Album reviews: The best of the week’s new releases
A round up of the latest album releases, including Brad Mehldau, Neil Young, Enya, Kylie Minogue and Wreckless Eric
Album of the week
10 Years Solo Live
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
“It is actually strange, this whole business of performance,” says pianist Brad Mehldau in the essay that accompanies this towering, expansive, utterly magnificent collection of solo performances culled from 10 years of touring. “It has never grown normal for me, really. It is a direct, intense kind of empathy with a group of total strangers that lasts around 90 minutes. And then, it’s over, and everyone goes home.”
Strange it may be, but live performance is the natural habitat of the improvising musician. Jazz happens in the moment, and it has become commonplace, particularly at the highest levels, to record every concert. The microphones are there anyway, and the presence of the audience gives the performance an intensity that is hard to replicate alone in a studio.
For 10 Years Solo Live, the pianist surveyed 40 such recordings, and the 32 tracks here, amounting to 300 minutes of music, are culled from 19 different European performances, from the Wigmore Hall in London in 2004 to the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels last year.
The selections are spread over four CDs (or eight LPs for the vinyly inclined) that each unfold like complete concerts. And though understandably, Mehldau has selected only performances that he thinks bear repeated listening, there is a remarkable consistency – not necessarily in the repertoire, which ranges freely from Johannes Brahms to Jerome Kern to Kurt Cobain – but in the fecundity of the pianist’s mind. Whether he is playing Brahms’s Intermezzo in B-flat major or a song by his beloved Radiohead, Mehldau is instantly recognisable, not only in the virtuoso technique and the astonishing independence of his hands, but in the intelligence with which he develops his material, pushing it through theme and variation, examining and re-examining a melody until it dissolves in a joyous cascade of overlapping ideas.
To listen intently is to engage in the tangle of a great musician’s mind, one whose influence may now be discerned in pretty much every jazz pianist that has come after him. Nothing can replace the thrill of actually being in the room when Mehldau is in the act of creation, but 10 Years Solo Live is a close second.
★ ★ ★ ★
The intuitive quality of the harmonies on the Whileaways’ debut collection suggest a sibling kinship, but it’s marriage and friendship that bind them so intimately. Longer in gestation than they’d originally planned, this is music made for long, lazy evenings on the porch where finger-pickin’ patterns cast sprightly shapes across the melodies.
Shades of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Be Good Tanyas colour the Whileaways’ essence, with Noriana Kennedy’s feathery vocals intertwine with the darker tones of Nicola Joyce, the pair revelling in their own inimitable double helix. Noelie McDonnell brings a deep southern sensibility, in the style of Eric Bibb: languid and unforced. Lyrically the trio manage intimacy without oversharing. You’re Home is a glorious bedfellow to the band’s earlier, wistful Dear My Maker.
★ ★ ★
Escort know how to party. The New York 15-strong orchestral big band are ace disco and old- school dance revivalists because they never lose sight of the groove, which makes their second album such a joy. Tracks come flagged with all manner of revivalist trap- pings, from classic disco brass (Cabaret) and booming basslines (If You Say So), to sparkling Chic-like guitar lines (Barbarians) and neon party favours (Dancer).
The band have several char- ming attributes, such as the bright vibrancy of Adeline Michele’s voice and the meaty musical chops of the ensemble, but their real win- ning card is a willingness to keep the music firing higher and higher. A studio recording will never capture the span and abandon of Escort’s live show, but there’s enough of that sparkling essence here to make you want to see them the next time they’re in these parts.
Slow Moving Clouds
★ ★ ★ ★
There’s much to savour on this debut album from a meeting of Irish and Finnish minds and methods. Slow Moving Clouds brings Finnish singer Aki together with Irish musicians Danny Diamond on fiddle and Kevin Murphy on cello for an album that is rich, intriguing and accomplished.
All the parties have form – Murphy’s work on Seti the First, for instance, comes highly recommended for its experimental poise – and their instinctive skill comes to the fore on this expansive, layered exploration of Irish and Nordic traditional sounds. Great sweeps of lush experimentation and masterful atmospheric eclecticism take roost in the nooks between the notes, making for an intriguing listen. The cinematic blur is enticing, especially on Suru Suuri and the title track, but there are also beguiling folk shapes to watch.
★ ★ ★
This London soulboy’s debut Mirrorwriting was much admired on its 2011 release for Woon’s soulful, spacey voice and talent for classic song arrangements. Here, with Bjork and Wild Beats’ accomplice Alex Dromgoole providing a different touch as producer, there’s more warmth and heart on display compared with the more abstract, experimental wash of before.
While the musical palette makes more use of jazz and psychedelic echoes and whispers, Woon’s voice is the main act, especially on evocative tracks like Message and Lament. A track like Sharpness nods to Woon’s previous run-in with the dubstep cartel, though Little Wonder’s bright pop splashes indicate that he’s happy to move into other zones. Despite those occasions when Woon and co are guilty of colouring in the wallpaper, Making Time’s soul is more than fit for purpose.
★ ★ ★ ★
Neil Young marked his reunion with the Reprise label in 1988 with an uncharacteristic blues and soul workout entitled This Note’s For You – the title song was a none-too-subtle dig at sponsorship. The album got a poor reception though I remember happily buying into his gutsy and energetic Blues Brothers routine.
A US tour followed and this 21-track double CD four vinyl album is pulled from those shows as part of his Performance archive series. The good news is that Young and his Ten-Man Working band, including a meaty brass section, are definitely on the case. The playing is sharp, punchy and full of energy.
Young keeps his meandering guitar solos in check and the songs, while not up there with his best, milk the genre with real panache. The exception is a storming 19-minute Tonight’s the Night but then that grim classic always is.
Eileen Gogan and The Instructions
The Spirit of Oberlin
★ ★ ★ ★
Many musicians and songwriters prefer to swap adulation for sitting in front of, and behind, mixing desks. One such is Eileen Gogan, who over the past 20 years has lent her talents to an array of Irish bands that have resolutely failed to win wide commercial favour. Not to worry – Gogan’s voice is drop-dead gorgeous, and on this, her debut under her own name, it arrives front and centre.
Named after John Frederick Oberlin, a 19th-century French pastor who dedicated his life’s work to social reform, the album exudes Byrds/Americana- influenced pop music smarts in songs such as Nothing’s for Certain, Murmuration and Day of Respite. Intelligence seeps from every track, the cumulative effect, surely, of being someone who doesn’t see the value in following any dream that isn’t their own.
Augustus and John
Above Water Hull
★ ★ ★
If you haven’t heard of Mike Smalle before, it’s probably because his musical projects have tended to fly a little under the radar. That’s through no fault of his own, however; the Galway man’s output as Cane 141 and B-Movie Lightning have both been excellent but teaming up with Italian producer Matteo Grassi may be just the ticket.
Their debut album plumbs the electronic end of the musical spectrum, with atmospheric, synth-laden creations Cosmopolis and pop tunes that touch upon Hot Chip (Crosslines, If So Then Yes), New Order (Lights Out) and even a clubby Depeche Mode (Lennon in America). It may not push any boundaries and admittedly drifts into repetition on occasion, but this is a more than half-decent exploration of Irish electronica.
Dark Sky Island
★ ★ ★ ★
Enya’s new record is partly inspired by Sark, the Channel Island that, with its exceptional night sky, became the world’s first “dark sky island” in 2011. The album, however, also reveals a profound and expansive meditation on nature, and our relationship to it, reaching back to earlier work such as 1991’s Shepherd Moons.
The album opens with the moving The Humming, which explores a recurring motif and perhaps Enya’s most central image – the sea, its melody resembling the waves she sings of. Her vocal power seems to increase as years go by; on So I Could Find My Way it manages to be both frail and strong. The song Even in the Shadows retains a sense of urgency, with layers of vocal and electronics building up to something tremendous, and her touchstones of folk, church music and traditional Irish haunt subtly, illuminating the celestial Sancta Maria, and, indeed, the work as a whole. Nourishing and immersive.
We’ve heard it all before, so do we really need another pop star doing another bog-standard Christmas album with a sprinkling of festive cheese? To be fair, Kylie Minogue is better placed than most to do such an album, given her longevity in the business.
Still, that doesn’t excuse her crass “duet” with Frank Sinatra on Santa Claus is Coming to Town or the blandness of James Corden on Yazoo’s Only You. Iggy Pop even shows up briefly to mutter a few bizarre spoken-word lines about skiing on Christmas Wrapping, but the usually reliable Minogue proves a conventional interpreter of these standards. Her take on The Pretenders’ 2,000 Miles is one of the few saving graces on yet another inessential album that will have no bearing on your enjoyment of the festive season whatsoever.
★ ★ ★
“Made in the USA using American parts and labour,” it states on the album front cover, a sub-title of sorts that reeks of irony considering that Wreckless Eric (aka Eric Goulden, aka the Donovan of Trash) is as British as the cliffs of Dover. Now based in upstate New York, the album title references the content and country, as Eric, aided and abetted by his wife, US singer-songwriter Amy Rigby, casually meditates on fast food (Sysco Trucks) and civil liberties and gun laws (White Bread).
There are also several acutely observed autobiographical songs, notably Several Shades of Green, and Days of my Life. Those with a preference for rough-edged pop songwriting – delivered in a lackadaisical, if-it-ain’t-broke- don’t-fix-it fashion – will discover more treats here than a lorry load of Lucky Bags.