An intriguing collaboration continues to thrive, while Father John Misty is the master of melodic self-loathing
Yorkston/Thorne/Khan: Neuk Wight Delhi Allstars Domino ***
Future Islands: The Far Field 4AD ***
Father John Misty: Pure Comedy Bella Union ****
Yorkston/Thorne/Khan might sound like a prog rock supergroup but is, in fact, a much mellower collaboration between Fife folkster James Yorkston, jazz bassist Jon Thorne and classical sarangi player and qawwali singer Suhail Yusuf Khan. The unlikely trio first came together on the 2016 debut Everything Sacred. This speedy follow-up, its title signposting their respective roots, has emerged from a year of touring, and is again a mostly harmonious blend of traditions, often with one element stepping into the foreground.
Khan leads on the opening Chori Chori but his keening sarangi and strident, soulful singing finds common ground with British folk fiddle and vocal traditions, while Thorne’s unobtrusive bass softens the finish.
The latter’s quite fragile conversational tones, reminiscent of Robert Wyatt, are a new feature this time round, colliding with Khan’s mouth music on Samant Saarang Just a Bloke, while Yorkston’s plaintive yet peaceful tone is reassuringly familiar on his more traditional songwriting contributions.
At points, there’s a bit of a back-and-forth dance around their contrasting yet complementary styles but the repetitive patterns in their respective traditions ultimately make for a hypnotic cocktail, like a 21st century Incredible String Band. The lengthy noodling incantation Halleluwah never quite reaches ecstatic levels, but False True Piya splices psych blues, Hindi lyrics and portions of the traditional folk song The Daemon Lover to satisfying effect.
Having scored the surprise feelgood hit of 2014 with Seasons (Waiting For You), Baltimore trio Future Islands remain safely entrenched in their tastefully 80s-influenced synth pop/rock furrow (territory previously mined successfully by The Killers) for their fifth album. Of course, their recorded incarnation is divested of frontman Samuel T Herring’s idiosyncratic, distracting dance moves – whether this is a plus or minus is a moot point – but his mannered vocals are also tempered here, making The Far Field a thoroughly pleasant, if unspectacular listening experience from start to finish.
Never let it be said that Father John Misty, aka arch troubadour Josh Tillman, would knowingly go down the people-pleasing route, even though on first contact his music has a warm, inviting and easy listening quality, very much in the vein of the 1970s piano balladeers, with a touch of languid lysergic country rock to taste.
This melodic accessibility is only partly what has fuelled his rise to considerable cult status. Breakthrough album I Love You, Honeybear was the singular product of an acid tongue and a restless mind, a witty, sometimes bitter satire on the life and loves of a rock star. Pure Comedy turns the disgust, acrimony and vulnerability up to 11 and takes aim at the big stuff.
The (self-)loathing flows as easily as the melodies – the music is consistently gorgeous, rich, even sunny but lyrically it’s much harder work, as if there isn’t enough space to accommodate all his ideas and opinions.
Tillman lays it all out on the opening title track, an ambitious six-minute anatomy of the folly and futility of mankind, which gradually ramps up the bewildered bile and the musical melodrama. But this is as nothing compared to the 13-minute centrepiece, Leaving LA, with mournful orchestral and choral arrangements supplied by composer Gavin Bryars.
He drops a couple of pop culture references along the way, but Misty’s gaze is directed at himself as much as others, and it’s a sobering listen, both graceful and disgraceful.
It’s also a long haul at 75 minutes – no wonder he sounds so weary by the time he gets to Magic Mountain – but this ambitious, significant, frequently uncomfortable album will be one you remember, whether you want to or not.
James MacMillan: Stabat Mater Coro *****
James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater received its Scottish premiere a few weeks ago. Both that and the original London premiere have elicited claims of “masterpiece” from the critics. This recording, by its dedicatees The Sixteen and Britten Sinfonia under Harry Christophers, proves them right. It’s a dangerous word to use, but in this work more than many others of MacMillan’s – he’s visited the crucifixion story many times – the composer expresses his Catholicism, his universal human qualities, his humility, his craftsmanship as a composer, in one spectacularly breathtaking utterance. There is deference to the power of plainsong in the chanted opening, the timelessness of which feeds into the sublime harmonic journey of the ensuing movements. MacMillan’s unfolding of the text and its instrumental halo are masterfully judged. I defy any atheist not to be moved by such a profound musical interpretation of religious belief.
Phronesis, Julian Argüelles, Frankfurt Radio Big Band: The Behemoth Edition records ****
The Anglo-Danish trio of bassist Jasper Høiby, pianist Ivo Neame and drummer Anton Eger celebrate their tenth anniversary with a muscular collaboration with Julian Argüelles, who arranges, conducts and contributes tenor sax on one track, and the powerful ranks of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. In these reworkings of established Phronesis compositions there are at times rumbustious shades of Argüelles’s alma mater, Loose Tubes, in numbers such as OK Chorale, with its bustling brass and forward shuffle, while urgent piano and drums drive Herne Hill, with brass jumping aboard for the ride and a terrific climax. Elsewhere is the drive of Urban Control or, in contrast, the haunting orchestral callings of Stillness.
If “behemoth” evokes some biblical monster, this is a musically fearsome entity, but bristling with warmth and invention.