The Weeknd: Dawn FM (XO/Republic Records) ****
Janis Ian: The Light At the End of the Line (Rude Girl Records) ***
Kiefer Sutherland: Bloor Street (Cooking Vinyl) **
Pumajaw: Scapa Foolscap (Bedevil Records) ****
Canadian auteur Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, is a diffident pop star. His lockdown mega-hit Blinding Lights has now been crowned the top Billboard 100 single of all time, propelling him from underground enigma to Super Bowl half-time entertainer in a few short years. Yet he still appears more comfortable in the studio, creating “sonic experiences” such as fifth album Dawn FM, released last week with little advance notice but subsequent delighted – and deserved – fanfare.
Dawn FM is conceived as the sound of the radio station at the end of your life, its seamless listening experience guided by contrasting producers Max Martin and Daniel Lopatin (whose stage name Oneohtrix Point Never is a corruption of his local radio station Magic 106.7) and fronted by actor Jim Carrey as the seductive, slightly sinister DJ calling you towards a “painless transition” with smooth, disembodied sci-fi menace: “soon you’ll be healed, forgiven and refreshed, free from all trauma, pain, guilt and shame”.
His is not the only guest voice on the station. Quincy Jones recounts troubling memories about his mother’s committal on A Tale By Quincy (a downer complement to Giorgio By Moroder on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories), filmmaker Josh Safdie narrates Every Angel Is Terrifying and raspy rappers Tyler, the Creator and Lil Wayne provide the respective grit on the shimmering R&B ballad Here We Go… Again and ecstatic ache of I Heard You’re Married.
The tunes are mildly intoxicating rather than banging, but Tesfaye keeps them rolling gently, with his lithe, slightly otherworldly tenor allied to the bubbly arpeggios of How Do I Make You Love Me?, the hypnotic driving music of Take My Breath, fleet-footed dancefloor odyssey Sacrifice, beseeching love song Out of Time and the pure pop of Less Than Zero. Don’t touch that dial.
Veteran US singer/songwriter Janis Ian offers a more conventional elegy on The Light at the End of the Line. Her first album in 15 years has also been confirmed as her last and is suffused with entirely permissible nostalgia, from the we-are-what-we’ve-been-through philosophy of I’m Still Standing to the bittersweet reflection of the title track.
The whimsical whistles and soothing balladry of Swannanoa contrast with the simmering blues of Resist. This latter track is the angry flipside to At Seventeen – in place of a thoughtful letter to her younger self, she rails explicitly against misogyny, from infantilising culture to female genital mutilation.
Elsewhere, there are fragile, wistful, intimate moments but Ian bows out on an uplifting note with the folk jamboree Better Times Are Coming, which crams in bluegrass fiddle, Dixieland jazz interludes, rock guitar and harp duet from a musical cast of tens.
TV and film star Kiefer Sutherland has carved a fairly credible alternative career as a country singer/songwriter in his middle age, with a comprehensive touring schedule to show for his commitment to the role. However, his third album Bloor Street is strictly standard rootsy AOR fare, from the sub-Springsteen piano break of County Jail Gate to the blues rock of Goodbye.
Sutherland passes muster as a singer but remains stuck in mid-paced contemplation mode, whether singing that he is So Full of Love or that he has Nothing Left to Say.
Fife-based duo Pumajaw took a break in 2015, with singer Pinkie Maclure concentrating on visual art and her partner John Wills making field recordings around Scapa Flow.
Those recordings form the backdrop of comeback album Scapa Foolscap, with Maclure’s husky alto providing the atmospheric continuity against the demonic organ hook of Local Envy, eddying arpeggios of The Mirror Of The Other and siren call of Caramelised.
From Brighton to Brooklyn (Chandos) *****
The musical chemistry between husband and wife duo Elena Urioste (violin) and Tom Poster (piano) is a match made in heaven. In From Brighton to Brooklyn they celebrate their respective cultural roots with a programme that skips back and forth across the Atlantic. There’s an explosive opening in Detroit-born Paul Schoenfeld’s Four Souvenirs, the opening Samba and closing Square Dance oozing sensual virtuosity, immediately calmed by the reflective Englishness of Frank Bridge. American female composers Florence Price and Amy Beach are worth their presence – the former’s Elfentanz a salon-esque complement to the dignified European Romanticism of the latter’s 3 Compositions Op 40. There’s a rumbustious Ukelele Serenade by Aaron Copland, a moody Ballade by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and the duo complete their deliciously flavoursome programme with three characterful pieces from Britten’s Suite Op 6 and the comforting warmth of Bridge’s Heart’s Ease. Highly attractive music played with homely affection. Ken Walton
Stan Tracey Trio: The 1959 Sessions (Resteamed Records) ****
By 1959 Stan Tracey was emerging as a pianist to be reckoned with, having played in numerous bands including the Ted Heath Orchestra as well as spending formative time in cruise liner combos. Joined by bassist Kenny Napper, with drummer Tony Crombie on four covers and Phil Seamen taking the kit for four Tracey compositions, this hitherto surprisingly unreleased recording catches someone who would become a renowned band-leader himself, flexing his muscles and revelling in the process. Listen to the wonderfully laconic yet controlled solo piano intro to the opening Sometimes I’m Happy, before Crombie and Napper slide in with quiet purpose, or the zestful stabs and arpeggios that erupt from his break in Just You, Just Me. There’s the bluesy nocturne of Moonlight in Vermont, while Tracey switches from piano to vibraphone for an energetic excursion during his own tune, Street of Themes. Jim Gilchrist
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