Album reviews: Woodenbox | The Pastels | Sparrow & the Workshop

Woodenbox. Picture: Contributed
Woodenbox. Picture: Contributed
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WOODENBOX – now relieved of their Fistful of Fivers suffix – return with a second album of bold brassiness.


Woodenbox: End Game

Olive Grove, online only

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The mariachi blast familiar from their debut Home And The Wildhunt still has a place but the six-piece have added robust sax and gruffer, grittier vocals to the blend, giving End Game a belligerent Celtic soul on the likes of Beautiful Terrible.

“We are angry men,” claims Alisdair Downer. True, they come out swinging with opener Roll For Me, contesting that “tonight we are alive”.

They’ll get no argument from me, but they can be more subtly persuasive too, as on new single Courage, while rousing closer Save Yourself plays to all their strengths.

The Pastels: Slow Summits

Domino, £13.99

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Film and theatre scores and a collaboration with Japanese duo Tenniscoats notwithstanding, it has been 16 years since Glasgow’s DIY veterans The Pastels released any new music, yet they sound unencumbered by anything bar a light dusting of romantic fatalism on Slow Summits.

For something so long in the gestation, the album boasts a cohesive, summery sound which makes full use of the band’s own gauche orchestra of flute, trumpet and twinkling percussion with added analogue synth gurgles on the instrumental After Image, a bespoke string arrangement by Craig Armstrong on Kicking Leaves and a soupçon of 1960s soundtrack whimsy on the elegant title track.

Sparrow & the Workshop: Murderopolis

Song, by Toad, £13.99

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Glasgow-based trio Sparrow & the Workshop head into murky but not entirely merciless territory on their third album, with frontwoman Jill O’Sullivan as our guide.

O’Sullivan has a voice to conjure with, resonating equal parts sweetness and stridency as she ponders the big “what ifs” of life on Valley Of Death. The band amp up the attack for all they are worth on Darkness, eking out as much rabble as they can, while recent single The Faster You Spin is blunter in its force. This leaves the quieter tracks trailing a little for atmosphere and impact, though O’Sullivan’s rootsy tone gives Water Won’t Fall a tinge of the southern gothic.



Simon Thacker: Rakshasa

Slap the Moon, £9.99

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The line-up of Simon Thacker’s group Svara-Kanti – violin, voice, tabla and Thacker on guitar – is enough to suggest that its debut album, Rakshasa, blends Indian musical elements with western ones.

But the influences imbued in these world premiere recordings of Thacker’s own rhythmically exciting Dhumaketu, Nigel Osborne’s stratospherically beguiling The Five Elements (featuring the soft vocal allure of Japjit Kaur), and Terry Riley’s strangely fragmented SwarAmant, embrace sources as distant as Flamenco and Indonesia. Supreme performances, teaming with energy, especially from Thacker himself.




greentrax, £12.99

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THE recent untimely passing of Pete Boond, the one consistent member throughout this band’s incarnations, prompted Greentrax to release this engaging compendium, from Ceolbeg’s original string and whistle sound to the full-blown pipe-and-harp-led exuberance of its final album in 2000.

I occasionally took issue with unnecessarily overblown sound during live performances, but you can’t fault these studio tracks, with fine playing from the likes of piper Gary West, harpist Wendy Stewart and drummer Jim Walker. Highlights include their epic yet thoughtful reading of Hey Johnnie Cope and two great Gordon Duncan compositions, Zito the Bubbleman and the majestic Sleeping Tune.

Vocally, the late Davey Steele gives powerful delivery of his own songs, Farewell tae the Haven, See the People Run and the pawky, Cajun-esque swagger of A Health to the Sauters, while his successor, Rod Paterson, mellifluously invokes the restless shade of The Gaberlunzie Man to the crisp pace of Walker’s snare drum.



Graeme Stephen: Tilt

graeme stephen, ONLINE ONLY

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Guitarist Graeme Stephen has emerged as one of the most adventurous musicians on the Scottish jazz scene in recent years, and this quartet recording will cement that reputation.

Not for those who like their jazz guitar smooth and swinging, perhaps, but Stephen’s daring writing and willingness to complement conventional lyricism with sonic experiment makes for a powerful experience, fiercely driven at times but often subtly impressionistic, with rock and folk influences and electronic effects all judiciously woven into the soundscape.

Saxophonist Julian Arguelles adds his own layers of invention, while bassist Mario Caribe and drummer Chris Wallace lay down a responsive rhythmic underpinning to the shifting moods of the music. The only real misjudgement is the choice of difficult to decipher handwritten titles on the digi-pack, one of which is omitted – track eight is called Happiness, and the rest move down.



Oana Catalina Chitu: Divine

asphalt tango, £14.99

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The four CDs released by Asphalt Tango under the title “Sounds of a Bygone Age” have done much to bring Romania’s musical heritage back into the mainstream, but one key name has been missing – Maria Tanase. In the years before the Iron Curtain came down, this great singer was venerated as no other thanks to her way with gypsy songs, tangos, and romances.

And if you want to get a whiff of her sound, go to her YouTube performances of Ciuleandra and Lelita circiumareasa and marvel at the mesmerising power she exerts. As communism’s grip tightened, her orientally tinged singing fell out of fashion – and she refused to be enlisted as a state performer – but when she died in 1963 her funeral drew mourners in their hundreds of thousands. Then life moved on, and she was forgotten.

But now she has been rediscovered, and this year Romanians are celebrating the centenary of her birth. Oana Catalina Chitu is a Romanian singer who emigrated to Berlin after the fall of the Wall, and who has with this CD made her own superb homage to Tanase.

It starts in a wonderfully authentic-sounding way, with the skittering violin descants and the nudging oompah of the accordion surrounding her voice with the gypsy atmosphere we’ve grown used to with bands like Taraf de Haïdouks. And though her voice is quite unlike Tanase’s, it’s no less mesmerising, and she applies it to a very modern mix of styles. She gives us laments as well as dances in the old Romanian manner, but with the aid of a wider instrumentation she evokes many other cultures, as befits a denizen of Europe’s most multi-ethnic city: Balkan beats are just one of many musics to be heard in today’s Berlin.