Album reviews: Beth Orton | Dr John | The Comet Is Coming | Scott Twynholm

For her latest album Weather Alive, Beth Orton has swapped her guitar for a piano and invited an ace band of jazz players along for the ride, writes Fiona Shepherd

Beth Orton
Beth Orton

Beth Orton: Weather Alive (Partisan Records) ***

Dr John: Things Happen That Way (Rounder Records) ***

The Comet Is Coming: Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam (Impulse! Records) ****

Scott Twynholm: Ride the Wave (De-Fence Records) ****

Since her Brit Awards win back in 2000, Beth Orton has been an all too rarely glimpsed presence, surfacing gracefully every five years or so with new music which comes from a place of introversion, yet succeeds in resonating quietly with her considerable fanbase. On each occasion, her sound has changed subtly but her voice is the galvanising feature – like recognising an old friend despite the weathering of the years.

On this occasion, Orton has unlocked a new mode of expression by writing on piano rather than guitar, addressing her struggles with chronic illness more directly than ever before. Which is to say, not that directly, as her lyrics remain mostly impressionistic and her vocal quaver is more pronounced than ever, almost an obfuscating Dylanesque croak in places, with evocative images to match: “I’ve been dreaming of Proust all in my bed,” she confesses on Friday Night.

Her alto warble is matched by the quivering mute brass on Fractals, composed in tribute to late producers Andrew Weatherall and Hal Willner. The ghost of Johnny Thunders haunts the New York dreaming of Arms Around a Memory but it is her ace band of guest jazz players, including drummer Tom Skinner, bassist Tom Herbert, saxophonist Alabaster DePlume and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, who have the most tangible influence on the mellow textures of Haunted Satellite, with its soft shakers and fluttering saxophone, and the sultry Forever Young which features a more satisfying, husky vocal from Orton.

Dr John

The late Dr John left it late but he finally got there with his long-planned album of country classics, all delivered in signature Night Tripper gumbo style. In what is billed as his final studio album, the New Orleans jazz and blues legend slows the pace right down with his voodoo rendition of Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man and straight-ish gruff country take on I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.

He showers Willie Nelson’s Funny How Time Slips Away in that New Orleans special sauce, with loose, loping R&B piano and soused brass. Nelson himself crops up as a guest on a steady, soothing version of the gospel standard Gimme That Old Time Religion while his son Lukas Nelson and band Promise of the Real provide burnished blues backing on Dr John classic I Walk On Gilded Splinters.

But he also bows out with a handful of new originals, all decent but standard mid-paced rhythm’n’blues delivered with an irreverent twinkle, not least his gospel penitence on Holy Water and the non-motivational Give Myself a Good Talkin’ To with its wary admission “look in the mirror, fed up wit’ chu”.

London trio The Comet Is Coming maintain their inspired astral jazz orbit on latest album Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam (mummy, can I get one?) with Shabaka Hutchings’ familiar fidgety sax piercing the dancefloor-friendly electronica on Code and its keening tone cutting through like a klaxon call in the rave soundworld of Pyramids.

The Comet Is Coming PIC: Fabrice Bourgelle

The seamless fusion of influences is sustained through the soulful electronic jazz of Lucid Dreamer, pitch-shifted electro funk and euphoric crescendos of Technicolour, low-slung but revved-up electro samba Atomic Wave Dance and the cosmic tribal throwdown Angel of Darkness.

There is not a hint of surf guitar on composer Scott Twynholm’s soundtrack to Martyn Robertson’s acclaimed Scottish surfing documentary Ride the Wave. And despite track titles such as White Water and Jetski, it is no energy rush either, but a thoughtful sound collage, suffused with elements of ambient music, folk and stately orchestration, such as the slow-bowed, sombre cello on The Restless Ocean, tender acoustic guitar on Ben and Cande Surf and delicate, melodic piano on Japanese Sand.


The Playhouse Sessions (Rubicon) ****

Here’s a stimulating curiosity. In the wake of Norwegian director/arranger Bjarte Eike and his wacky, theatrical Barokksolistene’s Alehouse Sessions album comes their latest release, The Playhouse Sessions. The original alludes to the enforced relocation of serious musicians from the closed opera houses of Cromwell’s prohibitive Commonwealth era to London’s taverns, the musical outcome a hybrid genre of classical and popular crossover full of zest, improvisatory freedom and a touch of ribaldry. This new release projects that to a wider musical perspective, everything from Purcell songs and folk ballads to Scots fiddle tunes and Eike’s own contemporary incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The bulk of the early music also bears Eike’s adaptive fingerprint, spectral harmonies drawing on jazz and folk, an eclectic melange of Wolfstone meets Mr McFall’s Chamber meets Concerto Caledonia. And while this group’s eccentric visual theatricality is obviously absent, its vitality is easy to imagine. Ken Walton


Siobhan Miller: Bloom (Songprint Recordings) ****

Siobhan Miller’s latest, largely upbeat album sees her lithe vocals escorted by a (just occasionally overwhelming) contingent of seasoned players including guitarist Kris Drever, pianist Tom Gibbs, fiddler Charlie Stewart, drummer Louis Abbott and bassist (and co-producer with Miller) Euan Burton. Miller delves affectionately into traditional material, revivifying hoary old standards as well as more contemporary offerings, opening with the late Andy M Stewart’s Queen of Argyll. There’s a lissom Cold Blows the Rainy Night, with perky accordion from Andrew Waite, a straightforward telling of The Swan Swims – a variant of the dark twa sisters ballads, and a hearty rendition of I’m a Rover. Davie Robertson’s drolly sentimental Star of the Bar is delivered with feeling, as is Jim Malcolm’s wistful Battle of Waterloo, while Rab Noakes’s Open All Night exudes a rocked-up, Rafferty-like exuberance, before the closing Wild Mountain Thyme steers us gently back to basics. Jim Gilchrist