The Led Zeppelin frontman trades power ballads for laid-back blues, while Pink and St Vincent offer some confessional angst
Robert Plant: Carry Fire ***
Pink: Beautiful Trauma ***
St Vincent: Masseduction ****
While many of his peers happily meet the demands of their fans to hear the hits of bygone years, Robert Plant has used the luxury of choice that came with the Grammy-winning success of his Raising Sand album with Alison Krauss ten years ago to immerse himself in new directions.
On Carry Fire, he sails forth once again with the Sensational Space Shifters, a veritable five-piece world orchestra who colour Plant’s blues rock roots with their specialisations – mainly north African desert blues and eastern devotional music plus an interest in new technology – to create a seamless blend of ancient and modern, which has been further moulded by touring so the results never feel forced or contrived.
The digitally retooled folk blues of The May Queen is as good a taster as any for those who may still think of Plant as the mane-shaking, floor-quaking frontman of Led Zeppelin. Those rock god athletics have given way to a surprisingly soft, breathy style which suits the soothing philosophising of Season’s Song, a lullaby in crazy times.
At points, it’s all a little too laid-back but then some gentle swell, such as guest player Redi Hasa’s mournful cello on A Way With Words, will lift the understatement. The music may be subtle but it is not insular. The acid blues raga Carving Up The World Against…A Wall and Not a Fence is titled after a Trump quote, while Bones of Saints rumbles with righteous discontent.
While The Stones and Van Morrison have both recently released albums of blues standards, the only cover here is a considerably reworked rendition of rockabilly number Bluebirds Over the Mountain, with complementary vocals from Chrissie Hynde. Its Zep-style exercise in harnessed heft leaves you hungry for the unleashing of that dormant power. But Plant has traded that old party piece for an idiosyncratic new sound.
Pink is the best of pop stars, though she’s not at her musical best on Beautiful Trauma, her first new album in five years. “My mouth gets me in trouble all the time,” she proclaims, and at least there is no mistaking her gutsy vocals and unsanitised perspective on the lyrics of But We Lost It, a candid country pop ballad on the ups and downs of marriage. But her confessional angst is robbed of its pop piquancy when lashed to the likes of banal banger What About Us. She teams up with fellow pop renegade Eminem on Revenge but their more mature
hearts aren’t really in its call for payback.
St Vincent, meanwhile, is the leftfield art pop darling du jour. Like Pink, the sleekness of her music belies the twisted lyrics and she is also in confessional mood, teasing “if you want to know about my life, listen to this record”. Coming from the woman who has dated Cara Delevingne and Kristen Stewart, that’s quite an invitation. But unlike Pink, her moniker really is a masking device so the key line “I can’t turn off what turns me on” could be a celebration of difference, or it could just be a catchy play on words.
The humorous Pills is a Tom Tom Club-style rap on our self-medicated society with a comedown coda featuring the sultry saxophone of Kamasi Washington. She revs things up with the squalling industrial funk of the title track, electro whipcrack of Young Lover and Giorgio Moroder-style oscillation of Sugarboy but literally sinks pretty deep on exposed noir ballad Smoking Section when she drawls at the bottom end of her range about suicidal tendencies.
Music for the Queen of Heaven: Contemporary Marian Motets *****
Marian texts have inspired the religious settings of generations of composers, and it’s refreshing to hear some of the latest in this programme of contemporary anthems sung by the enchantingly smooth ensemble of The Marian Consort under Rory McCleery. They open with the liquid harmonies of Gabriel Jackson’s Salve Regina, before embarking on an exciting and varied vocal journey that encompasses the punchiness of Judith Weir, the comforting modalism of Herbert Howells, the mystical simplicity of Andrzej Panufnik (and his daughter Roxanna’s gorgeous Magnificat), the mildly exotic resplendence of Cecilia McDowall’s Alma redemptoris mater, and to finish, James MacMillan’s beautifully nuanced Ave maris stella. These a cappella performances are spot on in terms of intonation and crafted realisation of the texts in musical form. Nothing fanciful, just plain good taste.
Cécile McLorin Salvant: Dreams and Daggers *****
Though only 28, Cécile McLorin Salvant’s vocal power and dexterity, emotional depth and wit all gel in this tour de force live performance. Superbly accompanied by Aaron Diehl on piano, Paul Sikivie on bass and drummer Lawrence Leathers, occasionally complemented by the Catalyst string quartet, Salvant can be almost disquietingly multi-voiced (listen to I Didn’t Know What Time It Was) while bringing a wonderfully slinky, sardonic edge to Noel Coward’s Mad About the Boy. In contrast, Diehl changes into sparkling blues mode for the uproarious come-uppance of Sam Jones’ Blues and the rollicking You’ve Got to Give Me Some, while the brief, racy narrative of Running Wild is matched by urgent bass and flickering hi-hat. Strings bring a rich but not over-lush plangency to the sensual yearning of You’re My Thrill, but the most powerful moments come from Salvant herself, in the simmering ire of Gershwin’s My Man’s Gone Now. ■