Country pop pioneer Shania Twain is back after a 15 year hiatus, but the songs still sound the same
Shania Twain: Now (Mercury Nashville) **
Adam Holmes & The Embers: Midnight Milk (Gogar Records) ****
David Crosby: Sky Trails (BMG) ****
Brix & the Extricated: Part 2 (Blang Records) ****
Canadian diva Shania Twain dominated the slick country pop market back when Taylor Swift was still toddling. Returning with her first new album in 15 years, one cannot grudge her hanging on to this territory when she could – and arguably should – long have outgrown it. Twain has fought hard for her comeback. Following her divorce from producer and co-writer Mutt Lange, she is flying solo this time with her first entirely self-penned set and has literally had to find her voice again following a bout of dysphonia, a disorder of the vocal folds which is a singer’s worst nightmare.
Having effectively relearned to sing, Twain notes her voice has changed irrevocably – under the slick swathes of production here, the layman would hardly notice the join.
If anything, Twain sounds as youthful and liberated as ever on the hip-pop likes of More Fun. She contends that Now is not her divorce album, although what else to make of the trepidatious ballad I’m Alright or the line “I had to believe that things would get better, it was time to forget you – forever” on comeback single Life’s About To Get Good?
She addresses her anxieties about returning to the spotlight on the brash reggae-tinged pop of Swingin’ With My Eyes Closed, captures a sense of longing on album highlight Who’s Gonna Be Your Girl, digs her heels in on marginally rockier number Roll Me On The River and takes a well-thumbed leaf out of the Beyoncé and Amy Winehouse handbooks with the sanitised Motown groove of You Can’t Buy Love. Having diluted country music for mass pop consumption 20 years ago, Twain is now virtually indistinguishable from the efficient pop queens who emerged in her wake.
Adam Holmes & The Embers follow up the wonderful Brighter Still with an ambitious bedroom recording featuring mandolin, bouzouki, glockenspiel, horn section and the massed soulful strains of the Midnight Choir. That’s a lot of folks crammed into Holmes’ bedroom but it makes for a harmonious mix of folk, blues, soul, gospel and even a (mercifully) brief burst of rap. Midnight Milk is a rather middle of the road collection but, thanks to the mellow Afrobeat of Don’t Worry, the blithe, twinkly gospel pop of No Man Is An Island, the soothing reggae rhythm of Big Blue Sun and the calming devotional lullaby Can You Feel The Fire Inside, it delivers on Holmes’ aim to generate an atmosphere of completeness and satisfaction.
There is further holistic easy listening from the venerable David Crosby who, having parted ways with Graham Nash for the umpteenth time, is on a fertile solo kick. The old warhorse claims to be tired of the news but still manages to address the issue of blood diamonds on Sell Me A Diamond and electoral corruption on Capitol. Sky Trails was mostly co-written with his son James Raymond, who adds flamenco flourishes on Curved Air, while the recurring use of smooth soprano saxophone and beatific hippy harmonies creates a mellow Steely Dan vibe throughout.
TV fashionista Brix Smith-Start, onetime guitar basher with The Fall, reunites with her former bandmates Steve and Paul Hanley in Brix & the Extricated to create that winning mix of serrated punk, baleful garage swagger and muscular pop attitude which characterised many of the 90s grunge bands who were, in turn, influenced by The Fall. They reclaim Fall numbers Feeling Numb and Hotel Bloedel for themselves and invoke the spirit of Smith’s post-Fall outfit The Adult Net with the softer breathy indie pop of Moonrise Kingdom.
Russian Works for Four Hands: Stravinsky, Rachmaninov & Stravinsky (Delphian) ****
Russian folk music has a uniquely potent quality, frowningly lugubrious on the one hand, deliciously capricious on the other. Small wonder it found an inspirational presence in the music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky. This wonderfully listenable piano duo release by pianists Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith offers music by all three. The disc opens with Rachmaninov’s Six Morceaux Op 11, early works that find the composer honing his voice, reinterpreting the original melodies to create prototypes for his later music. They are elegantly played, before our ears are refreshed by 23 of Tchaikovsky’s ultra-succinct Fifty Russian Folk Songs. They finish with Stravinsky’s Petrushka in its 1947 four-hand version for piano. Needle-sharp rhythmic articulation coupled with tonal variation and expressiveness create a joyous, rustic performance.
Lauren MacColl: The Seer (Feis Rois) ****
Black Isle fiddler Lauren McColl taps into the lore with which she grew up, concerning the famous 17th-century Highland prophet known as the Brahan Seer, whose foretellings linger with us today, and who met his end in a barrel of burning tar. Deftly assisted by Mairearad Green on accordion and Border pipes, Megan Henderson on fiddle and piano, guitarist Anna Massie, harpist-singer Rachel Newton and drummer James Mackintosh, MacColl has composed expressive, often atmospheric music, without indulging in melodrama. A dark-toned strathspey introduces Coinneach Odhar, the Seer himself, followed by a dramatically edgy reel representing his nemesis, Lady Isabella (wife of the 3rd Earl of Seaforth) while further excitement is generated by Loch Ussie, with its pipes sounding over taut pizzicato strings. Newton sings a Gaelic lullaby for the ill-starred child, while Drumossie, laments the blood-soaked Culloden Moor he would prophesy.