Simply Red: Blue Eyed Soul (BMG) ****
Kanye West: Jesus Is King (GOOD) ***
Taylor Hawkins & the Coattail Riders: Get The Money (Chanabelle/Columbia Records) ***
The Elevator Mood: Elevation (Fishcake Recordings) ****
Four years on from lukewarm comeback album, Big Love, Simply Red frontman Mick Hucknall’s current thinking is this: “I could do one of those dark reflective albums looking back on my life and all that kind of stuff that people tend to do at a certain age. But I thought sod that, I want to have a good time.”
And lo, Simply Red’s 12th album, Blue Eyed Soul, is a trim tribute to the soul, funk and R&B on which Hucknall founded the band in the early 80s – no reckoning with mortality, no questioning life choices, no mid-life crises (well, sort of), just a pithy half hour or so of three-minute R&B dispatches on life at its simplest yet most satisfying, kicking off with the energetic blast of Thinking of You.
Along the way, Hucknall delivers the smooth Al Green balladry of Sweet Child, a string-soaked wish for a good future for his kids, Complete Love, a classy croon of devotion, and the gruff, low-slung rhythm’n’blues of call-to-activism Ring That Bell.
By this stage, Hucknall is having so much fun that he forgets to write any more songs and simply responds to the ineffable groove of his band on the badass electro funk swagger of Bad Bootz and the heavy funk jam of Don’t Do Down, another gruff display of positivity on which he perhaps overstates that “I ain’t leavin’”.
Yet within minutes he is repeatedly declaring “I’m comin’ home,” celebrating the pop star commute on Riding On A Train, and making all sorts of lustful noises on the conscious soul track Chula over tight trebly funk guitar and featherlight brass. The smooth smooch of Tonight ends on a corny, slushy note but Blue Eyed Soul is otherwise a taut, tasty slice of genre action.
Kanye West also dives wholeheartedly into a trenchant tradition with his long-promised gospel album. Like last year’s Ye, Jesus Is King is another trim offering – 11 tracks in 27 minutes.
Despite the strong devotional streak, it’s still mainly about Kanye and his recent conversion to Christianity. Follow God wrangles with the challenges of Christian service over soulful samples, while his Sunday Service band and choir elevate Every Hour and Selah with their heightened testifying. Rapped testimonies, electro funk, heavenly harps and a Kenny G smooth saxophone solo are all woven into the mix alongside the old school gospel bombast of God Is and the soaring orchestral benediction of Jesus Is Lord. Who knows where the unpredictable West will go next but this is a potentially rich seam.
On Get the Money, Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins guides a tour of your various rocker food groups – pomp, prog, punk – in the company of his band the Coattail Riders and a weighty guest list of musicians, including his main mucker Dave Grohl on glam rocker Middle Child, Chrissie Hynde and Joe Walsh on the reggae/new wave-influenced Get the Money, an unrecognisable LeAnn Rimes on theatrical rocker CU In Hell, Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell bringing flamboyant flair and a touch of derangement to I Really Blew It and typically OTT drumming from Roger Taylor on a pomp rock cover of The Yardbirds’ Shapes of Things.
Michael Rooney of The Primevals and Jim Doak of Wishaw punk band The Jolt join forces as The Elevator Mood in lo-fi, largely home recorded tribute to former Jolt drummer Iain Shedden. Elevation is a murky collection of garage, punk and rhythm’n’blues with burnished guitar work from Doak and Rooney in clandestine crooner mode, sounding particularly soulful on the classy pastoral psych Tip Me Over. Fiona Shepherd
Bach Violin Concertos (Soli Deo Gloria) *****
Bach wrote two genuine and well-known solo concertos for violin: one in A minor, the other in E major. They are wonderful works, each framed by spirited outer dance movements with idyllic soul-searching ariosos at their heart; Baroque perfection touched by genius. But what if he had written more? Violinist Kati Debretzeni addresses that hypothetical question with two of her own arrangements of Bach keyboard concertos, justified by the argument that Bach himself was in the habit of transcribing his own works for alternative use. Her point is proven in her virile, virtuosic recastings of the Harpsichord Concertos in E (transposed to D major) and the famous D minor, and in performances with John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists that are simply bursting with stylistic zeal and effervescent musicality. Guaranteed to blow away the winter blues. Ken Walton
Fat Suit: Waifs & Strays (Equinox Records) ****
Beefy brass and the buzz and snarl of synth and guitar herald the fourth album by Glasgow-based big band Fat Suit, comprising musicians from jazz, rock, folk, electronica and beyond, here expanded to almost 30 personnel by guests and a ten-piece string section. It’s a positively kinetic instrumental palette, from the opening Rumblings, with its brass fanfare and deftly constructed guitar break from Fraser Jackson, to the neo-pastoral feel of Countryside Quiet, carrying a folky melody from harpist Corrina Hewat. Mateusz Sobieski’s tenor sax lets rip against snappy brass and explosive drumming in Keo, while guest trumpeter Johnny Woodham colours The Crane and the Crow and breaks out during a lull from the brass and guitar riffing. There’s forward-motion funk and pugnacious trombone in Caretaker, an aerobatic synth excursion from Alan Benzie in Brum Doing a Wheelie and dreamily drifting strings and guitar glimmers of Lunar Milk. Jim Gilchrist