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Album reviews: Sam Smith – The Thrill of It All, Stereophonics – Scream Above the Sounds, Maroon 5 – Red Pill Blues

Also: Billy Bragg, Roy Orbison and Leon Russell

Andy Gill
Wednesday 01 November 2017 17:19 GMT
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Sam Smith, The Thrill Of It All

★★★★☆

Download this: Too Good At Goodbyes; Say It First; HIM; Baby, You Make Me Crazy; Pray

Having survived the world-tilting effect of selling millions of copies of his debut album, Sam Smith returns to the fray leaner and energised with The Thrill Of It All; though oddly, no more confident. Personal trainers and gym-bunny regimes may have trimmed away the puppy fat, leaving those big, appealing eyes staring from a sculpted, even haggard, visage on the album cover – but his songs betray a lingering uncertainty about emotional matters which has left Smith reluctant to commit himself wholeheartedly to a relationship.

It’s a principle most bluntly stated at the album’s outset. “I’m never gonna let you close to me/Even though you mean the most to me,” he declares in “Too Good At Goodbyes”, fear of rejection forcing him to keep his guard up. But he’s far stronger artistically than emotionally, as evidenced by the way the sparse piano chords leave that golden voice proudly front and centre, its nakedness unmarked by any trace of hesitation or uncertainty. The focus on Smith’s core talent continues with “Say It First”, where his feather-light tones are borne on the gentlest of heartbeat pulses, haunted by the subtlest smudges of guitar. Again, he’s reluctant to commit in case he ends up hurt, instead waiting for “everything in your world to align with my world” – a tall order, and possibly impossible.

The boot is on the other foot, however, in “Midnight Train”, where the departing singer chooses to leave despite his lingering love. “Am I a monster? What will your family think of me?” he frets, an indication of how unused he is to the situation. An experienced roue would surely take things more casually in their stride, but Smith is such a neophyte in these matters he’s concerned at the damage he might do, and the impression he might leave – the reaction of one more usually on the other side of that divide.

Smith’s voice remains a thing of wonder throughout. On the old soul-styled “One Last Song”, he sweeps smoothly into a clear high tenor without slipping into falsetto, thereby evoking more genuine emotional connection; and his vibrato touches in “Burning” are subtly controlled, against the rich choral backing vocals that give the album a powerful gospel flavour. Like many an agnostic gospel aficionado, Smith clearly envies the comforting certitude of religion: facing uncertainty in the concluding “Pray”, he declares, “I have never believed in you, but I’m gonna pray.” But this conundrum is extended in “HIM”, a song which further complicates the relationship between sacred and secular long occupied by soul singers from Ray Charles to Al Green, by introducing a gay element. It’s a brave move, particularly given the conservatism of American Christianity, but credit is due to Smith for his brave stance. “Holy father, judge my sin,” he declares, “I’m not afraid of what they’ll bring.” More power to him.

Stereophonics, Scream Above The Sounds

★★★☆☆

Download this: What’s All The Fuss About?; All In One Night; Before Anyone Knew Our Name

While the U2-style arena-rock impressions that dogged Keep The Village Alive persist in places here, elsewhere Scream Above The Sounds finds Kelly Jones in more reflective mood, resulting in a more appealing balance of head and heart overall. The album opens in urgent manner with Jones cajoling us to “[believe] you can fly, celebrate everything” in “Caught By The Wind”; but “Taken A Tumble” dissipates the energy, the first of a series of plodding rockers whose stodginess is sometimes accentuated by oddly bloated sax breaks. Mercifully, they’re interspersed with more ambitious songs like “All In One Night”, a gripping narrative of romance and violence, and “What’s All The Fuss About?”, a swirl of sensual yearning in which a lone mariachi trumpet stands tall amidst headily miasmic whooshing noises. Later, Jones strips back the sound to indulge youthful reminiscences, accompanying himself on just acoustic guitar for “Boy On A Bike”, and piano for “Before Anyone Knew Our Name”, a touching tribute to late friend and former bandmate Stuart Cable.

Maroon 5, Red Pill Blues

★★☆☆☆

Download this: Whiskey; Closure

There’s something irredeemably lo-cal about Maroon 5, a quality that enables their bland pop to slip smoothly into the charts without leaving any trace. Moments after hearing “Best 4 You”, with its slimline groove and sleek falsetto chorus, I can’t remember a trace of its melody or theme: it was just there, and then not there. It’s an experience repeated throughout Red Pill Blues – what exactly lovers do in “What Lovers Do” remains a mystery to me, and I’m no clearer about “Who I Am”, in which guest rapper LunchMoney Lewis proves well-named, expertly contributing the kind of perfectly perfunctory rap that won’t overbalance the flimsy track. Elsewhere, “Help Me Out” virtually evaporates amidst a breeze of breath-toned keyboards and half-hearted vocal hints, while the few saving graces arrive late on in “Whiskey”, a pleasant memory of acting courteously to a date, and being rewarded with an intoxicating kiss, and “Closure”, a sultry, dipping groove which profits from persistence, stretching out into an 11-minute fusion piece with echoes of Herbie Hancock’s heyday.

Bob Dylan, Trouble No More

★★★☆☆

Download this: Making A Liar Out Of Me; Yonder Comes Sin; Rise Again; The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar

As retrospective box sets go, Trouble No More is as heavy as the Family Bible, and just about as unforgiving. Sprawling across these eight CDs (and one DVD) are a multitude of outtakes and live performances culled from Dylan’s born-again Christian period, when his shows served as sermons, and his customary taciturnity gave way to brimstone excoriations of the audience. The saving grace was one of the tightest bands he ever worked with; though the ubiquitous gospel backing vocals, and Dylan’s decision not to play older, familiar material, made some shows heavy going – a stricture mercifully relaxed for the Earl’s Court show included here in its entirety. But the main attractions lie in some potent outtakes – notably a stinging version of “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” – and a handful of unreleased songs including the driving “Making A Liar Out Of Me” and a piano duet with Clydie King, “Rise Again”, both easily the equal of anything on the three studio albums recorded during this period.

Roy Orbison with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, A Love So Beautiful

★★★☆☆

Download this: In Dreams; It’s Over; Running Scared

Roy Orbison’s vocal manner has long been routinely described as “operatic”, so one might imagine his catalogue is more suited to wholesale orchestral makeover than Elvis Presley’s was on 2015’s If I Can Dream. And for a while, that seems the case: “In Dreams” is prefaced by a new, minute-long string intro that sets the mood of deep, sublimated yearning; while the arrangement for “Crying”, conversely, doesn’t tread too heavily but gives Orbison’s voice due space. But some tracks simply don’t suit this style – the limber stride of “Oh, Pretty Woman”, notably, is better evoked in the original, slimmer band setting, and the simple appeal of “You Got It” is trampled by this intrusive orchestral treatment. In general, success is largely a matter of musical theatrics, with the orchestration sweeping along the high melodrama of “It’s Over”, and courtly strings help build the dramatic narrative of “Running Scared”. That said, there’s hardly a song here I wouldn’t prefer hearing in its original version.

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Billy Bragg, Bridges Not Walls

★★☆☆ ☆

Download this: The Sleep Of Reason; Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted

Part of the troubadour’s job is to explicate ongoing events as they happen; and given the speed, and weirdness, of current events right now, Billy Bragg is to be applauded for reacting so swiftly through a summer’s series of singles, anthologised on this mini-album alongside a couple more songs in similar vein. But apart from the spiky opener “The Sleep Of Reason”, with Bragg wielding raw electric guitar to savage a culture of brazen political lies, blithe violence, intolerant trolling and lack of empathy, these broadsides are mostly too weak to deal with such muscular offences. The countrified eco-warning ballad “King Tide And The Sunny Day Flood” preaches dully to the converted, “Full English Brexit” voices Little Englander frustration with melancholy rather than anger, and the languid “Saffiyah Smiles”, inspired by Saffiyah Khan’s disarming response to that anger, hardly makes for a rousing rallying cry. But the song title “Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted” is a brilliantly succinct summation of the state of the world.

Leon Russell, On A Distant Shore

★★★☆☆

Download this: Love This Way; On The Waterfront; Easy To Love; A Song For You

As he grew older, Leon Russell’s attention turned more towards the kind of timeless classics that comprise the Great American Songbook, a standard he himself had most closely approached writing songs like “This Masquerade” and “A Song For You”. Both are included, in new arrangements, alongside fresh material in similar vein on this swansong album, where his etiolated croak of a voice is wreathed in lavish orchestrations by arranger Larry Hall. His facility with the form is evident on songs like “Easy To Love”, which aptly has the smooth, easy manner of a standard, and more dramatically with “On The Waterfront”, which renders solitude in epic fashion, Russell wondering “can I make the grade, can I endure?” over widescreen strings. Elsewhere, he reverts to form with the rolling blues arrangement of “Love This Way”, with his signature piano to the fore, and terse blues guitar punctuating his account of being “lost inside the darkness and the howling wind”.

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