The Boss and Roger Daltrey both embrace orchestral arrangements on their latest releases, writes Fiona Shepherd
Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars (Columbia) ***
Roger Daltrey: Tommy Orchestral (Polydor) ***
Kate Tempest: The Book of Traps and Lessons (Caroline) ***
Rickie Lee Jones: Kicks (OSOD) ***
While the E Street Band kick back and enjoy a well earned, if brief, sabbatical, their dear leader Bruce Springsteen is trying out a new sound – nothing too radical or progressive, you understand, but let’s just say someone plays a celeste somewhere on Western Stars.
Springsteen has gone symphonic for his latest “solo” album (featuring 20 other musicians), drawing inspiration from the lush Californian pop music of the 1970s, as exemplified by accomplished musical storytellers such as Jimmy “12 chords and the truth” Webb, Harry Nilsson and Albert Hammond, who would lavish their sophisticated songcraft with unfettered easy listening orchestral arrangements.
Springsteen is no slouch when it comes to painting a lyrical picture so it makes sense that his familiar cast of drifters, searchers, dreamers and deadbeats should be given the widescreen treatment – all the more so when he is writing about a washed-up actor or a has-been stuntman.
The glistening, controlled backing to opening track Hitch Hiking is typical. There is a power to these orchestral arrangements which elevates the most modest tune. Drive Fast (The Stuntman) at first appears slight but is buoyed up by beautiful, romantic strings, Sleepy Joe’s Café is a gentle Tex Mex-flavoured sashay, while the more satisfying melodic wax and wane of The Wayfarer is delicately complemented by lingering strings, Bacharach horns and a light dusting of percussion.
There are bigger flourishes – Springsteen unleashes a powerful booming croon on Sundown and There Goes My Miracle over a classic Nashville sound backing, with the spirit of Glen Campbell evoked in the guitar playing of the former. But he never allows sentiment to spill over into schmaltz, and the grizzled intimacy of country laments Chasin’ Wild Horses and Somewhere North of Nashville should please fans of his bare bones acoustic work on The Ghost of Tom Joad.
Roger Daltrey has also done an orchestral number on his classic brawny rock sound, celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Who’s classic rock opera Tommy by touring it round the US last year as an orchestral concert show.
David Campbell’s nimble yet epic arrangements, energetically captured on this live album, are a natural fit for the expansive rock anthems Pinball Wizard and I’m Free but also enhance the end of the pier clatter of Tommy’s Holiday Camp and rollicking Sally Simpson. In contrast to the sumptuous symphonic sound, Daltrey’s voice sounds hoarier than ever – The Acid Queen is quite the fright – but is leavened slightly by the subtler tones of Simon Townshend, brother of Tommy composer Pete.
Performance poet Kate Tempest is a natural storyteller, measured but expressive as the defeated drinker rescued by a good angel on Thirsty and exploring the epiphany and anxiety of a new relationship on Keep Moving Don’t Move.
So begins her third album, The Book of Traps and Lessons, a personal chronicle partly produced by confirmed fan Rick Rubin in his LA studio but fully inspired by her London stomping ground.
There is a woozy beauty in the trip-hop-inspired backdrop to her words, but little musical variety at first. However, as she ventures deeper into socio-political territory (“was that a pivotal historical moment we just went stumbling past?” she asks, presumably of Brexit), the scenery shifts to encompass soused pub piano, funereal organ, and the minimalist synth arpeggios and mournful cello of Lessons.
Rickie Lee Jones covers a lot of ground on her latest album, interpreting works from Benny Goodman to Elton John, Steve Miller to Skeeter Davis, applying an easy western swing to the jazz material and delivering Bad Company’s eponymous theme tune as a blues cry from the soul set against thundery guitars. - Fiona Shepherd
Saint-Saëns, Poulenc, Widor (Pentatone) ***
These are potboilers – a trilogy of organ-related lollipops that comprises Saint-Saëns’ magisterial Organ Symphony, the fun and frolics of Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and, as a built-in encore, the famous Toccata from Widor’s solo Organ Symphony No 5. Given there are so many recordings already available of these, how does this new one from organist Christopher Jacobson and the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande under conductor Kazuki Yamada measure up? In truth, it’s mostly workmanlike, but not entirely unexceptional. The latter movements of the Saint-Saëns have greater orchestral bite than the heavy-duty opening movement, and the Poulenc mostly enjoys sumptuousness and zest in equal measure. The Widor is turgid – metronomically the right tempo, but disappointingly earth-bound and missing a beat near the end. Which is a shame, because the French-inspired organ of Geneva’s Victoria Hall is potentially right for the job. - Ken Walton
Joost Lijbaart, Sanne Rambags, Bram Stadhouders: Trinity (Challenge Records) ****
These intriguing, otherworldly improvisations come from the Dutch trio of drummer Joost Ljbaart, vocalist Sanne Rambags and guitarist and electronics manipulator Bram Stadhouders – otherwise known as Under the Surface. Rambags’s vocal range and dexterity is striking and evident right from the opening track, La Loba Part One, soaring through a menagerie of echoing, wordless vocals over churning drums and chiming guitar. The Dance of Life, meanwhile, inspired by a quote from Edvard Munch, wends its weird way between recitation, invocation and folksy lilting. Stadhouders turns to Andean charango to bring a bright, Latiny rippling to Hjemme, while his electronics create background avian chirping in Wild, a sort of wordless rainforest canticle. These are extraordinary live improvisations, and you can catch the trio live at Eyemouth Hippodrome and Glasgow Jazz Festival next Friday and Saturday respectively. - Jim Gilchrist