Paul McCartney isn’t afraid to experiment on his railway-themed concept album, but the results are more tank engine than TGV writes Fiona Shepherd
Paul McCartney: Egypt Station (Capitol) **
Richard Thompson: 13 Rivers (Proper Records) ****
Orbital: Monsters Exist (ACP) ***
Rock royalty that he is, Paul McCartney could quite happily wave from his balcony every so often to the content of the faithful but his collaborations with a younger generation of artists, from Dave Grohl to Kanye West, while not spectacular pieces of work, at least speak to a curious, enthusiastic mind.
String together a collection of similarly OK material and you end up with the underwhelming Egypt Station, which McCartney has suggested is a concept album with every song as a station – yet no particular destination in evidence.
The choice of pop producer du jour Greg Kurstin is commendable but conservative, resulting in tracks such as Come On To Me, which sounds like slick Beatles imitators from ELO to Tears for Fears, and the sleek ballad I Don’t Know suffused with McCartney’s signature blend of melancholy and cosy comfort.
He makes one break for the 21st century in the company of guest producer Ryan Tedder. Fuh You is his bid for a hit record and, while it’s good to know that McCartney still has his eye on the charts, it does just sound like Macca singing over a duff modern pop production.
He is better served by the simplicity of Happy With You, an acoustic confessional about putting his post-Beatles drinking days behind him, and People Want Peace, with its suggestion of domestic and inner tranquillity as much as global peace.
In terms of personal paeans, the frank fragility of Hand in Hand is preferable to the psych funk flavoured Caesar Rock, which is more interesting sonically but less charming as a song and, while
it is no Band on the Run, the multi-part Despite Repeated Warnings makes for a jaunty call to arms, with coy references to “the will of the people”.
Richard Thompson, meanwhile, considers every song on his new album to be a river and, sure enough, there is a connected flow to 13 Rivers, which seamlessly marries his two great skills of penetrating songwriting and guitar heroics. There is an evergreen economy and potency to his playing, adding just the right amount of torrid drama to Her Love Was Meant For Me without overegging the sentiments.
Thompson wears his anger more lightly than, say, Elvis Costello and comes over like a less intense Nick Cave on The Storm Won’t Come with his baritone invocation for some cleansing chaos before unleashing his own brooding six-string storm.
The Rattle Within is stripped back but strident in its use of percussion, while the acid blues pagan incantation of Bones of Gilead is catchy and sprightly given its portentous lyrics. Thompson then mellows out in the closing stages with My Rock, My Rope, a measured ballad of thanksgiving, and No Matter, an easygoing ode to unshakeable faith.
The much loved and respected electronic duo Orbital respond to the current climate with a similar degree of subtle authority. Following a short-lived split, their first album in six years begins not with a banger but the moody synth soundscape of the title track before the party starts with playful arpeggios, vocoder vocals and bursts of synthesized brass on Hoo Hoo Ha Ha.
This knowingly cheesy tune is part of their response to world affairs, a retreat into the alternative rave/squat culture from which the Hartnoll brothers first emerged in a previous time of repression.
The rest of Monsters Exist oscillates between the cheekier tunes and elegant filmic soundscapes, P.H.U.K. offering a combination of the two, with perky bleeps and meditative expanse before ex-D:Ream keyboardist Prof Brian Cox pops up as groovy guest star on There Will Come a Time, a cosmic tale of death and rebirth.
Goodall: Invictus– A Passion (CORO) **
Howard Goodall has written many beautiful and effective pieces, conceived in a style that is unashamedly conservative, lyrical and inspired by purpose. Invictus – A Passion, performed here by Christ Church Cathedral Choir (Oxford), soloists from The Sixteen and The Lanyer Ensemble, is not one of them.
It’s a version of the Easter Passion told from a female perspective, with texts by, among others, 17th century writer Æmelia Lanyer née Bassano and Christina Rossetti. There is a lingeringly static feel, arising partly from looped-style melodies that service the workmanlike texts but seldom get anywhere, and partly from instrumental writing constrained by clichéd structuring. Ultimately it comes somewhere between routine music theatre and populist ecclesiastical. There are specific movements that have a distinctive charm, such as the sweetly sung Song of Mary Magdalene. But as a whole it is sadly humdrum.
Niteworks: An Fàir an Là (Comann Music) ***
The second album from Highland prog-folk band Niteworks further develops their fusion of electronic beats and pulses to Gaelic music, to which purpose they’ve enlisted techno producer Alex Menzies.
The subsequent grooves and moody soundscapes are enjoyable, but there is the inescapable feeling that we’ve heard it all before, notably in the pioneering recordings of Martyn Bennett and Paul Mounsey, and it can get a bit metronomic. Following the purposefully driven fiddle and pipe reel that opens the album, Gaelic trio Sian lead the waulking song title track (it means “dawn of day”), while Ian Morrison provides leads vocal on Like Wolves in the Night. There is fine singing from Julie Fowlis and Ellen MacDonald, while the much sampled Bard of Skye, Calum “Ruadh” Nicolson, declaims over a gathering storm of hypnotic electronica. A standout is Cumhachd, with the earthy singing of Allan MacDonald of Glenuig echoing chattering piobaireachd variations.