Despite all reasonable predictions, Gary Barlow didn’t have a great run of it the first time he launched a solo career, quickly fading into the shadows while his less musically talented Take That bandmate Robbie Williams became the nation’s favourite light entertainer.
But 14 years since he last released a solo album, the outlook for Gary Barlow OBE is rather different. Having shrewdly negotiated Take That’s comeback as pop’s elder statesmen, Barlow is now an establishment figure, an easy listening songwriter and performer by royal appointment who can return as a solo artist with the authority of a veteran campaigner.
Barlow is portrayed looking hunky and craggy on the sleeve of the cheesily titled Since I Saw You Last, like a man who’s seen some stuff on the red carpet of life. But his music is a wet blanket, comprising decent but conservative melodies and lyrical homilies swaddled in middle-of the-road arrangements which make the last Take That album sound like Throbbing Gristle.
Despite his disappointed parent act on The X Factor, there is a small part of Barlow that would like to be down with the kids. Current single Let Me Go, featuring the dreaded skiffly rhythm and diluted Mumford-a-like “woh-oh-ohs”, is his trad dad interpretation of the folk pop sound that’s boring the nation.
Elsewhere, he ponders his place in life with all the depth of a greeting card poem. Requiem, written with Robbie, is a brazenly Beatley number looking at a funeral from the perspective of the deceased, with just the slightest sting in the tale when he sings, “I’m glad you didn’t let the truth get in the way”. We Like To Love also looks back on a life, with a touch more pensive melancholy but no greater insight, while the morose piano and tremulous vocals indicate that he means grave business on Dying Inside.
The somewhat cringey God and Jump both issue mild metaphysical challenges to take leaps of faith – ironically, while Barlow remains firmly in his mawkish piano balladry comfort zone. However, 6th Avenue demonstrates that a Billy Joel location doesn’t equal a Billy Joel song. Still in anachronistic piano man mode, Barlow joins forces with Elton John to pound the heck out of sub-Scissor Sisters duet Face to Face and channels Gilbert O’Sullivan on Smalltown Girls, a terribly twee paean to “rosy cheeks and grassy knees”. FIONA SHEPHERD
Sheila E: Icon
Moosicus Records, £14.99
Star rating: * * *
On her first new studio album in 12 years, acclaimed percussionist Sheila E offers a diverse but occasionally anachronistic diet of Latino pop/rock, light pop R&B and inoffensive 1980s radio rock, peppered with lively percussive interludes. Nasty Thang, with its lean funk, harmonic vocals and Daisy Age-style rap from MC Lyte, obviously harks back to her time as Prince’s right-hand woman, while her most famous collaborator pops up on the Latin funk number, Leader Of The Band, alongside her brothers and jazz percussionist father Pete Escovedo. But it all sounds a bit half-baked for an album she claims has been executive produced by God. FIONA SHEPHERD
Paul Ferris: Witchfinder General Original Soundtrack
De Wolfe, web only
Star rating; * * *
Fans of cult film scores are advised to pounce on this release of the long-lost soundtrack to one of Vincent Price’s finest horror films, the English Civil War-set Witchfinder General, which evokes a similar air of pastoral menace to The Wicker Man but doesn’t work quite as well as a standalone suite. Composer Paul Ferris took inspiration from Greensleeves for the sweetly mellifluous lamb-to-the-slaughter main theme which is soon blackened with martial drums, the ominous swell of strings, sharp stabs of brass and ambivalent woodwind. Trainspotters note: newly uncovered bonus tracks Witchfinder Intrigue and Witchfinder Tension deliver as promised.
Beethoven: Diabelli Variations 5stars
ECM New Series, £28.99
Star rating; * * * * *
Any opportunity to hear pianist András Schiff more than once is a bonus. So here he is playing Beethoven’s epic Diabelli Variations twice, once on a 1921 Bechstein modern grand, then on a 1820 Hammerflügel fortepiano. The comparison is compelling. On the later instrument, Schiff combines trenchant power with rounded finesse. On the earlier one, with its abundance of expressive pedal aids, the impact is extraordinary – a seething dramatic presentation, in which the extremes of Beethoven’s mind genuinely get inside your head. Beautiful, tender and pulverising, all at the same time.
Blue Touch Paper: Drawing Breath
Provocateur Records, £12.99
Star rating: * * * *
This album probably isn’t for those who like their jazz straight ahead and swinging, but Colin Towns remains an idiosyncratic and consistently intriguing presence in European jazz. His musical palette draws on a wide-ranging career that includes playing heavy rock with Ian Gillan, composing very successful soundtracks for television and film, and both leading his own spikily contemporary jazz big band, The Mask Orchestra, and working with other leading European outfits. All of that – and a good bit more, from off-kilter tango to Spanish and Mediterranean folk flavourings – is reflected in the second album by this even more tightly integrated seven-piece band, while Fair Is Foul, complete with words from Macbeth, is a reminder that Towns has also worked extensively in theatre. The kaleidoscopic music is never mundane or predictable, and the harmonic and rhythmic surprises just keep coming.
PAUL ANDERSON: LAND OF THE STANDING STONES
OWN LABEL, web only
Star rating: * * * *
This abundant crop of tunes, inspired by his home turf and its people, comes from a master of North-East fiddle style. Accompanied by assorted sidemen on guitars, cittern and keyboards, Anderson can deliver crisp strathspeys and reels, spin out jig sets or make his fiddle sing in a pair of waltzes.
He turns his hand to song-writing, too, in his ballad, Bonny Henry Gordon – delivered sonorously by actor Kevin McKidd, while Shona Donaldson contributes poised vocals to the fine score which Anderson composed for the acclaimed Aberdeen Performing Arts Production of Sunset Song a few years ago.
It is, however, on the strength of its slow airs alone that I’d commend the album – the fiddle’s distant calling keenly evoking Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Mearns, or the immense warmth of tunes such as The Beauty of Cromar Before Me or the title track, suggesting a musician utterly at ease with his instrument and profoundly rooted in his home ground and culture.
Deeyah Presents Iranian Women
Star rating: * * * *
Women performers are still hedged about with huge restrictions in Iran, so this CD is very welcome, and by focusing on Persian classical music, it does a double service. Monophonic and seemingly austere, this music artfully purveys wonderful subtlety in its improvisations, and great vocal plangency – Persian classical music is shot through with the most refined melancholy. Some of these singers – like Parisa and Sussan Deyhim – are already well known, but others represent real discoveries. The poet Rumi’s wish – to sing like the birds sing, without caring who hears or what they think – is realised here.