Album reviews: Little Feat, Neneh Cherry, John Harle & Marc Almond, Julie Fowlis, Wild Beasts
Little Feat 'Rad Gumbo' (Warner Bros)
Little Feat were the quintessential multi-racial Americana band, developing a potent hybrid of rock, blues, funk, jazz and country which, thanks largely to the surreal beatnik lyrical genius of singer/guitarist Lowell George, possessed a singular synergy denied to more dutiful roots explorers. It helped that George was a slide-guitar genius with a distinctive, snarling tone, and a vocalist of rare blues quality. Sadly, when he died, the band’s equilibrium was disrupted, with little to offset pianist Bill Payne’s jazz-fusion leanings; the game was up when they abandoned the old Feat sound for a chunky AOR sound. But the earlier albums of this box set – Sailin’ Shoes, Dixie Chicken, Feats Don’t Fail Me Now – are as good as it gets.
Download: Willin’; Cold Cold Cold; Dixie Chicken; On Your Way Down; Rock and Roll Doctor; Spanish Moon; Long Distance Love
Neneh Cherry 'Blank Project' (Smalltown Supersound)
For Blank Project, Neneh Cherry hooks up with Kieran “4 Tet” Hebden and synth/drum duo RocketNumberNine to create a contemporary avant-electro work on which her vocals occupy a sparse space of hand percussion, drums and electronic noise. On “Across the Water”, she sounds like a poetry-slammer eulogising New York over hand-drum and rattle; “Blank Project” castigates a feckless paramour while electro-bass and drums do battle; and “Weightless” employs bass chug and rimshot groove to deliver this week’s second reference to female masturbation. It’s starker and sharper than you might expect – the most pop-conscious piece is a collaboration with Robyn, “Out of the Black” – but it works well on the sinister shuffle of “Spit Three Times” and bleak jitter of “Naked”.
Download: Spit Three Times; Naked; Out of the Black; Weightless
John Harle & Marc Almond 'The Tyburn Tree: Dark London' (Sospiro)
The classical-jazz saxophonist/composer John Harle here forms a powerfully theatrical alliance with Marc Almond to investigate the dark underbelly of historical London. Harle’s lowering string pads, trumpet and piercing soprano sax sketch a world of portents occupied by Almond in the declamatory manner of Scott Walker on the gallows ode “The Tyburn Tree”, while the prog manoeuvres of riffing guitar and treated vocal on “Spring Heeled Jack” sound like King Crimson, a fine template for a song treating folk-devils as distractions from the problems of poverty. Iain Sinclair recites the grim litany of Hawksmoor churches in “To the Crow the Spoils”, and Blake’s “Jerusalem” gets a far darker adaptation than usual.
Download: The Tyburn Tree; Spring Heeled Jack; My Fair Lady; The Labyrinth of Limehouse
Julie Fowlis 'Gach Sgeul: Every Story' (Machair)
The fourth album from Gaelic superstar Julie Fowlis seems mostly comprised of material from North Uist: songs of land and love, bravery and fantasy, from the protective lullaby “Sleep Well My Beloved” to the closing “The Seal” and “In the Narrows of Od Odrum”, in which seals are mythically reputed to be the cursed children of a Scandinavian king. As an island culture, sailors figure strongly: harmonium underscores “The Song of Fear Heisgeir”, an “elegant helmsman”, while the sweet pain of Fowlis’ inflections animates the shoreline lost-love plaint “The Choice”. But it’s the Gaelic mouth-music tracks that stand out most, her perky rhythmic vocables driving along “Dance Dun-Coloured Slattern” and “Beautiful Ribbons”.
Download: Dance Dun-Coloured Slattern; The Choice; Beautiful Ribbons
Wild Beasts 'Present Tense' (Domino)
Present Tense seems overworked, from the arch, punning title to the sometimes stiff music. “We move n feel, we move in desire,” sings Hayden Thorpe on “Mecca”, but the music itself is dull and dutiful, with that makeshift feel songs can acquire when the right arrangement hasn’t been found. The album employs an Eighties electropop style, occasionally peppered with neat, itchy guitar though it’s Thorpe’s sylvan voice that pulls the songs through. “Wanderlust” establishes the overall thematic impulse to live culturally beyond one’s means, but in practice this can lead to the preference for smarts over suitability that spoils a track like “A Dog’s Life”. But there are moments of greatness here and there, such as the realisation in “Palace” that “in the darkened house of love, it felt like I was sleeping rough”.
Download: Palace; Wanderlust; A Simple Beautiful Truth
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