Album reviews: Isobel Campbell | Marc Almond | Yorkston/Thorne/Khan

Isobel Campbell’s delayed fifth solo album is a sunny celebration of her life in California

Isobel Campbell
Isobel Campbell

Isobel Campbell: There Is No Other (Cooking Vinyl) ****

Marc Almond: Chaos and a Dancing Star (BMG) **

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Yorkston/Thorne/Khan: Navarasa: Nine Emotions (Domino) ***


Isobel Campbell’s breathy, girlish voice has been missing from music for the best part of a decade, since she retired her opposites-attract partnership with gruff grunge balladeer Mark Lanegan and settled in the US.

Her absence has not entirely been of her own choosing. There Is No Other, her long awaited fifth solo album (including two as The Gentle Waves following her departure from cult indie troupe Belle & Sebastian) was recorded five years ago but consigned to legal limbo when her new record company folded and Campbell had to fight for the right to license it herself.

In spite of its fraught passage to release and some of the pointed lyrics (“vultures circling round”, “tired of all the bullshit”), it’s a calming collection. There is an element of self-comforting in the holistic mantras Just For Today and See Your Face Again, while the sparse arrangements with chiming percussion and wilting strings are reminiscent of her past collaborations with Bill Wells.

Campbell would probably say this is her California record, but City of Angels is a Los Angeles song unlike any other – light, delicate and winsome in its intimate use of acoustic guitar, gentle strings and subtle sleigh bells.

Ant Life casts a mellow eye over the LA rat race and the beguiling torch ballad Boulevard is her meditation on inequality in America. The whimsical everyday romance of Counting Fireflies is closer to a wistful Simon & Garfunkel ballad, but the psychedelic sighing strings and country-folk guitar of The National Bird of India are redolent of LA’s classic Laurel Canyon scene and she reimagines the rootsy rock’n’roll of Tom Petty’s Runnin’ Down a Dream as a Belle & Sebastian-like beat pop number. Best of all, she issues a warm, intoxicating southern soul prayer for the earth on The Heart Of It All and gilds Hey World with uplifting gospel backing vocals.

Following collaborations with Jools Holland, John Harle and Mark Ravenhill and a high profile reunion of Soft Cell, Marc Almond teams up with longtime wingman Chris Braide for this new album of originals. Chaos and a Dancing Star, titled after a quote from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, was initially conceived as a prog rock collection of “apocalyptic love songs” but its wan odes to cars and cemeteries with occasional gurning guitar licks sound like they have been beamed in from 70s MOR land, while Almond the overwrought balladeer is largely denied the opportunity to show off his vocal chops.

Almond is nothing if not versatile, and there’s a bloody-minded perversity in opting for such musical anachronism. The light touch orchestration and freewheeling spirit of Cherry Tree and wistful piano ballad Dreaming of Sea are among the best of a banal bunch and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson livens up Lord of Misrule on flute.

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Fife folk singer/songwriter James Yorkston, English jazz bassist Jon Thorne and Indian sarangi maestro and singer Suhail Yusuf Khan continue to make fertile connections between British and Irish folk song and the sacred music of the Indian subcontinent in their Yorkston/Thorne/Khan collaboration. Murder ballad Twa Brothers is intertwined with Indian mouth music, while Robert Burns’ Westlin’ Winds is conjoined with the work of Hindustani mystic Hazrat Amir Khusrau on their third album Navarasa: Nine Emotions.

Each track pertains to one of the nine emotions or sentiments associated with artistic expression – sorrow, disgust, anger, laughter, surprise/wonder, love/beauty, terror/fear, heroism/courage and peace/tranquillity – though the mood most readily evoked by most of the tracks is the latter. Fiona Shepherd


Beethoven: Piano Works for Four Hands (Delphian) *****

Rarely does the piano duo genre get the attention or recognition it truly deserves. For anyone who thinks it’s something of a musical sideline for composers, just listen to these superb examples by Beethoven. They’re played in this exciting new recording by pianists Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith, whose combined virtuosity, musicality and enthusiasm fires up every moment.

Beethoven’s infinite variation takes centre stage in two fascinating works: the Eight Variations on a Theme by Count von Walstein, in which Beethoven works wonders with the enigmatic minor sidestep in his friend and patron’s imaginative theme; and the Six Variations on “Ich dense vein,” written for the Brunsvik sisters. Hill and Frith open with the lighthearted Sonata in D and end with the dazzling piano duo version of the Grosse Fuge, delivered with equal measures of analytical dissection and fearless bravado. Ken Walton


Ewen Henderson: Steall ( ****

A member of the renowned Henderson family of Lochaber, Ewen has played with Mànran, Battlefield Band and Afro-Celt Sound System. This debut under his own name – Steall means torrent – showcases a lad o’ parts, steeped in west-Highland culture, playing fiddle, pipes, piano and much else, assisted by guitarist Ewan MacPherson, percussionist James MacKintosh and bassist James Lindsay, while Thomas Gibbs adds clarinet to a sprightly hornpipe set.

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It is as a fiddler that Henderson opens with a lightsome trio of jigs including the enduring Gillean an Dròbhair, breaking out Highland pipes for the closer. His compositions include the lovely air Camus Daraich, while his skills intersect as he fiddles a snappy MSR (march, strathspey and reel) set over a pipe drone. Songwise, the album includes a ditty by the bard of Glenorchy, Duncan Ban MacIntyre, and a bitter clearance protest by Dr John MacLachlan, accompanied by Henderson’s piano. Jim Gilchrist