Faith Eliott: Impossible Bodies (OK Pal) ****
Bananarama: In Stereo (In Synk) ***
Fat White Family: Serfs Up! (Domino) ***
Leafcutter John: Yes! Come Parade With Us (Border Community) ***
Singular songwriter Faith Eliott might appear to have landed fully formed with idiosyncratic debut album Impossible Bodies but 15 years of writing and reckoning have led to this point, as well as a childhood relocation from Minneapolis to the UK and a welcoming apprenticeship on Edinburgh’s open mic scene.
There is a simplicity and directness in Eliott’s writing and a sparseness and intimacy in the delivery. However, these are not entry-level songs but a sophisticated suite of charming, bittersweet creature features, influenced by the medieval bestiaries which sought to document the animal kingdom with the partial knowledge available at the time.
So every song on Impossible Bodies is ostensibly about a different animal – and, at heart, about Eliott, who has not chosen the title lightly, but uses the concept to explore their own grapple with gender identity (Eliott uses the gender-neutral pronouns they, them, their).
Carl Sagan Cosmos Song contemplates Eliott’s small place in the history of the universe, survival as struggle and the desire for transformation. Grouper captures the otherworldly, hypnotic environment of an aquarium with Leonard Cohenesque undulating guitar, while the sonorous blues of Lilith – named after Adam’s first wife who returns to the Garden of Eden as a snake to tempt Eve – finds Eliott toying with the temptation to liberate the reptiles from a petting zoo.
Modest arrangements on acoustic guitar contrast with the twinkling orchestration of Loomis and the whole spellbinding affair invites comparison with the gothic folkloric laments of Laura Marling or PJ Harvey’s ethereal evocation of her native Dorset landscape on White Chalk.
Pop escapism of a more generic, processed nature is on offer from Bananarama’s first album in ten years. Following their brief live reunion with Siobhan Fahey, Keren Woodward and Sara Dallin return to life as a down-to-earth dance-pop duo, raising a smile with the seemingly self-aware declaration that “sometimes we’re just dancing out of time” on opening track Love In Stereo.
This slick Richard X-produced disco-pop number was originally intended for the reunited original Sugababes, Mutya, Keisha and Siobhan, and is the only track on the album not co-written by Dallin and Woodward with producer Ian Masterson.
They aim for familiar Kylie territory on pseudo-sultry club track Dance Music, and decent production hooks compensate for the lack of defining personality on the breezy candyfloss likes of Got To Get Away and the instant earworm Stuff Like That.
Cult renegades Fat White Family have swapped Brixton squatland for the Steel City, and a roar for a purr, on their third album, as feral frontman Lias Saoudi reins in his wildman tendencies to deliver the lean funk prowl of Feet, embellished with a flourish of disco strings. His creepy soft croon is offset with soft siren backing vocals on Vagina Dentata and he is joined by fellow suave seducer Baxter Dury for the downer glam rock of Tastes Good with the Money, which is what passes for a rallying stomper in this understated company.
There are periodic shafts of light, not least the quavery strings, breathy, romantic croon, plangent guitar and faint reggae rhythm of Rock Fishes, which could give labelmates Arctic Monkeys a run for their money in their current cosmic lounge band incarnation. But despite the eclectic mix of styles throughout, Serfs Up! is a little too muted to cherish.
On Yes! Come Parade With Us, DIY electronics maestro Leafcutter John combines the capabilities of his homemade modular synthesizer with field recordings collected as he walked the Norfolk Coast Path, from the inexorable tide of the North Sea and the overlapping caw of sea birds to the more abstract drones of Elephant Bones, jungle -like twittersphere of Stepper Motor and windswept throb of Dunes. - Fiona Shepherd
Daniel Garcia Trio: Travesuras (ACT Music) ****
Spanish pianist Daniel Garcia regards flamenco and jazz as “brothers”, and there’s plenty of fraternal energy here, with Garcia crisply accompanied by double-bassist Reinier Elizarde “El Negrón” and drummer Michael Olivera. Apart from an impassioned opener by Paco de Lucia and Camarón, all compositions are by Garcia, including Dream of Mompou, inspired by Catalan composer Frederic Mompou, providing four lyrical solo interludes between muscular trio excursions. Alegrías pa Averío and La Communidad fully capture the staccato dash of flamenco, Olivera’s percussion flickering alongside Garcia, while flautist Jorge Pardo joins two tracks, vividly colouring the title tune’s percussive exuberance and the explosive Vengo de moler. In contrast, Dream of Miles is a measured piece inspired by the great trumpeter, while the warmly reflective Oniria is startlingly interrupted by a three-year-old Garcia and his mother, recorded by her back in 1986. - Jim Gilchrist
Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No 2 & Symphony No 1 (Harmonia Mundi) ****
The Freiburger Barockorchester doesn’t hold back when it comes to tempo and getting maximum kicks from its fiery period instrument performances. No exception here in a Mendelssohn double bill under Pablo Heras-Casado that couples the ebullient First Symphony with the Piano Concert No 2, performed with Kristian Bezuidenhout on fortepiano. The symphony is explosively interpreted, the three fast movements bristling with élan and super-heated expression. Such incessant impact verges closely on overload, but the grainy warmth of the andante, beautifully poetic, offers a welcome moment of respite and reflection. There’s equal excitement in the Piano Concerto, driven more by emotional contrast, the theatrical interplay between orchestra and soloist, and the muted tonal properties of the fortepiano. Bezuidenhout finds a wealth of dynamic range, however, enough to compete on equal terms. - Ken Walton