After a 13 year absence John Prine can still make an impact with some new friends joining him on the way
John Prine: The Tree of Forgiveness (Oh Boy Records) ****
Laura Veirs: The Lookout (Bella Union) ****
The Damned: Evil Spirits (Search and Destroy/Spinefarm Records) ***
The National Jazz Trio of Scotland: Standards Vol IV (Karaoke Kalk) ***
Almost 50 years into his career, Americana veteran John Prine is more respected and popular than ever, with scores of younger Nashville musicians queueing up to work with him on this first album of new material in 13 years. The Tree of Forgiveness features harmony vocals from Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell and a couple of co-writing credits for the ubiquitous Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.
But it also features a song, God Only Knows, which he started writing in the 1970s with maximalist maestro Phil Spector, now realised as a leisurely burnished country rocker.
Yet Prine doesn’t need much to make an impact – just his gnarled voice, gruff wisdom and an acoustic guitar does it on Caravan of Fools, where he demonstrates the simple sagacity and authority of Johnny Cash.
He applies a light touch and dark humour to a number of fleeting gems from the gentle opening ditty Knockin’ On Your Screen Door via the hangdog regrets of Summer’s End to the droll When I Get to Heaven on which speak-sings his plan to form a band and open a nightclub called The Tree of Forgiveness on the other side, while the enigmatically titled Egg & Daughter Night, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone) is a barroom tale best left to Prine to spin.
There is an equally classy and confident simplicity to Oregon singer/songwriter Laura Veirs’ latest album, which is rooted in US folk music without cleaving to tradition. Her cool, clear tone sounds beautiful on the dreamy country pop tune Seven Falls but there are equally lovely textures woven throughout The Lookout.
The resonant piano accompaniment on The Meadow is exposed but welcoming, the fragrant twang of The Canyon opens out into a dusky epic and haunting clarinet and keening fiddle add a heady edge to When It Grows Darkest.
Still fronted by singer Dave Vanian and guitarist Captain Sensible, old age punks The Damned have crowdfunded their first new album in a decade in order to afford Bowie’s right hand man Tony Visconti on production duties. Evil Spirits draws strongly on the band’s long-held love of 60s pop and garage rock, with the requisite Hammond and Farfisa organ licks, part of their armoury since the 80s, now ably marshalled by a man named Monty Oxymoron. The spirit – evil or otherwise – of The Doors is evident on the title track, a fleet-footed widescreen pop number with acid guitar embellishments, while the hoary psychedelic prog influence of The Moody Blues can be heard on Standing On The Edge of Tomorrow and Shadow Evocation. In some respects, it’s like punk never happened, but we’re a long way from the 100 Club these days.
The National Jazz Trio of Scotland are a non-jazz non-trio led by pianist Bill Wells, who follow the non-standard Standards I-III with the next in the wryly titled sequence. You dig? Wells cops to a spot of improvisation on this occasion but otherwise it’s idiosyncratic business as usual with the group’s signature simple, childlike melodies such as the dark juxtaposition of Tinnitus Lullaby (“can’t you hear that ringing, distant voices singing”) rendered in the soothing, almost deadpan tones of Kate Sugden over a delicate patchwork of chimes, pulses and synths plus mournful harmonica and violin embellishments. Sugden’s fellow vocalists Aby Vulliamy and Gerard Black will be showcased individually on subsequent albums but get a look-in here on the lo-fi mantra A Quiet Life, the album’s one flirtation with out-and-out jazz swing.
Monteverdi: Messa a quattro voci et salmi of 1650, Vol II (Coro) *****
It is always worth revisiting Monteverdi. Seminal in so many ways – revolutionary operas, beautifully crafted sacred music created specifically for the multi-domed basilica of St Mark’s in Venice, but most of all his pivotal position in the earth-moving evolution from Renaissance to Baroque – the simple fact is that Monteverdi’s music possesses spiritual and human truths in equal measure. It speaks directly to the soul, yet transcends the ordinary. In this, the second volume dedicated to the posthumously-published Messa a quattro e salmi of 1650 by the excellent vocal ensemble The Sixteen, the performances encapsulate the essence of Monteverdi’s style. At the heart of this repertoire selection, and as a spinal column to the entire disc, Harry Christophers’ ensemble unveil the luminescent qualities of the Messa a quattro voce, one of only two of Monteverdi’s Venetian masses to survive. A work of unfettered inspiration, its “old fashioned” language offers a stabilising complement to the juicier psalm settings. Two works by Cavalli and Piccinini are a fruitful diversion.
Arild Andersen, Paolo Vinaccia, Tommy Smith: In-House Science (ECM Records) *****
There’s potent chemistry indeed as, ten years on from their warmly received debut album, Live at Belleville, this powerful Norwegian-Italian-Scots troika return to the live stage on which they truly flourish for their third recording. It opens in characteristic style with the title track of their last one, Mira, Andersen’s bass spelling out the unhurried, lyrical theme before Smith’s tenor sax takes it up with a plangent sigh over a wash of cymbals. With all compositions by bassist Andersen, mood, tempo and tonal colour shift ceaselessly, from the headlong three-way sparring of Science and the racing bass and drums that propel In-House as Smith’s sax interjects tersely, to the profoundly sonorous Echoplex backdrop Andersen creates for the majestic soundscapes of North of the North Wind. There’s an irresistibly no-nonsense funky strut to Blussy, while a folk-chant melody bookends further rumbustious bopping in Venice. This is live music-making with real edge and elegance.