Album reviews: Mika | Ellie Goulding | Beth Orton | Robin Williamson | John Turville Trio
Mika: The Origin Of Love
THE oddball pop mind which produced the maddeningly catchy, off-the-wall Grace Kelly continues to fight shy of his abilities on his third disappointing bubblegum album in a row. Even with Mika’s distinctive vocals and irrepressible persona, The Origin Of Love struggles to distinguish itself from most other throwaway dance pop drivel. There is potential for a Sparks/ELO-like pocket pop symphony on Love You When I’m Drunk but the lyrics fail to develop beyond a repetitive jingle – and didn’t the Pet Shop Boys get there first anyway? Likewise, the easygoing R&B swing of Popular owes just a bit too much to the song of the same name from Wicked.
Ellie Goulding: Halcyon
FOR her second album, Wills’n’Kate’s wedding singer has somewhat beefed up her milk-and-water sound. Single Anything Could Happen doesn’t live up to the expectation in its title but is still her most robust pop tune to date. There is only so far she can push her little-girl quaver so the approach this time round is to bury the songs in sub-Florence whorls of empty uplift, behind which you can hear that Don’t Say A Word might have started off in a bluesy direction and My Blood with a folky melody before they were generically fitted for the festival crowd. A couple of tracks escape the makeover and allow a kernel of emotion to float out, but Halcyon still feels routinely insubstantial.
Beth Orton: Sugaring Season
* * *
IN THE six years since her last album, there has been no great leap forward in Beth Orton’s tremulous indie folk sound – it’s just that popular tastes have caught up with her and what once sounded winsome, even mewling, is now delivered with the greater self-assurance that comes through experience. Her breathy and braying voice is shown off to its best advantage on the more traditional folk material such as the Sandy Dennyesque Poison Tree but Sugaring Season is peppered with curiosities such as the chanson-style waltz See Through Blue and the dramatic swell of Something More Beautiful, which help to give the collection colour and dynamism.
Schubert: Paul Lewis
Harmonia Mundi, £22.99
* * * * *
PAUL Lewis opens his latest Schubert piano double disc with the wonderfully flamboyant Wandererfantasie, and instantly you sense something special and individual. This is a powerful and probing interpretation, massively expressive at either end of the spectrum. Compare, for instance, the thundering brilliance of the opening to the dying embers of the Adagio variations that seem to sink in a sea of impressionistically blurred sound. The fugal opening of the finale is colossal and robust, possibly one of Schubert’s most gripping apotheoses. There is no less affirmation in the 4 Impromptus, D935, but they are vehicles for Lewis to unleash his darting, mercurial side. In the Sonata in A Minor, D845 Schubert’s innermost expressions are exhaustively explored, only to be more lightly offset by the Moments Musicaux, D780 and mildly fretful Allegretto in C minor. Exceptional stuff.
Robin Williamson: Love Will Remain
Quadrant Records, Online Only
* * * *
A TRULY original voice, swerving between earthy holler and bardic incantation. And Williamson’s self-portrait on the sleeve of this album (packaged in vinyl and CD with a booklet of his paintings) suggests an ageing minstrel taking stock of his 50-year career. One song declares: “Time rages like an army, time whispers like a thief…” There are nostalgic moments but nothing tired, however, about this recording, with Williamson accompanying himself on guitar, mandolin, kick-drum and harmonica. There are distinctly ISB moments, but others tapping into blues roots, as in the opening Signs for Which our Fathers Died, while covers include a splicing of Syd Barrett’s Chapter 24 and George Harrison’s Inner Light. I particularly enjoyed the touching title track, dedicated to his wife, Bina, and A Road Wound Winding, eloquently declaimed over a shimmer of mandolin and harmonica, ranging from Pentland tops to the Chelsea Hotel. Fair Miles Never Wasted concludes that “The real destination is never to arrive.” This troubadour still relishes the journey.
John Turville Trio: Conception
F-IRE Records, £12.99
* * * *
The current generation of jazz musicians tend to come armed with a formidable range of musical references to draw on. Pianist John Thurville is no exception, and this follow-up to the award-winning Midas, with the same long-running and notably empathic trio featuring Chris Hill and Ben Reynolds, ranges widely. George Shearing’s cool title track flags up their intimate connection with classic modern jazz, while the only other cover on the disc is Radiohead’s Scatterbrain, which the trio pull off in impressive fashion. The remaining compositions are all by Turville, and reference genres from tango (an abiding interest for the pianist) to contemporary classical music and hip-hop. Cellist Eduardo Vassallo contributes to two of the tango-inspired outings, while the pianist plays in compelling fashion with both improvisation and intricate cross-rhythmic inventions. It is a spikier and even more assured outing than its predecessor.
Introducing Amadou Diagne
* * * *
I DON’T on the whole follow world-music competitions because they are usually more like beauty contests, where “beauty” consists of marketability in the international record business, with the result being that the winners are those who can streamline their art to please European and American ears. The effect has been an inevitable homogenisation, as the microtones and rough local edges which make so much music from Asia and the Caucasus so thrilling, for example, are smoothed out of existence. Amadou Diagne’s group won the Battle of the Bands competition, so I ought to be consigning its CD, like so much else, to what Stephen Fry would call Room 101 – but I like it a lot. Yes, with its violin and guitar added to drums and kora it’s quintessentially easy on the ear, and its musical aesthetic is an internationalised one, but the gentle songs by Diagne and his backing singers have an absolutely winning charm. This Senegalese musician was born into a large griot family, and started playing the drums at four; he graduated to becoming percussionist for the Senegalese National Band. Though he plays the guitar here, you can hear that background surfacing as he slaps its body for emphasis; his knowledge of the kora allows him to weave his melody and guitar lines together gracefully; the sweetness of the xalam lute is also woven in, as is the saxophone, with its echoes of African jazz.
The subject matter of many of these songs is the Senegalese concept of tarranga – hospitality – but one track, Africa Stop War, was written with the conflicts in the Ivory Coast and Somalia in mind: “I am crying for peace in Africa, no more blood running for war.”