DOLLY Parton could have retired to a rhinestone-encrusted mansion years ago on I Will Always Love You royalties alone but, despite the cartoony image, the Dollywood theme park and the charity work, she is a working musician first and foremost.
Dolly Parton: Blue Smoke
Dolly Records, £14.99
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So, instead, she is touring again – including a date at the Glastonbury festival in the coveted Sunday afternoon “oldies” slot – to promote the European release of her 42nd album.
Blue Smoke is no game-changer – it doesn’t need to be – but it is a tonic with its clear country roots and simple, down-home lyrics, accessible to all. Dolly is as Dolly does, as she might say herself, and what she does is deliver a confident pick and mix of covers and originals, country and bluegrass, bare ballads and upbeat productions, with her usual disarming sincerity.
There can’t be many artists who could get through the playful, throwaway Franglais of Lover Du Jour, pull off the self-help clichés of Try or carry the line “choo choo choo choo, woo woo woo, blue smoke is comin’ through” with any credibility. But Dolly can, thanks to her extraordinary tone and conversational phrasing.
None of these originals are even close to her best, although bluegrass ballad If I Had Wings is a keeper, with its soaring, plaintive fiddle and classic bluesy message. Parton could have left traditional mountain music behind long ago in favour of the pervading pop country sound but she is shrewd enough never to stray too far from her artistic roots.
Likewise, with a choice of any number of possible duet partners, she bypasses the pop kids in favour of singing with her old pals Kenny Rogers (on You Can’t Make Old Friends) and Willie Nelson (From Here To The Moon And Back) with whom she shares a natural vocal affinity.
Her covers are intriguing. The old murder ballad Banks Of The Ohio is suitably sparse and haunting, Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright is balmy and effortless and Bon Jovi’s lascivious Lay Your Hands On Me is reclaimed as a raucous country gospel testimonial. Parton is such a deft interpreter that she can handle these tricky shifts of tone from cosy to dark to comical, whether singing about lovers, murder, leaving home, coming home or growing old.
Jack White: Lazaretto
XL Recordings/Third Man, £13.99
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In what is arguably a testament to maintaining his usual expeditious standards, Jack White took his time in producing this disappointing follow-up to his scorching solo debut Blunderbuss. While the performances by his all-male band The Buzzards and all-female Peacocks (recorded live then edited together by White) kick like a mule, the collection comes up a little short on his trademark songwriting audacity. Inspired by his (non-angsty) teenage writings and drawing on his customary eclectic palette of roots and rock styles, with even a hint of reggae rhythm on That Black Bat Licorice, Lazaretto rattles along puckishly but only country rocker Entitlement feels complete and cohesive.
Chrissie Hynde: Stockholm
Caroline International, £14.99
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Don’t call this a Chrissie Hynde solo album – not to its maker’s face anyway. Although Stockholm is the first album to bear the Pretenders frontwoman’s name, it’s as much a collaborative effort as anything she has recorded, with Swedish pop producer Björn Yttling at the desk, and Neil Young and tennis legend John McEnroe on guest guitar duties. Now that’s a line-up. Hynde is in fluent form, showcasing her girlish side on You Or No One, her sardonic strut on Down The Wrong Way and a whole spectrum of emotions over a succession of good, though not spectacular songs. The tender, twinkling ballad Tourniquet (Cynthia Anne) is a keeper, bottling some of the wistful mystery of Nancy Sinatra’s collaborations with Lee Hazlewood.
Arrangelo Corelli: Church Sonatas, Op 1 & 3
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There’s a naturalness about Corelli’s music that makes it, in the best sense of the phrase, easy listening. Every melodic move, every contrapuntal dialogue or harmonic sequence, every perfectly turned ornament, unfolds with irresistible inevitability. Does it tell us anything about Italian life in the late 1600s?
Nothing more, perhaps, than the truth that many of the best musicians gravitated there, writing music to please the soul, as well as their wealthy patrons. Here’s a disc filled to the gunnels with the best of Corelli – his Opus 1 & 3 collections of “Church Sonatas”, effectively trio sonatas played on this double release by the exquisite string and continuo players of The Avison Ensemble. There is perfection and a dash of tempered flair in every delightful performance.
TWELFTH DAY: THE DEVIL MAKES THREE
ORANGE FEATHER RECORDS, £13.99
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The harp-fiddle duo Twelfth Day’s last album was a collaboration with singer Joy Dunlop which created engaging settings of contemporary Scottish women’s poetry. Here, Border harpist Esther Swift and Orcadian fiddler Catriona Price strike out with songs of their own, set to inventive and often highly atmospheric accompaniments on clarsach, pedal harp and fiddle – somewhere between contemporary folk song and impressionist nocturne.
Vocally they are light, breathy and ethereal, with delicately twining harmonies, and one could sometimes do with a little more earthiness, as in the traditionally-based title track, or Young Sira’s droll, flighty riposte to the traditional cross-Border elopement theme. Other numbers develop a haunting strangeness of their own, such as the fleeting imagery and instrumental pulsing of A City You Can See Out Of, the increasingly taut development of Noise Show, ripples and fiddle calls of Magic Circles or the poetic incantations of Dusking.
Kristian Borring: Urban Novel
Jellymould Jazz, online only
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Danish guitarist Kristian Borring is one of a number of London-based Nordic musicians making significant contributions to the jazz scene there. This is his second album, following the release of Nausicaa in 2011, but his first on this label. The city itself is a palpable presence in the eight compositions the guitarist has written for this recording, whether in terms of mood and atmosphere (Hipster, Urban Novel) or direct reference (Arcade Coffee Shop, Hidden Corners).
His guitar work, like the overall feel of the music, is clean, cool, precise and contemporary, supported by a solid rhythm trio led by pianist Arthur Lea, with Mick Coady on bass and the increasingly visible Jon Scott on drums. Vibraphone player Jim Hart adds his elegant and incisive presence to half of the selections.
Kronos Explorer Series
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This five-CD box celebrates the extraordinary achievement of the Kronos Quartet over their first 40 years, and I’m delighted in having had a small hand in it (one of the tracks of Floodplain is a charming arrangement of a two-string fiddle fantasy I recorded in Kazakhstan).
As their leader David Harrington says in his liner-interview, their aim has been to deliver a kick up the backside to the quartet tradition, and the tracks gathered here reflect a wonderful kaleidoscope of styles from every continent.