Sting offers a stripped back return to rock but there’s little to get excited about. Honeyblood, meanwhile, are burning with energy and ambition
Sting: 57th & 9th ***
Honeyblood: Babes Never Die ****
American Wrestlers: Goodbye Terrible Youth ***
Relax, everyone: Sting’s latest offering is “not a lute album”. You heard it from the maker’s mouth. Rather, 57th & 9th has been hailed as his return to rock following classical, folk and Christmas albums and the semi-autobiographical concept album-turned-musical The Last Ship, which sank on Broadway after a three-month run.
His 12th studio release could almost be taken as a reaction against these ambitious projects, comprising songs written on the spot and recorded in quick no-fuss takes with members of his touring band and musicians from Tex-Mex outfit The Last Bandoleros.
He didn’t necessarily have to look too far for inspiration – in a nod to thinking on the move, he named 57th & 9th after the New York intersection he crossed on the way to the studio. Meanwhile, lead single I Can’t Stop Thinking About You is said to be about confronting the songwriter’s fear of the blank page and duly sounds thrown together from old Police cuttings.
He addresses the loss of fellow musicians such as Bowie and Lemmy and his friend Alan Rickman on 50,000, written in the week of Prince’s untimely death, but doesn’t have much poetic insight to add (“where did I put my spectacle case? I’m half blind and deaf as any post,” grumbles the 64-year-old) and hasn’t even bothered to write a tune for the verses.
Other tracks have clearer agendas. One Fine Day addresses climate change sceptics with, ironically, a balmy mildness, plus banal lyrics more fitting for a dry news report.
Movement and migration is a running theme. The band musters a meanish streak and heads out on the highway on Petrol Head though Sting himself sounds strained and fettered. He is much more at home retracing an older journey on the soft folky hymn Heading South on the Great North Road, a route which historically stretched from Edinburgh to London through his native Newcastle, or delivering the mellow meditation of Inshallah, a modern tale of refugee migration across Europe and beyond. But regardless of musical style, this is not an auspicious collection of songs.
Glasgow guitar/drums duo Honeyblood show off their strong, supple, sexy songwriting chops on their second album, with melody to spare. There’s a no-nonsense lyricism to Babes Never Die and no fat on the music either, though they do allow for some grit in their indie pop bubblegum, as on the considered diss of Hey, Stellar. Dark and dirty characters come and go across its ten tracks. The buzzsaw pop of Ready For The Magic is so fleet-footed it barely touches the ground, but the slower tracks are equally, if not more compelling. On the sultry Love Is A Disease, the low hum of synths beefs out the guitar/drums pincer attack and there’s a touch of witching hour mystery to the rapturous Walking At Midnight.
There is a comforting familiarity to St Louis indie outfit American Wrestlers, though that may well just be the recognisable brogue of frontman Gary McClure filtering through – McClure was Manchester-based for some years but originally hails from Glasgow. He moved to the US mid-west for love and marriage a couple of years ago but, despite landing in the middle of their own political storm, has chosen to open Goodbye Terrible Youth with the grungey indie post-mortem of Vote Thatcher. The overall lack of budget almost strangles the guitar solo on Someone Far Away but there is definite lo-fi charm at work here and, like Honeyblood, a keen ear for a tune.
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No 1 & Symphony No 5 ****
It’s not surprising this biting, visceral account of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 gets right to the heart of the music. As a pupil of Rostropovich, and one who even plays one of the great virtuoso’s old cellos, this performance by Xavier Phillips speaks of connection and profound understanding. He performs with the excellent self-directing French ensemble Les Dissonance and there is a gripping synergy in the hard-hitting energy of the opening movement, languid lyricism of the second and the haranguing grotesquerie of the finale. Phillips’ vision of the self-contained cadenza is compelling, as is the pulverising immediacy of this live recording. It is accompanied by a more recently recorded version of the Fifth Symphony, which is characterised by equal measures of raw intensity and delicious serenity. It’s a warmer view of the symphony than some, but not to the detriment of its many chilling, demonic moments.
Angus Nicolson Trio: Sealladh Àrd ****
From Sleat on Skye, Angus Nicolson, steeped in piping, also embraces Irish and other contemporary folk influences. Here he rejoins guitarist Murdo Cameron and percussionist Andrew MacPherson for their second album, augmented by bassist Duncan Lyall, Iain MacFarlane on button accordion and Allan Henderson on fiddle and piano.
This is keenly played, straight-ahead piping, the trio tight and comfortable in each other’s company, the muted thump of McPherson’s bodhran and Cameron’s guitar driving the tunes, the latter also providing a gently lyrical introduction to a hymn tune, in limpid contrast to the all-out but still steadily controlled exuberance of jigs at the gallop in the Wedding Jigs and Roderick MacDonald sets.
There’s further variety with Nicolson sounding some stately 2/4 and 3/4 marches and a crisp hornpipe set, while things shift across the Sea of Moyle with a set of whistle-led jigs. ■