Album reviews: Strand of Oaks, Andrew Bird, Jose James,Tchaikovsky, Mereidian Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show

 

Strand of Oaks Heal

“I don’t want to start all over again,” Timothy Showalter declares on the opening track of this, his third album as Strand of Oaks. And yet that is precisely what he has done. Gone is the melancholic singer-songwriter, and in his place comes a Crazy Horse-like barrage of guitars. 

It is – with electronica assaults and even J Mascis on lead guitar at one point – a veritable squall of sound and if Showalter’s new direction could alienate fans of his earlier work (see Bonus Track, left), there were never enough of those for him to worry unduly.

Does it blow me away? Not really. But one moment – the Jason Molina tribute “JM” – is startling enough to forgive the clunking stadium-grunge workouts that seem, conversely, to be bringing Strand of Oaks to wider attention.

****

Simmy Richman

Andrew Bird Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of

An entire album covering songs written by the gothic-country husband’n’wife team, the Handsome Family. That’s fanhood for you. Bird is an unusual figure – a self-taught multi-instrumentalist interested not in his technical accomplishment but in framing his voice to extract maximum juice from whatever he happens to be singing.

In this case, he’s with a small ensemble singing narrative, observational American songs with a strong sense of both landscape and weather, as well as the mysterious deeds of man and beast. The music is softly strummed, and Bird’s voice is a high, lonesome thing like the wind on a prairie. Sort of. Fans of True Detective will be pleased to hear he does “Far From Any Road”.

****

Nick Coleman

José James While You Were Sleeping Blue Note

At first listening it sounds like the talented soul-jazz vocalist and songwriter José James has made another of the “one step forward, two steps back” moves that appear to have marked his recording career, following the slinky R&B of his very good label debut No Beginning No End with exactly the kind of lumpen guitar-rock and ponderous lyrics that tasteful soul fans hate.

Certainly, “Angel”, “Anywhere U Go” and a number of other tracks seem to be in search of another audience entirely. Citing the influence of Nirvana, Frank Ocean and Radiohead doesn’t convince, either. But a few things work: the broken beats of “U R the 1”; a duet with Becca Stevens on “Dragon”; the strings on “4 Noble Truths”, and the closing cover of Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful”.

****

Phil Johnson

Tchaikovsky The Seasons – Pavel Kolesnikov

Lovers of theatre and music in St Petersburg turned every month in 1876 to the latest Nuvellist magazine for a new seasonal piece by Tchaikovsky. First published in instalments, as a complete suite the piano music evokes the extremes of the Russian climate and pastimes – a troika ride in November, carnival in February, and, most beguilingly, the seductive song of dreamy June, this barcarolle the piece most played alone.

Within reach of a good amateur pianist, The Seasons take on a special glow when played as tenderly as here, by Siberian-born Kolesnikov, whose Wigmore Hall debut earlier this year was much praised, and whose special affinity with this intimate, homely music makes this brightly recorded disc a delight.

****

Claudia Pritchard

Meridian Brothers Salvadora Robot

Each track on this playfully avant-garde Colombian band’s latest album centres on a different Latin American style, but it is how the band de-centres these various compelling rhythms that is the main appeal.

Off-key comedy keyboards, wobbly electric guitar, kitsch 1950s sci-fi sound effects, a lead vocalist who is apt to burst into pantomime laughter or unleash crocodile tears – they all add up to a fairground-mirror take on tropical dance music that has the power to discombobulate by creating new spaced-out spaces. “Surreal”, “bizarre” and “playful” in the words of their record label.

However, you wouldn’t want to be trapped in a lift with it. Take no more than two small doses a day and don’t use any heavy machinery.

****

Howard Male

Old Crow Medicine Show Remedy

Grammy-winning Appalachian neo-folk with attitude. Banjos, fiddles, harmonicas, guitars, mandolins, bass and not many drums, spliced to ultra-idiomatic melodies and even a Dylan co-composition (“Sweet Amarillo”), all executed with energy, panache and virtuosity … What’s not to lavish with Grammy awards?

And there’s the rub: it all feels a little well-made, as if designed rather than grown, cooked up rather than breathed. There’s wit (“Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer”) and animals (“8 Dogs 8 Banjos”), solemnity (“Dearly Departed Friend”) and nostalgia (“Doc’s Day”), all of it frothed up into an accomplished brew and delivered with good-timey vim but without a whole lot of charisma, especially in the vocal department. Snake oil, in other words. Good fun snake oil.

****

NC

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