Album reviews: Jack White | Don McLean | Courtney Marie Andrews | Alasdair Roberts
Jack White: Boarding House Reach (Third Man/XL Recordings) ****
Don McLean: Botanical Gardens (BMG) ****
Courtney Marie Andrews: May Your Kindness Remain (Loose) ****
Alasdair Roberts, Amble Skuse & David McGuiness: What News (Drag City) ***
Though not quite on a par with Dylan going electric, Jack White has slackened his strict analogue regime and learned to stop worrying and embrace Pro Tools in the making of his third solo album, which he describes as “the culmination of ‘I don’t care’”.
White cares enough to have assembled an army of session musicians, including a mini battalion of drummers, who have performed with artists as diverse as Jay-Z, David Byrne, Mariah Carey and Ozomatli, to interpret his most stylistically diverse work to date, encompassing electro funk, psychedelic soul, country balladry and even something akin to rap.
Taster single Connected By Love is one of the glossiest songs he has released, a modern gospel devotional which still leaves room for some distorted riffola. There is further fuzzy distortion on Why Walk A Dog? Could this be the delicious sound of the signature St Vincent or Eddie Van Halen guitars White used instead of his trusty old pawnshop numbers?
Whether by accident or design, Boarding House Reach appears more concerned with sounds than songs but there is sufficient ear candy to arrest the attention, from the James Brown whoops and conga solo on Corporation to the propulsive blues rock riff and demonic pitchshifted vocals on the hysterical Over and Over and Over, a track written in 2005 and previously considered for The White Stripes and The Raconteurs.
After all the musical muscle-flexing, Boarding House Reach ends with the soft croon of Humoresque, an adaptation of a Dvorák melody as penned by Al Capone during his imprisonment in Alcatraz. White may have succumbed to modern recording techniques but he still needs his antique kicks.
Veteran maestro Don McLean is still all about the craft and the melody. Botanical Gardens, his first album in eight years, is unashamedly old school, inspired by the lush Nashville sound of the 1950s.
The title track is arguably the first ever bluesy rock’n’roll strut inspired by a stroll through a public garden. From here, he saunters through the old school rock’n’roll twang of The Lucky Guy, the leisurely western swing number I’ve Cried All the Tears That I Have and the deceptively chirpy country amble Waving Man, a touching portrait of passive observation
But it’s the timeless ballads which testify to his class as a songwriter, from melancholy torch song When July Comes to the rapturous, romantic yearning of Last Night When We Were Young.
There’s a touch of the old school about Arizona singer/songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews, who follows her 2017 breakthrough Honest Life with the widescreen country soul of May Your Kindness Remain, a reality check of an album, surveying the poverty and loss of dignity to which many are subject on the gospelly title track over epic, stormy guitar and offering a tremulous southern soul prayer for modest comfort on This House. If you love Gram Parsons or Joni Mitchell, it’s well worth hanging out on her porch.
Neo-folk troubadour Alasdair Roberts often tempers the austerity of his solo recordings with his more convivial collaborative outings. On What News, he lays his guitar to one side and allows Concerto Caledonia director David McGuiness to take the instrumental lead on freewheeling, jazz-inflected piano as well as other more esoteric keyboards such as the chiming Dulcitone, while sonologist (yes, it’s a thing) Amble Skuse provides sparingly deployed electronic and found soundscapes to a set of Scottish traditional ballads sung with such relish and animation by Roberts that they have been described by no less a folk figure than Shirley Collins as “like stars bursting in your bloodstream”.
Brahms: The Symphonies (Linn) *****
To mark the end of his current association with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, outgoing principal conductor Robin Ticciati has chosen to commit all four Brahms symphonies to disc. While the relationship has wavered in recent months due to Ticciati’s recurring back problem, this is a potent reminder of what nearly a decade of collaboration has produced. As always with Ticciati, the interpretations are hugely personal in the sense there is utter conviction in every bar. Then there is the sense of journey – an epic one at that, taking us from the psychological questioning of the First symphony, through the clearing skies and effortless liquidity of the Second and the clouded sentiments of the Third to the wholesome symphonic logic of the Fourth. There is enticing detail in these performances, often chamber-like in the delicacy of phrasing and timbre, but gutsy enough where called for, and there is a truly natural sense of expression that highlights the genuine beauty in Brahms.
Sarah-Jane Summers: Solo (Dell Daisy Records) *****
Following last year’s excursion into free-improvisation, Virr, the Norwegian-based Scots fiddler Sarah-Jane Summers touches base with Highland figures whose music she has inherited, including the late Donald Riddell, who taught her, and Alexander “Battan” Grant, who taught Riddell.
She sets the tone with the lingering strains of the air Lath’ a’ siubhal sleibhe dhomh, while the subsequent strathspey and reels display her at her nimblest, all snap and flow. It is her heartfelt dwelling on slow airs, however, that leave their stamp – Riddell’s plangent Lament for Alexander Grant, for instance, or Oran an Aoig, a tune which beguiled Robert Burns – casts its spell still in Summers’ hands.
She makes her own elegant contribution to the genre with Morning Prayer, while glen and fjord merge intriguingly as she transposes a fiddle setting of the piobaireachd MacIntosh’s Lament to the distinctively ringing strings of the Hardanger fiddle. n