Tim Rice-Oxley shares his pain, Brittany Howard stays soluful and Free Love bring the bleeps
Keane: Cause and Effect (Island) **
Brittany Howard: Jaime (Columbia) ****
Robbie Robertson: Sinematic (UMC) ***
Free Love: Extreme Dance Anthems (Optimo Music) ***
Like their peers Coldplay and The Killers without the charisma, Keane are a band with a broad but shallow easy listening appeal. To date, every one of their four albums has topped the charts. But five years ago, even they tired of their quasi-anthemic piano balladry and took a hiatus which they filled with side projects and solo careers.
Behind the scenes, there were personal travails – frontman Tom Chaplin’s perilous addictions and the breakdown of keyboard player Tim Rice-Oxley’s marriage – which kept the band members at a distance from each other. But as one key relationship broke up, another realigned when the bandmates reconnected over this highly personal yet also blandly general set of songs which Rice-Oxley originally penned for a possible solo album.
Some of the more intimate, confessional material on Cause and Effect arguably should have been held over for a bare bones one-man wallow. Not everything works as a band effort, but at least opening track You’re Not Home attempts to do something different with Rice-Oxley’s heartache, as gently cascading keyboards and elegant ennui form a pretty backdrop for the forlorn contemplation of an empty home.
The pop bombast kicks in in the final minute and the sonic invention ends there as Keane revert to form with the pounding piano and inoffensive mid-paced melody of Love Too Much. They take a blatant leaf out of the Killers’ musical arsenal on comeback single The Way I Feel, which contrasts an upbeat, catchy synth pop sound with markedly downbeat lyrics: “they say that you should move on, but you can’t even get your shoes on”.
The haunted sentiments of the bare ballad Strange Room appear to be addressed to Rice-Oxley’s kids, expressing regret, sorrow, but no wallowing. That comes later on the more indulgent Thread, while the plodding likes of Phases and Chase the Night Away are banal expressions of longing and hopes for reconstruction. Many a middle-aged fan will find this stuff highly relatable but it does not make for scintillating listening.
Alabama Shakes are also on a break right now while their righteous frontwoman Brittany Howard follows her instincts on a solo album which ranges all over the map but is always intrinsically soulful, from the simply stated ache of Georgia and Baby to the playful Al Greenisms of Stay High.
The mellow croon of Short and Sweet sounds like it could have been unearthed from the 1940s, while Tomorrow is a disrupted 21st century soul symphony and 13th Century Metal is her sermon to self, delivered over a buzzing electronic backdrop, before she rounds off by channelling Prince on the sci-fi soul epic Run to Me.
Inspired by his recent soundtrack work on Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman, Robbie Robertson has dubbed his latest album “Peckinpah rock” for its violent themes. I Hear You Paint Houses, a hoary blues duet with Van Morrison, is titled after mob code for ordering a hit, Once Were Brothers muses on the combative relationships in The Band through the prism of the awful ties in collective violence, and there are songs on aggressive conditioning and the triads, as well as his own hard knock history on Dead End Kid.
The music is smooth, stealthy, brooding and quietly malevolent
in places, thanks to Robertson’s low-key semi-spoken delivery, while many of the tracks are coated in a flinty electronic veneer by producer Howie B.
Glasgow-based duo Free Love have helped to make Scottish music a more interesting place in the last few years. Their new EP, Extreme Dance Anthems, is a playful course in bleepology sprinkled with a hint of cosmic fairy dust and laced with a mild dose of acid house. Fiona Shepherd
Downton Abbey: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by John Lunn (Decca) ***
Scots composer John Lunn’s chuntering soundtrack for the Downton Abbey TV series was the perfect match. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I imagine his extended score to be every bit as purposeful. The problem with this newly released original motion picture soundtrack, however, is its isolation from the visuals. All 17 tracks become the sole focus of concentration and, as such, struggle to communicate a life and character of their own. The oscillating engine room music quickly palls. The limited chordal vocabulary and faux-naive melodies become equally wearing. Moments of pastiche – from light-fingered waltzes to rasping 20s jazz – are welcome breaths of fresh air. This has been beautifully orchestrated by a production team as extensive as the Downton staff, but there’s just something very music-minus-one about it all. Ken Walton
Luke Daniels & Exhausted Enemies (Wren Records) ****
Luke Daniels, a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist of restless musical imagination, weaves a beguiling tapestry of borrowings and inspirations from English-language poets (his “friends and enemies”) across seven centuries, singing with a grainy eloquence and persuasive clarity. His core trio with double-bassist Jenny Hill and percussionist Signy Jakobsdottir is augmented by numerous others, with moods ranging from Daniel’s sinuous holler and the ringing of Lyle Watt’s resonator guitar in The Weed the Wood and the Wagg, from a poem by Walter Raleigh, to his lovely Father’s Cradle Song cusped richly by the Arco String Quartet. The dolorous May Morning Dew overeggs the pudding somewhat with strings plus choir, but cittern, oud and cello provide a glittering fretwork for Where We All Must Go, while Soldiers and Sailors references Browning, Masefield and the contemporary Ciaran Carson. Jim Gilchrist