A linked series of beguiling pop collections proves that Belle and Sebastian have three times the charm
Belle & Sebastian: How to Solve Our Human Problems Parts 1, 2 & 3 (Matador) ****
Tune-Yards: I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life (4AD) ***
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Medicine Songs (True North Records) ***
Back in the late 1990s, between the release of their second and third albums – the beloved classics If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy With The Arab Strap – the budding Belle & Sebastian kept up their creative momentum with a trio of EPs – Dog On Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane and 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light – which between them contain some of their best-loved songs.
It was a format which suited their old school indie aesthetic and to which they now return with the portentously titled but musically free-spirited How to Solve Our Human Problems, comprising three separate batches of five new tracks apiece, recorded and self-produced at the band’s leisure in various studios around Glasgow and released one per month over the winter.
Part 1 landed in December with gentle wafts of wistfulness from Sarah Martin on the fragile country folk ramble Fickle Season, and Sweet Dew Lee’s blissful jangling guitars and electro jazz synthesiser break setting the exploratory bar.
No radical departures but lots of inquiry and creative freedom follow, including the breezy new wave pop of The Girl Doesn’t Get It and We Were Beautiful’s integrated backdrop of trip-hop rhythm, plangent bass and glacial washes of pedal steel under one of frontman Stuart Murdoch’s beguiling, bending melodies.
Everything Is Now, the mostly instrumental epic which closes this first instalment with acid guitar, flower power flute and an angelic chorus of “everything’s indifferent now … everything is different now”, is revisited in the forthcoming final part of the trilogy as a happy-sad languorous orchestral pop ballad with exquisite harmonising from Murdoch and Martin.
Part 3 also features the simple acoustic folk pop of There Is An Everlasting Song and echoes the funky 80s-influenced pop of former single The Party Line on Poor Boy, but that is all to come in mid-February.
It is the newly released Part 2 which boasts several of the stand-out tracks from the collection, including the beautifully crafted baroque pop of A Plague On All Other Boys and the bold beat hook of Show Me The Sun which jumps out of the speakers.
The tender I’ll Be Your Pilot comes closest to Murdoch’s intention that the new songs be “the whisper in somebody’s ear that actually takes them away from suffering”, while guitarist Stevie Jackson remains as playful as ever on 60s sci-fi psych prog odyssey Cornflakes, a Postcard Records-era pop song dressed up for a cameo on Star Trek.
New England native Merrill Garbus is a fellow musical adventurer, blending Laurie Anderson-style art pop experimentation with a funky St Vincent-esque electro pop spirit in her Tune-Yards incarnation.
She gets on the dancefloor for her fourth album, giving vent to her gutsy soulful voice on Heart Attack and harking back to early hip-hop and electro on Look At Your Hands.
Whether by accident or design, the quirky, compulsive funk groove, self-examining lyrics and tribal ululating of Colonizer would not be out of place in the catalogue of Canadian Cree activist Buffy Sainte-Marie who has re-recorded a selection of her many “frontline songs” in response to the current repressive climate in world politics.
Medicine Songs is a decent primer for this singular artist. She cannot better the original versions of classics such as Soldier Blue and My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying with these latest digital renditions, but new songs The War Racket and You’ve Got to Run (Spirit of the Wind), recorded with Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, are worthy additions to her catalogue of resistance.
Dvořák: String Quintet & Sextet (Harmonia Mundi) *****
In his String Sextet Op48, and later String Quintet Op97, Dvořák’s natural propensity for sonic density and exquisite melody finds the perfect outlet. There are not the constraining parameters of the string quartet, yet there is still that challenge of having to confine the excesses of expression within a relatively compact ensemble. The Jerusalem Quartet are joined here by violist Veronica Hagen and cellist Gary Hoffman in performances that ooze warmth and passion, and at the same time achieve a nimbleness and zeal that let the music erupt with freshness and fizz. Between the solid outer movement frames of the Sextet, the folkish devilry of the inner movements is charismatic and infectious. The opening of the Quintet is theatrical in its unpredictability, and an appetising foretaste of the charm that this delightful work soon settles into. These are truly fascinating works, presented here with deserving affection.
Omar Sosa & NDR Big Band: Es:sensual (Otá Records) ****
Following their 2010 collaboration, Ceremony, the irrepressible Cuban pianist Omar Sosa re-unites with the mighty North-German radio big band, once again arranged by frequent Sosa collaborator Jacques Morelenbaum. The result is a suitably kaleidoscopic sensory experience, as well as an exuberant salute to the great figures of Afro-Cuban music such as Chico O’Farrill and “Machito” Grillo. Opening with the joyfully carnivalesque Cha Cha Du Nord, sumptuous moments include the lilting soprano sax that sings over a limpid drift of brass in Reposo, followed by ruminative double bass as Sosa switches to chiming vibes. In contrast there’s the village babble and all-out, churning excitement of Glu-Glu, and a spectacularly re-imagined Angustiado, originally from Sosa’s Eggūn album, with driving brass, thunderous drums, squalling sax solos and insistently riffing piano – Sosa in his element.