BBC – Music – Review of Nino Rota

These original recordings of 14 film titles from composer Nino Rota are a reminder of the potent force of Italian cinema in the post-war years. Although most of them were first shown in art-house cinemas, titles like La Strada, La Dolce Vita and Amarcord garnered attention at the Oscars and grossed substantial currency in America and across Europe. The collaboration of Nino Rota and Italian director Federico Fellini in 11 films in this collection may not be as celebrated as that of Herrmann and Hitchcock, or Mancini and Blake Edwards, but it’s hard to imagine Italian neorealism without Rota’s simple, direct melodies and his flair for adorning a scene without undue harmonic complexity.

All the recordings on this compilation are originals, so an ear attuned to a modern soundtrack will find the sound rather boxy, a not uncommon trait in many films of that period. However, any technical shortcomings are soon forgiven as the music wafts from the speakers like a heady perfume. The opening track from Fortunella sets the scene with the sweet sound of the violins, with a touch of portamento, as they launch the memorable theme which Rota couldn’t resist employing again in The Godfather (1972).

The major-minor turn in the melody of Le Notti di Cabiria and La Strada, whether played on trumpet or sung by Katyna Ranieri, echo Fortunella. The singer also relishes the song in La Dolce Vita, with its echoes of Mack the Knife, where the setting in the demimonde of Rome in the late 1950s is further emphasised in Rota’s jazz/pop scoring. Rota’s art speaks to us immediately, too, in the rowdy circus music from La Strada, echoed in Otto e Mezzo, as well as in the syncopated scoring of a red light district in Il Bidone.  

Rota taps into the local folk genre with the accordion-infused music from Rocco and His Brothers which contrasts with his sweeping waltz of romance and passion from Visconti’s The Leopard, the atmosphere enhanced by the playing of a small ballroom orchestra. In later music from the 1960s, it’s interesting to hear the emerging cinematic talent from other European countries such as John Barry in Casanova and Francis Lai (Un Homme et Une Femme) in Giulietta degli Spiriti.

Original film poster artwork adorns the CD jacket with synopses and notes in French. There have been a number of first-rate new recordings of Rota’s film music these past few years, but there’s no denying the authenticity of these originals, which possess a magical charm of their own.

BBC – Music – Review of Cliff Martinez

The sonic backdrop to one of 2011’s hottest cinematic prospects, it’s undeniable that Drive would be an entirely different experience without Cliff Martinez’s chilly, stylish score and the über-cool synth-pop set-pieces winding through its midst. The music, however, more than stands alone whether you’re craving an instant electro house fix or want long-term immersion in stark, minimalistic ambience.

For many, then, this will be a game of two halves, and the top-heavy tracklisting could be seen as a nod to the modern need for instant gratification and ensuring smartphone junkies get to gorge themselves on must-have tracks as quickly as their digits permit. Kavinsky’s Nightcall sets the tone for this introductory segment, an 80s-infused electro pop anthem merging stalkerish vocoder and the breathy female response of CSS chanteuse Lovefoxxx for something that’s less “you were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar” than “you were the blitzed-out stripper who stole my wallet and my pride in a neon-lit back alley”. This is followed by the stylistically-similar one-two of punx-gone-disco Desire’s gleaming Under Your Spell and the poignantly stark College / Electric Youth match-up A Real Hero, both of which mix subdued pop nous with the vacant eyes and sleek ergonomic design of a very sexy robot.  

After a somewhat incongruous Riziero Ortolani interlude Chromatics’ jittery Tick of the Clock acts as a bridge to the album’s more inchoate bulk, the track’s insistent pitter-patter percussion wearing into your skull like water torture while it prompts a subtle rush of adrenaline.

It’s after all this that Martinez himself takes the reins, the former Red Hot Chili Peppers / Magic Band / Weirdos sticksman stewing down the preceding Daft Punk-isms along with the movie’s own retro-futurism until the marrow’s cooked out and the listener’s left with an evocative series of synth-driven drones, metronomic shivers and unflinching Cylon’s eye pulsations. Comparisons can be drawn to the likes of Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Boards Of Canada or John Carpenter (whose stoic Michael Myers has been cited by director Nicolas Winding Refn as a touchstone for the film itself), and the result is an impeccably-crafted soundscape that coolly ripples and shifts, hinting at quiet violence and unresolved tensions as much as polished chrome, tinted glass and Ryan Gosling’s so-awful-it’s-awesome scorpion-emblazoned jacket.

BBC – Music – Review of Jeb Loy Nichols

Jeb Loy Nichols is a writer, artist and singer-songwriter transplanted from the American Midwest to a farmhouse in rural Wales. A long, colourful career has seen him blend dub and soul sounds with a dusty Americana vibe that counts the Sex Pistols, Al Green and Townes Van Zandt among its cadre of influences, the latter of whom’s songbook is delved into here for a smooth rendition of Waiting Round to Die.

It is an impressive vision, and Nichols’ velvet burr is ideally suited to some of the covers that …Special offers: a brassy, lilting run through Merle Haggard’s Going Where the Lonely Go and Pablo Gad’s reggae staple Hard Times in particular (re-imagined here as both acoustic sing-along and clanging plea for acknowledgement). That song’s message – that we are indeed living in hard times – is one that intermittently makes its presence felt on the record, not least on cocksure opener Different Ways for Different Days, where Nichols reels off a litany of dissatisfaction with modern culture.

…Special is more likeable when it keeps things simpler, as on the sparse, almost trad-folk Nothing and No One and refined late-night feel of Something About the Rain. Nonetheless, it is the showiest thing on here by a mile that led to it becoming Nichols’ first major-label release in 15 years, the somewhat self-explanatory Countrymusicdisco45. Admittedly far more disco than it is country, the song attracted label attention almost immediately after featuring on a Ministry of Sound broadcast, and is a striking indication of the kind of direction Nichols would like to take hereon in.

But in general, the stated aim of keeping things as simple as possible – as well as a desire to capture something of the freshness of live performance – throws up the odd gem, and the musicianship is slick and proficient throughout. The Jeb Loy Nichols Special marks the ninth solo LP in a career evidently concerned with following the whims and concerns of its maker as opposed to any wider notion of what is fashionable or contemporary, and for that it is to be applauded.

BBC – Music – Review of Lesley Garrett

Lesley Garrett’s A North Country Lass, released for St George’s Day, celebrates the English folk song tradition from as far back as Pastime With Good Company, by Henry VIII, to such relatively recent fare as the Welsh tune Suo Gan, dating from the early 1800s.

“This album,” to quote the star adorning its sleeve, “is intensely individual and very personal and it will surprise you.” And Garrett’s words are worth keeping in mind as you read on.

The South Yorkshire singer’s soprano voice has changed little since she won the Kathleen Ferrier Award in 1979. Her sure technique is at the root of it, and that guarantees her exemplary tuning and extraordinary ability to produce a myriad of hues. Her voice sounds young and her attention to words is a great asset in these songs.

Her operatic lineage is manifest as at the beginning of He Moved Through the Fair, but the abiding impression is of a voice where the purity of tone is always at the service of the line of the song.

More questionable, to this mind, is the concept of this CD, on which one too many overblown arrangements compete for attention. The sophisticated orchestration is sometimes a deterrent to enjoyment.

Bloe the Wind Southerly has a surge halfway through in the accompaniment suggesting a film soundtrack. Fine Knacks for Ladies, written for lute accompaniment by John Dowland, might have been better as he left it. Other titles, like Suo Gan with its multi-tracked choral backing and Dance to Your Daddy with a newly composed middle section à la Riverdance, are along the same lines.

He Moved Through the Fair and the song that gives the album its title show how it can be done. All Around My Hat, with an accordion introduction and the enthusiastic Crouch End Festival Chorus, goes with a swing – as does Pastime With Good Company, in a fun contemporary arrangement yet still evoking the Tudor spirit. The finale, On Ilkley Moor, arranged as an operatic spoof, is very entertaining, likewise Garrett’s Gracie Fields take on The Collier Lad.

Lesley Garrett is such a charismatic singer that the thought crossed this writer’s mind that maybe this album should have been released with a DVD, too, for the full experience.

BBC – Music – Review of Justin Townes Earle

Why Nashville-born singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle isn’t a stadium-packing superstar is a mystery. Country music continues to be one of the largest grossing and persistently Grammy-grabbing genres around, both in the Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch Americana mould and via the younger, glossier version peddled by Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum. Even so, there still seems to be something of a blind spot for its ever-growing band of anti-pop, alternative-leaning acts: artists raised on punk and enveloped in old-school tattoos, now answering the seemingly inbuilt call of traditional folk music sounds by casting their sonic nets back to George Jones, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. This brand of – dare we say it? – hipster country, as sung by the likes of Caitlin Rose, Robert Ellis, William Elliott Whitmore and Justin Townes Earle himself, is not just accomplished and exhilarating, but provides a vital, authentic taste of the United States, one steeped in history but simultaneously bang up-to-date.

Earle’s fourth full-length album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, owes much to Muscle Shoals horns and Stax’s southern soul. But it is still very much a country record, not least because of the lyrics, which ruminate on lost love, loneliness and familial strife. Though recorded in North Carolina the geography of 2010’s outstanding Harlem River Blues lingers, with Earle offering a nod to his New York City base in the languid Down on the Lower East Side. Here blasé brass invokes Tom Waits’ beatnik jazzman days, dripping with the sticky sultriness of leather-seated lounge bars, smouldering cigarettes and inappropriate dames. Yet he’s willing to travel out of Manhattan now, like on the barrelling Memphis in the Rain, which zings with a full-bodied bluesy shuffle, unapologetic chord progression and whirling organ.

The son of hard-folkin’ singer Steve Earle – and named after his father’s close friend, the gifted but troubled Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt – Earle turned 30 at the start of the year. He doesn’t skip over this landmark, instead lamenting “30 years of running” over honky-tonk harmonica on Movin’ On while insisting that he’s “learning to be a better man” on the buoyant Look the Other Way. Now, is that finally the sound of the stadiums we finally hear calling?