Album reviews: The Tiger Lillies – 'Cold Night In Soho', Japandroids​ – 'Near To The Wild Heart Of Life', and more

Also Tift Merrit, Cream, and Chris Wood

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The Tiger Lillies, Cold Night In Soho

★★★★★

Download: Soho Clipper Blues; Cold Night In Soho; Salvation Army; Just Another Day, Heroin

There’s a Marmite quality to the weird, falsetto keening of Tiger Lillies’ singer Martyn Jacques that’s very much an acquired taste. The exaggerated, theatrical manner of his singing confounds the notion of “soulful” authenticity that some listeners require to buy into a song – yet with Cold Night In Soho, the trio’s first album in a decade not linked to a stage show, he wields it in a range of ways, variously serious, humorous and blasphemous, that lead one, unsuspecting, to an emotional climax that just reaches in and tears out your heart. Having set us up with the jocular, mordant cynicism of songs like “Heroin” and “The First Day”, the sucker punch of genuine human tragedy in “Cold Night In Soho” is simply devastating, a dose of reality that throws pop’s parade of placebo “feelings” into sharp relief.

The album is The Tiger Lillies’ fond tribute to the Soho of two decades ago, before streetwalkers and drunks were swept away by baristas and tech upstarts. Booze and drugs are rife in these non-judgmental tableaux: “Heroin” offers a grimly ironic account of artistic dissipation and celebrity ambition, set to jaunty oompah cabaret accordion, Jacques advising some wannabe star, “You got to be tragic, if you want to be magic”. But later on, we encounter that same youth as the homeless loser addict of “Screwed Blues”, desperately seeking the release of terminal overdose, his plight serenaded with plunking guitar and bowed saw. The saw’s lachrymose tone likewise laments the tramp gradually covered in snow as he sleeps in a shop doorway in “Just Another Day”. “The ice has entered your veins,” sings Jacques. “Now it’s time to go.”

In the face of such brutal human tragedy, it’s hardly surprising that presumptions of God’s redemptive nature come in for a kicking. “The First Day” retells the Genesis story as a parable of God’s abandonment of mankind, while “Salvation Army” offers an enthusiastically blasphemous creation myth, with whores blowing angels and God as a drug dealer whose supply never runs dry. “Salvation Army comes to Soho, eating apples from God,” mocks Jacques over piano and lowing euphonium. “Well, we never likes him anyway. He’s a miserable sod.”

But the album really comes together late on, when the subject of “Soho Clipper Blues”, a bluff account of a clippie’s devious tricks conning sad Soho johns, reappears in the concluding “Cold Night In Soho” as not just a character but an actual friend of Jacques – the victim 30 years ago of an aggrieved punter who left her corpse in Rupert Street. Over nine minutes wreathed in shivering bowed bass and saw, the album comes into focus on a more personal level, with Jacques’ wracked delivery becoming slower and slower as the emotion drains out of him and he sinks deeper into grief-stricken memories. It’s a remarkable performance, one which confounds their reputation as theatrical ironists and confirms that behind the greasepaint lurks genuine emotion.

Japandroids​, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life

★★★★☆

Download: Arc Of Bar; Near To The Wild Heart Of Life; North East South West; True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will

“The future’s under fire, the past is gaining ground,” sing Vancouver duo Japandroids on the title track of Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, an album which focuses their stadium-alt-punk sound to its sharpest edge yet. Though in all honesty, the past has rather overwhelmed them already, with their blend of anthemic Springsteen drive and Replacements raggedy-ass rock marshalled mostly in the service of simplistic rock’n’roll sentiments. They’ve even rewritten their own “Route 66”, expanded to accommodate their native Canada, in “North East South West”, a celebration of raising hell from “coast to coast” set to an infectiously jerky, rolling jangle. Elsewhere, densely-textured grinds of guitars and keyboards are borne along on colossal-drum tattoos in tracks such as “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will” and the standout track “Arc Of Bar”, a lengthy, triumphalist assertion of carnality which includes the album’s most evocative line, “An arc of bar, a flash bizarre of diamonds, dust and drinks”.

Tift Merritt​, Stitch Of The World

★★★★☆

Download: My Boat; Dusty Old Man; Eastern Light; Proclamation Bones

While not quite as impressive as 2012’s Traveling Alone, there’s much to enjoy about Tift Merritt’s Stitch Of The World – not least the inspired contributions of her top-notch accompanists. As before, the interplay between guitarists Marc Ribot and Eric Heywood – delicately weblike on the title track, waspishly stinging on “Dusty Old Man” – is delightful, while drummer Jay Bellerose brings a ribald swing to the latter’s genial rockabilly groove. And Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, who co-produces with Merritt, duets on three tracks. The material is split between classic country songcraft (“Love Soldiers On”), roustabout swamp-rock (“Proclamation Bones”) and some tracks that slip between the cracks in magical, engaging ways, such as the duet “Eastern Light” and especially the Raymond Carver-inspired “My Boat”. Its inclusive invitation – “You can do whatever you want, on my boat” – is richly borne out in the blend of sustained guitar tones, subtle mandolin and percussive textures.

Max Richter, Three Worlds: Music From Woolf Works

★★★★☆

Download: Mrs Dalloway; Orlando; The Waves

Released to coincide with the current ROH run of Wayne McGregor’s ballet, Woolf Works follows a three-part structure, offering musical evocations of three Virginia Woolf books, each prefaced by a brief spoken passage. The first is the most surprising, Woolf herself introducing “Mrs Dalloway” by musing upon the well-worn nature of the English language, before Richter weaves his characteristic ancient-modern magic, with simple piano and violin figures engaged in a courtly dance that, as with his earlier The Blue Notebooks, applies Renaissance counterpoint methods to minimalist materials, in places evoking the mood and melody of Pachelbel’s Canon. Orlando uses throbbing electronic pulses interspersed with rhythmic string passages, along with more amorphous string washes that prefigure the final section, “The Waves”. Movingly prefaced by Gillian Anderson reading the novelist’s suicide note, its gently absorbing string undulations, with a faintly keening soprano occasionally audible amongst the oceanic swells, bring fiction and real life together in a deep, powerful manner.

Mark Eitzel​, Hey Mr Ferryman

★★★☆☆

Download: In My Role As Professional Singer And Ham; The Last Ten Years; Nothing And Everything

“I spent the last ten years trying to waste half an hour,” claims Mark Eitzel here in “The Last Ten Years”, a drunk’s reflection on opportunities wasted and duties neglected – in other words, a typical Eitzel epistle from life’s other side, his melancholy resignation swaddled in mellotron and sewn together by Bernard Butler’s piercing stitches of lead guitar. Butler performs miracles as producer, sprinkling flute like pollen over “An Angel’s Wing Brushed The Penny Slots”, and haunting “Nothing And Everything” with spectral backing vocals. Eitzel’s glass-half-empty attitude, however, grips the songs too tightly: “I’ve become the man that time forgot,” he notes, though it seems a point of pride rather than regret. But when singer and producer work together, the results are scarily sharp – as in “In My Role As Professional Singer And Ham”, with its backdrop of keening guitars and strings growing inexorably denser as Eitzel poses the album’s most pertinent question: “Tell me, why are the righteous always so eager for war?”.

Cream, Fresh Cream

★★★☆☆

Download: I Feel Free; N.S.U.; I’m So Glad; Spoonful

Originally released in 1966, Fresh Cream was arguably the first ever rock album, eschewing the enticements of pop pleasantry and dance beats in favour of all-out power-trio attack. The members had conflicting notions of what the group was: Eric Clapton thought it was a showcase for his blues guitar, but Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker felt they had smuggled Eric into an improvising jazz trio. Certainly, Clapton found he had to adapt his technique, using barre chords and open-string drones to fill out the band’s sound, setting in place the classic Cream blizzard of lead instruments battling for command of a hurricane. They wouldn’t really hit their stride until the following year’s Disraeli Gears, but Fresh Cream has its share of moments – among them the galloping “N.S.U.”, and the dervish blues workouts “I’m So Glad” and “Spoonful” – liberally expanded for this three-CD edition with a wealth of outtakes, alternative mixes and contemporary singles.

Chris Wood, So Much To Defend

★★★☆☆

Download: So Much To Defend; This Love Won’t Let You Fail; More Fool Me; Only A Friendly

As with his 2013 masterpiece None The Wiser, Chris Wood offers an unflinching, chilly portrait of modern Britain in So Much To Defend, its nine songs teeming with Brueghel-like life against all odds. The title track builds a tableau of snatched contemporary mores – yoga classes, zero-hours contracts, Skyping and charity fun runs – periodically punctuated by the mordant title hook. It’s bruised but unbowed, driven along by Wood’s funky fingerpicked guitar, a soulful undercurrent emphasised by burring organ in “This Love Won’t Let You Fail”, a tender expression of a father’s devotion, “trying to let go with all his might” as his daughter departs for flatland independence. Elsewhere, “Only A Friendly” offers a vibrant account of off-pitch activity at a lower-league match, while “More Fool Me” echoes Gillian Welch’s “Everything Is Free” in its regret at the decline of music as a paying job – “but there’s still nothing else I’d rather do or be”.

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