Album reviews: Ariana Grande | Marti Pellow | Sarah Jane Morris | Siobhan Wilson

Teaming light, feathery R&B with millennial self-care lyrics, Ariana Grande’s new album goes down like candyfloss, writes Fiona Shepherd

Ariana Grande: eternal sunshine (Republic Records) ***

Marti Pellow: PISO Live (self-released) ****

Sarah Jane Morris: The Sisterhood (Weatherbox) ****

Siobhan Wilson: Flowercore Vol.1 (SufRecs/Olive Grove Records) ****

Restoration poetry rocks, as Ariana Grande’s seventh album, eternal sunshine, makes reference to Alexander Pope’s Eloisa To Abelard – or more likely Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry’s 2004 film on memory, relationships and second chances. She also references, quite blatantly, Madonna’s Vogue on lead single Yes, And? which might explain why it is a clear highlight on a generally mid-paced album which teams light, feathery, retro pop R&B with millennial self-care lyrics and a touch of autobiographical sauce (“this is a true story about all the lies”).

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Working again with superproducer Max Martin, there is a delicacy to the arrangements and Grande’s delivery from the eddying strings of We Can’t Be Friends (Wait For Your Love) to the twinkling synth arpeggios on I Wish I Hated You which ensures that this album goes down like candyfloss.

For those not down with the WWW (Wet Wet Wet) acronyms, PISO refers to their five times platinum debut album Popped In Souled Out, which their former frontman Marti Pellow performed live last year with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to such acclaim that the collaboration has spawned an entire tour and this album document of the original show at Glasgow’s Armadillo, which opens with debut hit single Wishing I Was Lucky, a timeless appeal for soul not dole.

Ariana Grande PIC: Katia TemkinAriana Grande PIC: Katia Temkin
Ariana Grande PIC: Katia Temkin

The band’s love of Philly soul is captured in the soaring string arrangements, while the orchestra provides a cinematic swell to the Angel Eyes intro. Sure, Pellow chews the scenery on occasion and the cod calypso elements of I Don’t Believe (Sonny’s Letter) sounded more forgivable in person, but it remains a pleasure to revisit album tracks such as the ecstastic soul catharsis of I Remember and glistening easy listening The Moment You Left Me and to appreciate the maturity of the original songwriting from a bunch of Clydebank teenagers.

Erstwhile Communards frontwoman Sarah Jane Morris is also full of retro soul spirit on her lockdown project, a musical tribute to the female vocal and songwriting giants on whose shoulders she stands. The Sisterhood is, by no coincidence, released on International Women’s Day.

Working again with her wingman Tony Rémy, Morris has penned original songs paying tribute to the life and legacy of artists such as Bessie Smith, Janis Joplin and Annie Lennox without pastiche, though she can’t resist a touch of testifying on the title track, dedicated to Aretha Franklin who “socked it to them good”.

Elsewhere, she hails Rickie Lee Jones’ “storyteller’s cool” with the southern soul slow jam of Jazz Side of the Road, dubs Kate Bush the Rimbaud of Suburbia for her precocious talent with a bit of that sonic je ne sais quoi, pays tribute to another unique stylist, Joni Mitchell, with soul funk saxophone and soaring strings and enlists the Soweto Gospel Choir to celebrate Mama Africa on Miss Makeba.

There is more graceful conceptualising from the Borders-based singer/songwriter Siobhan Wilson who presents a flower diary in musical form on Flowercore Vol.1, the first of three EPs inspired by her rural home. Embellished by strings and birdsong, her arrangements are simple and mostly sparse, keeping attention on the delicate bloom of Wilson’s voice.

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The breathy folk wishfulness of Snowdrop’s Tune features hypnotically picked acoustic guitar and double bass from SCO principal Nikita Naumov. Clovers White boasts rapturous multi-tracked vocals and pizzicato textures, while she sounds at her prettiest on Floors o’ the Forest, with a soulful coda from piper Ross Ainslie.

But it’s not all trembling in the presence of daffodils as the EP rounds off with the more impressionistic haunting ululation and chiming percussion of Ghost Pipe Flowers and the wordless invocation and classical harmonies of Fern Flowers.


Love Music: Yeol Eum Son & Svetlin Roussev (naïve) ****

It all began with violinist Svetlin Roussev’s discovery of Franz Waxman’s ravishing paraphrase on the love duet from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and his shared vision with pianist Yeol Eum Son to extend its core sentiments into a full album, now titled Love Music. Beautifully sentimental, centred on music from the late-Romantic Austro-German era, this collection ranges from heart-warming arrangements of Träume from Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder and Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt to the more frivolous passions of Kreisler’s Three Old Viennese Dances and Korngold’s colourful character pieces on Much Ado About Nothing. Richard Strauss’ Violin Sonata in E flat, the most substantial of the tracks, confirms the magical musical synergy shared by Roussev, his rapt, sometimes deliciously husky tone amplified by exquisite lyrical nuances, and Son, whose pianism is both intuitively supportive and a deliciously expressive joy in its own right. Ken Walton


John Surman: Words Unspoken (ECM) ****

Is there another jazz reed voice quite like John Surman’s? As the Oslo-based English saxophonist approaches 80, there’s no let-up in his expressive and distinctively toned soundings, here in the assured and empathetic company of guitarist Rob Luft, vibraphonist Rob Waring and drummer Thomas Strønen. The opening Pebble Dance finds his soprano sax calling and squalling over a taut pulse, while the title track’s solemn majesty has the characteristic grainy lyricism of Surman’s baritone sax unfolding over shimmers of vibes and guitar. Much of this is unhurried and atmospheric – the contrast of muttering bass clarinet with vibraphone chimes and lightsome guitar flourishes in Graviola- while Strønen’s creative percussion work underpins piping soprano sax in Precipice. Onich Ceilidh is not so much an eightsome reel as a graceful swirl of soprano sax amid increasingly sprightly accompaniment, Waring and Luft cutting loose as Surman switches to bass clarinet. Jim Gilchrist