Album reviews: The Hidden Cameras - Home On Native Land, Jim James - Eternally Even, and more

Also Kathryn Williams & Anthony Kerr, A Tribe Called Quest, Tim Buckley and Alison Balsom

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The Hidden Cameras, Home On Native Land

★★★★☆

Download: Day I Left Home; He Is The Boss Of Me; Counting Stars; Dark End Of The Street; You And Me Again

Apparently ten years in the making, Home On Native Land is The Hidden Cameras’ most engaging album yet, another welcoming affirmation of sexual diversity this time set within the quixotic constraints of what chief Camera, Joel Gibbs, calls “Canadiana”.

The Cameras’ native roots have been the source of varied reflections ever since 2004’s Mississauga Goddam, in which Gibbs attacked the lingering homophobia of his home suburb in a confrontational manner, with the honeyed harmonies of the group’s “gay church folk music” applied in paeans to cruising, sodomy and enemas. (You won’t have heard it on the radio.) Here, however, the explicit carnality has been replaced by a more emotionally comforting tone: “Counting Stars”, for instance, is a joyous, gospel affirmation of sexual singularity that’s gay in all senses of the word. A new version of the early Hidden Cameras song “He Is The Boss Of Me”, meanwhile, is much more tender than the rough-hewn original, its celebrations of “hugs and sugar love” warmed by gentle, cossetting strings over a shuffle-stroll setting – it’s reminiscent of John Grant’s less abrasive love songs, which is a good thing.

A distinctly Grant-ian blend of spite and serenity also informs “Big Blue”, whose strings and mandolin serve the homeland theme more rousingly encountered in a glee-club-style version of the classic Canadian lumberjack song “Log Driver’s Waltz”, on which Gibbs is accompanied by Rufus Wainwright, Feist and Mary Margaret O’Hara. A similar mood infuses “Drunk Dancer’s Waltz”, a lurching barroom anthem of trilling piano and pedal steel, whose choral hum-along irresistibly signals foaming tankards hoisted aloft. Elsewhere, Neil Tennant joins Gibbs to warble wordlessly over the trotting banjo and piano of “Ode To An Ah”, while Ron Sexsmith pops up on a country-rocking take of Tim Hardin’s “Don’t Make Promises”.

While gently cantering country modes dominate proceedings, the group’s range touches other genres, as with the gospel of “Counting Stars”, the bluesy slide-guitar licks that punctuate “Twilight Of The Season”, and the deep soul of “Dark End Of The Street”, where Gibbs’ upfront sexuality lends a different edge to the song’s secret-love theme. But any vestiges of guilt are dispelled by the celebratory tone of gay anthems like “Be What I Want”, “You And Me Again”, “The Great Reward” and especially the opener “Day I Left Home”, where his coming out is depicted as a young animal’s first tentative steps into a scary but thrilling forest. A sweet, joyously transgressive album.

Jim James, Eternally Even

★★★★☆

Download: Hide In Plain Sight; Same Old Lie; World’s Smiling Now; True Nature

A somewhat belated protest album against the rightward lurch of American society, Eternally Even offers a marked contrast to the My Morning Jacket mainman’s previous solo effort Regions Of Light And Sound Of God. In place of that album’s psychedelic whimsy are a series of lovely, languid soul grooves built around throbbing, cyclical organ drones, subdued guitar and electric piano, down-tempo funk beats and subtle streaks of strings. The mood and music have the gentle momentum of Curtis Mayfield, though ironically James eschews his admired angelic falsetto in favour of warm, murmurous vocals as he proclaims how one “can’t build love out of guns, blood and sorrow” and suggests that “the strange times can change”. Little did he know, one muses with hindsight; though his calls throughout to battle vulnerability through community sound inarguably just.

A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

★★★★☆

Download: The Space Program; Kids; Enough!!; Black Spasmodic; Conrad Tokyo

Recorded before the recent death of Phife Dawg, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service is the first album of new material in 18 years from conscious-rap pioneers A Tribe Called Quest. Despite the hiatus, this guest-laden double-album finds the group still very much engaged, rattling out tongue-twisting, articulate verbal flows dealing more with social realities than self-aggrandising brags and outlaw fantasies. As Q-Tip puts it on “The Space Program”, they’re doing it for “non-conformists and never-quitters”, amongst others. Highlights include Dawg’s fraternal short-folks shout “Black Spasmodic”, Q-Tip’s domesticity sketch “Kids”, and the knotty relationship analysis “Enough!!”, on which sleek background harmonies confirm ATCQ’s broader musical hinterland, which attracts collaborations not just with hip-hoppers such as Andre 3000, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, but also rockers like Jack White and Elton John. A righteous return.

Tim Buckley, Lady, Give Me Your Key

★★★☆☆

Download: Lady, Give Me Your Key; Once Upon A Time; Once I Was; I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain; Marigold

Culled from recently-unearthed tapes and acetates, Lady, Give Me Your Key features solo Tim Buckley demos of material intended for his baroque-folk-rock milestone Goodbye And Hello, including lovely versions of the sombre, devotional “Once I Was” and bawdy “Knight-Errant”, and a hard-strummed 12-string run through the marital breakdown protest “I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain”, whose surreal rage represents the earliest indication of Buckley’s shift towards extempore jazz on subsequent albums. Equally interesting are undeveloped outtakes such as the exquisite heartbreak miniature “Marigold”, and two songs deliberately written to meet Elektra’s demand for a hit single, “Once Upon A Time” and “Lady, Give Me Your Key”, on which Buckley’s genial charm and outlandish vocal gymnastics – not to mention the latter track’s clumsy drug-pun metaphor – trump any unfeasible commercial considerations.

Kathryn Williams & Anthony Kerr, Resonator

★★☆☆☆

Download: Like Someone In Love; The Very Thought Of You

Teaming up with vibraphonist Anthony Kerr, Kathryn Williams interprets familiar jazz standards on Resonator. Sadly, the results are far less absorbing than her previous covers album Relations, on which both material and delivery were more varied. Here, she employs the same wan, breathy timbre throughout, rendering the emotional terrain oddly flat, a homogeneity unfortunately exacerbated by the echoed resonance of Kerr’s vibes. Chet Baker is the obvious model for her approach, but where Baker’s understatement was dry and desolate, Williams’s is twee and cloying. So rather than revealing new meaning in songs like “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” and “I’m A Fool To Want You”, the excess of diffidence just makes them limp. The introduction of quiet trumpet is a double-edged addition, helping pep up “Like Someone In Love”, but then simply emphasising the terminal, languid nature of “Embraceable You”.

Alison Balsom, Jubilo

★★★☆☆

Download: In dulci jubilo; Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring

Originally intended as a Christmas album, Jubilo finds Alison Balsom exploring the differences between the natural (unvalved) trumpet of the Baroque era, which she plays on orchestrated pieces by Corelli, Torelli and Fasch, and today’s modern (valved) trumpet, used alongside organ on works by Bach. The natural trumpet’s bright, visceral timbre is evident on Fasch’s “Trumpet Concerto in D” and Torelli’s “Sonata in D major”, where its tone is matched by the tartness of the strings; but it’s best showcased on Corelli’s “Christmas Concerto”, especially the adagio-allegro, which has a measured logicality akin to Pachelbel’s “Canon”. The more rounded, urbane timbre of the modern trumpet locates a fruitful partnership with the organ on pieces such as “In dulci jubilo” and the lovely undulations of “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring”, providing an aspirational upper register over the reverberant, grounding drones.

Various Artists, The Life & Songs Of Emmylou Harris

★★★☆☆

Download: Boulder To Birmingham; Hickory Wind; Will The Circle Be Unbroken; All The Roadrunning

We should all be so beloved: rarely has a musician been quite as effusively complimented by so many as on this live show from January 2015 honouring Emmylou Harris. The roster of guests, from Alison Krauss and Mary Chapin Carpenter to Kris Kristofferson and Steve Earle, is a virtual who’s who of alternative country music, while the backing band, led by musical directors Buddy Miller and Don Was, has a supple subtlety and drive adaptable to any shade of emotion. Highlights include Lucinda Williams’ suitably hickory-smoked rendition of “Hickory Wind”, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s gripping “All The Roadrunning”, and Mavis Staples’ gospel-country take on “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”. But it’s Harris’s own climactic contribution of her signature piece “Boulder To Birmingham” that’s most affecting. “I’m so blessed with so many friends,” she marvels at its conclusion. “I must have done something really good in a past life.”

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