Album reviews: Young Fathers - Cocoa Sugar, Jonathan Wilson - Rare Birds, David Byrne - American Utopia, and more

Also: Tracey Thorn – Record, Molly Drake – The Tide’s Magnificence, David Kitt – Yous

Andy Gill
Thursday 08 March 2018 13:42
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Young Fathers, Cocoa Sugar

★★★★☆

Download: See How; Fee Fi; In My View; Turn

As with most great hip hop, Young Fathers’ three albums are riven with uncertainties and contradictions, the genre’s intrinsic underlying vein of dissatisfaction tapped in ways that seek paths other than mere anger, resentment or revenge.

It’s a search that can lead the trio into complicated territory, as with the troubling cycle of impulses tracked in “Lord”: “Love wants to give/ Hate wants to thrill/ Joy hates the pain/ The pain we all need”. Four short lines which go further and deeper than most acts manage in their entire career, flip-flopping back and forth between pain and pleasure, want and need, love and hate, and all self-deprecatingly dismissed in the gospelly falsetto chorus, “Lord, don’t pay me no mind”. As in: it’s not your problem, it’s mine to untangle.

Hence the emphasis placed on personal development in tracks like “In My View” and “Turn”, which warn of the dangers of slipping into fixed positions, of being defined by stagnant notions. “In my view, nothing’s ever given, no way/ I believe to advance that you must pay”, the former suggests, over a jerky shuffle layered with chilly loops somehow infused with warmth. The latter is sterner yet, admonishing, “You are not special, learn your lessons/ There are no such things as blessings”, over a chaotic bricolage of sounds, breaths and vocal samples anchored by the album’s burliest groove.

Unlike most hip hop, Cocoa Sugar doesn’t simply proclaim the same attitude over and over, but exults in a multiplicity of positions and voices. So while a track like “Border Girl” can break down to a prayer-like a cappella middle eight, “Toy” can seethe with contempt for someone trapped by their attitude: “You little toy/ Silly little boy”. Sometimes, it’s a matter of picking through contrasts in a single track: the urgent, Suicide-style pulsing synths of “Wow” underscore with enthusiasm its suggestion “What a time to be alive/ Everything’s so amazing/ I said ‘Wow!’”; but the vocal delivery is so deadpan with disbelief that the song flips over into sceptical satire.

These twists and turns of attitude and intention are facilitated by Graham Hastings’s backing tracks, which try to pilot the Krautrock, electropop and avant-rock sensibilities that characterised the brilliant White Men Are Black Men Too into less confrontational, more populist shapes. Opener “See How” provides the bridge, with its abrasive string scrapes, sharp orchestral stabs and layered vocal counterpoints united by a deep, loping bass riff; “Fee Fi”, which follows, boasts a masterly simplicity in the way its few basic elements – piano, shaker, tuned drums and vocal chant – are braided into an odd but infectious groove, like an avant-garde skipping song.

It all adds up to a fascinating, multifaceted work which strives to find its own unique space in a crowded musical world, forever mindful of its limitations, but soldiering on with good humour. As they suggest, tongue not entirely removed from cheek, “You’ll never find your way to heaven/But you can follow me”.

Jonathan Wilson, Rare Birds

★★★☆☆

Download: Over The Midnight; Rare Birds; 49 Hairflips; Living With Myself

Opening with a languid, miasmic whirl of acoustic guitar and ambient sounds, the intro to “Trafalgar Square” suggests that Rare Birds will be another relaxed offering of the Laurel Canyon retro-folk-rock style that Jonathan Wilson helped revive on previous albums. But a minute in, it suddenly hardens into a pumping prog-funk groove slashed with scarified noise – another beast entirely.

In large part a break-up album, Rare Birds finds Wilson picking through the romantic embers and taking tentative steps forward, over arrangements reflecting both his recent position in Roger Waters’s touring band and his need for healing – or as he describes it, “psychedelic gossamer-winged music ... to incite hope, positivity, longing, reckless abandon and regret”. The major problem, though, concerns the sheer sonic density of what Wilson calls his new “maximalist” approach, in which up to 150 parts are blended into a single song. The lush opacity becomes claustrophobic over his eight-minute default track length: though frequently sweet and beautiful, one’s ultimately left like Heliogabalus, drowned in rose petals.

David Byrne, American Utopia

★★☆☆☆

Download: Every Day Is A Miracle; Doing The Right Thing

There’s always been an element of disinterested distance in David Byrne’s work, a sort of numbed passivity to life’s quirky minutiae, but it dominates this latest album. Whether he’s fretting over social etiquette in “Doing The Right Thing”, following a round’s passage through human flesh in “Bullet”, or comparing human and animal conceptions of the world in “Dog’s Mind” and “Every Day Is A Miracle”, the dispassionate air remains the same, as if he’s up in that plane, gazing down at mankind, unconcerned.

Combined with the faux-naive, fairytale tone of the narratives, it makes for an irritatingly condescending experience. The lofty aimlessness is matched by musical settings – built upon rhythm tracks devised by Eno – which incorporate sudden jarring shifts of mood and direction, often mistaking mere activity for development. Likewise, the repetitive lyrical proliferations of “This Is That” and “Here” resemble stocktaking, rather than insight. “Here is something we call elucidation,” he notes in the latter, “Is it the truth, or merely a description?”. And more importantly, whose?

Tracey Thorn, Record

★★★☆☆

Download: Queen; Air; Guitar; Sister

Her first album of new material in seven years finds Tracey Thorn in feisty form, bashing out “nine feminist bangers” with a relish reflected in the confident, striding electropop settings of tracks like “Queen” and “Air”. The former’s ruminations on the paths not taken – “things lost and might-have-beens” – are summarily dispelled by the latter’s joyous affirmation of the strength gained by swimming against the tide, by being “too tall, all wrong; deep voice, headstrong”.

Likewise, the boyfriend who broke her heart is not lamented or maligned in “Guitar”, but given a certain backhanded gratitude because he “armed me with three chords”. The punchy one-word titles are sustained throughout, although the focus shifts elsewhere: “Go” aches with poignant inevitability, as a parent waves reluctant farewell to their child; and “Face” confronts the masochistic torture of following an old flame’s hi-jinks on Facebook. But at the album’s heart is a core of steel best summarised in the line, “I am my sister, and I fight like a girl”: not a weakness, but a warning.

Molly Drake, The Tide’s Magnificence

★★★★☆

Download: Happiness; I Remember; Poor Mum; Night Is My Friend

Sumptuously presented in a 200-page hardback book with two CDs, The Tide’s Magnificence collects together the entirety of Molly Drake’s literary and musical output, captured in the Fifties by her husband on early tape recorders. The previously released album of 19 songs is augmented here by another handful delivered in similar manner, with Molly’s self-effacing vocals set to simple piano arrangements: an exercise in understatement so quintessentially British you can all but smell the cucumber sandwiches and freshly mown lawn.

But as the poems attest, hers was a life minutely examined, including alongside wartime experiences in Burma some intriguing observations of her son Nick – who, aged three, posited that a violet “didn’t smell sweet/ It smelt yellow”. A deeper insight into the links between mother and son comes in a hand-written note prefacing the poems, wherein she claims, “The happy and enduring things do not evoke or provoke poetry” – a belief borne out in the pervasively melancholy, elegiac tone of her work, unerringly locating the darker shadows of a situation.

David Kitt, Yous

★★★☆☆

Download: Still Don’t Know; Made It Mine; Cause For Leaving; Song Of Two Birds

With a CV ranging from Tindersticks to the techno indulgences of his New Jackson alter-ego, Irish musician David Kitt is a peculiarly protean talent whose bowstrings clearly thrum with diverse ideas. The aptly plural Yous marks Kitt’s first return to his singer-songwriter roots in nine years, and it’s a warm, welcoming effort whose charms, never thrust upfront, work their discreet magic over several plays. His voice has a genial, downhome diffidence that, combined with his dextrous fingerstyle guitar, recalls the likes of JJ Cale and Jose Gonzalez on “Made It Mine”, a reflection on the malleability of identity; elsewhere, combined with guitar, violin and loping beat on the West Coast rumination “Still Don’t Know”, the crossover style of Jeb Loy Nichols comes to mind. It’s a gently probing collection of musings, with songs such as “Like Lightning” and “Keep The Streets Empty For Me” reflecting a deep empathy for the natural world which reaches its apogee on the wistful, lilting shoreline conclusion, “Song Of Two Birds”.

Various Artists, When The Day Is Done: The Orchestrations Of Robert Kirby

★★★☆☆

Download: Introduction; Forest And The Shore; I Keep A Close Watch; First Light

Music student Robert Kirby got his first big break when his Cambridge University chum Nick Drake insisted he be hired to do the string arrangements on Drake’s debut Five Leaves Left. From there, a flurry of further commissions followed, mostly from singer-songwriter folkies in search of a little fairy dust or gravitas. The result was effectively the birth of a new sub-genre, chamber-folk, its brief Seventies heyday captured on this compilation.

It’s a diverse anthology, reflecting Kirby’s precisely weighted choices for each piece: a Mellotron chorale, for instance, lends a “Nights In White Satin” vibe to Keith Christmas’s lament for spiritual erosion “Forest And The Shore”, while a brass band arrangement brings a faded nobility to Sandy Denny’s cover of “Silver Threads And Golden Needles”. The childlike fragility of Vashti Bunyan’s “Rainbow River”, meanwhile, is evoked by a recorder quartet; and straying further from folk, Kirby’s orchestration adds a sleek, sweeping grandeur to John Cale’s “I Keep A Close Watch”, a song subsequently rerecorded in a more spartan manner.

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