Album reviews: Damon Albarn, Eels, Iggy Azalea, Miles Davis, Burt Bacharach, Eliza Gilkyson

 

Damon Albarn Everyday Robots (Parlophone)

For his next trick, Britain’s most protean popsmith turns his attention not to Chinese opera, cartoon rock band or Elizabethan polymath, but to... himself. Everyday Robots is Damon Albarn’s most personal and revealing album, in which he scans back through memories of his childhood and adolescence to offer an intriguing, if slightly sad, musical self-portrait.

The Lord Buckley quote which opens it – “they didn’t know where they was going, but they knew where they was wasn’t it” – reflects both Albarn’s restless musical imagination, and his youthful peregrination between Leytonstone and Essex. The journey swings between urban-cosmopolitan and rural-English, the divergent poles of a personality that enables him to stand alongside quintessentially English songwriters such as Ray Davies.

But rather than his cheery pop muse, the arrangements reveal the melancholy in his memories of swimming in a Leytonstone pond, travelling America on a tourbus or wandering through Notting Hill after the Carnival. Pastel melodies of simple piano figures are set to glitchy percussion loops, found sounds and poignant strings, with glimpses of wistful harmonium, flugelhorn or swirling synth, while Albarn revisits his childhood home to find the street he lived in now truncated by the M11 link road, or frets about the way that machines insert themselves between us: “We are everyday robots on our phones... looking like standing stones, out there on our own.”

The only moment of outright jollity arrives on “Mr Tembo”, a ukulele-driven song about  a baby elephant: fittingly, the gospel choir bringing uplift to its chorus is from the church at the end of his Leytonstone road. It’s a rare moment of extrovert cheer on an intimate, introspective album that takes tentative  steps to reveal the soul behind the star.

****

Download: Everyday Robots; Mr Tembo; Hollow Ponds; The History of a Cheating Heart

Eels The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett (E Works/P.I.A.S.)

“I may as well have been raised by wolves,” reckons Mark Everett of his dysfunctional upbringing, a defining trauma which dominates his life and art. Accordingly, The Cautionary Tales... is wracked with recrimination, remorse and self-doubt. It can be bleak – the electric piano of “Lockdown Hurricane” seems a sound soaked in self-pity – but the intimate beauty of the strings and woodwinds sweetens the pill. There’s a winsome pop charm to “Kindred Spirit”. But the past is relentlessly raked over, with glockenspiel and humming merging with Everett’s falsetto to make “Series of Misunderstandings” sound like a dark fairytale, where the desire to correct his upbringing is deemed impossible – a raw nerve whose artistic effects he can’t escape.

***

Download: Parallels; Kindred Spirit; Series  of Misunderstandings; Lockdown Hurricane

Iggy Azalea The New Classic (Virgin)

Though neither particularly new nor classic, Iggy Azalea’s debut album proper (following two self-released mixtapes) reveals enough smarts and skills to sustain the Aussie rapper’s momentum. She never wanders far from hip-hop’s familiar themes – reproaching “haters”, celebrating her success, rebutting gold-digging advances  – but does it with stylish swagger on “Lady Patra” and “New Bitch” (“You well done, and bitch, I’m rare”). Backing tracks range from the stalking electro groove of her bad-girls duet with Charli XCX, “Fancy”, to the psych-prog swirl of “Change Your Life”, but her double-time delivery is best employed on her breakthrough hit “Work”, an account of how she scrubbed floors down under to get the money to start anew alone in the States, “no money, no family, 16 in the middle of Miami”.

***

Download: Work; Lady Patra; Change Your Life

Miles Davis Miles at the Fillmore (Columbia)

Exactly contemporaneous with the release of Bitches Brew, Miles Davis’s June 1970 shows at New York’s Fillmore East captured him on the cusp of revolutionising jazz by accessing psychedelic rock’s dynamism and extremity, and by extension a huge, young white fanbase. It meant accessing rock’s sheer volume, which had proved problematic at shows recorded earlier that year. But the master producer Teo Macero was better prepared this time, and the recordings capture the exploratory excitement of the performances, especially the fervid, volatile keyboard work of Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. Macero’s edits on the original double-album collaged four nights’ shows into  a single, 20-minute track apiece; but this 4CD set presents each night’s ebullient flow in full.

****

Download: Directions; It’s About That Time; Bitches Brew; Miles Runs the Voodoo Down

Various artists Let the Music Play: Black America Sings Bacharach & David (Ace)

This latest in Ace’s Black America Sings series – following sets of Dylan and Beatles covers – is the best, primarily because Bacharach & David’s elegant compositions played directly to the growing black middle-class’s aspirations  to sophistication in the 1960s. It’s an aim evident in the performers’ shiny suits and evening dresses, and in their immaculately restrained delivery: even Nina Simone, so expert at touching raw nerves, is smooth and seductive on “The Look of Love”. B&D’s most serene muse, Dionne Warwick, is represented by her early take on

***

Download: I Say a Little Prayer; The Look of Love; Always Something There to Remind Me; (They Long to Be) Close to You

Eliza Gilkyson The Nocturne Diaries (Red House)

The Nocturne Diaries features songs written in the night, thus tending towards the crepuscular and melancholy of mood and theme – concerns of mortality, anxieties of failure – albeit lit by occasional glimmers of hope. In “Midnight Oil”, Gilkyson wonders “what was lost in our spiral down from grace”, but holds out for better times; in “Eliza Jane”, a gloss on the traditional “Lil’ Liza Jane”, she castigates herself for being “so worried about everything”, its bluegrass hoedown  a reprimand to her pessimism. “Fast Freight”, written by her folkie father Terry Gilkyson, evokes a settled drifter’s yearning for the road through lap steel and aching harmonica. Produced by her son Cisco Ryder, it’s a family album of elegant songs, well-framed in folk-rock settings.

***

Download: Midnight Oil; Eliza Jane; The Ark

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