Album reviews: The Raconteurs | Madonna | Hot Chip
The Raconteurs: Help Us Stranger (PIAS) ****
Madonna: Madame X (Interscope) ***
Hot Chip: A Bath Full Of Ecstasy (Domino) ****
After more than a decade on hold, Jack White gets one of his old gangs back together. The Raconteurs are traditionally where he goes to indulge his classic rock tendencies in the company of co-frontman Brendan Benson, bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler.
Last time round, on Consolers of the Lonely, it was all a bit too navel-gazing and hoary. Third album Help Us Stranger also draws from a traditional template, but then colours in the margins with White’s favourite effects pedals and quirky keyboard squiggles from his Dead Weather compadre Dean Fertita.
More importantly, there is raw power at play on the beefy boogie of Bored and Razed and fuzzed-up funk rocker Help Me Stranger. And that’s just for starters.
Don’t Bother Me is bold, theatrical 1970s Rocky Horror Show-style rock, culminating in a galloping glam boogie; Sunday Driver achieves take-off with its Stonesy strut and Beatley counter-melody; What’s Yours Is Mine features distorted power chords, burly rhythms and White in larger-than-life testifying form, and Donovan’s Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness) gets the helter skelter electric blues rocker treatment.
Benson leads on the more subtle songwriterly numbers. Only Child is a simultaneously blissed-out and yearning slice of pastoral psych with some funky synth licks, while Now That You’re Gone is a bitter country rocker in the grand tradition of not-bothered-but-really-I-am dumpee ditties before Benson throws caution to the wind and bargains his way to a better deal on the athletic Live A Lie. The whole gang blaze a slowburn trail into the sunset with the expansive bluegrass-flavoured ballad Thoughts and Prayers.
Madonna hasn’t always handled her artistic middle age with grace, and her spurious new Madame X persona – described as a secret agent, singer, saint, spy in the house of love and other things that don’t begin with S – compounded by her car crash appearance at the Eurovision Song Contest, did not bode well for her 14th album.
But she holds her own beside younger, edgier, certainly trendier artists working at the crossroads of pop, electronica, R&B and hip-hop, with Madame X said to have been inspired by the Portuguese diaspora she encountered while living in Lisbon in 2017.
Just don’t expect any attempts at the unvarnished emotion of fado. Her vocals are far more likely to be autotuned or partnered with a ubiquitous Puerto Rican reggaeton beat. Batuka pays tangential tribute to the Batuque tradition of Cape Verde, but it’s a densely layered studio confection rather than any meaningful attempt to absorb an indigenous style.
She flirts with disaster on a number of tracks. The schizophrenic Dark Ballet begins as a slow jam meditation before heading into novelty territory with Madonna intoning mock meaningfully over a toy town take on The Nutcracker, while she affects a strange choked and nasal vocal tone on God Control before retreating to safe disco territory.
Things look up as the album proceeds. Extreme Occident, on the deluxe edition, is either a shrewd comment on extremism or a hippyish odyssey in pursuit of personal balance. Either way, it’s among the more gratifying tracks, along with the Vogue-ish disco pop of I Don’t Search I Find and big, string-soaked ballad Mercy. There are better counterparts further back in her catalogue but at least this keeps the queen in the game.
Hot Chip are on exquisite form on their latest album, somehow simultaneously expressing euphoria and melancholia on a mostly beatific exploration of the journey from pain to happiness.
A Bath Full of Ecstasy is not quite ready for the (dance) floor but the funky machine music of Spell and hands-in-the-air rave pop of Hungry Child will suffice as this London party band grow older gracefully. - Fiona Shepherd
MacMillan: One Equal Music (Signum Classics) *****
Amid the flurry of publications and recordings paying tribute to James MacMillan as he approaches his 60th birthday is this lustrous selection of his choral music, sung with ringing purity by the Elysian Singers. It helps that the music is first class, ranging from the dramatic triumphalism of Blow the trumpet in the new moon and the sinewy gorgeousness of Children are a Heritage of the Lord, to the wonderfully weird ethereality of One Equal Music and thrilling uniqueness of Domine Non Secundum Peccata Nostra, to which the solo violin (Alexandra Caldron) adds an ecstatic dimension.
Then there’s the infectious simplicity of the folk-inspired gems, particularly Lassie, wad ye loe me?, with its inbuilt reverb and plaintive atmospherics. All that and much more in this charming cross-section of MacMillan’s masterly choral technique, performed with genuine love and affection. - Ken Walton
Malinky: Handsel (Greentrax Records) ****
A term usually associated with an inaugural gift, this particular Handsel is a 20th anniversary celebration of one of our finest traditional bands. The double CD combines fresh recordings by the quartet of Fiona Hunter, Steve Byrne, Mark Dunlop and Mike Vass (here with bassist Euan Burton) with a second disc featuring old studio or unreleased live recordings, some including Karine Polwart, their first singer.
The new recordings not only highlight the three fine voices the group has in Hunter, Byrne and Dunlop, but feature guests, including Ellie Beaton on bothy ballad Sleepytoon and Len Graham bringing his Ulster lilt to True Lover John, while Byrne’s composition, The Lads o the Lindsay, is a gently measured tribute to lost Abroath lifeboatmen.
The old tracks include some superb moments, among them Polwart’s heartbreaking Whaur Dae Ye Lie? and the cappella slow reveal of My Son David. - Jim Gilchrist