Anna Meredith’s playful, punky project is a stimulating trip, while Ringo Starr has more fun with his friends than listeners will
Anna Meredith: FIBS (Moshi Moshi) ****
Ringo Starr: What’s My Name (UMC) **
James Blunt: Once Upon a Mind (Atlantic) **
Article 54: The Hustle (Article 54) **** If ever there was an advert for preserving music tuition in schools, contemporary composer Anna Meredith is it. Growing up in Edinburgh, she honed her skills in the schools orchestras network, gradually coming to the realisation that her true talent was not for playing, but composing. The last decade has been a non-stop stream of high profile classical commissions such as Five Telegrams, the audio-visual spectacular which launched the 2018 Edinburgh International Festival, plus film and TV soundtrack work.
But Meredith has also carved out time for her own playful, punky projects – a series of EPs followed by her debut album Varmints which scooped the Scottish Album of the Year Award in 2016, and set a high bar for this follow-up.
Meredith is a visual composer. For FIBS, she considered the material as four points of the compass – fast and slow instrumental pieces and fast and slow vocal numbers – in order to marshal the flow between these contrasting dynamics, deftly pulling handbrake turns between the aqueous cello-led moonmoons, pugnacious guitar rock instrumental Limpet and the trebly scurrying of Paramour.
Individual tracks have their own strong internal dynamics. The hectic electro judder and bouncy arpeggios of Sawbones have an energetic geometry, as does the trancey ecstasy of Inhale Exhale.
There is a comic foreboding to the bumptious brass of Bump, while the spry layers of Killjoy are tempered with androgynous vocals from Sam Wilson, the drummer in Meredith’s band. Meredith herself lends her pure, clear singing voice to fragile ballad Ribbons and the soothing Unfurl, perfect for decompressing after an otherwise stimulating trip.
Ringo Starr could just relax and bask in the glory of his Beatles icon status – and you might wish he had done just that, rather than invite his muso pals over for the stodgy jam session that is What’s My Name.
The guestlist for his 20th album is undeniably impressive. Toto’s Steve Lukather and Men At Work’s Colin Hay contribute songs. The creaky rhythm’n’blues opener Gotta Get Up to Get Down is dominated by hoary guest vocals from Joe Walsh and a more inspired clavinet solo from Edgar Winter, while his sentimental MOR version of John Lennon’s Grow Old With Me features his old mucker Macca on bass for a partial Beatles reunion. Of course Starr is entitled to his arthritic revisiting of Berry Gordy’s Money, once covered with infinitely more verve by his former band, and it is hard to grudge him his breezy assertion that Life Is Good but he is definitely having more fun here than the listener will.
The last time James Blunt wrote so personally was on his debut Back to Bedlam album, bringing great commercial success and a stinging backlash against its bland balladry.
Blunt has since disarmed his trolls with his self-deprecation and once again writes heart on sleeve. Once Upon A Mind opens brightly with the romantic epiphany of The Truth, proceeds with typical manicured radio dance pop fare and the odd folksy canter but soon hits the buffers with the mawkish Monsters, a song for his ailing father born out of great personal anguish, which is painful to listen to in all the wrong ways.
Brexit is nigh so it’s time for a cathartic boogie courtesy of Article 54 whose Brexit-themed disco album, The Hustle, is the brainchild of writer and musician Rhodri Marsden. Built round guest “vocals” from Boris and Theresa, and samples of the more fatuous projections around the Brexit negotiations, this delightful disco pastiche is awash with breathy vocals, blithe horns, swirling disco strings, trilling flute and droll aphorisms on Freedom of Movement (“you can vamoose to Lisbon or Toulouse”) and Backstop (“we can have our cake and eat it”). A sonic tonic in tragicomic times. Fiona Shepherd JAZZ
Chris Barber: Memories of My Trip (The Last Music Company) ****
A re-release from 2011, but a timely one, as elder statesman of British jazz and blues Chris Barber finally hangs up his trombone at the age of 89. These 31 tracks over two CDs span the British trad and blues booms and beyond, making for hugely enjoyable listening, with Barber’s collaborators ranging from bluesmen such as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee to rock stars who emerged from the blues boom Barber helped launch.
Gems include Ottilie Paterson excelling in a 1962 recording of St Louis Blues, Barber’s trombone and veteran clarinettist Edmond Hall shadowing every throaty holler before skipping into a superb Missouri Special. Veering between decades, Eric Clapton’s acoustic slide joins trombone in Weeping Willow, Glasgow skiffle star Lonnie Donegan digs his potatoes and there’s a sweetly strolling blues from the band’s late guitarist, John Slaughter, to whose memory the album is dedicated. Jim Gilchrist
Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos 2,7 & 8 (Supraphon) *****
By the time Shostakovich wrote his Second String Quartet (1944), he had already written eight of his symphonies. It is perhaps reflective of this late start that it, and the other 14 quartets, contain music much more personal and honest than his orchestral canon. That said, string quartets have, by their very nature, often acted as the most intimate vehicles for composers.
The wonderful Pavel Haas Quartet perform three of Shostakovich’s here: the wartime No 2, a powerfully reflective response to the suffering and anxiety of the time, rigorously and sweepingly argued; the short No 7, written in memory of his first wife, its mix of sweet memories, turbulence and soulful lamentation affectionately captured; and the harrowing No 8, a paean to tragedy and anger, presented here as a crunching finale to this engrossing disc. Ken Walton