Paul Simon puts a new spin on old material, while Anna Calvi electrifies on her return to pop
Paul Simon: In The Blue Light (Legacy) ****
Anna Calvi: Hunter (Domino) ****
The Kooks: Let’s Go Sunshine (Lonely Cat/Awal Recordings) ***
Aaron Lee Tasjan: Karma For Cheap (New West Records) ***
Paul Simon is presently in a ruminative state of mind, rounding off his farewell tour with a quiet confidence. His writing and recording career is by no means over but he can be forgiven the backwards glance of In the Blue Light on which he has chosen to revisit lesser known tracks from his solo back catalogue in re-arranged and even slightly re-written form, “like a new coat of paint on the walls of an old family home”.
The results are largely downbeat but lovingly wrought in the company of expert musicians such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, guitarist Bill Frisell and the crossover classical ensemble yMusic, currently enhancing Simon’s final shows with their vocal and instrumental prowess.
Their curt, perky strings combine with scurrying woodwind on a new version of Can’t Run But from Rhythm of the Saints, arranged by Bryce Dessner of The National, while Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War, originally inspired by a photograph of the same, is finessed as an elegant, intimate chamber piece.
Boundaries between blues and jazz dissolve in this assured company. The laidback strut of One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor is shown some southern hospitality but also embellished with delicate cascading jazz piano. There is a gentle flamenco flourish to the guitar playing on The Teacher, around which lithe but sparing saxophone is draped, while the lovely, languorous How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns is rendered as a dusky croon.
The whole album suggests a sense of Simon winding down, yet is so creatively on point that it could signal the start of a whole new fertile recording chapter from this master songwriter.
Like her peers St Vincent and Joan As Policewoman, Anna Calvi is an artistic shapeshifter and smart stylist rather than a knockout songwriter. Following diversions over the last five years into film music and opera, she returns to a poppier place with Hunter, her most mainstream record to date.
Calvi has always been a power dresser. This time round, she embraces gender fluidity in the lyrics, coming over like an earthier Christine and the Queens as she explores the idea of woman as predator on As A Man and Alpha (“I divide and conquer”).
Through the sleekness of the production, she retains the drama in her vocal delivery, letting rip on Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Boy, as well as showcasing her signature incendiary guitar riffing, now with an industrial blues tinge on Indies or Paradise, before the tone becomes progressively softer and silkier on the sultry romance of Swimming Pool and pared-back rapture of Away.
Following this, it’s hard to get worked up – positively or negatively – about cheery indie combo The Kooks who have evolved steadily over the last decade to a reasonably assured state where their new album can accommodate 60s beat pop stylings (Tesco Disco), acoustic rock’n’roll strumming (Honey Bee) and 70s MOR pop (Weight of the World) alongside the more predictable knees-up indie of Pamela and the inoffensive coasting of No Pressure.
Nashville-based Aaron Lee Tasjan has already exhibited the potential to jostle Ryan Adams for rock Americana guitar hero status with his previous album Silver Tears and gleefully eclectic live shows. But he sells himself a little short on the accessible roots pop of Karma For Cheap, with only bittersweet country pop ballad Dream Dreamer and the Roy Orbison-influenced Strange Shadows standing out from the pleasant background listening.
Schubert Symphony No 5 & Brahms Serenade No 2 (Soli deo Gloria) *****
In a work that leans so much to Mozart, given its youthful and effortless joie de vivre, lyrical ease and crystalline scoring, the clue to cracking the nut of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony is simply to observe the obvious. Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique, with its raw precision and characterful woodwinds, hits the nail on the head. They simply let the music unfold with natural charm, imbuing its neatly proportioned phrases with infinite expressive detail. Nothing is a matter of routine, least of all the seething climaxes in the Andante, which erupt with tasteful grit. But it is the overriding sense of irrepressible cheerfulness that truly liberates this performance. There are darker colours in the violin-less Second Serenade of Brahms, but this just makes the burnished eloquence of Gardiner’s wind players all the more exciting. The result is a performance of warmth and passion.
Tom Barford: Bloomer (Edition Records) ****
Winner of the 2017 Kenny Wheeler Jazz Prize, young saxophonist Tom Barford makes a highly convincing recording debut with this quintet featuring Rupert Cox on piano, guitarist Billy Marrow, drummer Dave Story and bassist Flo Moore. The title track gives a purposeful taste of things to come in terms of dynamic range and lyricism. F Step sees tenor sax rejoicing over a funky rhythm section and scuzzily voluble guitar before piano cascades around a muted bass and drum path, while sax and guitar drift over glimmers of piano in Space to Dream. Razztwizzler combines muscular tenor sax with swirling organ and gutsy guitar work, while soprano sax dances through Phizzwizard (a predilection here for BFG-inspired titles), and is escorted companionably along by strolling piano accompaniment in Music for an Imaginary Film. The brief but expressive Ideology, meanwhile, is a tribute to saxophonist (and album producer) Iain Ballamy.