James: Living in Extraordinary Times (Infectious/BMG) ***
Underworld & Iggy Pop: Teatime Dub Encounters (Caroline International) ****
Spare Snare: Sounds (Chute) ****
Later this year, James will tour with their fellow north country boys The Charlatans. Both bands could be considered Madchester survivors, simply for not imploding and then reforming like the more lionised Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. But neither have they settled for being heritage acts, instead forging on with new music which doesn’t necessarily retread old ground.
James’s ambivalently titled Living In Extraordinary Times is inspired by “the horrorshow of American politics” – frontman Tim Booth has a ringside seat from his adopted home of California, brooding on gun culture and “white fascists in the White House” on opening track Hank, with fuzz guitars simmering in the background and the upfront clatter of multiple drums.
The album has been produced by Charlie Andrew and Beni Giles. Both are drummers themselves, which probably explains the number of percussive salvos.
Booth says he is reminded of the band’s work with Brian Eno, who crops up for a cameo on keys on Coming Home Pt. 2, referencing but otherwise unrelated to one of their biggest hits, Come Home. Reaching further back, Heads displays a quirkiness and distemper they haven’t exhibited since their intense mid-80s youth.
But these songs are generally hard to get a handle on. Booth has expressed a hope that the relatively loveable Many Faces, with its appeal for diversity, might rival their singalong favourite Sometimes for emotional impact, while the previously released Better Than That provides the much needed hookiness which is absent elsewhere.
The original Trainspotting soundtrack was bookended by the film’s two mighty anthems, Lust for Life and Born Slippy. Two decades later, the artists responsible, Underworld and Iggy Pop, have joined forces to make a joyful sound on a four-track EP entitled Teatime Dub Encounters, after Underworld’s Rick Smith sprang an unscheduled recording session on Iggy by setting up a portastudio in a hotel room.
Bells & Circles is a gleeful introduction to what these two opposing forces can produce on impact. Possibly inspired by the mantra-like qualities of the backing track, Iggy raps away roguishly about “the golden days of air travel” when you could smoke on aeroplanes and flirt with stewardesses. Loosen your seatbelt and recline your seat, it’s going to be a louche, leisurely ride.
Until, that is, Iggy brings the punk to the motorik electro groove of Trapped, a fidgety freak-out about the insidious slide into domesticity (“let’s hear it for Johnny, he’s got a mortgage, he’s got a house…oh no!”) on which he sounds as fevered as Suicide’s whooping Alan Vega.
He takes a breather on the more contemplative I’ll See Big, with lyrics inspired by the friendship themes of T2 Trainspotting, before ending on a bittersweet note with the melancholy tone (“it’s getting so much harder to feel free”) contrasting with the euphoric trance and fluttery backing vocals of Get Your Shirt.
Knowing cult producer Steve Albini to be a fan of their music, Dundonian outfit Spare Snare invited him to revisit some Snare favourites in a fruitful five-day session at Glasgow’s Chem 19 recording studio.
Albini’s characteristically raw analogue stamp is all over Action Hero, with bonus outbreaks of crazed jazz trumpet, while the blithe guitars and synth drone of I Hope You Never Go are weighted with deep bass rumble, but the tempo and temperature cool with the languorous twanging country guitar and twinkling keys of Grow.
According to We Are the Snare, “we don’t do social skills, we don’t do chords you know”. But they do do limited edition coloured vinyl of this intriguing collaboration, available from selected independent record shops.
Duncan McCrone: Land of Gold (Greentrax) ***
Duncan McCrone has sung on the folk and, briefly, pop scenes since the Seventies, including a longstanding songwriting partnership with Cy Jack. Accompanied by a solid assembly including Jack on bass and keyboards, Chris Stout on fiddle and piper Finlay MacDonald, he brings clarity and warmth to covers such as Eric Bogles’ If Wishes Were Fishes and Matt McGinn’s wistful Magic Shadow Show, although Ewan MacColl’s enduring First Time (Ever I Saw Your Face) probably wasn’t his wisest choice. The most engaging songs, however, are McCrone and Jack’s own, as in Song of the Skylark, about one of the heroic “little ships” of Dunkirk, and a tribute to fishing communities, The Surf and the Silver Fishes. The title track, an exiled Hebridean woman’s song of yearning, has Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes providing a smoky-toned support vocal while Rab Noakes joins McCrone on the striking Resurrection Road, a far from sentimental yet compassionate Glasgow Christmas carol.
Scriabin: Preludes, Etudes and other works for piano (Harmonia Mundi) ****
At the heart of this picturesque part-survey of Alexander Scriabin’s piano music by Russian pianist Vadym Kholodenko are two of the many fascinating sonatas in which Scriabin expressed the fullness of his distinctive style.
The Fourth Sonata takes us from a mysterious Wagneresque Andante to the frenetically-charged ecstasy of the Prestissimo Volando in a whirlwind experience, tonality dissolving before our eyes, yet somehow preserving the early Chopin/Liszt influences that steer the stylistic vocabulary.
Khodenko’s performance draws equally on full-blooded robustness and athletic delicacy. In the Fifth Sonata, he captures its greater expansiveness with riveting authority, from the dark and foreboding evocations of the
opening through the turbulent and feverish excitement of its ensuing argument.