Saint Etienne: Home Counties Heavenly Recordings ***
Alt-J: Relaxer Infectious Music ****
Dan Auerbach: Waiting On A Song Nonesuch Records ****
TST: The Southern Tenant: The Horror of the Right OST Johnny Rock Records ****
Just as The Smiths shone a light into Manchester’s darkest nooks and Belle & Sebastian have romanticised Glasgow’s leafy West End, so Saint Etienne have been groovy chroniclers of swinging London over the past three decades.
But Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs all gravitated to the Big Smoke, as bright young things do, and originally hail from the “doughnut of shires that ring the capital”. Now in their middle age, they take a trip back out to the suburbs that formed them on gentle concept outing Home Counties.
Much of this comforting album ambles along in second gear, swathed in soft satin synths, warm trumpet and Cracknell’s soothing, slighty breathy vocals, punctuated by snippets from BBC radio. True to suburban living, there is nothing to brazenly startle the neighbours in the classy bubblegum of After Hebden or delicate disco funk of Dive.
Forget the white vans and fake tans, this is a personal and particular response to their adolescent stomping ground. Underneath the Apple Tree was where the Cracknell family buried their pets, while dreamy instrumental Breakneck Hill was inspired by a precipitous incline in Reigate. And hark, is that the sound of psych jazz flute flutterings in deepest Essex?
Alt-J eat that sort of crazy experimentation for breakfast. Like Saint Eitenne, these former Mercury Music Prizewinners are unafraid to be understated if they feel like it. But this third album is the ultimate in pleasing themselves, as the core trio head off on all sorts of sonic tangents, stitching together myriad ideas across individual tracks (it would be stretching it to call these five-minute odysseys songs).
3WW combines African guitar rhythms and hippy folk mysticism for a sweet pay-off, In Cold Blood layers a brass fanfare, synth arpeggios and psychedelic organ over a modern R&B groove, and the melody, arrangement and lyrics of old blues standard House of the Rising Sun are reshaped into a fragile folk lament.
From here, they jump to the snotty garage punk sound of Hit Me Like That Snare, the spindly indie blues of Deadcrush and the comedown lullaby Last Year. It could have been an indulgent mess, but there’s charm and intrigue enough to sustain the listener across this ever-changing soundscape.
Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach is a prolific man of parts, with an unfailing ear for a tune no matter where he lays his musical hat. His second solo outing is a footloose, sunny summer album inspired by the crossover country, soul and pop songwriters of the late 60s – think Dennis Wilson or Mike Nesmith – and largely co-written with fellow mid-west expat John Prine in their shared adopted home of Nashville. The august likes of Duane Eddy, Jerry Douglas and Mark Knopfler also pop by to add their licks to the breezy mix of southern soul, sultry strings and retro pop flavours.
Meanwhile, closer to home, Edinburgh-based country rock outfit The Southern Tenant Folk Union have spawned a monster – an electronic side project entitled TST: The Southern Tenant, which reworks the music from their 2015 album, The Chuck Norris Project, as an instrumental synthesizer soundtrack to the sadly imaginary yet remarkably prescient fright flick The Horror of the Right. Director/composer John Carpenter owns this territory, but Pat McGarvey and Steve Ironside of TST are intimately acquainted with its every ominous pulse, chorus effect and doomy analogue synth frisson.
Siécle: Leonard Elshenbroich Onyx ****
Three significant works with cello as principle protagonist form a powerful spine in this French-themed disc. The cellist Leonard Elschenbroich performs with the BBC SSO (Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No 1 and Henri Dutilleux’s concert Tout un monde lontain…) and with pianist Alexei Grynyuk in works by Ravel, Messiaen and Debussy, whose Cello Sonata is an embodiment of these musicians’ close musical rapport, beguiling and wistful in the finale, delicately playful in the central Sérénade. Louange à L’Éternité de Jésus from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, is beautifully measured and calm, Ravel’s Pièce en forme de habanera deliciously teasing. But it is the Dutilleux concerto that is most fascinating, a mystically-charged work with tender nuance and haunting colours, worthily supported by the BBC SSO under John Wilson. The disc ends with a buoyant reading of the Saint-Saëns, if a little heavy-handed orchestrally, under conductor Stefan Blunier.
Jaco Pastorius: Truth, Liberty & Soul Resonance Records ****
In June 1982, the bar-raising genius of the five-string electric bass, Jaco Pastorius, appeared at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall in the company of his formidable Word of Mouth Big Band, including saxophonist Bob Mintzer, trumpeter Randy Brecker, steel drummer Othello Molineaux, percussionist Don Alias and, on drums, Pastorius’s former Weather Report bandmate Peter Erskine, plus harmonica wizard Toots Thielemans. Thirty-five years on, Resonance Records has released these magic moments on a double album. Just five years before his life was shockingly cut short, Jaco’s mercurial presence animates it all, his bass ever-inventive – channelling both Jimi Hendrix and Stravinsky during one improvised duet with drums. The band brings brassy fanfares and an insouciant swagger to Soul Intro and roars along with Pastorius’s distorted bass howl in Reza, while allowing individual voices to emerge.