Arab Strap: As Days Get Dark (Rock Action) ****
Steg G: Live Today (Powercut Productions) ****
Alice Cooper: Detroit Stories (earMUSIC) ***
Bonnie Tyler: The Best Is Yet to Come (earMUSIC) ***
While their mates Mogwai mark a quarter century of uninterrupted post-rock trailblazing, Arab Strap ride back into town with their first new album in 16 years, like the exes you’ve forgiven but not forgotten. Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton first went their separate ways in 2006, beaten down by the commercial slog of the mid-ranking indie outfit. Man shall not live by critical acclaim alone but the joy with which their 2016 reunion was greeted kindled the creative fires again and As Days Get Dark is the fully realised result, a higher-fi reboot of their idiosyncratic candid confessionals, like a whiff from an illicit still, or a bad habit you don’t want to resist.
For evidence that Arab Strap are older, wiser and utterly unrepentant, listen no further than opening track The Turning of Our Bones, with its stealthy, gothic guitar, squalling saxophone, ominously circling strings and synth handclaps forming a seductive backdrop to Moffat’s narrative “about resurrection and shagging.”
The dynamic created by Moffat’s eye-watering poetry and Middleton’s atmospheric soundtracks is more expertly wrought than ever. Heady disco strings soundtrack Fable of the Urban Fox’s parable on racism. Another Clockwork Day’s catalogue of online porn (“wearing nothing but a new postcode”) is teamed with pastoral picking and mournful melodica (is there any other kind?) Tears on Tour ponders the triggers for teardrops from raw, uncomprehending bereavement to “the Muppet movie, Frozen, Frozen 2” over some surprising Mark Knopfler-style burnished blues guitar.
The brilliantly titled Kebabylon, inspired by the twilight zone of the nocturnal road sweeper, finds them in familiar territory, melding tinny rhythm, post-rock guitar and Moffat’s sinister breathiness, while Here Comes Comus! celebrates the almost forgotten art of the wild night out. As lurid as they can be, there is something bittersweet about these nighttime dispatches from a pre-Covid age.
Hip-hop producer Steg G, aka Steven Gilfoyle, also takes to the streets in the company of community orchestra The Glasgow Barons and guest MCs, including Stanley Odd frontman Solareye and rap duo CCTV, for a Glasgow odyssey chronicling 24 hours in Gilfoyle’s native Govan.
Live Today kicks off with smashing glass on Wee Small Hours, inspired by the sectarian riots of 2019. Rapper Empress is eloquent as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, while Freestyle Master plays a local shopkeeper “slap bang in the trenches” who has seen it all.
Mental health issues loom large, from the literal self-reflection of Enemy in the Mirror to the confidence boosting My Destiny (“so I invest in me”), while the soundtrack flows from folky flute and low-slung beats on Then It All Goes Wrong to the bold symphonic soul backing of Space Age Addictions.
Veteran shock rocker Alice Cooper also looks to his locale on Detroit Stories, an irreverent homage to his birthplace – where “you couldn’t be a soft rock band or you’d get your ass kicked” – which he has recorded with Detroit musicians including MC5’s Wayne Kramer, Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark Farner and the Motor City Horns, with namechecks for other natives such as Suzi Quatro, and the spirit of Bob Seger all over the rootsy soul number $1000 High Heel Shoes.
Bonnie Tyler, meanwhile, inhabits 80s AOR Bonnieland on The Best Is Yet To Come – debatable on these anachronistic terms, though she might have boosted her Eurovision chances with the fun melodrama of Stuck To My Guns. Through a patchy playlist of covers and originals, Tyler is generally better served with an imaginary wind machine in her hair or flexing her gravelly rhythm’n’blues vocal muscles on her version of I’m Only Guilty (Of Loving You).
Catriona Morison: The dark night has vanished (Linn CKD 637) ****
With songs by the 19th century German composer and Mendelssohn protégé Josephine Lang, the Scots mezzo soprano has given her solo recording debut a unique point of interest. There are also songs by Grieg, Brahms and Schumann, which are testament to the rich mezzo timbre that distinguishes Morison’s maturing voice and interpretational artistry. In tandem with the instinctive collaboration of pianist and fellow Scot, Malcom Martineau, she journeys from the fresh complexions of Grieg’s Sechs Lieder Op 48, through a lavish miscellany of Brahms to the ruminative colourations of Schumann’s Op 90 songs. It’s with the latter two composers that Morison best finds natural vent for her fullest expressive powers. But in Lang’s songs too, crafty and mainstream and lit with daringly personal harmonic adventures, she captures the essential spirit of a woman who battled personal difficulties – the early death of her husband – to succeed in what was predominantly a man’s world. Ken Walton
Shez Raja: Tales from the Punjab (Ubuntu Music) ****
Anglo-Asian bassist Shez Raja has collaborated powerfully with such jazz-fusioneers as Randy Brecker, Mike Stern and Trilok Gurtu. Here, however, he travels back to his cultural heartland, his warm-toned bass guitar exhibiting a funky dexterity that leaves space for Ahsan Papu’s bansuri flute and Zohaib Hassan’s sarangi violin to swoop and soar exhilaratingly. Typical is Angel’s Tears, as rolling bass and steadily tapping tabla (Kashif Ali Dani) set an easy gait, Fiza Haider’s vocals and Papu’s flute sounding in unison before Raja embarks on a lightly intricate solo, the querulously microtonal keening of sarangi following on. Adventures in the City of Wonders is one of three improvisations, with introductory vocalising, sarangi and flute hanging magically above a drone before the bass launches a steadily ascending riff. Maharaja develops over terse percussion, deftly ranging bass and an outburst of wah-wah violin – musical tales eloquently told. Jim Gilchrist
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription at https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions