Album reviews: Beyoncé | The Black Keys | Sheryl Crow | Judie Tzuke

There’s a deficit of top drawer tracks on the new country-themed album from Beyoncé, but it’s a fun rodeo ride all the same, writes Fiona Shepherd

Beyoncé: Act II: Cowboy Carter (Columbia Records) ****

The Black Keys: Ohio Players (Nonesuch Records) ****

Sheryl Crow: Evolution (Big Machine) ***

Judie Tzuke: Jude the Unsinkable (Wrasse Records) ***

Stetsons off to Beyoncé for producing another bumper themed album with a lot of love and research behind it. Following Renaissance, her celebration of Black pioneers in dance music, the imperious and curious diva turns her attention to a lesser-told history for the second part of a proposed trilogy. Cowboy Carter aims to reclaim the Black origins of country music, while recognising her own Texan roots and early performances at the Houston Rodeo.

First single Texas Hold ’Em debuted at the top of the US country charts, a first for a black female artist. But she doffs her Stetson to her forebears with cameos from Dolly Parton, Linda Martell, the first successful black female country artist, and the blessed Willie Nelson who embodies the jukebox feel of the album on Smoke Hour, the radio show he should be presenting.

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Album guests also include her country contemporaries Miley Cyrus, rapper Shaboozey and instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens and she references Patsy Cline, speeds up Chuck Berry’s Oh Louisiana, samples Nancy Sinatra on catchy jam Ya Ya, and reworks Parton’s Jolene to transform its plaintive pleading into a direct order to keep hands off her man.

Beyoncé PIC: Blair CaldwellBeyoncé PIC: Blair Caldwell
Beyoncé PIC: Blair Caldwell

Washboards, mandolins, banjos are all in the mix but her very presence ensures an R&B infusion to the sound, whether she is musing on motherhood on Protector (featuring daughter Rumi), mining the tradition of rootsy protest songs on American Requiem with some testifying vocal fry or covering The Beatles’ beautiful Blackbird with a choir of upcoming Black country singers. As usual, the album is too long to avoid filler but, while there is a deficit of top drawer tracks, it’s a fun rodeo ride all the same.

Following a couple of blues-oriented records, The Black Keys are back in danceable, poppy mode with Ohio Players, named (presumably) after the Seventies funk band and featuring fellow funk soul brothers Beck and Dan “the Automator” Nakamura, who co-wrote first single, the strutting Beautiful People (Stay High). Beck playfully stamps his seal on the laidback alt.funk of Candy and Her Friends, with low-slung rap from Lil Noid, and the breathy, playful Paper Crown – just some white guys digging on James Brown.

The other notable collaborator is Noel Gallagher, not a man known for possessing The Funk, but capable of composing hands-in-the-air anthem On the Game and the pop gospel elevation of Only Love Matters. Further treats await, including the sultry Tex Mex of Read ’Em and Weep, the bubblegum stomp of Don’t Let Me Go and a cover of William Bell’s I Forgot To Be Your Lover, which evokes the southern soul spirit of the original.

Sheryl Crow has come out of self-imposed album retirement with a variable collection which hits its stride with the elegant funk of Love Life. The years melt away with its Prince-style spiky psychedelic guitar strokes and Crow’s smoky tones. In contrast to this girlish freedom, the silky pomp rock title track expresses her anxieties over the use of AI in music-making (and elsewhere), while Tom Morello wrangles his guitar, and she goes old school singer/songwriter with Don’t Walk Away, a luminous piano ballad in the vein of So Far Away or Stay With Me Till Dawn.

The Black Keys PIC: Larry NiehuesThe Black Keys PIC: Larry Niehues
The Black Keys PIC: Larry Niehues

Speaking of which, Judie Tzuke releases her 22nd album after a turbulent period of illness and misfortune. Jude the Unsinkable combines soothing MOR music with eloquent diarising, wordy but expertly phrased and often just expressing it like it is. “I want to feel better,” she resolves on the cleansing, soaring, soulful Sunflowers before dabbling in the dreamy escapism of Keeper of the Sun and concluding “I’m comfortable with everything changing” on You’ve Got To Be In It.


Richard Wagner: Famous Opera Scenes for piano (harmonia mundi musique) *****

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Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky reckons Wagner is all about goodies and baddies, his point being that the composer of The Ring operas, Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde viewed his imaginary worlds in black and white. He’s right in that binary extremes lie fundamentally at the heart of Wagner’s characterisation, but moments into this heroic recital of piano transcriptions, many by Lugansky himself, the listener is fully consumed by performances that relay something more universally soul-searching. Beyond the final moments of Das Rheingold, a protean awakening, and the sparkling Magic Fire Music from Die Walküre, three excerpts from Götterdammerung form an ecstatic sequence from Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s impassioned Love Duet to the purgative Immolation scene. Lugansky ends with the visionary monumentalism of Parsifal’s Transformation Music and exhaustive sensuality of Isolde’s Liebestod. This may be a self-declared personal quest for the pianist, but he shares it generously and unconditionally. Ken Walton


Bring In the Spirit (Brechin All Records) ****

Something of an unearthed treasure this: Bring In the Spirit was instigated by the late Lionel McClelland (who sings on one track) in 2009 for a Burns anniversary concert in Dumfries’s Globe Tavern. Uniting the considerable vocal and instrumental talents of Kirsten Easdale, Rod Paterson, Gregor Lowrey, Marc Duff and Pete Clark, these long dormant recordings enjoy a welcome re-emergence. Paterson and Easdale harmonise splendidly in the likes of Paterson’s India and in Burns’s Green Grow the Rashes, while Easdale’s passionate Gloomy December was recorded live in the church where Burns’s lost love, Agnes McLehose, was married. There’s something of the old-fashioned concert party about recitations such as the ornithological soliloquy The Common Craw and the droll tongue-twister Oor Hamlet. And to temper mortal levity, a Scots translation of an old Norwegian hymn, Alteran’s Sacrament, has Easdale and Paterson’s singing happed in solemn, organ-like accordion. Jim Gilchrist

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