from the British Library's Sound Archive, this remarkable double-CD from the Pamirs - those mountains north of Afghanistan described as "the roof of the world" - brings a forgotten musical culture to light. "Falak" means "sky" or "destiny", and the vocal style of these songs suits the concept perfectly: long-held notes with rock-firm intonation, ending in a hard shake and a dying fall.
The first part presents the basic instrumentation - often just a drum and two strings, occasionally augmented by flute and accordion - which nicely sets off the quality of the voices: defiant, imploring, prayerful, as befits the atmosphere in this impoverished, strife-torn land. But there is cheerfulness too: feisty ballads, and wedding music by the yard.
The second CD presents the same artists in commercial mode, thus providing a complete soundscape of Tajik musical life. The liner notes are of a kind too seldom found, setting the music in its historical and social context.
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