Album reviews: Garbage | Crowded House | Dear John | Jeshua
Garbage: No Gods No Masters (Stunvolume/Infectious Music) ***
Crowded House: Dreamers Are Waiting (EMI Records) ***
Various: Dear John – Concert For War Child UK (Open Eyes Records) ***
Jeshua: Unreliable Narrator (Lilybank Records) ****
Outspoken, articulate and engaged, Shirley Manson doesn’t pull punches in her public discourse. But she has generally looked inwards, or at least close to home, for personal lyrical inspiration. Four years of Trump administration in her adopted homeland, with Manson “on high alert” and no shortage of socio-political subject matter, has changed that dynamic. No Gods No Masters, the seventh album by her band Garbage, takes a look at the world and doesn’t like what it sees.
Kicking off with the ker-ching and arpeggiated bleeps of a gaming machine, The Men Who Rule the World sticks it to the greed-fuelled patriarchy through the medium of INXS/Prince-style slick pop funk, turbo-charged with rock guitar. Given that recording was done and dusted just before lockdown, the song’s plea to tear down and build up was prescient.
The stealthy ballad Waiting for God is Manson’s empathetic response to the Black Lives Matter movement, a goth prayer delivered through the prism of her own privilege – “we’re keeping our fingers crossed, smiling at fireworks that light all the skies up while black boys get shot in the back” – while the hard-driving title track favours rebuilding society over taking down statues.
Like her soon-to-be-tourmate Debbie Harry, Manson is a singer of many voices. She showcases all her textures here, using semi-spoken attitude on the verses and spitting out the chorus on fidgety industrial punk number The Creeps to capture a low career and personal ebb, before adopting a sultrier style to contrast tone and topic on Uncomfortably Me.
There is humour too. Wolves is a mischievous pop song in lupine clothing, while Godhead has fun at the expense of the male ego. And the filmic instinct Garbage brought to their Bond theme, The World Is Not Enough, infuses A Woman Destroyed, a revenge tale in two scenes (intention and execution), as well as the spacious, sculptural closing track This City Will Kill You, a flowing dream state which evokes neon nighttime Los Angeles.
Fleetwood Mac’s touring guitarist Neil Finn comes home to his Crowded House – now populated with his sons Liam and Elroy – for the beloved antipodean band’s first album in 11 years. Dreamers are Waiting is a soothing summer cocktail of honeyed harmonies and sleepy soul, all taken at an unruffled pace, from the sunshine pop funk of Sweettooth to the heat haze wistfulness of Show Me The Way. Elegantly crafted throughout, there is a sophisticated Bacharachian scope to Playing with Fire and some delicious burnished guitar on To the Island.
While Crowded House were able to tour the Finns’ native New Zealand earlier this year, the latest War Child fundraiser album is a product of lockdown. Dear John captures a 2020 online concert celebrating what would have been John Lennon’s 80s birthday, with Iranian musician Sepp Osley and his band Blurred Vision hosting a mixed bag of participants for a selection of Lennon covers.
KT Tunstall makes her usual effortless connection to the material with her acoustic rendition of Gimme Some Truth, 10CC’s Graham Gouldman brings a plaintive vulnerability to Across the Universe and Faithless frontman Maxi Jazz a gruff sagacity to Power to the People, while Lawrence Gowan of prog rockers Styx delivers the hoary psychedelia of Tomorrow Never Knows.
Dundee-born, Glasgow-based Joshua Gray, aka Jeshua, has produced a winsome lo-fi gem of a debut album in the daydreaming spirit of C Duncan. Unreliable Narrator was written over the last decade while Gray worked night shifts and wrestled with a sleep disorder so there is an agreeably trippy, off-kilter quality to his sonic blend of guitar reverb, soft, skittering drums and languid vocals which is wholly disarming.
The Eblana String Trio: King’s Achemist – British String Trios (Willowhayne Records) ***
String trios have never been as fashionable with composers as, say the string quartet or piano trio. But there is a singular delicacy in the balance that, when addressed, has resulted in fine music. This recording by the Eblana String Trio focuses on British examples. Of the two earlier examples, the impulsive, free-flowing fluidity of Moeran’s G major Trio is altogether more alluring and satisfying than the less engaging coolness of Finzi’s Prelude and Fugue. The Eblana Trio’s self-conscious performance of the latter doesn’t help. More interesting, though, are Hugh Wood’s brilliantly animated Ithaka, inspired by Cafavy’s poem depicting Ulysses’ eventful homeward journey, and Sally Beamish’s The King’s Alchemist, based on the bizarre alchemist John Damian, of the Scottish court of James IV, who reckoned – mistakenly – he could fly from Stirling Castle battlements. Beamish captures his mystery and eccentricity in her kaleidoscopic writing, as does this sensitively astute performance. Ken Walton
Whyte: Maim (Independent Release) ****
This third album from Gaelic folk-electronica duo Whyte – singer Alasdair C Whyte and electronics maestro Ross Whyte – developed from a collaboration with Theatre Gu Leòr. Maim means panic, and certainly the atmosphere can be ominous, with a kind of melancholic eloquence, inspired partly by field recordings of bygone singers but also responding to fears of both linguistic and environmental erosion. A powerful opening sees Alasdair give strong delivery to the old Mull song, Oidhche mhath leib – “Good night to you all”, over an urgently repeating piano arpeggio and electronica bolstered by the album’s powerful string section. Another old Mull song, “Long have I remained silent,” seems to echo lost voices, perhaps of a cleared community. Moments of stillness include Gleann x, which Alasdair recites over dark strings and gently chiming piano, while the album’s cavernous washes of synthesised sound, as in the closing threnody, are strikingly filmic. Jim Gilchrist
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