There are fewer moments of genius than usual on Beck’s new album, while Dolly Parton sings for the kids
Beck: Colors (Capitol Records) ***
Squeeze: The Knowledge (ADA Warner) ***
Findlay Napier: Glasgow (Cheerygroove Records) ***
Dolly Parton: I Believe In You (Dolly Records/RCA Nashville) **
An anticipatory hush descends whenever Beck releases a new album. Which of the many moods of Beck Hansen will he favour this time? Hansen has made us wait since the exquisite Morning Phase won the Album of the Year Grammy in 2014, beating the sainted Beyoncé, much to Kanye West’s consternation. But the impish psych pop of Dreams and low-slung R&B jam Wow, released in the interim, suggested that he was looking for some buoyancy after its wistfulness, something to sound good live.
Colors has been co-written, played and produced by the ubiquitous Greg Kurstin, who has recently helmed the Foo Fighters and Liam Gallagher albums. Kurstin was actually a member of Beck’s touring band in the early 2000s before his producing/songwriting career took off, so there’s residual chemistry there. But the danger that Beck’s latest might just end up sounding like everyone else is partially confirmed by the streamlined funk pop of the title track and feelgood indie blandness of Seventh Heaven.
Thankfully, he sounds more like himself on the rap funk rock mash-up I’m So Free, but coming from one who rates the song so highly, Colors is not a stellar collection.
Dear Life is a blatantly Beatley appeal for a lifeline, with loose boogie-woogie piano and a lysergic chorus. Like Arcade Fire’s Everything Now, No Distraction explores the information overload of the social media age to the pop reggae twang of guitar. Up All Night is instantly catchy and completely throwaway in the vein of recent works by Justin Timberlake. The freewheeling 80s pop feel of Square One has the more enduring hook but overall the man who wrote the rulebook for white boys playing funky music now too often sounds like he is following it.
Veteran songsmiths Squeeze continue to revel in the diverse stylings of their earworm pop melodies, confident that they can follow a soulful lament on the abuse of young footballers (Final Score) with a number on erectile dysfunction (Please Be Upstanding) which they treat with their winning mix of pathos and humour. The Knowledge affectionately chronicles their south London beat with wistful insight, from the baroque country of Patchouli to the operatic disco funk of Rough Road (“either it’s rough or you’re rich”), which strikes a resonant note following the Grenfell Tower disaster.
Findlay Napier also celebrates the rough and tumble of city life on Glasgow, a paean to his adopted home told with a mix of original and cover songs (see interview, right). In the latter camp, Napier captures the rich and varied character of Hamish Imlach’s Cod Liver Oil and the Orange Juice, Michael Marra’s King Kong’s Visit to Glasgow, The Blue Nile’s Walk Across the Rooftops and a new Emma Pollock song Marchtown. But Napier is no slouch with his own affectionate remembrance of Young Goths in the Necropolis, the finger-picking saunter of Wire Burners and the Caledonian chanson The Blue Lagoon.
Having seduced the adult listening population with her wholesome, downhome ditties, the blessed Dolly Parton now releases her first album for children. I Believe In You will raise proceeds for her children’s literacy programme, the Imagination Library, and her sugary kids’ songs are similarly well-intentioned, from the cutesy finger-pointing of Makin’ Fun Ain’t Funny to the oddly jolly Chemo Hero (“lost my hair and I don’t care”).
Unlike the anarchy of They Might Be Giants’ kids’ albums, Parton’s message is more about positive reinforcement than firing the imagination – but ultimately the kids will be the judge of that.
Steven Osborne: Debussy – Piano Music (Hyperion) *****
Every new release from pianist Steven Osborne is met with great expectations. Once again they are fulfilled in this deliciously coloured Debussy presentation. Osborne focuses on solo piano works from the first decade of the 20th century: both sets of Images, the three Estampes, and the innocent complexities of Children’s Corner.
In every one, from the expansive calm of Reflets Dans L’Eau and the sumptuous exoticism of Pagodes, to the sensuous lilt of La Soirée Dans Grenade and the crisp fingerwork of Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum, Osborne’s fastidious attention to tone and touch is exceptional. There’s immediate proof of that in the three standalone works that open the disc: Masques, with its mysterious flamboyance; the timeless soundscapes of D’Un Cahier D’Esquisses; and the lightning sensitivities of L’Isle Joyeuse. This is pianism that transcends the ordinary
The Young ’Uns: Strangers (Hereteu Records) ****
A heartfelt secular hymnary for these trouble times and a rallying cry for humanity, this is the fourth album from the Teesside vocal trio of Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes. Occasionally justified worthiness outweighs musical impact, but mostly these are eminently singable chronicles of social history, injustice and bigotry. They’re all written by Cooney except the album’s opener, Maggie Holland’s perennially rousing A Place Called England. The others, delivered in the trio’s joyous a cappella harmonies with occasional instrumentation, include Ghafoor’s Bus, saluting the Stockton grandfather, Ghafoor Hussain, who bought a bus and converted it into a travelling soup kitchen for refugees, and Be the Man, a moving yet defiant anthem in the face of homophobia. Celebrations of human triumph include Dark Water, a powerful account of two Syrian refugees who survived by swimming a five-mile strait of the Aegean.