Album reviews: Katy Perry - Witness, London Grammar - Truth Is A Beautiful Thing, and more

Also Chuck Berry and Lindsay Buckingham/Christine McVie

Andy Gill
Wednesday 07 June 2017 16:44
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Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister, Planetarium

★★★★☆

Download: Mercury; Earth; Moon; Venus; Jupiter

Although Sufjan Stevens’ central role as lyricist and singer makes it seem more like one of his albums, Planetarium originated in a Dutch concert hall’s commission of a new piece from composer Nico Muhly, for which the classical wunderkind swiftly drafted in his Brooklyn chums, including Stevens, The National guitarist Bryce Dessner and Stevens’ beatmaster James McAlister. Debuted live in 2012, the project has since whirled back and forth in cyberspace between the participants, being progressively honed and sculpted until Stevens completed this final mix.

Progressive may be the apt term, as the planet-themed Planetarium is the kind of overarching conceptual work once considered de rigueur by prog-rockers like Rush and Yes, albeit effected within a modern sonic vocabulary of programmed beats, synthesised electronics, complex horn and string arrangements, and auto-tuned vocals. Each of our solar system’s bodies, including sun, moon and associated astronomical phenomena, serves as springboard for Stevens’ philosophical musings – which typically involve mythological interpretations from classical culture. One suspects it’s not entirely new ground for him: back in college, Stevens originally taught himself songwriting by methodically composing songs for sequences – days of the week, Apostles, and planets amongst them – so he’s had plenty of time to mull them over.

The results are far from the characterful evocations of Holst’s The Planets. The low, buzzing electronics, horns and autotuned vocal of “Mars”, for instance, are more wary than warlike, eventually giving way to quiet guitar arpeggios and a lyric celebrating “love, peace, forgiveness, and consequence and trust, and patience, affection”. Elsewhere, a robotic voice informs us that “some say that Jupiter is the loneliest planet”, as the arrangement shifts abruptly between simpatico strings and juddering machine beats, before resolving in a warm swell of Muhly’s horns; Muhly’s sweeping orchestral vista mid-section dominates “Pluto”; and Stevens’ furtive, autotuned description of “Saturn” as a “melancholy creature, paranoid secret” is rudely interrupted halfway through by a brash, bustling beat barging its way in like Donald Trump at a photoshoot. The “oracle ghost” “Venus”, meanwhile, is treated in more recognisably Sufjan style, in its exhumation of a youthful indiscretion at a summer camp, characteristically stirred into a wider lyrical compass.

Most of the tracks stretch to around seven minutes, save for “Earth”, a 15-minute sonic tableau slipping between passages of swelling horns, murmured recitation, guitar noises and beat tsunami. Its faithful companion “Moon” is less sprawling, a compact gamelan bricolage of puttering beats and metallic celesta tones paying tribute to its capacity to shed light within the darkest hour. Halfway through the album, “Black Energy” and “Sun” provide a ten-minute instrumental interlude – the one an amorphous ooze of string and synth pads, the other a slow burn of tuned percussion, whooshing space-noises and droning accordion – while shorter stings accommodate things like “Tides”, “Black Hole” and “Halley’s Comet”. But the best is left till last, “Mercury” admitting “I ran off with the ball” against a backdrop of delicate guitar and keyboard couplets, with Dessner’s precise cascades of twinkling guitar figures lending a lightness and brightness rarely otherwise encountered: must be proximity to the sun, I suppose.

Chuck Berry, Chuck

★★☆☆☆

Download: Big Boys; Lady B Goode

Sadly, Chuck Berry’s swansong album – his first new recordings in nearly four decades – is a pretty weak affair. As might be expected, there are glosses on former glories - “Jamaica Moon” is a patois adaptation of “Havana Moon”, while “Lady B. Goode” involves gender-realignment of Chuck’s signature song – but they’re vastly outweighed by tranches of sloppy filler. There’s even a throwaway live waltz, “3/4 Time (Enchiladas)”, at the end of which he can be heard saying, “I think we’re all tuned up now…” – this is the best they could find? “Wonderful Woman” is an okay opener, Chuck rifling through his portfolio of six-string flourishes alongside Robert Lohr’s prancing piano fills. But the best thing here is “Big Boys”, on which he’s joined by Tom Morello and Nathaniel Rateliff: wondering why the big boys “wouldn’t let me party with them”, Berry unreels a staccato pronoun lyric – wondering “where, what, when and why” was happening – which hints, albeit faintly, at his youthful genius as the original poet laureate of rock’n’roll.

Lindsay Buckingham/Christine McVie​, Lindsay Buckingham/Christine McVie

★★★☆☆

Download: Sleeping Around The Corner; Too Far Gone; Feel About You

With Mick Fleetwood and John McVie holding down the rhythm duties, Lindsay Buckingham/Christine McVie is virtually a new Fleetwood Mac album – and indeed would have been, had the others not tired of waiting for Stevie Nicks to commit. The classic Mac themes of relationships and endurance predominate, the latter reflected in Buckingham’s “On With The Show” and McVie’s “Carnival Begin”, twin troubadour expressions of renewed zest for life and performance. “There’s nowhere to go but get on down the road,” sings Buckingham in warm, mature tones that hint subtly at lingering ambitions. The alternating-breath effect, so potent on “Big Love”, is reprised here on “In My World”, while Buckingham’s buoyant, ringing guitar work on “Love Is Here To Stay” and “Sleeping Around The Corner” confirms that few can record the instrument as brightly. But they’re best when they work together, with the charming simplicity of the island-flavoured “Feel About You” and beach-strolling “Red Sun” contrasting nicely with the tart, twitchy urgency of “Too Far Gone”.

London Grammar, Truth Is A Beautiful Thing

★★★☆☆

Download: Rooting For You; Hell To The Liars; Wild Eyed

Sometimes, a single album is plenty. Though by no means worthless, Truth Is A Beautiful Thing offers such negligible advances over London Grammar’s debut If You Wait that it’s hard to imagine what they’ve spent the intervening four years doing, besides shovelling cash into bulging accounts. They’re effectively the Sade of their day, mining a tightly-circumscribed format built around a distinctive, elegant vocal centre, to repeatedly similar effect. Despite the clarity of her contralto and the folksy elisions evoking echoes of Sandy Denny, Hannah Reid seems forever emotionally distant, even when keening and whooping through “Wild Eyed”; and the spartan arrangements created by her bandmates only occasionally develop persuasive emotional momentum, as on the string-laced anthem “Hell To The Liars”. Likewise, the lyrical themes of romantic regret and existential uncertainty – epitomised in the line “I’m scared of loneliness when I’m alone with you” – merely reprise the concerns of If You Wait. It’s pleasant enough, though listeners may experience a twinge or two of deja vu.

Katy Perry, Witness

★★☆☆☆

Download: Bigger Than Me; Into Me You See; Hey Hey Hey

Katy Perry is at pains to point out her assertive individuality on Witness, denying in “Hey Hey Hey” that she’s a fragile little Faberge, but rather “Marilyn Monroe with a monster truck”, a comparison seemingly designed to separate the jocks from the nerds. As such, it does exactly what it suggests, being one of several tracks here built around the foolproof commercial instincts of Swedish hitmaster Max Martin. But it’s exactly that Volvo-like reliability that belies her claim: her dance-pop here is identical to everyone else’s, which leaves Perry clutching at the single-entendre raciness of “Bon Appetit” (“Got me spread like a buffet / Bon appetit, boy”) and curdled imagery like “my love’s the bullet with your name on it” to secure a soupcon of bogus outrage. Ironically, she becomes far more interesting when contemplating her own grain-of-sand place in the universe in “Bigger Than Me”, or pursuing with Hot Chip the ironic intimacy of “Into Me You See”, tracks firmly hidden towards the rear of the album, lest they scare the punters.

Various Artists, American Epic: The Sessions

★★★★☆

Download: Killer Diller Blues; On The Road Again; El Cascabel; High Water Everywhere, Pt 2; Tomi Tomi

BBC4’s American Epic series is a fascinating disinterral of roots music, its accompanying 5CD set possibly the best such compilation since Harry Smith’s legendary anthology. This latest offshoot features instead modern artists mostly performing old material, cut straight to disc on a rebuilt 1920s recording rig. On one level this means the likes of Taj Mahal and Steve Stills covering bluesmen Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, and banjo-picking comedian Steve Martin and Edie Brickell uncovering the perky fatalism of early folk staple “The Coo Coo Bird”; on another, it means Nas’s hip-hop adaptation of the Memphis Jug Band’s “On The Road Again” reflecting timeless themes and vocabulary of the black experience. Amongst the standouts, Los Lobos’s “El Cascabel” involves spiky interplay of Mexican guitars such as the jarana and requinto jarocho, while Alabama Shakes’ terrific version of “Killer Diller Blues” is brimful of the bounce and sass demanded by Memphis Minnie’s classic about that “awful little creature, a killer-diller from the South”.

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, The Anarchy Arias

★★☆☆☆

Download: Ever Fallen In Love; Love Will Tear Us Apart; Ca Plane Pour Moi

Contempt was an important element in punk’s appeal, but here it’s subsumed in the neutering tide of irony which swamps this ill-judged crossover project fancifully presenting punk songs as classical arias. “Pretty Vacant”, for instance, is stern rather than sneery, with orchestra and chorus pasting pomposity over punk principles, while the crucial final-syllable emphasis of the title-hook is just discarded as if irrelevant. Likewise, the swagger of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” is replaced by simpering woodwind punctuated with bursts of choral bombast. The pomposity is more apt for the self-importantly anthemic “London Calling” and “No More Heroes”, though neither works as well as the prancing “Ca Plane Pour Moi”, whose hoity-toity delivery comes straight from comic operetta. But as ever, it’s melody that matters, with “Ever Fallen In Love?” and especially “Love Will Tear Us Apart” seductively effective as soprano arias.

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