Album reviews: Avicii | The Divine Comedy | Richard Hawley | Song, By Toad compilation

Pop music thrives on dynamic tension – a killer melodic interval, an unexpected chord progression, or the juxtaposition of dark lyrics with a happy tune. Swedish superstar DJ Avicii – real name Tim Bergling – specialised in this latter musical contradiction, and his searching lyrics only resonate with greater sadness in the context of his suicide last year.

Avicii: Tim (Universal) ***

The Divine Comedy: Office Politics (DC Records) ***

Richard Hawley: Further (BMG) ****

Various: Split 12”, Vol.7 (Song, By Toad) ***

The poignantly titled Tim comprises music he was working on in the run-up to his death, now completed with the addition of vocal tracks by a host of guests, many of them his Swedish pop peers, providing some leavening melodic hooks against the formulaic EDM production which was his signature.

So it’s musical business-as-usual, but viewed through a tragic prism. There are red flags galore in the song titles – Peace of Mind, SOS – and in the lyrics with Hold the Line’s self-comforting “the breath in your lungs is stronger than the tears in your eyes” and Freak’s frank declaration that “I don’t want to be seen in this shape I’m in, I don’t want you to see how depressed I’ve been.”

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But those downbeat sentiments are paired with undemanding summer dance party tracks such as the generic synth pop wash of Heaven featuring the baron of bland, Chris Martin. Heady Arabian strings enliven Tough Love, production duo Vargas & Lagola collaborate on a couple of mellow psychedelia-tinged pop numbers and Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds presides over the symphonic pomp pop of Heart Upon My Sleeve. All profits from the album will go to the Tim Bergling Foundation, raising awareness of mental health issues and suicide prevention.

While Avicii may appeal to the emotions, The Divine Comedy aim for the intellect and funny bone on Office Politics, a double album of wry pen portraits and dystopian ditties on the rise of the machines and the prevalence of the entitled eejit.

At one point, main man Neil Hannon lists a host of 80s synth pop acts, whose influence he has brazenly mined throughout this collection, most imaginatively on the lean funk, analogue electro and droll spoken word of the title track.

Elsewhere, Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company pays minimalist homage to composers Glass and Reich by imagining the repetitive nature of their alternative day jobs, You’ll Never Work In This Town Again is delivered as a slinky big band salsa and Hannon shamelessly flirts with European cabaret tradition on the melodramatic chanson I’m A Stranger Here and the gothic sturm und drang of Dark Days Are Here Again. One senses that if he didn’t laugh he would cry.

Richard Hawley, meanwhile, makes a concerted effort to deliver an upbeat album for his new major paymasters, riding in with blues rocking new single Off My Mind, maintaining the rock’n’roll swagger on Alone, delivering the breezy shuffle of My Little Treasures and evoking a Jimmy Webb-like chiming contentment on the title track. But there’s also good news for fans of Hawley’s melancholic crooning in the form of tender meditation of Not Lonely and the gentle yearning Midnight Train, embellished with sighing strings and soulful guitar picking.

Edinburgh-based independent label Song, By Toad, a beacon of good taste over the last ten years, bows out with this swansong release. In accidental honour of label boss Matthew Young’s Canadian roots, this compilation, recorded inhouse at their Happiness Hotel DIY studio, comprises three tracks each from four Canadian artists, including Woodpigeon, aka Calgary singer/songwriter Mark Andrew Hamilton, who made his first musical forays while living in Edinburgh, and the spectral gothic folk of Dana Gavanski.

Finland-based LT Leif mixes delicate acoustic picking with quavery, fragile vocals while classically trained Foonyap weaves together gossamer electronica, violin and mandolin loops and haunted vocals. - Fiona Shepherd


Beethoven: String Quartets, Op 18, nos 4-6 (Coro) *****

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Beethoven’s six Op18 string quartets of 1801, his first to be published, display an instant mastery of the genre borne of close study and admiration of Haydn.

They also mark the culmination of the composer’s first period, and with that a maturity and individuality that was to inform the course of his later great quartets.

The raw purity in these seething performances of Nos 4-6 by the Eybler Quartet – a superb follow-up to their earlier release of Nos 1-3 – is brilliantly in tune with the motivic intensity and textural economy of the music.

Listen to the mystical simplicity and mild agitation of the opening adagio in the finale of No 6, the melting lyricism of the Andante Cantabile in No 5, or the fluid logic and explosive drama of the opening of No 4. The Eyblers treat every moment as if the ink were still wet on the page, such is the intoxicating freshness of their delivery. - Ken Walton


Paul Anderson: Beauties of the North (Own Label) *****

“If ye canna mak it greet, it’s nae use ava,” was how one Aberdeenshire fiddler summed up the art of the slow air. But while there are some real weepies in this profoundly soulful collection of airs from doyen of North-East players Paul Anderson – listen, for instance, to the keening strains of Donald Riddell’s Lament for King George V – there’s much more, such as his heroically measured treatment of MacPherson’s Rant, or the hanging stillness of his own Luskentyre. There are occasional accompaniments, from the late George Donald on piano and guitarist Tony McManus, and a closing surprise when studio engineer Dave Sinton adds the glittering strings of the unique combolins which the late Roy Williamson developed for the Corries, as the fiddle sails through an old favourite of Anderson’s, The Loch Tay Boat Song. He’s at his most eloquent solo, however, as in Greig’s, giving timeless voice to this quintessential auld Scots tune. - Jim Gilchrist