Underworld’s trademark rhythms run through their Drift Series, while Jeff Goldblum’s jazz project thrives on collaborations
Underworld: Drift Series 1 (Caroline International) ****
Jeff Lynne’s ELO: From Out of Nowhere (Columbia) **
Jeff Goldblum: I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This (Decca Records) ****
The Vegan Leather: Poor Girls/Broken Boys (Believe Digital) ***
There’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind. Last November, esteemed electronica duo Underworld, seeking new ways of working, set off without a musical compass on a mission to produce. Every Thursday they would publish a progress report, generally in the form of a new piece of music. Net result: 38 new Underworld tracks in the space of a year, including collaborations with freewheeling experimental outfits such as Australian avant-jazz outfit The Necks and veteran Japanese psych noisemongers Melt Banana.
They called the project Drift, but their end-of-year report, Drift Series 1, is anything but aimless, comprising seven CDs plus an 80-page book and a Blu-Ray disc of complementary films created with Simon Taylor. This massive show-and-tell has also been boiled down to a more manageable one-hour sampler edition, which suggests that while their working methods may have altered, their signature sound – undulating rhythms which get under the skin overlaid with elegant melodic patterns and Karl Hyde’s mesmeric vocals – doesn’t require refreshing.
The sampler journeys seamlessly from Appleshine’s soothing yet tantalising pulse with Hyde’s mournful voice reverberating low in the mix via the Moroder-influenced disco touch of This Must Be Drum Street and ecstatic ambient trance track Listen to Their No to one of the newer compositions, STAR, a hypnotic “I spy” rollcall of heroes including Davids Beckham and Bowie, Mary Shelley and Joe Strummer.
There is also a hint of subversion in Custard Speedtalk which, despite its playful abstract title, gentle modulating soundtrack and Hyde’s beatific lullaby delivery, is a sharp indictment of the times: “You don’t realise what a mess you’re in.” Let’s see what they make of 2020 as Drift is set to run for another year.
Like Underworld, Jeff Lynne has a successful sound and he’s sticking with it on his latest outing as Jeff Lynne’s ELO. While he leads an elaborate touring outfit, all the better to render his sophisticated orchestral pop arrangements, the studio incarnation is effectively a one-man band, with veteran ELO pianist Richard Tandy the only other player on From Out of Nowhere. Even then, he is confined to a piano solo on pub rock’n’roller One More Time.
There is further musical nostalgia on Goin’ Out On Me, a heavy-handed tribute to bubblegum 50s balladry, the doo-wop vocal harmonies of Down Came the Rain and the McCartney pastiche Songbird. But while Lynne’s melodies still soar to the stratosphere, they are repeatedly dragged back down to earth by overly prominent plodding drum tracks.
Like his fellow thespian ivory tinkler Hugh Laurie, Jeff Goldblum has struck up a successful sideline as a bandleader. Where Laurie mines the blues, Goldblum’s great love is jazz. His tastes are classic, but he’s no purist, adding some electric piano to Let’s Face the Music and Dance, and indulging in musical mash-ups with his array of guest vocalists, including indie divas Sharon Van Etten, Anna Calvi and Fiona Apple, all of whom bring an effortless seductive edge to their renditions.
Miley Cyrus continues to demonstrate her intuitive vocal chops on The Thrill Is Gone, Gregory Porter adds his usual soulful richness to Make Someone Happy and Goldblum himself sing-talks his way through jazz lullaby Little Man, You’ve Had A Busy Day.
Paisley four-piece The Vegan Leather flaunt unapologetic pop credentials fuelled with character, confidence and cavalier glam swagger on debut album Poor Girls/Broken Boys. While the music is infectious and upbeat, fuelled by the vocal interplay of Gianluca Bernacchi and Marie Collins, their subject matter is ambivalent, bemoaning the predictable grind on Days Go By, wrangling with an existential crisis on the funky Flakey and electing to party on because we might all be dead tomorrow. Fiona Shepherd
Advent Carols from King’s College London (Delphian) ****
Delphian’s recording connection with the Choir of King’s College London continues with a sequence of Advent carols and antiphons, ranging in musical style from the medieval experimentation of Hildegard of Bingen, via the Renaissance gold of Palestrina, de Lassus, and Byrd, to seasonal settings by such contemporary figures as Philip Moore, Cecilia McDowall and George Benjamin. It’s all held together by the Advent thread, and punctuated by brief plainsong antiphons. Under director Joseph Fort, the King’s choir projects the freshness of youth, an unaffected homogeneity colouring the performances with raw purity and occasionally fragility. That’s ideal for the organic simplicity of Moore’s Sancte et sapienter, the harmonic warmth of Joel Rust’s O Radix Jesse and McDowell’s Advent Moon, the narrative flow of Benjamin’s Twas on the Night, and the mystical awe of Kerensa Brigg’s Magnificat. Ken Walton
Gwen Màiri: Mentro (Erwydd) ****
“Mentro” means “to venture” and harpist Gwen Màiri, brought up in a Welsh-speaking family in Scotland, makes a persuasive sally with this debut album under her own name, a delicately spun collection of Welsh music. Jordan Price Williams’s cello adds an important instrumental voice to Màiri’s bright, articulate harping and singing – in the gentle melancholy of Tawelwch, “Quietness”, for instance, ushering a traditional set along at a fair skip, or generating an increasingly animated accompaniment, alongside Gwilym Bowen Rhys’s guitar work, to Yr Wylan Gefnddu, “The Black-Backed Gull”, which takes elegant flight. There’s an exhilaratingly flowing current to all three instruments in the Teifi set. Songs, meanwhile, include a spare chiming behind Màiri’s singing of Hwyr, its words by the 20th-century poet JS Jones, while in Y Deryn Pur her voice hangs over crystalline strings before cello and mandolin whip up a dramatic coda. Jim Gilchrist