Album reviews: Leona Lewis | Paul Haig | Gavin Bryars | Frank Sinatra | Aly Bain, Jay Ungar and Various | Miriam Makeba


ON THE cover of Echo, Leona Lewis is pictured with her lips parted, head tilted back and shoulders bare in a come-hither pose. Presumably, that's what divas do, though it all looks a bit uncomfortable for the innocuous Lewis. But at least she's trying new things – including an uptempo dance pop number, dipping her toe in the Avril Lavigne/Taylor Swift processed-teens market with Love Letter and thanking her pets on the CD sleeve.

This crazy experimenting is counterbalanced by the predictable menu of Mariah-style nosebleed twittering, formulaic lyrics (this time she is "naked without you"), token tremulous "indie" cover (Oasis' Stop Crying Your Heart Out) and power ballads ripe for the full touch-the-hem-of-my-garment wind machine treatment.




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FORMER Josef K frontman Paul Haig has worked almost exclusively with synthesizers since the early 1980s, but recently he has rediscovered the joys of guitars and gigging, and is enjoying the most prolific musical spurt of his sporadic career with the release of his third album in three years.

Envisaging Relive as a self-styled mini road movie (lasting just over half an hour), he has even blown the dust off a couple of songs he wrote 20 years ago, and collaborated again with Josef K guitarist Malcolm Ross on one low-slung track, although an atmospheric cover of Pere Ubu's Horses trumps his own material.




THE most interesting track on a disc exclusively given over to the dreamy music of Gavin Bryars is the final one. This is the hauntingly mysterious The Church Closest to the Sea, performed by – and written for – the Edinburgh-based ensemble, Mr McFall's Chamber. The church in question is St Monan's, on the Fife coast, which regulars to the annual East Neuk Festival will know well for its exposed cliffside setting and intimate acoustics.

Bryars's music is moody and mellow; largely string centred, but with atmospheric percussion and piano adding a muted glitter. It has the air of a jazz ballad, foremost in Rick Standley's quietly plucked bass and Bryars's soft-spun melodies. That same inoffensive lyricism permeates the Eight Irish Madrigals (sung with unaffected charm by Nick Mulroy and Susan Hamilton) and the sultry Epilogue from Wonderlawn.





FRANK Sinatra's live performances in his final years were notoriously unpredictable – Glasgow got a fabulous one in 1990, but others were not so lucky. This performance in front of a home crowd in New Jersey in 1986 captures him on excellent form, and if it falls a notch short of the "legendary" status ascribed to it, it is essential listening for Sinatra fans, and a whole lot more worthwhile than the studio efforts of his final years.

Fronting a big band and in amiable mood for a rapturous homecoming, the singer works through a programme of 19 songs (and a monologue) spanning his extensive repertoire of standards, most of which fall firmly into the classic department. The odd vocal falter creeps in, but he is in good voice and even more commanding mood, and is equally convincing on both ballads and up-tempo swingers.





WITH its latest incarnation not long finished on BBC4, the Transatlantic Sessions concept has grown legs since film-makers Douglas Eadie and Mike Alexander devised it almost 15 years ago.

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This last of Whirlie's three CDs of the original sessions sees Shetland fiddle ambassador Aly Bain and his US counterpart Jay Ungar host a troupe of stellar Scots, Irish and American singers and instrumentalists, a couple of whom, sadly, have since departed the scene – witness John Martyn's gruffly tremulous Spencer the Rover and Martyn Bennett's haunting MacCrimmon's Lament.

Other nice moments include Emmylou Harris's winsome Beatles cover, For No One; the old-fashioned sentiment of Gentle Annie from the McGarrigles; the Bain and Ungar bows sounding out the opening Big Scioty; and Rod Paterson leading the company in Auld Lang Syne.




GALLO, 13.70

"MAMA Afrika" was the affectionate title this great South African singer bore for much of her life, and when she died on stage last year – the death she had always wanted – she was mourned all round the world. Though she wished to be thought of as a singer rather than an activist, she spent 30 years in exile from her native land for her political beliefs, and when she married the American black activist Stokely Carmichael in 1968, she was all but exiled again. This double CD reflects the whole of her career, which started in earnest with a group initially called the Sunbeams then renamed the Skylarks. Her blues-singing timbre was wonderfully true and pure, and the tone she brought to the traditional songs she sang was the essence of township vocal art.

Her private life was punctuated by sadness: diagnosed with cervical cancer at 31, she underwent an operation which prevented any further childbearing after her only daughter, who died tragically young; Makeba's love-relationships – of which her short marriage to jazz-trumpeter Hugh Masekela was the most significant – never worked out. But her political zeal burned bright to the end, and her artistry was unfaltering: you can sense in every track the perfectionism she brought to what she sang.

Some of these recordings are gloriously informal, and the early ones with the Skylarks, on which she sounds at times like a lighter version of Billie Holiday, are redolent of the genially relaxed black culture of mid-1950s Johannesburg.

The downside to this otherwise excellent compilation lies in the absence of any discographic information at all. Recorded when, where, and with whom? We need to know these things, and it wouldn't have cost much effort to put them in.