Album reviews: The Hamilton Mixtape, Neil Young, John Legend and more

Plus The Orchestra Of Syrian Musicians, Louise Bichan, Blue States and a country compilation

Andy Gill
Wednesday 07 December 2016 17:00

Various Artists, The Hamilton Mixtape


Download: My Shot; It’s Quiet Uptown; Immigrants; You’ll Be Back; Cabinet Battle 3; Who Tells Your Story

Lin-Manuel Miranda originally devised the all-conquering Hamilton as a solo rap performance recounting the history of US founding father Alexander Hamilton in hip-hop argot, which he initially collated as the Hamilton Mixtape before transferring the work to its record-breaking Broadway production. So this later Hamilton Mixtape, which distills the musical down to a series of show-stopping covers by R&B and rap stars, is a bit like the project eating itself, after gobbling up every conceivable award. But its brilliance leaves UK punters slavering all the more for a transatlantic transfer of the show.

Miranda is clearly a genius, blessed with a rare combination of intelligence, talent, artistry and ambition, and in the extraordinary life of Alexander Hamilton – born out of wedlock, rose to high office, financial genius, son died duelling, first-ever political sex scandal, killed duelling the Vice President – he found a subject big enough to accommodate his abilities. Even in this condensed version, the panache with which Miranda filters 19th century history through a hip-hop worldview is quite breathtaking, while his witty evocation of each character’s motives and emotions is handled with a rare intelligence.

In “It’s Quiet Uptown”, here given a wracked delivery by Kelly Clarkson, the Hamiltons’ devastation at their son’s death is summarised in the line, “They move uptown and learn to live with the unimaginable”, while the lonely devotion of his wife Eliza – variously voiced by Alicia Keys and Andra Day – to a man so often absent obsessively “creating and erasing” worlds each day, is beautifully evoked by her recalling the way with words which first won her heart, when he “built me palaces out of paragraphs”. And George III’s riposte to rebellious colonists “You’ll Be Back”, drolly given a more white, English musical setting than the black modes used elsewhere, and sung with fruity insouciance by chat-show host Jimmy Fallon, contains the zinger “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love”, a brilliant example of ruthless political doublespeak appropriate for the post-truth era.

But wherever you look, there’s a fierce artistic sensibility at work, nowhere more effectively than in a couple of excerpts from Miranda’s original mixtape, particularly “Cabinet Battle 3”, which deftly summarises a complex political issue in under three minutes’ rapping – a benchmark one wishes most other rappers would aim for. The one who comes closest is probably Common, who gets to apply his sombre tone to the show’s finale “Who Tells Your Story”, a reflection on how truth is determined by survivors’ accounts. Or, in this case, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s.

Neil Young, Peace Trail


Download: Peace Trail; Glass Accident; Can’t Stop Workin’

With Peace Trail, Neil Young slips into self-parody again, with a set of desultory peacenik songs too simplistic and patronising to be taken seriously. “I see the same old signs, but something new is growing,” he notes hopefully on the title track, but after a series of routine observations on rote issues of war, water and womanhood, it’s clear he has little to add to the discourse save cliches about bringing back “the days when good was good”. The best it gets, lyrically, is the environmental metaphor “Glass Accident”, about handling “delicate things”; elsewhere, “John Oaks” drably recounts the tale of a protestor who gets shot, while the parodic anti-immigrant paranoia in “Terrorist Suicide Hangliders” is an effete exercise in liberal disdain. Musically, Jim Keltner’s earthy shuffles lend a rootedness to Young’s folksy strums, although the most interesting aspect is the singer’s occasional bursts of distorted, effects-tortured harmonica.

John Legend, Darkness And Light


Download: What You Do To Me; Penthouse Floor; Darkness And Light

The contrasts of the title are evident throughout John Legend’s latest album – in the push and pull between devotion and desire, indulgence and empowerment, and musically in the dialectic between comforting familiarity and exploratory urges. This is clearly the work of a conflicted man, symbolised in the title track’s contrast between his own fearful falsetto and the sandblasting raw soul power of Alabama Shakes’ belter Brittany Howard. Legend treats familiar themes in familiar ways – drawing on gospel roots for “I Know Better”, about maturing beyond youthful failings, and devising a liquidly propulsive nu-funk groove for the emancipation anthem “Penthouse Floor”. But running throughout the album is a painful ambivalence about relationships, starkly summarised in “What You Do To Me”, where bursts of harsh, grainy noise stabbing into warm keyboard textures offer an apt evocation of the motif, “I rise, you fall, we wreck it all”.

The Orchestra Of Syrian Musicians, The Orchestra Of Syrian Musicians & Guests


Download: Al Ajaleh; Ya Rayeh; Wild Wood; White Flag

Recorded on this June’s concert tour, these performances result from Africa Express’s project bringing together musicians from different continents – here, allying the silky strings and melismatic singing of the Orchestra Of Syrian Musicians with colleagues from Europe and Africa. The alliances can be transformative: Paul Weller’s “Wild Wood” gains a more expansive rusticity from the ney flute, oud and subtle string flourishes, while Julia Holter’s “Feel You” paradoxically acquires both depth and lightness from the middle-eastern instrumentation. But it’s not all successful: the choir and orchestra rather sully the simplicity of Weller and Damon Albarn’s cover of “Blackbird”. The real joys, however, come from the African crossovers, with Rachid Taha whipping up a storm on “Ya Rayeh”, and “Al Ajaleh” building to an engrossing 12-minute swap-meet of dazzling solos shared between the orchestra’s musicians and kora and ngoni virtuosi Seckou Keita and Bassekou Kouyate.

Louise Bichan, Out Of My Own Light: The Margaret S Tait Project


Download: Quoyburray; For Myrtle; Out Of My Own Light

“I’ll never get out of my own light while I continue here,” wrote Margaret Tait in 1950, prior to journeying from her home in the Orkneys to visit relatives in Canada. Years later her granddaughter, the photographer and fiddler Louise Bichan, was intrigued enough by Margaret’s diaries to retrace her steps, a journey subsequently transmuted into this engaging album of musical portraits. It’s vividly evocative: “Sydney The Pilot” has the poignant quality of an old photograph, and the lovely slow twirl of Bichan’s melody to “Quoyburray” is like handwriting. Darting fiddle, piano and percussion join organ drones in a touching tribute “For Myrtle”, while smears of bowed strings and a cyclical piano motif lend a wistful tone to “Out Of My Own Light”, the first of several pieces featuring excerpts from Margaret Tait’s Canadian radio recital of Scottish songs, almost 70 years ago.

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Blue States, Restless Spheres


Download: Alight Here; Beyond The White Light

Restless Spheres is the first release in nine years from Blue States, the nom-de-disque of chill-out stylist Andy Dragazis; and sadly, it sounds somewhat mired in the modes of an emptier era. At its best, “Alight Here” layers Eos Counsell’s breathy vocals over an atmospheric, heavily reverbed arrangement to achieve something akin to a female equivalent of Enigma’s monkish ambient-house; at its worst, tracks like “Noodle” and Statues” are aptly named, simple sketches which, rather than developing in interesting ways, just seem to evaporate. Wispy violin and tootling mariachi trumpets lend variety to “Vision Trail” and “Protect Me Everywhere” respectively, though they’re not as effective as the slowly pirouetting majesty of “Beyond The White Light”. But the overall aimlessness confirms why producers are generally best occupied bringing other artists’ visions to life.

Various Artists, Chartbusters USA: Special Country Edition


Download: Chug-A-Lug; Okie From Muskogee; Harper Valley PTA

Until the big-hatted “‘bro country” boom, country music only occasionally flirted with the pop charts, usually through the novelty appeal of hits like The Statler Brothers’ “Flowers On The Wall” and Roger Miller’s engaging 1964 moonshine anthem “Chug-A-Lug”, a hit with frat-boy boozers as well as blue-collar barflies. As the decade progressed, the crossover hits reflected the era’s changing values and widening cultural gaps: Jeannie C Riley’s conversational “Harper Valley PTA”, for instance, offered a sassy dig at suburban hypocrisy, while in Merle Haggard’s anthemic “Okie From Muskogee”, the gap separating genuine conservative sentiment from satire was too narrow to be measured. But the era’s biggest UK chart crossover, Jim Reeves’s posthumous “Distant Drums”, reflected a specifically British generation gap, being a more measured example of the MOR balladry that made Ken Dodd a singing star.

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