Album reviews: The Shins – Heartworms, The Magnetic Fields – 50 Song Memoir, Valerie June – The Order of Time and more

Also: Hurray for the Riff Raff, Les Amazones d’Afrique, Sir Was, Inna De Yard

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The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir

★★★★★

Download this: They’re Killing Children Over There; At The Pyramid; Dreaming In Tetris; Stupid Tears; You Can Never Go Back To New York

As mid-life crises go, Stephin Merritt’s has to be one of the most orderly and focused. Forget the sports car, the inappropriate haircut and the ill-judged fling – for Merritt, fifty-something reflections on his life have resulted in exactly that: fifty songs, one for each year of his life, spread across five CDs. It’s not really a surprise – he was the man, after all, who created the wise and witty 69 Love Songs, and this project is tackled with a similarly methodical mix of melody, mirth and melancholy, and delivered through a comparably encyclopaedic array of musical modes.

It starts off fairly low-key, Merritt’s birth in 1965 marked by “Wonder Where I’m From”, with simple ukulele strumming accompanying his musings about whether he’s the product of “barefoot beatniks bunk[ing] on a boat”, a suitably bohemian creation myth presaging a toddlerhood spent being lugged by his mom to festivals and gigs – most memorably being terrified by Grace Slick, at a 1970 Jefferson Airplane show, announcing “They’re Killing Children Over There”, and thinking she meant at the side of the stage, rather than Vietnam. His mom’s various new-age fads (“she draws the line at crystal healing”) are wryly summarised in “My Mama Ain’t”, before the spotlight focuses more on Merritt himself, his studies and beliefs, tastes in books and arts, his ethics and aesthetics, relationships and attitudes, and especially his musical development.

The extent of the latter is grandly arrayed throughout the five discs, from the wan strings and clunking marimba of “How I Failed Ethics” to the bizarro Bollywood psych-rock of “At The Pyramid”; the weird squeezebox shanty offering a grim harbinger of “A Serious Mistake” to the ludicrous clatter of woodwind, horns and percussion animating his fantasy of “The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo”; and the shuffling rumba of accordion and autoharp jangle warning “You Can Never Go Back To New York”, to the poignant Bacharach-esque plaint regretting his “Stupid Tears”. It’s effectively a big dress-up box of musical styles, eagerly mismatched into clashing outfits that cast their own commentaries on Merritt’s unreliably narrated quasi-memories.

Growing up smart, inquisitive and gay through a time of turbulent social change, however, Merritt’s refracted reminiscences frequently offer thoughtful and incisive insights into bigger issues, and with deceptive sleight of story. I can’t think of another songwriter who could delicately draw videogames, disco, electropop and Aids together as he does in “Dreaming In Tetris”: “All the young dudes of 25/Caught diseases, few survived/We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?”.

Valerie June, The Order Of Time

★★★★★

Download this: Long Lonely Road; Shakedown; If And; The Front Door; Got Soul

Her follow-up to 2013’s sublime Pushin’ Against A Stone finds Valerie June expanding her unique blend of blues, soul and mountain music to create a distinctive hybrid in which past and future coalesce with gentle power. The opening blues spiritual “Long Lonely Road”, for instance, has the manner of a pilgrimage, with her enervated mountain drawl doggedly tracking the stubborn beat, surrounded by flecks and dabs of electric guitar. Elsewhere, her rural twang gives country-soul numbers like “Love You Once Made” and the anthemic closer “Got Soul” a unique charm, comparable to the Caledonian flavour of Van Morrison and Paolo Nutini; but perhaps the most absorbing aspect of The Order Of Time is the way that the repetitive, hypnotic modes of gospel, African and minstrel music are developed to give songs such as “The Front Door”, “If And” and the angular “Shakedown” a shamanic, mantra-like quality perfectly equipped to locate what she describes as “the light you have inside you can touch”.

Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator

★★★★☆

Download this: Hungry Ghost; The Navigator; Rican Beach; Pa’lante

On The Navigator, Alynda Segarra re-connects with her Puerto Rican ancestry, through a song-cycle of dispossession, emigration and identity erosion. Augmenting her folksy troubadour style with Latin percussion and an acappella group for that streetcorner-symphony flavour, she effectively expands the notion of Americana to accommodate another cultural strain alongside the usual blues and country influences. The narrative follows street kid Navita rejecting her existence in a crumbling urban dystopia, and going in search of a deeper identity. It’s a journey which inevitably confronts the bitterness of assimilation betrayed by gentrification – a process which leaves her yearning for a “Rican Beach” where lost language and identity might be restored. Resolution comes with “Pa’lante”, where Segarra’s engaged delivery echoes Buffy St Marie’s espousal of Native American issues, over a production that deliberately recalls John Lennon’s solo work, two earlier icons of revolutionary ardour. “Do your best, but fuck the rest,” she rails. “Be something!”

The Shins, Heartworms

★★★★☆

Download this: Name For You; Mildenhall; Half A Million; So Now What

The Shins’ creative mainspring James Mercer has always had a knack for creating distinctive earworms, whose unusual, serpentine melodies burrow deep into one’s affections. Now, on the first Shins album in five years, the title Heartworms suggests he’s trying to do something similar with emotions, sketching autobiographical situations whose particularity evades pop’s more humdrum cliches. That doesn’t mean they’re difficult, though: the jerky, offbeat opener “Name For You”, written for his daughters, brims with sunny, sweet disposition, while “Half A Million”, about the pressures of success, fizzes with energy despite his misgivings. Elsewhere, rainfall accompanies Mercer’s reminiscences of East Anglian adolescence as an expat airforce brat in “Mildenhall”, fending off homesickness with Jesus And Mary Chain tapes: the mood of fond melancholy is perfectly judged. And though that melancholy seeps deeper into songs like “So Now What” and “The Fear”, it’s never allowed to dominate, with the latter’s rolling drone groove quixotically tempered by the addition of mariachi horns, a typically off-centre touch.

Les Amazones d’Afrique, Republique Amazone

★★★★☆

Download this: Dombolo; Deep In Love; Anisokoma; I Play The Kora

Professing strength through unity, Les Amazones d’Afrique is a collective of female singers – including stars such as Angelique Kidjo and Kandia Kouyate alongside strong new voices like Rokia Kone and Nneka – collaborating to combat FGM. It’s a proud, forceful demonstration of the strength and variety of modern African music, brilliantly combined by producer Liam Farrell into arrangements where funk, afrobeat, desert-blues, dub and congotronics swirl infectiously around the women’s voices. The amazing treated log-drum sound of opener “Dombolo” provides the earthy anchor of a bubbly groove fronted with typical exuberance by Kidjo, while elsewhere the paired power of Malian griottes Kouyate and Kone on “Anisokoma” rides a groove which blends springy ngoni lute and Dr John-style swamp voodoo. The ensemble’s forces are most proudly heard on the rousing “I Play The Kora” – which ironically also features bass clarinet, metallic percussion, thumb piano and bowed strings: a world of music in a single track.

Sir Was, Digging A Tunnel

★★☆☆​☆

Download this: In The Midst; A Minor Life

Joel Wastberg, the Swedish multi-instrumentalist lurking behind the nom-de-disque Sir Was, is widely-travelled both geographically and musically, although the personal sound he distills from a wealth of outre influences is typified by “In The Midst”, the low-calorie nouveau-yacht-rock groove that opens this debut album. Its sleek lines, however, are spoilt by the background chatter of spaceship telecoms, one of the field recordings from his travels with which he roughs up most of these ten tracks. It’s most successful on “A Minor Life”, where the skirling bagpipe intro gets taken up as an off-kilter synthesiser waltz; while an encounter with a bluesharp busker results in his harmonica being featured on the jam groove “Bomping”. Otherwise, the found-sounds quickly become irritating – as too, unfortunately, does Wastberg’s wan falsetto, which imposes a mood of victimhood where uplift might be more appropriate. It’s rather sad, because there’s genuine invention in some of his J Dilla-style arrangement assemblages. So why sing?

Inna De Yard, The Soul Of Jamaica

★★★☆​☆☆

Download this: Let The Water Run Dry; Youth Man; Secret; Money For Jam

The Soul Of Jamaica is a sort of roots-reggae summit meeting between old-school stars like Ken Boothe and The Congos’ Cedric Myton, and a younger generation of performers seeking to restore the righteous spirit to Jamaican music. It’s a warm and welcoming affair, the twitchy, shuffling rock-steady grooves peppered with Rastafarian nyabinghi-beat percussion. The themes are strictly roots, from the wisdom and understanding recommended by The Viceroys in “Love Is The Key” to the justice and judgement advocated by Cedric Myton in “Youth Man”. The younger contributors try their best, but there’s a seasoned quality to performances by the likes of Lloyd Parks and Boothe – the latter’s voice now boasting an engaging smoky rasp – that cuts to the heart of matters. The contrast is best exemplified by the contributions of young Kush McAnuff, charming but callow, and his dad Winston, whose tersely infectious delivery of “Secret” oozes commanding presence.

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