C Duncan: Health (Fat Cat) ****Suzi Quatro: No Control (Steamhammer/SPV) ***
Alex Rex: Otterburn (Tin Angel Records) ****
Citizen Bravo: Build a Thing of Beauty (Chemikal Underground) ***
To date, all that C Duncan has needed to create two of the most distinctive albums to grace Scottish pop in the last decade has been a laptop, some speakers and his own formidable vocal, instrumental and compositional skills. But for his third album, he’s stepped out of his bedroom to record in a proper studio with other musicians, including his parents (both trained classical players), and a producer, Elbow’s Craig Potter, to bounce ideas off.
The change of approach has reaped some dividends – it’s hard to imagine the sleek, sprightly electro pop of Talk Talk Talk finding a home on his previous releases. The glorious commercial pop of Impossible is an even bolder leap, his most mainstream moment, recalling Boney M of all groups in the disco strings and synth arrangement.
These slick radio tunes alternate with the dreamy chamber pop with which Duncan has made his name. Wrong Side of the Door is as rapturous as anything he has released to date, turning a potentially desolate image into an ode to moving on. Likewise, the ravishing romance of He Came From the Sun, in which Duncan’s exquisite breathy croon, glistening guitar work and the blissful swell of choral backing combine ecstatically.
The gentle, sun-kissed grooves of Holiday Home and Blasé and the easy listening hippy stylings of Stuck Here With You are equally beautifully crafted, but while it is easy to get lost in the soothing soundscapes, Health is an album which explores heartbreak and emotional health, of which the closing hymnal Care supplies a stark reminder.
Despite a lifetime of righteously rocking out in her trademark leathers, Suzi Quatro’s career is often boiled down to her glam rock success of the early-to-mid-1970s. Brilliant though those records were, she should not be boxed in. Working on her latest album with her son Richard Tuckey, she is as committed as ever to the heat-seeking momentum of No Soul/No Control, bluesy workout Going Home and suitably hoary Macho Man.
But it’s not all foot-on-the-monitor stuff. Bass Line is a slinky ode to the insidious properties of Quatro’s instrument of choice, Love Isn’t Fair references 60s pop with a calypso touch and the bubblegum roots rock of Heavy Duty and 70s power pop of I Can Teach You to Fly are infectious throwbacks from a woman determined to die with her motorcycle boots on.
Alex Rex is the solo incarnation of Trembling Bells bandleader Alex Neilson but the presence of his bandmates Lavinia Blackwell and Mike Hastings provides some social support on an album informed by the sudden death of his younger brother Alastair in 2017.
Everyone grieves in different ways and Neilson is such a singular musician that his musical response is not some reverential requiem but a fecund folk frolic. The title track is a tribute to his brother’s boat and the meditative pleasures of messing about on the river. Elsewhere, there are country rock inflections, such as the lachrymose pedal steel on Lay Down In Ashes, and some unexpected priapic rock’n’roll on Amy, May I? featuring guest guitarist Stevie Jackson of Belle & Sebastian.
Musician and music researcher Matt Brennan, formerly of Glasgow trio Zoey Van Goey, helms self-styled “geek pop” project Citizen Bravo with a little instrumental help from members of Frightened Rabbit, Withered Hand and Modern Studies.
Build a Thing of Beauty is a pleasant mix of driving and forlorn indie pop with lush orchestration, archive samples and wry observations but, more intriguingly, this digital-only release is part of a wider research project into the album as artefact and will be launched on 11 April at Glasgow University Concert Hall in tandem with an interactive musical sculpture, Sci*Fi*Hi*Fi, which can play recording formats down the years from wax cylinder through to remote streaming. - Fiona Shepherd
Gabriel Jackson: the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ (Delphian) *****
Settings of the Easter Passion historically reflect the tradition of the Gospel texts and the formalism these have inspired in musical responses as diverse as Schütz and MacMillan. But there’s something very fresh and un-liturgical about Gabriel Jackson’s new setting for the Choir of Merton College, Oxford, which erupts into life in this new Delphian recording. The words are largely from the St Luke version, but flavoured with contemporary expression through other poetic texts from the likes of TS Eliot. Set out in seven scenes, from the exhilaration of Palm Sunday (exotic flourishes and rhythms à la Stravinsky), through the twilight moods of Anointing at Bethany and Last Supper and Footwashing, to the resurrection exuberance of The End and The Beginning, Jackson’s mellifluously emotive vocal writing is strikingly complemented by, at times, dizzily picturesque instrumental scoring, resoundingly played by the Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia. - Ken Walton
Daoirí Farrell: A Lifetime of Happiness (Daoirí Recordings) ****
A warm sense of re-acquaintance is the reaction to this third recording by the award-winning Dublin singer and bouzouki player. Accompanied, though not overwhelmingly, by such dependable names as Séan Potts and Robbie Walsh on uilleann pipes, Pat Daly on fiddle and producer Donal Lunny on bodhran and harmonium, Farrell delves into the great Irish songbook. His strong-voiced interpretations are reminiscent at times of early Paul Brady and even the late Luke Kelly, and he meticulously cites Cathal McConnell (There’s the Day invoking the fellowship of the glass) and the late Frank Harte (landlords’ injustice recalled by The Connerys). Classics include The Galway Shawl and The Granemore Hare, the latter’s lilting clarity echoing Al O’Donnell, whose version Farrell credits as inspiration. A jaunty setting of Flann O’Brien’s immortal A Pint of Plain contrasts with the controlled rapture of the late Liam Weldon’s love song, Via Extasia. - Jim Gilchrist