Album reviews: Mike Oldfield | Mick Harvey | Austra

Mike Oldfield's 1970s-inspired prog rock instrumental release should play well with the disciples of the vinyl revival
Mike OldfieldMike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield

Mike Oldfield: Return to Ommadawn ***

Virgin EMI

Mick Harvey: Intoxicated Women ****


Austra: Future Politics ***


There must be something siren-like about early career-defining success which keeps calling artists back to that place of youthful invention. Mike Oldfield, for example, has produced two sequels to his debut album Tubular Bells over the years; now he makes his Return to Ommadawn in reference to his third album, released in 1975, which is still a great fan favourite.

Apart from its commercial success, Oldfield remembers it fondly as a creative period before he substituted composing to his tastes and talents with the relentless push to keep moving with the times.

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Return to Ommadawn, as its anachronistic title suggests, dispenses with any notion of currency and aims straight for the prog rock jugular with, arguably, an eye for the buoyancy of the nostalgia market and the continuing recovery in vinyl sales. This is an instrumental suite, ideally for headphone listening, which is divided into Parts I and II, each continuously flowing piece lasting the typical length of one side of a 33rpm record.

Making the original album was a cleansing process for Oldfield; he has suggested the same is true of Return to Ommadawn, which was made in the period following the death of his son Dougal and father Raymond. He has certainly been painstaking in its construction, playing 22 acoustic instruments – from African drum to Spanish guitar via Celtic instrumentation including tin whistle and bodhran – to the best of his ability on each, then blending together the results with the occasional break for his keening electric guitar work.

Oldfield used a vintage metronome to keep time, but bowed to more up-to-date technology in sampling the vocal chanting from the original album and using online plug-in versions of the various keyboard instruments. Yet the overall results sound much like the hippy tapestry one would expect from its nostalgic roots.

Bad Seeds mainstay Mick Harvey also rounds off some unfinished business this week with the fourth and final volume of his Serge Gainsbourg Translations. Intoxicated Women pays tribute to the songs written for and recorded with female singers throughout the 1960s, opening with Ich Liebe Dich…I Dich Auch Nicht, a German language version of Gainsbourg’s most (in)famous song Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus. The sultry Andrea Schroeder leads this valiant attempt to cast German as the language of lust but the production is faithful in every other way, tremulous organ (ahem) and all.

Harvey showcases the fluent range of Gainsbourg’s material from France Gall’s bubblegum Eurovision hit Puppet of Wax, Puppet of Song to acid epic Cargo Cult and demonstrates great affection for tender oddities such as God Smokes Havanas. But, like the Gainsbourg originals, these songs would be much diminished without their cast of female interpreters – Xanthe Waite, Sophia Brous, Lyndelle-Jayne Spruyt, Jess Ribeiro and Channthy Kak.

Katie Stelmanis, the driving force behind Canadian outfit Austra, turned to the writings of Naomi Klein and David Harvey among others to inspire her third album, distilling a seamless blend of philosophy, plainsong and club culture from their progressive ideas for a new world order. Her background in classical music and opera is evident in her lithe, soaring vocal on Beyond A Mortal and the undulating harp instrumental Deep Thought but Future Politics is more a symphony of cool, cerebral Eurotronica, whether she is searching for a connection through the neon loneliness of Utopia or threading a warmer house music pulse through a song inspired by the 2014 disappearance of 43 Mexican students.


Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 3, 4 & 6 ****


Opinion varies concerning the value we should attach to Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, not least in comparison to any of the other six, from the energy of the Little Russian (No 2) to the passionate intensity of the Pathétique (No 6). The last of these features on this double disc from Vasily Peterenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, along with the Fourth and the aforementioned Third. All three performances bear the hallmark of Petrenko’s signature ability to lift music off the printed page and fill it with airborne elegance and vitality. As a result there is fiery, sometimes ferocious purpose in the Fourth without any temptation to weigh down Tchaikovsky’s opulent scoring. Similarly, he paces the Pathétique intuitively, complementing its heavy angst with a remarkable textural vividness and crisp energy. As for the so-called poor relation, the Third, this is as helpful a case for its merits as any.

Ken Walton


Robyn Stapleton: Songs of Robert Burns *****

Laverock Records

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With the season of faltering recitations and haggis eviscerations upon us, yet another addition to the plethora of Burns songs recordings may seem superfluous, but the young Galloway singer Robyn Stapleton has come up with a disc that can sit with the best of them. She grew up with the Burns canon and interprets it with lilting delicacy and palpable affection, with thoughtful chamber-folk accompaniments from an ensemble including Patsy Reid on fiddle and viola, Aaron Jones on bouzouki and Alistair Paterson on piano and harmonium.

It’s a credit to Stapleton’s ability – and of course, to Burns’s enduring genius – that she can bring freshness to the lingering sentiments of My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose and the bitter humanity of The Slave’s Lament. She fairly skips through dance ditties such as I’m O’er Young and dispenses with accompaniment for the fond dignity of John Anderson My Jo.

Jim Gilchrist