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Album Reviews July 2021

Album Reviews July 2021
Album reviews

Ishmael Ensemble: Visions of Light review – a sax, strings and synths epic

by Kate Hutchinson on 8th August 2021 at 2:00 pm (Severn Songs)There are shades of Jon Hopkins, Bon Iver, Soulwax and more, but the Bristol collective’s second album has a scope and grace all its ownIt’s not easy to pull off an evocative, densely layered epic of sax, strings, synths and singing while maintaining a soft-as-silk touch, but Bristol’s Ishmael Ensemble have achieved that gorgeous balance on their second album. Loosely associated with the UK jazz scene, ringleader Pete Cunningham and co’s sound has more in common with Atoms for Peace, Jon Hopkins or Bon Iver. Here, they weave harp glissando, rippling keys and propulsive beats with a lambent flair that grows richer with every listen.Wax Werk, with its pitched-up vocal and deep womp, feels like a Four Tet-style sliver of stammering electronica until the sax rises into a skronky noise freakout. Soma Centre turns into a sultry electro stomper that wouldn’t be out of place on a Soulwax record. Continue reading…

Fredo: Independence Day review – dark wit and supersized swagger

by Damien Morris on 8th August 2021 at 12:00 pm (Sony)Stunning verses propelled by intricate production elevate the west London rapper’s second album this year Marvin “Fredo” Bailey has always made much of his west London roots, so it’s jarring to find that he’s named his second album of the year after an American holiday. No matter. Independence Day is as English as EastEnders, but what was once soap is now opera. Fredo’s gruff truculence is supersized, given widescreen swagger by the propulsive production, a dense lattice of piano, strings and subtle samples. Always articulate and intelligent, the word cloud hovering over his busy brain has barely changed since his early mixtapes. Prison. “Opps” (enemies) trying to drag him down. Drugs. Money, and the creeping paranoia that comes with it. Women – rarely to be trusted, even if they gave birth to you.Predictable enough, yet so persuasive in Fredo’s relentless, rolling thunder flow. “I don’t write songs in English, they’re written in pain,” he raps, and you believe it. Some verses, particularly on Freestyle and Talk of the Town, are stunning, approaching the heights of Mercury-winning mate and Funky Friday collaborator Dave. Fredo may not yet be the GOAT (greatest of all time) for storytelling, but with his dark wit and wordplay, he’s now grazing in the same field. Continue reading…

Ider: Shame review – another classy deep dive

by Kitty Empire on 8th August 2021 at 8:00 am (Believe)Megan Markwick and Lily Somerville call the shots once more on this freewheeling follow-up to 2019’s superb Emotional Education Historically, young women’s music has been overseen by older men: producers, label owners. While removing one gender from the creative equation is neither easy nor desirable – of course men are capable of allyship – one of the pleasures of Ider is that these two twentysomething British female pop auteurs talk directly to their peers in a way that feels largely unmediated.Megan Markwick and Lily Somerville’s debut, Emotional Education (2019), captured the experience of being young and at sea, aware of the contradictions of adulthood but still possessed of a freewheeling sense of possibility. Synths combined with moody pop and melancholic R&B to make Ider a name to watch. Continue reading…

Samara Joy: Samara Joy review – classic American song in safe young hands

by Dave Gelly on 7th August 2021 at 3:00 pm (Whirlwind)The young New Yorker’s beautifully poised delivery is backed by a trio led by the virtuosic guitar of Pasquale GrassoSamara Joy is 21, and two years ago she won the Sarah Vaughan international jazz vocal competition. She grew up in a gospel-singing family in New York, and it was college friends who first introduced her to the great jazz singers such as Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, along with their vast repertoire of classic American song. Joy fell for it all, and seems instinctively to have grasped the main features of the singing style – rhythmic freedom, clear diction, avoidance of mannerisms etc.Her approach is simple but beautifully poised, and when she does take off on an improvised passage or coda, the trickiest notes present no problem. The album cover lists 12 tracks, but there are actually 13, and that last one, Sophisticated Lady, is the best of the lot for me – delicately phrased and full of feeling. The accompaniment is by a trio led by Pasquale Grasso, a guitarist with the most phenomenal technique and an endless flow of ideas. It’s impressive, if a bit much at times for the job in hand. So, two young artists keeping a classic style alive with love, understanding and, in Grasso’s case, bravura. Continue reading…

Sam Lee review – a cry from nature itself

by Kitty Empire on 7th August 2021 at 1:00 pm Saffron Hall, Saffron WaldenIn advance of his autumn tour, the polymath folk singer and band weave their magic – and sound the alarm for a world in perilFor as long as there has been folk music, it seems, there has been discussion of its value and purpose. Usually the debate is framed as a binary. Ought folk music to honour the past as authentically as possible, or update it with a restless eclecticism? To which one might add: does folk happen in pub backrooms or does it take place – as tonight’s gig does – in the wipe-clean auditorium of a secondary school, with socially distanced tables and a drinks app?In his recent book, The Nightingale, the author, song collector, former burlesque dancer and vocalist Sam Lee quotes Gustav Mahler: “Tradition is tending the flame, and not worshipping the ashes.” Lee largely agrees with Mahler, his toe in the latter camp. On his 2015 album The Fade in Time, this polymath added Indian shruti squeeze box, Serbian vinyl crackle and Japanese koto to a set of reimagined British traditionals.Lee wants not so much to prick but to shish-kebab the conscience of listeners Continue reading…

Lingua Ignota: Sinner Get Ready review – a devastating voice

by Tayyab Amin on 6th August 2021 at 7:30 am (Sargent House) Kristin Hayter weaves layered harmonies and folk instruments into a formidable platform from which to express her tangled relationship with Christianity‘Glorious Father, intercede for me. / If I cannot hide from you, neither can he,” Lingua Ignota’s Kristin Hayter sings, with a voice she once used as a church cantor; she has since rebuked her Catholic religion, but renounced a period of atheism too. She soon shrieks a desperate, heretical demand: “I don’t give a fuck! Just kill him! You have to! I’m not asking!” Continue reading…

Nathan Salsburg: Psalms review | Jude Rogers’s folk album of the month

by Jude Rogers on 6th August 2021 at 7:30 am (No Quarter) The musician’s study of Tehillim texts inspired beautiful melodic responses, teased out into an affecting collection with the help of many US folk friendsPsalms is a part of an ongoing personal project for Nathan Salsburg, a musician and archivist based in the heart of Kentucky. By day, he runs the gargantuan Alan Lomax archive, which hosts the 20th-century folklorist’s free-to-access recordings, transcriptions and films. Outside work, he’s an intuitive, dexterous guitarist with an experimental bent. His two 2020 albums – Landwerk Nos 1 and 2 – were stunning sound collages, moulding decaying drones into samples from 78s, lots of them from klezmer and Yiddish music. Continue reading…

Busoni: Elegies, Toccata, etc review | Andrew Clements’s classical album of the week

by Andrew Clements on 5th August 2021 at 2:00 pm Peter Donohoe(Chandos)With music that demands immense virtuosity, Peter Donohoe meets each challenge fearlesslyIt’s now almost a century since Ferruccio Busoni died, yet fixing him into the history of early 20th-century music gets no easier. Fifty years ago Busoni was regularly included in surveys of musical modernism; never as a mainstream figure, but as one of its intriguing, forward-looking peripheral figures. Now, though, he seems more like a survivor of 19th-century romanticism, whose writings may have anticipated later developments in music, but with works that rarely delivered on their radical promise. With the exception of a handful of his Bach transcriptions, none of Busoni’s works could be regarded now as repertory pieces. Continue reading…

Fredo: Independence Day review – a stark, sombre return to core values

by Alexis Petridis on 5th August 2021 at 11:00 am (RCA)The London rapper’s melancholy third studio album may not be a genre game-changer, but his renewed focus results in sharp street portraitureThe second Fredo album in the space of six months begins in portentous style. There’s a reading of an extract from an 1852 speech given by the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass – a speech that contrasted the celebration of “freedom” on 4 July with the lot of the slave – followed by a churchy sounding organ playing a figure that distinctly recalls Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. “I know labels don’t want it to end this way,” offers the rapper on the chorus, “but I had to tell them it’s independence day.”It’s the kind of bullish declaration of freedom an artist might make had they recently quit, or been dropped by, a major label: a new beginning, free from the interference of A&R men and bean-counters suggesting you round your edges and demanding to know where the next hit is. But the advance stream of Independence Day arrives from Sony, bearing the logo of RCA, which has released every preceding Fredo album.Fredo doesn’t really bother with the kind of deep self-examination that Dave goes in for, nor any explicit politicking Related: Fredo: Money Can’t Buy You Happiness review – melancholy rap realism Continue reading…

Welcome 2 America by Prince review – sub-par album from the vaults

by Damien Morris on 1st August 2021 at 2:00 pm (Legacy Recordings)This shelved collection from 2010 is not peak Prince – and he knew itEvery few months someone eagerly forwards me that clip of Prince’s majestic While My Guitar Gently Weeps solo at the 2004 Hall of Fame. It’s ages since anyone sent me an unreleased Prince song with similar enthusiasm. Recently discovered in Prince’s vault, this album won’t change that.Recorded in a week by a scratch band, its songs went unreleased and unplayed on his 2010 Welcome 2 America tour. It’s not immediately obvious why. The intriguing title track takes some spiky if unfocused shots at America’s frailties, and Prince deliberates on race, politics and religion elsewhere, but there’s no controversy – or anything like 1981’s classic Controversy. Perhaps he realised that, after writing “Slave” on his face to protest about his multimillion-dollar record deal, his thoughts on that topic might not be well received. Continue reading…

Dave: We’re All Alone in This Together review – a rival to his classic debut

by Kadish Morris on 1st August 2021 at 12:00 pm (Neighbourhood)With introspective but operatic rap, Dave paints pictures on an album that’s part confessional, part social critique In 2019, Dave’s Mercury prize- and Brit award-winning debut, Psychodrama, became a classic overnight; now it has a rival for introspection, operatic quality and wordplay. Tender piano arrangements, unadulterated storytelling and sermon-like verses flood this topical album that is part confessional poetry, part social commentary. “I’m a young black belligerent. Child of an immigrant. Lifestyle frivolous,” he raps on opener We’re All Alone. The seeming juxtaposition of these realities means that while he can be bragging about Rolexes with Stormzy on Clash, he’ll peel away at his own materialism on Survivor’s Guilt with the admission that, behind the glitz and glamour, he is “cryin’ in the driver’s seat”. It’s not all about the self. “My Jamaicans, the entire party, you can’t see?” he proclaims, honouring the island’s enormous contribution to British culture on the violin-rich Three Rivers, a track about migration that discusses the Windrush scandal.The highlight is Heart Attack, a glorious nine-minute stream of consciousness where his feelings spill out in abundance, on everything from knife crime to politicians doing cocaine. “Round here, the main way to provide for your kin is in a flick blade, little push-bike and a sim.” When Dave raps, he paints murals. James Blake production, Daniel Kaluuya cameos and Wizkid vocals are just surplus. Continue reading…

Trippers & Askers: Acorn review – delicate, literate Americana

by Neil Spencer on 31st July 2021 at 3:00 pm (Sleepy Cat)Led by a Georgetown professor, this US collective impress with a subtle, ambient debut inspired by Octavia Butler’s Parable of the SowerAs social commentators and chroniclers of the times, many musicians could justly describe themselves as “cultural anthropologists”, but Jay Hammond is the real thing, a Georgetown professor when not making music. It’s perhaps no surprise that his group, a collective, not a fixed lineup, is named after a line in a Walt Whitman poem. This debut album also owes a debt to literature, to Parable of the Sower, Octavia K Butler’s dystopian novel, set in the 2020s but written in the 1990s, whose themes of corporate greed and eco-crisis resonate strongly today.The conceptual framework informs but doesn’t overwhelm an album of delicately played modern Americana. Opener Pulsing Places starts as a simple folk song to fingerpicked guitar before mutating into a shimmering homage to nature, with Rhodes piano and pedal steel creating a pulsing, imminent atmosphere. It proves a template for the other seven pieces here. Hammond’s baritone vocals are melodically modest, but immersed in an ambient echo chamber they ring with gravitas, and the playing is slinky and skilled. The songs are oblique but suggestive – “Turn up stones in forests of your making” – and the message, like the Acorn, is one of new beginnings. Continue reading…

Billie Eilish: Happier Than Ever review – wiser and wilder

by Kitty Empire on 31st July 2021 at 1:00 pm (Darkroom/Interscope/Polydor)The teenage alt-pop sensation grows up and gets loose on her bold, retro-toned second albumThe court of public opinion is never out of session, especially when the creative in the dock is a young woman. The second album by Billie Eilish – the still-teenage singer-songwriter and Grammy-magnet – lands amid a backlash to her success (seven Grammys to date; Happier Than Ever has had more Apple Music listeners add it to their libraries before its release than any other album).In recent weeks, Eilish has been accused of queerbaiting and tacit racism. Previously, there has been dismay over how she swapped the green hair and roomy hip-hop threads she wore for her debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go (2019), for platinum blond locks and even corsetry (for a British Vogue shoot).Eilish is both an old soul and a young woman coming into her sexuality, more able to spot lovers who want mirrors, not equals Continue reading…

Classical home listening: Isata Kanneh-Mason; Fretwork with Iestyn Davies; Mirga at the Proms

by Fiona Maddocks on 31st July 2021 at 11:00 am Kanneh-Mason’s second album is a delight; Davies and Fretwork excel in early baroque German music; and the pick of Proms week one• With its brilliant fugue finale, Samuel Barber’s heavyweight yet economical Piano Sonata in E flat, Op 26 provides a strong backbone to Summertime (Decca), Isata Kanneh-Mason’s second solo album. This beguiling recital of music by (mainly) American composers, from Earl Wild’s jazz-rag reinvention of Gershwin’s Summertime and I Got Rhythm to Aaron Copland’s super-energetic The Cat and the Mouse, shows the young British pianist’s multifaceted musical personality. Continue reading…

Bleachers: Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night review – Jack Antonoff goes back to his roots

by Kitty Empire on 31st July 2021 at 8:00 am (RCA)The super producer’s complex musical identity finds full expression on this highly personal third Bleachers albumNew Jersey native Jack Antonoff is best known as the affable super producer who has played midwife to works by Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey and Lorde. Big on tunes, Antonoff’s aesthetic nonetheless embodies intriguing contradictions: a pop maximalist, he’s also a guitar kid at heart, balancing look-at-me jazz hands with downplayed vocals and atmospheric fuzz. Back in 2014, Bleachers’ debut was full of nods to Bruce Springsteen. In 2020, the man himself turned up on backing vocals on the none-more-Boss track Chinatown.So many American acts have played Boss moves in recent years – the Killers, the War on Drugs – but this Bleachers album feels like it’s about showing someone where Antonoff grew up in Jersey; at least a third of it is powered by joyous E Street Band poses, its anthemics pleasantly furred up by vulnerability. It all feels highly personal, with Antonoff still channelling underdog status on songs such as How Dare You Want More. There’s plenty of filigree too: string arrangements by Annie “St Vincent” Clark, input from Warren Ellis and a writing credit for Zadie Smith. Continue reading…

Beatriz Ferreyra: Canto+ review – painterly daubs of found sound

by John Lewis on 30th July 2021 at 8:00 am (Room40)Splicing and manipulating speech, urban noise and more, this collection shows how strangely beautiful the 84-year-old Argentinian composer’s musique concrète can beBeatriz Ferreyra turned 84 this year and is still composing music – dense, immersive sound sculptures – as the last surviving member from the field of mid-20th-century pioneers that included the likes of Edgard Varèse and Pierre Henry. She was born in Argentina but has spent the last six decades in France, where she relocated in 1961 to study with Nadia Boulanger and György Ligeti. Like many émigré composers based in Paris at that time – among them Stockhausen and Xenakis – Ferreyra was drawn into the orbit of Pierre Schaeffer, who was creating experimental montages of found sound using tape manipulation and calling it musique concrète. Continue reading…

Durand Jones & the Indications: Private Space review – post-pandemic catharsis

by Dave Simpson on 30th July 2021 at 7:30 am (Dead Oceans/Colemine)The US retro-soul outfit expand into funk and disco, facing society’s hurt head on with songs of love and hopeFormed out of Indiana University’s Soul Revue and during rehearsals in a basement, Durand Jones & the Indications’ first two albums were unashamedly retro soul. After the second one, American Love Call, gained international attention and acclaim, the third broadens their interests considerably. With vocals shared between Jones (lower) and drummer Aaron Frazer (higher), they stretch from floaty melancholia to gossamer funk and disco, with synths and strings. As many as 19 musicians appear on their most lavish concoctions. Continue reading…

Billie Eilish: Happier Than Ever review – inside pop stardom’s heart of darkness

by Alexis Petridis on 29th July 2021 at 11:01 pm (Darkroom/Interscope)On perhaps the most anticipated album of 2021, Eilish uses subdued yet powerful songwriting to consider how fame has seeped into every corner of her life “I’m getting older,” sings Billie Eilish, who’s 19, on Happier Than Ever’s opening track. “I’ve got more on my shoulders”, she adds, which is certainly true. Her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? wasn’t just a huge global hit, but an album that significantly altered mainstream pop music. Two years on, streaming services are clotted with bedroom-bound, teenage singer-songwriters dolefully depicting their lives: anticipation for what the genuine article does next is understandably running very high.When We All Fall Asleep … was an album that turned universal teenage traumas – romance, hedonism, friendship groups – into knowingly lurid horror-comic fantasies, in which tongues were stapled, friends buried, hearses slept in and marble walls spattered with blood. That playfulness is less evident on its successor. It flickers occasionally, as on Overheated’s exploration of stardom in the era of social media, complete with death threats (“You wanna kill me? You wanna hurt me?” she mumbles, before giggling: “Stop being flirty”) or on NDA, where the “pretty boy” she entices home is required to sign the titular legal agreement before he leaves. But the overall tone is noticeably more sombre. Related: Billie Eilish: Your Power review – chilling ballad seeps under your skin Continue reading…

Mahler & Ye: The Song of the Earth review – song-symphony returns to its golden age

by Andrew Clements on 29th July 2021 at 5:30 pm Michelle DeYoung/Brian Jagde/Liping Zhang/Shenyang/Shanghai SO/Long Yu(Deutsche Grammophon, two CDs)Xiaogang Ye sets the Tang-era Chinese poems that ultimately inspired Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde to colourful new musicThe texts that Mahler used for Das Lied von der Erde, his great song-symphony, came to him third-hand. The German words he set had been translated from the French, which was in turn versions of poems from the golden age of Chinese literature during the Tang dynasty (AD618-907). The convoluted process took them very far from the much more concise originals, and in 2005 the conductor Long Yu asked the composer Xiaogang Ye for an orchestral song cycle using the Chinese versions of the texts that Mahler set; he compares and contrasts the two works on this recording with the Shanghai Symphony. Continue reading…

Leon Bridges: Gold-Diggers Sound review – unashamedly grown-up songs for the soul

by Damien Morris on 25th July 2021 at 2:00 pm (Columbia)The soul singer breaks out of his comfort zone with a sparkling collection that evades easy answersVintage soul singer Leon Bridges’s excellent albums Coming Home and Good Thing were smartly observed and performed. Still, there’s always the feeling that such reverential revivalism, no matter the quality of his songwriting and singing, winds up on a dead-end road called Bruno Mars Close. Could Bridges edge out of his comfort zone and focus his acute vision on more obscure terrain?Gold-Diggers Sound proves he can. Named after the Hollywood hotel studio bar where he worked and played for two years improvising and refining these delicately spacious songs, it’s a sparkling collection. Afrobeat, jazz, R&B, psych and even country flood its veins, following the subtler path of last year’s Sweeter, a lament for George Floyd. Reflective and regretful, it sets the tone for an album of questions with no easy answers. Related: Leon Bridges: ‘My transition was dishwasher one day, star the next’ Continue reading…

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