Elbow: Little Fictions ***
Frank Carter & the Rattlesnakes: Modern Ruin ***
International Death Cult/KLF
Brent Cash: The New High ****
There is an understated national treasure quality about Elbow, a band who have modestly ploughed their low-key furrow for the past 20 years, releasing albums of gentle positivity while allowing the occasional furrowed brow or brooding storm cloud to intrude before retreating back into cosy escapism. Fashion is irrelevant and eclecticism overrated, their loyal fans love them for who they are, not what they might become. They are Manchester’s Teenage Fanclub, dependable but often with something special up their sleeve.
Just as the Fanclub became a transatlantic operation with Norman Blake’s emigration to Canada, so Elbow frontman Guy Garvey took a sabbatical in New York while the band were working on their previous album The Take Off and Landing of Everything. However, the gang are (almost) all back together for this seventh album, written as a group in a Scottish retreat, but recorded without drummer Richard Jupp who left during the making of the album, his departure creating the only real ripples through this comfortingly familiar album.
The seasoned Elbow fan immediately knows where they are with opening track and lead single Magnificent (She Says), starring Garvey’s reassuringly hangdog vocal and sweeping string arrangements from their old pals, the Hallé Orchestra. Like Baby Bear’s porridge, it tastes just right, suffused with a suggestion of smooth soul music.
However, Little Fictions is more to be appreciated than loved. The ambient backing of Gentle Storm is so skeletal, just enough piano and percussion to nudge it forward, that one appreciates how much texture is supplied by Garvey’s vocals.
Minus Jupp, the band have explored alternative rhythms, such as the shimmering shuffle and guitar chimes which run under Trust the Sun. Garvey also secures a few Valentine’s Day purchases with the line “you’re my reason for being”.
All Disco confirms their status as the humble man’s U2 with its beguiling tune, soulful vocals and spirit-lifting choir. Backed only by glistening guitar and then harmony voices,
Head for Supplies makes a lovely sound but is underwhelming as a song. Garvey works up a bit more of a sweat in delivering the layered Firebrand & Angel, but even the eight-minute title track passes off without incident when it feels like Elbow could do with some kind of seismic event.
Frank Carter & the Rattlesnakes duly oblige with a more invigorating listen. The tightly-coiled former frontman of London punks Gallows opens this second Rattlesnakes album with a tender, beseeching breather before the piledriving riffola of the ironically-monikered Lullaby sets in. The energy and intensity is often more impressive than the songs, but this is robust commercial melodic rock with bite. Snake Eyes sounds like Arctic Monkeys’ more pugnacious moments – Carter has that conversational mastery of phrasing, giving him a directness and credibility lacking from contemporaries who are a little too enamoured with the idea of being a posturing rock star. There is a ragged soul in his performance, which he brings full circle on epic closing ballad Neon Rust.
Even at his most vulnerable, Carter probably eats singers like Brent Cash for breakfast. Cash sounds like the kind of sensitive guy who spent most of his high school years in Athens, Georgia holed up in the music room, perfecting his tribute to 1970s piano balladeers and twee indie pop from the 1980s. The New High is an unashamedly retro cocktail garnished with a twist of tremulous strings and trilling woodwind, in thrall to the quality MOR of Jimmy Webb and post-surf Beach Boys, and it is a melodious joy.
Haydn: Symphonies Nos 8 & 84; Violin Concerto in A ****
There’s unrelenting joie de vivre in these Haydn performances by Harry Christophers and the Boston-based Handel and Haydn Society orchestra, America’s oldest continuously running arts organisation. The recording comes with a delicious warmth of tone, which wraps these two contrasting symphonies (Nos 8 & 84) and the A major Violin Concerto in the cosiest of comfort blankets. The period instruments are part of the reason, particularly the bloom and fragility of the strings, but there is a suppleness in these performances, not to mention an abundance of major key music, that allows Haydn’s mastery to breathe freely, whether in the vital exuberance of the early “Le Soir” symphony, the intimacy of the violin concerto, or the greater maturity of the later E flat Symphony. Concertmaster Aislinn Nosky’s playing of the concerto has charm and delicacy. Some may find the symphonies a tad overripe.
Louise Bichan: Out of My Own Light ****
In this vividly realised and often deeply moving exercise, subtitled The Margaret S Tait Project, Orcadian fiddler Louise Bichan charts the physical and emotional journey of her late grandmother who took the boat to Canada, where she broadcast as a singer and took stock of her life. Bichan traced Margaret’s journey through diaries and through her own pilgrimage to Canada. With her eloquent fiddle and occasional vocals, supported by pianist Jennifer Austin, Signy Jakobsdottir on percussion, cellist Su-a Lee, bassist Duncan Lyall and multi-instrumentalist Mike Vass, the music shifts between tidal restlessness and heartfelt yearning. Some of it is atmospherically filmic – For Myrtle, for instance, with its lamenting fiddle – while the minimalist piano and crescendos of the title track give way to a Canadian radio announcer. Finally, there’s a flash of connectivity as Margaret herself emerges across the airwaves.