The Skids commendably maintain their rage and energy, while Neil Young returns to form
The Skids: Burning Cities (Nobad Records) ***
Neil Young + Promise of the Real: The Visitor (Reprise) ****
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Wrong Creatures (Vagrant) ***
For those with the stamina and the appetite, the old age punk scene can be a pretty energetic place. Dunfermline punk veterans The Skids enjoyed their 40th anniversary year so much that they have extended celebrations into 2018 and, with the release of this first new album in more than 36 years, presumably won’t be retiring anytime soon.
Their brilliant guitarist Stuart Adamson died 16 years ago but his old compadres Richard Jobson, bassist Bill Simpson and drummer Mike Baillie have judiciously expanded the Skids family with the addition of Adamson’s Big Country wingman Bruce Watson and his son Jamie to the line-up.
On this occasion, honorary membership also goes to their producer and contemporary Youth, who has captured that brawny, bear-with-a-sore-head thrashing energy once more. As for the raw material, The Skids were always a cantankerous, questioning band, able to capture local and global concerns in their pugilistic punk protest songs.
Once again, they find themselves trying to make sense of turbulent times. The song titles alone - This Is Our World, Kings of the New World Order – signal the same old but still relevant concerns. For Jobson and co, these are not the days for subtle intimations and they take their own advice to “shout it from the roofs, don’t be discreet” on A World On Fire, one of the album’s strongest vocal hooks, with Watson layering on the bagpipe guitar licks.
As before, spirit outweighs skill across their changing musical landscape, whether on the heart-on-sleeve war requiem Desert Dust, the unhinged garage rock urgency of Kaputt, the (relatively) haunting Refugee or with the pacey, propulsive synth rocker Subbotnik, which sounds like a belligerent Shot by Both Sides, resulting in an album which stays true to their legacy, offering a hearty greeting but baring a troubled soul.
For a while back there it felt as if Neil Young was the only musician raising a stink about anything – sadly, the music often stank along with it. Happily, he sounds in better shape on The Visitor, his latest wildly eclectic – and, in some places, just wild – collaboration with current backing compadres Promise of the Real, a bunch of young(er) guns including Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah, which was released late last year but is now available on vinyl.
Once more, Young goes straight for the political jugular, re-appropriating Trump’s campaign catchphrase on Already Great, which combines a gnarly, grungy sound with melancholy harmonies, burnished psychedelic guitar, plus jazzy piano in a loose but powerful protest anthem.
The thoughtful acoustic lament Almost Always is standard Young territory but he also rap-rant-raves over the band’s light, soulful refrain on the distorted blues of Fly By Night Deal and plays the fairground barker riding the sonic carousel on the playful Latin-flavoured Carnival, while MOR number Children of Destiny is, by turns, a booming, brassy anthem and beseeching, string-driven ballad from a steadfast artist determined to keep on rocking in the free world.
Having “toured till the wheels came off”, Californian leather boys (and girl) Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have simply checked the air and filled up their trusty machine with the same old indie rock’n’roll fuel on their eighth album – who knew there was life left in their wasted frames? Much of Wrong Creatures just sounds like out-takes from the latest Jesus & Mary Chain album and a couple of overlong numbers sag in the middle, but the sultry croon of Haunt, melodramatic swell of Echo, bluesy Little Thing Gone Wild and soused psychedelic lurch of Circus Bazooko revive the overall dynamics.
Shostakovich: Symphony No 6 & Sinfonietta (Alpha) ****
If any of Shostakovich’s symphonies testifies to the composer’s lighter charm, it is his Sixth. In this debut recording by the Estonian Festival Orchestra – a group created six years ago by conductor Paavo Järvi – that charm is spiritedly captured by the young musicians. The playing is deliciously fresh and alive, the passive grit of the opening Largo offset by the whimsical twists of the progressively faster Allegro and Presto. The final moments are a veritable riot of colour. Yet, as with all Shostakovich, there is a darkness lurking beneath the surface, which Järvi’s pungent vision forever hints at. The partnering work is Abram Stasevich’s strings and timpani arrangement of Shostakovich’s haunting 8th String Quartet, known as the Sinfonietta and written in response to “the victims of fascism and war”, performed here, to varying degrees, with daunting intensity, feverish venom and, finally, a mystical stillness in the closing bars.
Chris Stout/Catriona McKay: Bare Knuckle (Bare Knuckle Music) *****
Mitts off indeed, but the first album in seven years from virtuosic duo of fiddler Stout and harpist McKay is a marvellously creative match, if still, characteristically, striking sparks.
The opening pulse of Seeker Reaper evokes the engine thrum of the Loch Fyne ring-netter – the boat with “a solan’s hert” – of George Campbell Hay’s incantatory poem of the same title, and the album continues to pulsate with life, as in the jubilant bounding of Dealer in Hope or the silverfish sinuosity of the title track.
There are contemplative moments too, as with the plangent fiddle strains evoking a lost age in Tingaholm, and a languorous South American excursion in Villa Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 Prelúdio, while Louise’s Waltz, written for a departed friend, could as easily have remained a lament, but instead the melancholy coalesces and erupts into a defiant surge, the life-affirming energy of which permeates this whole album.