Manic Street Preachers: The Ultra Vivid Lament (Columbia/Sony) ***
Drake: Certified Lover Boy (OVO Sound/Republic) **
Elvis Costello: Spanish Model (UMe) ****
Thirty years on from their messy, punky, spraypainted birth, Manic Street Preachers have thoroughly embraced rock’n’roll middle age by producing their first album of songs written on piano. They can still muster an erudite lyric, a dexterous guitar solo and a striking, poetic album title, but The Ultra Vivid Lament sounds like a composite of their most MOR moments to date.
Opening track Snowing in Sapporo is pleasant, easy listening with winsome sentiments and glacial synths. The blithely upbeat single Orwellian marries a funky, bouncy bassline to deadly serious lyrics on language, debate and culture wars where “it seems impossible to pick a side,” while Don’t Let the Night Divide Us is a call for solidarity (“don’t let those boys from Eton suggest that we are beaten”) in the guise of an Abbaesque 70s pop song.
It’s mildly – very mildly – subversive stuff and, as always, you might learn something while absently humming along. For example, The Secret He Had Missed imagines a conversation between sibling artists Augustus and Gwen John as a Eurovision duet with Sunflower Bean frontwoman Julia Cumming.
Frontman James Dean Bradfield has further fun with the impish use of 80s soft rock guitar riffing on Quest for Ancient Colour. The Manics are not really a minor key band these days – but it’s straight faces on again for the implicit desolation of Blank Diary Entry, a suitably moody noir pop duet with the shadowy singer Mark Lanegan.
Superstar rapper Drake’s to-do list for 2021: convalesce from knee surgery, launch range of scented candles, finally get round to releasing long-anticipated album Certified Lover Boy.
And here it is wrapped in an aesthetically displeasing Damien Hirst-designed sleeve, comprising a grid of pregnant woman emojis with different skin tones and hair colour. It’s not the only dubious judgement call on a sprawling album – though not quite as sprawling as the latest from his hip-hop nemesis Kanye West – which encompasses Right Said Fred samples, ill-fated attempts to chat up lesbians and failing to find a punchy rhyme for “Copenhagen.”
The serial confessional rapper claims here he has No Friends in the Industry but still commands an A list guest list, from Nicki Minaj demanding he honours his paternal responsibilities on Papi’s Home to Jay-Z’s earnest delivery of Love All and the dynamic contrast between rappers Lil Wayne, Rick Ross and the retro soul samples on You Only Live Twice. But the star turn is singer Yebba flying solo on comedown soul ballad Yebba’s Heartbreak. The Certified Lover Boy signs off with The Remorse but it remains to be seen if his fans will forgive him for making them wait for such an overlong, underwhelming album.
What lovely larks, in contrast, from Elvis Costello, who has chosen to rework the first Attractions album This Year’s Model in Spanish, because he can. Apparently, the notion came to him in a dream, but also partly spurred by recording a new version of This Year’s Girl for the opening credits of David Simon’s show The Deuce.
Spanish Model is no mariachi rendition of his work, but a host of hip artists hailing from across the Latin world, singing to vibrant new mixes of the original master recordings. Who knew Spanish was so suited to smart new wave pop? Raquel Sofia rasps her way splendidly through (Yo No Quiero Ir A) Chelsea, Pablo Lopez has the wind at his heels on Mentira/Lip Service, and Juanes throws himself into the urgency of Pump It Up, with Costello’s original vocals on the chorus.
Costello is on a roll here. Following a French language EP version of his Hey Clockface album, can we now look forward to a Mandarin rendering of Punch the Clock?
Mozart: Piano Concertos (Nonesuch) *****
Even before Jeremy Denk plays a single note in this twin Mozart piano concerto release, he makes his presence forcefully felt. As both soloist and director with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, he elicits a bracing immediacy in the anticipatory orchestral exposition of the vivacious Piano Concerto No 25, K503 and never lets up. Denk himself strikes a compelling Mozartian balance between lyrical perfection and effervescent spirit, and this poetic incision is not only echoed by the crisply articulate orchestra – the interplay with Denk is always on equal terms: no easy-option superficiality on either count; every note, every nuance matters. The C major concert oozes unrelenting optimism while the D minor (No 20, K466) offers greater shades of introspection, but never cheapened as sentimentality. Denk provides the solo Rondo K511 as a refreshingly thoughtful interlude. A neatly-timed release, given Denk’s current residency at the Lammermuir Festival. Ken Walton
Marcin Wasilewski Trio: En Attendant (ECM) ****
Little happens in a hurry in this thoughtful, often luminously expressed album by the Polish trio, but the close empathy pianist Marcin Wasilewski, double-bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz have developed over more than a quarter century is exemplified by the group-improvised three-part interspersed sequence, In Motion, opening with Wasilewski picking notes over taps, hisses and bass harmonics, later exploratory ripples, and eventually resolving with Part III’s lapping piano waves before ebbing back into silence. The trio have brought off some striking pop covers in the past and the Doors’ Riders on the Storm is no exception, with its stealthy advance, double bass eloquently to the fore. In contrast, there’s a gently poised account of one of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, while Carla Bley’s Vashkar emerges with similarly unhurried elegance, double bass and drums in warm conversation, before fading as a wistful riff, horizon-bound. Jim Gilchrist
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