Album reviews: Bob Dylan - Triplicate, Rachael Yamagata​ - Tightrope Walker, Take That - Wonderland, and more

Also Goldfrapp, The Doors, and Wire

Andy Gill
Wednesday 29 March 2017 15:44
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Bob Dylan, Triplicate

★★★☆☆

Download: September Of My Years; Here’s That Rainy Day; There’s A Flaw In My Flue; When The World Was Young; The Best Is yet To Come

In a recent interview, Bob Dylan described the three discs of Triplicate, his latest batch of Great American Songbook standards, as being thematically interconnected. “One is the sequel to the other, and each one resolves the previous one,” he explained, enigmatically. But it’s hard to spot any such linearity between the individual sets: the treatments are similar throughout – a creamy blend of pedal steel and restrained guitar interplay, augmented occasionally by horn arrangements – and the themes are likewise sustained across the 30 songs.

On many, Dylan is the victim, a fool for love hiding his heartbreak behind a facade of indifference or, as the “boulevardier” of “When The World Was Young”, a mask of nonchalant gaiety. Occasionally, a more jocular standard like “How Deep Is The Ocean” or “These Foolish Things” lightens the mood. But the overall impression is not so much of a narrative progression between the individual discs, as the photocopy suggested by the title, each disc re-stating and reaffirming the same themes.

“I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plans” opens proceedings with breezy horns accompanying an unusually jaunty confrontation of loss, a quandary echoed later on in the bitter irony of “It’s Funny To Everyone But Me”. But “September Of My Years” sends the mood spinning into darkness, with the lowing of Tony Garnier’s bowed bass, deep and resonant, like a moan from Stygian gloom, barely balanced by flecks of pedal steel and ambient guitar, as Dylan’s voice, enervated by experience, cracks in the face of age.

Which brings one to the elephant in this suite of rooms: there is some properly awful singing on Triplicate, partly due, one supposes, to Dylan’s hefty touring schedule, and partly to the strain of recording with band and horns en masse. Certainly, he hasn’t hasn’t learnt how to tackle this sort of material with the relaxed command of, say, Willie Nelson, as evidenced by their recordings of “Stardust”. And too often here, Dylan strains painfully for notes beyond his comfort zone. Still, despite this, there’s still a warmth and charm to his renditions of songs such as “How Deep Is The Ocean” and “The Best Is Yet To Come”, his relaxed manner confirmed on the latter by the louche horns hanging just behind the beat.

But the most interesting performances here are not of such familiar standards, but the less well-known pieces, particularly those making up the latter half of disc two, including a lovely “But Beautiful” handled with relaxed confidence, and a “PS I Love You” (not the Beatles song) boasting a twinkling guitar arrangement. Better still are a Sammy Khan oddity, “There’s A Flaw In My Flue”, juggling metaphors of waning potency and love’s dying embers; and “Here’s That Rainy Day”, on which subtle vibrato guitar lends a tingly timbre to a song which, in its melancholy cast and melodic shape, resembles a Brian Wilson ballad. It may take a lengthy trawl to unearth these pearls, but they’re worth the search.

Goldfrapp​, Silver Eye

★★★☆☆

Download: Anymore; Faux Suede Drifter; Everything Is Not Enough

After the wyrd-folk pastoralism of 2013’s Tales Of Us, Silver Eye finds Goldfrapp back in the punchy eroto-electropop mode of Black Cherry, with sensual synthesiser fizz and low-register fluttering electronics stalking Alison Goldfrapp as she urges, “Give me your love, make me a freak” on opener “Anymore”. It sets the tone for the whole album, with her coolly seductive tones set against low, buzzy synth motifs on tracks like the striding “Systemagic” and “Everything Is Not Enough”, whose oozing pulse underpins her assertion that “there’s no tomorrow, we are here in the future-birth”. The format perhaps reaches its apogee in the gorgeous, velveteen softness of “Faux Suede Drifter”, as replete with gutter glamour as its title suggests; while variety is provided in the more amorphous shape of “Zodiac Black”, its slow, keening mystery wreathed in swirls of synth.

Rachael Yamagata​, Tightrope Walker

★★★★☆

Download: Tightrope Walker; EZ Target; Let Me Be Your Girl; I’m Going Back

Inspired by Twin Towers traverser Philippe Petit, Tightrope Walker is a suitably courageous attempt to deal with precipitous emotions in risky musical settings. The result is a compelling set of songs in which Rachael Yamagata stretches her cabaret-croon style in diverse directions, from the shuffling trip-hop of “Over” to the fulsome, horn-drawn soul entreaty of “Let Me Be Your Girl”. The title-track sets the tone which she and co-producer John Alagia have devised for the album as a whole: brittle, skeletal percussion interacts with woozy vibrato guitar figures and tinges of mellotron behind Yamagata’s breathy, intimate vocal, pursuing a metaphor for holding oneself steady through risky emotional weather. Horns and strings are used sparingly, alongside a wealth of keyboard and other textures, including Blues Explosion drummer Russell Simins adding African percussion to the feral “EZ Target”: the breadth of moods conjured enables Yamagata​ to slip from devastation to nostalgia to devotion in successive songs, with no grinding of gears.

Take That, Wonderland

★★☆☆☆

Download: Wonderland; Superstar

For a few brief moments, Wonderland suggests that Take That may be heading for unexpectedly exotic territory, as the title-track opens with a minute and a half of keening and rushing noises, inscribed with Indian violin arabesques. But it’s just misdirection, as the track proper slams in like a Monty Python foot crushing such errant imagination, its blundering electropop managing to be both limp and brutal as the trio blathers blandly about music making them feel good, “from London to the USA”. This, it transpires, is but the first of a series of plodding feel-good anthems stuffed with empty wannabe-singalong platitudes like “high as the stars, we are giants” and “wake up it’s a brand new day, everybody’s gonna sing this song away”, an invocation cynically aimed at arena audiences. The sole moment of intrigue comes with “Superstar”, a mind-boggling mix of braggadocio and suicidal self-pity that adds arsenic to the recipe of having one’s cake and eating it.

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The Doors, The Doors: 50th Anniversary Edition

★★★★★

Download: Break On Through; The Crystal Ship; Light My Fire; The End

Originally released in early 1967, The Doors was one of the first albums to parade darkness in pop form – an intellectualised nexus of glamour and transgressive urges. Half a century later, its impact sustains more powerfully than most of that year’s more garish releases. The dynamic opener “Break On Through” encapsulates the essence of their sound, a pared-down amalgam of rock, soul and jazz elements that opens with one of Jim Morrison’s most succinct couplets: “You know the day destroys the night/Night divides the day”. From there, the journey goes in diverse directions, including the haunting, serpentine “The Crystal Ship”, the oompah-pop interpretation of Brecht and Weill’s “Alabama Song”, and the breakthrough hit “Light My Fire”. But it’s the album-closing Oedipal psychodrama “The End” that still amazes, establishing a revolutionary new area in pop that few have subsequently dared to explore. This edition features mono and stereo CDs, a third disc of their 1967 show at The Matrix, and a mono vinyl LP for purists.

Wire, Silver/Lead

★★★★☆

Download: Diamonds In Cups; Forever & A Day; Short Elevated Period; An Alibi

Like Nick Drake, Wire’s influence has grown out of all proportion to their initial impact, the diverse brilliance of their early albums now an unquestioned cornerstone for indie bands on both sides of the Atlantic. And despite their determinedly exploratory approach, the lingering traces of those origins still show through here as a sort of stylistic palimpsest, from the classic blend of benign pop melody and distorted guitar thrash in “Short Elevated Period” to the spangly flanged guitars and sinister inquiry of “An Alibi”. The increased presence of Graham Lewis’s sombre baritone, meanwhile, prompts memories of their 154 album. As ever, they make the most of minimal elements, with “Forever & A Day” hanging on the charm of a single resonant guitar figure over backdrop drone, while the languid swagger of “Diamonds In Cups” pits fuzz-guitar twitch against sylvan flanged chords, whilst Colin Newman advises us to be in the right place as “the wheel of good fortune spills diamonds in cups”. Ah, if only it were true…

Aimee Mann, Mental Illness

★★★☆☆

Download: Goose Snow Cone; Stuck In The Past; Lies Of Summer; Good For Me

The crushingly blunt title is Aimee Mann’s sardonic acknowledgement of her reputation as a depressing songwriter, which she’s determined to exceed with this collection of “the saddest, slowest, most acoustic” songs possible. Not that these pitiful protagonists are necessarily ill: most are just stuck, like the couple in “Simple Fix”, locked in a co-dependency of antipathy. “Stuck In The Past” offers the neatest account of the inability to move forward, its narrator petrified by past events: “It happens so fast/And then it happens forever”. Deception looms over several songs, from the hospital visitor and doomed patient of “Lies Of Summer”, to the woman pursuing the prison metaphor of “Good For Me”, tunnelling deeper into herself to escape the truth about an untrustworthy lover. But saddest of all, perhaps, is the heartbroken man standing on an ex’s front lawn – though surely the narrator, waiting for him in her car, is every bit as mired in misery?

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