Album reviews: Belle & Sebastian | John Cale | James Yorkston & Nina Persson

The second album in less than a year from Belle & Sebastian, Late Developers is packed with catchy hooklines, writes Fiona Shepherd

Belle & Sebastian PIC: Anna Crolla
Belle & Sebastian PIC: Anna Crolla

Belle & Sebastian: Late Developers (Matador) ****

John Cale: Mercy (Double Six/Domino) ****

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James Yorkston, Nina Persson and The Second Hand Orchestra: The Great White Sea Eagle (Domino) ****

Belle & Sebastian hit the new year running with the announcement and appearance of their tenth album a short eight months on from the release of its predecessor. Late Developers is a product of the same fruitful pandemic sessions as its equally well-named 2022 sibling, A Bit of Previous, and arrives packed with personality and wide-ranging material, from a pre-Belle & Sebastian revival to their first original not penned by one of their trio of writers – that would be catchy taster single I Don’t Know What You See In Me, a Mika-like earworm written by Glaswegian electro pop artist Peter Ferguson, aka Wuh Oh, which takes this veteran indie band into brazenly poppy territory.

Not that they are short of homegrown hooklines. Sarah Martin takes the lead on the blithe Give a Little Time, tinged with Seventies bubblegum pop style, and duets with frontman Stuart Murdoch on Do You Follow, a slinky disco pop nugget which sounds like a lost Olivia Newton John track.

Murdoch compares the anxieties of adulthood and parenthood with the salad days of When We Were Very Young (“I wish I could be content with the football scores”), exercises his limber falsetto on the languorous soul of The Evening Star and evokes the pastoral chamber pop of The Zombies on Will I Tell You A Secret.

Long time B&S acolytes will be intrigued by When The Cynics Stare Back from the Wall – a song which dates back to Murdoch’s pre-Belles songwriting flush, now dusted off and embellished with the dulcet heartbreak tones of Camera Obscura frontwoman Tracyanne Campbell. In contrast, So In The Moment is a peppy Stevie Jackson special, delivered like Elvis Costello channelling Sixties psych pop, and as carefree as they come in this confident, dynamic collection.

John Cale PIC: Madeleine McManus

Velvet Underground legend John Cale delivers his first new album in ten years. Mindful of this special occasion, a number of relatively young guns have queued up to join the ever-questing 80-year-old on his latest atmospheric odyssey. Animal Collective are a particularly good match for Cale’s twisted pop experimentation, as are the maverick Fat White Family, while Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering lends “puritanical” guest vocals alongside Cale’s hangdog tones on the dramatic electronic wash of Story of Blood.

Mercy is a compassionate collection, encompassing the weary soul of the title track, eerie reverberations of Marilyn Monroe’s Legs, twinkling monastic chant Not the End of the World, stern, strident strings of Moonstruck (Nico’s Song) – an ode to his former bandmate and lover – and the elegant Blue Nile-meets-Bowie love melancholia of Noise of You, with bonus quasi-operatic interlude.

Serial collaborator James Yorkston reunites with Sweden’s Second Hand Orchestra for another voyage of gentle discovery, fleshing out Yorkston’s tender observations and quirky storytelling with spontaneous arrangements on guitars, percussion, brass, woodwind and stringed things. The Great White Sea Eagle differs from its predecessor The Wide, Wide River in two regards – Yorkston wrote the songs on piano rather than his go-to guitar during a fertile lockdown stint and the finished recordings are enhanced by the pure vocal tones of special guest Nina Persson of The Cardigans.

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The extempore results range from the bare and beautiful folk pop ballad Mary to the Ivor Cutler-esque whimsy of An Upturned Crab, from the soothing comfort of Hold Out For Love to the wry humour of The Heavy Lyric Police. The Sweetness In You is Yorkston’s paean to late Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison (“I think of him often as I look out to the sea…and I live by the coast”), while the mellow prog folk of A Hollow Skeleton Lifts a Heavy Wing features the Orchestra at their most intuitive.

James Yorkston and Nina Persson PIC: Anna Drvnik

CLASSICAL

Malcom Arnold: Orchestral Works (Chandos) ****

Sir Malcolm Arnold’s music deserves not to be forgotten. It’s only 17 years since his death, but for all he enjoyed regular exposure in British concert programming during his long life, that prominence has quickly ebbed. He wrote endearingly, embracing personable wit, a chirpy Englishness, but also a brooding darkness representative of his more troubled side. This lively new album by Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic offers a spread of orchestral works dating from the 1940s to the 1960s. The earliest, Larch Trees, is in some ways the most interesting, a plaintive tone poem echoing Delius but tinged with thoughtful early originality. Elsewhere, the jingoistic Commonwealth Christmas Overture, the high-spirited Divertimento No 2, the biting jazziness of the Clarinet Concerto No 1 (soloist Michael Collins), the irrepressible bluster of the Philharmonic Concerto, and the irreverent whimsy of The Padstow Lifeboat embrace the fuller extent of his memorable personality. Ken Walton

JAZZ

The Bad Plus: The Bad Plus (Edition Records) ****

Twenty-one years after forming as a leftfield piano-led trio with an interesting line in covers, The Bad Plus return, sans piano, as a quartet, founding drummer and bassist Dave King and Reid Anderson joined by guitarist Ben Monder and saxophonist Chris Speed. Re-shaped, they have lost nothing of their edgy creative fire, while acquiring a certain prog-rock grandeur. They open with sombre purpose in Motivations II, tenor sax signalling a stark melody line, swathes of guitar generating Piranesi-esque atmosphere. Things ratchet up with the boisterous Sun Wall, drums churning expansively while maintaining scrupulous pace. There’s balladic melancholy in You Won’t See Me Before I Come Back, guitar chimes and soprano sax generating almost organ-like textures, or the rugged wistfulness of Stygian Pools. To close, The Dandy builds a lithe, rocky groove for sweetly singing sax and Pink Floyd levels of stratospheric guitar. Welcome back. Jim Gilchrist