Album reviews: Asgeir, Sheryl Crow, Drowners, Bill Callahan, David Crosby, Snowbird

 

Asgeir "In the Silence" (One Little Indian)

Given a “soft” UK release last year as a download, Asgeir Trausti’s In The Silence has a charm and presence that marks the young Icelander out as a significant talent, the appeal of its fragile hymns to nature and the numinous growing through the intervening months. It’s no surprise that the Icelandic version of the album became the country’s most successful debut album by a homegrown artist, outselling even Björk and Sigur Rós, artists whose international profiles the gifted folk singer will surely emulate.

Now that the original lyrics  have been translated into English by John Grant, it’s clear how closely they suit Asgeir’s angelic vocal tones: “I lift my mind to the sky and I let it take flight,” he sings on the opening “Higher”, in an airy, gossamer voice that soars effortlessly into the higher register, “All that surrounds me seems to melt into the eternal.” The title track, meanwhile, celebrates dreams as a restoration of the imagination akin to sunrise: “As we dream, gentle hands are shaping further, higher, as the new day enters.”

There’s a characteristically Scandinavian form of pantheism in operation throughout the album – albeit tinged with a similarly Scandinavian hint of melancholy – with “In Harmony” extolling the warmth of sanctuary offered by fjords, and “Torrent” depicting a nighttime storm as a clash between “Gods of fire”, its dramatic piano arrangement scarred with fuzz-guitar chords.

Nature is celebrated in more small-scale, particular terms in “Summer Guest”, Asgeir welcoming the “sweet and pure tones” of a songbird in his garden: like recognising like, surely. His acoustic fingerpicking and intimate vocals here recall José González, while elsewhere Gudmundur Kristinn Jónsson’s production envelops Asgeir’s fragile gifts in dense but delicate arrangementsthat unerringly evoke the songs’ emotional and elemental themes of love and harmony. A natural wonder.

****

Download: Higher; In Harmony; Summer Guest; In the Silence

Sheryl Crow "Feels Like Home" (Warner Bros)

Feels Like Home finds Sheryl Crow safely ensconced in Nashville, reverting to default country-rock mode. It’s a snug fit, though hardly tests her limits. But she has a facility with genre conventions in cheery let’s-live numbers such as “We Oughta Be Drinkin’” and the twangsome opener “Shotgun”, an open-road anthem in which she encourages us to “drive it like it’s stolen”; and even the standard dig at contemporary social cliches, “Crazy Ain’t Original”, brings a fresh spin to tired attitudes. The weepiest ballad, “Waterproof Mascara”, likewise seeks a new slant on an old routine, Sheryl recommending the cosmetic in question because “it won’t run like his daddy did”. Musically it’s standard rockin’ country fare, save for the poignant tints of accordion applied to “Homecoming Queen”.

***

Download: Shotgun; Waterproof Mascara; Homecoming Queen

Drowners "Drowners" (French Kiss)

New York combo Drowners may be named after a Suede song, but their self-titled debut owes little to Suede’s gutter-glam aesthetic. Fronted by Matthew Hitt, a boyishly pretty transplanted Welshman, their brusque punk-pop style and his louche intonation suggest a tidier version of the Libertines. “Long Hair” is typical: with brisk chording and engaging chorus, it’s a smash’n’grab of streetwise pop smarts. There’s an engaging conversational manner about Hitt’s lyrics and delivery, which in songs like “Ways to Phrase a Rejection” and “Watch You Change” focus on the frustrations of romantic relations. But he’s not entirely lacking confidence, cockily claiming in “A Button on Your Blouse” that “these days I rarely leave the house, and I hate the thought of you missing out”.

***

Download: Long Hair; Ways to Phrase  a Rejection; A Button on Your Blouse

Bill Callahan "Have Fun with God" (Drag City)

The indie/country/dub crossover is a thinly populated territory, but Bill Callahan inhabits it profitably on this dub version of last year’s Dream River. It’s a surprisingly congruent approach: dub’s use of space lends itself well to Callahan’s languid, open apprehensions of the seasonal round, and its emphasis on rhythm gives a firmer grounding to the floating extemporisations of some tracks. His band’s gentle shuffles are pared back to the bare necessities, with smears of violin, flute and guitar dabbed in impressionist brush-strokes behind his baritone as it traverses a cavernous reverb. At its best, on “Ride My Dub”, “Expanding Dub” and “Call It Dub”, the results offer snatched glimpses of the eternal in the fleeting moment. Even better than its parent album.

****

Download: Ride My Dub; Expanding Dub; Call It Dub; Thank Dub

David Crosby "Croz" (Blue Castle)

It’s been 20 years since David Crosby’s last solo offering, but Croz finds his fire undimmed, and his freak flag still proudly flying, if slightly tattered. He’s always been an unconventional songwriter, a reputation he confirms by using the phrase “cognitive dissonance” in “Time I Have”, a song about how he doesn’t want to waste his remaining years in fear or anger. The setting is typical of the album, with elegant curlicues of lead guitar against an amorphous backdrop of fretless bass, 12-string guitar and keyboard colouration. Themes and treatments echo earlier works: “Set That Baggage Down” is about putting old demons of addiction behind him, “Radio” employs another of his favourite sailing metaphors, and the guitar arrangement to “If She Called” echoes “Guinnevere”, for a song about prostitution.

***

Download: Time I Have; The Clearing; If She Called

Snowbird "(Moon)" (Bella Union)

It’s hardly surprising that Simon Raymonde should revert to Cocteau Twins mode in his return to recording after a 15-year hiatus, but it’s still shocking just how similar his Snowbird partner Stephanie Dosen’s airy, ethereal voice is to that of Liz Fraser. Set to simple piano arrangements, it’s best displayed on “I Heard the Owl Call My Name”, cascading in subtle repetitions, or wrapped in tendrils of flute on “All Wishes Are Ghosts”. As the album progresses, however, the fanciful lyrical menagerie of swans, foxes and bears grows tiresome – nature far from red in tooth and claw, more the Edwardian Country Lady equivalent of Bat for Lashes.  It’s not helped by the miasmic, fluffy music, despite the input of sundry Midlakes and Radioheads. Pleasant enough, but too twee.

***

Download: I Heard the Owl Call My Name; All Wishes Are Ghosts; Heart of the Woods

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