Lily Allen’s spiky musical persona seems diminished by the travails of her tumultuous personal life
Lily Allen: No Shame (Parlophone) **
Jorja Smith: Lost & Found (Famm) ***
Gruff Rhys: Babelsberg (Rough Trade) ****
Port Sulphur: Paranoic Critical (Creeping Bent) ****
With her sharp wit and her soft tunes Lily Allen made quite the impact when she debuted in 2006, and there have since been few characters as interesting stepping through the doors she helped open for a subsequent generation of girl-next-door pop stars.
But behind the typically pithy and unapologetic title of her fourth album, some of her spark has been doused by personal tribulation, including the end of her marriage and a horrific stalking ordeal, plus creative differences with her paymasters, leading, she has said, to an identity crisis.
Allen is a strong enough personality to find her way through this minefield but she has emerged somewhat diminished musically as her new music is as featherlight as her voice. No Shame feels lightweight even when she is in ferocious putdown mode on the likes of Cake, when she confronts male privilege with a coquettish scorn.
Guest rapper Giggs and Afrobeat singer Burna Boy add a degree of contrasting vocal texture, the former on Trigger Bang about her wild years, and she varies the wan electro pop palette with the heartfelt piano ballads Family Man and Three, which is sung from the perspective of her daughter in such a sweet, even cloying tone that comparisons with Brotherhood of Man’s Save Your Kisses For Me are not that much of a stretch.
There are further outbreaks of coffee table R&B on the debut album by Brits Critics’ Choice winner Jorja Smith. Smith is a marginally more interesting proposition than previous winners Sam Smith and James Bay but not as obviously commercial.
Lost & Found features a suite of cool, classy and slightly dull trip-hop-tinted soul pop with mostly lithe vocals, though Smith is guilty of swallowing her lyrics with Rihanna-like affectation on an otherwise twinkling Blue Lights. This manicured mash-up of jazz and Jamaican dancehall, with a strong message about racial profiling, was released as her debut single in 2016 and remains hard to beat here, though the acoustic jazz of Goodbyes features some pretty vocal trills and the stripped-back rap Lifeboats (Freestyle) is an eloquent commentary on the struggle to stay afloat socially and economically.
Like Lily Allen, Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys has form when cushioning candid lyrics in sumptuous sonic arrangements and his latest solo album pushes that dichotomy to the max with a little help from the 72-piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Swansea composer Stephen McNeff has arranged this swirling symphonic treat of an album, which confidently pastiches the polished romance of 1970s MOR. If you think Father John Misty is a bit too self-involved, then Babelsberg is for you. Frontier Man apes the Nashville sound of the 60s and 70s with lush strings, fragrant flute, easy listening horns and a sweet siren backing chorus while Rhys skewers those macho posturing politicians “on the frontier of delusion”. Drones in the City is another dark lyric with a light, airy arrangement, while the scurrying strings of The Club provide a comely backdrop for a song about getting bounced.
Port Sulphur is a discerning Glasgow collective helmed by Love & Money guitarist and Creeping Bent honcho Douglas McIntyre, who has called in the services of Scotpop compadres such as Orange Juice guitarist James Kirk, Bluebells frontman Ken McCluskey and Del Amitri keyboard player Andy Alston plus urbane vocalist Vic Godard for this debut album concoction of analogue electronica, lean post-punk funk and chiming indie guitars.
There are knowing nods to McIntyre’s record label influences on Fast Boys and Factory Girls and he has even secured the characteristic feral whoops of late Suicide frontman Alan Vega on the industrial disco wigout of Red Star.
Fergus McCreadie Trio: Turas (Own Label) *****
Turas is Gaelic for journey, and this first album from award-winning young Scots pianist Fergus McCreadie suggests a highly fruitful expedition so far, immersing himself in traditional music which he subsumes seamlessly into his compositions in a manner reminiscent of trumpeter Colin Steele’s similarly accented forays. McCreadie combines dash with sensitivity, impeccably supported by double-bassist David Bowden and drummer Stephen Henderson. McCreadie lets rip one moment in the high-tension reel of The Back Burn; the next perambulating gently through Ardbeg – think Erik Satie running on Islay malt rather than absinthe. There are shades of EST in the quick-fire piano flurries over an ascending bass riff in Hillfoot Glen, while the spare, hymn-like melody
of The Old Harbour is borne gently along by a bossa-like shuffle. Apart from the sleeve’s wilfully cryptic tracklisting, Turas is a hugely engaging debut.
Beethoven Piano Concerto in D: The London Collection (Onyx) ****
Lest we forget, there is a sixth piano concerto by Beethoven: his own adaptation for piano and orchestra of the famous Violin Concerto, which is the major presence on this fascinating disc by pianist Dezan Lazić and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra under Gordan Nikolić. This reworking was encouraged by the London-based pianist, composer and publisher Muzio Clementi, whose own piano sonata, alongside that of his pupil Johann Baptist Cramer also feature. Lazić addresses the concerto with crisp directness and with the same self belief that Beethoven clearly applied. The Netherlands orchestra provides a gutsy, warm-toned backing to Lazić’s virile interpretation, complete with the extravagant cadenzas provided by the composer. The Clementi and Cramer sonatas (B minor & E major respectively) are sturdy representations of their gifted craftsmanship. But they’re not Beethoven.