With the youthful need to prove themselves long past, Deacon Blue have embraced their musical middle age, secure in their identity and beloved reputation but not so comfortable as to be complacent. Their eighth studio album is the final part of a trilogy which kicked off with The Hipsters in 2012 and continued with A New House in 2014, the former celebrating the band with a freewheeling nostalgia, the latter their country at a key moment in its history.
The Believers pans out further to mull over a bigger picture. Composed in the aftermath of one referendum and the run-up to another, but shrewdly couched in general terms for a more universal resonance, it is an album of faith, hope and charity – musically carefree, even if by necessity lyrically tentative. One track cautions that You Can’t Know Everything, while frontman and songwriter Ricky Ross confronts his own lack of certainty on Delivery Man.
Deacon Blue: The Believers ***
Bruce Springsteen: Chapter and Verse ****
Billy Bragg & Joe Henry: Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad ***
The title track sets the ambivalent tone – a soaring, expansive production with pounding piano and skipping strings yet inspired by the refugee crisis, particularly the desperate attempts to cross the Mediterranean. Gone expands on the theme as positively as it can, matching the idea that we are all migrants to uplifting music with that feelgood factor you often get in Springsteen songs.
But Ross also shares his convictions on a more intimate level. This Is A Love Song is instantly recognisable as the work of Deacon Blue, from the tinkle of piano to Ross’s phrasing and the choppy vocal interplay with Lorraine McIntosh. A Boy is less typical but rather beguiling, looking back in empathy at the rollercoaster of adolescence with a delicate breeziness. Even in The Believers’ most obviously anthemic moments, such as Birds with its rallying cry “one day we’re gonna be free”, there is a lightness of touch and positivity of spirit guiding their hand.
Speaking of Bruce Springsteen, Chapter and Verse is a neatly curated compilation intended as a soundtrack to his forthcoming autobiography, Born to Run, which ticks off a track apiece from key Springsteen albums. But the chief interest lies in five intriguing unreleased tracks documenting the Boss’s earliest musical endeavours, starting with 60s garage band The Castiles, featuring a teen Springsteen on guitar and vocals, performing one of his earliest compositions, the basic but invigorating Baby I, and a bone-rattling Willie Dixon cover, before proceeding to the hippie wigout of Steel Mill and loose country rock sprawl of The Bruce Springsteen Band plus a couple of demos recorded prior to his debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ.
There is a literal musical journey attached to the latest album by Billy Bragg & Joe Henry. The old friends embarked on a coast-to-coast rail trip across the US to bring us Shine A Light, recording their rendition of traditional railroad-inspired songs as they went with a view to highlighting both the significance of the coming of the railway to North America and also its neglect as a mode of transport in the face of all-encompassing autophilia. It’s a great concept, though one suspects more fun for the musicians to execute than for the listener to experience, as the results are pretty much what one would expect from a mainly acoustic blues repertoire, although the softer pop strains of Glenn Campbell’s Gentle On My Mind, Woody Guthrie’s Hobo’s Lullaby and Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain provide some variety.
Peter Maxwell Davies: An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise *****
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra was a major vehicle of inspiration for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who died earlier this year. In turn, it has produced some of the finest insights into his, at times, difficult music. A tribute album, it opens with Ebb of Winter, a piece composed for the orchestra’s recent 40th birthday. It’s a work representative of the lighter, softer, more translucent Max of his later years. Ben Gurnon conducts a performance that glistens with crystal clear textures and those mysterious Orkney soundscapes. The Orkney connection continues in the restlessness of Last Door of Light (after George Mackay Brown’s poem “Thorfinn”) with its ghostly premonitions of An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, the rousing final track. In contrast, the brilliant young Scots guitarist Sean Shibe offers solo diversions: the piquancy of Hill Runes, and the simplicity of his most famous tune, Farewell to Stromness.
Steps Ahead with WDR Big Band Cologne: Steppin’ Out ****
The New York fusion band Steps Ahead has been a crucible of invention and emerging talent since it was formed in 1979 by vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, who recently collaborated impressively with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. Here he returns to the big band arena in the seasoned company of saxophonist Bill Evans, guitarist Chuck Loeb, bassist Tom Kennedy, drummer Steve Smith and the mighty WDR Big Band Cologne.
The result is as impressive, right from Mainieri’s vibes chiming stealthily over the opening tread of Pools. These are satisfyingly eventful tracks: the shifting tempi of Steppish, with Mainieri’s mallets whirring over fast-travelling bass, the mellow drift of Self Portrait or the mighty brass chorusing and Evans’s soprano in Beirut. There is nice interplay between Evans and WDR trombonist Andy Hunter, as cascading vibes animate Sarah’s Touch. ■