The War on Drugs: A Deeper Understanding Atlantic Records ****
Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer: Not Dark Yet
Silver Cross/Thirty Tigers
Neon Waltz: Strange Hymns
While the extrovert likes of Arcade Fire have entirely embraced their reputation for creating sweeping musical vistas – and have now added a disco cherry on top – a far more unassuming North American epic has unfolded over the last few years in the form of Philadelphian outfit The War On Drugs, whose sleeper success with their 2014 album Lost in the Dream did not go unnoticed by the likes of record company mogul Jimmy Iovine or, indeed, their new home of Atlantic Records.
The band were originally formed by Philly indie troubadour Kurt Vile (real name) and his shy pal Adam Granduciel, who has fronted the group with a certain diffidence since Vile’s departure to concentrate on his solo career. Granduciel is an introvert and a perfectionist yet his most obvious musical influence is the freewheeling Bruce Springsteen and it is likely this aspect of the band’s music which has brought them to Iovine’s attention.
This major label debut is an unsurprisingly shinier, more commercial prospect than their indie releases, with shades of The Killers’ 80s-influenced synth rock sheen. But no matter how expansive the production on A Deeper Understanding, Granduciel usually has a blast of distorted guitar heroics up his sleeve, providing the grit in the oyster.
There is a distinctly Dylanesque quality to his vocal phrasing and a natural breathiness in his tone, lending everything a soft faraway soul, which is all the more soothing when layered on to his band’s distended synth-laden dream sequences, most of which hover around the six-minute mark and one of which just keeps on trucking beyond 11 minutes (cut down from 14).
So pithiness may not be Granduciel’s strong suit. Even Knocked Down, a mere four minute sweet soul ballad with twinkling electric piano, is as languorous and spacey as anything else on the album. Meanwhile, Nothing to Find is pacey, driving music at twice the length.
For all its gentle aspect, A Deeper Understanding is a single-minded suite, consistently wrought and exquisitely produced. Strangest Thing comes closest to the rootsy psychedelia of old, with its epic guitar wrangling and resonating keyboards, while yearning ballad Clean Living is another slowburning symphony of sonorous guitars and aqueous basslines.
Sisters Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer, recording together for the first time in their 20 year-plus careers, scour the country songbook on Not Dark Yet, covering songs from classic harmony duo The Louvin Brothers through 70s outlaw Townes Van Zandt to the modern alt.country of Jason Isbell’s and Amanda Shires’ The Colour of a Cloudy Day. They come together most beautifully on Jessi Colter’s aching I’m Looking For Blue Eyes and find the romantic country heart of The Killers’ My List and Nick Cave’s Into My Arms but their dissonant harmonies makes Nirvana’s Lithium (deliberately) hard to listen to and their only original song, Is It Too Much, is a moody mooch of a number.
“Britain’s most northerly band” Neon Waltz hail from John O’Groats, formed at Wick High School and made their HQ in an abandoned croft, but their debut album Strange Hymns was recorded with a different sea view at the opposite end of the country in sunny Sussex. It transpires that indie pop/rock can sound pretty much the same wherever you hail from in these isles, with little beyond Bare Wood Aisles, with its clear ringing guitars, high pitched organ swirl, insistent, propulsive rhythm and a more soulful delivery from frontman Jordan Shearer, standing out from the general wash.
Henry Purcell: Royal Welcome Songs for King James II Coro ***
This unfolding series devoted to the music of Henry Purcell, devised by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, aims to demonstrate the creative diversity of Britain’s most celebrated post-Reformation composer. While one CD alone can hardly satisfy that objective, nor is it meant to, there is ample variety in the two Welcome Songs (cantatas written to welcome James II’s court back to London after its summer residencies at Windsor) and sundry anthems, catches and instrumental numbers that make up this disc. In the Welcome Songs’ texts (“Ye tuneful Muses” and “Sound the Trumpet”), there’s a lot of sucking up to a King who was widely unpopular. Best to home in on Purcell’s picturesque music, from battle cries to rapt expressions of love, which overrides the literary sycophancy. Christophers’ singers and period instrument ensemble apply taste and integrity at every turn. All pleasant stuff, but perhaps subsequent discs will dish up a spicier mix.
Volker Goetze Quintet: Bridges Must Have Jazz ****
Quite apart from its Manhattan Bridge cover and the fact that German trumpeter Volker Goetze is New York-based, the real bridges here are musical. Volker works with a sometimes confusingly interchangeable core band of Patrick Breiner and Christian Torkewitz on tenor sax, Josh Myers and Aidan Carroll on bass, Kristjan Randalu and Torkewitz (again) on piano and drummers Richie Barshay and Bodek Janke. Numerous guests include the Senegalese kora virtuoso Ablaye Cissoko. The standard is set by the exuberance and rich texturing of the opening African Child, with its rattling percussion, horn chorusing and bright flurries from the kora answering piano arpeggios. Cissoko returns to sing on the rumbustious Ding Ding, while busy Latin percussion and Zawinul-like electronic vocalising characterise Funky One, and West African flautist Ousmane Bah joins Goetze and bass-clarinettist Oran Etkin in the tropically tuneful Fulani Dance.