Album reviews: The Crayonettes | Hurts | Marc-André Hamelin | Norma Winstone | Ewan McLennan | An Al Andaluz Project

POP The Crayonettes: Playing Out – Songs For Children And Robots *** One Little Indian, £9.99

FOLK singer Kathryn Williams has teamed up with her chum (and fellow mum) Anna Spencer to produce this twee but charming album of children's songs, which suits Williams' light, girlish voice.

Some tracks, such as the dub number Pirates On The Bus and the sparse, acoustic Spooky Way Home, are inspired by their toddlers' imaginations; others are instructional – "don't take the fish for a walk, don't drink the dog's water" urges Illegal, to greater didactic effect than any amount of time on the naughty step.

Hurts: Happiness ***

RCA, 10.99

MANCHESTER duo Hurts look and sound out of time – and they probably like it that way. Unlike their peers in borrowed 1980s synthpop robes, Theo Hutchcraft and Adam Anderson genuinely seem to have stepped straight out of an episode of Top Of The Pops circa 1985 with their austere catalogue model looks and urbane but banal pop tracks. But occasionally, a 21st century reference will slip in there.They share Muse's love of pomp balladry (going as far as to employ their own opera singer) and there's a classy take on rave pop in the shape of recent single Better Than Love.



Marc-Andr Hamelin: tudes *****

Hyperion, 12.99

WHILE Marc-Andr Hamelin is best-known as a distinguished practitioner at the piano, he has, over the years, been adding gradually to his very practical series of compositions, at the heart of which are the concert studies that now make up the "12 tudes in all the minor keys".

These are astounding pieces in the brazenly showy piano-composer style – Liszt, perhaps, with a hint of frenetic, sometimes out-and-out grotesque, madness. They bar no holds where technical extremes are concerned. In the super-virtuoso madness of the tude mouvement perptuellement semblable (after Alkan) two of Alkan's own themes are combined in a finger-twister that Hamelin unravels with pianistic wizardry.

Chopin, Scarlatti and Rossini are among others that get put through the wringer. Stylistically, these and the other individual works on this superlative disc cover anything from grandiose Romanticism to 20th-century stride.



Norma Winstone: Stories Yet To Tell ****

ECM Records, 12.99

NORMA Winstone has taken her own distinctive approach to the art of jazz singing over the decades, largely eschewing conventional phrasing and swing rhythms in favour of a more impressionistic style. She has always maintained that she sees herself as part of the instrumental ensemble rather than an upfront singer, and that makes perfect sense in the context of this excellent trio with saxophonist and clarinetist Klaus Gesing and pianist Glauco Venier.

This is their second release on ECM, a tailor-made home for their artful chamber jazz creations. Winstone's beautifully delicate but expressive vocal contributions are beautifully interwoven with the instruments on a varied range of ballad material, from folk song adaptations to settings of music by Wayne Shorter and Maria Schneider.





A YORKSHIRE-based Scot, Ewan McLennan sings with persuasive conviction and a tremulous sensitivity and accompanies himself with some considered guitar playing, although there is also a tendency, particularly in the more up-tempo numbers such as I'm a Rover, for his singing to become locked into his guitar rhythms.

On this debut album, he does indeed rove through mainly safely tried and tested Scottish and Irish folk favourites, from the opening Tramps and Hawkers to his restrained, unusually un-anthemic but moving rendition of A Man's A Man.

There are occasional contributions from Peter Tickell on fiddle and from Jackie Oates, whose viola playing lends an additional poignancy to The Yorkshire Regiment, McLennan's eloquent acknowledgement of the predicament of our troops in Afghanistan and indictment of the politicians who send them there.



An Al Andaluz Project: Al Maraya ***

Galileo Music, 13.99

THIS type of fusion always brings promise: here the vocal traditions of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish worlds are brought together by leading exponents of each. L'Ham de Foc, the Sephardic group from Valencia, are joined by the Munich group Estampie which is led by the classically-trained Michael Popp, and the whole thing is fronted by three outstanding female singers: Mara Aranda, Imam Al Kandoussi, and Sigi Hausen.

An Indian tabla player and a Russian percussionist add their sounds to a rich brew of medieval and folk instruments.

It ought to work beautifully, but it does so only sporadically – there's a sort of all-purpose miasma surrounding many of the songs, a too-efficient application of oriental club atmosphere.

The trouble is, five years ago, acoustic Middle-Eastern instruments like the oud, saz, tar, and qanun brought a frisson of the new, but now – particularly in this electro-medieval guise – they have become a clich. On the other hand, this is still enjoyable, and it does have moments of wistful, winsome magic.