Taylor Swift: Lover (Republic) ***
Natasha Bedingfield: Roll With Me (We Are Hear/Universal) ***
The Futureheads: Powers (Nul Records) ****
Ezra Furman: Twelve Nudes (Bella Union) ****
Regardless of content, a new Taylor Swift album is a huge event in the pop world, and her seventh arrives with its own carefully choreographed marketing campaign and clothing line designed by Stella McCartney.
This time, Taylor is in love. Sometimes it’s girlish, he’s-so-dreamy love (for the teen fanbase), sometimes it’s mature country-inflected piano ballad love (for the older fans). Either way, there is more than enough to go round – arguably too much. Individual tracks are uncluttered and airily produced but over the hour-long running time there is a fair amount of filler.
The breathless summer flirtation of I Think He Knows and golly-gee adoration of Paper Rings capture the first flush of adoration. And if her pal Ed Sheeran can get away with the howler that is Galway Girl, Swift should be forgiven for rhyming “Highgate” with “best mates” on London Boy.
Cruel Summer is sadly not a cover of the infinitely superior Bananarama track, but generic cheerleader angst. However, Cornelia Street does convey the emotional ache of past love, tremulous ballad The Archer provides respite from the expensive plastic production and the title track resurrects Swift’s country roots as a spacey swoon with a side of self-aware wit.
I Forgot That You Exist, a simple ode to not caring anymore, is similarly Swift-witted, while You Need to Calm Down is an MIA-lite missive to knee-jerk trolls.
Swift is never that explicit in her social comment but Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince uses prom imagery to suggest she’s none too happy with the direction her country is taking, while The Man considers how much easier her life could be with a spot of gender role reversal.
Swift would no doubt credit the likes of Natasha Bedingfield and Linda Perry with chipping away at that glass ceiling ahead of her. As producer of Bedingfield’s fourth album, Perry brings out the edge in her delivery, successfully balancing rootsy maturity with modern pop production.
Kick It is sleek summer pop with a certain husky yearning, while Roller Skate imports a touch of Latin brass to enhance the block party atmosphere. Along the way, she ticks off loping reggae, Motown pop pastiche and invokes the spirit of Pat Benatar without breaking sweat. No Man I See stands up to chauvinism and Where We Going Now laments the times in ways which aren’t going to scare any radio programmers. Only the strained ballad Can’t Look Away feels overdone.
Sunderland male voice quartet The Futureheads have reconvened for their first electric album in ten years and slip back effortlessly into their brawny indie rock ways to show upstart contenders Fontaines DC and The Murder Capital how it’s done.
Powers is a record to cheer the heart, replete with lusty male vocals and jabbering punk attack. Listen, Little Man! lambasts small mindedness, Electric Shock blends urgent motorik groove, proggy, layered vocals and off-kilter guitar and there is a quasi-operatic confidence to Idle Hands alongside more reflective songs about frontman Barry Hyde’s mental health and the home birth of his daughter.
Ezra Furman, a Jonathan Richman for the non-binary generation, is usually a ball of neurosis but Twelve Nudes is his visceral punk record, recorded in a hurry with amps up to eleven, and Furman screaming in frustration at the state of his native US, the Middle East and abuse of power at micro and macro levels.
But he also finds pop solace in Evening Prayer (“the kids are just getting started, they’ve only just learned to howl”) and ultimately decompresses with the joyous liberation of What Can You Do But Rock’n’Roll. Fiona Shepherd
Mr McFall’s Chamber: Born in Dirt an’ Din (Delphian) ****
Jazz? Classical? Somewhere in between? Don’t attempt to classify the stylistic flexibility that informs the repertoire choices of Mr McFalls’ Chamber. The title track, Paul Harrison’s Born in Dirt an’ Din, tells us all we need to know. Quirky electronic riffs, offset by a sassy drum groove, echo the work’s inspirational roots – the anonymous poem “Clydeside Shipyards” – to which a doleful piano and slithering strings eventually add their lugubrious comment. Harrison’s Consequences, as opener, is developed and substantial, as is Martin Kershaw’s Far Vistas, a tapestry of sparkly percussion ostinati and languid jazz piano, lifted by the lyrical intervention of horn and strings. The cartoon-like frivolity of Raymond Scott’s Curley Cue and the Penguin, meanwhile, takes us back to an earlier McFalls’ album, Upstart Jugglers. There’s brilliant playing, too, from clarinettist Maximilano Martin in Tim Garland’s ExtraPollination. Ken Walton
Martin Simpson: Rooted (Topic Records) ****
Martin Simpson is a superb teller of a song. You just have to listen to the opener on this double album, his own composition, Trouble Brought Me Here, to appreciate how his articulation brings the substance of a song alive, borne on his flowing guitar or banjo accompaniment. Aided by numerous collaborators – Nancy Kerr on fiddle and viola, accordionist Andy Cutting and Alan Barnes on clarinet, to name a few, his contemporary concerns range from the ecological to politics and human nature, while paying eloquent tribute to the traditions in which he was schooled on both sides of the Atlantic.
Thus the exuberant environmentalism of Born Human and the catchy political barb of Neo rub shoulders with the plaintive Who’s Going to Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot, while Flower of Northumberland carries Simpson’s own lyrics capturing the neon streak of a kingfisher. This release also includes a disc of fine instrumentals. Jim Gilchrist