Emeli Sandé: Real Life (Virgin/EMI) ***
Pixies: Beneath the Eyrie (Infectious/BMG) ***
Bat For Lashes: Lost Girls (AWAL) ****
Never one to pass up the chance to deliver an uplifting message, Emeli Sandé has gone all-out on the positive vibes on her third album, Real Life, citing the divergent influence of Disney songs and Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti on her writing – with the former rather more to the fore than the latter.
Yet for a moment when the Hammond organ kicks in and the stealthy strings start to swell on opening track Human, it feels as if she might be about to deliver an album where all those classic soul and singer/songwriter influences she espouses start to make sense – and then the straight-laced phrasing and banal, broad brush lyrics kick in (“we’re all losing, cos this ain’t human, we’re going through things”) and it seems like the journey Sandé tells us she’s been on hasn’t particularly translated to her music.
Real Life is at its best on the scattered occasions where Sandé holds back. Love to Help is a lovely, light declaration of support though she can’t resist pushing too hard on the chorus. The manicured gospel of You Are Not Alone is utterly conventional but with a guileless, optimistic appeal and it’s hard not to smile at the breezy Shine’s advice to “express yourself, it’s good for your health”.
But Sandé goes all guns blazing on Sparrow, with martial drums, tremulous strings and soaring soprano vocals, battering the listener into submission with some inspirational dispatch or other which is lost in the overstatement. Honest is the Whitney Houston ballad that ran away and joined a stage musical, and as for the chest-beating Survivor, pop music has been here so often before.
Sandé, however sincere in her sentiments, has nothing to add to the subject of overcoming personal travails, but she fares better with the timeless flourish of disco strings on Extraordinary Being, the southern soul feel of the title track and the warm, burnished blues pop of Same Old Feeling, which allows her to favour a richer tone in her vocal range.
Released in good time for Hallowe’en, Pixies’ third album of their second life is populated with shadowy, doomed figures such as the gunslinger with a death wish on the 60s pysch-meets-spaghetti western number Silver Bullet or the restless partner in the brooding baritone rocker In the Arms of Mrs Mark of Cain.
Frontman Black Francis turns to Celtic folklore with cameo roles for a “selkie bride” on the guttural garage punk track St Nazaire and the Scottish sprite Black Jack Hooligan on the fateful tale of Catfish Kate, while there is an unearthly touch to two songs by bassist Paz Lenchant in Long Rider and Los Surfers Muertos, which is suffused with fuzzy surf guitar twang.
Yet despite this cast of unhappy miscreants, Beneath the Eyrie is never quite as weird and twisted as the Pixies yarns of old, being coated instead with a glossy gothic veneer which holds their wilder tendencies in check.
In contrast, Bat For Lashes, aka Natasha Khan, is all freewheeling contentment on her latest album. Lost Girls is a sleek, airy evocation of her new LA home, inspired by a film script she has written about a vampire girl gang. The cinematic references abound, not just in the title of the album and tracks such as The Hunger but in the unapologetically 80s electro soundscape, back in vogue thanks to Stranger Things.
Lost Girls follows her protagonist Nikki Pink on a nocturnal drive around the neon city, teaming gothic guitar with snarling saxophone and analogue synthesizers on Vampires and contrasting her clear soprano tones with the cut glass half-spoken narrative of Jasmine in another seductive, stylish outing from this audacious auteur. Fiona Shepherd
Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem (Harmonia Mundi) *****
The uniqueness of Brahms’ A German Requiem lies in its comforting humanity, indeed its resistance to the fire and brimstone episodes of the traditional Latin settings of, say, Mozart or Verdi. This pungent performance by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Swedish Radio Choir under Daniel Harding places sustained emphasis on the overriding reflectiveness of the music, the lack of sentimentality established in the opening “Selig sind” maintained in spirit throughout. Harding offsets his spacious tempi with clear and focused playing from the orchestra, and choral singing that is effortless in its precision and expressive warmth. Add to that the rich baritone of Matthias Goerne, meltingly rapt in Herr, lehre doch mich and gorgeously understated in Denn wir haben and the heavenly containment of Christiane Korg in Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit, and this Brahms Requiem takes easeful flight where others often fail to get off the ground. Ken Walton
Young Trad Tour 2018 (TMSA) ****
Featuring seven winners and finalists of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the year competition, assembled for the Traditional Music and Song Association’s Young Trad Tour, this album is a brightly eloquent statement by young folk talent. There’s a declaration of intent in the opening pipes and fiddle-led set, Alick. C, followed up with last year’s Young Trad winner, Hannah Rarity, sharing vocals with Amy Papiransky on Tae the Beggin, 2017 winner Charlie Stewart’s fiddle lacing through it. Rarity gives voice to Brian McNeill’s bittersweet Strong Women Rule us All, while Alexander Levack’s whistles usher his composition, Woodlands Drive, along its breathy, idiosyncratic way. Papiransky delivers her own contribution to Doric song tradition in Sunnyside, pianist Rory Matheson sends Scott Skinner’s The Mathematician skipping through its paces, while an ensemble rendition of Rothes Colliery generates persuasive narrative drama. Jim Gilchrist