Album reviews: The Unthanks - The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake, The Charlatans - Different Days, and more

Also Sam Amidon - The Following Mountain, Max Richter - Out Of The Dark Room, Kraftwerk - 3-D The Catalogue, and The Heliocentrics - A World Of Masks

Andy Gill
Wednesday 24 May 2017 17:04
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The Unthanks, The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake

★★★★★

Download: I Remember; Little Weaver Bird; Dream Your Dreams; The Road To The Stars; Set Me Free

The Unthanks’ early celebrity as clog-dancing siblings has perhaps tainted the general impression of the sisters’ music with an excessively rustic tinge. It’s entirely unwarranted, of course: few of their contemporaries, within both folk music and the wider artistic spectrum, have such a keenly-honed ability to locate in a song the emotional essence that can, in just a single phrase or vocal elision, cut one to the quick. Rather than a gift or innate instinct, it’s the result of a remarkable feat of collective aesthetics in which Adrian McNally’s subtle arrangements draw the maximum impact from Rachel and Becky Unthanks’ distinctive intonations. Applied to others’ material, the results can be transformative, as demonstrated on their groundbreaking album of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons songs, the first of the group’s ongoing Diversions series. If anything, this fourth entry in the series bests even that triumph.

A few years ago, Nick Drake fans were astonished when home recordings made by his mother Molly in the ‘50s and ‘60s were made available. Never intended for public release, they embodied the genteel amateur artistry of mid-century, middle-class Englishness. Sung in a gentle breathy caress, with words drifting away, feather-like, at the ends of lines, Molly’s songs employed avian and pastoral imagery to evoke mild frustration and yearning with an air of wistful melancholy. The connection to her son’s work was startlingly clear, though that influence is far from their sole value. Realised here in more expressive interpretations, and interspersed with poems read by her daughter, the actress Gabrielle Drake, these songs are full of acute observations, deft allusions and metaphors, and the subtlest of emotional revelations, wielded with an English restraint redolent with the aromas of freshly-mowed lawns and cucumber sandwiches.

On one level, there’s a warm sense of communion with the natural world, whether empathising with the vulnerability of armourless arthropods in “Soft Shelled Crabs”, or urging a “Little Weaver Bird” to build its nest, a labour undertaken to soft textures of fiddle, piano, droning sax and the sisters’ sublime harmonies. But just beneath the calm surface lurk currents of desire, evoked in a line from her poem “Martha” about “an eddied leaf tossed upon the tide, and seeing not the tide’s magnificence”. The desire, however, bears little relation to today’s tawdry carnality, but offers instead the sweet expression of artistic ambition, from the gentle reflection on music’s capacity to stir memories and emotions in “What Can A Song Do To You?”, to the encouragement to “Dream Your Dreams”, in which is posed a question that would echo through the late ‘60s. “What’s so hot about reality?” the sisters sing, “Our seed magic lies in all our dreaming.”

There’s an obvious affinity for these attitudes in The Unthanks’ interpretations: Becky’s piquant tone reveals the mystery and charm of “Woods In May”, and Rachel’s wistful delivery of “Set Me Free” suggests the silken chains that bind a heart: “Forget this thing I crave, that makes a slave of me/If you don’t want me back, unfetter me”. Together, their harmonies are delicately blended to bring Molly’s post-war era to life in the questing “The Road To The Stars”; though the most moving piece here is surely “I Remember”, an account of a crumbling relationship aching with regret, and beautifully expressed by simpatico spirits: “I remember having fun/Two happy hearts that beat as one/When I had thought that we were we/But we were you and me”.

The Heliocentrics​, A World Of Masks

★★★★☆

Download: Made Of The Sun; Time; A World Of Masks; Human Zoo

East London’s questing Heliocentrics affirm the absorbing power of improvisation on this latest album, for which the grooves have been unearthed and honed through hours of collective play: music made for love and art, above all else. Aptly, it opens with the cosmic synthesis of “Made Of The Sun”, before “Time” builds up drone textures akin to recent work by Goat, with dub effects sending shimmering contrails of individual elements – violin, percussion, plucked string sounds – flying off at tangents. “Human Zoo” is a Can-like improv groove which slows down to allow languid horns to add something of the character of their mainstay influence, Sun Ra’s Arkestra. With new Slovakian singer Barbara Patkova bringing a flavour of Arkestra singer June Tyson over the title-track’s flutes and burring horns, the impression is further cemented, lacking only Ra’s explosive keyboard explorations. It’s an engrossing set throughout, leading one through the subdued swirls of “Dawn Chorus” to the climax of “The Uncertainty Principle”, another work whose throbbing organ and cavernous twang owe a distinct debt to Can.

Sam Amidon​, The Following Mountain

★★★☆☆

Download: Fortune; Gendel In 5; April

From Tim Buckley and Pentangle through to Ryley Walker, there’s a long history of crossover between folk and jazz, which Sam Amidon takes to new levels on The Following Mountain. It starts out mildly, with sprinkles of jazz piano circling his fingerstyle guitar on “Fortune”, but plunges into uncharted territory with “Ghosts”, where Amidon’s plaintive wailing strains to rise above a welter of violin drones and abstract percussion. From there it’s a darting journey through diverse, often startling sounds – the throat-singing in “Warren”, the miasmic whirl of “Gendel In 5” - which reaches a climax on the lengthy “April”, where former Albert Ayler sideman Milford Graves’ complex drumming underpins a feverish improvisation of guitar, staccato organ and streaking sax lines. It’s a remarkable departure for Amidon, who also eschews his usual traditional repertoire in favour of original material, albeit haunted by similar hints of fate, animism and violence; though the overriding impression is best summed up in a phrase about “haphazard words found in drifting conversation”.

Various Artists, The Rough Guide To Jug Band Blues

★★★★☆

Download: Banjoreno; Wipe ‘Em Off; Stealin’, Stealin’; The Spasm; The Jug Band Special

A shoestring-budget earlier equivalent to skiffle, jug band music of the Twenties and Thirties employed the honking resonance derived from blowing into narrow-necked stoneware jugs – and in some cases, stovepipes – to create the bass pulses provided for marching bands by tuba or sousaphone. Allied to nimble banjo and guitar parts, it became a popular mainstay of the Southern music scene, especially in Memphis, where Will Shade’s Memphis Jug Band, recording under a variety of aliases, became a crucial component in establishing the city’s R&B bona fides. Their “Stealin’, Stealin’”, covered by both Dylan and the Dead, is one of the more reflective pieces here, while tracks like the Dixieland Jug Blowers’ stirring “Banjoreno” and Whistler & His Jug Band’s “Jug Band Special”, featuring great rude raspberries honked over scuttling banjo, confirm the music’s infectious toe-tapping appeal. Elsewhere, titles such as “Wipe It Off” and “It’s Tight Like That” suggest a penchant for the suggestive employed in their subsequent solo work by the likes of Tampa Red and Memphis Minnie.

The Charlatans, Different Days

★★★☆☆

Download: Different Days; Plastic Machinery; There Will Be Chances; Spinning Out

In the past, The Charlatans have tended towards a chameleonic reflection of musical styles, from early pastiches of soul and folk-rock through dubwise rock-steady and Krautrock. With Different Days, though, they seem to have settled into a sort of not-quite-mainstream indie-rock tinted with neo-psychedelic touches. In “Over Again”, this means a slinky beat and synth groove flavoured with sounds akin to library lounge-music, while elsewhere spangly guitars and chipper drums render the outgoing “There Will Be Chances” more like a minor psych-rocker from the late ‘60s. Tim Burgess’s murmurous tones are largely applied to intensely rhymed sentiments, like “disillusions, just when you’re seeking solutions” and the tortuous “we are all coincidences, accepting idiosyncrasies, keep confidences”. The latter is from the title-track, whose spirited charm is burnished by the appearance of Johnny Marr, in a three-song burst of guest slots that secures him the album’s MVP, warding off competition from Paul Weller, Kurt Wagner and Ian Rankin.

Max Richter, Out Of The Dark Room

★★★☆☆

Download: Waltz With Bashir; Wadjda; The Congress; Disconnect

Max Richter is one of the most protean composers working today, able to turn his hand from “recomposing” The Four Seasons, to creating the monumental eight-hour Sleep, to scoring Wayne McGregor’s literate ballet Woolf Works. But it’s movie work that primarily butters his bread: Out Of The Dark Room collates excerpts from half a dozen such commissions, demonstrating Richter’s acute sensitivity to shifts of mood and texture. Never more so than in his cues for Waltz With Bashir, where we’re thrown from the enveloping calm of “The Haunted Ocean” into the jarring pulse of “Any Minute Now”, before floating off into the minimalist repetitive figure of “I Swam Out To Sea”. Wadjda features subtle hints of Eastern-tinged violin tonalities and, in its concluding section “The Release”, a blend of hammer dulcimer, metallic percussion and string pad which conjures an air of freedom and resolve. Elsewhere, both “Disconnect” and “The Congress” ally twanging synth pulses and puttering sequenced beats to soothing, secretive strings, in the latter magically creating the mood of following a dim light through the darkness.

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Kraftwerk​, 3-D The Catalogue

★★★★★

Download: Trans Europe Express; Computer World; Radioactivity; Europe Endless; Neon Lights

A multi-media blitz heralding Kraftwerk’s impending tour, 3-D The Catalogue comes in so many different formats, from vinyl and CD box sets of their oeuvre since Autobahn, to DVD and Blu-Ray accounts of their performances at the world’s leading art galleries, that it’s hard to get a handle on what they clearly intend to be their defining Gesamtkunstwerk. Alas, having neither 3-D TV, Blu-Ray player nor surround sound, I can’t vouch for the efficacy of the 5.1 sound mix or the 3-D presentation of the concerts; though as all live shows are, essentially, three-dimensional, is this such a big deal? The music, of course, is beautifully sleek and polished, every last little bleep, tick and boing perfectly sculpted and sequenced for maximum effect and minimum discomfort. But while Kraftwerk’s pivotal position in pop history certainly justifies this level of assiduous re-packaging, I’d prefer they spent more time developing new material. It’s been 14 years since Tour De France Soundtracks, and frankly, that wasn’t much cop.

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