The Phantom Band: Strange Friend
Chemical Underground, £13.99
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Instead, the Glaswegian six-piece have taken almost four years to follow up their celebrated second album The Wants.
Since then frontman Rick Anthony has released an excellent solo album, No Selfish Heart, in his Rick Redbeard guise and Edinburgh’s Django Django have come along and threatened to steal their thunder, fellow artists – and chums – working in a similar democratic, freeform, independent, curious and unhurried fashion to produce a deftly woven patchwork of sonic goodies.
Strange Friend plays a game of steady darts – in as much as it is musically all over the place yet still in control of its exploratory findings. Opening track The Wind That Cried The World is as good an introduction as any with its simple synth melody, motorik rhythm, squelchy electronic embellishments and the killer contrast of Anthony’s folky baritone, plus some of those omnipresent anthemic “woh-oh-ohs” chucked in for popular measure.
Then it’s straight into brisk Krautfolk number Clapshot followed by the scent of Simple Minds on Doom Patrol in which stentorian rhythms are lifted by a soaring pop chorus and a twinkling keyboard refrain. Around the halfway point, the song takes an unexpected turn into heavy rock riffola and then another into tribal percussion, but that’s the kind of musical playground this group inhabit – one where, of course, gamelan percussion and banjo fit together on Galápagos and a host of competing elements can be crammed into quirky synth pop number Sweatbox.
Forty years ago this no-boundaries magpie approach to music-making was called progressive rock – a term which can still chill the blood in some constituencies. Happily, The Phantom Band are playful sorts rather than pretentious noodlers who can even pitch a straightforward tune on occasion.
They briefly find themselves in step with the indie pop trend for tremulous electronic torch songs on (Invisible) Friends, which would fit snugly on to the 6Music playlist, while the brewing storm of folk rock ballad Atacama and the heady swell of No Shoes Blues demonstrate that they are just as effective a unit when choosing one creative path and sticking to it.
Klaxons: Love Frequency
Akashic Records, £14.99
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The band who invented the sub-genre “nu rave” for kicks are sounding decidedly old rave on their third album. Love Frequency retains Klaxons’ quasi-philosophical loved-up outlook but streamlines the hippie vibrations in a more commercial clubby direction, harking back to early higher-state-of-consciousness rave culture rather than today’s moronic party bangers on steady trancey canter The Dreamers, euphoric house track Invisible Forces and the carefree disco feel of There Is No Other Time, while the heftier industrial thrust of Children Of The Sun satisfies the role of fist-pumping festival anthem.
Syd Arthur: Sound Mirror
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There’s no mistaking where Syd Arthur are coming from – channelling the early Seventies sounds of their native Canterbury, a scene which spawned experimental rock bands such as Soft Machine and Caravan. It is somewhat poetic that their modern pastoral prog is being released on the Harvest label, and almost too cool that Kate Bush’s nephew Raven plays violin in the band.
Their second album, Sound Mirror, occupies a beatific realm far from the arena pomp of Muse; though there are rockout moments, these are tempered with gentility, finesse and also a certain funkiness, most effective in concert with the phased synths on Autograph, while Liam Magill’s reedy yet soothing voice sounds perfectly at home.
Brahms & Mozart Clarinet Quintets
Champs Hill Records, £11.99
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Why another recorded coupling of the Mozart and Brahms clarinet quintets when there are plenty about? The answer is clear when you consider how fresh and individual this release by Scottish Chamber Orchestra principal clarinet Maximiliano Martin and the all-British Badke String Quartet is.
Most refreshing is the blend of the entire ensemble – no prima Donna clarinet here, but rather an integration of texture that, in the Mozart, allows Martin either to lie low within the string surround, or emerge with a gorgeous woody tone that is never forced or uneven. The tempi are as judiciously measured here as in the Brahms, and in that latter quartet there is a marked opening up of sound and expressive range that is ravishing and profound.
Mishaped Pearls: Thamesis
Proper Music, £13.99
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The third album from the fruitful collaboration between German-born mezzo-soprano Manuela Schütte and multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Ged Flood proves to be a seamless melling of a classically trained (but unencumbered by fulsome vibrato) voice and Flood’s folk-ish repertoire and arrangements, performed by a string band including producer Gerry Diver.
Flood’s settings are taut and at times cinematically epic. Through it all, Schütte’s singing comes over clear as a bell over water, in fact, a distinct riverine theme flows through the album, not least in the limpid beauty of its opener, Old Father Thames, informed by Flood’s experiences as a lock keeper. Waterborne, also, is the darkly beguiling Tamesis while, in more traditional territory, Schütte declaims the lyrics of Jimmy, based on the folk song Polly Vaughn, with the authority of a seasoned balladeer, against a string backdrop which drives towards a supernatural denouement.
Tim Garland: Songs To The North Sky
Edition Records, £15.99
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This double CD offers a striking portrait of an artist in full creative maturity. The opening disc features Lighthouse, the English saxophonist’s expandable trio with drummer Asaf Sirkis, either Ant Law or Kevin Glasgow on bass, and three guest pianists. It provides ample evidence of the stylistic breadth and sheer invention which pervades his music, but that demonstration is hugely amplified in the second disc. Songs To The North Sky is a celebration of the landscape, weather and character of his adopted home in north-east England, written for his own tenor and soprano saxophones, jazz musicians (including bass maestro John Patitucci) and the strings of the Royal Northern Sinfonia. Strings in jazz can feel token, but there is no hint of that here, and both discs will continue to yield discoveries well beyond an initial acquaintance.
Mor Karbasi: La Tsadika
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Singers in Ladino from the Sephardic tradition are starting to proliferate, but Mor Karbasi weaves in fado, flamenco, oriental, and jazz-inflected arrangements. The title song, accompanied by guitar and violin, tells of a young woman who refuses to renounce her Judaism in favour of Islam and dies for her defiance – a medieval story with a painfully modern message. Karbasi’s voice is soft and sweet, and she plays melismatically around the notes with a very Arabic delicacy. Some of these tracks are brilliantly virtuosic, and particularly those with North African instrumental backing.