Pop princess Taylor Swift grows up, while Paloma Faith experiments with ideas, if not sound
Taylor Swift: Reputation ***
Big Machine Records
Paloma Faith: The Architect ***
Charlotte Gainsbourg: Rest ****
Spinning Coin: Permo ***
The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now – why? because she’s dead.” And so Taylor Swift announces the completion of her Sandy-from-Grease-style makeover from wholesome country teen to worldly and moderately vampy elder pop sister on the hippest track she has ever put her name to – Reputation’s sardonic lead single Look What You Made Me Do, which borrows heavily from cool Noughties electro artists like Peaches, and uncool 90s novelty act Right Said Fred for its I’m Too Sexy-referencing chorus.
All that remains of her previous prom queen guise is the twee sentimentality of her sixth album’s only acoustic track, New Year’s Day, and the occasional cutesy conversational tic in her vocal phrasing. In its place, there is the rhythmic cheerleader sass of End Game and This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, the druggy allusions and gospel inflections of Don’t Blame Me, the brooding synth minimalism of Delicate and the mechanically dreamy Gorgeous.
As the breathy R&B of Dress suggests, it’s all about the veneer, as Swift chooses to slip into something seemingly more revealing but generally as opaque and generic as ever. Against the rent-a-rave backdrops of producers Max Martin and Shellback, she indulges in some playful roleplay on I Did Something Bad, which hints at the sexist hypocrisy she has encountered and countered (“they’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one”) before reverting to pop cliché.
While Swift consummately stage manages her career to ever greater commercial returns, Paloma Faith projects a less manicured persona as an entertaining and outspoken soul pop diva.
Faith’s gutsy voice is made for heartbreak power ballads and defiant anthems. On her fourth album she turns that defiance outwards to world events. But as she uses her platform for political comment (inviting broadcaster and activist Owen Jones on tour as her support act, for example), her music is actually becoming safer and her numbers on Brexit (Guilty) and the refugee crisis (the Sia-penned Warrior) are universally worded pop psychodramas rather than crossover protest songs.
Faith has previously drawn inspiration from the jazz and soul greats but The Architect is more old-fashioned than old school. The slick 80s soul of Crybaby suggests a 21st century Lisa Stansfield, and Faith finds her Alexander O’Neal in John Legend, who guests on the hokey duet I’ll Be Gentle.
Charlotte Gainsbourg comes from a very different vocal tradition. She exudes the same breathy mix of demureness and devilment as her mother Jane Birkin, which sounds particularly effective floating over romantic strings or noir synth soundscapes.
Until now, her albums have been curated by collaborators such as Jarvis Cocker. On Rest, Gainsbourg knows what she wants and who to go to to get it – Songbird in a Cage was penned by Paul McCartney and reworked as a robotic tech funk number, while the title track was co-written with Daft Punk’s Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo.
She takes a leaf out of Daft Punk’s book on the cool and compelling Deadly Valentine where her vocal arpeggios complement the disco backing. The bewitching Ring A Ring O’ Roses sounds like Lana Del Rey walking through the set of Blade Runner and Lying With You is a spooky electro baroque requiem for her father Serge.
Meanwhile, in a parallel musical universe, rising Glasgow indie kids Spinning Coin invoke the spirit of the mid/late-80s DIY independent scene on their Edwyn Collins-produced debut album, Permo, which is divided evenly between Sean Armstrong’s bittersweet melodies and Jack Mellin’s lo-fi punky hurtles to create double dynamic trouble.
Max Reger: String Trios & Piano Quartet (Audite) ****
Max Reger was remarkably prolific, despite the relative brevity of his career. His music exudes the late Romantic spirit, leaning precariously towards modernism. That dichotomy regularly surfaces in his chamber music, which this disc of the string trios and piano quartet illustrates beautifully. The performers are the Trio Lirico and pianist Detlev Eisinger, whose performances elicit the rich complexities as well as the clarity of Reger’s writing. They open with the free-flowing second Trio, Op.141b, at the heart of which are the gorgeous variations of the Andante, achingly expressed here and instantly refreshed by the brisk ensuing fugue. Then there’s the ghostly opening of the first Trio, Op.77b, a mood quickly dispelled by the heated drama of movement proper and the expressive freedom these performers bestow on it. The Piano Quartet, altogether denser, brings Brahms to mind, but once again reveals a composer whose star deserves to shine more brightly.
Anouar Brahem: Blue Maqams (ECM) ****
Anouar Brahem, Paris-based Tunisian virtuoso of the oud or Arabic lute, makes a welcome return to the jazz fold in inspired dialogue with three distinguished jazz practitioners – bassist Dave Holland, with whom he last collaborated on his 1997 Thimar album, pianist Django Bates and drummer Jack DeJohnette. The quartet engage in delicate and graceful colloquy – in the lyrical and gently progressing title track, for instance (“maqams” refers to the modality of classical Arabic music), Holland’s bass thrum and DeJohnette’s cymbal work couching the microtonal lines of the oud, while Bates invokes a dreamy combination of languor and suspense in pieces such as La Nuit or La Passante. In Bahia, Brahem returns to a number he recorded with Jan Garbarek some 25 years ago, a sinuous, flamenco-sounding oud meditation which takes up a hypnotic riff as Holland then DeJohnette sidle in stealthily, while Unexpected Outcome closes the album with an exhilarating tidal flow. ■