Album reviews: Tinie Tempah - Youth, Little Dragon - Season High, Sam Outlaw - Tenderheart, and more

Also El Michels Affair - Return To the 37th Chamber and Samantha Crain​ - You Had Me At Goodbye

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The Independent Culture

Tinie Tempah, Youth

★★★☆☆

Download: Youth; Lightwork; Mamacita; They Don’t Know

The title track of Youth finds Tinie Tempah in ostensibly bullish mood – “Last year was my practice year, let’s get more hits and more plaques this year” – but the positivity soon seems to leach away, as anxieties creep in to taint his luxuriations in success. And perhaps not without cause, considering the arc of Tinie’s recent career. The most successful of the singles taken from the album remains “Not Letting Go”, his hit duet with Jess Glynne from two years ago; since then, there’s been a marked drop-off in impact, with last February’s “Girls Like” marking his most recent top 10 placing, a reflection perhaps of the satisfying interaction with Zara Larsson, Tinie’s natural nonchalance the cool foil to her urgency.

Most surprising of all was the inexplicable failure of “Mamacita”, the bootylicious Caribbean crossover groove produced by Bless Beats, which stalled outside the top 40 despite being released at the height of last summer. It remains one of the more engaging tracks on Youth, where its simple appreciation of physical delights offers a pleasing counterbalance to the fretful concerns in pieces like “Text From Your Ex” – Tinie caught out playing away when shopped by an old flame – and “Cameras”, a wafer-thin rumination on contemporary intrusiveness, when everyone is both paparazzi and public property alike.

But the dominant theme of Youth, as the title suggests, is nostalgia, with tracks such as “Rehab” and “So Close” indulging fond reminiscence of his early career. In the latter, he’s prompted to consider his progress when he sees something of himself in a faltering young protege, urged, in Guy Sebastian’s John Legend-like refrain, not to throw in the towel yet. It’s a reflection, perhaps, of Tinie’s growing business paternalism, the interest, shared with UK stars like Skepta and Stormzy, to develop their own stable of young artists, and expand further into related areas of fashion and design.

Here, his pool of talent is confirmed in the spare xylophone beat to “Youth” and the ingenious, slinky grooves to “Lightwork” and “They Don’t Know”, a frisky pass-the-mic showcase between Tinie, Kid Ink, Stefflon Don and AoD. But given the sharp drop-off in notable guest talent this time round, compared with Demonstration, he certainly needs to make changes. And that doesn’t mean bringing in Jake Bugg as a sort of bargain-basement Ed Sheeran, to furnish the ill-fitting hook to “Find Me”, an embarrassment of mis-matched intentions.

 

Little Dragon, Season High

★★★☆☆

Download: Sweet; High; Butterflies; Strobe Light

For all their bewitching characteristics, there’s a frustrating aspect to Swedish electropop combo Little Dragon, reflected in their sometimes quixotic choices – as instantly here when the crystalline synth-pop of opener “Celebrate” is capped with a snarly guitar solo utterly at odds with its benign mood.

But when they focus on their forte of blending brooding, gossamer synth washes with Yukimi Nagano’s breathy, sensuous vocals, as on “High” and “Don’t Cry”, the results are blissful; while the striding electro grooves of “Strobe Light” and the punchy paean to ambition “Push” offer a more active alternative.

And when the two combine, as on the irresistible “Sweet”, the result is bleep-tastic boudoir electropop for Clangers. Their minimalist aesthetic can sometimes work against them, as on the spartan, diffident “The Pop Life”, but it’s tempered by a winning romanticism on “Butterflies”, where the fluttering keyboards evoke a fantasy of a dead soul becoming a butterfly, one of “a thousand souls swarming”.

 

Samantha Crain​, You Had Me At Goodbye

★★★☆☆

Download: Antiseptic Greeting; Betty’s Eulogy; Wreck

On You Had Me At Goodbye, Samantha Crain stretches her folk stylings to accommodate a more expansive musical palette, somewhat akin to Natalie Prass, with producer John Vanderslice serving as her Matthew E White. In places, Vanderslice’s more abstruse, jazzier ideas grate with the material – notably the clarinet discords closing the old departing-soldier-boy tale “When The Roses Bloom Again” - but he’s usually on the money with things like the elegiac strings accompanying “Betty’s Eulogy” and the lachrymose pedal steel, vibes and shaker underscoring “Wreck”, a heartfelt plea for a lover who’s “a worker, not a volunteer”.

“Red Sky, Blue Mountain” is a eco-chant in Crain’s native Choctaw tongue, and “Smile When” her imagined response from the woman so missed by Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman”. But the best track here is the opener “Antiseptic Greeting”, a reflection on public presentation and “resting bitch face” set to a roller-coaster melody in the Shins vein.

 

El Michels Affair, Return To the 37th Chamber

★★★☆☆

Download: 4th Chamber; Snakes; Shadow Boxing

Besides working with The Black Keys and Dap-Kings, Leon Michel’s impeccable retro sensibilities and “cinematic sound” stylings led him into a close association with The Wu-Tang Clan, whose tracks he lovingly replicated in instrumental form on 2009’s Enter The 37th Chamber.

This follow-up set continues in similar vein, augmented occasionally by vocal interjections from such as Lee Fields, who brings a genuine shot of deep-soul emotion to “Snakes”. A fuzz-guitar, organ and harpsichord version of “4th Chamber” opens the album with an evocative take on Wu-Tang producer RZA’s characteristic haunting stasis, before rolling tympani and reeds herald the whip-smart keyboard riff oozing Euro-thriller mystery on “Iron Man” and “Shaolin Brew”, which manages to be simultaneously menacing and triumphant. Throughout, Michel ingeniously brings fluidity to the thick, clogged sound of RZA’s multi-sample loops, though without sacrificing the essential foggy darkness of tracks like “Shadow Boxing” and “Wu-Tang Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit”.

 

Various Artists, Jon Savage’s 1967

★★★★☆

Download: So You Want To Be A Rock’n’Roll Star; I’m A Man; Respect; Soul Finger; Mr Soul; Yellow Brick Road; Psyche Rock

On his latest entertaining 2CD survey of Sixties pop, Jon Savage characterises 1967 as the year pop divided – though in truth, the divide had been a long slow rip, with Ken Dodd’s “Tears” and Jim Reeves’ “Distant Drums” casting the same long, mum-shaped shadow over teen tastes in the preceding two annii mirabiles as Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me” did over 1967.

But glimpsed via pirate radio, the changes were perhaps more profound, as soul became more assertive (“Respect”), James Brown ushered in the groove (“Cold Sweat”), and psychedelia oozed into every nook and cranny, transforming even beery Brummies like The Move into shamanic pioneers (“I Can Hear The Grass Grow”). It’s by no means definitive – there’s no “Hey Joe”, “Whiter Shade”, “Itchycoo Park” or “Strawberry Fields Forever” - but there’s compensation in the under-exposed early work of such as The Soft Machine and Terry Reid; I, for one, will be eternally grateful for Les Yper Sound’s bizarro Gallic oddity “Psyche Rock”.

 

Sam Outlaw, Tenderheart

★★★☆☆

Download: Bottomless Mimosas; Trouble; Look At You Now

With Tenderheart, Sam Outlaw builds on the success of his debut Angeleno, which earlier this year won Album Of The Year at the UK Americana Awards. The sound here is occasionally brasher – most notably on the gentle opener “Everyone’s Looking For Home”, suddenly overwhelmed by a startling, brash mariachi climax – but generally sticks fairly close to the Laurel Canyon soundalike stylings of Outlaw’s “SoCal” sound. These are smoothly conveyed in tracks like “Two Broken Hearts”, in which love comes through shared solace, and “Bottomless Mimosas”, where reference to “peaceful easy feelings” recalls The Eagles’ laidback California-cowboy lifestyle, here revisited whilst “trading books and gossip over bottomless mimosas”.

Outlaw’s tougher side is revealed in the swaggering country-rock of “Trouble” (“I must have sold my soul when I became your friend/‘Cos you got me into trouble again”); but his lyrical stiletto is more subtly wielded elsewhere, in the disarming claim “God isn’t really on your side, you just think He is”.

 

François Couturier, Tarkovsky Quartet – Nuit Blanche

★★★★☆

Download: Rêve; Fantasia; Urga; Dakus

Inspired by the drifting, dream-like films of Andrei Tarkovsky, pianist François Couturier’s quartet are equally adept at composed and improvised works on this collection of contemplative pieces.

Couturier and cellist Anja Lechner’s sensibilities were evident interpreting Gurdjieff and Mompou on last year’s Moderato Cantabile, and their alliance here with Jean-Marc Larché’s soprano sax and Jean-Louis Matinier’s accordion offers a distinctive palette whose drones and small, fluting phrases recall the likes of Pauline Oliveiros and Terry Riley, as in the immersive piano/sax blend of “Fantasia”. Couturier’s “Urga” is a reflective dérive through deserted streets of memory, while “Dakus” – based on Takemitsu’s “Nostalghia”, itself a Tarkovsky tribute – features urgent, sweeping cello over pulsing accordion.

The whole album, meanwhile, is ingeniously bound together by a series of six short, improvised “dreams” – two each of “Rêve”, “Dream” and “Traum” – which accrete gently from wisps of sound and drones, like moths gathering at dusk around a light.

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