James Morrison and David Gray both try to steer (a little) away from the middle of the road without risking their mainstream appeal
James Morrison: You’re Stronger Than You Know (Stanley Park Records) ***
David Gray: Gold in a Brass Age (IHT Records/AWAL Recordings) **
Sigrid: Sucker Punch (Island) ***
Flight of the Conchords: Live in London (Sub Pop) ****
As James Morrison and David Gray are only too aware, there is little that riles up avid music fans as much as middle of the road mediocrity, perceived or otherwise. In rock and pop, offence is often taken at the inoffensive. But both these mild-mannered, unit-shifting singers aim to move the goalposts a touch with their latest albums.
As far as Morrison is concerned, there is no denying the raw material. He boasts a great, raspy, soulful tone but is often filed closer to namesake James Blunt than to his peer Paolo Nutini. Where Blunt has used his wicked sense of humour to laugh at himself and his reputation, Morrison is looking to change perceptions by delving further into his old school soul and R&B influences.
You’re Stronger Than You Know makes pleasant weather of Morrison’s domestic concerns with a series of musical missives to and about his partner and family. Joss Stone reinforces the message on the sturdy soul pop of My Love Goes On, while Gary Barlow, a master of the broad, bland statement, has co-written the old-fashioned So Beautiful. The manicured soul of Feels Like the First Time is pre-distressed product sold as vintage, while the Stevie Wonder-ful jazz soul of Cross The Line are needed to brighten up a sluggish tune.
Morrison is stronger on the slow jam rhythm’n’blues of Power, from where the album takes its title. He musters some Joe Cocker grit on Slowly and whips up a testifying storm in a teacup on the gospel-influenced I Still Need You.
There is an easy listening familiarity to such retro soul fare but if Morrison really wants to make his mark as a great British soul singer (and he has said he does) then defaulting to the safety of the past is not the way to go.
David Gray deserves some credit for attempting to change the musical script on Gold in a Brass Age though his efforts – building his songs around rhythmic phrases rather than his erstwhile traditional storytelling approach – sound more cosmetic than transformative.
For all the butterfly imagery in the artwork, the music is essentially familiar Gray matter against a more electronic backdrop. The title track places Gray in retooled troubadour territory with his laid-back-to-the-point-of-horizontal John Martyn-like vocal intonation complemented by a delicate electro-acoustic tapestry of sound. A similarly pretty sound collage adds superficial interest to the mid-paced A Tight Ship and the chiming layers of New Age guitars on Hall of Mirrors is as exotic as it gets.
Norwegian pop star Sigrid exudes a disarming this-is-me confidence on her debut album, which she delivers with as much personality as the generic synth pop allows. There is a simplicity and directness to her image and her music, never allowing a fussy arrangement to get in the way of the melodic hook, and living in the moment rather than overstating eternal love on Mine Right Now. When she does push further, on overwrought ballad In Vain, she is less convincing.
New Zealand’s premier musical parody duo Flight of the Conchords began their British charm offensive 15 years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe; now they are selling out arenas with their silly, witty and always affectionate send-ups of various artists and genres, from lounge jazz odyssey Shady Rachel to the smoochy funk of The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room). Live In London gathers old favourites, such as their brazen Pet Shop Boys pastiche Inner City Pressure, and new ditties like Father and Son, a bleeding heart ballad about the ravages (and advantages) of family breakdown. - Fiona Shepherd
Sensations of Travel: Chamber Music by Nigel Osborne (Delphian) *****
Nigel Osborne has seen life in the raw. During his professorship at Edinburgh University in the 1990s, he was invariably to be found in more troubled parts of the world, namely Sarajevo and Mostar, developing music therapy programmes for children. Out of such experiences came his characteristically alluring music: harrowing yet hopeful, sincerely heartfelt and uniquely voiced. The Piano Tuner – preludes and fugues for piano trio extracted from his opera of the same title – symbolises the grounded eccentric in Osborne. In these and other works performed by the Hebrides Ensemble, the poignancy of Osborne’s music is coloured variously by mournful exuberance (Balkan Dances and Laments), emotional extremes (Espionage) and sultriness (Adagio), the latter hauntingly played by cellist William Conway and originally written for the “cellist of Sarajevo,” Vedran Smailović. - Ken Walton
Yonathan Avishai: Joys and Solitudes (ECM Records) ****
Israeli-French pianist Yonathan Avishai’s first ECM release under his own name sees him in the low-key company of Donald Kontomanou on drums and double-bassist Yoni Zelnik. Avishai’s economical but eloquent approach is evident as he eases over a tapping cymbal into the classic Ellingtonia of Mood Indigo. The other tracks are his own compositions, with Kontomanou and Zelnik gently ushering the pianist’s trills and staccato chordings through the warm Song for Anny, while he keys a delicately suspenseful prelude to Tango before sliding into the familiar rhythm. Lya sways and flounces charmingly around rhythms somewhere between Latin, West African and baroque, Les Pianos de Brazzaville is once again an engrossing Afro-Latino foray, while the longest track, the 12-minute When Things Fall Apart, is a gently reflective, blues-infused peregrination. - Jim Gilchrist