The Strokes: The New Abnormal (Cult Records/Columbia) ****
Nine Inch Nails: Ghosts V: Together/Ghosts VI: Locusts (The Null Corporation) *** / ***
Ren Harvieu: Revel in the Drama (Bella Union) ***
As The Strokes know only too well, the trouble with releasing an all-time classic debut album to band-of-a-generation acclaim and rampant adulation is that it’s all downhill from there – and the New York quintet helped things along in the giddy Is This It slipstream with internecine bickering, competing egos, drug habits and decent but not spectacular solo projects.
However, 19 years on The Strokes might just have captured another moment – with unwitting prescience, they have named their latest release The New Abnormal.
True to the title, there are glimpses of the old, comforting benchmarks – such as that familiar melodic ring to Albert Hammond Jr’s guitar on opening track The Adults Are Talking – but adjustments have been made, not least in pacing, with a steady boom-tish beat, and Julian Casablancas’s gentle murmuring delivery.
Rather than haring through their songs, they take time to explore, with Hammond bouncing around the taut confines of the song during a lithe instrumental break. The heartfelt ache of At the Door would be an overcooked power ballad in the hands of a younger pop troubadour, but is given an alluring electro baroque treatment instead.
The party arrives with the catchy college rock hooklines and knowingly cheesy synths of Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus, while the freewheeling new wave number Bad Decisions harks back most clearly to the classic Strokes sound of their first flush, with Casablancas punching out the chorus, then holding on to legato phrases.
Better still is the curveball of Eternal Summer, which develops from pure synth pop to dystopian arena rock, with Casablancas alternating between funky falsetto and shouty Roger Waters-style declamation as Hammond Jr channels the controlled roar of Bowie axeman Carlos Alomar.
Trent Reznor and co-composer Atticus Ross have responded more deliberately to Covid lockdown by simultaneously releasing two new Nine Inch Nails albums. The instrumental suites Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts(Ghosts I-IV was released as one album in 2008) are available as free downloads, in the hopes of providing succour in these socially distant days.
Reznor is not the first musician one might automatically turn to for solace, yet the soothing gamelan chime and synth drones of Letting Go While Holding On, devotional sighs and regal proggy synths of With Faith and string effects of Your Touch back up his intention that Together could be a collection for “when things seem like it might all be okay.”
Which makes Locusts the evil twin, action-packed by comparison, with all the unsettling sonic tropes of a modern horror soundtrack, from the minimalist toll of piano on The Cursed Clock to the insistent chimes and urgent clanging of When It Happens (Don’t Mind Me).
The mute trumpet of Around Every Corner returns like a haunting on The Worriment Waltz, out of order phone pips add to the uncertainty on urban field music collage Another Crashed Car and the audio hallucinations of Turn This Off Please create a nightmarish claustrophobia. There’s even a nimble little number called Your New Normal, while Right Behind You is presented ambivalently as a source of comfort – or of dread.
Revel In The Drama, the second album by Salford singer/songwriter Ren Harvieu, is also well named, emerging in the wake of her recovery from a spinal injury and the end of relationships with her partner and previous record label. Harvieu allows herself the torrid indulgence of gothic melodrama, Cruel Disguise, but mostly she is in a playful mood on the pouty Teenage Mascara, teasing Curves and Swerves and coquettish trill of Tomorrow’s Girl Today, dancing to records no one else cares for on Strange Thing and sounding a hopeful note on Little Raven. Fiona Shepherd
James MacMillan: Symphony: No 5 “Le grand inconnu” | The Sun Danced (Coro) *****
It’s strange listening to the breathy start of James MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony, Le grand inconnu, when its live premiere in Edinburgh last year so emphasised the visual impact – mounting tuneless intakes of breath that evoke the theme of the Holy Spirit, which MacMillan rigorously develops over three powerful movements. In this first recorded performance, directed by Harry Christophers and featuring The Sixteen and the Britten Sinfonia, there is a profound sense of cohesion, which multiplies with repeated listening. The vocal writing is as wildly multi-faceted as it is idiomatic, a delirious fusion of complexity and simplicity. The symphony is prefaced by an equally gripping performance of MacMillan’s The Sun Danced for soprano (the superlative Mary Bevan), chorus and orchestra, which celebrates the 1917 visions witnessed at the Shrine of Fatima in Portugal. Ken Walton
Siobhan Miller: All Is Not Forgotten (Songprint Recordings) *****
Siobhan Miller’s beguiling voice is ideally supported here by guitarists Kris Drever and Innes Watson, fiddler Megan Henderson, pianist John Lowrie and bassist and producer Euan Burton, with supporting vocals from Kim Carnie. New songs include the title track, written by Miller with Drever and Burton, a poised invocation of fond reminiscence – “the grain of the table stained with old conversation,” while Burton’s I Won’t Let You Let Me Down casts its spell with the same quiet assurance. Traditional material includes the elegiac May Morning Dew, a poignant old favourite in Lovely Hannah, while in Selkie, the hoary Sule Skerry tale spins on fatefully, Drever adding the second voice to the quiet wave that will break in tragedy. There’s a lightening of mood for the last two songs – Tranent, a tongue-twisting horse race at full skelp, and Adam McNaughtan’s uproarious anthem of arterial anarchy, Cholesterol. Jim Gilchrist