Taylor Swift: Folklore (Republic Records) ***
Seasick Steve: Love & Peace (Contagious Records) ***
Ronan Keating: Twenty Twenty (Decca Records) **
Rachel Aggs: Visitations 0202 (Lost Map) ***
Taylor Swift has been known to send out gift boxes as part of her carefully stage-managed relationship with her fans. So it is sweet in sour times that she should deliver a surprise package for her entire fanbase in the shape of a new album, which arrives less than a year on from her last bells-and-whistles pop album Lover.
Folklore is an entirely different proposition, reflecting the intimacy and insularity of lockdown, with ruminations on past loves and lives which are dusted with the country inflections of Swift’s early recordings.Comprising a bumper value 16 tracks, this is no hastily assembled stream-of-Covid-consciousness but fully realised in its airbrushed tastefulness with the assistance of regular producer Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner of The National on multiple co-writing credits.
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon provides a baritone vocal foil on sombre piano ballad Exile, which circles gently and builds gradually. Otherwise, it’s solo Swift against a delicate backdrop of piano, synths and strings, reflecting on her childhood (Seven) and expressing a breathy regret which will chime with many on This Is Me Trying.
There is a Lana Del Rey-like lassitude to Cardigan (“You put me on and said I was your favourite”) and the fatalistic My Tears Ricochet, a ballad from beyond the grave about the intensity of young love which forms part of the album’s self-styled Teenage Love Triangle.
Inevitably, Swift also shares musical DNA with The Chicks, whether paying tribute to health workers on Epiphany, the sisterhood on Mad Woman or eccentric arts patroness (aren’t they all?) Rebekah Harkness, whose mansion is now Swift’s home, on The Last Great American Dynasty.
Lo-fi bluesman Seasick Steve sticks to his stripped-back guns on his latest album. Love & Peace gives off his usual spontaneous economic energy via the one man ZZ Top electric boogie Clock is Running and the distorted, fuzzed-up jam Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Boogie.
Neither does he sweat the lyrical concerns, celebrating simple, (literally) earthy pleasures on the blues ruckus Toes in the Mud, philosophical autonomy on Church Of Me, happily trotting out Paul Newman’s hamburgers out/steak at home analogy on “romantic” ballad My Woman and conjuring up an atmospheric acoustic blues portrait on Carni Days. In a complicated world, Steven Gene Wold continues to provide a simple tonic.
Former Boyzone frontman Ronan Keating arguably serves a similar comforting function to a different audience. On Twenty Twenty he celebrates two decades as a solo artist purveying the archetypal first song at a wedding.
There are new recordings of some of his biggest hits, including a horrendous processed disco take on Life is a Rollercoaster. Alison Krauss brings her customary grace to the easy listening When You Say Nothing At All, which she previously recorded with her band Union Station, and fellow country diva Shania Twain brings wry humour to the otherwise banal Forever and Ever, Amen.
Other guests simply collude in the blandness – Nashville’s Clare Bowen on the cheesy country tune Love Will Remain, Emeli Sandé on the sterile gospel pop number One of a Kind and Robbie Williams on The Big Goodbye, an insipid valediction for Keating’s late Boyzone compadre Stephen Gately.
Singer/guitarist Rachel Aggs has made her joyous mark in underground bands Trash Kit, Shopping and the Scottish Album of the Year Award-scooping Sacred Paws but diversifies with her first solo offering as part of Lost Map Records’ Visitations series of releases recorded in isolated residence on the Isle of Eigg.
In addition to her signature springy, Afrobeat-inflected guitar style and rhythmic vocals, she layers bluegrass fiddle under lean funk bass line, syncopated beats and chiming guitar lines on Into the Sea, and weaves gothic guitar lines and proggy picking into the John Carpenter-esque analogue synth odyssey Hours Away.
The Hermes Experiment: Here We Are (Delphian) *****
If you haven’t heard the Hermes Experiment, you haven’t encountered a cutting edge ensemble – voice clarinet, harp and double bass – with a refreshing take on contemporary music performance. Their Scottish appearances have included live sessions in Matthew Whiteside’s pioneering The Night With…. series, but here they are with an album featuring ten of more than 60 works commissioned to date, and their charm is every bit as compelling. There’s soft-spun modernism in works ranging from Emily Hall’s playful I am happy living simply and the sensual embrace of Freya Waley-Cohen’s We Phoenician Sailors, to the restlessness of Anna Meredith’s Fin like a Flower, the swung minstrelsy of Misha Mullov-Abbado’s The Linden Tree, and the expressive virtuosity of Giles Swayne’s Chansons dévotes et poissonneuses. Hermes are quite an act, boldly entertaining, like a Fires of London for a mellower age. Ken Walton
James Copus: Dusk (Ubuntu Music) ****
This first album from young trumpeter James Copus sees him in the sterling company of Tom Cawley on piano and synthesisers, bassist Conor Chaplin and New York drummer Jason Brown, who has played with such stellar trumpet figures as Nicholas Payton and Ambrose Akinmusire. Copus declares his credentials as an expressive player on opening Early Hours, accompanied by a rhythm section with plenty of punch, yet which can pull back when required. Cawley’s piano also shines in that opener, as well as in the stately From the Source, in which he also deploys big synth washes as Copus’s break soars. Straight Ahead is just that, full tilt over springy bass, while in contrast are Yearning, with Copus lingering tenderly on each note, and the title track, which opens solemnly and features Copus’s softly crooning vocals as well as a drum solo from Brown which climaxes over piano chords. An auspicious debut. Jim Gilchrist
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