The Scotsman’s team of music critics lend their ears to the latest releases...
Even at the height of their success in the 1980s, Ultravox didn’t quite fit in with their New Romantic peers. Twenty-eight years on from their last album, they are not just out of step but out of time on the confidently titled Brilliant. Fans who have kept the faith will probably love it, groaning as it is with the weight of Billy Currie’s signature mock baroque analogue synth licks and Midge Ure’s po-faced lyrical pomp. Trouble is that Chris Martin is the go-to guy these days for rousing calls to arms about nothing too specific, while Muse are at least in on the joke when it comes to ludicrous overstatement.
Scissor Sisters: Magic Hour
There are moments on Scissor Sisters’ fourth album when the New York party troupe unashamedly play up to their strengths with an Elton-style 1970s piano stomper, or allow the plaintive quality in Jake Shears’ fluent falsetto its full extension.
But Magic Hour is lighter on the tremulous, melancholic ballads, and pulls its killer pop punches, which is not a good look for such accomplished songsmiths, especially when their alternative is to incline towards the ubiquitous rave-flavoured dance pop of the moment and house and R&B-influenced jams such as Keep Your Shoes On and Let’s Have A Kiki. I don’t know what a kiki is (and probably don’t want to), but at least it sounds like they are keeping up their incorrigible streak.
Snowgoose: Harmony Springs
Open Hearth, Only available online
This debut album from Glasgow’s Snowgoose arrives with judicious timing as the weather takes a turn for the summery. Harmony Springs makes for beautiful, balmy listening, drawing principally on fragrant 1960s folk for inspiration and seductively executed by Anna Sheard, a vocalist out of time, with the sterling backing of an indie supergroup comprising members and associates of Teenage Fanclub, The Soup Dragons and Belle & Sebastian.
Collectively, they’ve obviously heard a Pentangle album or two, but there are also echoes of Jefferson Airplane in the acid folk of Shifting Sands and a Gallic dreaminess to Migration Season.
Piers Hellawell: Airs, Waters
From the Messiaen-like ecstasy Agricolas for clarinet and orchestra – a gorgeously impassioned work played by Robert Plane and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra – to the suspended images of Airs, Waters and Floating Islands for solo piano (Mary Dullea), and the quirky transparency of Etruscan Games for piano trio, this compendium of music by Ulster-based Piers Hellawell is a rich kaleidoscope of inspired creativity. It doesn’t end there. The same RTE orchestra, under Pierre-André Valade capture the glitzy freneticism of Degrees of Separation, despite some iffy unison violin intonation. Music well worth getting to know.
Loose Tubes: Säd Afrika
LOST MARBLE, £12.99
Loose Tubes did not record much during their half-dozen active years, which makes this second set of live recordings (Dancing on Frith Street was released two years ago) from the ground-breaking big band’s final gigs at Ronnie Scott’s in 1990 all the more welcome. The music captures the wide-ranging eclecticism, zany sense of humour and high quality playing that became their trademarks.
At First Light: Idir
At First Light, £12.99
This is an impressively polished debut album from a trio of respected Ulster instrumentalists – John McSherry on uilleann pipes and whistles, fiddler Dónal O’Connor and piper and percussionist Francis McIlduff. Accompanied by guests including guitarists Tony Byrne and Paul McSherry, they demonstrate exhilarating flair and crisp timing in nimble sets such as Rolling in Rosemount, which opens with a snappy polka and climaxes with a full-tilt jig straight out of the Sliabh Luachra slide tradition.
Other highlights include the captivatingly syncopated Asturian El Garrotín, O’Connor’s sumptuous fiddle rendering of the song air Máire an Chúil ór Bhuí, or the wonderful twin-pipes keening of Roy’s Hands.Guest singer Ciara McCrickard handles the old Ulster song Aird uí Chuain with great delicacy, although it does seem a shame to thirl such a limpid air to a rhythmic piano and bodhran accompaniment, no matter how subtle. Overall, though, a delight to listen to.
Tashi Lhunpo Monks: Wisdom and Insight
This CD is released to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Tashi Lhunpo monastery in exile, and it coincides with the start of a UK tour which will bring the monks to Scotland – Helensburgh, Mull, Lochinver, and Poolewe – in late July. These monks reflect remarkable triumph in an adversity which started when China’s crackdown began in earnest in 1959; the refugees’ perilous march through the Himalayas took them to Mysore where they built a magnificent new monastery with their own hands. The first prayer sung on this CD goes back in time to the very beginning of the tradition the monks so devotedly uphold – when 1000 Buddhist scholars gathered in Nalanda university 2000 years ago, and communally created the “prayer of wisdom” which all Tibetan monks still sing each morning today. And the second prayer – “praise to Buddha” – reflects a wonderfully colourful creation myth, which began when the umbilical cord of Lama Tsongkhapa (born in 1357) fell to the ground. A sandalwood tree grew from the spot, with each leaf bearing a picture of the Buddha, so on that spot a monastery was built. The prayer celebrates the Wheel of Life illustrating the six realms of existence, with the central hub occupied by the destroyer of death, with a cockerel, a snake, and a pig representing the three basic evils – desire, anger, and ignorance. Meanwhile the six spokes of the wheel each has its own hieratic significance. It’s not essential to know any of this to appreciate the gently mystical momentum of the chants, but such a rich invisible world has a charm of its own.