Album reviews: Blur | Alabama Shakes | Bach
ALBUM OF THE WEEK
Blur: The Magic Whip
With guitarist Graham Coxon contributing new material for the first time since his messy departure from the band in the late 1990s and regular collaborator Stephen Street back in the producer’s chair for the first time since 1997, you could almost believe this first new Blur album in 12 years had been precision planned since the band reformed in 2008.
Instead, The Magic Whip has been finessed from the results of a hastily convened recording session in Hong Kong, where the band found themselves with five unexpected free days due to the cancellation of a Japanese festival.
The tapes then languished until Coxon contacted Street and the pair set about sifting through the serpentine jams to fashion them into songs. Damon Albarn, ever the conceptualist, returned to Hong Kong (literally getting into the zone again) to complete lyrics and vocals earlier this year, in the aftermath of the democracy protests – plenty food there for this most thoughtful of writers, who has now substituted the neon glow of the oriental cityscape for the tour of Britain that was his sublime solo album, Everyday Robots.
But to begin with we are in the very familiar Britpop-era Blur territory of Lonesome Street, complete with Albarn in Ray Davies geezer mode, Home Counties locations, springy rhythms, spoken ad libs, Coxon’s crunchy guitar grunging it up and spacey diversions. The simple and catchy Ong Ong features one of the album’s few bona fide hooklines, “I wanna be with you”. Likewise, I Broadcast will play well at gigs, providing the opportunity to bounce around with abandon.
The rest of the album is a more refined, mature iteration of Blur. The sedate soul funk of Ghost Ship is not a sound you might have associated with the band in the past, but feels perfectly credible in the context of Albarn’s musical endeavours over the past decade.
He goes all in with that killer plaintiveness on New World Towers, which Coxon has described, with justification, as “science fiction Greensleeves.” Thought I Was a Spaceman is a woozy, wistful electro track, shot through with an oriental-sounding synthetic chime and even shades of The Blue Nile’s urban romanticism.
The high rises of Hong Kong may well have inspired the excellent There Are Too Many of Us, a beseeching torch song set to a slick, streamlined electronic backdrop and a martial drumbeat; Pyongyang was certainly inspired by Albarn’s recent visit to North Korea – and trust him to find the humanity in the dystopia.
While the entire album is wrought with empathy, the beautiful ballad My Terracotta Heart, complete with “crying” guitar from Coxon, is the most obviously personal song, dealing with relationships within the band, especially Albarn’s and Coxon’s long and sometimes fraught friendship. If the current state of their musical partnership is any barometer, they – and Blur as a whole – are in a very good place right now.
Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color
The Alabama Shakes sound is so intoxicating you could be satisfied just listening to them tuning up, but this second album also brings the songwriting chops which were somewhat lacking on their debut. The compelling combination of Brittany Howard’s force-of-nature voice and her band’s psychedelic strain of roots rock come together with an elemental force on Future People. On slow jam Gimme All Your Love, Howard’s delivery shifts from jazzy purr to blues howl in an instant, while the band can’t be reined in for long before the fuzz guitar and brooding organ breaks out. The sweet southern soul of Guess Who, a charm offensive with marimba and strings, is followed, like a rude awakening, by headlong Velvets-style thrash The Greatest and still they’ve not showed their full hand until the trippy Gemini takes them into space rock territory.
They Might Be Giants: Glean
In 1983, They Might Be Giants launched Dial-a-Song, allowing curious parties the opportunity to hear their musical wares via answering machine. The duo have now retooled the concept for the internet age, posting a new song and video every Tuesday on their dialasong.com website. Glean gathers 15 stylistically diverse offerings released so far this year, most of which spark with mischievous wit, occasional whimsy and dashing wordplay. The declamatory cabaret of End of the Rope, power pop canter Aaa and mischievous New Orleans jive Let Me Tell You About My Operation provide an instant pop fix in isolation, but also add up to a likeable album. FIONA SHEPHERD
Bach: ST Matthew Passion
The Academy of Ancient Music’s new recording of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, out in the nick of time for Easter, is no less worthy of a listen in the wake of the real-time festivities. Richard Egarr directs a performing version that adheres to Bach’s 1727 original, which unfortunately excludes the poignant choral climax to Part 1, “O Mensch, bewein”. But with James Gilchrist’s effortlessly emotive Evangelist, a strong deck of chorus and soloists that includes Matthew Rose as Jesus and the warm-voiced Sarah Connolly in the eternally beautiful “Erbarme dich”, and the sleek, eloquent playing of the period instrument band, Egarr’s swift but touching interpretation is a seasonal delight. KEN WALTON
Michelle Burke: Step into my Parlour
This album emerged from the Scottish-based Irish singer’s surreally homely Step Into My Parlour Fringe show, in which audience members are as likely to end up knitting or sipping sherry as singing along. Accordingly, this album could be sheer kitsch, but the beguiling quality of Burke’s singing and the idiosyncratic yet spot-on accompanying core band (including pianist James Ross, guitarist Anna Massie, trombonist John Kenny and Brendan Power on harmonica) make this a delight to listen to. Guests include Cathal McConnell, Maura O’Connell, Heidi Talbot and the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens. Inspired by the family knees-ups of her East Cork childhood, there are affectionately rendered versions of the jaunting car romance of Eileen O’Grady and the trombone-slide drolleries of Whooped and Died. “Folksier” repertoire is delivered with great clarity, including A Kiss in the Morning Early, a beautiful version of The Gypsies, delicately spun out over Ross’s piano, and the warm-hearted glass-raiser So Here’s to You. JIM GILCHRIST
Charles Lloyd: Wild Man Dance
Blue Note Records
Veteran saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s return to Blue Note has attracted a lot of attention. He last recorded for the label in 1985, and has enjoyed a very productive relationship with ECM Records in the intervening decades, but when Don Was became president of Blue Note in 2012, he persuaded Lloyd to return. This initial offering is a commission from a Polish jazz festival, recorded live in Wroclaw in late 2013 with Lloyd’s formidable quartet augmented by lyra and cymbalom (he was an early adopter in bringing “world music” influences into jazz). The six-part suite of extended explorations features Lloyd in his characteristically intense, incantatory mode on tenor saxophone, supported by the excellent pianism of Gerald Clayton and a top-class rhythm section of Joe Sanders and Gerald Cleaver, with the additional instruments supplying distinctive colour. KENNY MATHIESON
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