Album reviews: Nina Nesbitt | Tom Chaplin | Loudon Wainwright III
Nina Nesbitt’s decade of songwriting experience comes through on her new album, writes Fiona Shepherd, but what’s lacking is a clear sense of Nina style
Nina Nesbitt: Älskar (Cooking Vinyl) ***
Tom Chaplin: Midpoint (BMG) ***
Loudon Wainwright III: Lifetime Achievement (Proper Records) ****
Livingston-born, Edinburgh-raised singer/songwriter Nina Nesbitt has been on the cusp of commercial success for some time, initially reeling in her teenage peers with her Amy Macdonald-like celebrations of adolescent invincibility shot through with slivers of self-questioning.
In the decade since the release of her debut album Peroxide she has taken time to work on her own material, while also penning songs for other artists. At the age of 28, she has a wealth of writing experience which is not necessarily reflected in her output – three albums in nine years.
Her latest Älskar is titled in a nod to her Swedish heritage – it means “to love” and begins with a patchwork of voices declaring love, like a collision of family Zoom meetings. Nesbitt began writing the album while visiting her Swedish grandmother in 2019 but, for obvious reasons, didn’t make it back to Scandinavia as planned in 2020.
She makes comparisons and learns lessons across the generations on Dinner Table, a paean to her mum Caty as well as her grandmother: “there’s magic in something as simple as three women sitting round a dinner table”. While on the subject of family, Heirlooms is another breathy ballad where she considers what she will pass on to those who come after.
Nesbitt looks back too, imagining recapturing the flush of young love on Teenage Chemistry, a Dua Lipa-like slice of streamlined dance pop, on a perennial pop subject (see also Like A Virgin), and using the benefit of hindsight to question the dynamics of May to December relationships on the bedroom pop rumination, Older Guys.
Colours of You, co-written with Adele collaborator Dan Wilson, is a rather vanilla attempt to capture the sensory experience of falling in love using sweeping strings and broad brushstrokes. Nesbitt was a teenage Taylor Swift fan and there is some of Swift’s breathy rebellion in Pressure Makes Diamonds (“I’ll keep on swimming through the patriarchal system”) and the self-comforting pop mantra No Time (For My Life to Suck). What is lacking, however, is a clear sense of Nina style.
Keane frontman Tom Chaplin has a few years on Nesbitt. His latest solo album Midpoint is appropriately named as an MOR album about middle age. The songs were written during the self-reflection of lockdown and include a made-it-through-the-rain ode for Keane wingman Tim Rice-Oxley and an everything’s-changing-now-I’ve-got-kids number.
All Fall Down opens with some calming jazz piano and Black Hole is enhanced by swooning choral backing vocals and woodwind coda, but this is essentially a collection of easy listening piano balladry with the plaintive Chaplin as 21st century Gilbert O’Sullivan – if O’Sullivan weren’t still around and active.
The third of this week’s age appropriate albums is by some way the best – but 75-year-old Loudon Wainwright III has had over 50 years to perfect his craft. Lifetime Achievement, his first album of original material in eight years, finds him not so much raging against the dying of the light but pleading with it for more time (I Been) and more opportunities (One Wish).
He ponders his legacy in the company of a bluegrass ensemble on Little Piece of Me, takes inventory on the soulful title track and feels his age on How Old Is 75?, contemplating the end as a big flashy encore. But he didn’t put in all those years just to write some long goodbye. Lifetime Achievement contains so much more of his signature thoughtful wit, such as Fam Vac, a Tolstoy and Sartre-quoting appeal for some me time, ruminations on town versus country and island life, a harmony a cappella with Chaim Tannenbaum on fears and demons (“it feasts on your entrails, it has your details”) and hell as a game of softball.
Bach: Masses (Coro) ****
It’s hard to imagine what more can be achieved with further recordings of Bach’s choral canon, what with John Eliot Gardiner’s modern collections as a seminal beacon. Others have commanded equal respect in this area, not least Harry Christophers and his vocal group, The Sixteen. And while this new double CD is effectively a re-issue of earlier separate volumes by Christophers of Bach’s Lutheran Masses, their reappearance as a single package is a welcome reminder of their fascination, the extent to which the composer borrowed from himself to exhaust the possibilities of such rich material. Thus the relevance of two cantatas – Nos 102 and 79 – that are the respective centrepieces of each disc, highlighting their re-use in the masses positioned either side. As ever, The Sixteen – reduced to eight in these svelte, crystalline performances – offer clarity, energy and stylish nuance, accompanied by a silken period instrument ensemble. Ken Walton
Enrico Rava & Fred Hersch: The Song Is You (ECM) ****
Some years ago veteran Italian trumpeter and flugelhornist Enrico Rava played a magical gig at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall with the young pianist Stefano Bollani. This new recording catches him in equally engaging form, in magisterial partnership with venerated American pianist Fred Hersch. It’s a beautifully balanced, palpably empathetic partnership right from the opener, Jobim’s Retrato em Branco e Preto, flugelhorn and piano intimate together while leaving each other plenty of space to solo. The baldly titled Improvisation is just that, its spontaneous explorations sometimes dark-toned but not without fun. There’s zest, too, in their sparky handling of an old standard, I’m Getting Sentimental Over You, and haunting deliberations on the Kern-Hammerstein title track. A highlight is Hersch’s lovely Child’s Song, piano spelling out its melody over rolling left hand before the flugelhorn dwells fondly on it, though not without some later exuberant whoops. Jim Gilchrist