Album reviews: The best of the week’s new releases
The latest albums from Coldplay, Mano Le Tough, Fleetwood Mac, Fleur East, Soulsavers, Arca, Marry Waterson and David A Jaycock
A Head Full of Dreams
Whipping boys for those people who consider them the epitome of ill-considered, vapid rock music, Coldplay may not tick many boxes for fans of Grimes or Chvrches.
A Head Full of Dreams arrives just over a year after singer Chris Martin’s marriage break-up album Ghost Stories and wouldn’t you know but rock music’s nicest frontman has invited not just his current partner to sing on the album but also his ex-wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and all the band member’s children. Added to this list are appearances from Beyoncé, Noel Gallagher, Tove Lo, and even a vocal sample of US president Barack Obama singing Amazing Grace.
It’s really all too much – or it would be if it weren’t for the fact that, typically, some of the songs are very good (we’ll get to these soon). Quite a few aren’t, of course, and the reasons for this are that the strengths that make Coldplay good (thinking very seriously about Big Topics, being unashamedly emotional) are also weaknesses that make Coldplay very weak, indeed. It’s all about the balance, isn’t it?
A particularly poor song is closer, Up & Up, a kind of bedsit sing-along transferred to an arena-sized stage with backing vocals by Beyoncé and Brian Eno, and a guitar solo by Noel Gallagher. Another low point is feel-good break-up ballad, Everglow (featuring Paltrow on backing vocals), which wrings out all manner of emotion without nailing any meaning. Similarly, the disco-house enabled Adventure of a Lifetime – a damp squib when it could have been the proverbial cracker.
The good songs include the rather lovely Hymn for the Weekend (which features Martin and Beyoncé trade lyrics over glinting piano) and Fun (which features Tove Lo, and which is as eye-brimming a tune as you’ll hear outside the new Adele album). Equal parts lifeless and lofty, heart-wrenching and emotionally guilt-free – the shaky countdown to a Coldplay Christmas starts here.
Mano Le Tough
★ ★ ★
Wicklow man Niall Mannion’s debut album Changing Days was always eager to gently direct the listener towards a groove. Here, though, Mannion seems to have turned his head towards catching and reflecting what’s going on beyond the dancefloor.
The sounds are slow-burning, smouldering and low-key for the most part and there’s a melancholic wistfulness at play throughout as Mannion creates finely honed atmospheric banks. When the producer gets the textures and tones right, as in the title track or Half Closed Eyes, there’s much to appreciate within the jam. Yet all too often, Mannion seems to run out of road and ideas and doesn’t quite maintain the drama or momentum for the entire track, leading to moments which promise much but don’t deliver in the end as in Generations.
Released in 1979, two years after the classic Rumours, Tusk witnessed Fleetwood Mac engaging in typically high-end shenanigans by not only writing “experimental” pop songs but enough of them to make a double album. History tells us Tusk cost more than $1 million to record, making it the most expensive rock record up to that year, but arriving after the brilliance of Rumours, selling Tusk in a similar fashion was nigh on impossible.
Stylistically it’s all over the place – woeful songs such as Not That Funny lay beside gems like Sara, the adventurous title track and Think About Me. Its reputation has been calmed by perspective, but it remains a stretch to say it’s a great record. This ultra deluxe reissue, however, goes some way to making amends: specifically an alternate version of the album. Fans only need apply.
Love, Sax and Flashbacks
★ ★ ★ ★
I know what you’re thinking: an X Factor contestant who’s made something actually worth listening to? A puppet from Simon Cowell’s pop factory has come good? Believe it or not, Fleur East – last year’s runner-up – is that person.
The Londoner’s debut album is a sassy, funky, brass-infused collection that is equal parts nostalgia trip and sugar rush. Breakfast plays like an En Vogue number, More & More like a Whitney Houston tribute, while the fingerprints of Nile Rodgers are all over the ‘70s disco vibe of Over Getting Over and Paris. There’s a contemporary twist on Like That, too, a song that would give Beyonce a run for her money. Is it original? Not particularly. Is it good, quality fun? You bet.
Driftless Ambient II
★ ★ ★
A calling card for its roster, a platform for musicians’ side projects and a profile booster for unsigned artists, Driftless Recordings’ second ambient compilation is packed with left- field delights. In Megafortress and CFCF the label boasts two artists who imbue their electroacoustic compositions with an emotional depth. Jack Tatum (Wild Nothing) provides a couple of melodically rich, typically timeless short instrumentals and The Canonical Office by Matt Mondanile hints at the Ducktails and Real Estate member’s experimental interests.
But UK producer JSHUA steals the show; his doom-laden Kyoto Realisms, made using field recordings from Kyoto station, is magnificent in its precision and scale. Rewarding and challenging, these 11 tracks point listeners to previously unmarked attractions on the ambient map.
★ ★ ★
Hot on the heels of this English production duo’s recent collaboration with Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan, Kubrick is an entirely different proposition. As the title suggests, characters from the late auteur’s oeuvre influenced these eight instrumental tracks after Rich Machin developed an obsession with his work. It’s an engrossing collection, arcing from the solemn tick of DeLarge (A Clockwork Orange) to elegiac closer Ziegler (Eyes Wide Shut).
There is a glistening, wintertime chill to the ominous orchestral sweep of Torrance – named for Jack Nicholson’s psychopathic character in The Shining – while Joker bustles with twinkling glockenspiel and mournful violin. At times unsettling but always an interesting listen, whether you’re a Kubrick aficionado or not.
Marry Waterson and David A Jaycock
One Little Indian
★ ★ ★ ★
“It was earthy, dreamlike, warm, powerful and jagged. It had the capacity to be both melancholic and joyful – of course Marry Waterson could tell a story.” Guitarist David A Jaycock is recalling what drew him to Marry Waterson, daughter of Lal and a scion of the major British folk family, the Watersons.
This is Marry’s third album and it is a blissful thing, albeit one that takes time to nestle home. Waterson and Jaycock’s songs, sensitively set by producer Neill MacColl, draw from the British folk tradition but also look to American gospel and other genres. They are subdued, understated, yet rich in musical layer and lyrical detail. The title track, inspired by a Native American duality legend, trawls typically complex emotional terrain but there are many highlights among the 15 tracks, including Digging for Diamonds and Woolgathering Girl.
★ ★ ★
When he’s not working with Bjork, Kanye West or FKA Twigs, Alejandro Ghersi is also capable of imaginative, powerful, compelling work of his own. Last year’s debut Xen showed he could also apply his trademark surreal, avant-garde, adventurous approach to beats and song structures to his own work. On Mutant, the producer goes further along unmapped ground with a rich, dazzling, occasionally bewildering series of freewheeling sonic experimentation.
Though he’s not the first to strip beats and songs of any of their usual signifiers and indicators, there’s a bracing, exhilarating spirit to how Ghersi consistently seeks to do what you’re not supposed to do. Tracks like Vanity and Extent turn into thrillers as they rub traditional instruments into a rich, disconcerting digital soundbed.