Album reviews: Yoko Ono | Jack Garratt | Mavis Staples

Yoko Ono. Picture: Getty Images
Yoko Ono. Picture: Getty Images
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THE SCOTSMAN’s music critics review the latest album releases, including Yoko Ono’s I’m A Witch Too and Jack Garratt’s Phase

POP: Yoko Ono: Yes, I’m A Witch Too | Rating **** | Manimal Vinyl

When is a piece of music ever considered to be a finished or definitive work? In popular music, some remixed tracks have superceded the success of the original article. Equally, some artists cannot resist the opportunity to amend or completely re-record material from their own catalogue – just recently, John Cale reworked his 1982 Music For a New Society album as M:FANS.

However, his peer Yoko Ono prefers to hand the job of repurposing her music over to a roll call of clued-up musicians from the worlds of alternative rock and electronica. In 2007, the likes of Peaches, Cat Power, The Flaming Lips and Glasgow-based film composer Craig Armstrong were invited to remix or reinterpret a song of their choice from her back catalogue for a project entitled Yes, I’m A Witch.

Ono’s musical output doesn’t always attract the credit it deserves. In fact, the default position is often to deride her musical abilities. Yet it is a measure of how much respect and curiosity there is among musicians around what she has produced over the decades that she has been able to pull together a substantial sequel featuring a different set of remixers and collaborators.

Yes, I’m A Witch Too is an intriguing and largely consistent collection which honours Ono’s original vocals and melodies but supplies new backing in contrasting colours. So Ono’s breathy, vulnerable voice is about the only element of Walking On Thin Ice to survive DJ Danny Tenaglia’s elegant orchestral opener.

Death Cab For Cutie do an inventive job of tooling up the haunting melody of Forgive Me My Love with glitchy industrial beats. Portugal The Man add a dreamier veneer to Soul Got Out Of The Box, while Swedish indie pop trio Peter Bjorn and John take a more classical pop approach to the wry yet wistful Mrs Lennon, supplying some 21st century soundtrack sweep in the vein of Danger Mouse.

Experimental pop veterans Sparks are a suitable match for Ono’s eccentricities. They retain the desperately beseeching tone of Give Me Something, but slow the track right down to a bombastic piano-led waltz.

Coffin Car, on the other hand, is speeded up with video game urgency, while Catman receives a scurrying drum’n’bass treatment from another Swedish trio, Miike Snow. The dance remixes are inevitably more functional, while Moby’s ponderous ambient reworking of Ono’s mid-80s hit Hell In Paradise is a ten-minute trawl at the end of an otherwise engaging compilation, which features a couple of contributors with a more personal investment in the material.

Producer Jack Douglas worked with John Lennon and Ono on Double Fantasy, and preserves the punky momentum of his track, Move On Fast, while Ono’s son Sean Lennon makes dubby work of Dogtown from Season of Glass, the first album Ono released after John Lennon’s murder on which Sean Lennon appeared, aged five. Fiona Shepherd

POP: Jack Garratt: Phase | Rating: ** | Island

Buckinghamshire bedroom boffin Jack Garratt has scooped this year’s Brits Critics’ Choice award and topped the BBC Sound of 2016 poll, intimating nothing more than that he is a top industry PR priority.

There is nothing particularly distinguished about this one-man band with his regulation nine stone weakling voice. His manicured pseudo-hipster hip-hop and electronica production might find favour with those who find moanin’ James Blake a tad too experimental, but stripped-back bluesy ballad My House Is Your Home reveals a fuss over nothing. FS

POP: Mavis Staples: Livin’ On A High Note | Rating: **** | Anti-

“Mavis Staples is back,” coo the backing vocalists on Take Us Back, the opening gambit on her latest renaissance outpouring of goodness and grace. And how we need this serenely inspirational soul veteran to tell it like it is across a collection of bespoke songs written for her by some of the rising stars of roots and soul – Aloe Blacc, Benjamin Booker, Justin Vernon, Valerie June – the best of which, including Neko Case’s call-and-response History Now and Tune-Yards’ Action, tap intelligently into the Staple Singers’ tradition of peaceful political resistance and rallying cries, while leaving room for more intimate meditations such as Nick Cave’s beseeching devotional Jesus Lay Down Beside Me. Fiona Shepherd

CLASSICAL: The Organ of Rochdale Town Hall: Organ Transcriptions Volume 2 | Rating: **** | Delphian

When the opulent Binns concert organ was installed in Rochdale Town Hall in 1913, the typical organ recital would have had its fair share of transcriptions: one-man versions of operatic or orchestral works by anyone from Handel to Verdi.

In his second volume of Rochdale recordings, Timothy Byram-Wigfield performs an eclectic mix, from souped-up overtures by Handel, Spohr and Nicolai (The Merry Wives of Windsor, no less) to a chorus from Bach’s cantata “Ein Feste Burg” and Tchaikovsky’s “Fantasy” Overture to Romeo and Juliet.

Byram-Wigfield finds bags of character in this instrument and its sumptuous panoply of meaty stops. The Tchaikovsky finalé is a tour de force – the icing on a very fruity cake. Ken Walton

JAZZ: Gerard Presencer/Danish Radio Big Band: Groove Travels | Rating: **** | Edition Records

This is Gerard Presencer’s first big band album and it proves a rewarding collaboration. Right from the stately cruising of the opener, Another Weirdo, the Copenhagen-based English trumpeter’s flugelhorn and the chimes and murmurs of the Danish Radio Big Band create a deep, rich and belling sound world. In contrast comes the terse, staccato riffing of Blues for Des, which introduces guest percussionist Eliel Raso, while Karl-Martin Almqvist’s sax break is the first to demonstrate that the big band isn’t short of fine soloists of its own.

Presencer indulges his love of prog-rock in the inexorable advance of The Devil’s Larder, brass and reeds fanfaring over Per Gade’s guitar riff, while the urgent bass drive of Wayne Shorter’s Footprints, sees tenor sax, trombone and flugelhorn rejoicing amid the chorusing big band. A highlight is the gargantuan sashaying of Istanbul Coffee Cup, Peter Fugslang’s soprano sax singing out and squabbling animatedly with Vincent Nilsson’s rasping trombone.

Jim Gilchrist

FOLK: Nuala Kennedy: Behave the Bravest | Rating: **** | Under the Arch Records

Irish singer and flautist Nuala Kennedy has recruited musicians from both sides of the Atlantic for this fine recording, including fiddler Shona Mooney, guitarist Michael Bryan, accordionist Johnny Connolly and percussionists Mathias Kunzli and Donald Hay.

The result is an often beguiling recording of mainly traditional songs and tunes, Kennedy’s singing managing to combine tremulously ornamented lilt and real authority, while accompaniments are accomplished, although just occasionally I would like to have heard her singing cast off from the instrumentation.

The winsome opening song, Lovely Armoy sets the tone, while Mo Bhuachaill Dubh Donn skips along to the lithe tune of Kennedy’s flute and accompanying musicians. The standout ballad, however, is Fair Annie of the Loch Royanne, a tragic tale which Kennedy spools out with riveting clarity, complete with tense dialogue between its ill-starred protagonists, over a steady fretwork of accordion, guitar and bouzouki.

Instrumentally, the flute takes flight particularly elegantly in The Tightrope Walker, swooping with eastern grace over a taut accompaniment.

Jim Gilchrist