Two decades after their debut, Stereophonics show a willingness to experiment, while Billy Bragg seeks out injustice
Stereophonics: Scream Above The Sounds (Parlophone Records) ***
Billy Bragg: Bridges Not Walls (Cooking Vinyl) ***
Golden Teacher: No Luscious Life (Golden Teacher Records) ***
Roy Orbison with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: A Love So Beautiful (Sony Legacy ) ***
While some of their peers are succumbing to marketing-driven nostalgia, Stereophonics are marking 20 years since the release of their debut album Word Gets Around, not with an anniversary re-issue but with new music which takes this conservative rock band into the most interesting sonic territory they have investigated since 2005’s Language. Sex. Violence. Other?
They start with what they know, given a performance-enhancing injection. Kelly Jones’ ragged soul voice is shown off to good advantage on middle of the road roots rocker Caught By the Wind, while he learns to stop furrowing his brow and get that foot on the monitor on Taken A Tumble.
All In One Night, inspired by the one-take heist movie Victoria, with a refrain adapted from a vocal warm-up exercise, is one of the smoother, snoozier, more streamlined numbers but there is better to come on Geronimo, a mid-paced blues rock stomp, livened up with punky saxophone and jazzy piano licks and the softer, melancholic strains of What’s All The Fuss About? embellished by lithe, layered, mournful trumpet and a rich, focused vocal.
Jones allows himself a backwards glance on Before Anyone Knew Our Name, a sentimental piano ballad reflecting on the early days of the band and the death of original drummer Stuart Cable, and Boy On A Bike, which contrasts the invincibility of his own childhood with the circumscription of adulthood.
Jones has described the new material as anthems to rally round in fractured times; Billy Bragg, as one might expect, just goes for the jugular on his latest mini-album, reacting as he goes to the volatility of the past year with country songs on climate change, soul songs about race hate and folk songs about the free market, the most satisfying of which are the most timeless.
The spare soul swagger of The Sleep of Reason responds to the rise of Trumpism but is a challenge to good men doing nothing, while Anais Mitchell’s Why We Build The Wall was originally written for her folk opera Hadestown, inspired by Greek mythology, but bristles with cautionary intent in Bragg’s hands.
Saffiyah Smiles was inspired by the photograph of activist Saffiyah Khan smiling in the face of hate at an anti-immigration rally earlier this year – Bragg takes up the chant “this is what solidarity looks like”. Full English Brexit plays into the narrative of Leave voters as nostalgic Little Englanders but does at least acknowledge a sense of disenfranchisement in the wistful line “change is strange and no one is listening to me”.
Meanwhile, back on the dancefloor, Glasgow’s Golden Teacher, one of the city’s most idiosyncratic ensembles, finally deliver their debut album. No Luscious Life is playful, unfettered electro funk, arguably best experienced live. Its arty party playlist encompasses the deadpan dance of Sauchiehall Withdrawal, disorientating dub of Shatter, electronic gamelan of the title track, cosmic house odyssey of Spiritron and darkly mischievous machine music of What Fresh Hell Is This? Get on their guest list.
There are few more celestial sounds in music than the unique voice of Roy Orbison. With the blessing and participation of his sons, A Love So Beautiful resurrects vocal recordings from across his career and surrounds his haunted, transcendent tones with new orchestral arrangements by the Royal Philharmonic. The scurrying strings convey the urgency of I Drove All Night and there is exquisite melodrama to spare, but nothing that cannot be better expressed by the sublime originals.
Shostakovich: Piano Concertos & Piano Sonatas (Signum) *****
Following his engaging release of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, pianist Peter Donohoe turns his attention to the composer’s two piano concertos and two piano sonatas. He opens with Sonata No. 1, a grim, serious and austere nod to the older Prokofiev. Donohoe’s needle-sharp articulation and firmness of tone set the nerves appropriately on edge, carving out the music’s contours with glacial insistence. Then there’s the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, which immediately introduces a feast of jollity and mischief, but also embraces the gorgeous expansiveness of the Lento and irrepressible energy of the Brio finale. The second Piano Sonata is a substantial creation, which Donohoe invests with a menagerie of colours and moods, before embarking on the Concerto No 2, with a hint of darkness, dispelled by the carefree cut and thrust of the finale.
Courtney Pine: Black Notes from the Deep (Freestyle Records) ****
This ballad-rich recording by the Courtney Pine sees him accompanied by the sterling trio of double-bassist Alec Dankworth, pianist Robert Mitchell and drummer Rod Youngs. Guest singer Omar’s creamy, soul-jazz vocals feature on the opening track, Rules, which also sees Pine forsake soprano saxophone and bass clarinet to forcibly declare his return to the tenor sax. He switches between sax and quavering wind synth in the elegant glide of You Know Who You Are and blows delectably murmuring flutes in A Change is Sure to Come – a counter, perhaps, to the dark-toned though still surprisingly mellow Rivers of Blood, its title echoing Enoch Powell’s infamous speech. The sole cover sees Omar give lithe voice to Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly while the measured languor of How Many More? intensifies as Mitchell delicately paves the way and Pine takes off in arguably his most powerful solo on the album.