According to Luke Haines, “there comes a time in a man’s life when he must make the ultimate concept album”. For Haines, that time has come.
Luke Haines: Rock And Roll Animals
Cherry Red, £13.99
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Throughout the 1990s, he received acclaim and modest royalty cheques for his work in The Auteurs, Black Box Recorder and Baader Meinhof, but his recent output has been of a more conceptual persuasion.
The North Sea Scrolls, written and performed with former Microdisney/Fatima Mansions frontman Cathal Coughlan and writer Andrew Mueller, was an alternative history of the British Isles in words and song. The album 9½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early 80s contains exactly what it says on the tin, and is surely the ultimate wrestling concept album.
This latest work is more of an alternative Wind In The Willows pastoral song cycle, with dry-as-a-bone narration from Julia (Nighty Night) Davis over the pagan folk pop sounds of acoustic guitar, autoharp and alto recorder, which follows three furry friends – Gene Vincent the cat, Jimmy Pursey the fox and Nick Lowe the badger, all chosen as characters because they have a (tenuous) connection to Haines’ hometown of Walton-on-Thames – on an ill-defined quest which involves battling Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, aka “this monstrosity of steel and wire”.
Rock And Roll Animals is Haines’ idea of a children’s album. It is unclear whether he has ever met any children. He blows the kid-friendly image almost right away by exposing the artificiality of his set-up on opening track Magic Town with its “anthropomorphised animals hanging out in papier-mâché hills” and with observations such as “everyone’s at it like rabbits”. Despite the chorus hooklines, Haines’ signature whispered vocal style is potentially unsettling – even to adults.
Each of the main characters gets their own song – Jimmy Pursey, the soothing croon of From Hersham To Heaven, Gene Vincent, the eponymous yet winsome ditty about “a catty cat cat”. A Badger Called Nick Lowe is a plaintively melodic, completely made up biography of this “elder statesman for the new wave”. Lowe himself would surely approve of the line “I’m sniffing round the bins outside the Tally-ho”. By the time their half-hour quest ends with an intergalactic plea for bands to preserve the righteousness of rock’n’roll and basically not reform, Haines is eyeing up his next concept. But, who knows, this one might yet make it on to kids’ TV.
Mogwai: Les Revenants
Rock Action, £13.99
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Now that French zombie drama The Returned is bewitching the masses on Channel 4, Mogwai’s evocative soundtrack, released earlier this year, is given a deserved additional push. In context, as an exquisitely integrated score to the show’s haunting visuals and storyline, it’s the best thing they’ve done – an intuitive meshing of ominous drones, spectral chimes, analogue pulses, funereal organ, sombre strings, martial drums, burnished guitar and sinister piano pieces, plus a rare Mogwai vocal number in the form of a spiritualised-style cover of the mournful gospel standard What Are They Doing In Heaven Today? Out of context, it’s still a bleak but beautiful ride.
Alunageorge: Body Music
Mainstream pop music is in a pretty moribund state these days, thanks largely to the ultra-conservative signing policy of major labels, who are desperately treading water in the download age. But surely the rot has got to come to a full stop with the trendy elevator muzak produced by London electro pop duo AlunaGeorge. Imagine insipid chillout beats, affected childlike wisping and reedy nursery rhyme hooks ad nauseum. Imagine the sound of Radio 1’s Live Lounge stamping on your face forever. That’s Body Music. Must we fling this banality at our pop kids?
Don Weller’s Major Surgery: The First Cut
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A worthwhile exhumation from the vaults. This is its first appearance on CD, but it more or less qualifies as previously unreleased, unless you have one of the original 500 vinyl copies pressed back in 1976, when the album was recorded in Swiss Cottage. It captures the English saxophonist with an electrified quartet featuring Jimmy Roche on guitar, Bruce Collcutt on bass guitar and drummer Tony Marsh. While Weller is most readily associated with a more straight-ahead, bop-based approach, Major Surgery reflects the jazz-rock and modal influences prevalent in that decade. Weller contributes all six compositions (Calypso Rag is added to the original album), and the music retains a pleasing freshness in this cleaned-up recording. The saxophonist makes his usual big, hard-hitting impact on tenor and soprano, and the late Tony Marsh merits special mention in the engine room of the band.
Various Artists: The Flooers 0’ The Forest
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The massive defeat of Flodden, on 9 September, 1513, severely shook Scotland’s confidence and lodged itself in the national psyche. Five hundred years on, this commemorative double-CD is drawn from Greentrax’s own back catalogue, and other labels. As with all such compilations, musically it is something of a mixed bag. Stand-out tracks include Dick Gaughan’s peerless delivery of the title song, a characteristically wistful rendition of Ettrick from Archie Fisher and Lau, with Karine Polwart, giving still, sad voice to Lord Yester.
There are Corries-influenced performances such as Rob Bell’s The Flodden Ride and Celticburn’s Flodden’s Green Loaning, while the sole instrumental is Gary West’s considered rendition of Flooers o the Forest on small pipes. The second CD comprises poetry and other writings concerning the battle and its aftermath, largely read by Iain Anderson and John Shedden, including Borders poet Will Ogilvie’s elegiac Flodden Hill and an epically melodramatic Victorian evocation, Edinburgh After Flodden.
Vieux Farka Toure: Mon Pays
Six Degrees, Web Only
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The tribulations of musicians in Mali – where Islamic fundamentalists are doing their best to terrorise them into silence – make this new album by the son of Ali Farka Toure all the more topical, in that its theme is the beauty of Malian traditional culture. And it reflects Vieux Farka Toure’s tenacity of purpose, which first showed itself when he refused to be deflected from a musical career by his father’s discouragement, and by the fact that his lineage should have designated him for a military life. The songs on this new record, with gentle accompanying instrumentation, have a sweet assurance.
Schubert: Complete Works For Violin And Piano
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Given the fine track record of violin-piano duo Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien, it’s not surprising to find them completely at home – lyrically poised and intimately dynamic – in Schubert’s four sonatas. But this disc is about the composer’s complete works for violin and piano, and how refreshing it is to have the fiery, often whimsical Rondo in B minor reeled off with such élan; to hear the multi-coloured expansiveness of the four-movement Fantasy in C minor, with all its playful pianism to boot; and Schubert’s delightful miniature transcription of his own song Sei Mir gegrüsst, itself the subject of variations in the Fantasy.