Franz Ferdinand: Always Ascending (Domino) ****
Kyle Craft: Full Circle Nightmare (Sub Pop) ****
Bas Jan: Yes I Jan (Lost Map) ***
Lylo: Post Era (El Rancho Records) ****
Check ignition: phase two of Franz Ferdinand successfully launched. They’ve lost one founder member – guitarist Nick McCarthy – along the way but gained two hip young gunslingers in multi-instrumentalist Julian Corrie, aka synth pop solo artist Miaoux Miaoux, and guitarist Dino Bardot, erstwhile of glam indie trio 1990s. There was also some fun during the transition period when they teamed up with veteran art pop wags Sparks to form the joyous FFS, before carrying forward that quirky erudition to the fifth Franz album, Always Ascending.
Bardot joined after the recording but you can hear the difference Corrie has made almost instantly as his keyboards lead the countdown into the indie disco pulse of the title track and his soaring backing vocals complement its upwardly mobile trajectory. Meanwhile, Parisian dance producer Philippe Zdar captures the more electronica-leaning direction of the music without stripping the band of their buoyant personality.
As one would expect from Franz, there are infectious grooves and bold hooks galore, from the repetitive refrain of Lazy Boy to the blue eyed soul-tinged Paper Cages but also a subtle ambivalence, something naggingly double-edged about the joy of connection expressed in Finally and a darker, party’s-over hue to the music behind their assertion that “the Academy Award for good times goes to you”.
They reserve the album’s biggest chorus for its most unequivocal message: “we’re going to America, we’re going to tell them about the NHS” they swagger on Huck & Jim, bolstered by the teasing tempo changes they have employed so assuredly since debut hit Take Me Out. It’s the potential feelgood festival hit of the summer, poised to seamlessly take its place beside other Franz anthems. A band with this strength of character makes change look easy.
Like Franz Ferdinand, Portland-based indie troubadour Kyle Craft has personality in abundance. Imagine an extrovert, testifying Bob Dylan with country rock’n’roll twang who is also versed in the glam garage pop spontaneity of Ezra Furman. On Full Circle Nightmare, Kraft benefits greatly from recording with a live band for the first time, capturing an energy and audacity missing from so many of his timid songwriting peers, but the quality extends to his rare gentler moments such as acid country ballad The Rager, which is swathed in Nashville strings.
London-based harpist Serafina Steer has taken a left turn for her latest project by forming her first band, Bas Jan. The line-up has changed since the recording of debut album, Yes I Jan, but there’s a strong identity already in place, influenced by the femme punk spikiness of bands such as The Slits and The Raincoats. Steer’s blank vocals are more rhythmic than melodic, as she improvises songs around the “fountain of mundanity” that is her everyday life – folk drones about getting paid, legal disputes, disappointing visits to archeological sites, the usual. It’s hypnotic stuff, whether the fidgety No Sign, on which Steer ponders what has happened to her elusive flatmate, or the calm meditation of Walton on the Naze, reflecting the echoing quietness of a seaside town they forgot to shut down.
There is further strong stylisation from Lylo, a genre-straddling five-piece from Glasgow blending jazz, soul, prog and electronica influences on their sophisticated second album Post Era to create a dreamy, sultry sound generously embellished with Iain McCall’s lithe saxophone woven through the songs. Like their peers Pronto Mama, their freewheeling attitude to blurring boundaries has timeless appeal and refreshing originality.
Haydn Symphonies & Mozart Violin Concerto No 3 (Coro) ***
More Haydn from America’s Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra –plus the first in its Mozart violin concerto series, featuring leader Aisslinn Nosky. This latest release is a classical sandwich, the Mozart concerto (his third in G) embraced by two Haydn symphonies, the early No 26 (Lamentatione) and later Paris symphony, No 86. Harry Christophers, the orchestra’s artistic director, finds heart and soul in the music: a rather gutsy and grainy Lamentatione, the rawness of the period string sound imbuing its elemental stürm und drang with a delightful archaism; and a wholesomeness in the later symphony, with its fuller orchestration and risk taking. These are absorbing performances, edge of the seat at times. It’s in the Mozart that the playing style is less than convincing. Nosky’s sound can be clean and zestful, but it occasionally loses its steely focus.
Salt House: Undersong (Make Believe records) ****
Since their debut album of 2013, Salt House have lost singer Siobhan Miller and bassist Euan Burton, their core of fiddler Lauren McColl and singer-guitarist Ewan MacPherson now joined by singer-songwriter Jenny Sturgeon for this collection of characterful new songs and settings, deftly woven into some beguiling instrumental accompaniments.
There’s a distinct echo of Karine Polwart in Sturgeon’s heartfelt paean to nature, Charmer, while its “road less trod” winds its way, naturally, to a setting of Robert Frost’s Road Not Taken, again sung with great clarity by Sturgeon, as is MacPherson’s wistful Staring at Stars, McColl’s viola adding an eloquent voice of its own. Fiddle and guitar come purposefully to the fore, too, in I Sowed Some Seeds and in Slow Fields of Home. A translation of a Scandinavian ballad, The Sisters’ Revenge, is threaded with a suitably disquieting string drone, while the title track is a jubilant anthem of resilience.