Siobhan Wilson: There Are No Saints ****
Song, By Toad
Laibach: Also Sprach Zarathustra ***
Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts ****
You may already have caught the spellbinding Siobhan Wilson live, on festival bills, at tribute concerts or supporting a number of her fellow troubadours since she returned to Scotland from a five-year sojourn in Paris. But if you haven’t, now would be the time to sit up and take note as she releases her most accomplished work to date.
There Are No Saints makes an instant connection with its spectral yet devotional title track, featuring a heavenly choir of harmonising Siobhans. Her fellow Glasgow maestro C Duncan has already made a similar approach his own across two rapturous albums, but Wilson is no less fearless a stylist.
There are other comparisons between the two. Both singers are classically trained artists who have made the shift to pop music which they record simply yet imaginatively at home – in Wilson’s case, the childhood bedroom of her producer, Catholic Action frontman Chris McCrory, who must take a share of the credit for the exquisite results here.
Her so-called “angry prayer” Dear God has been in the ether for a couple of years but is a good place to make acquaintance with Wilson’s sweetly swooping songbird voice, undulating cello (her signature instrument), poetic expression and bilingual fluency, which she also applies to the delicate Paris Est Blanche and J’Attendrai, a twinkling jewel box of a song, embedded in Gallic chanson tradition.
Disaster and Grace inhabits classic solemn singer/songwriter territory with its finely wrought mix of skeletal piano, tremulous cello and aching vocals recalling the evocative melancholy of The Blue Nile.
Whatever Helps, her note to self on dealing with depression, combines breathy indie pop with fuzzy guitars. She makes use of effects throughout the album, backing the heady noir folk of Incarnation with the stormy rumble of distorted guitar and roughing up the coquettish love song Make You Mine with a plangent solo.
She brings her classical training to bear on the experimental drones of Dystopian Bach, providing contrast and counterbalance to the ravishing prettiness, which is back in force on the gorgeous closing number It Must Have Been The Moon. Magnifique.
There are more earthly delights to be found on The Queen of Hearts, a compendium of atmospheric folk songs from around the British Isles as rendered by Colin Meloy of Portland indie rockers The Decemberists and English folk singer Olivia Chaney, trading under the name Offa Rex. Together, they return Ewan MacColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face to its folk roots with a haunting harmonium backing but this is not an album for purists. A rueful Flash Company is embellished with country guitar, some unobtrusive distortion provides a backdrop to Old Churchyard and there are more blatant rock flourishes on a medley of Constant Billy/I’ll Go Enlist and most dramatically on Sheepcrook and Black Dog which is soundtracked with a baleful Black Sabbathesque riff. Chaney sings beautifully throughout, while Meloy leads on Northumbrian standard Blackleg Miner and a patchouli-scented To Make You Stay.
No such subtlety from Laibach, the legendary Slovenian industrial rock agitators, whose satirical subversion of fascist imagery is often misinterpreted, yet still they march on in righteousness. Despite the implicit grandiosity of an album titled after Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and written for a musical adaptation of the same, this is a relatively restrained mood piece, featuring distant drums, ominous strings and the sonorous rumble of Milan Fras’s bass voice, intoning teutonic warnings. The effect is subsequently more unsettling, especially by the time they reach the perpetually revving final piece, Von den drei Verwandlungen.
Cosmography of Polyphony ***
PanClassics: PC 10377
Recorder groups come in for a lot of stick. Once the painful mainstay of school ensemble activity, modern generations have eschewed them in favour of cooler mass music making, such as today’s ukulele fad.
Yet recorders are a delight when placed in such highly proficient hands as this endearing disc by The Royal Wind Music. The music is predominantly Renaissance, much of it instrumental adaptations of vocal polyphony, from Willaert to the eccentrically dissonant Gesualdo.
While these are like liquid gold – that balanced 16th century perfection and seamlessly logical unwinding of contrapuntal strands – there are more exciting purely instrumental numbers to balance the account.
A galliard and branles by Phalèse, Sweelinck’s Variations on Mein junges Leben hat ein End, and the later Bach’s chorale prelude Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthen sein are virtuosic displays of recorder playing as it should be.
There’s something nostalgically comforting in these restful sounds that overcomes the sameness of some of the music.
Ahmad Jamal: Marseille ****
Now 87 but bursting with pianistic energy and impeccable timing, Ahmad Jamal pays an affectionate and vivid tribute to the Mediterranean port and cultural melting pot of Marseille, crisply escorted by old associates, bassist James Cammack, drummer Herlin Riley and former Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena. The title track is a piece of pure aural cinema, its rattling snare and stately piano chords leading a street procession – military parade or carnival coming to town, à la Jacques Tati? – before it gradually fades into the distance.
Two later versions of Marseille feature, successively, a spoken homage to the city by French rapper Abd Al Malik, then sung in Mina Agossi’s husky burr.
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child may belie the title of the original spiritual, but what it loses in pathos it gains in Jamal’s instinctive groove and keyboard exuberance. Another old chestnut, Autumn Leaves, receives a similarly effervescent shake-up in this album of warmth and elegance.