Album reviews: Karine Polwart | Richard Ashcroft | John Grant | John Carpenter

Karine Polwart
Karine Polwart
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Karine Polwart meditates on migration to moving effect, while John Grant makes a love album with a difference

Karine Polwart: Laws of Motion (Hudson Records) ****

Richard Ashcroft: Natural Rebel (RPA) **

John Grant: Love Is Magic (Bella Union) ****

John Carpenter: Hallowe’en OST (Sacred Bones) ***

Karine Polwart didn’t set out to write a themed album but having hit a resonant seam of vivid storytelling with her sell-out show Wind Resistance and its accompanying Scottish Album of the Year Award-nominated album, why not mine it further?

Laws Of Motion, recorded with her regular collaborators, brother Steven on guitar and Inge Thomson on accordion and vocals, is another cohesive collection of elegant meditations on migration shot through with the imagery of flight and suffused with the evocative musical spirit of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, both the subject of tribute concerts to which Polwart has contributed masterfully.

The former’s idiosyncratic turn of melody informs the hymnal title track which beseeches “who doesn’t want another chance?” while the latter’s Breathing is a model for the paradoxically calm nuclear panic of Cassiopeia, inspired by Polwart’s upbringing in the shadow of Grangemouth refinery.

Along the way, there is a lyrical tribute to the Kindertransport rescue mission of the 1930s and a more particular tale of migration, Matsuo’s Welcome to Muckhart, about a gardener who sailed to Scotland having lost everything in the Japanese earthquake of 1923. And most pertinently, I Burn But I Am Not Consumed is Polwart’s thoughtful spoken word response to Donald Trump’s Lewis lineage which, like the rest of the album, is a serene but firm riposte to his authoritarian line on immigration.

Natural Rebel is a rich title for the latest same-old album by former Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft, who reverts to predictable pedestrian plodding on A Man In Motion and continues his banal perambulations with Streets of Amsterdam (“stopped for a coffee, it was stone cold, never mind, we could just let it roll”).

Ashcroft sounds only mildly pleased on Surprised By Joy but at least there is pedal steel guitar in there among the customary weeping strings and mid-paced strumming on Birds Fly and Money Money looks lively with its blend of symphonic rock and grizzly garage rock.

Bad news for fans of John Grant’s MOR piano ballads, as he goes full electronica on his fourth solo album. But good news in that he retains his customary contrast between romantic melodies and acerbic sentiment. Love Is Magic is a love album from a different angle – no trite soppy clichés here across its ten leisurely and pleasingly indulgent tracks, from the quirky electro prog of Metamorphosis via the spacey funk of Preppy Boy to the dusky synth melancholia of Tempest.

Part Scott Walker, part Dorothy Parker, Grant intones at a warning purr throughout the moody takedown of Smug C*** and delivers a Devoesque sarky spoken word ode to a hapless ex on Diet Gum. But he drops the snark for the elegant ballad Is He Strange?, the Sakamoto-inspired soundscape of The Common Swipe and Touch and Go, a tender tribute to whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

Having composed the quintessential horror film soundtrack with the creepy lo-fi synthesizer score to his own seminal slasher flick Halloween, John Carpenter returns with a more hi-fi iteration for the latest David Gordon Green-directed instalment of the franchise.

The iconic, inexorable, needling refrain, underscored with ominous chords, hasn’t lost its power to spook and is revisited several times, including as a tentative piano rendition on The Bogeyman. The foreboding drones and brief stings of the rest of the score are sure to do the job in the context of the film but only mark time until the epic closing Halloween Triumphant with added synth shudders and stabs of searing rock guitar. - Fiona Shepherd


Destination Rachmaninov: Departure: Piano Concertos 2 & 4 (Deutsche Grammophon) *****

The extraordinary pianist Daniil Trifonov and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, with his Philadelphia Orchestra, have been engaged in a fascinating artistic partnership for some time now, centring on the music of Rachmaninov. The release of the first instalment in their survey of the four piano concertos is a seminal moment. It features the much-vaunted Second Concerto alongside the much-undervalued Fourth, with a trio of the composer’s solo Bach transcriptions serving as a refreshing interlude. There is both tautness of vision and flexibility of expression from Trifanov and Nézet-Séguin’s Philadelphia players respond with extreme warmth. Trifanov makes a strong case, too, for the Fourth, its rhythmic complexities moulded with intelligence and panache. The Bach transcriptions – movements from the E major Violin Partita – are arrestingly robust, yet blessed with stylistic crispness. - Ken Walton


Brian Ó hEadhra & Fiona Mackenzie: Tìr (Anam Communications) ****

Veterans of numerous groups, Highland husband and wife singer-songwriters Brian Ó hEadhra and Fiona Mackenzie make an impressive recorded debut as a duo, their support including guitarist Innes White, Keith Morrison on keyboards and multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Mike Vass providing some expansive electronic effects. Subject matter ranges intriguingly from traditional prayers and hymns from Carmina Gadelica, through traditional work songs to fresh compositions about current concerns, from the hutting movement to biological warfare. Their contrasting vocal timbres – Ó hEadhra’s warm-toned and Mackenzie’s delicately plaintive – complement each other, not least in the Cha Bhi Mi Buan or in the plangent harmonies of the traditional Iomraibh Eutrom. Mackenzie’s magisterial intonation of Deus Auribus, a Gaelic adaptation from the Latin of Psalm 44, is a showstopper. - Jim Gilchrist