CD OF THE WEEK
CROWDED HOUSE: TIME ON EARTH ***
NEVER ones to make a fuss, those Crowded House boys. Modest and unobtrusive, just like their music. When they split in 1996, there was no great fanfare. Likewise, when they re-formed a couple of years ago. To be honest, I hadn't really noticed they'd gone. Their elegantly melodic songs were still hanging around commercial radio like a pleasant breeze on a heavy day, or an oasis of calm among the usual blaring din. Songs about the weather, agreeable as pop songs about the weather can be.
Their frontman and chief songwriter, Neil Finn, was still very much in action, releasing a couple of solo albums and a couple with brother Tim - a founding member of Crowded House and pivotal player in their previous band, Split Enz. They were easily mistaken for Crowded House albums. So Crowded House weren't exactly missed.
Consequently, there was no great clamour for their return, and no great epiphany on Finn's part which compelled him to regroup. He was simply writing some new songs and thought it would be nice to perform them as a group.
However, there was one big drama which rocked the Crowded House realm - their original drummer Paul Hester's suicide in 2005. Although he did not drum a beat on Time On Earth, he is all over the album. Understandably, it is dedicated to him and his memory infuses the title, and influences the lyrics and the mood.
Often Finn comes at the subject sidelong, like he needs a surrogate topic, but it is not difficult to read a particular pain or wistfulness into many of the songs. She Called Up is ostensibly about receiving any bad news, but it is nigh on impossible to divorce the sentiments expressed - "a whisper that can blow a chasm wide, it took us all, pushed apart the mountains and the tide, it took us all" - from the image of Hester's bandmates hearing of his death.
On a more sentimental note, People Are Like Suns considers the traces left behind when someone is gone by toying with the childlike notion that they become stars in the sky.
But it takes a few minutes to work up to that vulnerability. The album starts out melodic, contemplative, winsome - in other words, fairly typical, unremarkable, even mechanical. The opening track, Nobody Wants To, sounds more like a reassurance to their fans that things haven't changed that much than a worthwhile song in its own right, while the single Don't Stop Now, featuring guest guitarist Johnny Marr, is inoffensive enough that it could slip unnoticed on to the most recent Travis album. Even A Child, co-written with Marr, is equally forgettable.
Pour Le Monde ("pas pour la guerre") is a rare outward-looking moment on the album, but for all its eloquent comment on the thought-police culture - "you listen for good in a hope that comes to nothing, cos the liars have moved in and they brew their own dark medicine" - it's still a rather plodding number. The Steely Dan-like Transit Lounge, about communication in a relationship as much as the band's experiences stuck in Asian airport lounges, is a more rounded effort.
Finn is known to have a capacity for sublime melody and eventually, as the album heads into more introspective territory, it becomes more beguiling. The waltz-time lament Heaven That I'm Making is the first strike of something more innately touching. A sense of working through grief resonates in lyrics such as "this heaven that I'm making can't come quickly enough... feels like I'm just waking up".
Silent House is another gem of a meditation on loss (though not necessarily bereavement), this time co-written with Dixie Chick Natalie Maines (Finn was unfamiliar with their music but he liked their political stance). With a burnished psychedelic roots feel which is very David Crosby, it builds to a stirring chorus which other less restrained acts might be tempted to milk.
You Are The One To Make Me Cry is another beautifully judged and timeless piece of songwriting, reminiscent of the magical lullabies produced by The Flaming Lips, and suffused with pretty, poetical language. However, A Sigh is the most moving track on the album. Featuring just Finn's naked voice and the barest of shimmering acoustic backing, he has called it his reflection on "the feeling of the unspoken being immense" after Hester's passing. Paradoxically, it is here, realising that nothing expresses his feelings of loss better than to heave a sigh, that this album is at its most musically eloquent.
CHERRY GHOST: THIRST FOR ROMANCE **
HEAVENLY RECORDINGS, 11.99
MANCUNIAN newcomers Cherry Ghost have been all over the radio recently with their anthemic single People Help The People, which should be giving Coldplay some sleepless nights. However, their debut album never quite reaches such levels of majesty, despite the ragged plaintiveness of Simon Aldred's singing. Instead, Thirst For Romance is produced with blanket airplay in mind. Worse, it features the lyric "I see demons dancing across factory floors", a line which should never be permitted in a pop song. And, worst of all, they blow it completely when they step away from ballads and attempt a couple of hideous, anachronistic truck stop rock numbers.
VELVET REVOLVER: LIBERTAD ***
LEAN punk metal machine Velvet Revolver is the closest thing we have to Guns N' Roses in our midst, since Axl Rose has decided that putting a comeback album on seemingly permanent hold is the way to play the rock'n'roll game. The rest of his ex-bandmates, in cahoots with Scott Weiland (formerly of Stone Temple Pilots), know differently. Their second album is a serviceable modern rock record, shooting out of the traps with the nimble Let It Roll, which combines melody, aggression and power like a 21st-century Cream. There are a couple of other hungry, nasty rock'n'roll numbers, one epic radio-friendly ballad plus an enjoyable cover of ELO's Can't Get It Out Of My Head and a hidden country rock track, which all broaden the scope somewhat. But what Libertad lacks is that feral quality which once made GN'R so compelling.
OI VA VOI: OI VA VOI ****
IF GYPSY punks Gogol Bordello can charm the mainstream, then why not Israeli klezmer band Oi Va Voi? Their second album, on which their previous singer KT Tunstall (wonder what happened to her?) is replaced by the Bjrkish Alice McLaughlin, is not the hectic Yiddish hoedown you might expect. Instead, their traditional East European influences are subtly incorporated into a collection of mainly mellow trip-pop in the Zero 7 vein, embellished by the lithe, snake-hipped summons of Steve Levi's clarinet and Lemez Lovas's trumpet to wonderfully hypnotic effect.
MONTEVERDI: L'ORFEO ****
HERE'S something for the serious collector. Glossa, already well-respected for its early music releases, has released Monteverdi's L'Orfeo as the first in a limited-edition luxury format series, which comes in the form of a book with serious contextual essays, and a level of performance that matches the quality of presentation. A stylish Italian cast is headed up by the unaffected Emmanuel Galli and Mirko Guadagnini as Euridice and Orfeo. The instrumental playing by Ensemble La Venexiana moves with dramatic purpose, rhythmic verve and clean-cut precision. Lively chorus numbers add to the fluidity and energy. Anyone planning on some homework prior to this year's Edinburgh Festival production of the 400-year-old opera will find this invaluable and wholly enjoyable.
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: FIFTH SYMPHONY, TALLIS FANTASY & SERENADE TO MUSIC ***
FOR some folk, this might easily be the equivalent of Vaughan Williams' Greatest Hits. In combining the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, the popular Fifth Symphony and the gorgeous Serenade to Music, Telarc offer a package that is a self-contained programme in itself. The common factor is the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus, under its lively principal conductor Robert Spano.
There's a nice touch at the start, where the chorus pre-empt the Tallis Fantasia with a straight a cappella version of the original Tallis hymn. Then the Atlanta strings prove their worth with a sumptuously thick-set performance of the Vaughan Williams's version. Spano's urgent persona is prevalent through every minute of this disc. The symphony has an urgency and directness that, besides echoing the visionary tranquillity of the music, harnesses a truthfulness that steers clear of sentimentality or wallowing indulgence. The mercurial bent of the Scherzo is luminescent; the liquid serenity of the Romance exquisite.
All of which leads beautifully to the sweet sensitivities of the Serenade to Music, and a performance - featuring the solo vocal quartet of Jessica Rivera, Kelley O'Connor, Thomas Studebaker and Nmon Ford - laced with delicacy and precision. There is no shortage of recordings of these works, but enough here - if you ignore the incompleteness of the sleeve notes - to recommend it as a serious contender.
IAIN BALLAMY'S ANORAK: MORE JAZZ ****
BASHO RECORDS, 13.99
IF YOU had saxophonist Iain Ballamy pegged as purely a non-mainstream player, then it's time to think again. Ballamy cut his teeth on classic jazz long before Loose Tubes, and his subsequent experimentalism has always been tinged with a deep awareness of those roots. He turns here to a consciously mainstream style, albeit on his own compositions. The result is a fresh-sounding set of imaginative straight-ahead jazz with a contemporary twist, played by a quartet as good as any on the UK jazz scene. Ballamy's tenor saxophone inventions are complemented by Gareth Williams's hugely resourceful piano playing, with Orlando Le Fleming on bass and Martin France on drums. Among the disc's many highlights are a fine but un-slavish evocation of Coltrane on Tribute to Alan Skidmore's Tribute to John Coltrane (both title and idea are characteristic Ballamy), the sinuous Convolution (for Dudley Moore), and a complex altered blues, The Worm.
MAEVE MACKINNON: DON'T SING LOVE SONGS ***
FOOTSTOMPIN' RECORDS, 12.99
MAEVE Mackinnon remains faithful to the title on her debut album, and focuses on murder rather than love as the dominant theme of the songs in this collection. The Gaelic tradition furnishes a good clutch of these, but she has also unearthed some in English, including The Cruel Brother from Scotland and The Silver Dagger from the USA. She sings with equal distinction in both languages, and despite the subject matter, this is not a gloomy album, although it is generally quite reflective in mood. Her voice is generally accompanied by discreet but effective acoustic instruments (musicians include Ali Hutton, Patsy Reid, Duncan Lyell and the ubiquitous Martin O'Neill), with occasional diversions into less traditional backings. She has already demonstrated that she has a fine voice in her live work, and her deft phrasing of the songs makes for an appealing first outing on disc.
LIU FANG: THE SOUL OF PIPA 2 ***
IN THE Ballad of the Lute by the Chinese poet Bai Juyi, we get a description of the sound of the pipa: "The stronger strings resonate like a sudden shower of rain, the finer ones like a suppressed sigh. Together they create a melody like mingled pearls tumbling onto a jade tray." That was in the 8th century, but those words apply equally today to a pipa in good hands. The four silk strings may have been replaced by metal ones, but the onomatopoeic name - reflecting the to-and-fro plucking motion - still fits.
The 33-year-old virtuoso Liu Fang has absolute technical mastery, with an ability to deliver repeated notes faster than the listener's brain can register them, and in her playing one senses this instrument's Central Asian origins. If many of the song titles are interchangeable, some really are embodied in the music: Spring Rain begins with single notes exquisitely dropped into the ambient silence, before the sounds gradually intensify; The Ambush starts with an amazing effect, something between a howl and a roar; Great Waves Clean out Sands sounds exactly like that; and The King Chu Doffs his Armour exudes a wonderfully martial quality. This is one of a set of three CDs devoted to the pipa, but none have liner notes: a shocking dereliction of duty on the part of her record company.
USTAD SALAMAT ALI KHAN: NIDA E SALAMAT ****
THIS great Punjabi singer opens with a low growl, which is powerfully reinforced by growls from his fellow singer Sharafat Ali Khan, plus violins and harmonium - here is a performer who takes a leisurely approach to time. Ustad Salamat Ali Khan (1934-2001) came from a long line of musicians, and after Partition he and his elder brother Nazakat became Pakistan's top cultural exports.
Here we get five classic ragas, showing off his amazing virtuosity to the full.
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