Emeli Sandé: Let’s Say For Instance (Chrysalis Records) ***
Arcade Fire: WE (Columbia) ***
Soft Cell: *Happiness Not Included (BMG) **
Despite the whopping commercial success of her debut album, Our Version of Events, Emeli Sandé has approached fame with caution, keeping her cards close to her chest, never graduating to the bombastic arena shows she could surely have justified and now releasing her fourth album on what is essentially an independent label. She does not appear to Want It All, choosing personal fulfilment over hollow fame on album track There Isn’t Much.
Creatively, there is a protective wall in place too. Sandé may talk about soul-baring through her songs but there is an opaqueness to the off-the-peg inspirational messages in her lyrics which allows the listener to project their own experiences into her middle-of-the-road songs.
There is even obfuscation in her vocals, with heavy use of autotune on opening track Family, a downbeat pop R&B number with a typically banal rise-above lyric. The chestbeating over-emoting of old has given way to a lighter delivery – when swathed in strings on drum’n’bass number Look What You’ve Done, she aspires to Shara Nelson’s sublime work with Massive Attack, then tries some soft seduction on My Pleasure.
She finally breaks the tasteful, mid-paced reverie for the old school Terry Lewis/Jimmy Jam-style soul funk of Look In Your Eyes, loosening up like early Mariah Carey. The R&B-inflected pop of Ready to Love features Sandé in full voice, celebrating a new relationship, while the simple uplift of Brighter Days is like Dolly Parton in gospel robes.
The esteemed Arcade Fire also return on underwhelming form, following the ecstatic party pop of Everything Now with a muted sixth album. WE, named after Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic dystopian novel, was partly written during the pandemic, giving the group ample time to conceptualise a record of two sides, titled I and We to denote the isolation of lockdown followed by the joy of reconnection.
Side one never really gets off the ground, even when the beat and the build begin around the three-minute mark of airy opening track Age of Anxiety. Win Butler’s impressionistic word association coupled with sweeping orchestration and solo saxophone on End of the Empire are a pale shadow of Radiohead’s mournful majesty but they recapture some of their old vibrancy as they move from minor to major with the widescreen 21st century ELO ambitions of The Lightning and relative optimism of the title track.
Surely Soft Cell can get the party started? The release of Marc Almond and Dave Ball’s first new album together in 20 years – and only their fifth ever – was delayed to accommodate a collaboration with fellow synth pop titans The Pet Shop Boys. The disappointing Purple Zone is a bland co-mingling of their styles, with both bands phoning it in, but emerges as one of the more tuneful offerings in a surprisingly unengaging collection, which was recorded remotely and with Almond’s expressive voice affected by long Covid symptoms.
Lyrics and melodies are consistently undercooked. Heart Like Chernobyl gains some unfortunate currency with the conflict in Ukraine, but Almond’s rhyming couplets are tortuous. Bruises on My Illusions doesn’t live up to its evocative title, nor its dramatic aspirations.
Woozy odyssey Light Sleepers is enhanced considerably by saxophonist Gary Barnacle, while the trilling, hippyish flute is a nice touch on the title track, but *Happiness Not Included generally taps half-heartedly into the duo’s old noir nightlife proclivities. Almond opens his New York diary on Polaroid to reminisce about encountering Andy Warhol in the early Eighties and then rejects the repackaging of that era on Nostalgia Machine and Tranquiliser which – perversely for a band well placed to mine former pop glories - concludes “the Eighties are a bore…we’ve all been there before”.
Metamorphosen: Korngold/Schreker/Strauss (Chandos) *****
With his handpicked Sinfonia of London, conductor John Wilson has at his fingertips a top-class vehicle for his particular passions, ranging from the fruitiest of old film scores to the scorching early 20th century Austro-German string repertoire that is featured in this latest disc. Needless to say, the threnodic luxuriance of Richard Strauss’ post-war Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings is the headline work, breathtakingly expressive and grippingly expansive. Franz Schreker’s Intermezzo, composed in 1900, reflects more the composer’s early optimism than the personal suppression he later suffered in 1930s Germany. Wilson’s players capture its robust, free-flowing charm with thrilling intensity. They end with Erich Korngold’s wonderfully self-indulgent Symphonische Serenade, Op 39, a nostalgic evocation of the lost Vienna he encountered returning home in 1949 from his Hollywood exile. It’s a full-on experience, from lithesome exuberance to haunting religiosity, ravishingly played. Ken Walton
Hò-rò: New Moon (www.musichoro.com) ****
Strikingly moonlit cover art by Dot Walker and a windswept intro set the mood for this third album from the Highland seven-piece Hò-rò, which combines high-energy instrumental forces with vocals from fiddler Hannah Macrae and accordionist Calum MacPhail. A full-tilt reel sequence, driven by big drum beats, establishes the pattern for the band’s up-tempo medleys. While such stomping sets are undoubted crowd-pleasers, easing up on the drums could render them even fleeter-footed. Things are leavened by some fine singing, with MacPhail giving strong voice to Robin Laing’s Isle of Eigg and venturing into dramatic country balladry with The Long Black Veil, while he and Macrae delicately handle Karine Polwart’s great Follow the Heron Home. Elsewhere, a lilting air by Tim Edey, Little Bird, is given anthemic treatment while, in contrast, McRae closes the album by giving winsome voice, over delicate keyboards, to the lament Òran an Amadain Bhòidhich. Jim Gilchrist