Album reviews: Sugababes | Christopher Lee | National Youth Choir Of Great Britain | Peter Carberry | Brad Mehldau | Odeo Sukeroku Taiko

SUGABABES: SWEET 7 ** ISLAND, £13.99

SINCE the departure of Keisha Buchanan, the only remaining original 'babe, and her replacement by former Eurovision contestant Jade Ewen last year, there have been grumblings from Sugababes fans, frustrated that the cast keeps changing, Charlie's Angels-style. The truth is that Sugababes have sounded pretty redundant for a while. Sweet 7 is one of their most anonymous efforts to date, lazily ticking the required boxes: conveyor belt of mechanical dance pop numbers proclaiming how sexy they are, guest rapper (Sean Kingston in this case), occasional power ballad. Even the better tracks, such as the Britney-esque She's A Mess and the gentle breezy pop of Sweet & Amazing, wouldn't have sounded much different coming from any other girl band.

CHRISTOPHER LEE: CHARLEMAGNE: BY THE SWORD AND THE CROSS

***

CADIZ MUSIC, 13.99

YOU just couldn't make this up: at the age of 87, venerable veteran thesp Sir Christopher Lee – who says "I have been metal for many years" – has recorded his debut album, a symphonic metal concept opera about Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor and the "Father of Europe" (from whom he claims to be descended), with music written by former Kylie/Take That collaborator Marco Sabiu and played by the 100-piece European Cinematic Symphony Orchestra, and lyrics half-sung, half-intoned by Lee in the title role with a supporting cast of singers and choirs. Charlemagne: By The Sword And The Cross is every bit as ridiculous – though perhaps not quite as over-the-top – as you might hope for.

Everyone should hear Lee singing the pomp rock love duet Starlight at least once. But maybe only once.

CLASSICAL

NATIONAL YOUTH CHOIR OF GREAT BRITAIN: MIKE BREWER'S WORLD TOUR

****

DELPHIAN, 13.99

MIKE Brewer's National Youth Choir of Great Britain is nothing if not adventurous. This "World Tour" is as much a reflection of Brewer's fascination for, and experience of, choral styles from far-flung cultures, as it is of the now legendary flexibility of these young singers. They embrace, literally, a world of influences with unquestioning enthusiasm, from the smoky, sensuous rhythms of Tango Cappella, the icy atmospherics of Icelandic folk song, the extravagant vocalising of African a cappella (an enticing Zulu bird song), and the attitudinally French Tourdion, to the lustful opulence of the Mexican El cascabel. As an exercise in alternative choral techniques, this is mightily impressive.

FOLK

PETER CARBERRY: TRADITIONAL IRISH MUSIC FROM CO LONGFORD

****

PPC, available from www.petercarberry.ie

THE Galway-based, County Longford button accordionist Peter Carberry ranges with consideration and impeccable pace through the music of his native turf. There's an easeful, unhurried roll to his accordion, on which he uses an unorthodox fingering, often in tandem with his daughter Angelina, herself an established figure on the Irish music scene, on banjo, with occasional contributions from friends and other family members.

This seasoned box player, who also occasionally takes up the banjo himself, ranges through some well-known repertoire, such as the jaunty hornpipes Galway Bay and Bushmills Fancy, but also lesser known material. The accordion-banjo pairing churns along nicely through reels such as Ceo ar a'gCnoc and the Eanach Cuain jig set, but there is a fine poise, too, in the opening set dance, Sean O'Duibhir an Ghleanna, more usually heard as an air but here stepping out delicately. I particularly enjoyed Carberry's poignant solo rendering of the Lament for Eoghan Rua O'Neill.

JAZZ

BRAD MEHLDAU: HIGHWAY RIDER

***

NONESUCH, 14.99

PIANIST Brad Mehldau has built one of the most significant bodies of piano trio work in contemporary jazz, but this double disc takes a different approach. It is a second collaboration with producer Jon Brion (begun with Largo in 2002), on which Mehldau is heard on piano, electric keyboard and pump organ. His regular trio partners, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, are part of an expanded line-up that features saxophonist Joshua Redman, a second drummer, Matt Chamberlain and a string orchestra playing Mehldau's orchestrations. His compositions are all new, and there is a lot still to absorb over repeated listening, but early impressions suggest this is a stronger and more fully realised project that succeeds in going beyond the formulaic limitations of the jazz-with-strings format to achieve an imaginative synthesis of its diverse improvised and composed elements.

WORLD

OEDO SUKEROKU TAIKO: THE DRUMS OF TOKYO

****

AIR MAIL, 8.99

IN 1970 a musicologist called Tagayasu Den founded a summer school on the Japanese island of Sado, hitherto best known as being that country's equivalent to Siberia, in that political exiles were sent there to rot. Some students stayed on to form a drumming commune under the title "Kodo", which translates both as "heartbeat" and as "children of the drum". They took the ancient taiko drum – traditionally a solo instrument – and made it the basis for an ensemble: they were happy fanatics who flaunted their ascetic lifestyle and the extreme rigour of their training.

I found all this out when I visited them. Six men were needed to hoist the great o-daiko into position – 6ft in diameter, and hollowed from a single block of wood. To tighten the ropes on the small but sharply resonant shimedaiko took two men 20 strenuous minutes. Unlike western drummers, who operate from the wrist, these men drummed with the whole body, often in punishingly unnatural positions. They ran six miles before breakfast: they were terrifyingly fit. And their music was electrifying.

What we hear on this CD starts with a giant taiko being pounded, but the accompanying shrieks are by a female performer: this group, which was the original inspiration for Kodo, has roots which go back even further. Seido Kobayashi, who founded Oedo Sukeroku Taiko, is the grandfather of all Japanese drumming groups, and began his career as a teenage drummer at the annual bon-odori summer festivals, forming his group in 1959.

Its repertoire – which sometimes has musicians playing two drums simultaneously – has grown steadily, as has its aesthetic scope. Silence is used to dramatic effect, as the kaleidoscope of effects is shaken; the accompanying shouts vividly remind us that this is a communal art-form.