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Album reviews from The Guardian Music

  • Burna Boy: Twice as Tall review – fun and fury from Nigerian pop polymath
    by Lloyd Bradley on 14th August 2020 at 3:35 pm

    (Atlantic)By rooting modern production in traditional melody, and drawing on various musical styles while staying true to African pop, Burna Boy defines multilayered black identityFor a vivid snapshot of what Burna Boy is capable of, head for track 12 of new album Twice as Tall, entitled Monsters You Made. The music is modern Africa, in the same way grime precisely captured young London of the day. Drill down, and the cleverly deconstructed phrases echo familiar-sounding black music concepts – in this case, roots reggae – but as a whole it’s totally of its immediate environment, and utterly original. Lyrically, the song is a sharp focusing of the singer’s never-far-from-the-surface rage into a furious condemnation of an under-considered aspect of global black life. He addresses the ruling classes, arguing that it is they who have fomented any black anger, even crime, through colonial oppression. If Black Lives Matter organisers were looking for a theme song, they’d be hard pushed to find a better fit.Monsters You Made also has an in-song pairing we’re never likely to see again: 78-year-old Ghanaian feminist, political activist and playwright Ama Ata Aidoo and Coldplay’s Chris Martin. The former is in the shape of a snatch of TV interview about the damage done to Africa by colonialism, in which she rinses the host and hangs him out to dry; the latter finds Gwyneth Paltrow’s ex-husband singing a chorus warning that there’s only so much people are going to take. Related: Burna Boy: ‘Brothers in the US have been stripped of their knowledge of self’ Continue reading...

  • Kath Bloom: Bye Bye These Are the Days review – beguiling, defiant folk
    by Laura Barton on 14th August 2020 at 8:15 am

    (Dear Life Records)The Mary Oliver of folk sings of love and determination in a vital album that addresses the state of AmericaIt can be hard to write about Kath Bloom’s songwriting without drawing on a vocabulary that could diminish her. There is a nakedness to her writing, a beguiling, wondrous quality, as if we might cast her as the Mary Oliver of music. Continue reading...

  • Alula Down: Postcards from Godley Moor review | Jude Rogers's folk album of the month
    by Jude Rogers on 14th August 2020 at 7:30 am

    (Self-released)Kate Gathercole and Mark Waters mark the shape-shifting effects of Covid in rural Britain, mixing traditional music with post-rock and ambience Lockdown albums have already been noted in pop, rock and rap, but August brings another, hazier, folkier creature to this peculiar summer. Alula Down are partners Kate Gathercole and Mark Waters, members of Herefordshire’s brilliant Weirdshire collective, who put on traditional, psychedelic and experimental music nights in simpler times. The duo have explored British ballads in the past, such as Master Kilby and Polly Vaughan, but they have also collaborated with author Max Porter on a stage version of his Booker-longlisted novel, Lanny, where they impressively worked their improvisational muscles. Continue reading...

  • Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
    by Andrew Clements on 13th August 2020 at 2:00 pm

    Sarah Connolly/Robert Dean Smith/RSO Berlin/Vladimir Jurowski(Pentatone)The conductor’s fine recording with the Berlin Radio Symphony has accuracy, perception and crystalline detailMost of Vladimir Jurowski’s previous Mahler recordings have been made with the London Philharmonic, taken from their concerts together at the Royal Festival Hall in London and released on the orchestra’s own label. But this fine version of Das Lied von der Erde comes from a performance that he conducted in Berlin in October 2018, with his other orchestra, the Berlin Radio Symphony. The accompanying booklet includes an essay on the great song symphony by Jurowski himself, which is full of insights. The concluding Abschied, he writes, marks a return to “an individual identity by a ‘lyric’ artist who owes so much to the tradition of Schubert, a deliberate resignation from the ‘heroic’ path of Beethoven, in whose footsteps Mahler seemed to follow for such a long time”. Continue reading...

  • Sea Girls: Open Up Your Head review | Album of the week
    by Rachel Aroesti on 13th August 2020 at 11:30 am

    (Polydor)The fast-rising British indie band may be completely unoriginal, but big melodies and easy charm shine through songs about the wistful end of adolescence Of all the teenage rites of passage the pandemic has put a stop to (spontaneous snogging, hanging round shopping centres unmasked, going to school), the sweat-sodden, full-body experience of the moshpit seems the most likely to be among adolescence’s permanent losses. Rowdy crowds are a fixture of teen-heavy gigs, from rap to EDM to hyper-polished pop. For a band like Sea Girls, the impact would be especially acute. Having constructed a reputation from years of energetic live shows, the four-piece now make the kind of instantly familiar, big-chorused, gnarly-guitared indie designed to facilitate catharsis and connection on a mass scale. In other words, their music is machine-tooled to get the pit pumping. Related: Sign up for the Sleeve Notes email: music news, bold reviews and unexpected extras Continue reading...

  • Tkay Maidza: Last Year Was Weird Vol 2 review – fresh as a poolside mojito
    by Kate Hutchinson on 9th August 2020 at 2:00 pm

    (4AD)The Australian-Zimbabwean’s third offering hits the sweet spot between hip-hop and breezy popNot so long ago, outside of Oz itself, you might have thought “Australian hip-hop” and pictured Iggy Azalea whipping her blond ponytail. But down under, things have evolved. First Sampa the Great and now Tkay Maidza (“tee-kay my-dzuh”) are singer/rappers making bids for international recognition. Aussie-Zimbabwean Maidza has been releasing music since 2013: Killer Mike guested on her 2017 debut album, Tkay, which had shades of Lorde and MIA. Then came the first volume of Last Year Was Weird, a smattering of trap-R&B that, like early Little Simz, was concerned with growing up and wanting to be taken seriously.Its follow-up, however, is a confident debut on UK indie label 4AD that hits the bullseye between contemporary hip-hop and easy-breezy catchy pop. The warm, Modjo-y house of 24k is as fresh as a poolside mojito; PB Jam has shades of the Internet’s louche funk; and Shook goes straight for the Lizzo-Missy Elliott jugular (it’s unsurprising to find that Maidza’s producer, Dan Farber, is behind their hit Tempo). Their musical mood board is overt, yet it all sounds as effortless as careening along the coastline, windows rolled down. There are some grittier moments – Awake with rap outsider Jpegmafia boasts taunting synths – but this EP is the triumphant sound of someone’s groove – click! – finally locking into place. If last year was weird, I can’t wait to hear what Maidza makes during this one. Continue reading...

  • Gillian Welch: Boots No 2: The Lost Songs, Vol 1 review – inspired outtakes from 2002
    by Phil Mongredien on 9th August 2020 at 12:00 pm

    (Acony)Spare yet perfectly formed, these discarded demos from Welch and David Rawlings – with more to come – offer riches galoreFans of Gillian Welch and her longtime foil David Rawlings’s reimagining of early country and bluegrass are used to being patient. Until a month ago, the pair had only released five albums proper under her name, and three in his, since Welch’s 1996 debut, Revival. But after their studio, with all their old recordings, was almost destroyed by a tornado in March, they’ve changed tack. Hot on the heels of July’s covers album, All the Good Times Are Past and Gone, comes the follow-up to 2016’s first batch of archive recordings, The Official Revival Bootleg, with two more volumes promised for the coming months.The 16 songs here (and the 32 more scheduled to appear imminently) were all recorded during one productive weekend in December 2002, but then discarded before the following year’s Soul Journey. Listening now, it’s hard to figure out why. Although they are demos, with little more in play than guitar and Welch’s voice, they sound fully realised. First Place Ribbon, about barefoot Kathy, “the kinda girl likes the dust between her toes”, rattles along with an irresistible momentum; the narrator of the brooding Shotgun Song fantasises about escaping the chain gang; Valley of Tears is as desolately beautiful as its name suggests. That Welch and Rawlings have sat on such inspired recordings for almost two decades makes you wonder what other hidden treasures might be forthcoming. Continue reading...

  • Washed Out: Purple Noon review – radio-friendly, up to a point
    by Damien Morris on 9th August 2020 at 8:00 am

    (Sub Pop) He’s a master of mood and melody, but a more pop-facing Ernest Greene needs to let rip a littleCraftsmanship can be underrated. We want musicians to be unfettered geniuses with lightning at their fingertips, not digital coalminers digging grimly for zeroes and ones. Ernest Greene’s Washed Out project was always painstakingly put together, with fuzzily tuneful gems like 2009’s Feel It All Around encouraging chillwave’s horizontal revolution. But it rarely felt crafted, because true craft always disguises itself as inspiration.Over the years, Greene has tinkered gently with his formula, and this fourth album adds more radio-friendly arrangements on songs like Too Late and Time to Walk Away. Only the multilayered finale, Haunt, really tries something interesting. He remains a brilliant technician of mood and melody, but as he edges closer to pop, Greene’s vocal limitations are accentuated. You hear the artistry – what he’s doing, and what he’s trying to do – but his breathily inarticulate voice isn’t strong enough to carry you over the gap between the two. Continue reading...

  • Harry Beckett: Joy Unlimited review – a lost classic from 1975
    by Dave Gelly on 8th August 2020 at 3:00 pm

    (Cadillac)The late trumpeter and friends simply dazzle in this immaculate, feel-good setA welcome rediscovery from 1975, with a promisingly cheerful title. Barbados-born Harry Beckett (1935-2010) had one of the most beautiful trumpet tones I’ve ever heard. It was firm, but soft at the edges, with a chuckle lurking somewhere inside. Joy Unlimited isn’t typical of its time, or of anything except itself. All six tracks are Beckett compositions, tuneful, spirited and attractively arranged. His own solo playing is quite astonishing.In the first piece he takes off at terrifying speed, hitting some high notes that may interest your dog. This is to make sure you’re paying attention. After this, the gorgeous sound, on both trumpet and flugelhorn, takes over, notably in Rings Within Rings. There’s one brief but enchanting slow piece – a duet with guitarist Ray Russell, Changes Are Still Happening – and a wonderfully rolling Caribbean-flavoured number, Glowing, featuring Brian Miller on keyboards. Continue reading...

  • Classical home listening: Semele at Ally Pally, Russian cello sonatas and more
    by Fiona Maddocks on 8th August 2020 at 11:00 am

    Louise Alder excels in a vibrant live recording of Handel’s sparkling opera-oratorio; perfect poise from Hee-Young Lim; and Eva-Maria Westbroek in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk• Rampant with glorious music, licentious sexual adventure and gods and mortals behaving badly, Handel’s Semele has firmly established itself (after neglect) as a favourite. That renewal began in the second half of the last century. A notably memorable 1999 ENO staging (with Carolyn Sampson) later surfaced elsewhere, starring, among others, Cecilia Bartoli. In the British soprano Louise Alder we have a new and brilliant young Semele, who sang the role in a semi-staging at London’s Alexandra Palace in May 2019. That live performance – with the novelty of audience noise – is now out as a three-disc album on SDG, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. Continue reading...

  • Glass Animals: Dreamland review – technicolour pop shaded with pain
    by Aimee Cliff on 7th August 2020 at 8:00 am

    (Polydor)Trauma has triggered a more inward-looking exploration of the Oxford quartet’s grandstanding, hallucinogenic soundDave Bayley, frontman of Oxford psych-pop quartet Glass Animals, has always embraced the fantastical. The group’s debut set Lewis Carroll-worthy lyrics over R&B production, while their follow-up – 2016’s How to Be a Human Being, the album that turned them into Radio 1 stars and Mercury nominees – filtered other people’s life stories through Bayley’s technicolour imagination. But the very end of that record marked a shift, with the quiet ballad Agnes exploring his own experience of grief. Following that album, the band experienced a collective trauma when their drummer, Joe Seaward, suffered a near-fatal brain injury. As he began his long recovery, his bandmates started to dig deeper than ever before. Continue reading...

  • Giacinto Scelsi: String Trio review | John Lewis's contemporary album of the month
    by John Lewis on 7th August 2020 at 7:30 am

    London Contemporary Orchestra(SA Recordings)Scelsi, writing in the 1930s, influenced Ennio Morricone, using microtonal variations on a single note to make revelatory musicWhen I interviewed him in his Rome studio nearly 20 years ago, Ennio Morricone was generous in praise of his heroes, declaring his undying love for John Cage, Burt Bacharach and the AS Roma striker Francesco Totti. He also mentioned a more obscure idol: an Italian composer called Giacinto Scelsi. “I learned from him that a single note can be beautiful and shocking,” he told me. “And that, by repeating that note, in slightly different ways, you can do more than playing something complicated.” Continue reading...

  • Ethel Smyth: The Prison review | Erica Jeal's classical album of the week
    by Erica Jeal on 6th August 2020 at 2:19 pm

    Brailey/Burton/Experiential Chorus and Orchestra/Blachly(Chandos)A long overdue first recording for this work by the one-time imprisoned suffragette, detailing the spiritual awakening of a condemned manEthel Smyth was unusual among composers in being able to write a work called The Prison from a position of experience, but her weeks in Holloway as a time-serving suffragette were long past by 1930, when, aged 72 and increasingly deaf, she finished this “symphony for soprano, bass-baritone, chorus and orchestra”. The words are by HB Brewster, who had been Smyth’s close friend and, perhaps, her lover; they take the form of a dialogue between an innocent prisoner awaiting execution and his soul, sung by a soprano, who is able to guide him towards spiritual peace. Related: Dame Ethel Smyth: Mass in D review | Erica Jeal's classical album of the week Continue reading...

  • Victoria Monét: Jaguar review | Album of the week
    by Alim Kheraj on 6th August 2020 at 11:16 am

    (Tribe)This is no lunge for the mainstream from the Ariana Grande songwriter, but an assured, inventive exploration of autonomyTraditionally, the jump from writers’ room to centre stage has been complicated. The likes of Sia and Pharrell have deftly glided from backroom hitmakers to pop behemoths. Others, such as Keri Hilson and Julia Michaels, have struggled to find their footing in the upper echelons of the charts where their songwriting credits so often appear, instead forging fruitful careers as pop underdogs. Nine years into his career as a solo artist, the UK’s MNEK finally scored his first No 1 last week. Related: Victoria Monét: the Ariana Grande songwriter making bed-quaking R&B Continue reading...

  • Brandy: B7 review – back on her own terms
    by Kadish Morris on 2nd August 2020 at 2:00 pm

    (Brand Nu, Inc)The familiar acrobatic vocals and sublime harmonies are there, but the R&B star’s first album in eight years is not all about nostalgia…It’s been eight years since Brandy’s last album – forgivable for someone who’s “been an original since 1994”, as she boasts on I Am More on this new one. The R&B singer is such an icon that when you google the phrase “the vocal bible” her picture comes up, all thanks to the supremacy and range of her voice.B7 isn’t exclusively a trip down memory lane, but it does cruise past a few old haunts. Brandy’s trademark raspy vocals and sublime harmonies on Rather Be and Lucid Dreams are nostalgia-inducing for anyone who grew up listening to her acrobatic riffs and runs. Baby Mama featuring Chance the Rapper is a rhapsody to her 18-year old daughter and an anthem for single mothers. “I’m every woman,” she sings, evoking Chaka Khan and Whitney Houston. Continue reading...

  • Alanis Morissette: Such Pretty Forks in the Road review – back to the confessional
    by Phil Mongredien on 2nd August 2020 at 12:00 pm

    (RCA)The Canadian singer-songwriter’s first album in eight years returns to her strengthsNot many artists live in the shadow of an earlier album to the extent that Alanis Morissette does with 1995’s 33m-selling Jagged Little Pill. It’s certainly telling that the coronavirus-scuppered live dates that had been booked for this year were being touted as that record’s 25th anniversary tour, her first album in eight years seemingly not worthy of promotion. And yet Such Pretty Forks in the Road doesn’t deserve to have been so completely glossed over.Yes, musically, these songs – all co-written with former Morrissey sideman Michael Farrell –are for the most part her stock-in-trade windswept power ballads and unremarkable soft rock. But while there’s nothing as thrillingly angry as You Oughta Know, it’s a far more palatable set than 2012’s insipid Havoc and Bright Lights. That’s in part because while that album was so full of psychobabbling, spiritual guff it could have made Gwyneth Paltrow choke on her vagina-scented candles, this time around Morissette has returned to the confessional writing style that defined her earlier work. The dramatic Reasons I Drink is as direct as its title, fearlessly tackling alcohol problems and eating disorders. It’s just unfortunate that it has little regard for scansion, syntax or sense. Indeed, her lyrics have long been an achilles heel, and when she sings: “I can’t remember where the sentence started when I’m trying to finish it,” you wonder whether she’s poking fun at herself. On reflection, probably not. Continue reading...

  • Classical home listening: Beethoven, John Sheppard – and Komitas
    by Fiona Maddocks on 1st August 2020 at 11:00 am

    Paul Lewis delights in Beethoven’s bagatelles. Plus, a reconfigured Media vita and sacred music from Armenia• Suffering from Beethoven anniversary fatigue? The British pianist Paul Lewis has the ideal tonic. His album Für Elise: Bagatelles, Opp 33, 119 & 126 (Harmonia Mundi) brings together the three sets of bagatelles, written across Beethoven’s career. These punchy, gleaming miniatures, hardly unknown – some are popular with amateur players – tend to be overshadowed by the towering piano sonatas, in themselves a lifetime’s listening (as Lewis’s own account has shown).Beethoven referred to the bagatelles as “trifles”, defining their one-movement structure, rather than their musical insignificance: aural sonnets, though without the strict form that comparison might suggest. Each is a model of compression, one lasting a matter of seconds, others barely half a minute. Combining expressive variety and technical ease, Lewis delights in the wit too. Even Für Elise, beaten to death by every would-be and would-not-be learner, becomes tolerable in his hands. Continue reading...

  • Dominic Fike: What Could Possibly Go Wrong review – Gen Z star surfs genres
    by Timi Sotire on 31st July 2020 at 8:00 am

    (Columbia)Fike’s star is in the ascendant, thanks to a guileless, summery blend of rap, rock and popFew young artists can boast of sparking a label bidding war after releasing their debut EP through Soundcloud, or list the likes of Brockhampton, Billie Eilish and DJ Khaled as fans. Yet Dominic Fike’s beachy, lo-fi blend of rap and soft rock made him an instant star, with his debut single, 3 Nights, going platinum in the US and the UK. Continue reading...

  • Duma: Duma review – extreme Kenyan metalheads bring doom to the dancefloor
    by Ammar Kalia on 31st July 2020 at 7:30 am

    (Nyege Nyege Tapes)From Nairobi’s metal scene, Martin Kanja and Sam Karugu add techno to doom-laden guitars and distorted vocals on this exciting albumAlongside the burgeoning experimental electronic scene in east Africa is a small but committed underground of metal bands, based in Nairobi. These groups are breathing life into a field hampered by a continued lack of diversity and the preponderance of racist imagery.Duma is released on Nyege Nyege Tapes on 7 August. Continue reading...

  • Rachmaninov: Preludes, Études-Tableaux, Moments musicaux review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
    by Andrew Clements on 30th July 2020 at 2:00 pm

    Sergei Babayan(Deutsche Grammophon)Babayan’s affinity with Rachmaninov is evident, though his personality shows most in the more substantial piecesThe Armenian-American pianist Sergei Babayan makes his solo debut on Deutsche Grammophon with this Rachmaninov recital. Born in 1961, he’s hardly a newcomer – he’s made a few appearances in the UK, including at the Proms in 2015, when he was one of the soloists in a marathon concert that included all five of Prokofiev’s piano concertos, and at the Wigmore Hall for a two-piano recital with Daniil Trifonov, who studied with Babayan for six years at the Cleveland Institute of Music in Ohio.It’s that connection with the dazzling Trifonov, I suspect, that has encouraged DG to sign up Babayan. Two years ago, he partnered no less than Martha Argerich on a disc of Prokofiev transcriptions for two pianos, but what’s curious about this first solo effort is that the performances date back to 2009, yet apparently have never been issued anywhere before. Continue reading...

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