Album reviews: Mercury Rev | The Lemonheads | Busted | Gothenburg Symphony | Graham Costello’s STRATA

Mercury Rev
Mercury Rev
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Mercury Rev and a wonderful cast of female singers beautifully reinterpret a Bobbie Gentry classic

Mercury Rev: Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited (Bella Union) ****

The Lemonheads: Varshons II (Fire) ***

Busted: Half Way There (East West) **

The art of the cover version is as old as song itself but it takes a particular passion and tenacity to cover an entire album. Unsurprisingly, the reliably loopy Flaming Lips have tackled Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, while Laibach have done a number on The Beatles’ Let It Be, and there have been numerous renditions of Abbey Road, including Booker T & the MGs’ instrumental McLemore Avenue.

So far, so classic. But what of the neglected gems? Green on Red frontman Chuck Prophet paid tribute to Waylon Jennings’ cult country collection Dreaming My Dreams a few years ago and now Mercury Rev have taken the inspired step of inviting an all-female line-up of singers to help them pay homage to Bobbie Gentry’s 1968 country rock opera The Delta Sweete.

Following the runaway success of her southern gothic chart-topper Ode to Billie Joe, this suite of vignettes inspired by Gentry’s Mississippi upbringing was all but ignored, but its elegant use of strings and horns was an influence on Mercury Rev’s own classic chamber piece Deserter’s Songs and they it handle with care, compassion and curatorial skill, kicking off with the soothing tones of Norah Jones followed by the sultry sound of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, who delivers a pouty takedown on Big Boss Man.

There are heady, acid country versions of Reunion, fronted by Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, and Mose Allison’s Parchman Farm sung seductively by the actress Carice Van Houten, while former Stereolab frontwoman Laetitia Sadier – not the first voice you might associate with country covers – mines a cool soul from Mornin’ Glory.

Tobacco Road is reimagined with operatic grace by the superb Susanne Sundfor; in contrast, Vashti Bunyan wisps through Penduli Pendulum, while upcoming Americana singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers lends her soft, folky strains to the wistful Jessye Lisabeth.

Margo Price has old school country grit to spare and she lets loose over an understated string backing on Sermon, a track Gentry built around the gospel standard Run On, before the grittiest of them all – the redoubtable Lucinda Williams – applies her supreme storytelling skills to the tragic, enigmatic Ode to Billie Joe.

It’s a beautiful homage to an overlooked album by a captivating band, who allow themselves the justifiable indulgence of signing off with a twinkling reference to their own symphonic masterpiece, The Dark is Rising.

Still on the covers trail, The Lemonheads’ Evan Dando pays more straightforward but equally heartfelt tribute to a selection of his favourite songs with a second helping of spontaneous Varshons, from the bittersweet roots pop of The Jayhawks’ Settled Down Like Rain to the garage guitar histrionics of The Bevis Frond’s Old Man Blank. John Prine’s heartfelt country confessional Speed of the Sound of Loneliness and Nick Cave’s Straight to You are scuffed up with distorted guitar but otherwise faithfully honoured and there’s a dub pop excursion to Unfamiliar by The GiveGoods, of which Dando is a sometime member.

Sadly, the same songwriting standards do not apply to Busted’s fourth album. Following Night Driver, their comeback foray into electronica, the teenybop Green Day return to their punk pop safety zone. Where once they went to the year 3000, now they look back nostalgically to the Nineties with tasteful bursts of punked-up guitar and fond reminiscences of those heady pre-internet days of “good songs on the radio, rocking out to Smashing Pumpkins” before circling the same themes on Radio and autobiographical ballad It Happens, to diminishing returns. - Fiona Shepherd

CLASSICAL

Sibelius: Symphony No 1 & En Saga (Alpha 440) ****

Does the recording world need another Sibelius symphony cycle? The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and its new Finnish musical director Santtu-Matias Rouvali believe so, and successive recordings certainly continue to prove that this music has endless potential.

On the evidence of this initial Gothenburg release – it starts logically with the First Symphony and En Saga – time will tell how valued the series will be. There are wave upon wave of emotional highs, especially the great surges that define the tone poem, which conveys the mood of excitement currently surrounding the 33-year-old Rouvali’s swashbuckling new relationship with the orchestra. But the intensity – and at times the fluidity – are not always fully sustained. Rouvali delivers the symphony in neat proportions, fired often with driving purpose, but it stops short of being truly magical. - Ken Walton

JAZZ

Graham Costello’s STRATA: Obelisk (bpqd Records) *****

As this impressive debut shows, drummer Graham Costello’s sextet of young Scottish jazz-rockers inventively combine a muscular sound with Reichian minimalism generated by the cascading piano of Fergus McCreadie. Harry Weir’s tenor sax, Liam Shortall’s trombone and Joe Williamson’s guitar add their own distinctive voices over Costello’s drum work. That pervading minimalist spin is exemplified by the hypnotic ostinato of 96, with its glittering excursions from McCreadie, the subsequent, similarly circling Jade and the insistent pulsing of Sole, while Weir’s sax rages eloquently in Stoic and Sapphire. The mighty centrepiece is the 14-minute Ocelot, which develops hypnotically from stalking, single note bass and piano, Costello discharging arrhythmic thumps and eerily fluting tenor sax, into a hypnotic ensemble groove with a pugnacious trombone break giving way to howling rock guitar. - Jim Gilchrist