Album reviews: Rihanna | Kula Shaker | Matmos

THE Scotsman's music critics review the latest longform releases from Rihanna, Kula Shaker, Matmos and more

Rihanna. Picture: Getty Images
Rihanna. Picture: Getty Images

POP: Rihanna: Anti | Rating: **** | Virgin EMI/Roc Nation

One way in which we might measure the public profile of an artist is the extent to which it is possible to refer to them by a single name. So far this century, female pop stars to achieve this status include Beyoncé, Adele and – particularly since the release of the film of the same name last year – Amy. It’s also a club into which Rihanna (aka 27-year-old Barbados-born Robyn Fenty, as no-one ever calls her these days) comfortably falls, thanks to her huge commercial success and her ability to fuse era-defining visual and aural styles. This ability is a strength and a weakness on new album Anti – in its latter stages she sounds like each of the three artists mentioned above, revealing that, unlike them, her talent lies as much in appropriation as individuality.

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Of course, the rather rushed release of Anti and the accompanying headlines that it had only sold 1,000 copies in its first few days of release would have the listener believing that the flop status of Rihanna’s eighth record is already a fait accompli. Supposedly accidentally posted to the Tidal streaming service in which she’s a part-stakeholder in the days before its slated release, downloaded and bootlegged before the error was resolved, and then made legitimately available for free anyway, it sounded like a cast-iron farce.

Yet in the global record industry’s current paradigm, sales aren’t the ultimate arbiter of an artist’s worth; recognition and the accompanying hefty sponsorship deals all play a part. So the cocky tone established on the opening track Consideration, a sassily minimal hip-hop swagger, doesn’t feel out of place. “I’ll do things my own way, darling / why, you should just let me,” she fronts, although her detractors might also point to the line “let me cover your s*** in glitter/I can make it gold.”

James Joint is an odd minute-and-a-bit diversion into later era slow-groove Stevie Wonder and the apparent joys of “smoking weed”, a pastime whose relaxed mood goes on to infuse Kiss It Better’s guitar-wailing balladry and the Drake-featuring Work, a track which stands out for its playfully extensive use of autotune and the vaguely reggae-styled chorus. Much of Anti is an inventive, dare we say, serious record, and as the title suggests, its switch away from pure pop thrills may count against it to some ears.

Yet for those whose taste is for sensuous electronic slow jams, tracks like Needed Me (bearing the memorable line “didn’t I tell you I was savage? / f*** your white horse and your carriage”), Yeah, I Said It and the Tame Impala cover Same Ol’ Mistakes make for moody, uncompromising listening. It’s uncertain how they might play to stadium audiences, however, in which case the closing trio of Love on the Brain, Higher and Close to You – each creditably soulful epics of the kind her above-named contemporaries have made their own – seem like a last, uncertain grab for more familiar ground. David Pollock

POP: Kula Shaker: K2.0 | Rating: *** | Strangefolk

In an age when TFI Friday can not only return to our screens but positively thrive, it makes sense that second division Britpop crew Kula Shaker should consider the time is right for a comeback. Yet as much as millennials might remember their short run of hits in the late 90s, everyone’s forgotten their two flop comeback albums in the last decade and singer Crispian Mills’ brief foray into film directing. The new album (technically K5.0) is an entirely proficient if inessential homage to the mythical golden age of English heritage rock, from the folksy pop of Holy Flame and 33 Crows to the Levellers-lite, rabble-rousing of Death of Democracy and the watered-down Led Zeppelin riffage of Get Right Get Ready. DP

POP: Matmos: Ultimate Care II | Rating: *** | Thrill Jockey

You too will believe a washing machine can sing. (In a manner of speaking). For their tenth album in two decades, Baltimore electronic music duo Matmos (MC Schmidt and Drew Daniel) have remained close to home in the most simultaneously eclectic and mundane way possible, by using the Whirlpool Ultimate Care II washing machine in their basement as their key instrument. Featuring fellow musicians such as Dan Deacon and Jason Willett of Half Japanese, they create delicate ambient rhythms out of the softest of sloshing water sounds or the firm hit of a hand upon the casing of the device. It’s presented as one long, strange piece, to which the listener pays attention at once with a sense of incredulity and distraction; figuring out how these lovely sounds were made is a fun game, but something of a bar to actually getting lost in them. DP

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CLASSICAL: Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos 3 & 4 | Rating: ***** | Harmonia Mund

The Freiberger Barockorchester under Pablo Heras-Casado continue their exploration on disc of German Romantic repertoire with two of Mendelssohn’s best loved symphonies, the “Scottish” (No 3) and the “Italian” (No 4). It makes for quite extraordinary listening, the edgy warmth of the period instruments lending probing penetration and utter uniqueness to what we traditionally think of as the accepted Mendelssohn sound. It’s as if the cobwebs and time-honoured nostalgia have been swept aside, leaving the music feeling as fresh as the day it was written. The brazen wind timbres in the opening bars of the “Scottish”, the breezy precision of the strings in the “Italian”, coupled with the fleet-footed, warm-hearted energy of Heras-Casedo’s compelling interpretations, and thrill-a-minute playing from the orchestra, make for truly essential listening. Ken Walton

FOLK: Hamish Napier: The River | Rating: **** | Strathspey Records

A ubiquitous figure on the Scottish folk scene, Hamish Napier grew up on the banks of the Spey and celebrates this mighty river’s all-permeating rush in what was originally a Celtic Connections “New Voices” commission. From the opening pulsing of The Mayfly, he evokes the river’s flow with flutes and whistles, as well as assorted keyboards, while enlisting help from other musicians including Breabach members James Lindsay on bass and Calum MacCrimmon, who chants canntaireachd in The Pearlfishers, a stately lament for the decimation of the Spey’s freshwater mussel stocks.

The recording is infused with the recorded calls of whaups and other birds as well as the susurrus of the Spey itself, while Napier’s multi-tracking coalesces into a breathy whistle chorus, as in The Whirlpool, or deploys some funky electric piano in Floating. Jim Gilchrist

JAZZ: Dr Lonnie Smith: Evolution | Rating: **** | Blue Note

Hammond B-3 organ legend Dr Lonnie Smith returns to the Blue Note label after half a century to join a clutch of muscular younger players (as well as producer/Blue Note president Don Was), to demonstrate that his appetite for funky grooves and gurgly keyboard invention hasn’t abated.

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He makes the point with Play It Back, which he first recorded in 1970, a 15-minute rumble with boisterous skirmishes between Smith’s grunting keyboard, guest pianist Robert Glasper and the twin drums of Joe Dyson and Johnathan Blake.

Elsewhere, he’s joined by an old colleague, Joe Lovano, who discharges his querulous G mezzo soprano sax over the keyboard bass groove of Afrodesia. Guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, meanwhile, shoots an argumentative line in a trio rendition of Thelonious Monk’s Straight no Chaser, trumpeter Maurice Brown lets rip in Talk About This, and Smith doubles on Korg keyboard as well as flickering Hammond alongside John Ellis’s joyfully avian flute in the gloriously harrumphing closer, African Suite. JG