Album reviews: Beck | Neneh Cherry | St Vincent

Beck, pictured in 2012. Picture: Getty
Beck, pictured in 2012. Picture: Getty
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BECK Hansen hasn’t released an album – or a conventional one anyway – since Modern Guilt, which concluded his contract with Interscope Records in 2008.

Beck: Morning Phase

Capitol, £14.99

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Since then, there have been a handful of standalone singles on his own label, some production work, cover version larks and Song Reader, a collection of new songs released as sheet music (no sign of a deluxe version on wax cylinder, though).

But now it transpires that he has been recording plenty – enough material for several albums it has been said – and there is tantalising talk of another to follow Morning Phase later this year. Perhaps that album will spotlight his playful, poppy funkmeister side because Morning Phase is Beck in all his poncho-wearing California dreamer glory. Fans of Neil Young, Dennis Wilson and Gram Parsons sign up here.

Conceived as a companion piece to his soul-searching 2002 album Sea Change, and recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles with the same musicians, Morning Phase has been described by its maker as both a healing and a reckoning.

As the title suggests, it heralds a new dawn, marking his recovery from a spinal injury which left him unable to sing and play for a time. The goofy choreographed dance routines of his live shows are still some way off. This warming suite of hazy psych country, tinged with a contemplative longing, is the blissful equivalent of Beck enjoying the sun on his face again.

Melodies, harmonies, arrangements, all are subtle yet rich. The downbeat Morning inches along, lifted by the swell of the chorus and Beck’s voice at its most beseeching. The pace picks up slightly on the bittersweet Heart Is A Drum, with ambling piano picked out over gentle acoustic guitar and background shimmer. Turn Away is a beautifully measured harmonic folk piece with the heart-tugging wistfulness of Simon & Garfunkel, and the delicate ache of the melodies on Blue Moon and Unforgiven is delicious.

The latter, with its stealthy proggy textures, is a highlight, even in such cohesive company, paving the way for his father David Campbell’s exquisite and elemental string arrangements on the album’s dramatic, solemn centrepiece Wave and the expansive, epic closer Waking Light, which sounds like classic 70s singer/songwriter material painted on a panoramic canvas. Regardless of where Beck goes next, Morning Phase is an album to savour at leisure.

Neneh Cherry: Blank Project

Smalltown Supersound, £13.99

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Anyone who lapped up Neneh Cherry’s work in post-punk outfit Rip Rig + Panic and her subsequent pop career can be rightly excited by news of her first solo album in 18 years. Blank Project has been produced by Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, and he has largely let Cherry’s voice, still sassy after all these years, do the talking against uncluttered but atmospheric backdrops on the jazzy jungle title track, beseeching semi-rap Across The Water, the soulful, tribal Naked, hypnotic Out of the Black (featuring guest vocals from Robyn), even the eminently danceable Dossier. It’s not what passes for pop music these days and is all the better for it.

St Vincent: St Vincent

Loma Vista/Caroline International, £14.99

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Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, follows Love This Giant with this “party record you could play at a funeral.” St Vincent is not as contrived as that description might suggest but, refreshing as it is to encounter such an individual artist in a sea of formula-abiding mediocrity, you can almost hear the thought processes at work in Clark’s music. This album, by her own admission, is mainly about the quirky rhythms, although she smoothes things over with the space funk reverie Prince Johnny and dreamy love song I Prefer Your Love, while her fuzz guitar work remains distinct, economical and electrifying.



Alfred Schnittke: Complete piano music

Delphian, £24.99

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This is a heroic double-disc release by pianist Simon Smith, and judging by the depth of passion and understanding he elicits from Schnittke’s entire solo piano output, a labour of love as well. The three sonatas are an intense endeavour, as much in the compositional sense as for the performer. But Smith finds shape and purpose in Schnittke’s unique tapestry of techniques: cleanly-defined lines, often shrouded in glistening clusters, or dissipated by moments of madcap ecstasy, or calmed by simple chorale-like interludes.

The second disc takes us into the characterful world of Schnittke’s Little Piano Pieces and Five Aphorisms, as well as the eccentric six-handed Homage to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, and much more. A refreshing and enlightening marathon.



Patsy Reid: The Brightest Path

Classy Trad Records, £13.99

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A lass o’ pairts is Patsy Reid, twice Glenfiddich fiddle champion, former member of Breabach and fiddler in demand for countless projects. Here she cuts loose under her own name, playing viola and cello as well as fiddle, with a well-chosen band, including saxophonist Fraser Fifield, pianist Mhairi Hall and guitarist Ewan MacPherson. She also sings three contemporary songs with sweetness and clarity, with Half Acre particularly appealing on its raft of strings.

Ensemble tightness is evident right from the opening Hooray Henry, with fiddle and sax riffing compellingly over Mattie Foulds’ drums. Donside takes a gentler route into to traditional territory, a slow strathspey which Reid handles with feeling and ushers into a satisfyingly reel. Stealthily chiming percussion brings in her own tune, Thugainn, while another traditional set dances skittishly over rolling piano and double bass. The showstopper, however, is A Precious Place, fiddle and guitar sounding sublimely over an eastern-style drone.



Raymond MacDonald & Marilyn Crispell: Parallel Moments

Babel Label, £13.99

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Free improvisation has been a niche interest on the outer edge of jazz pretty much everywhere, but a large part of the profile it enjoys in Scotland has been down to alto saxophonist and academic Raymond MacDonald and the musicians clustered around the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, which he co-founded. One of the many benefits of that work has been a series of collaborations with musicians of international standing on the improvisation scene, including American pianist Marilyn Crispell.

This duo set was recorded at the London Jazz Festival in 2010, and captures both their on-the-wing musical interactions and the breadth of their resources on their instruments. The music ranges from conventional lyricism to the free abstraction of the title track, and takes in lengthy extended explorations and brief atmospheric vignettes.



Boris Kovac and La Campanella: Eastern Moon Rising

Riverboat, £11.99

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“Boris’s music is post-futuristic” shouts the promotional blurb, but if that sounds impenetrable there’s no such difficulty with the music. This saxophonist hails from the Serbian city of Novi Sad, and his style draws on all the musical influences in the Balkan melting-pot. My favourite track, entitled Caravan, begins with a sax riff over a flamenco accompaniment, then breaks off before re-launching into a magical melange of Arabic-inflected melodies, under which male voices softly hum. No fireworks, just a gentle jog through a lovely landscape.