John Grant: Boy From Michigan (Bella Union) ****
Danny Elfman: Big Mess (Anti-/Epitaph) ***
Joseph Malik: Diverse Part 3 (Ramrock Records) ****
Xan Tyler & Mad Professor: Clarion Call (Ariwa) ****
John Grant has built a hugely acclaimed solo career on caustic confessionals and droll declarations wrapped in disarming, romantic or occasionally playful arrangements. But his fifth album digs deep even by his candid standards.
As the title suggests, Boy From Michigan recounts memories of a Midwest childhood – some affectionate, some troubling – not in any sepia-tinged folksy context but juxtaposed with an escapist electronica soundtrack, produced by fellow sonic stylist Cate Le Bon.
The most overtly autobiographical songs – the lush storytelling of County Fair, the yearning title track – reference a traditional rural, reassuring America of maple trees and five-and-dime stores. But for Grant, this was a lonely, confusing time, with raw recollections buried underneath the picket fence.
Mike and Julie celebrates two key figures from his adolescence, with exquisite phrasing: “I’ll be damned if I let someone else decide who I am…or who I’ll become.” Even on beautiful ballad The Cruise Room, with its elegant calibration of piano, woodwind, chorus pedal and vocal effects, Grant’s voice is still the most moving, pliant instrument, and there’s a new huskiness to his tone on the gorgeous Just So You Know.
Even then Grant can’t resist a bit of meta playfulness (“I covered that on album three”).
He also pulls some musical faces on the eccentric electro of Rhetorical Figure and the suggestive Your Portfolio, and holds his nose on withering state-of-the-nation address The Only Baby.
Danny Elfman is likewise used to juggling tone in his stellar career as an award-winning film and TV composer but we’re a long way from The Simpsons on his first solo album in 37 years, which is closer in leftfield spirit to his former new wave band Oingo Boingo (with a bigger budget).
Double album Big Mess was produced as an outlet for the intensity of lockdown, and is essentially Elfman’s answer to his own question – what would an aggressive rock band sound like when teamed with symphonic strings? A little bit Devo, a little bit Sparks, a little bit Todd Rundgren, as it turns out, ranging from the tightly coiled industrial rock of Serious Ground to growling baritone torch song We Belong to the churning punk of Just a Human.
There is a lot to digest in this mix of menace and melodrama but Elfman holds momentum until the closing credits with the relentless Cruel Combination, the nosebleed speed of Kick Me, theatrical rocker Get Over It and a beefed-up reworking of Oingo Boingo track Insects.
Diverse Part 3 marks the completion of a trilogy of albums produced over the last 20 years by Edinburgh-based singer Joseph Malik, its socially conscious soul given extra impetus by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Malik was a speaker at the Holyrood Park rally last summer and has channelled his anger at ongoing racial injustice into the most mellifluous soul music, evoking his classic influences from Marvin Gaye to Gil Scott-Heron with the warm jazz guitar picking, soused strings and soothing backing vocals of Looking Right Back At You Pt. 1, the funk hustle of I Quit My Nine to Five, foreboding hip-hop of Battle Cry and pandemic politics of Days of Future Past.
In a good week for tough lyrics and soft sounds, London-bred but now Fife-based singer Xan Tyler, formerly of synth pop duo Technique, has teamed up with veteran reggae producer Mad Professor to create the dubby lovers rock cocktail of Clarion Call.
Tyler’s light voice is suited to the bittersweet mood, communicating a soupcon of sorrow on Why Do You Lie and a yearning regret at suffering poisonous rhetoric (“feathery weapons of mass destruction”) on Like Birds.
Erik Chisholm: Songs (Delphian) ****
Interest in the flamboyant life and music of Erik Chisholm has grown since the centenary of his birth in 2004 brought his largely forgotten legacy back into circulation. There have been piano, orchestral and opera performances and recordings, and now we have a wide-ranging collection of songs by the Glasgow-born composer who latterly settled in Cape Town as music professor. Three Scots singers – Mhairi Lawson, Nicky Spence and Michael Morfidian – share the load in this charming new recording with pianist Iain Burnside, which helps emphasise the broad terms of expression explored by Chisholm. There’s couthy humour in his Scots verse settings, serious, turbulent reflection in GK Chesterton’s The Donkey, and magisterial heroism in setting his own text for Oiséan’s Song. A central delight are the seven Poems of Love, words by his second wife Lillias Scott, intimate and alluring. There’s all-round eccentricity, too, distinctively expressed in all these performances. Ken Walton
The Chair: Orkney Monster (Folky Gibbon Records) ****
Titled after a rotting sea beast found on an island shore, there’s nothing washed-up about this third album from the Orcadian octet The Chair, last seen raising dust at the recent online Orkney Folk Festival. With the twin fiddles of Douglas Montgomery and Kenny Ritch, accordionist Bob Gibbon and mandolinist Brian Cromarty driven by a muscular rhythm section, they can spin out folk-rock grooves to hypnotic effect, as when their Beachcombers set slips from a sprightly pair of polkas into Montgomery’s Angry Seal, and everything slides into overdrive. In contrast are a chirpy Norwegian polka, the blithesome waltz Margaret Davidson and a fond rendering of Tom Waits’s Shiver Me Timbers. It is, however, in up-tempo excursions such as the taut ebb and flow of the Fixing Jigs, or the exuberant Festival Reel, that this monster takes on a formidable energy of its own. Jim Gilchrist
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