BBC – Music – Review of Ibrahim Maalouf

Ibrahim Maalouf’s fourth album, Wind, originated from a commission to write a soundtrack for René Clair’s 1927 silent film The Prey of the Wind.

But it was directly inspired by another soundtrack long admired by the Beirut-born, now Paris-based trumpeter: Miles Davis’ iconic score for Louis Malle’s 1958 noir classic, Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud.

On pieces like the Doubts, the influence is absolutely unmistakable: a laconic blues with Maalouf blowing sweet and melancholy, with more than a hint of the young Miles’ haunted vulnerability.

It’s lent further nocturnal mystery by the effortlessly laidback accompaniment of the crack team of New York sidemen assembled for the album: bassist Larry Grenadier, saxophonist Mark Turner and drummer Clarence Penn, as well as Maalouf’s longstanding collaborator, pianist and co-arranger, Frank Woeste.

They form an acoustic quintet dripping with mid-20th century insouciance.

Yet there’s more to this project than merely recreating 1950s black and white cool. Maalouf’s instrument of choice is the quartertone trumpet, which features an extra, fourth valve, enabling him to incorporate microtonal intervals more commonly heard in Middle Eastern music.

Thus, the smouldering, offbeat groove of Suspicions carries a heavily spiced hook, played by Maalouf and Turner in tight unison, transforming it into a street dance in the Arab Quarter.

Elsewhere, Questions & Answers feels like a Balkan-flavoured take on the tumbling circularity of The Jazz Messengers’ Wheel Within a Wheel.

Excitement features a stumbling rhythm and Maalouf’s melodramatic exclamations come across like a parody of Charles Mingus’ satirical swipe, Fables of Faubus.

But it’s on some of the slower, more spacious pieces that Maalouf’s artistry with the quartertone really cuts through. On Waiting, a minimalist background of drizzling brushes and a stark, two-note bass riff provides the context for delicate, upward-arching vocal inflections, like an Arabesque crooner singing with seductively gentle control.

And on Certainly, a loose and lush contemporary ballad setting – featuring some beautifully paced piano comping from Woeste – lets Maalouf ease off on the Arabic dialect and play with a soft, sighing accent, like a homesick visitor on the streets of New York.

It all adds up to a very satisfying cultural exchange.

BBC – Music – Review of The Mavericks

In the mid-90s, The Mavericks bagged several country music awards and a Grammy, making a commercial virtue of the fact that they have always been a band that stands outside their own time.

The retro-styled band, formed in Miami in 1989 through a shared love of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, saw their sharp-suited blend of Nashville clichés, Mexican horns and Cuban rhythms winning them international popularity.

They became a one-stop party shop for those who found Calexico too convoluted and Chris Isaak too melancholy.

They split in 2003 after the disappointing performance of their self-titled sixth album, but now they’re back. The vintage genres and shiny modern noir motifs are present and correct, and Raul Malo’s voice is, as ever, the big gun in their arsenal.

If at times Malo (still) sounds like a very good Roy Orbison impersonator, even a facsimile of The Big O has more power to move than most bog-standard voices. However many spaghetti western riffs or mariachi flourishes are served up, Malo lifts any song up by its bootstraps and loads it with significance, merited or otherwise.

It’s difficult not to be impressed by his swagger.  

He’s most engaged and affecting on the big ballads, which tend to shake the Orbison songbook around a bit and call the results re-writes.

This is not necessarily a bad thing: Springsteen fans will certainly recognise – and emotionally respond to – the techniques deployed here. The my-baby-done-left-me heartstrings are duly tugged on numbers like Back in Your Arms Again and the self-explanatory Born to Be Blue.

The standout track is the bristling broken-hearted wallow, Call Me When You Get to Heaven, featuring the McCrary Sisters on backing vocals. It builds from big to bigger to massive: part gospel, part flamenco. Like a more slickly produced Tindersticks or Spiritualized, it’ll surprise many.

Elsewhere such epic leanings are sacrificed for good-time gaiety, as Dance in the Moonlight or All Over Again walk the overly well-trod path usually passed off as “down-home” or “good rockin’”.

But there’s enough ambition here to elevate The Mavericks’ comeback above the perfunctory.

BBC – Music – Review of Delphic

Most dance-rock hybrids mutate into hideous beasts: dull, unimaginative or plain embarrassing creations that should, by rights, be locked in one’s attic and kept away from human eyes (and ears).

It’s curious, then, that Delphic didn’t scoop more plaudits for bucking the trend with their 2010 debut Acolyte: hyped to the heavens when still in their infancy, and yet oddly overlooked when they came good with the spoils.

For all the musical heritage of their Manchester hometown, comparisons to the past seemed to hinder rather than help. Even though their sound paid debt toThe Chemical Brothers and Orbital, among others, the “knock-off New Order” catcall never seemed far away.

Delphic don’t sound like New Order any more, though – and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Instead, too often on second album Collections they seem a facsimile of disparate bands, genres and style.

Throughout, there’s a nagging suspicion that the past three years have been spent assembling a sonic patchwork of ill-fitting hand-me-downs, rather than weaving their own, better-suited garments.

So, while Of the Young is a fine, strutting stomp with its blood and thunder percussion and a skyscraper-sized chorus, first single Baiya is an unsuccessful marriage of schlocky RnB and sub-Friendly Fires dance-pop.

There’s something unsettling, too, about its would-be-sexy refrain of “Feel you breathing down my neck/ Tenderness is the only weapon left.”

The bombastic throb of The Sun Also Rises comes off as a limp halfway point between MGMT and Passion Pit, while Atlas is a six-minute slumber that only jolts into life courtesy of its flirtation with anaemic dubstep breakdowns.

Freedom Found, meanwhile, fancies itself as a sultry slow-jam but is more suited to post-passion awkwardness than steamy encounters.

Ben Allen and Tim Goldsworthy’s production is spick and span throughout. They add satisfying sheen to the likes of Don’t Let the Dreamers Take You Away, and the glitchy voicemail samples of Tears Before Bedtime show, if nothing else, a stab at innovation.

But on the whole, Collections is a misfire and proof that, sometimes, re-inventing the wheel doesn’t always reap rewards – especially if you were already journeying more gracefully from A-to-B than most of your contemporaries.

BBC – Music – Review of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble

This is a 30th anniversary “legacy edition” reissue of the debut album of Dallas-born Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died tragically young in a helicopter accident in 1990. Back in 1983, the album amazed many by propelling the blues back into the upper reaches of the charts.

Toe-tapping opener Love Struck Baby sets the template for the mixture of sprightly blues and mellifluous fretwork that is to follow. The brawny twelve-bar Pride and Joy uncannily sounds like it is by one of Vaughan’s Delta heroes but, like half the material here, derives from his own fair hand.

Texas Flood, a Larry Davis cover, emphasises more than any other cut how Vaughan’s distinctive axework is rooted in the old traditions of the blues but simultaneously informed by the space age in its flashiness and razor edge.

The Howlin’ Wolf number Tell Me is given a marching pace. Vaughan steps up the briskness of his fretwork accordingly – and dazzlingly. Instrumental Testify is another cover (Isley Brothers), one so quick-fire that it sounds like the tape’s running out.

Just when you think Vaughan’s wrist can’t display any further suppleness, we have Rude Mood, an instrumental of his own so high-velocity it’s hard to see it. During its respites, his Double Trouble colleagues get rare look-ins.

Dirty Pool is a slightly spooky variation on the formula. Another instrumental, Lenny, is a bit more restrained and delicate, if no less virtuoso.

A Philadelphia live performance from the year of the album’s release makes up the bonus disc. Vaughan doesn’t disgrace himself on the Jimi Hendrix covers, but does remind us that Hendrix used the blues as a springboard to a whole musical universe of little apparent interest to Vaughan.

Indeed, the album’s dogged devotion to the blues may make some complain of inordinately narrow margins. Moreover, it’s difficult to shake the feeling of songs sometimes serving little purpose other than that of exhaustingly showcasing Vaughan’s guitar prowess.

However, few can doubt the sheer musical brilliance on display. Vaughan’s retooling of the blues made it relevant to a new generation.

BBC – Music – Review of Roots Manuva

On his 2011 full-length, 4everevolution, Rodney Smith (aka Roots Manuva) warned us against the perils of prankster life. He believed that human life had been devalued, though the cost of living wasn’t cheap.

Elsewhere on that LP, the rapper/producer simply wanted to dance and let go of heavy burdens, showcasing an affinity for offbeat cadences and forward-looking lyricism.

With Smith, you never have to wonder what’s on his mind; his delivery is uncompromising, and that makes him one of hip hop’s most accessible MCs of any ilk.

So at this point in his career, Smith has nothing else to prove, which might explain the transitional feel of his Banana Skank EP. Over its 15 minutes, the veteran quickly leapfrogs scant melodies and breezy island rhythms, similar to those of 4everevolution.

The EP feels like a continuation of his 2011 album, its four songs mixed for loud airplay on a decent sound system. To that end, it hits the mark, but doesn’t do enough to stay in your brain long past initial consumption. That it’s a Roots Manuva project will certainly make it noteworthy, though its light fare and brief runtime do it few favours.

There’s still a little worth digging into: the original version of Banana Skank fused live drums and bright synthesizers, which played well against Smith’s fluid cadence. The EP’s remix is a bubbly Caribbean dance number that nods to his Jamaican roots with stuttering electro-pop.

Conversely, Part 2 is a darker piece, its menacing synthetics evoking a heavier mood, even if the song remains energetic. The other cuts, Natural and Party Time, lean toward Smith’s lyrical side.

On the former, he and Kope rise above a stilted beat to showcase their rhythmic dexterity. On the latter, the mood is noticeably intergalactic; Smith and Kope “crush the solar system into atoms”.

In the end, the EP doesn’t pack enough punch. While it serves as a buffer between projects, an artist like Smith shouldn’t simply pass through. His talent is made to linger, and Banana Skank rushes off too soon.

Perhaps he’ll stay a bit longer next time.

BBC – Music – Review of Sexy Fi

Nunca Te Vi De Boa is another of those albums that may not leap out and grab the listener on first spin. It’s a slow creeper that may take a while to seep into the veins. But once its contents are digested a few times, a number of nice musical touches become apparent, helping it get under the skin.

One of its best characteristics is that it’s not an easy album to classify. For racking purposes it’ll fall under the heading of Brazilian indie-pop; but it’s a set that never really stands still, possessing a pleasing form of continental drift.

Although this is the first album to bear the trashy moniker Sexy Fi, Nunca Te Vi De Boa is the second collaborative project pairing sultry singer Camilla Zamith and versatile guitarist Praxis.

The pair met during studies at the University of Brasilia, and their first collaboration, the EP Chora Matisse, surfaced in 2009, when their band was called Nancy. Fast-forward a few years, change the line-up and you wind up with Sexy Fi, after Zamith spent several years in London and Praxis moved to Rio.

Zamith has attracted comparisons to Beth Orton and Cat Power, but she definitely has her own singing style. There’s no trace of an accent when Zamith sings in English, though the Portugese numbers – like promising opener Pequeno Dicionário das Ruas and the contemplative Plano: Pilotis – somehow sound more natural.

The horns that surface towards the end of the latter track have a very Brazilian feel. In contrast, the vaguely bluesy semi-skank of Macumba finds Zamith warbling about shooting the sheriff and being disappointed by the colour of her knickers; Bofe Story features deep bass that nicely balances Praxis’ lilting lead riffs.

And Zamith has nowhere to hide on Togetherness, which is delivered as a three-part unaccompanied round.

Despite initial impressions of potential pretentiousness, Nunca Te Vi De Boa is definitely worth investigating.

BBC – Music – Review of Marianne Faithfull

Marianne Faithfull didn’t begin as she meant to go on. Debuting as a promising singer-songwriter in 1964, she was soon a wife and mother. But she turned her back on her husband to get together with Mick Jagger, becoming his muse and also something of a drug addict as The Rolling Stones’ notoriety grew in the late-60s.

A split with Jagger in 1970 coincided with her drug habit spiralling out of control. Faithfull lost custody of her son, and began living on the streets, blurring away the days courtesy of a substantial heroin habit. She went as far as attempting suicide, but salvation would await her at the decade’s end.

Years of substance abuse, as well as severe laryngitis, permanently changed Faithfull’s voice. But Island Records founder Chris Blackwell heard potential in a set of demos, and put the newly gruff-toned singer to work on what would become Broken English, released in October 1979.

The album – which followed a first (not-so-successful) comeback in 1976, with the country styled Dreamin’ My Dreams – was recorded twice, the final version featuring new-wave-like keys by Steve Winwood.

The original mix is included in this deluxe edition, filling much of the second disc. Also included is the Derek Jarman-directed film Broken English, finally given its commercial debut.  

Broken English, the album, is almost autobiographical. Although its title track was inspired by a book about Baader-Meinhof, the other selections could have been penned by Faithfull herself: Guilt was Barry Reynolds’ song about addiction; What’s the Hurry? about a junkie’s endless need to score.

The set’s hit single, a cover of Dr Hook’s The Ballad of Lucy Jordan, was “my life, had it taken a different turn”. Her version of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero was delivered perfectly, raspily, through a gauze of disgust, even though she was nothing like the titular character.

Standout moment Why D’ya Do It is the sort of song nobody wants dedicated to them. Through a Sly and Robbie pastiche skank, Faithfull lets rip with venom rarely heard outside of the punk world in the late-70s, ranting Heathcoate Williams-penned words at a cheating lover.

Its radio unfriendliness is exhilarating.

At the time of Broken English’s production, Faithfull had nothing left to lose. And, like so much art made in such circumstances, it’s an absolute tour de force of an album. She has described it as her masterpiece. She’s not wrong.

BBC – Music – Review of Andrea Bocelli

As winter fastens its icy grip across the country, what better way to pass the time than in the company of Andrea Bocelli? The Italian tenor’s latest album is this sunny collection of songs, born in holiday destinations in Latin America and along the Mediterranean.

Recorded at his home in Tuscany, Bocelli serenades us in six languages, his relaxed manner belying an innate artistry as he moves from the classical style into a popular vein with consummate ease. His delivery is such that we hear his core feeling for each language, which colours his special timbre. 

Opening track Perfidia begins with its less-well-known verse before the tune gets under way, finishing with a seamless transition from tenor voice to falsetto.

Many of these titles, like Anema e core (How Wonderful to Know), are better known by their English titles. They’ll soon be recognised by listeners.   

Bocelli’s guest artists include the Canadian singer Nelly Furtado, on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Corcovado, and Jennifer Lopez on Quizàs Quizàs Quizàs (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps). The latter is a catchy Latin song given a standout interpretation, Bocelli cleverly complementing Lopez’s sparkling vocal. The arrangement, with a solo violin and whistle, makes for an intoxicating cocktail.

Not everything is quite so recommended, though. Bocelli’s version of La Vie En Rose, upon which Edith Piaf’s 1940s original has been pasted, is ill-conceived. Not even modern studio techniques can disguise the shortcomings of the original recording.

David Foster’s production, with a 63-piece orchestra, is as smooth as Bocelli’s delivery. The employment of instrumental colours from saxophone, guitar, flute and accordion across the palette, played by distinguished instrumentalists, adds variety to deft arrangements of some very familiar songs. Many of which have been newly minted to suit Bocelli’s vocals.

BBC – Music – Review of Aretha Franklin

Released in January 1968, Lady Soul completed a remarkable 12 months of achievement for Aretha Franklin. Having been signed to Atlantic in 1966 after years in the doldrums at Columbia, her Jerry Wexler-produced albums, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You and Aretha Arrives had finally made her the critical and commercial toast of America.

Pieced together from material recorded since the start of 1967 – with the bulk captured at a December session in New York – Lady Soul won a set of remarkable statistical achievements that testify to how widely it cast its net. For example, the album peaked at numbers 1, 2 and 3 on Billboard’s Black Album, Pop Album and Jazz Album charts respectively.

It is one of those rare records that truly captures a moment; not just of Franklin’s singing, playing and writing, but of the electrifying support of the FAME studios session players. Guests included Bobby Womack and Eric Clapton, then in his imperial phase with Cream, and the album featured the vocal majesty of Franklin’s sisters, Carolyn and Erma.

Lady Soul hooks the listener in from the first very note of Joe South’s detuned guitar on Chain of Fools. Written by Don Covay, it became one of Franklin’s biggest hits and was to take on an incredible resonance as the Vietnam War destructively limped on for America.

And (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman is one of the greatest performances of one of the most sublime songs ever written.

At a little over two minutes into Good to Me as I Am to You, there is possibly the answer to the vexed and ongoing question, “What is soul?” It’s when Franklin sings the phrase “listen to this” over swelling horns, led by King Curtis, and the bass of Tommy Cogbill, sounding like he has several pairs of hands. It is simply perfect.

Nobody does it quite like Franklin (or, as Wexler called her, “the lady of mysterious sorrows”) – that irresistible marriage of the spiritual and the secular, the warm passion of her vocal.

Often copied, yet never equalled, these 10 tracks represent Aretha Franklin’s coronation as the Queen of Soul.

BBC – Music – Review of Kris Kristofferson

Long-haired, liberal, and influenced as much by Bob Dylan as Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson typified a new breed of country artist when he emerged as a successful singer-songwriter in the early-70s.

The author of such immortal Nashville standards as Help Me Make It Through the Night and Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, this rugged poet also enjoyed a concurrent career as a film actor, which for many years threatened to overshadow his musical endeavours.

Thankfully, a sympathetic partnership with producer Don Was reignited his creative fortunes with 2006’s well-received “comeback” album This Old Road, and its equally impressive follow-up Closer to the Bone. Their hard-won themes are carried over into Feeling Mortal, which is apparently the final part of the Was/Kristofferson trilogy.

And what a curtain call. If this fine album turns out to be the 76-year-old Kristofferson’s final release, then few could’ve asked for a more fitting valedictory statement.

Recorded in just three days – although much of the material was written years ago – the sound is sparse, spontaneous, warm and intimate, with Kristofferson accompanied by his own acoustic guitar and a few unobtrusive side-players. Never blessed with much vocal range, his baritone croon is even more cracked with age.

Yet he sings with such soulful conviction, fitting the wizened candour of these strong, memorable songs like a battered leather glove.

Redolent in God-fearing spirit of the twilight recordings Johnny Cash made with producer Rick Rubin, Kristofferson’s undisguised frailties provide an added depth and poignancy.

And yet despite its preoccupation with death, Feeling Mortal isn’t, remarkably, a morbid album. A streak of warm-hearted defiance courses through the self-explanatory likes of You Don’t Tell Me What to Do, with its ornery narrator doggedly brewing whisky and music for as long as his body will allow.

Elsewhere, the swaying celebration of Bread for the Body finds Kristofferson declaring: “Life is a song for the dying to sing / It’s got to have feeling to mean anything.”

If any artist has earned the right to deliver his own eulogy, it’s this indomitable country legend.