Album reviews: The Waterboys | The National | Rev Magnetic | Howard Jones
Freewheeling spontaneity infuses The Waterboys’ new album, while Howard Jones finds his electro-pop back in vogue
The Waterboys: Where The Action Is (Cooking Vinyl) ***
The National: I Am Easy to Find (4AD) ***
Rev Magnetic: Versus Universe (Rock Action) ***
Howard Jones: Transform (Dtox Records) ***
Never short on confidence in his music and his band – and justifiably so – Mike Scott has proclaimed the latest album by The Waterboys to be “an entertainment in sound.” In practise, Where The Action Is is a mixed bag, casting its net wide, wearing its freewheeling go-faster stripes with ease and worrying not where its next idea comes from.
The title track is a propulsive, feel-the-power update on Robert Parker’s northern soul favourite Let’s Go Baby but there’s no time to hang around – Scott wants to pay affectionate tribute to Mick Jones of The Clash. London Mick is another carefree rock’n’roller, recounting their crossing paths over the years. Later, he goes deeper into his heady London days on Ladbroke Grove Symphony, a fleet, rootsy boogie about time and place colliding, which is so vividly drawn that you can appreciate the musical eclecticism which still runs in Scott’s veins all these years later.
Elsewhere, he cannot resist sermonising soulfully on In My Time On Earth but protests “I didn’t mean to make a speech, I’m just sayin’ off the cuff” as he delivers the sage and tender advice of Right Side of Heartbreak (Wrong Side of Love).
Scott’s gift is in making such eloquence so immediate. And There’s Love recalls a former love with the wisdom and wistfulness of a Jacques Brel number. Yet, frustratingly, he manages to drain the natural emotion from Robert Burns’ beautiful Green Grow The Rashes-O with a tinny drum machine backing, while Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a wide-eyed recitation from said visionary chapter of Wind in the Willows over a backdrop of leisurely piano and keening fiddle.
Where The Waterboys pull through with spontaneous insouciance, The National go for the grand(er) concept and deliver a lengthy, underwhelming suite of sensitive arena indie rock, with accompanying short film directed by Mike Mills and starring Alicia Vikander.
The featured female voices on the album – Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables of This is the Kit – are also the star attraction, providing some much needed dynamism on a long trawl of occasionally ponderous songs.
The more conventional indie rock catchiness of Rylan should go over well on radio but is less representative than twinkly ballad Not In Kansas with its lullaby choir. Suitably for an album of contrasting voices, most of the highlights are choral interludes, be it the Brooklyn Youth Choir’s soothing input to the ambient, glitchy So Far So Fast, the almost monastic monotone on Dust Swirls in Strange Light or the devotional drone of Underwater.
There is further loose conceptualisation from Rev Magnetic, a new outfit helmed by author, musician and Mogwai associate Luke Sutherland. Versus Universe traces the tale of a neglected daughter who retreats into the music of the radiophonic spheres, though the listener is more likely to be hypnotised by the woozy dreamscapes and Sutherland’s breathy voice than the nebulous story.
The sunburst guitar heroics of Yonder and expansive fuzz noise reverie Gloaming pierce the ambience and Sutherland unexpectedly breaks out pedal steel guitar, folk melody
and soulful chorale on Palaces in a sonic melange worthy of Young Fathers.
Popular music being a cyclical thing, 80s synth pop boffin Howard Jones sounds almost contemporary again on his latest album, Transform, which includes a couple of catchy retro electro pop cuts from the Eddie the Eagle soundtrack and three superior collaborations with trance pioneer Brian “BT” Transeau, including the title track, which is a sleek coming together of Jones’s thought-for-the-day philosophising and Transeau’s studio finery. - Fiona Shepherd
Jess Gillam: Rise (Decca) ****
It’s always interesting to see where those who make it big in the BBC’s Young Musician competition go. Saxophonist Jess Gillam made it to the final in 2016, and has since made successive Proms appearances. Her star is still in the ascendant and here’s a comprehensive record of how things are going. In her debut album, Gillam traverses numerous stylistic bounds. There are touching tributes to Kate Bush in Geoff Lawson’s ambient arrangement of This Woman’s Work and to David Bowie through John Harle’s warm-hearted arrangement of Where Are We Now. Gillam goes coquettish with Rudy Wiedoeft slippery 1920s Valse Vanité, and touches on the burlesque in Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Orchestra Waltz. Harle’s Rant! is written especially for Gillam, its untrammelled energy perfect for her multi-faceted persona. But when she tries to embrace the Baroque and Renaissance lyricism of Marcello and Dowland, the saxophone seems an ill fit, too thin to embrace the music’s inherent purity.
Will Galison, Karim Maurice, La Camerata: Odysseus Fantasy (Odradek Records) ****
Featuring chromatic harmonica virtuoso Will Galison, jazz trio and the strings of La Camerata, this orchestral jazz take on the Homeric epic is by the award-winning French pianist and composer Karim Maurice, who plays in trio with Brice Berrerd on double bass and drummer Thibaud Pontet. From the opening piece, Circe, this is richly textured, often sumptuous music, Galison’s harmonica evoking the fateful weaver over a suspenseful growl on bass strings before orchestra, harmonica and trio embark on their voyage. Galison’s playing shines throughout – as does Maurice’s, in Calypso Symphony, for instance, with its call-and-response between soloists, pulsating strings and harp, while an angry Poseidon prompts a sombre string prelude to the trio’s strut in Blues for Nobody. Weave and Undo sees a languorous duet between harmonica and harp, while a dramatic finale whips up an inexorable beat and shrilling strings for the hero’s return to Ithaca.