Album reviews: alt-J | Big Thief | Hurray for the Riff Raff

alt-J PIC:  George Munceyalt-J PIC:  George Muncey
alt-J PIC: George Muncey
From barbershop harmonies to Tuareg rock, Mercury Prize winners alt-J incorporate a diverse range of musical styles into their latest album, writes Fiona Shepherd

alt-J: The Dream (Infectious/BMG) ***

Big Thief: Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You (4AD) ****

Hurray for the Riff Raff: Life On Earth (Nonesuch) ***

For all the acclaim which has come their way in the last decade, Mercury Prize winning trio alt-J remain an unassuming bunch – heads down, beavering away in the studio like a millennial Pink Floyd. They may not (yet) embrace the high concept live show, but there is some thematic thought to their fourth album, which frontman Joe Newman has characterised as ruminations on the fragility of life, with songs inspired by bereavement in childhood, the death of a partner and John Belushi checking out at the Chateau Marmont.

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Happier When You’re Gone ponders homicide as a cure for an ailing relationship, while Losing My Mind was inspired by the murder of a friend’s sister during Newman’s childhood. He shifts perspective from community bystander to bereaved partner on the whimsical acoustic ballad Get Better, a Sheeranesque requiem for a late love, which cushions the blow with its soft, breathy delivery.

The Dream demonstrates a willingness from the group to head into unfamiliar musical territory and use what they find as flavouring for their mellow brew. Once it gets going, there is a Tuareg desert rock timbre to the guitar on opening number Bane, and a burst of a classical chorus to ramp up the drama. Philadelphia features an actual opera singer and Newman calls on a couple of his school barbershop buddies to sing on the dreamy but spare modern doo-wop of Walk a Mile.

Elsewhere, Chicago gradually turns the screws with encroaching gothic guitar and Delta is an all-too-brief haunting gospel blues. Among the more extrovert tracks, U&ME is upbeat in sentiment with a chanted hookline, couched in a warm backing with sleepy vocals. With its springy bassline and declamatory, gospelly chorus, Hard Drive Gold is an even catchier tune concerning the nouveau riche of the cryptocurrency world.

Big Thief PIC: Alexa VisciusBig Thief PIC: Alexa Viscius
Big Thief PIC: Alexa Viscius

Brooklyn four-piece Big Thief follow up their two 2019 album releases with a sprawling new collection. Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You – catchy, huh? – comprises 20 tracks recorded in four distinct sessions in the Catskills, the Rockies, Topanga Canyon and Arizona, which have been jumbled together in carefree fashion, like a favourite streaming playlist on shuffle.

The first four songs alone jump from fragile country to indie pop powered by tinny percussion to bluegrass to intimate rootsy ballad. Despite its scope, there is little fat to be found on singer Adrienne Lenker’s songwriting – 12,000 Lines is a gorgeous song of longing and Blue Lightning a charming ditty of devotion (“I want to be the shoelace that you tie… I want to be the wrinkle in your eye”).

Her bandmates oblige with intuitive, freewheeling arrangements. Flower of Blood stands out stylistically in a broadly folk and country collection for its flinty guitars and the rocking distortion bubbling up from Lenker’s languorous lament but there are musical pleasures round every corner, from the forlorn flute on No Reason to the Tex Mex inflections of Wake Me Up to Drive and the delicate guitar picking of Promise Is a Pendulum.

Alynda Segarra, trading as Hurray for the Riff Raff, has ditched banjo and acoustic guitar for the survival-themed, self-styled “nature punk” post-President Trump shakeout of Life on Earth. The New York-born, New Orleans-based auteur has form in conjuring vivid worlds, not least on previous Puerto Rican-inspired album The Navigator. Here, Precious Cargo meditates again on the immigrant experience, while Segarra’s voice sounds older or at least world-weary on the luminous title track. There are also distinct shades of St Vincent to the slick electro pulse and soulful vocals of Pierced Arrows and a pleasing brass-dappled catharsis to Saga.

Hurray for the Riff Raff PIC:  Akasha Rabut / Indie Film LabHurray for the Riff Raff PIC:  Akasha Rabut / Indie Film Lab
Hurray for the Riff Raff PIC: Akasha Rabut / Indie Film Lab


Brahms: Complete Songs Vol 1 (Naxos) *****

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Even if the Brahms songs presented in this profoundly moving release by tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Ulrich Eisenlohr do not always represent the composer at his most consistently inspired, eloquent performances such as these do deserved justice. This is Volume 1 of Naxos’s planned survey of the complete Brahms’ songs, opening with the four sets: Op 32, 43, 86 and 105. Prégardien addresses them with a sustained and consuming maturity, subtle shadings, neatness of phrasing and a precision that irons over any weaknesses in the evenness of Brahms’ poetic source material. There is elation, reflection and agile emotion in equal measure. Eisenlohr’s pianistic range is wholesome, dramatic and unrestrained but never without sensitivity to Prégardien’s instinctive narrative delivery. It’s the apparent effortlessness in presenting these that turns a potentially heavy diet of songs into such easy and satisfying listening. Ken Walton


Megan Henderson: Pilgrim Souls (Own Label) *****

A member of the redoubtable Highland band Breabach, fiddler, pianist and singer Megan Henderson’s first “solo” album is a beautiful package all round, including a booklet of the luminously surreal paintings by Christine Clark which inspired it. With collaborators including fiddler Jack Smedley, mandolinists Anna Massie and Laura Beth Salter, viola player Mairi Campbell and cellist Su-a Lee, Henderson does the artwork full justice. Delicate piano chimes and lilting fiddle herald The Dawn Chorus, a new day emerging in easy jig-time. Flight of Fancy begins as a limpid air with fiddle and piano joined by the ghostly whistle of Lee’s saw before gaining pith and pace. The title track is a beautiful rendering of the WB Yeats poem When You Are Old, while The Composer is similarly lingering, with Henderson singing in Gaelic; both come with gorgeous string arrangements – music as lambent as Clark’s canvases. Jim Gilchrist

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