Young Fathers’ attempt to make “normal” music has resulted in an album that’s as intriguingly warped as ever
Young Fathers: Cocoa Sugar (Ninja Tune) ****
Joan Baez: Whistle Down the Wind (Proper Records) ****
Tracey Thorn: Record (Unmade Road/Caroline) ***
Superorganism: Superorganism (Domino) ***
Young Fathers have always rightly considered themselves to be a pop band. They may not make pop music as the mainstream would understand it; the closest they get to their more commercial peers is mining the rhythms of reggae, rhythm’n’blues and hip-hop for their dense, dark backdrops. But their sad, soulful tunes are the hook they use to draw the listener in to their fidgety, claustrophobic and utterly distinctive soundworld.
This is what happens when you spend months holed up in a small, cluttered studio space off Leith Walk, and the musical (and personal) tension on which the trio thrive is captured in the title of their third full-length album, Cocoa Sugar, for it is both bitter and sweet.
Their initial attempts to make music that is a bit more “normal” have resulted in an album as intriguingly warped as ever in its blend of mercurial, unsettling rhythms, melodic clarity and ambiguous lyrics which wrestle with various aspects of masculinity and power.
All of these elements come together effectively on In My View, an unadorned, soulful lament of “a greedy bugger”, whose cynical worldview (“nothing’s ever given away, I believe to advance then you must pay”) is presented over a low hum and stripped-back dancehall rhythm.
Lord, previously unveiled with the proviso “you can’t dance to it”, is a downbeat gospel number with an increasingly foreboding analogue synth backing. Whereas one might attempt to dance to the propulsive death disco beat of Wow and its deadpan declaration “what a time to be alive, everything’s so amazing”.
The darkly funky hip-hop of Holy Ghost dovetails straight into the nosebleed analogue electro of Wire, its staccato organ notes the stuff of horror soundtracks or chase scenes. Cocoa Sugar veers all over the map but there’s a strong curatorial hand on the tiller throughout.
Joan Baez fans take note – the veteran singer and campaigner has intimated that 2018 will be her last year of formal touring so possibly the only opportunity to hear her latest beautiful collection performed live.
There is a tender authority to Whistle Down the Wind, on which she interprets songs by some of her favourite writers, including the title track by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan with its lonesome theremin whistle. Along the way, she covers two tracks of empathetic simplicity by the great Josh Ritter and throws out a curveball with her acoustic treatment of Anohni’s eco lament Another World.
She revisits her perennial peacenik themes – I Wish The Wars Were All Over is based on a 400-year-old text but she also comes right up to date with Zoe Mulford’s direct, eloquent and moving The President Sang Amazing Grace, inspired by Obama’s eulogy following the Charleston church shooting.
Tracey Thorn tackles life landmarks across “nine feminist bangers” on her latest album. Guitar references teenage romantic fumbles to the music of Dion, Smoke is a calm vignette of metropolitan and suburban married life, Sister celebrates the family ties that bind, and she considers the push and pull of contraception and childbirth on Babies. However, the sober soul of her vocals is often not matched by the rote electro pop backing.
Superorganism are a motley international crew with members from Japan, New Zealand and South Korea who share a house/studio in East London, where they have clearly had a lot of fun piecing together their debut, which recalls the childlike wonder of Gorillaz and the patchwork experimentation of MIA with neither the tunes of the former nor the edge of the latter.
After the Tryst: New Music for Saxophone and Piano: McKenzie Sawers Duo (Delphian) *****
If you ever doubted there was great new music for the soprano saxophone, this will instantly refresh your faith in the instrument, heard here in the redoubtable hands of Sue McKenzie with duo partner Ingrid Sawers at the piano. They open with Sally Beamish’s gutsy Caliban, before entering the raunchier, juicier tonal world of James MacMillan’s After the Tryst (convincingly arranged by Gerard McChrystal). McKenzie’s rhythmic brilliance bites hard in Judith Weir’s quirky Sketches from a Bagpipe Album, complemented by the pounding gravitational harmonies of Nyman’s Miserere Paraphrase. The range of mood and colour on this disc is fascinating and extraordinary, from the dense, gloomy opening of Alasdair Nicolson’s Slow Airs and March, the playful mischief of Joe Duddell’s Fracture, to the organic inevitability of Ian Wilson’s Drive and Cecilia McDowall’s Mein blaues Klavier and the gorgeous sentimentality of Graham Fitkin’s Bob.
Alan Benzie Trio: Little Mysteries (Own Label) ****
Three years on from his debut, Traveller’s Tales, pianist Alan Benzie, winner of the first BBC Young Scottish Jazz Musician award in 2007, returns with his long-standing trio of bassist Andrew Robb and drummer Marton Juhasz. The result, mainly featuring Benzie’s compositions, is characteristically lyrical, often impressionistic, with oriental touches reflecting his enthusiasm for things Japanese. Passages of hanging stillness intensify into exploratory urgency, as in the opening Natsume – Robb’s bass murmuring a prelude as piano and percussion chime in, and the subsequent Warrior Who Became a Tiger, where the proceedings open up energetically. In contrast, the Debussy-esque Sunken Ruins unfolds with increasing vigour before receding back into plainchant-like polyphony. The subtle advance of Inexorable is ushered by Juhasz towards a boisterous conclusion, while moments of sublime reflection include Robb’s fetching ballad, Beslan, or the concluding The Rest of His Days.