Lorde: Melodrama Virgin ***
Royal Blood: How Did We Get So Dark? Warner Bros ***
Ride: Weather Diaries Wichita Recordings ***
Forget about all those teenage hopefuls on reality TV shows with stars in their eyes, dreams in their hearts and desperation in their gut – Ella Yelich-O’Connor, better known by her stage name Lorde, really did go from nowhere to somewhere seemingly overnight, thanks to a smart little ditty called Royals. This instant pop classic, audacious in its simplicity, was a rallying cry by a teenager for teenagers, capturing that invincible you-and-me-versus-the-world mentality which is so seductive and comforting for anyone who feels a little out-on-a-limb.
Lorde herself wasn’t like other girl pop stars, being an intense, overly serious quasi-goth outsider from a small town in New Zealand. This precocious writer/performer was described by no less an arbiter than David Bowie as “the future of music”. He popped up at her 17th birthday party, as you do; she was later invited to front the Bowie tribute at last year’s Brit Awards.
Melodrama is her long-awaited document of “the last two wild, fluorescent years of my life”. That quote alone tells you that Lorde has a mildly pretentious way with words, and there’s an unusual artist straining to be heard through the layers of production, generic soundscapes and overdubbed vocals which conspire to dilute her theatrical tendencies.
Green Light is a moderately quirky and propulsive dance pop track about partying back from heartbreak, and she’s got her gang around her, avowing there “ain’t a pill that can touch our rush” on Sober. By the closing Perfect Places, she has sobered up but smiles at the memory of “all the nights spent off our faces, trying to find these perfect places”.
In the interim, she takes deft snapshots of significant relationships on the flinty Hard Feelings, the clipped, compressed house track Supercut and the state-of-the-art sonic collage of The Louvre (“they’ll hang us in the Louvre, down the back but who cares, still the Louvre”). However, nothing resonates as much as the sparse piano ballad Writer in the Dark, where her soaring vocal strongly evokes that other innovative teen writer, Kate Bush.
In 2014, Royal Blood’s self-titled debut took rock music back to the top of the album charts for the first time in too long, and did so without the aid of a guitar. This bass/drums duo have their fuzz pedals in a row once again on the similarly efficient How Did We Get So Dark? which follows a familiar blueprint rather than retilting the formula like Muse or The White Stripes before them, toying with glam rock on Look Like You Know, classic rock riffing on Hook, Line & Sinker and a spot of doomy Sabbath riffola on Where Are You Now? It’s the equivalent of a Motörhead T-shirt purchased from Top Shop, stylish but with something missing where the sweat stains should be.
Oxford indie dons Ride were stalwarts of the shoegaze scene of the early 1990s, characterised by wispy vocals and lashings of guitar effects, before guitarist Andy Bell went off to join Oasis and latterly Beady Eye. Weather Diaries is the quartet’s first album in over 20 years and it’s a decently diverse effort, mixing in motorik rhythms and analogue synth to Lannoy Point, teaming chiming gothic guitar with chunky rhythmic gear changes on Charm Assault and floating serenely in Pink Floyd’s prog pond on Home Is A Feeling. The lyrics are apparently tainted by Brexit, but delivered with a sigh rather than a cry, and it all starts to sound flaccid when the pace drops below driving.
Dragon Quartet: Schubert & Dvorák Channel Classics***
Top level string quartets are a fairly new concept in China, but the few there are tend to present faithful perspectives on centuries-old repertoire. The Dragon Quartet was established in 2012 and have already created a sizeable reputation through playing that is incisive and clean, engaging and warm, if leaning occasionally towards the matter-of-fact. That’s the instant impression from their Death and the Maiden – Schubert’s famous D minor Quartet – which they pair here with Dvořák’s equally mainstream “American” Quartet. There’s a tantalising purity in their Schubert, rhythmically buoyant in the opening Allegro, increasingly nuanced in the initially motorised Andante, unfussy in the enthusiasm of the Scherzo and Presto. Much the same can be said for the Dvořák, always neat, but crying out for caution to be thrown to the wind. There are already plenty of excellent recordings of this music. This one is more a straightforward option than a telling alternative.
James Lindsay: Strand OIR Recordings ****
A strand may suggest a demarcation zone between elements, but also a constituent within a woven fabric, and in this richly-textured first album under his own name, bassist James Lindsay, perhaps best known for his work with the Highland band Breabach, meshes with a sterling squad of musicians from the folk and jazz scenes. The ethereal-sounding flute and fiddle (Hamish Napier and Adam Sutherland) of Hebrides Terrace Seamount herald soundscapes that glisten with Fender Rhodes chimes from Tom Gibbs, underpinned by Scott Mackay’s drums and, of course, Lindsay’s bass.
There are fine solos from guitarist Ben Macdonald – in The Silent Spring, for instance – and strathspey-like figures on Fender Rhodes in Forvie Sands. Sutherland’s fiddle shrieks a climax to the sinister-sounding Stacks, while Lindsay’s bass murmurs gently over glockenspiel tinkling in UB85 and bows a wistful air in the concluding Beaufort’s Dyke. Mood, tone and tempo shift as constantly as the tide.