Album reviews round-up: Bjork, Jeff Beck, Michael Kiwanuka and more

Andy Gill reviews the week's new releases

Andy Gill
Wednesday 13 July 2016 14:13
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Icelandic singer Bjork has released a live album of her 2015 Vulnicura tour
Icelandic singer Bjork has released a live album of her 2015 Vulnicura tour

Bjork, Vulnicura Live

★★★☆☆

Download: Undo; Wanderlust; Lionsong

There are moments during this live album when a burst of crowd applause hints at some onstage coup de theatre, and you find yourself yearning to have seen it: maybe there’s been a sudden costume-change into something improbable – an octopus, perhaps, or a volcano – by which Bjork might better animate a song? Because taken en masse as the opening half-dozen songs are from her gruelling break-up album Vulnicura, it’s hard not to become overly aware of how the similarity of both the musical settings – basically, strings allied to rhythm programmes of skittish or explosive beats – and especially Bjork’s delivery tends to leach the individual songs into one another.

Where once she was a questing stentor, here she sounds hesitant and cowed, as if trailing her emotions wherever they lead her, rather than commanding them in new directions. When, in “Lionsong”, she sings, “This wild lion doesn’t fit in this chair,” it seems to apply just as much to her own talent as to a partner’s changing character. Things improve somewhat in the second half, when Bjork strays from the relentless, one-sided scab-picking of her collapsed relationship, and ventures into her back catalogue to refurbish old songs with the new sounds furnished by her co-producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak. “It’s not meant to be a struggle,” she sings on “Undo”, and it suddenly seems that way, as the strings take on a balmy character and chiming keyboard tones address layered backing vocals.

The new mood extends through the devotional “Come To Me” and “I See Who You Are”, where although the spackled rhythms and cavernous reverb space are of a part with the Vulnicura material, there’s a bright, uplifting feel about the song which lifts the spirit, rather than drags one into domestic gloom. Ultimately, the best advice comes from Bjork herself on the creativity anthem “Wanderlust”. Again, the strings and glitchy, pink-noise electro beats are congruent with the performance as a whole, but here, at last, she’s facing outwards rather than inwards, keen for artistic liberation again: “I feel at home whenever the unknown surrounds me”.

Jeff Beck, Loud Hailer

★★★☆☆

Download: Scared For The Children; O.I.L.; Live In The Dark

There’s a reason why Jeff Beck remains the world’s most acclaimed living guitarist, every bit as razor-sharp and sensitive here as on the stunt-guitar flourishes with which he made his name. It’s because even at 72, rather than slip into his dotage alongside old lags from his past, he constantly seeks out new blood, more often than not young female virtuosi, who can push him further still. Here, guitarist Carmen Vandenberg and singer Rosie Bones are on hand to bring focus to Beck’s vocabulary of guitar sounds – variously growling like a car engine, splintering into shards, and keening like a weeping sea-creature. There’s plenty of depth-charge funk-metal on Loud Hailer, but the standout piece is “Scared For The Children”, where Beck’s climactic solo has the delicate, ecstatic quality of Hendrix’s “Little Wing”.

Steven Tyler, We’re All Somebody From Somewhere

★★☆☆☆

Download: My Own Worst Enemy; We’re All Somebody From Somewhere

We’re All Somebody From Somewhere is Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler’s brazen attempt to make inroads into the lucrative country market, a genre in which he’s previously shown little interest, and for which, on this evidence, he displays scant affinity. Despite the production attentions of T-Bone Burnett and others, Tyler just can’t help reverting to type, with song after song opening in low-key, acoustic manner – the chipper mandolin strum of the title-track, the guitar and accordion of opener “My Own Worst Enemy” - before resolving into leaden heavy rock bristling with squally lead guitar. The songs rely on cringeworthy conceits like “Red, White & You” or rote expressions like “Sweet Louisiana”, while the refurbishing of the domestic abuse anthem “Janie’s Got A Gun” just tips it further over into queasy melodrama.

Betty Davis, The Columbia Years 1968-1969

★★★☆☆

Download: Hangin’ Out; Down Home Girl; Politician

Betty Mabry was only married to Miles Davis for about a year, but she had a crucial impact on his musical development, introducing him to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. Miles repaid the favour by organising the session that furnished most of these previously unreleased tracks, on which the future funk queen cut her teeth. He didn’t skimp on talent, either: the all-star band includes Mitch Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and John McLaughlin, the latter mostly restricted to tight rhythm vamps and circular guitar figures behind Betty’s languidly expressive delivery of songs like “Hangin’ Out”, “Down Home Girl” and Cream’s “Politician” - the latter presaged with Miles’ growly instruction to “sing it just like that, with the gum in your mouth and all”. A fascinating archival oddity.

Aaron Neville, Apache

★★★☆☆

Download: Stompin Ground; Heaven; Hard To Believe

Following the doo-wop tributes of 2013’s My True Story, Aaron Neville reverts to his home territory on Apache, which seethes with New Orleans rhythms and references. “Stompin Ground”, a tribute to his hometown roots, rides a Neville Brothers-style rhythm, all frisky second-line drumming, slippery guitar and organ, while “Hard To Believe” strongly echoes his own classic “Hercules” in groove and message. The album opens in odd manner with “Be Your Man”, in which febrile percussion and orchestral stabs align in the dramatic, stalking manner of Seventies TV detective shows; but his voice, which should be the focus, sounds muffled by effects. Neville’s fluting, melismatic vocal is much better served on the slow waltz hymnal “Heaven”, a persuasive reflection of his faith.

Hackney Colliery Band, Sharpener

★★★☆☆

Download: Jump Then Run; Wrong Or Right; Heart Shaped Box

Boasting a similar sense of polyrhythmic precision to that employed by New Orleans brass bands, the nine-piece Hackney Colliery Band offer an infectious tumult of horns and drums on Sharpener, with pulsing sousaphone providing the bass anchor. The ensemble’s big, riffing power is foregrounded, with subtle details peeking from the undergrowth like tiny mammals seeking to avoid dinosaur paws – a nimbleness best displayed on the crafty, Moondog-style mischief of “Jump Then Run”. Alongside their own tightly-arranged compositions are a handful of unusual covers, the band applying righteous strength to Kwabs’ tune “Wrong Or Right”, and most unexpectedly – given the tricky contrast of material and instrumental timbres – elevating Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” to a different level, at once louche and tragic.

Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate

★★★☆☆

Download: Cold Little Heart; Black Man In A White World; Falling

For this follow-up to Home Again, Michael Kiwanuka has drafted in producer Brian “Dangermouse” Burton, who brings to Kiwanuka’s soul sketches the textural depth and expansive pop sensibility that proved so successful for Gnarls Barkley and The Black Keys. His influence is key from the off, as the nine-minute “Cold Little Heart” builds from piano and the merest shiver of strings to a Morricone-esque pitch of intensity, before Kiwanuka himself arrives five minutes in. It’s a big, powerful statement of intent that the rest of the album doesn’t quite live up to: as before, it’s impossible to ignore the retro-soul influences of tracks like “Love & Hate”, which recalls Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”, and “Black Man In A White World”, whose rolling guitar vamp and strings irresistibly brings to mind Curtis Mayfield.

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