Escapism is on the loose again as Friendly Fires return to the fray with a cheery party soundtrack
Friendly Fires: Inflorescent (Polydor) ****
Babybird: Photosynthesis (RW/FF Recordings) ****
Ride: This Is Not A Safe Place (Wichita Recordings) ***
Ikebe Shakedown: Kings Left Behind (Colemine Records) ****
Upcoming indie favourites Friendly Fires did a disappearing act following the release of their second album, Pala, in 2011, unsure of whether they needed a change or a rest. Thankfully they have returned, like tanned pals from a gap year, firstly with sleek comeback track Love Like Waves and now with the svelte funk pop celebration of Inflorescent.
Friendly Fires have always been an escapist party band, capturing the insouciance of a summer break on their biggest hit Jump in the Pool. If anything, they have become more carefree with age, unapologetically referencing Britfunk bands of the early 80s.
There was a time when a Shakatak comparison could get you run out of town for crimes against good taste but Friendly Fires embrace their Benidorm fiesta feel on Silhouettes and practically pour the pina coladas to accompany the synth salsa shakedown of Kiss and Rewind. The Club Tropicana vibes also abound on Heaven Let Me In with Ed Macfarlane’s vocals akin to George Michael in his breathier moments.
Overall though, Inflorescent is a more subtle infusion of influences. Disco, house and carnival spirit collide on Can’t Wait Forever, and there is intoxicating production throughout from James Ford and Disclosure – no dancefloor slouches themselves.
Sheffield songwriter Stephen Jones, better known as Babybird, may also have fallen off the commercial radar for quite some time but there has been no musical hiatus since his run of hits in the late 90s. Instead, he has returned to his DIY roots, recording and releasing scores of albums under different monikers through his Bandcamp page. It is from these many and varied recordings that he has compiled this cohesive, moody album for vinyl release.
Photosynthesis encompasses the indie blues style of Beck and Eels on October, the more expansive angst of Beach Grave, the trippy gospel reverie of Black Friday Jesus Tuesday and stealthy semi-rap Cave In, while it remains a pleasure to indulge Jones’s familiar, wounded soul on No Cameras and the musically laidback but lyrically angry Perfect Suburbian Clone, which urges its target to “get on that ideological train and don’t come back.”
Oxford foursome Ride are already comeback kings, having reformed in 2014 when guitarist/songwriter Andy Bell was divested of his Oasis/Beady Eye responsibilities to find that demand for their shoegaze indie rock was still there.
Unlike some of their more ethereal peers, it was always possible to locate a song under their gauzy swathe of effects. This Is Not A Safe Place keeps to that lane, alternating dutifully between fey but fleet melodic indie songs such as the comely Clouds of Saint Marie and blissed-out ballad Eternal Recurrence and the more industrial thrust of Repetition and stomping urgency of Kill Switch.
There is a comfort blanket familiarity at work but the distorted guitars and blankly dreamy vocals of R.I.D.E. pack some rock heft, while it is easy to get lost in the chiming reverie of End Game and the grand sweep of epic closer In This Room.
Ikebe Shakedown are an instrumental septet from Brooklyn, who bring their experience as members of the Daptone label’s skilled pool of session players to bear on the sultry summer soundtrack of Kings Left Behind. The mellow soul of the title track evokes the spirit of the R&B artists they have backed, from Lee Fields to the late Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, while elsewhere they showcase their collective credentials with the snake-hipped Afro jazz inflections of Not Another Drop, Hammond organ-led jazz funk grooves of Unqualified and surf rock twang of Hammer Into Anvil. Fiona Shepherd
Felix & Fanny Mendelssohn: Works for Cello and Piano (Pentatone) *****
Mendelssohn’s Sonata No 2 for cello and piano brings an instant smile to the face, a glow to the cheeks, and an irrepressible wish to get out there and soak up the fresh summer air. Especially when it’s played with all the lustre and élan that cellist Johannes Moser and pianist Alasdair Beatson muster in this disc of cello and piano works by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.
This sonata and the just as sunny First Sonata are compellingly delivered, uniquely characterised
by the delicate virtuosity Beatson elicits from the 1837 Erard grand piano.
Other delights include Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny’s Chopinesque Fantasia in G minor and Mendelssohn’s own, charm-filled Variations concertante. The latter’s Albumblatt in B minor, with its strangely ambiguous final cadence, leaves you not only transfixed but longing for more. Ken Walton
The Clutha: Live from Harvard (Own label) ****
No sooner do Dick Gaughan’s rediscovered Harvard Tapes appear, than another notable Scottish performance from the same period and Massachusetts setting re-emerges. Caught in exuberant form at Harvard University in 1981, the Clutha were a highly influential band, among the first Scottish groups to include a fiddler, then a piper. This release is given particular poignancy by the passing earlier this year of singer Gordeanna McCullough (founder-member Jack Eaglesham died in April 2014, Ronnie Alexander in 2017). This recording sees them as a quintet, including Callum Allan and Erlend Voy on fiddles and Tom Johnstone on Highland and small pipes. There are strong, often boisterous performances from all three vocalists on songs such as Binorie and the come-all-ye of Tramps and Hawkers, while McCulloch is at his commanding best in Peer Rovin’ Lassie and the magisterial balladry of The Cruel Mither. Jim Gilchrist