Album reviews: Bruce Springsteen, Mary Chapin Carpenter, James Vincent McMorrow, Soul in Harmony, Samantha Crain, Brazilian Beats

 

Bruce Springsteen "High Hopes" (Columbia)

The focused stamina that powered Bruce Springsteen through his recent purple patch also energises this trawl of offcuts, covers and re-recordings. These kinds of selections often signal wilting energies, or play as stop-gap hotchpotches; not so here. The sonic cohesion of Wrecking Ball (roots-rage) and Working on a Dream (“big” pop) may be missing, but High Hopes honours Springsteen’s abiding themes – faith against fear and injustice – and draws fresh fire from the input of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, his tormented guitar slicing fresh routes through old Boss byways.

On a reworking of 1995’s folksy “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, Morello’s tremolo-hammering solo suggests the kind of urge to rejuvenate that keeps Springsteen vital. Also a decade-plus old, the softly lacerating “American Skin (41 Shots)” maintains its edge: written about the shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999, it was revived after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Other vital rediscoveries include “Hunter of Invisible Game”, where precious intimacies offset ominous visions (“empty cities and burning plains”) like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road intersecting “Thunder Road”.

“Heaven’s Wall” and “This is Your Sword” make clumsier work of grandiose imagery, but the miniature “Frankie Fell in Love” offers leavening respite. Few deliver weather-beaten uplift with Springsteen’s conviction, after all, and it’s amply supplied between a cover of the Havalinas’ “High Hopes” and the “keep the light burning” refrain in a glorious overhaul of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”.

Even looking backwards, Springsteen finds ways to light the road ahead.

****

Kevin Harley

Mary Chapin Carpenter "Songs from the movie" (Decca)

Quiet, reflective, mature, sentimental, enormous and squashy like a high-tog duvet … and that’s just Vince Mendoza’s orchestral arrangements. Let’s not forget the undecorated Shaker-style bedframe which constitutes MCC’s kindly contralto.

Play Songs From the Movie to the tinies at bedtime and they’ll be away with the fairies in seconds. “The Movie” in question would appear to be the singer-songwriter’s own long and distinguished career and these are the songs we may take as her favourites – good songs, largely, if songs broadly governed by the imperative to “heal”: a worthy intention, for sure, but fluffed up massively in a compressed space like this, also a rather stifling one.

For the record, the sessions were conducted in London with British players. 

**

Nick Coleman

James Vincent McMorrow "Post Tropical" (Believe)

Don’t be fooled by the beard or Dublin roots: JVM is most definitely no longer aboard the Mumford nu-folk bandwagon. This follow-up to his 2010 debut sees him turning away from the folk-leanings to embrace his own brand of singer-songwriter soul.

“Cavalier” is sensual and smooth, with McMorrow’s ethereal falsetto (which will no doubt draw comparisons with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver) taking centre stage. As we glide through Post Tropical the tracks steadily grow bigger, with gospel-style harmonies and languid slide guitar lending texture to create a dreamy, if cold, soundscape that may leave some with a sense of frustration, as if we are building towards an ever-shifting point on the horizon. Perhaps this is exactly what McMorrow wants us to feel. 

****

Emma Finamore

Various artists "Soul in Harmony: Vocal Groups 1967-1977" (Kent)

While not up to the standards of its predecessors In Perfect Harmony and More Perfect Harmony, this continuing survey of what has to be reckoned one of the 20th-century’s greatest musical forms – a cat’s cradle of congruent African-American voices singing gooey soul ballads of love and loss – contains a number of corkers.

The accent is on obscurity/rarity, so there are no familiar hits, but remember this is genre we’re dealing with, not the auteur theory. The opening track sets the tone of weirdness, a feeling exemplified by an almost Vic Reeves-ish, in-the-club-style, version of “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” by the Four Sonics. The debt to doo-wop is evident everywhere, with “Don’t Shop Around” by the Mad Lads a particular treasure. 

****

Phil Johnson

Samantha Crain "Kid Face" (Full time hobby)

Crain’s third album has proved something of a breakthrough in the US, where it has been available for a little under a year. An endorsement from First Aid Kit has done no harm, though it should be pointed out that they owe Crain more in terms of overall sound than she owes them for the name-check.

The key instrument is Crain’s voice: a crystal clear thing that crackles with honesty and vulnerability. On the downside, rhymes from the “answers/dancers” school of songwriting threaten to spoil the effect, but when she nails it – most notably on “For the Miner”, which marries U2’s “One” with CSN’s “Almost Cut My Hair” – you conclude that Crain is blessed with enough natural talent to overlook the odd blot on the landscape.

****

Simmy Richman

Various artists "Brazilian Beats 7" (Mr Bongo)

After kicking off with the track “Boa Noite”, a stark and uncompromising slab of hip-hop by newcomer Karol Conka, this vibrant and diverse compilation never settles into any one particular groove or specific time period, yet it somehow manages to achieve a cohesiveness due to the excellence of the material.

Everything from psychedelic tropicalia to the smoothest jazz- funk is covered. In fact “Oba, Lá Vem Ela”, by Junip, sounds like a Brazilianised Stone Roses, as unlikely an entity as that might seem. The Mr Bongo label blossomed from a basement record shop in London’s Soho but is now celebrating 25 years in the business. The seventh volume of Brazilian Beats is a fitting tribute to its good taste and staying power. 

****

Howard Male

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