Amy Macdonald: Under Stars ***
Chuck Prophet: Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins ***
The Damned: Damned Damned Damned ***
It has been almost five years since Amy Macdonald last released an album – her enormous success throughout Europe keeping her on tour for a fair portion of that time – but aside from an impressive sleeve of skull tattoos up her left arm, she remains very much the same amiable soul as ever on her fourth album. Even co-writing with others for the first time in her ten-year career hasn’t significantly altered her signature pop rock sound, while her throaty tone and clipped delivery could be easily identified in any line-up.
This creative stasis may well be music to the ears of her hardcore fanbase. Macdonald is a traditionalist whose straightforward, pacey rootsy pop has typically found favour with an audience old enough to be her parents. Now, aged 29, Macdonald can also claim to be playing for her peers, or at least for those who are questioning the world around them.
Under Stars is an album in search of new horizons while offering a musical comfort blanket under which to take cover. Macdonald often sings about making a break, even as she finds herself retreating to her usual musical territory. Automatic is a qualified celebration of hitting the road, shot through with the implicit desire to escape, yet it simply cruises along in safe soft rock gear. Leap of Faith expresses a more explicit desire for freedom and escape from stifling relationships (“standing at the water’s edge, I’ll take a leap of faith”) but the song doesn’t take any such drastic action, in fact it doesn’t really go anywhere.
Macdonald trades in generalised sentiments on to which the listener can project what they like. Never Too Late offers rather clichéd encouragement to action and she looks to build on her theme on the House of Cards-inspired Rise & Fall but falls back on the repetition of platitudes.
There is a welcome change of pace and dynamic on Down By The Water where the cleansing gospel imagery is complemented no end by the vocal contributions of soul singer Juliet Roberts. Meanwhile, the country roots of Feed My Fire whets the appetite for what a Macdonald Nashville album might sound like and she gives a more nuanced performance on the folk-flavoured Prepare To Fall, so the potential for change is in there somewhere.
Former Green On Red guitarist Chuck Prophet sticks to what he knows too, but what he knows is a joy to behold. The namedropping Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins is a fresh, freewheeling mix of Springsteenesque roots rock and low-slung rock’n’roll, spiced with mean fuzz guitar on Your Skin, the new wave harmonics of Jesus Was a Social Drinker and the terse rockabilly backdrop of In The Mausoleum, over which Prophet lets rip on guitar. He speaks for many in bemoaning 2016 as a Bad Year For Rock and Roll, offers a playful ode to the Nashville star If I Were Connie Britton (“I’d brush my hair every morning, weekends too”) and shines a light on the case of Alex Nieto, shot by San Francisco police in 2014.
However, the most vital music of
the week is 40 years young. The Damned’s brisk 30-minute debut Damned Damned Damned is recognised as the first British punk album and, while this 40th anniversary edition confirms there is little here which The Stooges, New York Dolls or 60s girl groups hadn’t already produced on the other side of the Atlantic, the soulful gonzo rock’n’roll of Fan Club, the demented garage punk of Born To Kill and the urgent lust of New Rose have not lost their capacity to thrill.
Monteverdi: Madrigali Vol 3, Venezia ****
To complete their three-volume exploration of Monteverdi’s epic collections of Madrigals, Paul Agnew and Les Arts Florissants turn to Volumes 7 & 8, written at the height of the composer’s creativity in 17th century Venice. This is, by necessity, an outline selection, yet Agnew’s choice is beautifully representative of the collections’ glorious stylistic range and substantial evocative content. From the opening instrumental Sinfonia, a gentle hymn-like scene-setter, and the gently dissonance-laden Al lume de le stelle with its poignant vocal interaction, to the historically pivotal Combattimento di Tancredo e Clorinda, there is arresting soulfulness in these live performances. Take the nimble Chiome d’oro, with its breezy ritornelli, agile bass ostinato, served up here as if it were Baroque jazz; or the raw affections that colour Lettera amorosa with the same emotive magnetism.
Siobhan Miller: Strata ****
Following her 2014 Flight of Time, in her second “solo” album, Siobhan Miller, one of the finest singers of the Scottish folk revival over the past decade or so, returns to the traditional and other material with which she grew up or learned from the likes of Sheila Stewart, Gordeanna McCulloch and Dick Gaughan.
Miller, who launches a UK tour at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall next Friday, is accompanied by a sizeable coterie including fiddler Aidan O’Rourke, guitarist Kris Drever and bassist (and producer) Euan Burton. Bob Dylan’s One Too Many Mornings receives a strikingly sweet-voiced treatment; in contrast, she captures the declamatory indignation of Ed Pickford’s Pound a Week Rise.
Among the traditional songs, The Month of January is rather hustled along, but she tells The Unquiet Grave with fine, wistful clarity over Drever’s guitar; The Sun Shines High grows to an anthemic crescendo, while False, False she sings with impeccable reproach.