Pharrell williams G I R L (Columbia)
In 2006, Pharrell Williams’ debut solo album, In My Mind, following years as a hugely successful production partner in The Neptunes, landed with an almighty belly-flop. It was a typical, tepid R&B effort, replete with guest spots, but short on memorable tunes.
Since then, more diligent production work, combined with a presence as guest contributor to others’ hits, has upped his profile. As a component of “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines”, and with a chart-topper of his own in “Happy”, Pharrell could reasonably claim to be the pulse of pop in 2013. And by this Monday, he may well have an Academy Award for the latter song’s inclusion in Despicable Me 2. This, it seems, is Williams’ time, an odd thing to imagine given his distinct lack of a headline personality in the mould of a Kanye or Beyoncé. He’s a sort of stealth superstar, rising almost without trace – except for the music.
G I R L, it must be acknowledged, is a far superior effort to In My Mind, with Pharrell’s light touch lending unity to the arrangements, which suspend the songs on gossamer webs of itchy beats, neatly syncopated rhythm guitar licks, and subtle flourishes of strings and electro figures. It’s infectious, featherlight and frothy, with character furnished by individual touches – the staccato string pulse and electric sitar of “Freq”, the tribal humming and hand percussion of “Lost Queen”, the electric piano which lends a flavour of “Watermelon Man” to “Happy” (the best thing here).
But there’s still a space where the vocal character ought to be, one that can’t be filled by the A-list contributions of Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Alicia Keys and Daft Punk. Like the latter’s Random Access Memories, it’s an enjoyable dance-pop album lacking a central focus. But one whose diffident charm makes a pleasant change from the overwrought wailing that routinely afflicts R&B.
Download: Happy; Lost Queen; Freq; Dust of Wind
Paloma Faith A Perfect Contradiction (RCA)
That Pharrell’s Midas touch remains potent is confirmed by “Can’t Rely On You”, his sole production here, which opens Paloma Faith’s new album with a bang it struggles to equal thereafter, blending his modern, springy dance groove with her spunky old-soul attitude. A Perfect Contradiction was created during the singer’s relocation to New York, and abandons her distinctive swing/soul hybrid for a more mainstream R&B approach It’s not bad as such – the Daptone-style grooves of “Taste My Own Tears” and “The Bigger You Love (The Harder You Fall” evoke Amy Winehouse, and “Only Love Can Hurt Like This” has the big, bold manner of Dusty Springfield – but it does seem as if Paloma’s sacrificed some individuality for some of that bankable overwrought wailing.
Download: Can’t Rely On You; Taste My Own Tears; The Bigger You Love (The Harder You Fall)
Elbow The Take Off and Landing of Everything (Fiction)
Guy Garvey, like Paloma Faith, spent time in New York recently, but Elbow’s latest album remains anchored in the doughty verities of North-west England, notwithstanding the American influence on the lyrics to “Fly Boy Blue/Lunette” and “New York Morning”. Despite being written by different combinations of the line-up, it’s possibly their most homogenous album, most songs riding gentle pulses of percussion, organ and piano, guitars circling the action. At times, there are echoes of Krautrock and Terry Riley. Garvey remains a master of character, as with the roaring boys in “My Sad Captains”, and while several songs dissect his own relationships, his tribute to asylum-seekers in “The Blanket of Night” displays a noble empathy.
Download: This Blue World; The Blanket of Night; New York Morning; My Sad Captains
Drive-By Truckers English Oceans (ATO)
With English Oceans, Drive-By Truckers take a persuasive tilt at the greatest rock’n’roll band title. Comprising equal parts Stones raunch and REM-style country-rock, songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are working at the peak of their powers on the deadpan, disillusioned “Shit Shots Count” and the galloping, ghost-rider disdain of “Made Up English Oceans”. It’s a familiar cast of libertines and losers, girls “as plain as a primer coat”, guys at the end of their tether, and venal political fixers, a bleak prospect redeemed only by the concluding epiphany of “Grand Canyon”. The sardonic Hood perhaps sums up the worldview best: “You’re either someone’s, or you’re nothing/ God must be a lonely man.”
Download: Shit Shots Count; When He’s Gone; Primer Coat; Made Up English Oceans; Grand Canyon
Robert Ellis The Lights from the Chemical Plant (New West)
Despite his desire to move more towards pop on this third album, Robert Ellis can’t prevent his country roots showing through. It’s partly due to his voice, a rich, baritone croon that recalls George Jones, and partly to his songwriting style, which encapsulates entire lives in three-minute tableaux of blue-collar loss and yearning. In “Bottle of Wine”, tack piano and smoky sax carry a lament for lost youth; curling pedal-steel licks entwine the escapist urge of “TV Song”; while “Pride” and “Only Lies” deal with the buoys we use to keep sinking hopes afloat. A laidback version of “Still Crazy After All These Years” suggests the path he’s keen to take, but his best equivalent is the title-track, sketching a couple’s life in four scenes from seduction to death.
Download: Chemical Plant; TV Song; Bottle of Wine
Nick Waterhouse Holly (Innovative Leisure)
Nick Waterhouse is the American equivalent of Richard Hawley, an artist whose aesthetic is rooted in 1950s analogue immediacy. His second album is a small but neatly formed collection, showcasing R&B guitar flourishes that recall Steve Cropper and Mickey Baker, and his band’s amalgam of rasping baritone sax and burring organ, borne on louche but nimble double bass and drum grooves. The blend lends itself well to the stealthy R&B of “High Tiding” and the slinky rumba-rock of “Sleeping Pills”, where a posse of female backing vocalists brings the promise of “hot, hot dreams”; while a version of Ty Segall’s “It No. 3” sounds like a cross between Mose Allison and Carl Perkins. Waterhouse’s own vocals could be stronger, but his throwaway manner has a languid charm.
Download: High Tiding; Sleeping Pills; Holly; It No 3