Album reviews: Rachel Zeffira | Alicia Keys | Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra

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Our critics review the week’s new releases...


Rachel Zeffira musician , singer'Publicity pic Dec 2012

Rachel Zeffira musician , singer'Publicity pic Dec 2012

Rachel Zeffira: The Deserters

RAF Records, £12.99

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CANADIAN singer/composer Rachel Zeffira is classically trained but crossed over to the pop realm as one half of Cat’s Eyes (the other half being Horrors frontman Faris Badwan) and has stuck with the baroque-pop-meets-girl-group sound on this dreamy, seductive solo album. Her classical skills don’t go to waste – Zeffira plays the undulating piano on the title track and Silver City Days and the church organ arpeggios on Goodbye Divine, while the movie score strings on the graceful, twinkling Letters From Tokyo (Sayonara) and Krautrock pulse of Here On In are subtly arranged so as not to overwhelm her beguiling melodies and soft, breathy voice which sounds, by turns, innocent and tragic.

Various: Some Songs Side-By-Side

RE:PEATER Records/Stereo/Watts of Goodwill, web only

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GLASGOW labels RE:PEATER and Watts of Goodwill, and the venue Stereo, come together to present this double vinyl/CD document of the city’s alternative music scene, featuring eight bands from the class of 2012, with 12 minutes apiece at their disposal, and artwork from eight local artists including David Shrigley and Turner Prize winner Richard Wright. The musical results are low on fidelity but high in spirits, including the terse post-punk yelping of Palms, guttural, bilious punk jazz of Gummy Stumps, mischievous B-movie rockabilly of Tut Vu Vu and Slits-like Afro-punk guitars and off-kilter harmonies of Sacred Paws among the diverse DIY wares.

Alicia Keys: Girl On Fire

RCA, £12.99

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EVEN an artist as old-school as Alicia Keys is not immune to current blaring pop tendencies. The singles on her fifth album make full use of hip-hop cameos, martial drums, hands-in-the-air house breakdowns, dancehall chants and cosmetically soaring choruses. Fortunately, that’s where any resemblance to Rihanna ends but, by her own standards, Keys is treading water here. The jazz drumming on When It’s All Over is tasty but her smoochy slow jams are pretty formulaic, as are a number of trad piano ballads co-written with Emeli Sande, the pair of them in full clichéd lyrical flow. Keys’ voice remains a husky, aching delight (although strained at the upper end of her range), the better to milk the below-par material for all its limited worth.



An Emerald in a Work of Gold - Music from the Dow Partbooks

Delphian, £13.99

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THESE days, recordings of 16th-century sacred choral music and instrumental consort music are ten-a-penny. So when yet another disc of such repertoire hits the shelves it has to be something special to catch the attention. This new joint issue by the Oxford-based vocal Marian Consort and the Rose Consort of Viols may well have just that. The common factor is Rory McCleery, a former Edinburgh boy chorister who, as well as singing countertenor with the Marian, directs both ensembles. In a programme of music sourced from the Dow Partbooks of the 1580s, and containing beautiful examples of music by Byrd and Tallis alongside less familiar names, McCleery elicits performances that glow with golden purity and soul.



Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra: Schweben – Ay, but can ye?

Maya Recordings, £12.99

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THIS concert recording from Glasgow in 2009 documents one of GIO’s most ambitious projects – bassist, composer and conductor Barry Guy’s long composition/improvisation exploring the verbal inspiration of Mayakovsky and the visual input of Kandinsky. The first sound heard on the disc is the late Edwin Morgan reading his translation into Scots of Mayakovsky’s poem (the Ay, but can ye? of the title – Schweben is from a Kandinsky painting, and means to float), and it concludes with a short interview with the poet. In between, Guy’s piece unfolds over just under 48 minutes, combining notated sections, freely improvised interventions, and sharply contrasting dynamics and textural density in a constantly shifting abstract soundscape. Ultimately, though, a recording can only give a flavour of the impact of this kind of music in live performance.




OWN LABEL, £12.99

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If perhaps not quite as immediately attention-grabbing as their previous album, The Holy Coming of the Storm, the Seattle-based young old-timers are still in fine fettle on this latest helping from their own distinctive melting pot of bluegrass and old-time.

Morrison’s lyrics exude a near-religious eloquence, evoking rolling seas, the wind in the pines and a sense of dusty trails and distant horizons – “as any crow can tell you, the sky goes on forever”. Their keen-edged vocal harmonies are couched in impeccable acoustic playing, with plucked strings – guitar, clawhammer banjo, mandolin – intermeshing and whirring like clockwork.

The opening Stone to Sand sets the album’s tone while the title song is delivered with warmth and gusto, A Lady Does Not Often Falter has an old-fashioned winsomeness, and they breathe authentically lonesome life into the traditional Poor Cowboy and sing in praise of heart-breaking bar-room girls in Townes Van Zandt’s Loretta.



Titina: Portrait

Network, £13.99

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IT WAS only two decades ago that the music of Cape Verde first impinged on the wider world, thanks to the extraordinary sound of the late Cesaria Evora. Until then, this rocky string of volcanic islands had simply been known through its infamous history as the principal hub of the slave trade. Cesaria opened the floodgates, drawing out a posse of notable younger singers in her wake.

Born in the same city of Mindelo a few years later than Cesaria but possessing a less flamboyant persona, Titina was fated to work in Cesaria’s shadow. But from the first notes of the first track on this CD you are in the same world. At the same time, however, this is a very different singer. Titina has the same way Cesaria had of swooping up to a note, and her melodic line has a similarly lazy rise and fall, but her timbre is different, reflecting the different origins of her art. While Cesaria honed her talent in bars, Titina worked closely with the morna composer Jorge Monteiro from her mid-teens onwards, being taken to perform in Portugal where she developed her style. She has now lived there for decades, and is regarded as the grande dame of the Cape Verdean diaspora; last year she went back to Mindelo to sing for an audience of 50,000. This CD consists in part of a selection of songs from releases of the past two decades, and in part of recordings made for the 45rpm market in the 1960s, which had been thought lost. Her youthful voice has a thrilling edge of steel: her sound has softened over the years, but her artistry is still wonderful.