Rod Stewart: Another Country | Decca Records | Rating: **
Rod the (former) plod is on a bit of a roll these days. After years of releasing cash cow covers albums of American standards, he was cajoled back into songwriting a couple of years ago and came up with the rudimentary yet rejuvenating Time, a collection inspired by the old memories he accessed in the writing of his autobiography.
He continues in this nakedly nostalgic vein with Another Country, another batch of simple, sentimental songs with a slightly expanded musical palette. Stewart has clearly just replaced one musical comfort zone with another, even recording the release at his LA mansion for that suitably cosy pipe-and-slippers feel.
Much of the album sounds like Stewart reminiscing in the corner while a tame ceilidh strikes up in the background. The light Celtic folk arrangement of Love Is strives to build up a head of steam, though the lively playing is hamstrung by the timid production. The same could be said for the lyrics – no doubt Stewart has a tale or two to tell about romantic entanglements but here he prefers to trade in folksy wisdom such as “love is like a four leaf clover – hard to find and hold on to”.
The gurning pop rock of Please is enlivened only by the occasional falsetto trill from Stewart, showing that he still has the vocal muscles, even if they are rarely stretched. Love and Be Loved is a tepid reggae number, which ticks off the Caribbean clichés as it celebrates the simpler things in life (in the sunshine).
The sterile folk flavour persists on the title track, his would-be rousing tribute to the armed forces and, in particular, their separation from family. But he saves most of the old softie nonsense for mawkish ballad Way Back Home, featuring a catalogue of sentimental nostalgic recollections of his upbringing in post-war London, topped off with a Churchill sample and lashings of bulldog spirit which is perhaps better understood, even tolerated, through the prism of Stewart’s many years as an expat.
However, that sentimental streak is not confined to his past. Batman Superman Spider-Man is inspired by the bedtime stories he tells his youngest son.
Maybe Stewart is being a protective father because he only comes close to dishing the non-PG dirt on one track. The Drinking Song is that point in the night when the stories get spicier. Stewart musters some of that old bluesy gravel in his wry recollections of past excesses (“I’ve raised hell when hell didn’t need no raising”) and dispenses the sage warnings of one who has gone before (“wine is the cause of silly tattoos”), while remaining ultimately unrepentant. His all-too-believable mantra? “It was the drink that made me do it”. Could we have more time in the company of this Rod next time please? Fiona Shepherd
Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott: Wisdom, Laughter and Lines | Virgin EMI | Rating: ***
This former Beautiful South pairing proved an unexpected hit at this year’s T in the Park with their substantial catalogue of witty singalong hits. They continue along similar lines, marrying often merciless lyrics to upbeat, dad-friendly pop tunes, on their second album as a vocal duo. Heaton’s left-wing politics are alive and kicking as he sets up his own republic on Heatongrad – it’s not good news for the monarchy or big business – and he spares a sarcastic thought for the super-rich on Lonesome And Sad Millionaire. But Wisdom, Laughter and Lines also makes room for bittersweet domestic ruminations such as When Love For Woman Stops. FS
Laurie Anderson: Heart of a Dog | Nonesuch | Rating: ***
Heart of a Dog, the soundtrack to Laurie Anderson’s feature-length documentary of the same name, works just fine without the visuals. Although ostensibly a warm, humorous and at times surreal meditation on the life of her beloved terrier Lolabelle, it’s clear that Anderson is processing her grief at the loss of her partner Lou Reed and her mother Mary Louise as much as her canine companion, who takes a starring role from her unconventional anthropomorphised entrance onwards. The narrative follows Anderson back to childhood and around post-9/11 New York via diversions into surveillance culture and Buddhist philosophy, all delivered in her Zen-like spoken tones over tranquil orchestral and electronic ambience. FS
Alison Brown: The Song of the Banjo | Compass Records | Rating: ***
In her first album for six years, Grammy-winning banjo ace Alison Brown takes her instrument to places it doesn’t normally reach. She’s accompanied by a star line-up including dobro wizard Rob Ickes, pianist Joe Davidian, guitarist John Doyle and bluegrass fiddler Stuart Brown, who shines in the opening title track.
The mellifluous whine of Ickes’s dobro snakes through Dance With Me, one of several old chart hits covered here, another being Carolina in the Pines, with vocals from Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers.
Brown’s own tunes include the satisfyingly beaty Stuff Happens and the lovely, old-timey sounding Long Way Gone, while banjo and piano dance gracefully together in Musette for the Last Fret. To my mind it’s these characterful compositions that stand out, rather than banjo-a-gogo covers such as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? despite soulful vocals from bluesman Keb’ Mo’.
It’s hard to know whether Brown is really exploring new territory or simply seeking safe commercial middle ground. Jim Gilchrist
Haydn: The Creation | Coro 16135 | Rating: ****
Harry Christophers captures the full expressive range of Haydn’s The Creation in this luminous and profound version of the popular oratorio with the 200-year-old Handel and Haydn Society of America. The orchestral playing is lithe and exciting, the choral singing crisp and wholesome.
But it is the splendid trio of soloists who add engaging character to the performance, especially Matthew Brook, who lives and breathes every precious note, and the pure-toned Sarah Tynan.
Christophers’ recording is a refreshing slant on a well-worn choral favourite. Ken Walton
Gilad Hekselman: Homes | Jazz Village | Rating: ****
The Israeli-born guitarist has made quite a reputation for himself since he arrived in New York a decade ago. Here his luminous and spacey guitar tone explores various aspects of “home”, whether geographical, cultural or musical.
He does so in the company of two fixtures on the New York jazz scene, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore.
A briefly stated Homes theme leads into the bright echoes of Verona, then, in the sparky, Afro-flavoured Keedee, the trio becomes a quartet with additional drummer Jeff Ballard sparring joyously with Gilmore.
The paired Space and the shimmering and gnomically titled Cosmic Patience drift through realms of dreamy psychedelia while, in contrast, an energetic treatment of Bud Powell’s Parisian Thoroughfare busies itself along like a 2CV in a hurry.
Hekselman’s mellow deliberations on Baden Powell’s Samba em Prelúdio sound over brushes and the woody murmuring of Martin’s bass, while Ballard reappears to duet with the guitarist in a lean, frolicking cover of Pat Metheny’s Last Train Home. Jim Gilchrist