Album reviews: Eels, Nat Birchall, Iggy Azalea, Kelis, Yaaba Funk

 

Eels The Cautionary Tale Of Mark Oliver Everett (E Works/Pias)

If seasoned Mark Oliver Everett-watchers felt short-changed by the lack of desolate feelings on 2013’s sprightly Wonderful, Glorious album, his 11th Eels effort should placate them. Its cautionary account of the Eels leader’s romantic failings is not his grimmest self-analysis, but it proves one thing: Everett’s earlier, fearless accounts of family tragedy have refined his ability to explore extreme states of emotional disrepair.

It seems almost too bleak to bear initially, albeit mordantly so on “Gentlemen’s Choice”, where Everett follows a line about sleeping “in all day” with a perfectly paced pause and the confession that the linen wasn’t even clean: “in dirty sheets...”. Elsewhere, it never rains when it can pour. “Parallels” finds Everett’s quest “for an answer” to life’s brickbats eased by the recognition that “only time can tell”, but that wise note of acceptance is denied later in “Answers”, where even time flummoxes him: “I thought I’d have some answers by now,” he laments.

Tales... isn’t all woe: “Where I’m From” jauntily honours friendship’s comforts and “Kindred Spirit” is sweetly affectionate. But even when the woe dominates, it’s rarefied woe. “Lockdown Hurricane” suggests emotional heavy weather with strings that build like cloud pressure; “Series of Misunderstandings” evokes a fragile mindset with music-box tinkles backing Everett’s precarious falsetto. His voice is a bruised husk but his majestic emoting echoes mid-1970s Tom Waits’s “wasted and wounded” grandeur. If such successes provide Everett with some small comfort, it’s only fair: after all, it seems cruel for his pains to be our gains alone.

****

Kevin Harley

Nat Birchall Live In Larissa (Sound, Soul & Spirit)

To hear soulful saxophonist Nat Birchall and his quintet play live in a small room is one of the most intense jazz experiences you can get. This inspired 2013 recording from the Duende Jazz Bar in Larissa, Greece, captures the rushing, headlong thrill of the group’s performance over two LPs on a classic Birchall repertoire of five originals plus Bill Lee’s “John Coltrane” (in the version made famous by Clifford Jordan) and Alice Coltrane’s “Journey In Satchidananda”.

The band (playing on borrowed instruments) is a cracker, with Corey Mwamba on vibes and Paul Hession on drums added to Nick Blacka’s bass and Adam Fairhall’s piano. And if you no longer have a record player, this is a good reason to buy one.

****

Phil Johnson

Iggy Azalea The New Classic (Virgin EMI)

The multiple delays that have afflicted this debut album from high-glam rapper Azalea have taken some of the lustre off her “next big thing” status. All the while, that long-mooted title has seemed to be evermore tempting fate.

And yet omens be damned for, in fact, this is an instantly engaging showcase of the 23-year-old Aussie’s talents – poppy without diluting her fierce-flowing charisma.

Highlights include “Don’t Need Y’All”, with its narcotic, Frank Ocean-like ambience, and the operatic, rock-tinged “Goddess”, but I could go on. And while her lyrics aren’t up to much as yet, the boast on “Change Your Life” of “eating crumpets with sailors” at least suggests a promisingly Kanye-like absurdity.

****

Hugh Montgomery

Kelis Food (Ninja Tune)

Kelis’s sixth album is a moveable feast of old-school soul, ballsy blues, breathy doo-wop and a folk ballad. Food was forged from an unlikely partnership with Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio, and it provides a completely different flavour to the Kelis who rapped about her milkshake with The Neptunes, or a capella-ed over David Guetta’s EDM beats.

Her latest incarnation as a trained cordon bleu chef with her own range of sauces in the US (yes, really) infuses this album. “Jerk Ribs” is funk-driven fun, “Friday Fish Fry” is a sultry call-and-response blues number and “Cobbler” oozes effortless groove. If music be the food of love, Kelis has cooked up something tasty enough to satisfy all but the hungriest of hearts.

*****

Kate Wills

Yaaba Funk My Vote Dey Count (Sterns)

The Brixton 10-piece’s second album packs a punch from the off with a muscular James Brown cover. Their sound centres on tense, politically motivated Afrobeat but a wide spectrum of styles is embraced along the way.

“Poor Man’s Tale” is slow, ground-hugging funk, “Ghana” builds its hypnotic hold around a delicate thumb piano riff and some ethereal vocals by Helen McDonald and “Volta Blues” is just as it’s title suggests – a straight-down-the-line blues track. It’s great to hear a home-grown band like this reach what is analogous to an athletic peak of their powers, setting them up as equal with (yet a good deal more versatile than) more globally known Afrobeat outfits such as New York’s Antibalas.

****

Howard Male

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