Album reviews: Gaz Coombes | Belly | Adam Stafford | Jon Hopkins

Gaz Coombes PIC: Steve Keros
Gaz Coombes PIC: Steve Keros
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Two decades on from their 90s pomp, Gaz Coombes and Belly re-enter the fray, older and a little wiser

Gaz Coombes: World’s Strongest Man (Caroline International) ****

Belly: DOVE (Belly Touring) ***

Adam Stafford: Fire Behind the Curtain (Song, By Toad) ****

Jon Hopkins: Singularity (Domino) ***

Two indie pop favourites from the 1990s return to the fray this week, older, wiser and a little chastened by their experiences. Former Supergrass frontman Gaz Coombes retains his way with an offbeat pop tune and fearless falsetto vocal on World’s Strongest Man.

It is tempting to read the title of his latest solo album as a comment on the rise of strong-man leaders on the world stage – Wounded Egos is a pretty tune about ugly global developments – but Coombes mainly turns the spotlight on himself, citing the influence of “Californian weed and British woodland” as methods of coping with anxiety and depression over the years.

In Waves is a psychedelic blues about paddling to stay afloat while Vanishing Act, reminiscent of Radiohead’s more frenetic utterances, also deals with efforts to cling to normality.

Accordingly, there is a sense of fuzzy dislocation to the music and sentiments from the murky title track via plaintive piano ballad Slow Motion Life, and the lowslung gait and screeching violin of Walk the Walk to the stoned vocoder lullaby S**t (I’ve Done It Again), a blissed-out epic in a trim three minutes.

There’s no sign of middle age spread on Belly’s first album in 23 years. Like many of her peers, Tanya Donnelly reformed her post-Throwing Muses pop band for touring purposes, before new songs ensued courtesy of the band’s three songwriters, now scattered to different parts of the US.

All is streamlined slickness on the appropriately titled Shiny One, layered up with sleek harmony vocals and lithe strings, and the country pop-flavoured Human Child and Artifact. DOVE is mature and assured, like the former hippy chick at the school reunion who grows up to be a successful executive.

Any residual character quirks come from Donnelly’s voice, a Blondie-like purr while the band chug away in the background on Stars Align, which betrays some of the mischief of old in the impish sentiments of Suffer the Fools.

In contrast to such pop poise, filmmaker and composer Adam Stafford channels all his insecurities into Fire Behind the Curtain, an impressionistic opus which was eight years in the making and has been inspired by his wrangles with severe depression and panic attacks as much as by minimalist totems such as Steve Reich and Meredith Monk.

There is a lot to chew over here but it’s worth surrendering to its shifting soundscapes, from the mounting intensity of layered vocal mantra Penshaw Monument to the foreboding jazz punk march Museum of Grinding Dicks, from the beatific undulating acoustic guitar picking on I’m You Last Week to the unsettling woodwind and doomy vocal intoning of Fanfare for the Mourning Tallow.

In a good week for albums inspired by stress, pianist/composer Jon Hopkins enters the fray with his latest work, Singularity. The stress in this case was of a physical nature, as Hopkins embarked on a programme of desert treks, freezing baths, induced hyperventilation, all that fun stuff, in order to promote mental serenity. And then he wrote an album about it.

Consequently, it’s easy to zone in and out of this mostly electronic suite, whose first half is peppered with industrial glitchy embellishments. Almost half an hour passes before tranquil piano can be picked out over the wash of glacial electronics and calming choral ambience. Singularity is intended to be experienced as a whole but you could do worse than skip forward to the unadorned Echo Dissolve, or the gentle dance odyssey Luminous Beings.

JAZZ

Magdalena Kožená sings Cole Porter (Brnofon) ****

There’s an obvious quirkiness in the way mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená sings the immortal songs of Cole Porter, given that she’s Czech and her native accent is hard to hide. And yet it works, giving such popular Porter hits as Always True To You, Love for Sale, My Heart Belongs to Daddy and Begin the Beguine an alluring exotic colouring. Of course, Kožená is no stranger to repertoire that is lighter than her trademark classical, as past populist diversions at the Edinburgh International Festival have reminded us. It’s all to do with hitting the core sentiment of the song, which is what she does with a husky sensuality and carefree energy. It helps that she has the superb authentic swing backing of Ondrej Havelka & His Melody Makers. Highlights include Kožená’s liquid interpretation of It’s Alright With Me, the darkened tones of Love for Sale and the ebb and flow of What Is This Thing Called Love. Not everything works perfectly, but enough to make this disc well worth a listen.

Ken Walton

FOLK

John Doyle, John McCusker, Mike McGoldrick: The Wishing Tree (Under One Sky Records) ***

Fiddler John McCusker, guitarist-singer John Doyle and flautist and uilleann piper Mike McGoldrick are all thoroughly familiar figures, each in demand by names as diverse as Capercaillie and Mark Knopfler, not to mention being at the core of many a Celtic Connections house band. This, however, is the first time they have recorded as a trio, and they sound utterly at ease in each other’s company, with a familiar, no-nonsense fluidity in their instrumental sets, Doyle by turns driving tunes or playing in tight unison with flute and fiddle, as in the reel Rip the Calico. Is it churlish to suggest they make it all sound too easy? Airs include the gentle drift of Planxty Dermot Grogan, while Doyle recounts the nefarious exploits of Burke and Hare with dark relish. In contrast, he gives a slightly pallid account of The Bonny Light Horseman, but affectionately poignant voice to The Banks of the Bann.

Jim Gilchrist