Erasure: World Be Gone Mute **
BMX Bandits: Forever Elefant Records ****
Andrew Greig & Brian Michie: Clean By Rain SoundMagic Productions ***
Erasure are a band for the good times, with more than 30 years’ worth of convivial hits to show for it. Vince Clarke takes care of the tunes, Andy Bell supplies the prancing pageantry and, given their sustained popularity, there seems little reason to muck with the formula or attempt anything as desperate as musical progression. But even veteran peddlers of escapist pop music have their thoughtful moments and if not now, during particularly anxious and volatile times, then when to express that?
Erasure wear their social politics lightly. They have described World Be Gone as “optimistic rabble-rousing music”, but what comes out of the speakers is uniformly softer and more reflective than that might suggest. Love You To The Sky is more of a comfort blanket, with its melody and lyrics beamed straight in from a 1970s edition of Eurovision, and only the slightly needling electro pulse underneath giving any cause for unrest.
Be Careful What You Wish For! expresses generalised sentiments about struggle and decisions, and Still It’s Not Over is about as declamatory as it gets, looking backwards and forwards on the gay rights movement.
If anything, Oh What A World is a pretty pessimistic offering. Its darker tone and Bell’s robotic delivery over a doomy synth shudder wouldn’t be out of place on the new Depeche Mode album, though the straight-talking taking-to-task is still broad brush stuff such as “what became of wanting to be free?”
The glassy ballad Lousy Sum of Nothing contains further lamentations and hand-wringing over fake news and rising intolerance, issuing a decidedly non-radical call-to-action. Overall, Bell and Clarke seem to be advocating that what the world needs now is love sweet love, and definitely not their usual diet of party tunes. They can only react to world events with bewilderment yet some hope on Just A Little Love, going out not quite swinging, but at least with a gentle resolve.
Glasgow’s BMX Bandits, meanwhile, are off in their own little indie cult universe, one where soppy romance is suffused with an affecting melancholy. There is a greater sophistication to their sound these days, though thankfully not a dull maturing. Forever draws on elegantly retro references to cool Gallic pop, or classic Jimmy Webb/Burt Bacharach-style arrangements of mournful wah-wah guitar, ba-ba-backing vocals and fluttering woodwind, and goes straight to the source with covers of Dennis Wilson and Marcos Valle songs. Occasionally, they veer off-piste – an exposed, halting version of Somewhere from West Side Story is followed by the novelty indie oompah of Way of the Wolf, while Anton Newcombe of Californian garage rockers Brian Jonestown Massacre guests on indie raga Razorblades & Honey – but wherever they wander, the sound they send back is distinctive, unapologetic and, for the most part, riddled with winning charm.
Andrew Greig & Brian Michie are old friends from Fife who performed in their teenage years as psychedelic beat combo Fate & Ferret (read all about it in You Know What You Could Be, Greig’s wonderful shared memoir with Mike Heron of Incredible String Band). The pair have now reconnected creatively and their resulting collaboration, Clean By Rain, seamlessly weaves together Greig’s existing poetry with Michie’s instrumental recordings of stormy acid guitar and Mark Knopfleresque beatific blues. The former picks his way unhurriedly through the rhythms in his inviting recitations and unveils an equally comforting singing voice on one track, while fellow old mucker Alan Tall and young gun Mike Vass provide soaring folk-jazz flute embellishment and characterful fiddle respectively.
Tchaikovsky: Grand Sonata & The Seasons Näive *****
The beauty of this new solo piano release by Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky has everything to do with complementarity. On its own, Tchaikovsky’s Grand Sonata is serious, if a little unspectacular. Pitch it alongside the musical calendar that is The Seasons – Tchaikovsky’s iridescent character pieces addressing each of the 12 months – and the two works reflect significantly on each other. Lugansky’s reading of The Seasons is shaped with coolness and precision, from the lyrical brushstrokes of May – White Nights, to the wistful, waltzing, homely comforts of December – Christmas. It’s in the Grand Sonata, however, that Lugansky’s deepest thoughts are exercised. The opening movement leaves the way open to expand the expressive potential of the Andante, and the fierce virtuosity of the final two movements. Two different sides to Tchaikovsky; one great pianist to bring them together.
Billy Childs: Rebirth Mack Avenue Records ****
The Los Angeles pianist, composer and multiple-Grammy winner Billy Childs returns to his small band roots with his debut album with Mack Avenue. He’s joined by Steve Wilson on alto and soprano saxophones, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Eric Harland, the group stating their credentials in no uncertain manner in the opening Backwards Bop, with piano, bass and drums really travelling before Wilson’s sinuous alto blows in. Other powerful numbers include Dance of Shiva, showcasing Harland’s drumming, and the volcanic title track, in which Wilson’s soprano sax and vocalist Claudia Acuña sound together with mercurial grace, Childs careers deftly about the keyboard and guest trombonist Ido Meshulam throws himself into the fray. Another guest singer, Alicia Olatuja, shines in the ballad Stay, while Tightrope, with its rich keyboard work, sustains a tension that could make it the soundtrack of a Hitchcock thriller.