Album reviews: Kate Bush - Before The Dawn, Bruno Mars - 24K Magic, Sun Ra - Singles, and more

Also Gillian Welch, Rumer, and Garth Brooks

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The KT Fellowship, Before The Dawn

★★★★☆

Download: Running Up That Hill; King Of The Mountain; The Ninth Wave; A Sky Of Honey

While there will be universal disappointment, both from fans unable to get tickets to Kate Bush’s astonishing 2014 shows, and those of us fortunate enough to yearn for a visual reminder, that the intended DVD/Blu-Ray release of Before The Dawn has been abandoned, there’s compensation aplenty in this 3CD live album – not least in the way it leaves the “visual” aspect to the listener’s imagination.

The album is credited not just to Bush herself, but to the entire team that worked on the shows, The KT Fellowship – an indication of the sometimes gripping collectivity of the performances by her band of old hands and session virtuosi, which bring a thrilling urgency to familiar songs. Some pieces, especially in the two suites The Ninth Wave and A Sky Of Honey, are elongated, but naturally so; and the former includes dramatic interludes which emphasise the emotional link between the drowning woman and her family, poignant moments revealing the deep love lurking behind domestic banality. But in both, there is a satisfying sense of musicians keenly exploring works which even in their original recordings (on Hounds Of Love and Aerial, respectively) bulged with unusual ambition, both musically and thematically.

Presaging these large-scale suites is a brief set of favourites, which bravely avoids her first four albums, favouring mature reflection over eager juvenilia. The angel-surrounded “Lily” makes a suitably dramatic opener, and the rolling, chugging gait of “Hounds Of Love” whisks us further along. A few songs later, an extended tom-tom tattoo and vocal chant leads into the indelible synth hook of a resonant realisation of “Running Up That Hill”, before an intense, passionate eight-minute version of “King Of The Mountain” builds to an overwhelming sonic maelstrom, with the extraordinary climactic sound of Mino Cinelu’s aboriginal bullroarer providing an appropriately disconcerting bridge to The Ninth Wave.

What comes across perhaps more strongly in this audio version of Before The Dawn is the subtly contrasting nature of the two suites, their disparate characters – entrapment versus liberation, petrifying terror versus exultant joy – reflected in the music. The Ninth Wave is couched in vulnerable piano, ensnaring strings and sombre choral harmonies, Bush’s vocal at times splintering with fear before the work eventually resolves into the folksy acquiescence of “The Morning Fog”, the audience whooping as she sings the line, “You know what, I love you better”.

By contrast, A Sky Of Honey is a languorous paean to an artist’s appreciation of the elemental “diamond sea and diamond sky”, a rustic Eden invoked through bells and birdsong (including Bush’s birdcall impressions), with the honeyed hues of “Sunset” evoked in joyous flamenco-esque guitar, before the cyclical accordion/keyboard loop of “Aerial” offers a lingering reminder of the daily round. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition of dark and light which leaves one alternately scared and soothed by the knowledge that whatever comes to pass, it will pass by again, and soon.

Bruno Mars, 24K Magic

★★☆☆☆

Download: Perm; 24k Magic

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Despite early reports linking Bruno Mars with more hardcore/experimental dance producers such as Skrillex for this follow-up to the hugely successful Unorthodox Jukebox, the final product is a much tamer beast, taking its lead more from Mars’ position as frontman of Mark Ronson’s globe-girdling “Uptown Funk”. He’s always been a skilled re-animator of classic styles, and reverts to that mode here for tracks such as “Perm”, a James Brown throwback complete with its own variant on the “Funky Drummer” shuffle, and “24k Magic” itself, a slice of buzzing electro-funk which recalls the Nineties heyday of Teddy Riley and Jam & Lewis. But there’s scant distinction overall, with Bruno’s eager-beaver personality wearing perilously thin on “That’s What I Like”, a tiresome tick-list of unimaginative hedonism, and “Chunky”, a big-lass anthem lacking even the roguish, cheeky [sic] charm of Sir Mixalot’s “Baby Got Back”.

Gillian Welch, Boots No.1: The Official Revival Bootleg

★★★★☆

Download: Orphan Girl; Tear My Stillhouse Down; 455 Rocket; Red Clay Halo

Gillian Welch’s 1996 debut Revival is one of the milestones of neo-traditionalist Americana, with producer T-Bone Burnett expertly capturing Welch and her partner David Rawlings’ uncanny ability to write in the rural country spirit, inhabiting songs so faithfully they seem like lost moments from the Carter Family songbook. This 2CD set draws together demos and outtakes from the sessions, including two versions of “Orphan Girl”, an exercise in tragic simplicity; “Red Clay Halo”, a song literally stained by earth, which would eventually appear a few albums later; “455 Rocket”, a car-boast rockabilly rave-up in the classic tradition; and the evocative “Tear My Stillhouse Down”, proclaiming a moonshiner’s regret for a life pickled at his own hands. It’s a stark but stunning collection, with Rawlings’ exquisite acoustic lead lines dancing around the melodies, and the duo’s harmonies imbuing their songs with poignant shades of emotion.

Rumer, This Girl’s In Love – A Bacharach & David Songbook

★★★☆☆

Download: Are You There (With Another Girl); Balance Of Nature; One Less Bell To Answer

Rumer claims that until recently she hadn’t developed the “emotional palette” required to handle the nuances of these Bacharach & David classics; but that doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to enthrall the disinterested listener. Too often, the songs are shadowed by earlier interpreters: the breathy fade of Dusty is evident in “The Look Of Love”, and Rumer simply can’t escape Karen Carpenter’s template tone, timbre and phrasing of “Close To You” (though the corny coda is thankfully absent). Likewise, the arrangements rarely stray too far from the distinctive horn voicings indelibly associated with Bacharach. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad album – the match of artist and repertoire is congruent, and Rumer is skilled at eking out the crumbs of comfort in everyday tragedy, deftly balancing the bittersweet qualities of songs such as “Are You There (With Another Girl)”, “Balance Of Nature” and “One Less Bell To Answer”.

Garth Brooks, Gunslinger

★★★☆☆

Download: Honky Tonk Somewhere; Baby, Let’s Lay Down And Dance; Pure Adrenaline

As the poor sales of Garth Brooks’ 2014 comeback Man Against Machine demonstrated (700,000, compared to the once-routine 10 million-plus he achieved with seven previous albums), not even the world’s most successful recording artist can take a 13-year break unwounded. Since then, he’s taken drastic steps to restore his position, embarking on a three-year world tour, and focusing on core “bro’ country” strengths for Gunslinger. In place of the last album’s inelegant sentimentalism and cliched narratives, Garth here sensibly celebrates simple good times in songs like the twangsome “Honky Tonk Somewhere” and its cutting-loose continuation “Weekend”, where copious location namechecks enthuse that “it’s weekend all over the world”. Elsewhere, “Baby, Let’s Lay Down And Dance” tacks its cheeky proposition onto a “Long Train Running” groove, while the chugging boogie of “Pure Adrenaline” suggests how ZZ Top might sound if they were country.

Lavinia Meijer, The Glass Effect – The Music Of Philip Glass

★★★☆☆

Download: Etude No 5; Koyaanisqatsi; Suite For Harp

As with her Einaudi album Passagio, Lavinia Meijer offers harp transcriptions of piano works on The Glass Effect, with one disc of Philip Glass’s selected Etudes accompanied by a second on which arrangements of his “Koyaanisqatsi” bookend pieces by younger composers such as Nico Muhly, Olafur Arnalds and Bryce Dessner. As on Floraleda Sacchi’s earlier Metamorphosis, the harp lends itself particularly well to the minimalist logic of Glass's progressions, its clarity of timbre revealing the Etudes’ interlocking movements like a transparent watch-case. The measured counterpoints of “Koyaanisqatsi” work well in this medium, and the transfer of the bass vocal hook to lower-register harp strings is particularly effective, lessening its intrusive character. Elsewhere, the methodical progress of Bryce Dessner’s “Suite For Harp”, with its lines circling like tiny cogs inside its core triplets, confirms Glass’s influence.

Sun Ra, Singles

★★★★☆

Download: I Am An Instrument; Call For All Demons; Disco 2021; Cosmo-Extensions

The existence of singles by the avant-garde jazz bandleader Sun Ra defines the triumph of hope over experience, though he released plenty of them, enough to fill this 3CD collection. Most were small-batch releases on his own Saturn label, sold at shows by his Arkestra. They pushed the single envelope in various directions – processional chants, electric-organ improvisations, big-band “space bop”, and at the furthest extreme of his sonic galaxy, the furious free-jazz of “Cosmo-Extensions”, guaranteed to clear the floor at any party: its mere existence seems a subversive virus aimed at music’s populist heart. Also included are tracks by acts Ra mentored, such as doowoppers The Cosmic Rays and crazed R&B belter Yochannan, neither notably more commercial than he; while the unreleased early-Fifties poetry recitations “I Am An Instrument” and “I Am Strange” offer welcome albeit unnecessary confirmation of his character.

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