PAUL WELLER: AS IS NOW ***
THERE is no big story about this release - As is Now is just another Paul Weller album, but one which is being spun as the natural successor to Stanley Road and Wild Wood, the two 1990s albums which bolstered Weller's career, established him as a respected solo artist and became artistic benchmarks like nothing else he had released since his days fronting the Jam.
Touting an album in such a way is a tacit admission that he has been coasting for a while, enjoying the perks of being Paul Weller Modfather - a title he hates but a reputation which is not to be sneered at - without doing anything to consolidate the accolade. Last year's Studio 150 covers album was a fair enough tribute to his fine taste in music, but ultimately felt like an underwhelming stopgap of a release. As is Now is a more robust collection, but one which is lacking a future Weller classic.
Most of the songs were written last year during an enforced layoff when his touring was curtailed because of a throat infection, and then recorded in just two weeks with his regular band at Oasis's Wheeler End Studio. There is no sense of toil about the album, although the songs are generally thoughtfully arranged, creating sonic interest where it might not otherwise have existed.
There have already been approving nods for the clipped boogie of comeback single From the Floorboards Up, featuring Weller sounding choppier and hungrier than he has for a while. But its agreeably economic rock sound is only one facet of As is Now, which is more of a refinement of the many familiar faces of Paul Weller, including the autumnal shades of Wild Wood, the rhythm'n'brass of the Style Council and the bug-eyed virility of the Jam.
On the rockier side, opening track Blink and You'll Miss It announces the album with a pleasing burnished retro soul flourish, while the Beatlesy Here's the Good News tempers its east-end pub jam feel - Jools Holland already rubbing his hands at the prospect of a guest appearance in the near future - with flashes of a more careworn tone and a warm trumpet part. Paper Smile is just a mid-paced sub-Kinks meander, barely testing Weller's songwriting abilities.
Completing the opening salvo is current single Come On/Let's Go, which references the acoustic guitar intro to That's Entertainment. Weller comes close to reprising his angry young man delivery, even if it is not apparent what he has to be so passionate about. That said, if this was an Oasis single, as it threatens to be at times (it also teeters on the brink of Dire Straits' Sultans of Swing at one sobering point), everyone would be celebrating its fleet-footed form.
Beyond this, the album takes a more wistful turn. The Start of Forever is a pretty acoustic number with a light touch and Bacharach horns, while All on a Misty Morning gradually builds into a fine Woodstock folk rocker. The lyrical piano ballad Pan is plain old-fashioned rather than retro, with a cooing background choir and a fluttering flute lending a stage musical feel. It could be the start of a whole new direction for Weller.
In the meantime, his fans don't like to go too long without some political comment. Savages is Weller's direct response, especially as a parent, to the Beslan massacre. "Savages/you can dress it up/give it a name and a fancy uniform" he deplores over a track of Coldplay/Travis proportions. This is not Weller railing furiously against international terrorism, more a weary contemplation of the inexorable inhumanity of fundamentalism at its most vicious.
From here, he glides straight into Fly Little Bird, a personal meditation on the positive, rejuvenating influence of the innocent - or maybe just a soppy song about babies, which sounds like it is there to reassure himself more than anything else. Roll Along Summer, with its fluttering saxophone, syncopated rhythm and undulating acoustic guitars, is considerably more evocative.
He allows himself further brooding sentiment on closing track The Pebble and the Boy, a lustrous orchestral ballad about meeting yourself as a child and tracing a link between childhood and adulthood, which just misses out on the emotional impact it seeks to make.
If this is all too earnest for some, there is a tranquillising dose of his typical meat and potatoes rhythm'n'blues jamming in the shape of Bring Back the Funk (Parts 1&2), which rumbles on long enough for him to bring the funk back about ten times over. At this rate, the Modfather won't be unseated for some time yet.
TALLER IN MORE WAYS: SUGABABES **
SUGABABES have never been a group to make much of an effort - their perpetually unimpressed attitude is one of their selling points. But, in the past, someone else would always endeavour on their behalf to come up with some sparkling pop material which would effortlessly vanquish the competition. But why bother anymore, when the vacuously catchy Push the Button can waltz to the top of the charts without so much as lifting a fingernail? Taller in More Ways is full of even less engaging non-songs such as the impenetrable Joy Division. Worse, they choose to cover Obsession by Animotion, one of the most hideous singles of the 1980s or any other decade. You'll be glad of scraps such as the mechanically groovy Red Dress. Now Sugababes actually have a reason to look so bored.
tATu: DANGEROUS AND MOVING **
THE Russian babes don't fare any better. Creepy pseudo-lesbian chipmunks tATu have ditched the school uniforms, but changed little else on their second album. Dangerous and Moving is another slickly produced catalogue of softcore lyrics about obsessive relationships - hey boys, they mean with each other - set to piledriving Euro beats and light industrial guitars. "He loves me/he loves me not/she loves me/she loves me not," they shrill on the typically blatant Loves Me Not. Pop music was never meant to be subtle but it is a fickle form and what was shocking two years ago is entirely pass now.
SMETANA: M VLAST *****
LSO LIVE, 5.99
SMETANA'S heroic set of six tone poems ranks among the monuments of 19th-century Czech nationalism. Vltava, depicting the twists and turns of the great river as it sweeps towards Prague, is the best known of the set, but to hear it in the context of partnering works as Vysehrad, From Bohemia's Woods and Fields and the energetic Sarka is so much more satisfying. Especially played with such clarity and immediacy as this new release from the London Symphony Orchestra.
GLASGOW IMPROVISERS ORCHESTRA: WHICH WAY DID HE GO? ****
THE GLASGOW Improvisers Orchestra's second recording draws on their collaboration with the great improvising vocalist Maggie Nichols in Glasgow in 2004-5. Nicols's freeform and semi-spoken vocalisations operate very much as part of the ensemble texture. Glasgow Improviser's Orchestra's 20-strong line-up offers a very wide range of instrumental timbres and sonorities, allowing the musicians plenty of scope for imaginative play as well as the occasional sonic log-jam. Uncompromising stuff, and probably one for listeners already converted to the free improvisation aesthetic.
IARLA LIONIRD: INVISIBLE FIELDS ****
EMI/REAL WORLD, 13.99
AFRO CELT Sound System's Iarla Lionird comes out of the sean nos tradition of unaccompanied Irish Gaelic singing, but has pushed and pulled that tradition into new and often very contemporary shapes. In this latest solo project he sets aside club beats in favour of a much more personal, reflective and quasi-timeless soundscape for his vocals, drawing on traditional songs and his own Irish lyrics in a series of spare, atmospheric settings. Multi-instrumentalist Keiran Lynch is his principal collaborator, with spoken word, vocal samples and bird song woven into the musical fabric.
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