NEW LPs from veteran crooner Tom Jones and Edinburgh indie band The Spook School are measured up by our critics alongside jazz from David Patrick Octet and a folk album of beautiful instrumental timbres by Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin
Tom Jones: Long Lost Suitcase | Virgin EMI | ****
Sir Tom has gone for the treble. Although it may not suit the knicker-throwing contingent of his audience, who love the roaring, rambunctious side of Tom Jones, he has continued along the pared-down path of his previous two albums Praise and Blame and Spirit in the Room to produce another collection of relatively reflective rootsy covers.
Long Lost Suitcase is being punted as a companion piece to his autobiography, Over the Top and Back. It’s not quite Tracks of My Years – here’s the song which reminds him of his first kiss, etc, etc – more a cohesive effort to honour the (almost exclusively) American music which has chimed with him thoughout his life, and produce a trilogy of albums not unlike Johnny Cash’s inspired American series, with producer Ethan Johns as his Rick Rubin.
Like its two predecessors, Long Lost Suitcase is a carefully curated and sensitively arranged collection which aspires to the haunting fatalism and emotional gut-punch of Cash’s cathartic recordings. But where Cash seemed to be singing his life, Jones is more of an interpreter, deliberately reining in that big voice when required so as not to stomp all over the stripped-down yet sonorous arrangements. By way of compensation, Johns lavishes on the echo effect – well, that is certainly one way for a performance to resonate.
Hank Williams’ marital blues Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used To Do? is dispatched with acoustic simplicity though Jones can’t resist the hint of a melodramatic flourish on Willie Nelson’s Opportunity to Cry. He plays off Imelda May with spirit on the elegantly retro bluegrass harmony ballad Honey, Honey, but a copycat cover of The Rolling Stones’ Appalachian country rocker Factory Girl sounds like it’s been sepia-tinted after the fact, like a pair of pre-ripped jeans you can buy on the high street.
Jones’s voice is simply better suited to the blues. He gets stuck in lustily to Little Willie John’s Take My Love (I Want to Give It), keeps things stealthy and restrained on Sonny Boy Williamson’s strutting Bring It Home, can really dig into Eddie Floyd’s Til My Back Ain’t Got No Bone, and then reverts to foghorn form while contemplating his departed contemporary on Gillian Welch’s Elvis Presley Blues.
Raise A Ruckus is more gentle toe-tapper than wild shindig, but there is no denying the ebullient energy of I Wish You Would – think Yardbirds, not Taylor Swift – with Jones in his element, whooping it up like a Celtic Jim Morrison over the fuzzed-up rock’n’roll playing.
In contrast, Tomorrow Night is a right retro last dance shuffle which plays to his capacity for overegging the lachrymose delivery. Restraint is a valuable dynamic tool, but there is no point sticking a leash on Tom Jones. FIONA SHEPHERD
John Grant: Grey Tickles, Black Pressure | Bella Union | ****
John Grant can write a caustic torch ballad such as No More Tangles in his sleep – but that’s a more creative sleep than the vast majority of his peers.
On his third solo album, bookended by Bible readings on love, he takes a scalpel to that most agonising of emotions. His trademark pithy rhyming couplets, kitchen sink cultural references and conversational put-downs sit side by side with the most poetic expressions of rapture but this time round the swooning, soaring orchestral MOR numbers share the spotlight with quirky electro funk tracks and droll baritone spoken word interludes which are tougher to engage with. FS
The Spook School: Try to Be Hopeful | Fortuna POP! | ***
The queer punk scene takes a twee indie pop steer courtesy of Edinburgh’s The Spook School (among other kindred spirits).
Their second album is a fizzing half-hour hurtle through the gender and sexual identity issues which strike closest to home for this non-binary four-piece, as expressed most directly on opening track Burn Masculinity and most catchily by the unlikely “I am bigger than a hexadecimal” hookline of Binary. The music of The Spook School may be frothy but the sentiments cut through. FS
David Patrick Octet: The Rite of Spring | David Patrick Music | *****
Igor Stravinsky was a jazz fan, not only writing his Ebony Concerto for clarinettist Woody Herman, but expressing uproarious delight in New York’s Birdland when Charlie Parker slipped the opening of The Firebird into his Ko-Ko. He surely would have appreciated pianist David Patrick’s boldly imaginative and downright thrilling jazz take on his iconoclastic Rite of Spring.
With a powerful eight-piece, including such Scottish jazz luminaries as Brian Molley on clarinet and saxes, trumpeter Tom MacNiven and trombonist John Kenny, as well as German drummer Ole Seimetz, Patrick brings a sympathetic but entirely fitting jazz sensibility to the work’s vivid instrumental colour and inherent syncopation.
Soprano sax substitutes for oboe in the introductory forest murmurs, reeds and brass call and countercall and soloists bray elementally as the pagan ritual intensifies.
Quieter but hauntingly atmospheric sequences include the stealthy Mystical Dances, while Patrick never lets the tension slacken as the dance of death approaches its climax, ushered on by a sardonically explosive trombone break. JIM GILCHRIST
Solitudes: Baltic Reflections | Delphian | DCD34156 | ****
For the past 20 years, the imaginative unorthodoxy of Mr McFall’s Chamber has singled it out as a flamboyant presence on the Scottish music scene. It has explored the sensual world of modern tango, not least a rich Finnish output in that genre; explored (through cellist Su-a Lee) the musical saw; pioneered new music and generally trod a distinctive path.
This anniversary CD isn’t simply celebratory bells and whistles, but a serious focus on music for strings and piano combinations from the Eastern Baltic, which includes Olli Mustonen’s resonating Toccata, a variety of works embracing modernism, folksongs and tango, and the final piece of indulgence, an arrangement of Sibelius’ Finlandia featuring Lee’s inimitable saw-playing. KEN WALTON
Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin: Watershed | Dragonfly Roots | ****
They’ve done it again. The award-winning West Country duo follow up their last studio album, the excellent Mynd, with another collection of engaging songs beautifully framed by their instrumental skills.
Hannah Martin commands attention right from the opening title track with the beautiful, country-ish curl of her voice, Philip Henry’s harmonica murmuring alongside over the steady advance of Martin’s banjo and guest James Taylor’s drums.
Both Watershed and the subsequent Stones are songs which quickly fix themselves in the mind. Other highlights include Martin’s poised delivery of January, with its invariable echoes of Dave Goulder’s classic January Man, and the spine-chilling entwining of vocals and harmonica in Tonight.
The urgently driven London is a more optimistic follow-up to the heartbreak of the earlier track, Foundling. Their instrumental palette is judiciously but immaculately deployed, with the whines and echoes of Henry’s slide guitar, including a very eastern-accented take on a traditional Irish air, while Martin’s warm-toned fiddle complements the autumnal sense of season and loss in The Letter. JIM GILCHRIST