Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott: Crooked Calypso Virgin EMI ***
Declan McKenna: What Do You Think About The Car? Columbia ***
Cornelius: Mellow Waves Rostrum Records ***
Finally, in his mid-50s, Paul Heaton has sobered up, sorted his life out, dusted those chips off his shoulder and let the positive vibes flood in, opening his third album in collaboration with his longstanding female foil Jacqui Abbott with a happy clappy song of praise.
But fear not. While the musical outlook of Crooked Calypso is almost exclusively sunny, Heaton has lost none of his knack for turning the lyrical screw. When he says he has learned to stop worrying and love his status as a moderately successful pop songwriter, what he means is that he only drinks now when he’s writing songs. And how seriously we should take that is a moot point – Heaton is nothing if not droll.
Through his years fronting The Housemartins and The Beautiful South, Heaton has been one of the country’s most consistent commentators on social and personal politics, anatomizing relationships and skewering corruption and privilege. With the new lease of commercial life he has gained in partnership with Abbott, he is brimming with pop confidence and couches his grouches in celebratory tunes.
I Gotta Praise, a pop gospel song in search of a saviour, is almost stridently upbeat. He Wants To is a father’s cautionary chat with his daughter on what to expect from silver-tongued suitors, all set to the sort of relentless disco pop soundtrack currently favoured by Texas. She Got The Garden is a divorce lament in Motown clothing, itemizing the suburban collateral in a broken relationship, while The Lord Is A White Con is a chirpy boogie woogie number on religion as a tool to conquer, colonise and control.
The duo are similarly footloose on musical diversity, taking in the faintly cheesy Celtic pop of Blackwater Banks (though Ed Sheeran has lowered the bar considerably with Galway Girl) via references to easy listening Nashville, melodramatic, string-soaked 70s pop and late period Elvis pomp, all of which will be music to daytime radio programmers’ ears.
While Heaton speaks eloquently to his generation, charismatic 18-year-old singer/songwriter Declan McKenna has an adoring teen and twentysomething following already for his indie minstrelsy, which offers a little more character than his bland peers. Debut album What Do You Think About The Car? puts his current set to tape, with producer James Ford helping to capture a certain swagger, confidence and potential in placing the disposable, processed bubblegum likes of Why Do You Feel So Down next to songs inspired by poet EE Cummings. McKenna speaks up for his generation with a light touch on the likeably freewheeling The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home, written in the aftermath of the Bataclan terror attack, and more resonant than ever now that young pop fans are vigorously defending their cultural choices in response to further assaults.
Japanese composer and producer Keigo Oyamada has spent much of the last decade scoring animé films and performing as a member of the Plastic Ono Band but he returns to his Planet of the Apes-referencing alias Cornelius with the appropriately titled Mellow Waves, a lo-fi easy listening odyssey, comprising mainly analogue electronica with light jazz and Latin inflections, topped with his rather blank, fey delivery.
There’s a strong aesthetic running through the work, from the electro jazz of If You’re Here via the freer rhythms and trebly guitar picking of Mellow Yellow Feel to the winsome bossa nova breathiness of The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness which recalls Felt’s experiments with elevator muzak in the 80s, or the gauche orchestrations of Oyamada’s Scottish compadres The Pastels.
Britten Oboe Quartet: A Tribute to Janet Harmonia Mundi ****
The Janet referred to in the title of this disc is Janet Craxton, the British oboist who died in her early 50s in 1981. Behind the tribute are the Britten Oboe Quartet, headed up by one of today’s leading solo oboists Nicholas Daniel, whose teacher was Craxton.
They begin with Mozart’s gorgeous Oboe Quartet and a completion by Daniel of a Mozart curiosity, the Adagio for English Horn. The Quartet is delivered with refreshing piquancy and spirited energy. Daniel’s nimble brilliance dominates, but never at the expense of the full chamber ensemble experience. The autumnal Adagio takes us into a more subdued world, opening with prophetic similarity to the later, better-known Ave Verum.
The rest of the disc journeys into 20th century territory, from Britten’s Phantasy Op 2 to two works written for Craxton, Oliver Knussen’s haunting Cantata and the delicious Cor Anglais Quartet by Jean Français.
Nick Keir 1953-2013 Greentrax Recordings ****
The death through cancer of singer, guitarist and mandolinist Nick Keir in 2013 not only deprived the folk scene of a much-loved performer, both solo and in his 30-year membership of the McCalmans, but also robbed Edinburgh of an eloquent bard, who enshrined its howffs, causeys and haar-bound nights in his songs and in several Fringe shows.
His love of the city and an essentially joyous and occasionally wry view of the world shine through in this compendious compilation of 37 tracks. His feelings for Edinburgh are manifest in numbers such as Festival Lights, Slow French Waltz and the piquant Mephistopheles on Minto Street. Tracks performed with “The Macs” include Portnahaven and the (previously unreleased) Cold Night in This Old Town.
There’s the droll cultural satire of American Accent, the wryly knowing reflections of Middle-Aged Men and the beautifully wistful Daybreak Carol – something of a forgotten gem.