Belle & Sebastian: A Bit of Previous (Matador) ****
C Duncan: Alluvium (Bella Union) ****
Melody’s Echo Chamber: Emotional Eternal (Domino) ****
Over the past two years, the members of Belle & Sebastian, like many folks, have reconnected with their locale, making the most of the lockdown travel restrictions to tramp the streets of Glasgow or take a short train ride to the outskirts of town. This is hardly revolutionary for such a civic-minded band – in fact, many of the band’s earliest songs were inspired by frontman Stuart Murdoch’s habit of riding the city buses with no particular place to go.
However, ninth album, A Bit of Previous, is the first they have recorded at home in twenty years, adapting their practise space into a socially distanced studio when their original plans to work in California went on pandemic hold. Confined to barracks, Murdoch appears to be feeling his age, possibly even older, on opening track Young and Stupid, which looks nostalgically at his gang of 25 years - “some with kids and some with dogs”. Like Nobody’s Empire, which opened previous album, 2015’s Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, it’s an uplifting muster song, punctuated with blithe folk fiddle and trilling trumpet.
From here, the album roams freely among familiar yet fresh territory. The mournful indie soul of If They’re Shooting At You, with its sublime backing vocals, was recently released as a single of solidarity for Ukraine, with proceeds going to the Red Cross. Talk to Me Talk to Me is a gloriously arranged baroque pop tune with taut drumming, acid guitar and a touch of Sparks melodrama, while Do It For Your Country is an innately tuneful acoustic rumination on (young?) love and lust.
There is northern soul from a northern indie band on Unnecessary Drama, driven along by the squall of harmonica, much like Culture Club’s stomping Church of the Poison Mind. The jaunty jazz of Come On Home is brazen in its pastiche, yet bent into joyful Belle & Sebastian shape.
Murdoch’s songwriting cohorts also contribute their contrasting nuggets – Sarah Martin leading on the undulating synth pop of A World Without You and Stevie Jackson channelling Edwyn Collins and Nick Lowe through his soothing baritone on Caledonian country waltz Deathbed of My Dreams to enhance another fine Belle & Sebastian record.
Just as consistently, there is further sensual musical finery from talented Helensburgh-based composer C Duncan on Alluvium, his fourth album of rapturous chamber pop, featuring appropriately elemental songs called Air and Earth, the former rooted in 70s pop balladry with its graceful strings and sighing sentiments.
The Wedding Song is a gorgeous, blushingly romantic acoustic paean written for his brother’s wedding in lieu of a best man’s speech, while We Have A Lifetime, inspired by his philosophical grandmother, would make an exquisite first waltz at a wedding.
Elsewhere, Duncan toys coquettishly with a couple of outright synth pop tracks, the playful I Tried and Heaven, whose chiming dreaminess recalls those immaculate Trevor Horn productions for Dollar. Even the unexpected guitar solo in Bell Toll is ravishing and the results are all the more stunning for having been performed, recorded and produced at home.
French singer/songwriter Melody Prochet presents a similarly escapist soundworld on her third album as Melody’s Echo Chamber, combining a breathy Gallic pop streak with the neo-psychedelic influences of her collaborators past and present, Tame Impala and Dungen, and other intoxicating concoctions such as the North African rhythms and baroque organ of Pyramids in the Cloud, or the neon dream disco territory of Looking Backward. Where the Water Clears the Illusion is straight-ahead psych pop in the style of early 90s indie dance acts such as World of Twist, while The Hypnotist sounds like one of Daft Punk’s proggier odysseys.
Castalian Quartet: Between Two Worlds (Delphian) *****
How often do we listen to a full string quartet programme and feel we’ve been taken to hell and back? Not in a bad way. It’s just that music for this genre can, without respite, amount to quite a heavy emotional load, Whether that thought was instrumental in guiding the excellent Castalian Quartet towards such a beautifully balanced sequence - heavyweight Beethoven and Adès softened, indeed contextualised, by exquisite miniatures by Lassus and Dowland - is neither here not there. The end result is as refreshing as it is profound. There’s a distinctive quality to this ensemble’s playing that fuses personality and oneness. Beethoven’s late A minor Quartet, Op 132, with the sublime Heiliger Dankgesang at its spiritual core, plays a powerful centrifugal role, countered immediately by the mutable effervescence of Thomas Adès’ The Four Quartets. Either side, the meditative Renaissance transcriptions offer precious moments of psychological preparation and reflection. Ken Walton
Tord Gustavsen: Opening (ECM) ****
Tord Gustavsen, the quiet man of Scandinavian jazz, returns with a replenished trio, his drummer, Jarle Vespestad, now joined by double bassist Steinar Raknes, whose judicious use of electronics brings an additional spaciness to the pianist’s melodies and improvisations. The opening number, The Circle, is a beguiling, folk-like melody with an unhurried but compelling hook. In Findings, stealthy drum and bass dialogue introduce piano murmurs which veer gently into the gospellike rolls of the traditional Visa från Rättvik, while, far from dance-floor passion, Helensburgh Tango exudes an almost Beethovenish solemnity, with its restrained snare and bowed bass in unison with the piano. The tenderly picked out Stream contrasts with the darker Ritual, with its plangent arco bass keening; spooky electronic whistling, too, haunts the hymn-like Fløytelåt. Nothing happens in a hurry here, but the Gustavsen vibe lingers wistfully. Jim Gilchrist