Field Music: Making A New World (Memphis Industries) ****
Electric Soft Parade: Stages (Chord Orchard) ****
Georgia: Seeking Thrills (Domino) ****
The Grand Gestures: Low Lights (Chute) ****
It is often customary to start the new year well with an album by Field Music, aka Sunderland brothers Pete and David Brewis, who have developed their own angular mix of indie pop and prog rock with a side order of lean funk over the last 15 years.
Surprisingly for such smart stylists, Making a New World is their first concept album, a song cycle about the aftermath of the First World War which was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum.
However, the Brewis brothers rarely play it straight and what was originally conceived as an instrumental act of remembrance became a series of songs about the social and scientific developments which have their roots in military research – including air traffic control, ultrasound and sanitary towels. Mellow pastoral A Change of Heir celebrates the skin graft work of Dr Harold Gillies, one of the pioneers of gender reassignment surgery. Only in a Man’s World concerns the creation and marketing of sanitary towels, developed from dressings used for war wounds, asking “why should a woman feel ashamed?” over a brazen Talking Heads take-off.
Musically, they range seamlessly from the prog funk elasticity of Do You Read Me to the staccato jabber of A Shot to the Arm, while Between Nations appears to nod to the master of the weirdo rock concept album, Pete Townsend.
You wait years for a talented fraternal duo to release a concept album (or is that just me?), and then two arrive in the same week. Tom and Alex White, trading as Electric Soft Parade, took a long break following the death of their mother in the mid-2000s and have chosen to address the loss with an entire album inspired by the seven stages of grief.
These long, languorous odysseys are full of musical warmth and lyrical anguish and uncertainty. The gentle crooning Saturday applies a self-soothing backing to the distressing summoning to the bedside and ponders how the dread of an imminent death changes perspective on the most everyday things.
The dreamy symphonic swell of Never Mind is dappled with brass and rounded off with a lithe saxophone break. Anthemic indie number The Bargain rakes over the bereavement, switching to mellow electro jazz in the closing stages. Left Behind combines musically upbeat 70s power pop with an astutely painted picture of bereaved longing, and Fragmented is even more heartbreaking in its understatement, a simple cry of “I can’t let go” issued over and over again like a prayer.
One woman band Georgia, daughter of Leftfield’s Neil Barnes, does wonders with the family business on her latest album. Seeking Thrills is a carefree clubbing odyssey with a strong songwriting base in the vein of Katy B’s On a Mission.
Soul, disco, techno and house traditions coalesce on Started Out, About Work the Dancefloor rocks a great 80s synth pop hook and Never Let You Go bristles with motorik momentum.
Techno raga Ray Guns is too much MIA pastiche but a more original voice shines through on the comedown electro dub track Mellow, coolly cataloguing the alcohol which used to rule her social life.
The Grand Gestures is an ongoing collaborative project helmed by Jan Burnett of Spare Snare, featuring songs and stories from guest musicians, writers and artists. For those playing catch-up, the compiliation Low Lights is a juicy starting point, spanning the bruised elegance of Danny Wilson frontman Gary Clark on The World Will Break Your Heart, RM Hubbert backed by disco chimes on Regret is a Dish Best Served Cold and Sanjeev Kohli’s wry meditation I Wonder What Chris De Burgh Is Doing Right Now, plus bonus quirky kitchen sink tale, The Sailor of Barri, recited by Phill Jupitus. Fiona Shepherd
The King’s Singers: Finding Harmony (Signum Classics) ****
This latest album from the evergreen King’s Singers is signature a cappella. Its binding theme is the harmony that songs ultimately bring to issues of conflict throughout history. Bach’s Ein Feste Burg, prefaced by a primitive monodic verse, harks back to Luther’s Reformation. A whimsical puirt à beul and James MacMillan’s haunting arrangement of O, chì chì ma ni mòrbheanna reference the Highland clearances, while Bread and Roses is a spirited feminist protest. Elsewhere there are musical responses to the Holocaust, oppression in Africa, the Civil Rights movement in the United States and even the underground plight of 15th century Catholic worshippers expressed in William Byrd’s motet Ne irascaris Domine. All these works are expressed through the ensemble’s liquid homogeneity and beautiful harmonies – more exquisite arrangements to add to the King’s Singers’ unsurmountable repertoire. Ken Walton
Marius Neset & London Sinfonietta: Viaduct (Act) ****
Saxophonist Marius Neset once again collaborates with the London Sinfonietta, the two suites, Viaduct Parts 1 and 2, showing the Norwegian’s writing for large forces to be increasingly accomplished. His quintet features notables from the UK and Scandinavian jazz scenes – pianist Ivo Neame, vibraphonist Jim Hart, bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Anton Eger, their playing skilfully interwoven with the Sinfonietta. The vivid scoring is reminiscent of Stravinsky, Bartók or indeed Bernard Herrmann, with Neset’s lithe tenor and soprano saxes lacing organically through the orchestral sounds. Neame’s piano is a key presence, glittering, stabbing, or picking out spooky little passages over dreamy strings. The second part is more of a showcase for the quintet, with a lushly bluesy passage which swaggers funkily towards a bustlingly jubilant conclusion. Jim Gilchrist