Nile Rodgers & Chic: It’s About Time (Virgin EMI) ***
Rod Stewart: Blood Red Roses (Republic Records) **
Seasick Steve: Can U Cook? (BMG) ***
Various: Goosebumps: 25 Years of Marina Records (Marina) ****
The long promised and considerably delayed first new album in 25 years by Nile Rodgers & Chic has finally landed – and it’s a bit of a disappointment, an underwhelming patchwork of Chic’s signature elements – lean funk and ecstatic disco tracks, embellished with Rodgers’ distinctive choppy, ringing guitar chords and soulful unison vocals – with too many cooks popping in to add to the party punch.
It’s About Time is simultaneously too much and too little, comprising a trim ten tracks, including a remix and a Chic cover, populated by an array of guest performers and writers. To his credit, Rodgers collaborates with a group of upcoming London-based R&B artists, including singer Nao and producer Mura Musa, as well as rappers from both sides of the Atlantic (Vic Mensa, Stefflon Don), but they can only offer a facsimile of the Chic brand.
The message is unchanged – life is hard so dance your cares away – but the petitions to party on through the madness are more throwaway than escapist and by the time actress/singer Hailee Steinfeld pops up on Dance With Me, Rodgers is starting to sound like his many pale imitators.
It’s About Time is not entirely the playground of the hip young things. The album starts to unspool when a mismatched Elton John and Emeli Sandé cameo on the plodding portrait Queen, veteran pianist Philippe Saisse adds some Shakatak-style smooth jazz flourishes to the easy listening jazz funk of State of Mine (it’s About Time) and Lady Gaga does a number on Chic nugget I Want Your Love which sucks all the class from the original and only highlights the gulf between It’s About Time and Chic in their prime, or even Rodgers’ recent work with Daft Punk.
But below-par Chic is infinitely preferable to a sanitised Rod Stewart who is in fine voice but poor songwriting form on his 30th album. Once more, Rod the plod looks back in languor on a succession of sentimental and/or nostalgic numbers, waving off old friends on the arthritic Farewell, reminiscing with ambivalence about his ladies’ man reputation on Hole In My Heart over sterile production and undercutting the potential meat of the subject matter (young lives lost to drugs) on Didn’t I with the mid-paced mundanity of the music.
It’s almost a relief to encounter the springy if well-worn disco groove of Give Me Love and yet another of his bloated Motown pastiches in Rest of My Life, and even better to hear him revisit his rhythm’n’blues roots on a reasonably energised cover of Rollin’ & Tumblin’ and a rollicking Vegas Shuffle.
Blues troubadour Seasick Steve has no difficulty kicking up that delta dust on his latest album, which ranges fluently from the (relatively) hi-fi Hate Da Winter to the sparse acoustic blues of Sun on My Face. Steve may only be treading in bigger boot prints – the title track of Can U Cook? recalls the wit and boogie of ZZ Top and country lament The Last Rodeo is his “hope I die before I get much older” moment – but he makes a convincing rumpus on the garage blues Shady Tree and blunt blues rocker Young Blood.
Hamburg-based label Marina Records celebrates a quarter century of quality easy listening and at times whimsical melodic pop releases, many by Scottish artists of an early 80s vintage, with a compilation which gracefully encompasses Beach Boys-inspired indie pop (Pearlfishers), throwback instrumental themes (Crocker, Peter Thomas), breezy bossa nova (Pale Fountains), a number of complementary German acts, covers of common influences (Velvet Underground, Vic Godard) and even the odd legend (Alex Chilton).
Vienna: Fin de Siécle (Alpha Classics) ****
Fin-de-siécle Vienna, once wonderfully described as “the inner machinery of modernity,” was the stomping ground of the heavy thinkers and creators who would influence every branch of 20th century culture. Freud, Hofmannsthal, Schoenberg, Klimt: the list could go on and on. The Vienna they reflected was dichotomous – outward virtue, inward decadence. This collection of 18 songs by Schoenberg (Vier Lieder, Op2), Webern (Funf Lieder), Berg (Sieben Frühe Lieder), Zemlinsky (Lieder Op 2,5,7), Wolf (Mignon 1-4) and Alma Mahler (including Die stille Stadt), sung with alluring self-control by Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan with Dutch pianist Reinbert de Leeuw, contains all that symbolised the musical spirit of that time and place: dark sensuality, ambiguous unease, and that unmistakable premonition of all that was to shake the world in 1914.
Tord Gustavsen Trio: The Other Side (ECM Records) *****
The Other Side sees Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen make a triumphant return to the piano trio format for the first time in 11 years, with drummer Jarle Vespestad and double-bassist Sigurd Hole. Steeped in Lutheran church music, informed by folk and classical and augmented by discreet electronics, Gustavsen combines his unhurried but high-tension groove with palpable warmth. His own compositions include the stately uplift of the title track and the luminous Taste and See, while there’s a lovely, folk-ballady narrative to Ludvig Lindeman’s Kirken, den er et gammelt hus. He brings majestic gospel-hall rolls to the hymn-like Ingen vinner frem til den evige ro, with Hole adding haunting bass bowing to Vespestad’s percussive tapestry. Three striking Bach arrangements include Schlafes Bruder, while the chorale O Traurigkeit surges towards something akin to exaltation.