Leonard Cohen: Thanks for the Dance (Columbia) ****
DJ Shadow: Our Pathetic Age (Mass Appeal) ***
Bonnie Prince Billy: I Made a Place (Domino) ****
Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith: Mummer Love (Bella Union) ***
As those Roy Orbison, Tupac Shakur and Whitney Houston touring holograms attest, death is no barrier to retirement from the music business. However, this posthumous album from Leonard Cohen is a far more dignified affair, comprising vocal tracks recorded at the time of his swansong You Want It Darker and completed by his son Adam with the sensitive assistance of a host of name contributors, including producer Daniel Lanois, Damien Rice, Leslie Feist and Cohen’s longterm back-up singer Jennifer Warnes, and instrumental contributions from Beck, Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry and The National’s Bryce Dessner.
Despite the guest list, Thanks for the Dance is far from cluttered – rather, the utterly seamless work of all concerned has served to craft an exquisite bonus half hour in the company of Cohen, from the pithy wisdom of Happens to the Heart – graced, like several tracks, with plangent acoustic guitar and sparing Spanish flourishes from Javier Mas on Cohen’s own guitar – to the nostalgic song of seduction The Night Of Santiago (“though I’ve forgotten half my life, I still remember this”).
The Goal is barely a minute long, but says more about mortality than the sprawling whole of the latest Nick Cave album, as Cohen presents as a man debilitated yet somehow content, “settling at last accounts of the soul, this for the trash, that paid in full”.
The resigned anger of a veteran campaigner infuses the mellow political diatribe Puppets, one of two tracks embellished with devotional choral vocals. The Hills is the more dramatic offering, its sweeping arrangement as widescreen as a Morricone score. In contrast, Cohen breaks into an intimate slow waltz on the affecting title track, the latest – and maybe the last – in a graceful line of invitations to dance with this masterful musician.
DJ Shadow’s latest is a hefty work of two halves – one album of instrumentals, another of vocal tracks, inspired by the fear and anxiety of the times while delivering a sonic shot in the arm.
The suitably heavy Juggernaut blends beefy bass drops with nosebleed industrial punk, the piano piece Firestorm gradually escalates to a martial filmic epic, while the celestial modulation of Rosie and luxurious ambient wash of My Lonely Room, punctuated by clacking typewriter, provide more hypnotic interludes before the vocalists bring another energy boost.
Nas and Pharoahe Monch deliver a pincer attack on Drone Warfare, De La Soul have rarely sounded so riled as on the rocking hip-hop of Rocket Fuel, Run the Jewels are accompanied by a symphonic soul soundtrack on Kings & Queens and Future Islands’ Samuel T Herring tempers his gruff tone to deliver a croon on the bittersweet electro pop of the title track.
Prolific troubadour Will Oldham, aka Bonnie Prince Billy, whips up another fine hoedown in the company of a sprightly band of Louisville musicians. Taking in the freewheeling bluegrass of New Memory Box, homespun Hawaiian wisdom of Look Backward On Your Future, Look Forward to Your Past, Californian country rock of Mama Mama and graceful southern soul of Nothing Is Busted, I Made A Place is a blithe new, old-fashioned musical travelogue of the United States. Well worth hitching a ride.
Mummer Love, the second part of Soundwalk Collective’s trilogy of albums inspired by Patti Smith’s favourite poet Arthur Rimbaud, evokes his later years in Ethiopia by intertwining intimate field recordings of sufi chants with Smith’s recitations and mesmeric contributions from Ethiopian jazz titan Mulatu Astatke and minimal maestro Philip Glass. The centrepiece is Smith’s title poem about her own Rimbaud odyssey, delivered with a mix of conversational authority and hippy haze. Fiona Shepherd
Haydn: London Symphony No 99 & Harmoniemesse (Coro) ****
Harry Christophers’ golden relationship with the Boston-based Handel and Haydn Society and the music of Haydn continues with a richly-paired Symphony No 99 (one of the 12 “London” symphonies) and the late Harmoniemesse. Both works employ a significant “wind band” presence, which Christophers emphasises in a performance of the symphony that captures the meatiness of orchestration, though never at the expense of its textural delicacies and flowing lyricism. The distinctive wind episodes in the Adagio are truly delightful. These same qualities define the personality of the Mass, delivered here with dramatic urgency and bold resolve. There’s wholesome singing, too, from the Society’s chorus, and from the solo vocal team of Mireille Asselin (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo soprano), Jeremy Budd (tenor) and Sumner Thompson (baritone). Ken Walton
Rant: The Portage (Make Believe Records) ****
Portage is the act of carrying a boat or its cargo between two navigable waters, but there is nothing burdensome about this third album from the fiddle quartet Rant, comprising sisters Jenna and Bethany Reid, Lauren MacColl and Anna Massie. Radiating energy amid the fine acoustic of Glasgow’s Mackintosh Queen’s Cross Church, the four fiddles range through a thoughtfully chosen variety of material, from the vivacious opening pairing of Jenna Reid’s Scandinavian-flavoured Göran Berg’s and MacColl’s Crow Road Croft to beguiling treatments of two traditional song airs, the Gaelic Nach truagh mo chàs and Burns’s Now Westlin Winds. Scott Skinner’s hornpipe Annie Allan is ushered perkily into an elegant Swedish polska, there’s a ringing Shetland exuberance to two Tom Anderson reels while MacColl’s Rosemarkie Man brings a long dead Pict back to exuberantly spinning life – chamber folk of the highest order. Jim Gilchrist