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Album reviews: Beck, St Vincent, Neneh Cherry, Ags Connolly, John Harle & Marc Almond


Beck 'Morning Phase' (Virgin EMI)

If Beck wanted to prove that sequels are only equals (or betters) when they exceed the limits of their predecessor, he couldn’t have made the point much more clearly.

Received opinion on his first album in six years goes like this: after personal trials (spinal injury) and scattershot creative experiments (online covers of INXS’s Kick album, the sheet-music album Song Reader), the one-time postmodern prankster has refreshed himself at the same source as his most sparing album, 2002’s mournful, much-loved and – whisper it – faintly dull Sea Change.

The lack of pastiche-pop implies as much, as does the use of the same band, but received opinion still misleads. If Sea Change documented an emotional slump, Morning Phase plots the curve of a tentative revival in lush breadth and fine detail, drawing on British folk’s dewy gloom and West Coast pop’s queasy glow for layered, expressive shading.

Hence the way the rising chorus pulls against the languid guitar on “Morning”, or the way the banjo on “Blue Moon” chivvies along Beck’s foggy voice. The orchestrated “Wave” is half sumptuous, half soporific, and “Turn Away” echoes “The Sound of Silence” so blatantly that you almost expect Simon & Garfunkel’s old friend “darkness” to take over.

But album closers “Country Down” and “Waking Light” issue enlivening bursts of harmonica and crackling guitar, hinting at friskier prospects for the next album, which Beck plans to release in 2014.

Morning Phase is an often gorgeous sequel to Sea Change, but it’s also more than that: it’s cheering proof that Beck isn’t ready to start repeating himself just yet.


Kevin Harley

St Vincent 'St Vincent' (Loma Vista/Caroline International)

Annie Clark’s fourth album is frequently extraordinary: even in singing “Oh what an ordinary day/ Take out the garbage; masturbate”, she undoes any claim to normalness by being so uncommonly candid. Her take on tenderness involves insisting “I prefer your love to Jesus”. Clark swishes back the curtains to reveal a strutting theatricality; her voice swoons like a Hollywood golden-age star, or snarls like a Disney villainess.

Synth-drawn grooves stampede across the opening tracks, matched by her guitar’s chewy riffs, tasty hooks and distorted but tight shredding. Electronic squiggles niggle at the ear, while close-coiled, parping brass reflects the influence of her recent collaboration with David Byrne. It’s a heady mix.


Holly Williams

Neneh Cherry 'Blank Project' (Smalltown Supersound)

Even when her hit singles were lighting up the charts in the late 1980s, Neneh Cherry was an artist ever at odds with the pop mainstream. Her retreat felt natural and what little music she has released since then has been wilfully abstruse.

So Blank Project – Cherry’s first solo album for 18 years – comes as something of a surprise. Not that this is pop in any conventional sense, but the songs are sparky and Cherry is in excellent voice as she raps, sings and swings against the sparse, drum and bass-style backing orchestrated by Four Tet.

The woman who inspired the Bristol trip-hop scene is back and this time she sounds like Lorde’s older, wiser sister. Things have moved on, but Cherry can still show the upstarts a thing or two. 


Simmy Richman

Ags Connolly 'How About Now' (Drumfire)

He calls it “Ameripolitan” in defiance of the perceived values of the current US country mainstream and to denote a certain identification with older, more authentic values.

And why not? He’s from Oxfordshire. He can do what he likes. And besides he has the back-up: a burly trucker’s structure, and a honey-wistful grumpy baritone that may owe as much to Van Morrison as it does to Charlie Rich and Waylon Jennings.

He can write in the idiom too, perhaps without the elegance and polish expected in Nashville but with unswerving honesty. In fact the slight lumpiness of his writing lends pathos, as if the dismal feelings (women, whiskey, general woe) have only just been felt. A compelling debut. 


Nick Coleman

John harle & Marc Almond 'The Tyburn Tree' (Sospiro)

Hot on the heels of Harle’s Art Music, on which he was a guest, Almond returns as a full partner for this psycho-geographical survey of “Dark London”.

As well as singing spiritedly and emoting spoken words in a rather actor-ish voice, Almond writes original lyrics, adapts two poems by William Blake, and fronts the whole song-cycle with great brio. Other lyrics are by Iain Sinclair and Harle’s fellow Geordie, poet Tom Pickard, while “Dark Angel” adapts an old text about Elizabethan magus John Dee, about whom Harle once wrote an opera.

There’s some beautiful and dramatic music but the range of styles – from Gainsbourg to Morricone and Brecht/Weill to motorik disco – is exhausting, like a Postmodern version of an Irish showband. 


Phil Johnson