Album reviews: Jarv Is | The Chicks | Rory Butler | AR Pinewood | Paul Lewis | Marcin Wasilewski Trio & Joe Lovano
Jarv Is: Beyond the Pale (Rough Trade) ****
The Chicks: Gaslighter (Columbia) ***
Rory Butler: Window Shopping (Vertical Records) ****
AR Pinewood: No Life (Lost Map) ***
Although the eminent Jarvis Cocker has undertaken diverse musical manoeuvres in recent times, Beyond the Pale is the first new album from the former Pulp frontman in over a decade, and comes courtesy of his latest outfit Jarv Is, formed with kindred spirits such as harpist Serafina Steer.
A number of the songs will be familiar to Jarv Is audiences. The group is already a mean live machine, having shaped material on tour in 2018/9 (including a date at the Edinburgh International Festival last August), and this is reflected in the jamming length of the seven tracks.
Cocker is one of our most idiosyncratic musicians but the first thing heard on opening track Save the Whale is a skinny electro pulse and Emma Smith’s scratchy violin, before Cocker’s unmistakeable voice intones in baritone soothsayer mode, his rhyming couplets driving home the wry humour while siren backing vocals echo his pronouncements.
Cocker lives up to his 1970s biology teacher image on the urgent pulsating entreaty of MUST I EVOLVE? (“yes yes yes yes,” chant the sirens) as he works up a 90s indie rave lather, charting the development of a relationship (“now it gets exciting, because cells start dividing”).
There are other echoes of Pulp’s heyday. House Music All Night Long features the album’s most enticing melodic hook, matching a free, uplifting groove to a song about partying alone. Swanky Modes, named after a clothes shop in Camden, is a very Jarvis title, intimating a municipal seediness reminiscent of 21st century urban chronicler Baxter Dury.
But Cocker and co also spread their tentacles with the electro tango and steel percussion of Am I Missing Something? and the dubby Afro-funk flavour of Children of the Echo.
Dixie Chicks have followed their country pop peers Lady Antebellum in voluntarily dropping the part of their name with slavery connotations. Ever outspoken and unapologetic, they have rebranded as The Chicks, saying “we want to meet this moment.” March March, a robust tribute to going your own way, which references both school shooter Brenda Ann Spencer and the 2018 Helsinki summit between Trump and Putin, now also resonates with the recent Black Lives Matter protests.The trio hit the ground running with the title track of Gaslighter, with frontwoman Natalie Maines sparing no blushes for her ex-husband Adrian Pasdar by also referencing a brazen infidelity on Tights on My Boat. Overall though, the album is a more thoughtful affair on the tired and regretful Everybody Loves You and plaintive ballads Set Me Free and Young Man, the latter a wistful twist on Neil Young’s Old Man.
Dumfries-born, Edinburgh-bred singer/guitarist Rory Butler makes relaxed weather at the intersection of soul, blues and folk on his accomplished debut album. The influence of John Martyn is all over Window Shopping, from his laidback vocal phrasing to the soft, soulful tone of his playing and the mellow touches of the production.
With a sleeve depicting a warped portrait of a selfie, he adopts as his theme the addictive properties of social media and the desensitisation of being glued to a screen – arguably unfortunate timing, given that online communication has been a lifesaver for many during lockdown – but there is undoubted sonic therapy in his mellifluous picking.
Is masked Caledonian cyber-country troubadour AR Pinewood the playful alias of a prolific indie musician known for his bittersweet ruminations on life, love and lockdown? Just like Hong Kong Phooey, it could be…
Pinewood disguises his distinctive warble with a vocoder effect on a number of tracks. Elsewhere, his mischievous wit comes through on So I’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the languorous twanging Best Self is a wry country amble of self-improvement and Hyperbolic a delicious twist on melodramatic tear-in-your-beer self-pity.
Beethoven: “Für Elise”, Bagatelles Op 33, 119 & 126 (Harmonia mundi) *****
To describe Beethoven’s Bagatelles for piano as “trifles” is both appropriate and misleading. They are indeed trifling, the composer himself referring to them as “little things,” with one of the Op 119 set lasting no longer than 12 seconds. But their true value lies in the wholeness of expression that inhabits each compressed gem, almost as if they are blueprints for the larger sonatas. Paul Lewis plays all three sets – the Op 33 of 1802 and the later Op 119 and Op 126 – along with the separate Für Elise, three posthumous Klavierstück, and the only piece on the disc over four minutes, the challenging Fantasia Op 77. These are riveting performances, clear-minded and forensically distilled, preemptive of the atomised miniatures of, say, Schoenberg and Webern. When he finally addresses the more protracted Fantasia, it is with a triumphant, conclusive flourish. Ken Walton
Marcin Wasilewski Trio, Joe Lovano: Arctic Riff (ECM Records) ****
Veteran American tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano is on mellow form here, his warm-toned horn co-leading with the celebrated Polish trio of pianist Marcin Wasilewski with double-bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz, in an album which creates some glowing moments, not least in the lovely opening Glimmer of Hope. They shift between beautifully contemplative episodes and closer-to-the-edge improvisations. The longest track is Cadenza, in which bass murmurs and drums spar with sax before Wasilewski embarks on a rangy piano exploration, giving way to a lengthy, atmospheric coda with gently singing sax and stealthy piano. A Glimpse is a suitably fleeting group free-improv trip, in contrast to Fading Sorrow, an elegantly cruising ballad including a nicely crafted solo from Kurkiewicz, who also features in the spooky harmonic soundings of Arco. Jim Gilchrist
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