ARE you suffering from male singer/songwriter-itis? Symptoms include frustrated eye-rolling when some polite suburban chap is touted as the must-hear new bluesman, leading to feelings of intense irritation at soppy, faux-soulful declarations of unrequited love leaking from the Radio 1 playlist.
C Duncan: Architect
Fat Cat Records
Well, here is your antidote.
You could factually describe Glasgow-based musician Christopher Duncan as a male singer/songwriter, but he is so far from his peers in musicality, imagination, vision and skills that it would be embarrassing to compare, were those peers not already coining it in at the top of the charts and presumably quite happy with their thoroughly banal albums.
Duncan, meanwhile, is at the bottom rung of the ladder but definitely gazing up at the stars – stars including Belle & Sebastian and the Blue Nile, who are among his growing troupe of admirers.
The son of classical musicians and a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland himself, Duncan is a one-man band and gifted arranger, drawing on infuences from Fauré to Fleet Foxes for his folky chamber pop – that chamber being his bedroom, where he wrote and recorded this gorgeous debut album, layering up the songs with instrumentation and multi-tracked harmonising vocals. Oh, and the album artwork is all his own.
This DIY auteur establishes his gossamer dream-pop sound from the off, opening Say with a haunting chorus effect on keyboards. But it’s the choral aspect of the vocals which captivate, as Duncan’s soft, breathy, lovelorn voice is overdubbed with harmonies, lifting the chorus to angelic places.
In keeping with the album title, Duncan’s arrangements are meticulously, exquisitely constructed but sound ethereal and uncluttered – witness the holy harmonies on the mirage-like Silence and Air or the haunting whistling, handclaps and carefully plucked strings woven together to hypnotic effect on For. Here to There is another rhythmic reverie, with Duncan reflecting on the comfort of company.
This is transporting music, which often sounds like it is echoing down from another era, like the Beach Boys on a budget or a less tortured Nick Drake, the curious contrast between the lo-fi recording and the sophisticated arrangements being part of the charm.
Just when you think it can’t get any more rapturous, he hits us with the loungey chime of vibraphone on He Believes in Miracles, with the C Duncan choir cooing blissfully like the 5th Dimension. The soothing, but also uplifting, Novices features solo Duncan at his most gentle and the choral Duncans at their most heavenly, while Garden demonstrates that he can turn up the pace and intensity considerably without losing any of the enchantment.
He saves up soulful seasonal ballad I’ll Be Gone By Winter for the album’s poignant coda. It’s the lost love lament from an Andy Williams Christmas special, leaving not a dry eye in the house. Prepare for love at first listen.
Iron and Wine/Ben Bridwell: Sing Into My Mouth
Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam and Band of Horses’ frontman Ben Bridwell are an entirely complementary, if unsurprising, musical pairing. On this joint covers album, they make songs by artists as diverse as Spiritualized, Sade and Pete Seeger sound as if they had come from their own blissed-out country rock catalogues, coating everything with languorous pedal steel guitar, the slow shuffle of drums and occasional banjo and Hammond organ embellishments. It’s pretty one-note stuff but what a gorgeous note – they retain the sultriness and ditch the snooziness of Sade’s Bullet Proof Soul and honour the beseeching spirit of John Cale’s You Know Me More Than I Know.
Field Music: Drifters
Following in the wake (no pun intended) of British Sea Power and King Creosote, Sunderland’s Field Music are the latest indie musicians to supply a soundtrack to archive film footage – in this case, John Grierson’s 1929 documentary Drifters.
The film is an involving snapshot of the North Sea herring industry, and Field Music have made a good, impressionistic job of scoring the footage, using proggy time signatures, martial drumming and jazzy electric piano. However, listened to in isolation, Drifters’ improvisatory roots are evident, with many of the short, choppy tracks sounding more like demo snippets than a satisfying listen in their own right.
Guitar Works of Thomas Wilson
Xolo CD 1039
Fourteen years after his death, it’s about time Thomas Wilson’s music came back into greater circulation. He was one of Scotland’s pioneering 20th-century composers, whose musical language bears the modernist austerity of its time, but when you look beneath, has a soulfulness that softens the outward crust. These guitar works, played by Stefan Grasse, more than prove the point. The early Three Pieces combine motivic strength with emotional gesture and structural fulfilment. Grasse’s playing is purposeful, expressive and powerfully resonant. So is the Soliloquy, written for Julian Bream, and the later-written Coplas del Ruiseñor, Dream Music, and the imaginative Cancion. KEN WALTON
Rachel Hair Trio: Tri
MARCH HAIR RECORDS
Trì is Gaelic for three and this album from harpist Hair and her two bandmates, Jenn Butterworth on guitar and vocals and Cameron Maxwell on double bass, showcases three stringed instruments expertly balanced with each other, finely contrasting in tone and bursting with melodic energy.
A nice mix of traditional and contemporary material ranges from jazz pianist Tom Gibbs’s quirky Marching Gibbon to the crisp 18th-century strathspey Tobar nan Cean, while sets such as the Tea Towel Polkas and Starry-Eyed Lads sets fairly skip along, the latter concluding with the irresistible spin of an Irish jig, the Rolling Wave.
Butterworth sings her own, catchy Angel, but doesn’t sound totally at ease with Allan Taylor’s lovely Roll on the Day, although it’s well set amid ascending harp and bass. Instrumentally, however, there’s much to enjoy here, not least Hair’s Tune for Esme, commemorating a harpist who died tragically young, which, rather than being a lament emerges as an eloquent and positively ongoing melody. JIM GILCHRIST
Paul Motian: Standards Plus One
WINTER & WINTER
The late Paul Motian was much more than a revered New York drummer; he was a catalyst for superbly creative bands, not least in this compilation from his On Broadway series. For these reinterpretations of familiar numbers by the likes of Gershwin, Kern and Porter, he recruited guitarist Bill Frisell, double-bassist Charlie Haden and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, with Lee Konitz contributing alto and soprano sax on two tracks.
The result is tonally sumptuous, Lovano unhurriedly stating the melodies, Frisell’s electric guitar chiming and sighing sympathetically, and Motian constantly responsive, driving things or providing a shifting background curtain. Plaintive themes such as Someone to Watch over Me are stated with fond languor, while Konitz adds laconic delivery to a breezy Just One of Those things.
The “Plus One” of the title is the drummer’s own It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago, with lapping waves of sax and guitar, and Motian, as ever, tapping, brushing, beating at the very heart of things. JG