The Scotsman’s music critics cast their ears over the latest album releases, including The Maccabees’ Marks To Prove It and HEALTH’s Death Magic
Earlier this week, one of a multitude of clickbait multiple choice quizzes may have caught music fans’ attention as it appeared in their Twitter or Facebook feeds. The objective was to identify the contemporary band just from a picture of their line-up – the twist being that each group was composed entirely of “white guys.” It was as tricky as it sounds; surely over the entire course of the rock music era, no point in time has seen quite as much of a proliferation of white guy bands as the present day, particularly those who prefix their name with “The”.
Hard news for London quintet the Maccabees, then, a “The” band comprised entirely of white guys. Not that their unfortunate affliction has been entirely a hindrance, with their previous three albums since 2007 getting a little bit higher in quality each time, earning progressively higher sales and better reviews. What this means, however, is that to avoid slipping back into the trap set by their essential Caucasian “The”-ness, they can’t let up the quality for a moment. And this, album number four, is a significant step up from 2012’s Given to the Wild, partly because it eschews the bright-eyed exuberance best exemplified by that record’s careening lead single Pelican for something far more personal and introspective.
The opening track struts in on a frantic, punkish bassline and a crackle of nervous energy, before coalescing into singer Orlando Weeks’ nasal eloquence. The song resounds with the sound of the city, so much that you can almost smell the summer exhaust fumes. “No-one was lonely/they just couldn’t get hold of anybody,” he yelps, alienation averted momentarily. Elsewhere the city isn’t so welcoming.
He’s “drinking when you’re drunk /to chase down the evening” on the austere clash of sad guitars that is Kamakura, with an urgent, Arcade Fire-like ferocity emerging from the twinkling cityscapes of Spit It Out. Silence is a piano ballad which speaks of comfort and alienation at once, Weeks looking for “someone to be there when it ends/when you’re scared and lost.” River Song (possibly a Doctor Who reference) floats on discordant jazz saxophone, while a mournful, morning-after trumpet splits Slow Sun.
The album is intended as a bittersweet tribute to the band’s rapidly-changing home in the Elephant & Castle area of London – its famous roundabout adorns the cover. They achieve this in the folksy, vaguely Pogues-like reverie of Something Like Happiness, WW1 Portraits’ ghostly psychogeography and Pioneering Systems, a resonant reflection on the simultaneous dehumanisation and hyper-experience of city living of which Damon Albarn would be proud. Had they not become so hung up on Mockneyism and Britpop, this is the kind of album Blur – another white guy band made good – may have arrived at much earlier in their career. DAVID POLLOCK
HEALTH: Death Magic
Plundering the style of the 1980s has been a shortcut to credibility for many artists of late, but Los Angeles noise rockers turned austere electronica outfit Health are stood in good stead by both their own critical reputation over two previous, more underground albums (the last was in 2009) and the superior quality of their music here.
Electronic beats grind into gear in apparent homage to Depeche Mode or Marilyn Manson, while a sparse, synthetic sheen sounds reminiscent of the recent chillwave movement. The vocal parts, meanwhile, echo Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant at his least flappable. It’s a great record, accessible and borderline anthemic, but with an icy heart which takes a bit of melting. DP
Vetiver: Complete Strangers
In the years up to and including his last album The Errant Charm in 2011, San Francisco’s Andy Cabic (Vetiver’s bandleader and essentially holder of the group’s name) was ploughing a furrow most associated with the new folk revival pioneered by artists like Devendra Banhart and Edinburgh-based returnee Vashti Bunyan in the mid-2000s. The four-year break hasn’t diminished his ability to write a pleasingly mellow song, although the surrounding styles have been radically altered in places. Pastoral folksiness harking back to the West Coast sound of the 1960s remains, joined by the trippy lounge groove of Confiding and Shadows Lane, and a dilute electronic edge to Shadows Still. DP
Schumann: Piano Concerto
The problem sometimes is in attuning your ears to a completely novel way of approaching a concerto warhorse like Schumann’s popular Piano Concerto. But it’s only a matter of seconds after the initial shock of Alexander Melnikov’s unsentimentally triumphant opening piano flourish, and the raw and exciting edge given to it by the use of fortepiano rather than modern piano, before the buoyant energy and translucence of his interpretation, and the equally vivid presence of the Freiburger Barockorchester under Pablo Heras-Casado, make their gripping mark on music you thought you knew well. It is tasteful, exuberant and revelatory, with the added bonus of Schumann’s Piano Trio No 2 Op 80 played by Melnikov, violinist Isabelle Faust and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, and a DVD of the concerto played live in the Berlin Philharmonie. KEN WALTON
A widely-acclaimed quintet of Norwegian and Swedish musicians, SVER comprises fiddlers Olav Luksengård Mjelva and Anders Hall (collaborators with Shetlander Kevin Henderson in Nordic Fiddlers Bloc), accordionist Leif Ingvar Ranøien, guitarist Adam Johansson and drummer Jens Linell.
The opening title Lompa Drives a Tractor may smack of stolid Soviet realism, but these tunes are far from plodding. The combination of Hardanger and conventional fiddles with accordion produces a multi-textured tonal effect driven along with enormous zest, as in Måsså ti Nåsså (“Moss in the Nose”), while Total Carnage is a full-tilt tribute to the Shetland Folk Festival. In contrast is a lovely lullaby, Sova.
Johansson generates crisp guitar rhythms while Linell bashes a tambourine, and anything else he can get his hands on. Just occasionally he could have laid off the cymbals, but it seems churlish to carp at an album that inarguably lives up to its title, which means joy. JIM GILCHRIST
Heads Of State: Search For Peace
Smoke Sessions Records
Senior jazz statesmen, alto saxophonist Gary Bartz, pianist Larry Willis, drummer Al Foster and bassist Buster Williams, have played together in numerous configurations over the past half-century. Now they’ve finally got together as a quartet to produce classic, post-bop jazz by the likes of Coltrane, Carter and Strayhorn, muscling in right away with a pacy rendition of Coltrane’s Impressions.
Bartz’s tone is warm and playful in numbers such as Billy Strayhorn’s Lotus Blossom, double bass murmuring nicely behind, while his own tune, Uncle Bubba is jauntily tuneful. Elsewhere, there is loose-limbed swing and sax riffing on Soulstice and Summer Serenade and, in contrast, the lingering phrasing of Crazy She Calls Me, delicately opened by Willis. The title track is McCoy Tyner’s lovely ballad, introduced by Willis’s tentative chording and teased out by Bartz, both saxophonist and pianist rendering it with consideration and affection. JC