Album reviews: The Specials | Brandi Carlile | Scott Twynholm

From Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up to the Dixie Jubilee Singers Ain’t Gonna Let Segregation Turn Us Around, The Specials cover a century of protest songs with verve and sensitivity, writes Fiona Shepherd

The Specials

The Specials: Protest Songs 1924-2012 (Island Records) ***

Brandi Carlile: In These Silent Days (Low Country Sound/Elektra Recordings) ****

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Scott Twynholm: Tekstura (Blurred Recordings) ***

As The Specials discovered when they reformed over a decade ago, the issues they addressed so adroitly in their lyrics at the turn of the eighties were still as relevant years later. That’s how it is with all the best protest music – the same human concerns resonate down the generations. The messenger changes but (sadly) rarely the message.

The Coventry ska legends – now comprising the core trio of Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Horace Panter – have always sung of race relations, including on their brilliant 2019 comeback album Encore. The intention was to follow up with another album of originals, before their plans pivoted due to Covid restrictions and the killing of George Floyd, and this covers collection emerged instead.

Protest Songs 1924-2012 is their show of lockdown solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements. Golding helms Big Bill Broonzy’s on-the-nose Black, Brown and White and an undulating acoustic take on Bob Marley’s timeless Get Up Stand Up, while Hall sounds buoyant on the Staple Singers’ Freedom Highway, a bouncy blues written to fuel the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 but just as cutting as any of their own past political statements.

The Dixie Jubilee Singers’ Ain’t Gonna Let Segregation Turn Us Around was written 40 years earlier but forged in the same spirit and is delivered here in a vibrant rhythm’n’blues arrangement. Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows (“the boat is leaking”) becomes a The The-style croon with soulful counterpoint from Hannah Hu, who also sings lead on Talking Heads’ Listening Wind, an eerily prescient warning of the whirlwind reaped by first world military intervention.

Brandi Carlile PIC: Neil Krug

This contrasts with the campfire singalong simplicity of two Malvina Reynolds numbers, the sardonic, stripped-back acoustic blues I Don’t Mind Failing In This World and nursery rhyme-like ode to diversity I Live In A City, as well as two lighter protest numbers. Chip Taylor’s F*** All the Perfect People plays well in Terry Hall’s lugubrious tones, while Jerry McCain’s My Next Door Neighbour is the boogie woogie wishes of a man who just wants to be left alone.

Nashville mover and shaker Brandi Carlile is respected as a performer, songwriter and producer who cut her teeth on country music but commands a wider appeal. Her autobiographical lockdown confessional In These Silent Days is as natural and varied as a good life can be and confirms Carlile as the Linda Ronstadt of her day, whether pitching her emotional delivery to match the symphonic scope of Right on Time or baring her songwriter soul on husky piano ballad Letter to My Past.

Rich pickings abound. You and Me on the Rock is a carefree celebration of the simple things, while righteous roots rocker Broken Horses takes its title from Carlile’s memoir. Sinners, Saints and Fools is classic stormy storytelling, a fateful tale told with bluesy grit and the dramatic flourish of strings, before Carlile dusts herself off with the cleansing folk balladry of Throwing Good After Bad. Her pain is our pleasure.

Glasgow-based film and theatre composer Scott Twynholm was the creative force behind electro pop outfit Hoboken but his latest release Tekstura is a neo-classical album of piano-centred instrumentals. His delicate touch on Cold Open is paired with dolorous strings from Fiona Brice, a violinist who is also equally comfortable straddling the classical and popular music worlds.

Scott Twynholm

The mood shifts throughout, from the light, bright cycle of descending notes on Piano Lumineuse via the mournful and melodic Odessa 4am and abstract hum of Piano Tekstura #2 to the hymnal Schumann’s Resonance, while Twynholm’s cinematographic preoccupations are referenced in The Vorkapich Montage, Jump Cut on South Street and the evocative seven-minute suite From Northern Storms on the Sea.


The RSNO & Francesca Dega: Mozart Violin Concertos Vol 1 (Chandos) ****

It’s astonishing to think that octogenarian Sir Roger Norrington has never recorded Mozart’s violin concertos. Neither has the considerably younger Italian violinist Francesca Dega. Their partnership here with a slimmed down RSNO – similar in size to the Salzburg Court Orchestra of Mozart’s day – proves that young thinking is not the privilege of youth, nor is mature music-making the sole right of the aged. In every sense the two concertos (Nos 3 and 4) at the heart of this series launch are performed as if Mozart’s ink was hardly dry on the score. Dega’s playing is precise, agile, full of sun, spontaneity and sparkle. Norrington responds with the same crispness and vigour. As a kind of musical postscript, Dega teams up with her regular recital partner, pianist Francesca Leonardi, in Mozart’s Violin Sonata in E minor, Op1 No 4. The tone is more reflective; the musicality every bit as refreshing. Ken Walton


Scott Murray: There Was a Love (Own label) ****

Singer, songwriter and tunesmith Scott Murray, formerly of the Sangsters, delivers an engagingly idiosyncratic clutch of simple but beautifully arranged songs and tunes, consistently from the heart. He’s in fine company including saxophonist Phil Bancroft, trombonist Mikey Owers, harpist Corrina Hewat and pianist and producer Dave Milligan, some of whose settings reflect Scott’s earlier incarnation as an R&B and jazz singer. Three piano tunes, memorialising his forebears, exude a palpable affection that informs the album, as in Murray’s gruff singing of The Can’el, based on a Marion Angus poem, joined by harmony vocals from Hewat and mellow tenor sax, in the sentimental Afterlight and the enigmatic George Sanders & Gypsy Caravans. There Was a Sang is delivered warmly by Hewat, while another instrumental, Glenwhappen Rig, takes on the extravagantly dragging march of a New Orleans funeral parade. A glowing, brass-bolstered finale closes the album. Jim Gilchrist

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