Ray Davies: Americana Sony Legacy ***
Ron Sexsmith: The Last Rider Cooking Vinyl ****
Loki: Trigger Warning Online only ***
“I want to make my home where the buffalo roam” is perhaps not the first thing one expected to hear from the newly knighted Sir Ray Davies, the Britpop doyen who has romanticized leafy Englandshire so idiosyncratically across his career.
Yet his first new material in almost a decade is a bittersweet chronicle of his relationship with the US, a musical road trip on which he is backed by respected Americana outfit The Jayhawks, who rein in their widescreen tendencies to suit Davies’s snapshot approach to songwriting.
Americana recaptures his boyhood awe of America – or rather its cultural iconography as communicated through films – then recalls his real-life experiences of this vast and complex land. Thankfully he stops short of fist-pumping on the freeway.
In celebrating America’s pioneers, the twanging title track still has that wistful, nostalgic Davies quality, while references to mustangs deliberately sit awkwardly on the tongue on expat satire The Deal, which weaves in the soothing circular riff from Tired of Waiting For You.
Along the way, there are other Kinks’ references, careworn duets with Jayhawks’ vocalist Karen Grotberg, a couple of engaging spoken word interludes, a dippy retro country number A Place In Your Heart and the offbeat, distorted, minimal blues of Change For Change but little else musically to match the overall ambition of the project to engage with the slippery yet enduring concept of the American Dream – ironically at a time when it appears to be mutating into an American nightmare.
For a classic songwriter of a later generation, look no further than the gentle Canadian maestro Ron Sexsmith. For about the tenth album running, The Last Rider is being hailed as his breakthrough release, the one where the wider world will finally wake up and appreciate his brilliance, bathe in his McCartneyesque facility for a beautiful, gliding melody suffused with understated melancholy and revel in his timeless sentiments expressed with simple but trenchant grace.
There is no such thing as a bad Ron Sexsmith album, making The Last Rider as good a way in as any to his work. Broadly speaking, it is one of his more commercially conceived collections, while still showcasing his stylistic reach – he follows the smooth easy listening sound of Our Way with the 70s prog power pop flirtation of Breakfast Ethereal, before moving into the mellow roots singer/songwriter territory of Worried Song by which point Sexsmith has the listener warmly clasped by the hand.
Expect no such comfort from Glasgow rapper – and Scotsman columnist – Darren McGarvey, aka Loki, whose latest release is a concept album (part one of two), tracing a troubled protagonist across two decades of social, cultural and political change in Scotland.
McGarvey lives up to his stage name as the god of devilish mischief, displaying an Eminem-like grasp of character. He skewers class attitudes across the board on The Class Ceiling and A Tale of Two Cities, before waking up to the Trumpiverse, a fantasy world in which Noam Chomsky goes postal, on the woozy title track.
He rages hard as his disenfranchised anti-hero, but also presents multiple perspectives in rapid succession, weaving in local and global references which take repeated listens to unpick, across a variety of musical backdrops, from the unsettling to the downright perky, supplied by a range of hip-hop producers and composer Jim Sutherland.
McGarvey asks questions, of himself more than anyone, and inevitably there are no easy answers. Trigger Warning ends on a cliffhanger, which may or may not be resolved when its companion piece, The Last Me, is released later in the year.
Schubert: Piano Sonatas Harmonia Mundi****
The coupling here of Schubert’s final B flat and the “little” A major Piano Sonatas is intended to complement the expansive, overriding calm of the former with the gentle cheeriness of the latter. But as Javier Perianes sets out to prove in this beautifully balanced disc, deeper rumination lies below the surface. The extensive opening two movements of the B flat sonata are liquid and timeless in Perianes’ free-flowing vision, the simple melodic strands expressed with bell-like clarity, the overall impression one of improvised acceptance, yet with ominous rumblings that threaten only to dissipate. The more defined dramatic colourings of the final two movements are delivered with a gentle, smiling countenance, though not without a few extrovert flourishes. Perianes applies equal grace and good taste to the A major sonata, its final Rondo acting as an airy, luminescent sign off to a charm-filled programme.
Kevin Eubanks: East West Time Line Mack Avenue Records ****
California-based guitarist Kevin Eubanks shows his limber fingerstyle approach to be equally at home in the peerless company of musicians from both US coasts. Five of his compositions feature east-coasters Nicholas Payton on trumpet, bassist Dave Holland, pianist Orrin Evans and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, while the California sessions cover standards with Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums, Bill Pierce on sax, Rene Comancho on bass plus percussionist Mino Cinelu.
Payton’s trumpet colours the New York tracks, as in the delicious melancholy of Watercolours, while Eubank’s guitar is gently sinuous in the meditative Poet. The California sessions open with Duke Ellington’s Take the Coltrane, guitar and tenor sax riding an edgy bass riff, Eubanks gives a warmly thoughtful account of What’s Going On, while Pierce’s soprano sax sings through a beguiling account of Cubano Chant.