CDs OF THE WEEK
VARIOUS: WAR CHILD – HEROES VOL 1
VARIOUS: DARK WAS THE NIGHT
WHETHER by accident or design, the two organisations who have given charity records a good name over the last couple of decades are both poised to unleash their latest compilation albums on Monday. In a win-win situation, music fans can feast on a smorgasbord of ear candy while also donating cash to two noble causes – War Child raises money for children affected by poverty and conflict in the world's war zones, while Dark Was The Night is the latest salvo from Aids charity the Red Hot Organisation.
Of the two collections, the War Child album is the higher profile release, rounding up all the current trendy, chart-bothering acts to cover songs by musical heroes – the twist being that the original artists have chosen the song and the act they wish to hear interpreting their material.
Given such indulgent carte blanche, Sir Paul McCartney has decided that of all the artists in all the world he could select to sing any of his songs, he most wants to hear Welsh warbler Duffy wrap her shrill tonsils around Live And Let Die. But at least her version has a certain curious incongruity. How long, one wonders, did it take Bruce Springsteen to decide that he would really like to hear his Atlantic City covered by The Hold Steady, a bunch of fellow New Jersey musicians who have based a career on the genial imitation of The E Street Band?
David Bowie and TV On The Radio continue their mutual appreciation society, but the latter's tinny take on Heroes doesn't live up to its promise. And it was hardly a stretch to get The Kooks to deliver a thoroughly predictable cover of The Kink's Victoria, since they were already recording in Ray Davies's Konk studio.
Other contributors take the polar approach and, to use the X Factor parlance, "make the song their own". Beck does one of his low-slung nuevo blues numbers on Bob Dylan's Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat; Lily Allen does her sweet-yet-sour thing on The Clash's Straight To Hell; Peaches gives her old mate Iggy Pop's Search And Destroy an electro-punk makeover; The Like sound totally at home tackling Elvis Costello's You Belong To Me in power pop style and Scissors Sisters treat Roxy Music's Do The Strand with the same respect they accorded to Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb, with gleeful results.
They're not the only ones having fun – Yeah Yeah Yeahs practically squeal through The Ramones' Sheena Is A Punk Rocker, while Estelle throws herself into Stevie Wonder's Superstition. And for anyone who just cannot imagine how earnest the earnest Elbow would sound covering U2's earnest Running To Stand Still, the answer is… sorry, I dozed off there.
If, as the album title suggests, there is to be a sequel to this well-intentioned vanity project, let's hope for more of the classy calibre of Rufus Wainwright's Brian Wilson medley and Hot Chip's hypnotic retooling of Joy Division's Transmission.
Dark Was The Night is the 20th Red Hot compilation in 20 years. The original Red Hot & Blue album brought together some of the biggest names of the 1980s to cover Cole Porter songs. Subsequent albums have tended to adhere to a theme or a genre (such as their seminal hip-hop mash-ups with jazz and Afrobeat), often capturing a moment in time in the process. The 1994 compilation, No Alternative, provided an enduring snapshot of the grunge scene; Dark Was The Night could be regarded as its successor for the way it reflects the rich diversity of the current (mainly) North American independent music scene over two CDs, featuring relatively old hands Yo La Tengo beside bright young things Beirut and Yeasayer, and crossover successes like Arcade Fire beside cult artists Andrew Bird and Blonde Redhead.
Unlike the War Child album, there is no sense of anyone trying too hard. The compilation curators – twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of Brooklyn band The National – set the collaborative tone, producing tracks with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Antony Hegarty respectively, and everyone mucks in in their wake. Feist hooks up with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie; Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch make a fine partnership and the whole thing kicks off with the unfettered blast of Knotty Pine by Dirty Projectors and David Byrne (who was on the first Red Hot album).
Some contribute cover versions: Cat Power and My Brightest Diamond make soulful work of Amazing Grace and Feeling Good, while Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch (one of the few non-Americans on here) borrows the tune of Wild Mountain Thyme for his track, Another Saturday.
Gentle, alternative Americana dominates, throwing Buck 65's stealthy hip-hop, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings' old school soul and the Kronos Quartet's blues-influenced title track into relief, while Sufjan Stevens's epic You Are The Blood is a highlight even in such distinguished company.
AIDAN MOFFAT & THE BEST-OFS: HOW TO GET TO HEAVEN FROM SCOTLAND
CHEMIKAL UNDERGROUND, 10.76
FORMER Arab Strap frontman Aidan Moffat follows last year's well-received solo spoken-word album I Can Hear Your Heart with this debut outing with his new backing band, the Best-Ofs, who provide a rowdy male chorus on a couple of soused singalongs.
The sound template is folksier than the Strap, featuring the Ivor Cutlerish wheeze of harmonium on several tracks, but also using whistling, beatboxing and violin on the mantra-like Lover's Song.
Lyrically, Moffat is generally more sober and reflective these days, philosophising to a lo-fi bossa nova beat on Atheist's Lament and addressing his son in the womb on the touching (but not sentimental) Lullaby for Unborn Child. But he also can't resist celebrating the lustful male of the species on Oh Men!, a straight-talking companion to Franz Ferdinand's No You Girls.
EMPIRE OF THE SUN: WALKING ON A DREAM
NO WONDER Empire Of The Sun are tipped for big things – according to their MySpace page, they have 12,907 billion friends. Isn't that at least a gazillion more than Lily Allen?
It turns out this Australian double act, comprising The Sleepy Jackson frontman Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore of electro duo Pnau, have a well-developed sense of fantasy, naming their collaboration after a JG Ballard book, citing Alejandro Jodorowsky's bonkers cult film The Holy Mountain as the inspiration for their debut album and cloaking it in proggy sci-fi sleeve imagery.
In practice, their spacey electro funk sounds like MGMT crossed with a blissed-out Scissor Sisters, so it's eminently palatable.
ALELA DIANE: TO BE STILL
THIS Californian alt-folk artist charmed a good few ears with her bare-bones debut album The Pirate's Gospel. The follow-up is a delicately wrought blend of folk and country, which occupies similar mournful Americana territory to the Will Oldhams and Bon Ivers of the world but treads a fine line between the poetic and the precious – "your love calms my brambles", anyone?
VERDES ANOS: COIMBRA FADO
IT'S a commonly held fallacy that Portuguese fado is always and only about tears. Fado – "fate" – does indeed imply acceptance of life's sadnesses, and the music sung in Lisbon's dark bars is full of regret and nostalgia: the music of Amalia Rodrigues and her followers, including the fado pop-star Mariza, is drenched in such emotions. But that's only Lisbon's version: in the university city of Coimbra to the north, a very different style prevails, and has done since the 19th century.
Coimbra fados are more often cheerful things, with texts written by professors, and that is what we get on this engaging album by a newish group called Verdes Anos, which translates as "green years". These singers and players are all university types, and their music is delightful. There are no translations of the lyrics in the liner notes, but anyone with a smattering of French and Spanish will get the gist. The voices are vibrant, and the instrumental playing deft. The perfect antidote to Lisbon's miserabilism.
OUMOU SANGARE: SEYA
WORLD CIRCUIT, 12.72
THIS is the first album in six years from Mali's "Star of Stars", and it doesn't disappoint. Oumou Sangare once got by on charisma alone, but she now prospers through ownership of a hotel and a flourishing import business, while supporting an orphanage and acting as a UN ambassador. She has always impregnated her music with her radical world-view, and does so here with moralising songs on taboo subjects such as polygamy, under-age forced marriage, and women's position in African society.
Some of the songs celebrate her Wassoulou heritage with the aid of the Wassoulou harp; others harness the seductive power of the flute and balafon xylophone. This is Malian music at its most confidently triumphal
JOHN TAYLOR: PHASES
PIANIST John Taylor must be fed up with seeing critics describe him as undervalued, but it remains true none the less. Not, it must be said, by his fellow musicians or his many admirers, but in terms of wider recognition. Perhaps his thoughtful, intricate approach to both piano and composition is a little too refined and sophisticated to break through to a broader audience in the way that Neil Cowley or Esbjrn Svensson have, but for sheer world-class music making, the Manchester-born pianist has few peers in current jazz.
This solo piano outing (with overdubbed celesta on two tracks) is another subtle, jewel-like demonstration of his artistry. All of the tunes are his own, other than an elegant take on Kenny Wheeler's Fedora.
The impressionistic single-word titles reflect his ability to evoke moods and pictures in vivid fashion, while his sophisticated melodic and harmonic vocabulary is always evident.
PAUL MCKENNA BAND: BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
A TIMELY release for this debut CD from a young band that has been building a reputation on the folk scene, since the band's fiddler, Ruairidh MacMillan, has just won the Young Scots Trad Musician Award for 2009. His playing here provides evidence of why he impressed the judges, but this is very much a band performance.
Paul McKenna takes a contemporary hybrid folk/pop approach to both his singing and his songwriting (well represented here), and gives their chosen traditional songs – including the Irish song The Jolly Beggar set to one of his own tunes and Burns's The Lea Rig – a similarly contemporary spin. The band also features bouzouki player David McNee, Sen Gray on whistles, and bodhrn player Ewan Baird. Their playing is high on energy, commitment and rhythmic drive, and augurs well for their continuing development.
ERIK SATIE: SOLOS AND DUOS
HARMONIA MUNDI, 22.50
MOST of us make the mistake of dismissing Erik Satie as a frivolous and eccentric satirist on the evidence of just one piece – No1 of his playful sounding Gymnopdies. It's an understandable mistake, but a common one. What this representative romp through many of his keyboard works does is put the record very straight indeed (as does a second disc of various duos).
For a start, pianist Alexandre Tharaud has in instinctive feel for the brazen simplicity of Satie's prophetic miniatures. He moulds the entire solo disc around the succinct austerity of the six Gnossiennes, which act as a stabilising force against the more madcap examples of Satie's enormous output. So within such bizarre jewels as Le Pige de Mduse or the raunchy ragtime of Le Piccadilly (apparently one of the first "classical" rags ever written), there are clear pre-echoes of the polytonality of Bartk, the dry acerbic concision of Stravinsky, the minimalism of Steve Reich and the use of prepared piano in advance of John Cage – all magically contained within a voice that feeds spiritually on Debussy.
It is fascinating, too, to witness the questioning nature of the music – cadences that seem unresolved yet complete in themselves. Tharaud captures the ambiguity with an authoritative air.
He is joined by various French pals in numerous duos, all of which provide a worthwhile and enlightening bonus to the solo disc. ric Le Sage makes up the piano coupling in the famous Trois Morceaux en forme de poire, helping realise their range of character and density of sound. Other partnerships take in music with trumpet (David Guerrier), voice (Juliette and Jean Delescluse) and violin (Isabelle Faust).
All in all, a captivating collection as well as a priceless glimpse into the weird world of an underrated nutcase whose eccentricity was his vision of the future. It's a timely release, too: Alexandre Tharaud visits Perth Concert Hall on 23 February as part of the BBC's lunchtime Chopin piano recital series, while ric le Sage performs French repertoire with the RSNO in March.