Stormzy: This Is What I Mean (#Merky/0207 Def Jam) ***
Olly Murs: Marry Me (EMI) **
Carl Cox: Electronic Generations (BMG) ***
Despite its declamatory title, This Is What I Mean is the calm after Stormzy’s rapid rise to become Britain’s biggest rap star, a charismatic, galvanizing figurehead who successfully combines his grime grassroots with mainstream crossover appeal.
This third album is where he takes a pandemic pause and makes it (more) personal. Referencing the cover image of a letter on a doorstep, he calls it “an intimate love letter to music” – though much of it sounds like a missive to an ex-partner.
He hasn’t included recent star-studded comeback single Mel Made Me Do It – perhaps he felt it had no place on a thoughtful album of humble sentiments. But he has maintained the collegiate approach, creating the album at a “music camp” on Osea Island in Essex with guests including his London buddies Sampha, Ms Banks and NAO.
The album begins with his vulnerable vocal and a downbeat, almost muttered rap, a style he reverts to frequently throughout the album. Fire + Water makes like an eight-minute apology with far more of the latter element than the former. Then, just as you are wondering if your mate is going to be crying on your shoulder for the rest of the night, the beats kick in, followed by some gospel balm and then an unexpected fade-out on a synthetic Latin rhythm – is Stormzy getting his groove back after the heartache?
Not quite. A classical piano flourish gives way to a satisfying hip-hop/reggaeton groove on the title track which features cosy namechecks for Neneh Cherry, Ben & Jerry, Kevin and Perry (what, no Bryan Ferry?). Annoying jazz wunderkind Jacob Collier is all over Firebabe, while Please is three minutes of sleek gospel beseeching. There is more Latin jazz flavour on Need You and a couple of piano prayers, Sampha’s Plea and Holy Spirit. The sentiments throughout are honourable, the music a touch vanilla.
Thankfully, My Presidents Are Black provides a bit of socio-political meat after the moping and this time the namechecks are not so cosy, as Stormzy declares “we are the needle movers, we are the table shakers… we don’t need you to crown us”. The Croydon rapper has put his money where his mouth is, funding a scholarship for black students to attend Cambridge University, and this album highlight ends with some encouraging words from Soul II Soul mainman Jazzie B, a Stormzy to a previous generation.
In contrast to Stormzy’s recording entourage, Olly Murs eschews guest appearances to co-write all of his seventh album with the songwriting team of Jessica Agombar and David Stewart (son of panto star Allan Stewart), who are best known for their work with blockbusting South Korean boy band BTS. Together, they have delivered a middle of the road collection of one man unthreatening boy band fare, from the cheery, flirtatious overtures of the title track (not to be confused with the Bruno Mars song of the same name and disposition) to the mawkish ballad Let Me Just Say, via the thumping Robbie Williams-style peacocking of Best Night Of Your Life, with the sole pockets of sonic interest being the autotuned reggae pop of Die of a Broken Heart and gleeful galloping synth prog intro of I Found Her.
Veteran DJ Carl Cox composed his first album in ten years during lockdown – unable to DJ live, he dug out his old modular synth kit and got cracking to create a substantial mix of electronic composition and live club feel, including the lithe arpeggios of Electronic Generations, chattering techno number How It Makes You Feel, the techno minimalism of See The Sun Rising and insistent bleepology of Heads Up, plus bonus house-flavoured remixes of Speed Trials on Acid with Fatboy Slim.
Schubert: String Quartets D.87 & D.887 (Rubicon) ****
Having made quite an impression with their Haydn string quartet performances, the Jubilee Quartet has now turned its focus on Schubert, including in this first disc the youthful E flat major Quartet, written when the composer was only 16, and the final G major Quartet, completed in 1826, two years before his death at the age of 31. So, while these represent early and late examples of Schubert, a mere 25 years separates them, and what these performances show with pulsating insight is the musical journey he undertook over half his short lifetime. The lyrical dominance, feverish exuberance and the freshest of transparency that characterises the E flat quartet is lovingly expressed in playing that breathes naturally and intimately. Turn to the later quartet, and the Jubilee players exude both majestic authority and touching, sprightly affection, qualities richly packed into this gripping and dramatic culmination of Schubert’s more mature quartet style. Ken Walton
Breabach: Fàs (Breabach Records) ****
“Fàs” means growth or development, and this album from the powerful Highland band Breabach reflects both environmental concerns and their own development, with fiddler-singer Megan Henderson, pipers Calum MacCrimmon and Conal McDonagh, singer-guitarist Ewan Robertson and bassist James Lindsay augmented by Keir Long on synthesisers and producer and multi-instrumentalist Inge Thomson. An exhilarating opening set sees fiddle lines snaking fiercely around the Highand pipes, with relentless drive and judicious electronic squalls heightening the drama, while Bròg to the Future is another full-tilt set partly inspired by last year’s COP26 march. Gentler material includes Robertson’s “love song to a wind turbine”, Revolutions, the easy-going skip of the song Fàil ì, Fàil ó, Henderson’s lightsome singing over tight whistles and guitar in the title track, while Robertson gives spirited delivery to Jim Malcolm’s bucolic lyrics in the retreat march Lochanside, McDonagh’s uilleann pipes adding yet another texture to their sound. Jim Gilchrist