Album reviews: Emeli Sande - Long Live The Angels, Sting - 57th & 9th, Alicia Keys - Here, Simple Minds - Acoustic

Also Martha Wainwright and Pavo Pavo

Andy Gill
Wednesday 09 November 2016 16:52
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Emeli Sandé, Long Live The Angels

★★★★☆

Download: Selah; Give Me Something; I’d Rather Not; Garden; Sweet Architect

Emeli Sandé’s long-awaited follow-up to the hugely successful Our Version Of Events is, at least in part, a break-up album – although her separation from her partner Adam Gouraguine was perhaps signalled even as she was marrying him back around her debut’s 2012 release, in poignant, painful songs like “Maybe” and “Suitcase”.

Here, the pain continues in tracks such as the single “Hurts”, where the urgent, chugging strings darkly underline the emotions behind her plaintive protest that “I’m not made of stone, it hurts”, and “I’d Rather Not”, an acutely-observed account of the ebbs and flows of emotion that stretch relationships to breaking-point: “Your favourite bone was ‘Let’s just be friends’/Now you’re saying ‘Let’s try again’/But if it’s all the same, I’d rather not.” It’s rendered all the more effective for not following the usual high-drama R&B arrangement: instead, little sprays of organ sit like bruises behind Sandé’s voice, oddly sweet blemishes confirming the reluctant rejection.

Not that the usual soul belters are entirely absent from Long Live The Angels. Tracks like “Every Single Little Piece” and “Highs & Lows” are big, radio-friendly chartbound anthems, ebullient and eager to please; but the more interesting aspects of the album are to be found in less formulaic arrangements, such as “Give Me Something”, which opens with an acoustic guitar flourish pointedly recalling “The Tracks Of My Tears”, before settling into a folk-soul setting clearly influenced by Tracy Chapman. Indeed, the opening track “Selah” gives due warning of Sandé’s exploratory intent, with a miasmic montage of trickling water, high vocal tones, ambient sounds and humming heralding a lyric of comparably intriguing imagery referring to “the choke of the umbilical” and bringing fresh complexity to matters of the heart, with “all four chambers got a different kind of beat for it”.

Elsewhere, “Tenderly” features her father and an African children’s choir, while “Garden” employs fingerclicks and high electronic tones over a lumpy drumbeat, with Sandé cooing “Ooh, I’m ready” sweetly over the top. But underpinning all her invention are the gospel roots which break the surface of “Breathing Underwater” and find their most satisfying resolution in “Sweet Architect”, where she confesses to her God how “my bones are heavy and my soul’s a mess”. With its exultant invocations of “deep love”, it sounds like a future gospel standard, both deeply-felt and movingly wrought.

Simple Minds, Acoustic

★★★☆☆

Download: Promised You A Miracle; New Gold Dream; Don’t You (Forget About Me)

Though not entirely “unplugged” – there’s a wealth of keyboard drones and subtle electronic detail lurking behind the foreground mandolins and acoustic guitars – applying this stripped-down format to some of their most memorable moments does help dilute the excessive stadium bombast which became a cornerstone of Simple Minds’ style. It’s a welcome spring clean, throwing the band back on their native Celtic heritage for folksy versions of songs like “The American”. KT Tunstall joins them for a jaunty tambourine stomp through “Promised You A Miracle”, which comes across more Mumfordy than you’d imagine, while the scuttling drone-chant take on “New Gold Dream”, mandolins to the fore, sounds like currently trendy Scanda-psych-folkies Goat. And happily, even a beloved pop classic like “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” retains its brat-pack-era appeal in its new, slimmed-down form.

Sting, 57th & 9th

★★★☆☆

(Getty

Download: I Can’t Stop Thinking About You; Petrol Head; Inshallah

57th & 9th reverses Sting’s recent fondness for diversity, his apparent desire to release virtually anything – lute music, carols, musicals and classicals – rather than actual rock music. The arpeggiated guitar parts, rolling gait and familiar chord changes of opener “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” bring echoes of The Police flooding back, whilst the payoff line “I don’t care if you exist” likewise recalls the sinister edge to songs like “Every Breath You Take”. There’s a retread of the traditional folk tale of the cross-dressing soldier girl winning the heart of her captain, “Pretty Young Soldier”, and a middle-eastern-flavoured song, “Inshallah”, about refugees; while the folksy solo number about leaving Tyneside for fortune and fame, “Heading South On The Great North Road”, sounds like an outtake from Sting’s musical The Last Ship. But otherwise it’s fairly standard AOR fare, only baring its teeth on the snarling “Petrol Head”.

Alicia Keys, Here

★★★★☆

Download: Girl Can’t Be Herself; The Gospel; She Don’t Really Care/1 Luv; Pawn It All

There are several similarities between Here and Solange’s recent A Seat At The Table. Both deal with issues of family, empowerment and diversity, and both convey black history through anecdotal spoken interludes. But crucially, Alicia Keys’s musicality is far superior: whether developing swaying gospel fervour on “Pawn It All”, threading balofon through the two-part reflection on African-American queens “She Don’t Really Care/1 Luv”, or riding a perky Latin shuffle for “Girl Can’t Be Herself”, her work is grounded in a melodic appeal that’s almost magnetic. Advocating individuality, the latter is especially laudable, Keys wondering, “Why is being unique such an impurity?”. Elsewhere, “The Gospel” offers a vivid rap tableau of a poor black upbringing, and “Where Do We Begin Now” reflects on sisterly affection; but “Holy War”, critiquing the separatist urge to build walls, seems somewhat after the fact in this of all weeks.

Martha Wainwright, Goodnight City

★★★☆☆

Download: Around The Bend; Window; So Down

Martha Wainwright sounds more unbalanced than ever on Goodnight City, from the moment she opens “Around The Bend” confiding “I’ve been taking lots of pills and things”, her wheedling delivery unerringly conveying instability whilst guitar and double bass sway about her. There’s something grippingly wide-eyed and manic about her performances here and on the mounting hysteria of Beth Orton’s “Alexandria”, while more reserved shades of mental imbalance are evoked in “Window”, where the petrifying effect of obsession is considered over a stealthy, furtive arrangement. Even on the relatively straightforward “Before The Children Came Along”, her jazzy delivery pulls the song out of shape, whilst at her most ebullient, in the folk-rock romance “Franci” and depression-rocker “So Down”, Wainwright approaches the engaged fever of early Patti Smith.

Ossatura, Maps And Mazes

★★★★☆

Download: Lunation; No Blind Spots Left; Acqua; Rain Clouds

This Italian trio’s name means “bone structure”, which suits their subtly detailed, semi-improvised work perfectly: they create musical skeletons around which forms seem to settle almost without volition. The alliance of rhythm and discord, ambient sounds and accordion drones in “No Blind Spots Left”, and the acoustic guitar and organ drone of “Rain Clouds”, both recall the pioneering work of This Heat; and even the more structured jazz-trio fabric of “Acqua” over which Monica Demuru croons about “water everywhere” is gradually torn by harsh electronic noise. The opener “Lunation” best demonstrates Ossatura’s skills, a whirl of cymbal sussurus, hammer dulcimer, piano monotone and sundry found-sounds, accreting together almost magically in the way that only inspired improvisation can. It’s a wonderful confirmation of improv’s possibilities: sure, the risks are great, but the results, as here, can be hugely rewarding.

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Pavo Pavo, Young Narrator In The Breakers

★★★☆☆

Download: Ran Ran Run; Annie Hall; Wiserway

Classically-trained – in more than one sense, having met whilst studying music at Yale – quintet Pavo Pavo are a Brooklyn-based bunch of nerdy hipsters with a whimsical affinity for the sights and sounds of the early Seventies, judging by this debut album. In particular, the more diffuse later experiments of The Beach Boys loom large over Young Narrator In The Breakers, with a blend of sumptuous harmonies, speculative lyrics and stately keyboards rendering “Annie Hall” kin to Surf’s Up, while the whistling synth and twangsome guitar of “A Quiet Time With Spaceman Sputz” could be another outtake from Smile. Elsewhere, opener “Ran Ran Run” is airy lounge-muzak with glistening guitars, while “Wiserway” and “The Aquarium” sound not unlike Stereolab in low gear. But the combination of indistinct vocals and the band’s preference for meandering charm over more decisive structures tends to sap the music of potency.

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