Arctic Monkeys: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (Domino) ****
Aidan Moffat & RM Hubbert: Here Lies the Body (Rock Action) ****
Modern Studies: Welcome Strangers (Fire Records) ****
Jill Jackson: Are We There Yet? (Self-released) ***
Arctic Monkeys didn’t become the last guitar band to really matter without taking some risks along the way – and what greater risk than following up your best loved rock god opus AM with a cosmic crooner collection which sounds like the muzak in the lounge bar at the end of the universe?
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was composed entirely on piano by frontman Alex Turner in his home in the Hollywood Hills, and it’s tempting to imagine him as a cloistered Brian Wilson character or like Lennon wafting through his deserted mansion in the Imagine video.
Turner anticipates the criticism with the album’s opening line “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes, now look at the mess you made me make,” adopting a lounge lizard persona, and leaning back into the leisurely lope of Star Treatment.
We’re definitely not in Sheffield anymore, though Turner has dipped into this retro territory before in his other band, The Last Shadow Puppets. The other Monkeys are there in the background, providing a cocktail of melodramatic piano, acid funk guitar and baroque synth arpeggios straight off the Barbarella soundtrack, while Turner holds forth like a gallus barfly so far undercover that he can barely remember who he is anymore, much less care what anyone else thinks of him.
We expect this kind of freewheeling cavalier disregard from 21st century crooners such as Father John Misty and John Grant; coming from one of the world’s mightiest, most muscular rock bands, it is both an act of ridiculous indulgence and a stroke of genius.
Aidan Moffat is well versed in pushing boundaries, usually of the explicit confessional lyrical variety, so it’s hardly surprising to hear fragrant guest vocalist Siobhan Wilson warning “keep your fingers to yourself” on the opening encounter of Here Lies The Body. Cockcrow brings together the album’s protagonists, former lovers reflecting on their relationship through a series of flashbacks, flash-forwards and cliffhangers.
However, Moffat’s faithful partner in this latest narrative endeavour is his old buddy, virtuoso guitarist RM Hubbert, whose dexterous, rhythmic playing, tapping and fingerpicking marks him out as a composer collaborator to match Bill Wells, with whom Moffat made the SAY Award-winning Everything’s Getting Older.
Modern Studies attracted a lot of admiring glances for their 2016 debut album, Swell to Great, which didn’t quite convey how immersive their organic blend of folk, jazz and blues can be in a live setting. Now it sounds like a mere warm-up for this sumptuous follow-up, an album to sink into like a downy duvet. There are echoes of psych folk pioneers Pentangle and Fairport Convention in the burnished brass and soothing harmonies of Get Back Down, a track which takes its time and paces it just right. Emily Scott and Rob St John are soft singers but strong persuaders, while the impeccable work of chamber orchestra The Pumpkinseeds is particularly ravishing on It’s Winter, a cosy fireside snuggle worthy of the sensual Kate Bush.
Fifteen years ago, Jill Jackson made it all the way to Top of the Pops fronting the shortlived Speedway. But she was never entirely comfortable with their contrived pop and has instead indulged her true love, country music, in her subsequent solo career. Are We Nearly There Yet? demonstrates that she is no Nashville imitator, however, bringing some Scotpop seasoning to numbers such as Dynamite and closing ballad Goodbye, though it is the blithe, throwback swing numbers My Baby, Needle and Thread and Finally where Jackson really gets to cut loose and show off some western swing guitar skills.
Bach: Goldberg Variations (Delphian) *****
Bach’s Goldberg Variations is one of those musical mountains that requires optimum fitness, exacting technique and complete knowledge of the landscape from anyone daring to negotiate its enormity. Recorded approaches range from the historic factory style of Glenn Gould to the poetic nurturing of Murray Perahia, from versions on harpsichord to, effectively, transcriptions on the piano. Peter Hill’s new recording for Delphian is beautifully administered on piano and sits firmly in the poetic and deeply considered camp. His exposition of the opening theme is like a slow awakening, the melody unfolding with graciousness and relaxed inevitability, its underlying harmonies perfectly cushioning the eloquence. The 30 variations follow with crispness and delicacy, each capturing their relative complexity in a drama that unfolds with flowing logic and unrelenting good taste. Hill’s pacing captures that essential balance between action and reflection. It is a performance of enormous satisfaction and fulfilment.
Fervour: Taking Flight (Bandcamp) ****
Best known north of the Border as a young but noteworthy member of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, London-based, Edinburgh-born trumpeter Sean Gibbs leads his quintet, Fervour, through this zesty album. They take the bouncy opening title, Go On Then, pretty literally, grabbing the ball and running with it, as Gibbs shifts through snappy riffing and shifting tempi to a limber solo, with incisive piano from Andy Bunting and waspish guitar lines from Ben Lee. Gibbs’s mute trumpet rasps gallusly amid the Dixieland swagger of What’s the Rush, over Nick Jurd’s stealthily creeping double bass, and his flugelhorn lingers warmly in the ballad Redemption. The title track sees the band again in muscular form, with Gibbs in brisk exchange with drummer Euan Palmer, and there’s an irresistible shuffle to the possibly Wodehouse-inspired Cheer Up Old Bean. They close with a lovely slow blues – a solemnly paced New Orleans benediction with Gibbs’s trumpet yelping in loquaciously wah-wah form.