Album reviews: Kathryn Joseph | Gabrielle | The Coral | Hamish Napier | The Marian Consort
Kathryn Joseph: From When I Wake The Want Is (Rock Action) ****
Gabrielle: Under My Skin (BMG) ***
The Coral: Move Through the Dawn (Ignition Records) ****
In 2015, the Aberdeen-bred, Glasgow-based singer/pianist Kathryn Joseph seemed to arrive fully formed, if otherworldly, with her hypnotic playing, cathartic singing and Paddington hard stares at her rapidly growing audience.
Her debut album, Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I’ve Spilled, captivated listeners, including the panel for the Scottish Album of the Year Award, and her win helped to catapult her into the heart of Scotland’s collaborative music community and on to Mogwai’s Rock Action label. Yet this overnight success had been two decades in the making – not 20 years of toil but 20 years of self-doubt which has not been entirely excised.
Joseph is not a fast worker. Some songs on her second album have been lingering for years, but the spur for writing and recording came from a period of intense heartbreak followed by a reconciliation with her partner.
From When I Wake The Want Is is a record of her feelings about her own situation but also a tribute to resilience in those she loves, and the healing comfort of family (her daughter and partner have cameo roles on the recording). The album begins with whispered spoken word over plangent piano before giving way to her signature undulating playing and quavery vocal incantations, which are reminiscent of the Trio Bulgarka’s work with Kate Bush on The Sensual World.
The Mogwai connection also makes perfect sense as she inhabits a post-rock soundscape with some flinty electronic embellishments to create more a suite of music than a conventional collection of songs, though we have been loved by our mothers comes close, spreading its melancholy salve like a latterday Blue Nile.
The gothic folk number tell my lover (“it’s not over until we burn”) is one of the stand-out examples of her style, embroidered with the patter of drums and shimmer of cymbals as it escalates in musical and lyrical intensity.
She changes the palette for and it will lick you clean with rippling notes at the piano and the staccato strike of percussion, before the tension breaks around the two-minute mark into legato fluidity. Ironically, weight is as light and liberated as it gets for this intense, idiosyncratic stylist.
Gabrielle’s husky voice is aired again like an old friend on her first studio album in 11 years. Although she has worked with the likes of producer Naughty Boy in the past, there is next to no hint of the contemporary R&B flavour to be tasted in the work of fellow mainstream soul divas such as Emeli Sandé and Jessie Ware.
Instead, Under My Skin inhabits Motown-inspired “classic” soul territory with easy listening string arrangements, from the cutesy girl group vibe of Take A Minute to the disposable pop soul of Young and Crazy. Gabrielle doesn’t sound that invested in the platitudes of Stronger but digs a bit deeper on the smooth sultry jazz-inflected ballad Signs.
The Coral are much loved but somewhat overlooked ambassadors of a grand Merseyside tradition of melodic indie janglers from The Las to Shack, but these days they project the elder ease of a Scouse Teenage Fanclub on tracks such as Eyes Like Pearl, where youthful fizz has been supplanted by cosy tuneage.
So there are no surprises on Move Through the Dawn, just a blissful succession of lovely songs, encompassing the breezy pastoral pop of She’s A Runaway, the baroque beat of Love or Solution, glam indie boogie of Sweet Release and featherlight cosmic pop of Eyes of the Moon. Dark clouds briefly brood over Stormbreaker, with its doomy Sabbath keyboards, mountainous drums and guitar freak-out but the air clears again for sweet folk ballad After the Fair.
Hamish Napier: The Railway (Strathspey Records) ****
Following his acclaimed Speyside evocation, The River, multi-instrumentalist Hamish Napier was approached by the Grantown East Highland Heritage & Cultural Centre, due to open in the converted Grantown East railway station. The result, played by Napier with associates including Ewan Robertson on guitar, Fraser Stone on drums and bassist James Lindsay, warmly evokes the glory days of the long-closed Speyside Line. Punctuated with sampled chuffs and whistles, the music works up quite a head of steam on its own, as when piper Ross Ainslie jumps on board in Double-Header and the punchy Diesel, or in brother Findlay Napier’s song Jocky the Mole, inspired by interviews with former railwaymen. It is tenderly elegiac in the slow air Helen’s Song, finely played by fiddler Patsy Reid and Hamish on piano, while The World Came in by Rail is a lament for a lost world, although the album ends with – of course – a defiant Strathspey.
The Marian Consort: In sorrow’s footstep (Delphian) *****
Tradition rears its head in many forms in this exquisite a cappella recording by the compact but wholesomely radiant Marian Consort. There is the tradition of centuries-old liturgical texts, refreshed by successive generations of composers, such as the Stabat Mater, Miserere or Ave Maria, the first two of which appear in modern settings by Gabriel Jackson and James MacMillan alongside the perennial favourites of Palestrina and Allegri. Both modern settings pay homage to the earlier models in the liquidity of texture and harmony, yet speak for today in the more open emotive language that modernity permits. Combined with the Renaissance examples, there is an alluring, sometimes intoxicating equilibrium about this disc, regulated by the pure-toned intimacy and blend of Rory McCleery’s fine ensemble. The British sacred choral tradition at its best.