Van Morrison and guests mix covers and fresh material so carefully and lovingly you can barely see the joins
Van Morrison: The Prophet Speaks (Caroline International) ***
Amy Rigby: The Old Guys (Southern Domestic Records) ****
Laibach: The Sound of Music (Mute) ****
Strike the Colours: Flock (Deadlight Records) ****
Sir Van Morrison rounds off a productive year with a fourth album release in 14 months to follow Roll With The Punches, Versatile and You’re Driving Me Crazy. The Prophet Speaks likewise celebrates Morrison’s musical roots in jazz and rhythm’n’blues with a number of cap-doffing covers alongside six new Van tracks.
The tasty Hammond organ of guest Joey DeFrancesco features throughout, including in conversation with his own trumpet parts and Dan Stuart’s dexterous jazz guitar on a light and peppy medley of JD Harris’s Worried Blues/Rollin’ and Tumblin’. It can be hard to spot the joins between the covers and the Morrison originals, but Got to Go Where the Love Is has that light, freewheeling spirit often found in his music, and there are further goodies in the shape of the strutting 5am Greenwich Mean Time – complete with a joyous outburst of Van scat – and the gentle Celtic soul saunter of Spirit Will Provide.
The languorous Latin jazz of the title track is positively luxurious, with space carved out for bluesy harmonica and soulful trumpet solos, concluding an album series which has honoured Morrison’s roots with integrity and a fresh energy.
Amy Rigby also pays homage on her first solo album in 12 years, produced with a light touch by her partner, Wreckless Eric. She confronts her ambivalent relationship with her hometown on Playing Pittsburgh, celebrates her musical inspirations on a jangling rootsy rocker title track which is part Byrds, part Velvet Underground, and blends girl group melody with acoustic rock’n’roll attitude on her grungey 90s tribute Are We Still There Yet? with a dry wit and a timeless tunefulness.
Slovenian renegades Laibach have made a career out of retooling tradition and subverting nationalism. They’ve already put their Teutonic rock spin on an album of national anthems called Volk, now they’ve come for the cherished musical theatre tunes of The Sound Of Music, which was deemed appropriate performance material by the North Korean authorities when Laibach became the first western rock band to play Pyongyang in 2015.
There are many layers of irony in this most bizarre meeting of cultures – Wham! in China this ain’t. The sincere screwing kicks off with Boris Benko’s dreamy torch vocals on a slow jam version of the title song. But don’t get too comfortable, as the subsonic rumble of frontman Milan Fras is just over that hill, ready for his panoramic panning shot.
The hitherto epic Climb Ev’ry Mountain is given a sultry electro pop treatment and Do Re Mi is rendered as a sad-eyed, sonorous piano ballad, until Fras weighs in again with his leather boots on. But this is a blithe run around Salzburg next to his creepy crooner take on Edelweiss.
They break out the children’s choir for a haunted waltz version of Favourite Things, while Sixteen Going On Seventeen is predictably the stuff of nightmares. But in a disturbed world, the real conundrum, as identified by the band, is “how do you solve a problem like Korea?”
Cleanse the palette with the new album from Strike the Colours, a Glasgow-based four-piece led by singer/multi-instrumentalist Jenny Reeve, who is the go-to violinist for Arab Strap and one half of Bdy_Prts with Jill O’Sullivan.
Reeve’s sweet voice is complemented by guest turns from Admiral Fallow frontman Louis Abbott and Emma Pollock, who adds to the dramatic maelstrom of Branches. The shifting time signatures and heady whirl of Final Eyes contrasts with the more direct muscularity of Beginning Middle End and Reeve delivers her most evocative vocal performance against the suitably soaring string arrangement of In Fifths. - Fiona Shepherd
Siobhan Miller: Mercury (Songprint Recordings) ****
Steeped in tradition yet embracing the contemporary with equal panache, Siobhan Miller’s third album demonstrates her ability as a songsmith with an ear for an eminently catchy melody as well as an elegant lyric. Her voice combines seemingly effortless lightness with poise, captivatingly maintained amid a squad including bassist, producer (and occasional co-writer) Euan Burton, guitarist Innes White, Admiral Fallow drummer Louis Abbot, John Lowrie on keyboards and others. They deftly embrace folk and pop elements, ranging from reverberating electric guitars to the string drift of Losing.
The flowing tide of Western Edge and hanging eloquence of The Growing Dawn are inspired by the poetry of Kenneth Steven and James Robertson respectively. A real standout is the glorious build-up of Sorrow When the Day Is Done, with its rolling blues piano, horns and jubilant mass chorus. - Jim Gilchrist
Chopin: Nocturnes (Linn) ****
Ingrid Fliter’s fondness for Chopin is implicit in the highly personalised poeticism of her recordings to date, and in this intriguing survey of the Nocturnes – ordered in such a way as to create an organic sequence in which key relations and mood swings hold you in thrall to the end – the Argentine-born pianist applies the same affectionate originality that marks her out as an inspired performer.
There is finesse and a natural flexibility that allows every phrase to sing, but there is also a thankful lack of superficiality. Fliter applies robust tone quality in every quarter, which could so easily tip the balance towards heavy-handedness, but which actually imbues every single moment with shapeliness and self-belief.
More than anything, though, these are a series of performances governed by an eager sense of wondrous exploration. There is both fresh naivety and mature authority.