The Scotsman’s music critics lend their ears to the latest releases from the world of music
Nanci Griffith: Intersection
ANGER is not really an energy one associates with the self-possessed Nanci Griffith. But there are a couple of moments on her 20th album when she lets it hang out emotionally (by her demure standards), flexing her social conscience on Come On Up Mississippi and channelling the sass of Loretta Lynn as she upbraids a feckless partner on the snarly Hell No (I’m Not Alright). However, despite the obvious signposting of the title and Griffith’s contention that this is a revelatory personal work, Intersection ultimately conforms to reserved type with its understated expressions of restlessness and rootlessness, the tasteful, one-note execution of which won’t ruffle her existing fanbase.
Sleigh Bells: Reign of Terror
Mom + Pop Music/Columbia, £12.99
THE sacred and profane, the quiet and the loud, the dirty and the pure – stimulating rock and pop music is often built on such polar dynamics. New York electropunks Sleigh Bells are simply the latest in a long line to exploit the contrast between a pretty tune and a distorted backing – the searing True Shred Guitar is as good as its word, for example. But their second album, Reign Of Terror, doesn’t quite live up to its unforgiving opening onslaught. Singer Alexis Krauss whispers sour nothings on Road To Hell, then oscillates between bratty cheerleader chants and breathy come-hither crooning on Crush, while guitarist Derek Miller litters her path with steely scree without menacing the melodies too much.
Lambchop: Mr M
City Slang, £11.99
RARELY has a singer muttered as evocatively as Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner. His instantly recognisable baritone somehow manages to be drawling and clipped at the same time. On Mr M it becomes a vessel for expressing sadness at the death of his friend and fellow musician Vic Chesnutt, but Wagner also realises his potential as an easy-listening crooner on the lightly swooning Bacharach-referencing If Not I’ll Just Die. These soothing, snail-paced strolls are stealth compositions rather than arresting songs, with finely wrought arrangements, including lambent strings by Mark Nevers, which recall Belle & Sebastian at their most beguilingly mournful.
Peter Maxwell Davies: A Solstice of Light
Bute Records, online only
GLASGOW University Chapel Choir’s growing fortunes under James Grossmith’s inspiring conductorship continue with the second release on the university’s own in-house label, and a programme that focuses on Peter Maxwell Davies’ Solstice of Light. The words by fellow Orcadian George Mackay Brown are a poetic timeline of the history of the islands, set in 1979 by Maxwell Davies with uncharacteristic warmth.
The performance is fruity and precise, both from the student choir with solo tenor Austin Gunn, and from resident organist Kevin Bowyer, who imbues the instrumental interludes with a stinging poignancy. The sleeve notes confuse the fact that the latter tracks – including the innocently beautiful Lullaby for Lucy and tuneful Farewell to Stromness – are miscellaneous extras and not part of the main featured work, but their presence proves as much of a joy to listen to.
Tom Arthurs and Richard Fairhurst: Postcards From Pushkin
Babel Label, £12.99
THIS project had its origins in trumpeter Tom Arthurs’ year as a BBC New Generation Artist in 2009, and was jointly commissioned with the Royal Philharmonic Society and City of London Festival. If those links suggest something of a classical feel to the venture, you won’t be far wrong. Arthurs’ spacious, reflective meditations inspired by the poems of Pushkin sit poised somewhere between jazz and chamber music in form, but with the distinctly improvisational feel you would expect from two of Britain’s leading young jazz musicians.
Arthurs confines himself to flugelhorn, manipulating its deeper and softer timbre to evocative effect against Fairhurst’s beautifully judged piano work. The music was recorded at St Giles in Cripplegate, and retains a distinct resonance of the church’s open, reverberant acoustic. Not for swing addicts, but a highly accomplished set for quieter moods.
Carolina Chocolate Drops: Leaving Eden
BY TURNS raucous, quaint and utterly riveting, this is the third album from the North Carolina-based group who specialise in the neglected field of Afro-American string band music, and it throbs with eclectic input from blues, gospel, jug band and even Celtic influences.
By way of introduction, just listen to the first three tracks – the rhythmic batter of the opening Riro’s House, the spare and stealthy instrumental Kerr’s Negro Jig, and the banjo and bones-driven high holler of Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man? The powerful lead vocals of singer-fiddler Rhiannon Giddens range impressively between the sassy, grittily Janis Joplinesque and the sheer, spellbinding poise of the unaccompanied Little Bird.
In contrast, the traditional Read ’Em John, led over rhythmic handclapping by Dom Flemons, has the insistent drive of a work song. All this raw energy is tempered by the seemingly incongruous but surprisingly effective incursions of cellist Leyla McCalla.
The Rough Guide to Fado
Legends of Fado
IT WAS about time we had a Rough Guide to Fado, but this really is not it. What it claims to present is the cream of modern fado, led by the art-form’s current “queen” Mariza, and, on the plus side, it doesn’t have any bastardised variants on the traditional instrumentation. The pace throughout is grave and graceful, and there are some good voices, though the only one displaying timeless fado artistry is that of Joana Amendoiera (Mariza’s sound is too unvaryingly heavy). The nonagenarian Celeste Rodrigues, sister of the great Amalia, occupies the final track and, though it’s astonishing to find her still singing, it would have been infinitely preferable to have had a track from her prime.
No, a much better “rough guide” is Arc Music’s Legends of Fado, whose only overlap with the RG disc lies in its inclusion of this same veteran singer – though their track, which does come from her prime, properly honours her talent. In every other respect this compilation does what a real guide should: here are all the greats, going back many decades, starting with the incomparable Amalia and the charismatic Alfredo Marcenerio, and including a dazzling array of performers. Moreover, whereas the Rough Guide’s singers have what one must call “microphone” voices, those on Legends sing out as they still do in the clubs, without the benefit of multiple mics for the backing instruments. Here voice after voice catches the heart: the girlish delicacy of Maria Teresa Noronha, the exquisite pacing of Carlos Ramos, the convivial glitter of Max, and the lightly conversational tone of Fernanda Peres. Every track is beautiful, in its own individual way.