Rick Astley plays it safe with his new release, while Tom Bailey of Thompson Twins goes solo
Rick Astley: Beautiful Life (BMG) **
Tom Bailey: Science Fiction (Mikrokosmos Records) ***
Rab Noakes: Welcome to Anniversaryville (Neon Records) ****
The prevalence of YouTube and the ongoing boom in live music attendance has meant that pop artists who made even the briefest impressions on the charts back in the day no longer have to languish in obscurity – there will be a nostalgia package tour or festival ready and willing to supplement that trickle/flow of royalties and facilitate a comeback of sorts.
Rick Astley was, for a time in the late 80s, one of the biggest pop stars in the country, the golden boy of the Stock Aitken Waterman hit factory, with one global smash, Never Gonna Give You Up, and a host of soundalike follow-up hits under his belt.
He was the crushingly ordinary boy next door a good 25 years before Ed Sheeran cleaned up with the same shtick and he is taking his comeback seriously – his 2016 album 50 topped the proper charts and he has celebrated with a Rankin portrait for the cover of Beautiful Life, an album so bland and inoffensive that it fits right in with the current middle of the road pop singer/songwriter scene.
Astley is used to working to a safe formula and begins with the half-hearted yodel and anaemic disco pop of the title track before trying out the banal acoustic strum Chance to Dance and vacuous chest-beating ballad She Makes Me.
There’s a brief cameo for the deeper end of his range on Rise Up, a blatant appeal to The Good Old Days (because his fans know everything was better in the 80s), while the Gary Barlowesque ballad Empty Heart makes recent Take That recordings sound exciting.
One 80s pop name notable by its absence from the nostalgia bills is Thompson Twins. However, frontman Tom Bailey is now back on the festival circuit, having spent the last quarter century on more esoteric electronica, dub and world music projects.
Revisiting Thompson Twins’ back catalogue has inspired the commercial pop of his debut solo album Science Fiction and there are traces of Twins-style melodic signatures to be heard but none of the all-important unassailable hooklines.
Shooting Star begins wistfully but ends listlessly, Ship of Fools tries out a whistling refrain, Bailey, like Astley, appeals to a nostalgic audience with the sentiments of Bring Back Yesterday, and the best tune in the collection, on yearning ballad Come So Far, is partially lifted from the baroque pop hit L’Amour Est Bleu.
Fife-bred, Glasgow-based veteran Rab Noakes offers a more rounded and illuminating nod to times past on his latest release. Welcome to Anniversaryville is a studio record of his recent 70/50 live shows to mark his 70th birthday and 50th year as a performer, featuring the same talented, motley band on new material, covers and selections from his underappreciated back catalogue.
There is a timeless quality to his freewheeling troubadour tunes, atmospherically coloured with bluegrass fiddle. Everything flows contentedly, even when the sentiments are blue and Noakes is in fine voice throughout following a bout of tonsular cancer.
The noir folk number The Handwash Feein’ Mairket, inspired by the hiring and firing policy at his local carwash, showcases the storytelling quality of his singing, and he stays in a folky lane for The Twa Corbies, a duet with Gaelic singer Kathleen McInnes which shifts keys and time signatures to accommodate the alternative tune and translation, before rounding off with a couple of plaintive waltzes, the country standard Tennessee Waltz (with McInnes on evocative lead vocals) and Anniversary Song, co-written by Al Jolson to an old Romanian waltz tune.
Supplemented by Noakes’ sage sleevenotes, worth reading for his use of the word “crivvens” alone, Welcome to Anniversaryville is a pleasure and an education.
Alistair McCulloch Trio: Off the Hook (Rostral Records) ****
They may be off the hook but they’re also on the ball, a tight trio of musicians – fiddler, dance band player and teacher McCulloch, former Capercaillie whistle player Marc Duff and the bouzouki, guitar and singing of Aaron Jones.
With a keen ear for a good melody, they slide effortlessly into the swing of things with an opening pair of mazurkas, fiddle and whistle skipping around each other over Jones’s guitar. A fine Shetland set opens with McCulloch’s lingering solo playing of the air Da Day Dawn before he’s gradually joined by Duff then Jones to spin off into reel time.
There’s an Irish intonation to Jones’s singing of the plaintive Green Grow the Laurels and his jaunty but admirably clear recounting of Billy Taylor. Elsewhere, the sparkling Sidney’s set is followed by McCulloch’s own limpid air, Urquhart’s, demonstrating that his music can sing as well as spark.
Monteverdi: Messa a quattro voci et salmi of 1650, Vol II (Coro) *****
It is always worth revisiting Monteverdi, whose music possesses spiritual and human truths in equal measure. 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: the perfect collision of passion and musical form; wholesome homogeneity versus delicious, often florid detail. 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 juicer psalm settings. Two works by Cavalli and Piccinini are a further fruitful diversion.