Django Django: Marble Skies (Ribbon Music ) ****
Field Music: Open Here (Memphis Industries) ****
The Spook School: Could It Be Different? (Alcopop! Records) ***
There is never really a bad time to plunge into the Django Django soundworld – an escapist collage of rock, electronica, indie, psychedelia and funk, created by four Edinburgh College of Art expats based in London – but a new album from these wide-eyed explorers is a welcome way to brighten up January.
Since arriving fully-formed and richly eclectic six years ago, the band have journeyed from hand-stitched debut album to pimped and primped in a professional studio on the follow-up Born Under Saturn. For their next move, they have found a happy mid-point, where they are free to tinker and experiment to whatever level of sophistication they please.
As a result, Marble Skies is a slicker and calmer trip in places but still defined by their sense of sonic adventure. The title track, inspired by gaping at a spectacular stormy sky in Chicago, is an analogue synth pop canter through a retro-futuristic landscape on a fantasy-fuelled quest, and there are further evocative flights of fancy dotted across the album.
The first single Tic Tac Toe finds them in familiar space cowboy territory, with a rockabilly rhythm, echoey vocals delivering searching lyrics and a punky pace to the verses. But there’s an elegant wistfulness to much of the album, which is not dissimilar to Beck’s use of dreamy melodies tooled up with funky frills.
Former Slow Club vocalist Rebecca Taylor guests on Surface to Air, a trim pop tune with elements of modern R&B production, while Sundials is a dreamy psych pop number underpinned by a leisurely Italian house-influenced piano groove and a jazzy burst of soprano saxophone, the like of which would often signify a shortcut to escapist glamour on a slew of 80s pop tunes.
It is this fluent combination of magnetic melodies and musical boundary blurring which is Django Django’s strong suit – and is also kindred territory for Field Music, the much respected Sunderland outfit fronted by the Brewis brothers, Peter and David, whose ravishing, swooping melodies rarely navigate the obvious route.
The brothers have yet to drop the ball across any of their albums to date. Open Here, their sixth, is another tasty invitation to luxuriate in their soothing yet quirky prog pop, graced with their heavenly harmonies and, on this outing, hippie flute flourishes (from Admiral Fallow’s Sarah Hayes) and sumptuous string arrangements, courtesy of the Open Here string quartet.
Like Django Django, Field Music gracefully traverse time zones and musical cultures to create a soundworld which harks back to the classic pop tunes of The Beatles and Beach Boys and their 70s proxies ELO and Genesis without ever sounding old-fashioned. Such is their skill as songwriters and arrangers that they can even dip into the slick 80s funk pop sounds once popularised by the likes of Nik Kershaw or It Bites on Goodbye to the Country and still hold their heads high.
There’s no messing about from upbeat, infectious Edinburgh foursome The Spook School. Their third album Could It Be Different? builds on their happy marriage of DIY indie pop and gender politics in instantly lovable fashion, with sweet, sunny melodies and punky buzzsaw guitars galore, which occasionally harbour melancholic, ambivalent lyrics on some pretty dark matter. Still Alive gives a very cheery, almost gleeful middle finger to an abusive relationship, Body breezily tackles body confidence (“I still hate my body but I’m willing to love what it can do”) and the band practise what they preach on inclusivity with universally appealing tracks such as I Hope She Loves You.
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra & Piano Concerto No 3 (Harmonia Mundi) ****
There are moments in Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto – his last completed work – where the spirit evoked is more rhapsodically Rachmaninov than ostinato-fuelled Bartok. Yet, as pianist Javier Perianes makes clear in this beautifully considered performance with the Munich Philharmonic under Pablo Heras-Casado, there is no hiding the fingerprints of Hungary’s most unique and revolutionary 20th century composer. The luscious melodic sweeps in the opening movement are tinged with Bartok’s folkish idiosyncracies; the aching nostalgia of the central Adagio religioso is both harrowingly sad and filled with the joys of nature; the finale a dazzling, rhythmically mischievous paean to life. There is a subdued magic, a sort of clinical restraint, that, paradoxically, injects it with a taut sense of excitement. That same crystalline intensity pervades Heras-Casedo’s fine-tuned reading of the Concerto for Orchestra.
Various Artists: The Tiree Songbook (The Tiree Association) ****
Based on a popular Tiree songbook, Na Bàird Thirisdeach, this double album showcases the rich Gaelic culture of this island, recorded at Celtic Connections, local venues and at Watercolour Studios. A warm-hearted production, it features artists from, or with family ties to, the island (among the pipers is one Alastair Campbell, political aide, whose father was a Tiree native). Directed by Mary Ann Kennedy and with a strong core band, repertoire ranges from pipe, fiddle and accordion sets to beautifully poised Gaelic song from the likes of Linda MacLeod, James Graham and Kennedy herself. There’s a fine piobaireachd from Calum MacCrimmon, sounding over a rushing burn, but the most moving expression of island spirit is Lag nan Cruachan, sung by Bernie Smith who died not long afterwards, joined here by players from the bands Skerryvore and Skippinish. The album is dedicated to him.