Album reviews: Sleaford Mods - English Tapas, Stormzy - Gang Signs & Prayer, Thundercat​ - Drunk, and more

Also Rhiannon Giddens - Freedom Highway, Dirty Projectors - Dirty Projectors, and Beatrice Rana​ - Bach: Goldberg Variations

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Sleaford Mods, English Tapas

★★★★☆

Download: Time Sands; Snout; Drayton Manored; Carlton Touts; Messy Anywhere

Since Sleaford Mods released Key Markets in 2015, things have changed radically, and arguably not for the better. Indeed, the general trajectory of creeping decline and bitterness makes Mods’ ranter Jason Williamson seem like some prescient social-analytic genius – so what does he foretell in English Tapas?

Well, it’s not good news. Of course. But it’s not as grim, viewed through his eyes, as it might seem: these dozen visceral tableaux of modern life are shot through with flashes of gallows humour and offhand absurdity that tempers the overall vision of a “newborn hell” peopled by “dumb Brits, lobbing down one-pint cans of imported shit”, desperately trying to escape a future memorably described as “a flag pissed on and a king-size bag of quavers”. The album takes its title from a pub chalkboard menu spotted by Williamson’s beat-sculpting partner Andrew Fearn, a finger-food feast comprising half a scotch egg, a cup of chips, pickle and a mini pork pie – a ludicrous conceit whose essential ambivalence (you don’t know whether the humour is accidental, or a deliberate self-pisstake) is mirrored in Sleaford Mods’ descriptions of modern life.

Not that Williamson ever lets the comedy sweeten the pill: if anything, the humour just lubricates the blade to help it slide in deeper. For the country depicted in English Tapas is a blasted wasteland peopled with demoralised, demonic victims, like something out of Bosch or Brueghel. “This is our tree, but there’s no chance of us reaching the top,” he notes in “Cuddly”, while life here is vividly described in “Time Sands” by the image of an hourglass, sand slipping slowly from one sphere to the other, only to be turned upside down again – a long, pointless, futile process, just mere existence without the glimmer of meaningful achievement. So futile, in fact, that many seek change in any form, even the dubious pleasantries of little Englanders “rubbing up to the crown and the flag and the notion of who we are,” as Williamson notes in “Snout”, adding a terse “Fuck off!” as the full stop. It won’t end happily, he surmises in “B.H.S.”: “We’re going down like BHS/While the able-bodied vultures monitor and pick at us”. It’s a worldview that makes you wonder: if you don’t like Brexit Britain, where can you go?

Not that it’s any better elsewhere. Humanity as a whole, he muses glumly in “Drayton Manored”, is not a collective but a collection of divergent trajectories, “adjacent lines like a tube map or whatever, a mass of lines that occasionally cross each other but never say anything, ever ever ever ever”. Can he be right again?

Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway 

★★★☆☆

Download: At The Purchaser’s Option; Julie; Birmingham Sunday; Freedom Highway

On Freedom Highway, Rhiannon Giddens animates black American history – notably, the arduous journey from slavery to civil rights – in songs which pair her strong, sonorous delivery with arrangements echoing pre-blues minstrel music. The dry plunk of banjo, scrape of fiddle and thud of drum bring a weathered patina of authenticity to acts of imaginative engagement such as “At The Purchaser’s Option”, prompted by a period advert characterising a female slave’s child almost as a free gift, and “Julie”, a narrative of passive resistance in which a slave, asked to help her mistress save her riches as the Union Army approaches, rejects the request on the grounds that the wealth was only obtained by the sale of her children. Elsewhere, the arrangements are further fleshed out with frisky horns, and the organ and piano bringing a suitably congregational ambience to “Birmingham Sunday”, Richard Farina’s song about the 1963 church bombing, set here to the traditional folk melody “The False Bride”.

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David Longstreth from Dirty Projectors (Jason Frank Rothenberg)

Dirty Projectors, Dirty Projectors

★★☆☆☆

Download: Up In Hudson; Ascent Through Clouds

What is it with musicians and their need to air their laundry in public? Barely a week goes by without another break-up album laying out the tedious details of another failed relationship. Dirty Projectors is the latest, David Longstreth’s account of his separation from former bandmate Amber Coffman told through a welter of autotuned, over-treated vocals and jumble of clashing sounds that, to be generous, may be intended as an analogue of the ground shifting beneath their disintegrating relationship. It’s not a pretty portrait, with her face depicted as “a rictus of misery and pain”, and their contrasting attitudes somewhat self-servingly described by “Your heart is saying ‘clothing line’/My body said Naomi Klein/No logo”. Ironically, the most approachable piece is “Up In Hudson”, Longstreth’s reminiscence of their early time together, a sunnier memory opening with warm horns and climaxing in a glorious thread of keening guitar distortion. It’s the one track here that might survive the nakedness of simple, solo accompaniment.

Stormzy, Gang Signs & Prayer

★★★☆☆

Download: First Things First; Cold; Mr Skeng; Blinded By Your Grace Pt. 2

With even the boys in blue beating a path to his door, Stormzy is clearly on the verge of becoming the next grime crossover success. As the title suggests, Gang Signs & Prayer follows Stormzy as he tacks between the attractions of notoriety and righteousness – indeed, in “Mr Skeng”, he claims the youthful temptations of guns have since been supplanted as his weapon of choice by The Bible. The usual bouts of brusque dissing rub shoulders with love songs, fond tributes to his mom, and a fulsome, swaying devotional hymn “Blinded By Your Grace Pt. 2”. But it’s the engaging sense of vulnerability and self-deprecation that brings depth and charm to Gang Signs & Prayer: recounting his litany of problems in “First Things First”, Stormzy’s brave enough to rhyme “recession” with “depression”; while in the brisk, Latin-flavoured “Cold”, he muses drolly on his meagre success: “I’ve been cold the whole season/I should call my next one Freezin’!”.

Beatrice Rana​, Bach: Goldberg Variations

★★★★☆

Download: Aria; Variation X (Fughetta); Variation XI; Variation VII; Variation XXX

Young Italian pianist Beatrice Rana brings a welcome freshness to this most widely recorded of classical staples, with a pleasingly limpid, delicate touch on the opening “Aria” that one might call Chopin-esque. She’s especially adept at negotiating subtle shifts in tempo and dynamic, both within the individual Variations and between them: her elision from the stilted, slightly pompous “Variation X (Fughetta)” to the fluid, cascading “Variation XI”, for instance, is delightful – as is her shift, without pause, from the coltish exuberance of “Variation I” into the more elegant line of “Variation II”. And her deft tiptoeing between hesitancy and reflection in “Variation VII” really enables the piece to breathe, confirming Rana’s ability to trace the humanity behind the notes. It’s a thoughtful, sensitive performance which makes one hear a familiar work anew: the closing reprise of the “Aria” seems imbued with a host of observations, reflections, tones and moods accumulated in the journey through the Variations.

Thundercat​, Drunk

★★★☆☆

Download: Rabbot Ho; Uh Uh; Bus In These Streets; A Fan’s Mail; Blackkk

Thundercat is the formidable bass-shredding chum of such as Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus and Pharrell, several of whom make guest appearances on Drunk - along with the more unexpected duo of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins. His nimble, knuckle-knotting basslines to tracks like “Uh Uh” suggest many an hour glued to Stanley Clark albums, though Thundercat’s fast-edit changes – switching abruptly between cool jazz, prog-fusion and sleek soul – along with his liking for weird time-signatures and even weirder lyrics, suggest an affinity for Frank Zappa and George Clinton. “Comb your beard, brush your teeth,” he advises on opener “Rabbot Ho”, while elsewhere songs are dedicated to the uneasy joys of cycling, how he’d rather be a cat than a celebrity (complete with cute “meow meow meow” chorus), and his worry about being “already behind the curve” when he loses his phone. It’s an enjoyable, occasionally virtuosic romp, fronted by Thundercat’s smooth soul harmonies, which lend proceedings the lustrous sheen of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Sherwood & Pinch, Man Vs Sofa

★★★☆☆

Download: Roll Call; Midnight Mindset; Lies

This second collaboration between Adrian Sherwood and Rob ‘Pinch’ Ellis is a masterclass in soundscaping mystery and imagination which somehow yokes together the individual producer/DJs’ separate territories. “Roll Call” is a harbinger of things to come, full of sub-bass menace, with shadowy strings drawn around predatory pulse and synth – a largely uninhabited industrial dubscape further explored in tracks like “Man Vs. Sofa” and “Midnight Mindset”, the latter featuring sprays and trills of Martin Duffy’s piano pirouetting elegantly around smears of cello, deep bass pulse and scuttling beat. It’s an odd alliance of elements that seem at odds, but work beautifully together. A couple of tracks feature guest vocalists, with Taz and the late Junior Delgado’s contributions combined over the grim dubscape of “Gun Law”, while Lee Perry adds his own co(s)mic wisdom to “Lies”, celebrating “the mystic sky, the mystic I” over a swirl of water sounds and saxophones.

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