Various: The Wanderer – A Tribute to Jackie Leven (Cooking Vinyl) ****
Hamish Hawk: Heavy Elevator (Assai Recordings) ****
Saint Etienne: I’ve Been Trying To Tell You (Heavenly Recordings) ***
Common: A Beautiful Revolution Pt.2 (Loma Vista Recordings) ****
Marking ten years since his passing, The Wanderer – A Tribute to Jackie Leven is a heartfelt tribute to the cult Fife songwriter, curated and compiled by Michael Weston King, who has called on a guest list of Leven’s contemporaries and next generation folk artists to interpret songs from his extensive, undersung catalogue.
Contributions were recorded during the pandemic in largely stripped-down format. James Yorkston offers a bare bones rendition of Empty in Soho Square, Kathryn Williams the delicate seduction of The Crazy Song and Boo Hewerdine the gentle yearning of A Little Voice in Space.
Ralph McTell adds pavement café accordion to his soulful storytelling, while Eliza Carthy, always expert at spinning a salty yarn, showers The Garden with lashings of tremolo. King himself applies Celtic soul to The Final Reel, and his partner Lou Dalgleish lends a classy intimacy to One Long Cold Morning.
The grittier corners of the catalogue are represented by The Membranes’ pared-back but pugnacious cover of More Than Human by Leven’s band Doll By Doll, while Tom Robinson brings some ragged glory and a serving of sardonic relish to Classic Northern Divisions.
Leven’s talent for a musical snapshot is showcased on the evocative Edinburgh Winter Blues, gracefully recited by author Ian Rankin, with soft accompaniment from Dean Owens, while Rab Noakes brings an empathetic authority to Poortoun’s grim portrait of a post-industrial wasteland. Their voices are sensitive to the weight of the words but no contributor more so than Leven’s partner Deborah Greenwood on a rich and soulful Universal Blue.
Discovered by King Creosote, mentored and managed by Idlewild guitarist Rod Jones and inspired by dandy pop wits from Jarvis Cocker to Stephin Merritt, Hamish Hawk is a Scots pop crooner with swagger, a wry sense of humour and a dash of pretension. “To write a cathedral, I’ll need a ballpoint pen” he proclaims on a song revelling in the title of The Mauritian Badminton Doubles Champion, 1973.
The rest of his latest album Heavy Elevator is similarly full of life and bravado from the romantic, rapturous sweep of Your Ceremony to the extrovert flourish of Bakerloo, Unbecoming.
Hawk finds an imaginative slant on some autobiographical interludes, proclaiming “for years I was Lennon’s Imagine, track three” (that would be Jealous Guy) on Calls to Tiree, a slice of Caledonian northern soul with life-affirming trills on Hammond organ and a delicious distorted guitar solo.
Saint Etienne celebrate 30 years as one of Britain’s most singular bands with tenth album (and accompanying film project) I’ve Been Trying to Tell You. Recording remotely in Hove, Oxford and Bradford, the trio used samples of mainstream music from the late nineties (though not in such a way that you would recognise the source) as a means of capturing the relatively carefree optimism of that period.
Sarah Cracknell’s vocal mantras are part of the fabric of the tracks, which are more airy ambient electro meditations than pop songs, producing a gentle interrogation of how we filter out the negative to hark back blissfully to the imagined golden eras of our past.
The recent Kanye and Drake albums have grabbed all the headlines but Common’s latest release is a more cohesive, thoughtful exploration of black consciousness from a rapper who doesn’t place himself at the centre of the universe.
A Beautiful Revolution Pt.2 lovingly mixes conscious soul, 70s funk, sweet soul pop, even North African desert rock with poetic vignettes on social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. Erstwhile Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard guests on the acid soul devotional Saving Grace and the album is bookended by the sage words of performance poets Jessica Care Moore and Morgan Parker.
Die stille Stadt: Songs by Alma Mahler, Schreker & Korngold (7 Mountain Records) ***
Right now, German soprano Dorothea Herbert is in the UK starring as Leonore in Glyndebourne Touring Opera’s new production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, so the recent release of Die stille Stadt, a dreamy sequence of selected songs from the pens of three later Viennese composers, is something of a happy coincidence. The music is by Alma Mahler, Franz Schrecker and the slightly younger Erich Korngold, all active in early 20th century Vienna, their music largely characterised by the emerging modernism of the period and its propensity for deep, often melancholy intensity. In truth, the more lyrically expansive, emotionally invigorating Korngold songs are a welcome release from the toughness of the foregoing Mahler and Schreker selection. It’s where Herbert’s own performances markedly brighten, where the focus of her delivery becomes more constant, where self-belief makes its mark, and where her partnership with pianist Peter Nilsson most notably blossoms. Ken Walton
Spiers & Boden: Fallow Ground (Hudson Records) *****
Having retired – sort of – in 2014, the celebrated English duo of John Spiers and Jon Boden make a very welcome return with this album. Boden’s impassioned singing brings fresh life to little-heard songs, along with the perfectly balanced pairing of his fiddle with Spiers’s melodeon. Take their zesty accompaniment to Boden’s dramatic account of Hind Horn, spurring the ballad on without obscuring it, or the spooky narrative of Reynardine, delivered over a wave-like ostinato. The title track is sung with ardour by Boden, while the instrumental sets are a delight, with their elegant box and fiddle dialogue, including perky hornpipes such as the Funney Eye/Cheshire pairing or the hearty skip and jump of morris tunes. Spiers’s composition The Fog is a thoughtful meditation on a chilly day, while a pair of venerable tunes from Playford’s 1651 Dancing Master collection take on a very immediate swagger. Jim Gilchrist
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