Album reviews: ABBA | Damon Albarn | Barrie-James

ABBA’s first album of new material in four decades is a collection by artists with nothing to prove but still something to express, writes Fiona Shepherd

ABBA PIC: Ludvig Andersson
ABBA PIC: Ludvig Andersson

ABBA: Voyage (Universal) ***

Damon Albarn: The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows (Transgressive Records) ****

Barrie-James: Strange Desire (Vacancy Records) ****

Ed Sheeran has just released a new album and Adele is about to stick her head above the parapet again, but both of these young pretenders can bow down at the momentous occasion of a new album by pop deities ABBA.

The legendary Swedish foursome are among the last hold-outs in a culture of band reunions which mean never really having to say goodbye. ABBA have it both ways – they are clear that their first album of new material in 40 years will also be their last, yet their “live” reunion, consisting of a mega-residency in a purpose-built venue, with the band members motion-captured as ABBAtars, is a show that could run and run.

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Songwriters Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson understand that their long-desired comeback is not in competition with their current chart peers. Voyage is an album recorded by veterans. The pace is slower, the lyrics are often nostalgic (nothing new for ABBA), the tone is at times maudlin and the arrangements unapologetically old-fashioned.

Recent single Don’t Shut Me Down is ostensibly about old lovers meeting up again but clearly contains a word to their expectant global audience: “I’m not the same this time around…I’m now and then combined, and I’m asking you to have an open mind.”

Damon Albarn PIC: Linda-Brownlee

Though their voices are noticeably lower in register, there is an undeniable frisson in hearing Agnetha Fältskogand Anni-Frid Lyngstad sing together once again on its double A-side, I Still Have Faith In You, a stately, orchestrated ballad with that carefully articulated ABBA sadness swept up after a couple of minutes in a pomp flourish.

The rest of Voyage offers mixed fare. The cheesy, folksy When You Danced With Me is more tea dance than disco dance, while Little Things (“like your naughty eyes”) is a twee portrait of a cosy family Christmas, with mandatory children’s choir. On the upside, I Can Be That Woman is an endearing easy listening country-influenced ballad, while the naturally catchy, cheerful Just a Notion has been resurrected from the original Voulez-Vous sessions in the late seventies.

Keep An Eye On Dan injects some synth pop melodrama as well as a cheeky reference to their own classic SOS – and while they are in the mood for playful callbacks, you can hear the pipes and martial drums (Fernando) on Bumble Bee. No Doubt About It is the most uptempo moment on the album, one for the dad dancers before they waltz elegantly into the sunset with the universal sentiments of neo-classical album closer Ode to Freedom.

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Andersson has admitted that he doesn’t know how modern pop music works. He doesn’t need to. This is a collection by artists with nothing to prove but still something to express.

Barrie-James PIC: Euan Robertson

Damon Albarn’s second solo album was originally conceived as an orchestral suite inspired by the landscape of his second home, Iceland, but developed during lockdown into a lo-fi meditation carved from analogue synthesizers, loping beats and even Icelandic stone marimba.

The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows takes its title from a John Clare poem and tethers Albarn’s hangdog voice to drifting melodies, stimulating discordance, playful saxophone, delicate strings, elevator muzak interludes, pretty, winsome melodies and the lapping of waves to aching melancholy effect.

Glaswegian roots rockers Kassidy will shortly celebrate the tenth anniversary of their debut album Hope Street. But it’s not that west coast which influences the latest solo album by their frontman Barrie-James O’Neill. Strange Desire is all soulful, sun-kissed Americana and Neil Young influences. Acoustic ode Open to Magic invokes the spirit of Harry Nilsson, Glen Campbell’s daughter Ashley guests on the cosmic Country 33 and his former partner Lana Del Rey plays to type on the dreamy, dramatic Riverside.

CLASSICAL

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Say it to the Still World (Delphian) *****

Two exceptional Scots musical talents – composer Liam Paterson and guitarist Sean Shibe – rekindle their Aberdeenshire schoolboy friendship in this thought-provoking album. Shibe is joined by The Choir of King’s College London and its director Joseph Fort in premiere recordings of recent Paterson works, notably Say it To The Still World, a three-part meditation inspired by the Orpheus myth, Rilke verse and Paterson’s memory of his late mother. The combination of Fort’s evocative choir and Shibe's moody though equally ecstatic electric guitar (symbolising Orpheus and his lute) is as novel as it is sensitive to the essence of seamless choral writing, and a central guitar solo throws the spotlight on Shibe’s poetic virtuosity. The rawer expression of Elegy for Esmerelda (based on music from Paterson’s 2020 opera The Angel Esmerelda) is soon assuaged by the shadowy a cappella subtleties of Poppies Spread, a gorgeous lockdown partner-piece to the title track. Ken Walton

JAZZ

Christian McBride & Inside Straight: Live at the Village Vanguard (Mac Avenue) ****

Versatile double-bassist Christian McBride describes this sizzling live recording, made at the famed Village Vanguard club, as “no-holds-barred swinging” and it’s hard to disagree. His taut, springy playing is set here within his Inside Straight band, with saxophonist Steve Wilson, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, pianist Peter Martin and Carl Allen on drums. They hit the ground running with the opening Sweet Bread and rarely let up, although Ms Angelou is Wilson’s persuasively lyrical ballad for the late, celebrated poet and activist. A real show-stopper is Gang Gang, book-ended by Wilson’s clarion alto, with vibes and drums swirling intensely. Uncle James is a mellower affair, swinging easily to sashaying brushes and brightly cascading keyboard before vibes and soprano sax saunter in to have their say, while McBride himself cuts loose big-time, sparring gleefully with Allen in the closing Stick & Move. Jim Gilchrist

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