Citizen Bravo, Raymond MacDonald and Friends: Return to Y’Hup (The World of Ivor Cutler) (Chemikal Underground) ****
Bonny Light Horseman: Bonny Light Horseman (37d03d) ****
Nicolas Godin: Concrete and Glass (Because Music) ****
Ivor Cutler was a true one-off. The Glasgow-born surrealist, storyteller and sage may have been the epitome of the outsider artist but his witty ditties retain an all-ages appeal.
Which is probably why the quartet of musicians at the core of this tribute album – Citizen Bravo’s Matt Brennan, Raymond MacDonald of Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra, guitarist Malcolm Benzie and Frightened Rabbit’s Andy Monaghan – had no difficulty in attracting a host of mostly Scottish musicians to the project, from practised storytellers such as Kris Drever to idiosyncratic stylists such as Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch.
The singular spirit of Cutler is evoked throughout Return to Y’Hup, not least in the use of Cutler’s own harmonium and the love and respect accorded to his writing across the board.
Cutler’s partner Phyllis King gives her implicit blessing with a recitation of Latitude and Longitude, while Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos, James Yorkston, BMX Bandits’ frontman Duglas T Stewart and Robert Wyatt apply their distinctive speaking voices to their respective nuggets of wry insight, which never outstay their welcome, only whetting the appetite for more.
But with such a diverse array of characters queuing up to participate, Return to Y’Hup also expands on Cutler’s musical M.O. The passive-aggressive whimsy of Here’s a Health for Simon is rounded out with brass, flute and backing choir, while Karine Polwart and Emma Pollock make divergent but empathetic work of his eccentric wordplay and offbeat storytelling.
The first album in this double set covers Cutler’s debut EP, Ivor Cutler of Y’Hup, and related material, populating this rarefied fantasy island realm with Heather Leigh’s semi-operatic interpretation of Boo Boo Bird and the cacophonous scurry of A Tooth Song alike.
The second album is a selection box of imaginatively arranged Cutler favourites. Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell makes a sultry job of Women of the World, while thoughtful companion piece A Real Man deconstructs traditional male stereotypes.
Muscular Tree features Megan Airlie’s rich jazz vocals against the freeform backing of the Limelight Ensemble, Rachel Sermanni and Bathers frontman Chris Thomson make a dynamic vocal duo on the pulsing electronica of Who Tore Your Trousers James and Pictish Trail leads the playful indie ska knees-up of the inspired How Are You? Shut Up!
The album launch at Celtic Connections later this month is set to be another highlight in the festival’s long line of affectionate, moving tributes to remarkable artists.
Anais Mitchell has a palpable Broadway hit on her hands with her folk opera, Hadestown, which she performed in an early incarnation at Celtic Connections. She returns to the festival this year in her latest Bonny Light Horseman guise alongside Fruit Bats frontman Eric D Johnson and guitarist/producer Josh Kaufman, repurposing British and Irish folk song through a cosmic Americana filter, from the Napoleonic-era title track to a massed harmonic rendition of Bright Morning Stars led by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who was responsible for matchmaking the core trio in the first place.
Nicolas Godin of Air also brings a light conceptual touch to a solo album of “right angles and parallel lines” with its origins in a project in which Godin created soundtracks inspired by his mapping of buildings by architects such as Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.
Concrete and Glass suffuses his initial minimalist patterns with a warm, soothing soul to create soft lines, friendly contours and luxurious textures, abetted by a number of guest singers, including the featherlight falsetto of Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor on the easy electro funk of Catch Yourself Falling and his own trusty vocoder vocals on the sumptuous symphonic jazz pop of Turn Right Turn Left. Fiona Shepherd
Sheku Kanneh-Mason: Elgar Cello Concerto (Decca) **
Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason has been thrust into the limelight since winning BBC Young Musician in 2016. Having heard him in Edinburgh last summer, and now on disc, the evidence is of a genuine talent that needs time to find an individual musical voice to match his unquestionable technical facility. This album – Elgar’s soulful Cello Concerto encased within a package of effete sweetie wrapper arrangements – finds the 20-year-old tiptoeing through the concerto, beautiful and lyrical in so many respects, but without any real appreciation of the troubling undercurrents that lie within Elgar’s darkened inspiration. Even with Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO, this comes nowhere near other recordings of the work. Nor does Kanneh-Mason make a case for himself in those twee arrangements, which include an unmoving Elgar’s Nimrod for six cellos. Disappointingly unremarkable. Ken Walton
Seamus Egan Project: Early Bright (THL Records) *****
A founder member of the influential Irish-American band Solas, Seamus Egan, playing a battery of instruments including flute, banjo and guitars, is joined by friends including guitarist Kyle Sanna, Owen Marshall on bouzouki and harmonium and the Fretless String Quartet, to create an album which combines frequent delicacy with irresistible drive. From the brief, opening title track, with its cracked piano chimes sounding like memories from a deserted house, a hypnotically riffing banjo launches us into the album’s beguiling current of relentlessly flowing string sounds, overlaid from time to time by Egan’s mellifluous flute playing. There are some nicely contrasting interludes, such as the keyboard sighs of Everything Always Was that lead into an old-time waltz, with occasional electric guitar bringing to mind just a fleeting, westbound echo of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Jim Gilchrist