Ed Sheeran: ÷ **
Sacred Paws: Strike A Match ***
6th Borough Project: Find Your Rhythm ***
So Nice Guy Eddie has broken the internet again. Having sworn off social media for a year, busker boy phenomenon Ed Sheeran returned in January with two contrasting new tracks which smashed worldwide streaming records. Now it appears he only has himself to compete with, as every track from his third album ÷ (aka Divide) made it into the Top 50 streaming chart over its first weekend of release.
But ubiquity does not equal quality, as a musician who is clearly partial to a maths-themed title and adheres to tried and tested musical formulae must surely appreciate, even as he lifts Eraser’s opening flamenco guitar flourishes over a pop R&B track off Justin Timberlake’s shelf of leftovers.
In the first sign that Sheeran has little of interest to impart lyrically, he indulges in a little light wound licking about the pressures of fame before he is off trundling back to his old life on Castle On The Hill, a Mumfords-style dose of nostalgic whimsy about re-connecting with his old gang down the local pub, painted in the broadest of emotional brushstrokes.
Despite a decent falsetto, Sheeran doesn’t convince as the seducer of Shape of You; instead, he is more suited to the old school gentlemanly wooing of Perfect, a generic love song brazenly conceived to soundtrack the first dance at a glut of weddings. But the clichéd sentiments don’t end there, as Sheeran does his bit for Anglo-Irish relations on the irredeemably cheesy Celtic/R&B crossover number Galway Girl.
From here, he continues to yo-yo around his broad demographic, oscillating between more playful, observational R&B (New Man) and Mother’s Day-friendly bland balladry (Hearts Don’t Break Around Here), then throwing a bone to the US market with the self-referential What Do I Know? Very little would seem to be the answer, as he defaults to the banal, feelgood, downhome schtick which afflicts many modern country records.
This is all solid populist fare, but it’s hard not to respond to Sheeran’s box ticking with cynicism. Bases covered, streams and sales secured, job done.
Meanwhile, back at the hardscrabble ground level where the majority of musicians operate with only remote notions of that all-conquering level of commercial success, there are modest treasures to be foraged. Glasgow/London-based guitar/drums duo Sacred Paws blend the trebly chime of Afrobeat guitar with the spikiness of femme punk trailblazers such as The Raincoats, and then soften those edges with the dreamy charm of the jangling DIY indie pop bands of the mid-1980s to make a joyful, idiosyncratic noise on their debut album, Strike A Match. But it’s a limited, stylised sound in need of some variation, so Rachel Aggs and Eilidh Rodgers make the most of their contrasting strident/sweet vocal tones, especially on Getting Old, and mix in some welcome electro funk synth swirl to Stars.
6th Borough Project is the long-running musical alias of DJ/producers Craig Smith and Graeme Clark, who also records as The Revenge. The pair dive into their record boxes again for eclectic inspiration on this tasty trip of a third album which majors on relaxing, spacey house music but darkens the soundscape with the tougher techno invocation of The Weight. Find Your Rhythm is appropriately titled – the beguiled listener can choose between the Daft Punk disco funk likes of Bad News and the sumptuous In Memory Of… which is all too short, at two minutes, for those who want to bathe in its string-soaked vista a while longer.
Bardic Trio ****
The Bardic Trio – Scots tenor Jamie MacDougall, Welsh harpist Sharon Griffiths and Scots guitarist Matthew McAllister – combine classical sophistication with a penchant for Celtic tradition. So while the songs here by Scots bard Robert Burns, Irish poet Thomas Moore and others rooted in Welsh and Orcadian tradition echo the latter, many are presented in arrangements by such serious composers as Eddie McGuire and Alasdair Nicolson, and also in instrumental form by Griffiths and McAllister themselves. McGuire’s settings of Burns – from the sultry Winter is Past and deliciously ephemeral Ae Fond Kiss, to the exotically-charged Slave’s Lament – are excitingly original without losing touch with the texts. Nicolson’s The Balfour Songbook is a sparkling illumination of three ancient Orkney melodies. Among the Welsh songs, another McGuire setting stands out: his simple treatment of Suo gan, a song made famous in Spielberg’s film Empire of the Sun. Restful listening.
Colin Steele Quintet: Even in the Darkest Places ****
Edinburgh trumpeter Colin Steele’s first quintet recording for more than a decade reunites him with pianist and arranger Dave Milligan, saxophonist Michael Buckley, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Stu Ritchie in a triumphant and very welcome transcendence over the crisis which curtailed his playing for a period.
There’s a sense of jubilation, therefore, in ringing piano and unison fanfaring of trumpet and sax in the opening I Will Wait for You, while tracks such as Robin Song further demonstrate Steele’s penchant for an engaging, folksong-like melody and that mellow yet limber dual horn sound. In Looking for Nessie, the monster hunt becomes a swinging safari, while Independence Song is an upbeat waltz.
Buckley’s soprano sax sings out in his introduction to the three-part Down to the Wire, which settles into another elegantly Scots-accented sounding theme before the band lets rip with unbound energy. ■