Album reviews: Scott Walker | Ed Harcourt | Law Holt

Scott Walker's soundtrack to a film about the rise of fascism is by turns eerie, ominous and compelling

Scott Walker. Picture: Contributed
Scott Walker. Picture: Contributed

Scott Walker: The Childhood Of A Leader Original Soundtrack | Rating: **** | 4AD

Ed Harcourt: Furnaces | Rating: *** | Polydor

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Law Holt: City | Rating: *** | Soulpunk

For the Scott Walker faithful, any new utterance is received with bated breath. The reluctant 60s pop star turned lesser spotted avant-garde composer is on a relative roll right now, and follows up his 2014 collaboration with drone metal outfit Sunn 0))) with this orchestral soundtrack to new feature film The Childhood Of A Leader, directed by Brady Corbet, starring Robert Pattinson, and based on a Sartre short story which explores the roots of fascism against the backdrop of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and the signing of the treaty of Versailles.

This is Walker’s first soundtrack since scoring Pola X in 1999, and it’s the most purely accessible thing he’s done in years – though, in keeping with its uncomfortable subject matter, the score does not make for easy listening, being shot through with suspenseful shrieking strings and ominous brass.

The unassumingly titled Opening is a nerve-shredding rollercoaster ride in itself, reminiscent of the urgency and turmoil of Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores, with the dog whistle screech and keening swirl of violins underlaid with the looming of the double basses.

The rest of the score follows suit, suggesting trouble brewing before ramping up the panic. The eerie, needling strings of Village Walk intimates that stroll is not going to end well. The behaviour of the violins on Down The Stairs and Up The Stairs is as unsettling as Mica Levi’s minimal but nightmarish score for Under The Skin, while there is brief, blessed relief when the low whir of Dream Sequence finally relinquishes its insidious hold.

Walker uses more conventional soundtrack devices at points –the clack clack of Printing Press, the scurrying strings of On the Way to the Meeting – but avoids the jackbooted clichés for a more dread-filled Finale where the deep, portentous drone of brass is teamed with discordant fanfares, the suggestive martial patter of drums and the creeping awareness of an inexorable march towards a social and political horrorshow.

There is also a soundtrack sensibility to the latest release from Ed Harcourt, previously appreciated as a jaunty indie piano man, and latterly as songwriter, producer and touring musician for the likes of The Libertines, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Lana Del Rey, and musical director of Beck’s Songbook at the Barbican.

With a major label budget at his disposal, he has turned up the ambition and theatricality on the infernal Furnaces, drumming up some taut quasi-gothic melodrama on Dionysus. There are shades of Beck in the slowburn acid funk of Nothing But A Bad Trip and the fuzzy, ragged blues punk of There Is A Light Below, while the noirish prowl of Immoral Ghetto is embellished with tremolo guitar, a raw vocal from Harcourt and some stormy shredding. But the varied window dressing cannot disguise the underwhelming songwriting at the core of the maelstrom.

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The same could be said for Law Holt. Like her chums Young Fathers, she has wiped the slate clean in the last couple of years and started afresh, experimenting with her soulful voice over an inventive electronica patchwork, but with sketchier results. She is strident, commanding and just a little unhinged on the unsettling Spit but brings her sweetest, poppiest pipes to the blithe Summer’s Coming. Just Another Break Up Song is nothing of the sort, being a woozy R&B-meets-post-punk mantra, with a dash of riot grrrl attitude. However, other tracks on this debut are more cut-and-paste montage than fully formed beasts. Still, one to keep an eye on. Fiona Shepherd

CLASSICAL: Franz Liszt: Transcendental Etudes | Rating: **** | Myrios

Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes may justifiably be called showpieces, given the immense technical challenges they present to pianists, but they are also fertile ground for exploring subtlety and nuance. Kirill Gerstein not only makes this complete set sound easy, but gives each one of the 12 a character all of its own. Just listen to the ruminative close of Paysage, the robust masculinity of the fiery Mazeppa, the will-o’-the-wisp delicacy of Feuz Folets, the magisterial flamboyance of Eroica, or the wild (though tightly controlled) frenzy of Wilde Jagd – Gerstner presents them as one magical discovery after another. His tonal vocabulary is considerable, and while detail is paramount, the big picture is potent and foremost. A fine, fresh slant on well-worn repertoire. Ken Walton

FOLK: Greentrax 30th Anniversary: The Special Projects | Rating: *** | Greentrax Recordings

Scottish folk label Greentrax celebrates its 30th anniversary with an engaging double CD drawn from its numerous “special project” albums, covering the gamut from Traveller tradition-bearers like the late Lizzie Higgins singing The Jolly Beggar, from the label’s invaluable Scottish Tradition series, to an electronic remix of a piping track by the late, great Gordon Duncan.

In between is an inevitably mixed assortment, scattered with such gems as Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham in an auspicious early performance together, Dick Gaughan singing Davy Steele’s elegy to heavy horses, The Last Trip Home, and the McCalmans’ stirring Peatbog Soldiers. For sheer emotive power, the anthem Cànan nan Gàidheal, led by the much missed Ishbel MacAskill, takes some beating. Jim Gilchrist