The Specials: Encore (Island) ****
Keuning: Prismism (Pretty Faithful) **
Andrew Wasylyk: The Paralian (Athens of the North) ****
Much like Pixies before them, The Specials’ reunion as a trusty touring force is now such a long-standing arrangement that the belated appearance of a new album doesn’t have quite the impact that it might have enjoyed ten years ago.
But make no mistake, the first new material from original members Terry Hall, guitarist Lynval Golding and bassist Horace Panter since the seminal Number One single Ghost Town is an occasion worth celebrating even as the lyrics highlight a lack of socio-political progress in that time.
As to The Specials’ music, the change is initially startling as Encore kicks off with the wholly unexpected funk groove and disco strings of Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys, a pretty faithful cover of The Equals’ paean to the mingling of races, and continues on the steely funk path of B.L.M., Golding’s timely testament as the son of a Windrush immigrant that black lives matter.
The first sign of a louche skank comes as Hall makes a silky appeal for political transparency on Vote For Me, while a snake-hipped Latinised cover of Hall and Golding’s post-Specials band the Fun Boy Three’s The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum) has a tragi-comic resonance in these dog’s Brexit days.
There’s no shortage of lyrical food for thought. 10 Commandments repurposes the Prince Buster track Ten Commandments of Man as a feminist riposte from Saffiyah Khan, the activist pictured in 2017 smiling in the face of English Defence League aggression (a peaceful protest already celebrated by Billy Bragg in his track Saffiyah Smiles).
The Valentines’ Trojan Records single Blam Blam Fever, originally about gun violence in Jamaica, is all too easily updated to present day USA, gang culture is addressed on Embarrassed By You, an ugly subject with a beautiful, shimmering backing, and there is a further dose of 21st century blues to an unexpected oompah rhythm on Breaking Point.
At times, Encore feels more like an extra helping of the Fun Boy Three’s playful, eclectic catalogue than a continuation of The Specials’ firebrand ska energy. Lean Afro-funk, cool jazz and cascading electric piano soundtrack The Life and Times (of a Man Called Depression), Hall’s spoken word meditation on the twisted byways of mental health, and they round off this tasty comeback with the slinky uplift of We Sell Hope, an exotica torch song to humanity.
The Killers’ guitarist Dave Keuning has followed his bandmates Brandon Flowers and Ronnie Vannucci into solo album side project territory, largely to find a home for songs he says he rescued from “the bottom of the pile” – a downbeat if accurate assessment of Prismism’s rather one-note sub-Killers sound, which is not helped by Keuning’s lack of vocal dynamics. More surprising is that keyboards feature more heavily than guitar, steering the welcome diversion of the vocoder balladeering of the title track.
Andrew Mitchell is also better known for his day job(s), fronting The Hazey Janes and playing bass in Idlewild. In his composer guise as Andrew Wasylyk, he already has one beautiful solo album under his belt, and continues his evocative soundtrack work with The Paralian, the beguiling end result of a commission by Hospitalfield House in Arbroath to write music for their restored 19th century Grecian harp.
Multi-instrumentalist Mitchell also gravitated to their grand piano, and expanded his palette with woodwind, brass, strings, electric piano and his own vocals (buried in the melancholic mix of Adrift Below a Constellation) to create a serene, ravishing jazz/folk hybrid, not unlike the recent fusion work of The Unthanks or a less brooding take on the synthesizer soundscapes of David Bowie’s Low. - Fiona Shepherd
Beethoven: Symphony No 9 (Decca) ****
Age and experience count. At 83, Seiji Ozawa returns to Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 for his latest disc with the Mito Chamber Orchestra, and the result is one that echoes the maturity of the work itself. He chooses smaller forces to work with – the strings pared down to chamber-sized minimum – so anything that is epic about the performance comes from Ozawa’s ability to create a big sound from the sheer intellectual power of the music (and despite the annoyingly booming timpani sound). The opening movement bears an elemental intensity, in which you sense the strings are always working overtime, but with a clarity that not only gives definition to the fiery textures, but allows the wind and brass to shine lustrously. The scherzo is every bit as chipper, the adagio sweet and easeful. The Tokyo Opera Singers and soloists add robust precision to the finale, though the operatic vibrato becomes a little wearing. The ending, though, is tumultuous. - Ken Walton
Scottish National Jazz Orchestra with Tam Dean Burn & Makoto Ozone: Peter and the Wolf (Spartacus Records) *****
The wolf’s at the door and it sounds terrific. Given a splendid jazz make-over by SNJO director Tommy Smith, Prokofieff’s well-loved musical children’s tale, recorded live at the Queen’s Hall, features a gloriously OTT performance by Tam Dean Burn as the grown-up Peter, delivering Liz Lochhead’s gallus Scots transmogrification of the original narration. Long-time SNJO collaborator Makoto Ozone’s piano peregrinates elegantly through it all as the young Peter, Grandfaither comes embodied by grumbling baritone sax and double bass and there are Ellingtonian outbursts such as the Duck and Bird dialogue, with Tom MacNiven’s mute trumpet wailing responses to Yvonne Robertson’s avian flute. The villain of the piece emerges, sleekit, in the shape of trombonists Chris Greive, Liam Shortall and Michael Owers. - Jim Gilchrist