Album reviews: Björk | Noel Gallagher | Alien Stadium

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With birdsong and flute, Björk is as enigmatic and engaging as ever, while Noel Gallagher shows a willingness to change the record

Björk: Utopia (One Little Indian) ***

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds: Who Built the Moon (Sour Mash Records) ***

Alien Stadium: Livin’ in Elizabethan Times (Double Six) ***

The singular Björk has gone “a little bit Pollyanna” on her latest meticulously crafted and sensually immersive album, reclaiming paradise following the hell of her previous offering, Vulnicura – a raw confessional record, by Björk standards anyway, following her divorce from the artist Matthew Barney. On Utopia she rediscovers (transcendental, environmental) love at strolling pace against a sparse but elemental backdrop, comprising celestial harp and an angelic chorus of Björks on opening tracks Arisen My Senses and Blissing Me.

But the musical code of Utopia lies in the delicate woodwind arrangement of wispy world music on the title track. On this album, Björk has returned to the flute, an instrument she learned as a child, in a big way. Banish all thoughts of Jethro Tull though – Björk’s contemporary classical arrangements for Icelandic flute ensemble are interwoven with birdsong samples, some from her own field recordings, and glitchy trills, which even mimic the beat of wings at one point. This idiosyncratic canvas is then crowned with her trademark unusual, off-kilter melodies and unmistakable voice.

She knits together the natural and the corporeal on Body Memory, a song about having the physiological strength to move on. “These cliffs are just showing off,” she exults as she takes a bracing, restorative ramble through her native landscape surrounded by the calls of the birds, the breathy huff of flute, sombre strings and the 60-piece Hamrahlid Choir.

It’s a long walk at 70 minutes, long enough to welcome the contrasting deeper, darker soundscape of querulous woodwind on Sue Me and Björk’s timely resolution, mere weeks after she added her story to the growing catalogue of sexual abuse and harassment allegations, to “break this curse so it won’t fall on our daughters” and present a “tabula rasa [blank slate] for my children”.

It’s a question of degrees but Noel Gallagher is also spreading his wings on the second album of his solo-ish incarnation, for which he has partially got the old band back together.

Oasis drummer Chris Sharrock and guitarist Gem Archer have joined the High Flying Birds fold but Who Built the Moon is not quite the same old same old, thanks to producer David Holmes, who has pushed Gallagher out of his comfort zone by encouraging him to create songs from scratch with him in the studio, resulting in the distorted guitars, heady strings, gospelly backing vocals and programmed beats of Fort Knox and the trippy instrumentals Wednesday Parts 1 & 2 to offset the likes of Holy Mountain, a dumb stomper in the Slade tradition, and amphetamine-paced mod rocker Keep On Reaching.

Such sonic experimentation is daily bread to former Beta Band mainman Steve Mason who has teamed up with fellow space cadet Martin Duffy of Primal Scream as Alien Stadium to tackle the troubles of the day from a loose, cosmic perspective.

Their debut four-track mini-album is a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-style tale of anti-climatic extra-terrestrial contact. This One’s For The Humans is a stealthy shuffle, with the bluesy thrum of guitar and some literal bells and whistles. Their distress message from Earth is roundly rebuffed and all that’s left to do is the Titanic Dance, a freewheeling blend of indie, house and disco strings.

Livin’ In Elizabethan Times is silly, skeptical fun but, given that Mason has made some of the most musically creative and intellectually rigorous records of the last five years, he has earned some time off to goof around with a pal.

CLASSICAL

Brahms: An English Requiem (Delphian) ****

It won’t come as a surprise to Brahms aficionados that he wrote a four-hand piano accompaniment to support smaller scale performances of his famous “German Requiem” -– he did so for many of his choral pieces – though it might surprise them to know that the work was occasionally referred to in Victorian England as “An English Requiem”, given it was most often sung then in the vernacular. Both issues are explored in this intriguing recording by the Choir of King’s College London, under its director Joseph Fort, and with the pianists James Baillieu and Richard Uttley. The piano duo version heard here is edited from the original to facilitate a fuller sounding performance and it certainly puts a strangely intimate spin on the piece, emphasised by the small, youthful choral forces and the consequent clarity of the textures. Most of it works convincingly, save the odd moment where one yearns for the big pungent thrill. - Ken Walton

FOLK

Karine Polwart: A Pocket of Wind Resistance (Hudson Records) ****

Karine Polwart’s remarkable stage show, Wind Resistance, a celebration of the environmentally important Fala Flow peatbog, is transferred effectively to an album, a considerable achievement in itself. She and co-producer Pippa Murphy have created a vivid aural tapestry, laced with alchemical litanies, herbal lore, bird song and the gabbling of the migrating geese which inspired the project. Incantatory, sensual and at times harrowing, it juxtaposes the story of an ultimately ill-starred young shepherd and his wife with Polwart’s own experience, at the same time evoking the interrelationship between humanity and the environment.

Polwart gives clear voice to songs such as Skippin’ Barefit through the Heather, Lark in the Clear Air and Burns’s Tyrannic Man’s Dominion, while a hypnotic rendition of Sphagnum Moss for a Dead Queen is a stark lament for death in childbirth. - Jim Gilchrist