BBC – Music – Review of Mogwai

The last time Mogwai recorded a soundtrack album was in 2006, when a film about French footballer Zinedine Zidane was given a touch of the band’s signature creeping murk.

While the album was a typical triumph, the film itself was perhaps a more incongruous source of inspiration for the band than usual – which isn’t to say it didn’t work.

But to have them now soundtrack a French drama series about a zombie-infested town seems a little more expected, suited and basically in tune with how you might imagine a new Mogwai record to sound.

First, let’s skip to the end, and a revelation: it’s always a delightful surprise to hear vocals on a Mogwai album. And to unveil an existential country song called What Are They Doing in Heaven Today? after a gruelling series of instrumentals means the surprise is all the more marked.

It’s difficult to imagine where it’ll fit into a telly programme about zombies, but the innocence of its sentiment is one of the more disarming things to appear on a Mogwai record in years. 

Back to the big picture. One of the recurring interpretations of instrumental rock music is that it’s imagined to score visuals by its listeners. But while that may be easy to understand for some of Mogwai’s peers, there’s always been something rather more difficult to handle about their music. 

Perhaps it’s that tendency to flit from instrumental aggression and tempestuousness to something quite accessible – it’s too jarring to be an impressionistic soundtrack – but with Les Revenants, apocalyptic post-zombie-attack visuals in the head seem completely reasonable.

It mightn’t be too much to suggest that this is perhaps how Mogwai should be listened to.

Calmer moments like the soaring Special N and the similarly snow-capped Relative Hysteria hark back to a calmness not shown since their severely under-rated Rock Action album. They only really turn back to their familiar chug on the closing Wizard Motor.

So Les Revenants has, by virtue of finding perfect inspiration, become one of the more satisfyingly coherent and rangy of Mogwai’s records. If a zombie invasion was the catalyst for this gorgeous work, let’s hope the apocalypse comes swiftly.

BBC – Music – Review of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

When two 18th century manuscripts of the Seven Words of Christ came to light in 1930, attributed by copyists to “Sig. Pergolese”, a debate was sparked as to their authenticity.

Was it indeed a work by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, composer of the Stabat Mater? Or, had it simply been misattributed? No one could say for sure.

The conductor Hermann Scherchen tried to shift the attention back to the quality of the work itself, calling it “one of the most heartfelt works of art, full of profound tenderness and an all-conquering sense of beauty”.

However, unattributed 18th-century works don’t tend to rack up a great deal of performances, regardless of their profundity, and this one was no exception.

Further sets of manuscript parts were found over the years. But still it wasn’t until 2009, when musicologist Reinhard Fehling discovered a set of performance manuscripts, that the music could finally be traced back to Pergolesi without an actual autograph score.

Subsequently, the work was given its concert premiere at the Beaune Festival in July 2012, and this world-first recording was made a few days later.

Listening to the work, it’s hard to see what the authenticity hoo-hah was about. Certainly it’s very different to Pergolesi’s sublime Stabat Mater. But there are plenty of his stylistic thumbprints.

This “heartfelt work of art” is indeed as wonderful as Scherchen described. Scored for four solo vocalists, trumpet, two horns, harp, strings and basso continuo, the Seven Words of Christ is a cycle of seven cantatas, each consisting of two arias. Recitatives are kept to a minimum.

Essentially a dialogue between Christ on the cross and the “Anima” (Faithful Soul), the tone is reverent, devotional, with some striking instrumental symbolism injecting some unusual colouring.

A solo horn denotes Christ’s kingliness, muted trumpet symbolises his veiled divinity as he suffers on the cross, and a focus on the timbre of violas over violins adds further melancholy.

Most of all, though, the work is beautiful, and its deeply spiritual loveliness has been realised in a fine period performance. Certainly, it won’t be languishing in dusty libraries any more.

It is, in its own way, just as sublime as the Stabat Mater, and René Jacobs and his musicians have given it a comprehensive rehabilitation.

BBC – Music – Review of Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

Emmylou Harris’ shimmering, yearning soprano is one of the great voices in music. Long before it is a country song, or a sad song, anything she sings is an Emmylou Harris song.

Yet at the same time, curiously, the Alabama native is a singer whose best moments come in partnership. And on Old Yellow Moon, in that potentially hokiest of country traditions – the boy/girl duet – an old alliance triumphs with charm.

As Harris’ second-most famous singing partner, Rodney Crowell has sometimes suffered by unfair comparison with the man who came before him: Gram Parsons.

Parsons reframed country music through the lens of the 60s counter-culture – and his legacy is most effectively realised on a wonderful tribute album, Return of the Grievous Angel, which may be Harris’ (as co-producer) own finest achievement.

But Crowell is a different thing, a songwriting craftsman with a naturally emotive tenor that beautifully complements that famous soprano.

Nearly 40 years after he joined forces with Emmylou in her 1970s Hot Band – and supported by impeccable contributions from other distinguished veterans of that era, like James Burton, Bill Payne and Hank DeVito – Crowell drives the partnership through a handful of songs that are as sassy and spry as the best of their early years.

And if there’s no getting away from the roots pairing that has outstripped the rest in the 21st century, it should be said that the stomping Harris/Crowell take on Kris Kristofferson’s Chase the Feeling bears comparison with anything from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

Still, much of Old Yellow Moon is unashamedly sentimental. Its eighth track, Crowell’s Bluebird Wine, was the song that introduced the pair’s first collaboration in 1975 – and producer Brian Ahern was there on the day, too.

Perhaps someone less familiar at the helm might have muttered a stern word when these old friends began to get maudlin on weepies like Matraca Berg’s Back When We Were Beautiful. But you know what nostalgic reunions are like.

BBC – Music – Review of John Foxx and the Maths

When artists return to the fray after a long break, they are immediately forced to play their trump card.

Devoted fans will pine for new material from a retired musician for an almost indefinite period of absence. But returning stars are only guaranteed treatment like the prodigal son for a finite amount of time.

In short, comebacks can often unwittingly remind the public of why said artist was forced to leave the spotlight in the first place. But John Foxx is different.

After a lengthy hiatus from recording and playing live (between 1985 and 1997), Foxx has gone from creative strength to strength.

This is despite the second half of his career coming relatively late in life and being much longer than his initial, modest flush of popularity (as front man of the forward-looking post punk band Ultravox! and then as an early 80s synth pop star).

Evidence is his third album in as many years collaborating with east London synthesizer expert Benge (aka The Maths), and easily the best of the three.

More importantly, however, this is probably Foxx’s most superior post-Ultravox! LP to date, and definitely his best in a very long time.

Benge’s signature technique (using very old analogue equipment to create very modern textures and music) has now gelled completely with Foxx’s songwriting. This time there are no missteps or filler at all, and the production is dynamic, rich and loud.

Several well-chosen guests, each of whom bolsters the experience rather than grandstand, help the album’s pacing.

Luis Vasquez of The Soft Moon uses an ARP Odyssey (the synth all over Foxx’s 1980 solo debut, Metamatic) on the title track to create a sombre meditation which sounds musically like Joy Division, had the Mancunians continued their experiments with austere sounding synths.

Probably the best track on the album is Changelings, a remix of a Gazelle Twin song replete with new John Carpenter-esque synths and breathy 10cc-style multi-tracked backing vocals.

Elsewhere, Foxx takes Pink Floyd’s now slightly hackneyed anti-record label diatribe Have a Cigar and turns it into luxurious bass and bleep electro that wouldn’t sound out of place on DFA.

Long may his creative renaissance continue.

BBC – Music – Review of Laura Mvula

Now here’s a gap we didn’t know needed filling: between Nina Simone at her most stern, and The Beach Boys at their most baroque.  

It’s a gap that Laura Mvula – composition graduate, supply teacher, Sound of 2013 contender – has decided to fill with her daring arrangements.

These are bliss-bombs of massed vocal harmonies, brave melodic excursions, and an entire orchestra playing only in fragments, when it really matters.

Tellingly, there’s no sign of either a piano or guitar – the songwriter’s traditional work tools – until five songs in, which does indicate Laura’s ideas are worked out bar-by-bar, rather than bashed out in a moment of inspiration.

In the quieter moments, it’s all about tiny details, a double bass heartbeat, a curlicue of brass, and the occasional tubular bell.

Then, every now and again, she lets loose a blossom of voices, throwing a dazzling display of kaleidoscopic light in all directions.

The single Green Garden is something of a red herring, being a curiously arid soul stomper, all handclaps and a celeste player who just won’t shush.

It’s still arranged with the hallmark Mvula short attention span, but feels shoehorned into a contemporary, Paloma Faith dress, compared to the questing oddness of her other songs.

Like the slow carousel of Can’t Live With the World, six-plus minutes of heavenly peace, garlanded with cherubs and sparkling harps. Or the stunning title track, which manages the rare feat of feeling unfettered and tightly bound at the same time.

And so it continues. Every song starts ornate and then strips away to nothing, or starts under the soil and shoots towards the sun.

The comparatively straightforward Father, Father, an uncluttered piano ballad, suddenly breaks into a chorale: one drum and a mass of voices, just to sing “let me love you” a few times before vanishing as quickly as they arrived. And that’s Laura at her most conventional.

Whether as the fanfare arrival of a unique new voice or the peculiar indulgence of a future cult classic, this is an album that has to be heard to be believed.

BBC – Music – Review of Luther Vandross

Luther Vandross’ third album Busy Body is the apex of his collaboration with producer and bassist Marcus Miller, and it positively leaps out of the speakers with the synthetic stabs of opener I Wanted Your Love.

One of his best dancefloor numbers, it is probably the only example in Vandross’ solo catalogue of him sounding at the cutting edge, with its New York club swagger.

I Wanted Your Love was one of the first Vandross singles to receive a proper contemporaneous release in the UK, and it trailed an album that caught him on the cusp of superstardom.

Busy Body contained three superb, snappy, astute up-tempo observations on love; aside from I Wanted Your Love, I’ll Let You Slide and For the Sweetness of Your Love both continued this choppy, urban groove.

But for many, Busy Body was all about the four remaining ballads. The title track continues the lyrical obsession that courses through all of Vandross’ work: lost or unrequited romance.

Although the duet with Dionne Warwick, How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye, verges on the formulaic, his version of Superstar, featuring sections of Aretha Franklin’s take on Until You Come Back to Me, is one of his greatest moments.

Although Cher, Bette Midler and The Carpenters had all covered Superstar with great success, Vandross sings it as if he is on the verge of breaking into tears – it is one of the most soulful performances he ever delivered.

His biographer Craig Seymour noted that he turned the song of a groupie longing for her idol into “a near universal plea, applicable to anyone who has ever been wilfully abandoned or carelessly left behind”.

No mainstream soul performer captured longing and regret as well as Vandross. Wrapped in their lush productions, many missed the pathos at the heart of his work.

Although not as accomplished as its successor, The Night I Fell In Love, Busy Body was one of only four albums that sold over a million by African-American artists in the US in 1983 – Prince, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie released the others – and it demonstrates more than ever how Vandross deserved his place among those megastars.

BBC – Music – Review of Aquarium

On its release in 2011, Aquarium’s eponymous debut signalled pianist Sam Leak’s full emergence onto the UK jazz scene as a versatile composer and instrumentalist.

There was a powerful sense of storytelling about his first collection, and this follow-up exhibits a similar narrative urge. Its originals seem to provide snapshots of people, places and conversations, like a volume of loosely connected short stories.

The title track sets the scene with a breezy, mid-tempo jaunt featuring James Allsopp’s louche tenor and Leak’s exuberant piano lines draped over Joshua Blackmore’s compact swing – a mood redolent of a 1960s Parisian boulevard.

In fact, the undeniable influence of 60s piano jazz can be felt throughout the album.

The onrushing Catherine Grove harks back to the meaty urgency of Chick Corea’s iconic trio with Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous circa Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, with Leak’s solo tracing out a long, looping right-handed storyline of the kind Herbie Hancock developed with Miles Davis.

Scribbles and Scrawls announces itself with a prancing, Paul Bley-like fanfare before diving into spirited free-bop full of fleet melodies and racing runs, pushed on by Blackmore’s cantering energy.

The musicianship is of the calibre you’d expect from these four highly trained and experienced mainstays of the London scene.

Double bassist Calum Gourlay shows a sensitivity and restraint throughout. Blackmore digs deep into propulsive swing but, on Clutter, also revels in the kind of goading, fractured grooves he brings to his trio with Corey Mwamba and Dave Kane.

Allsopp’s tenor reveals a smooth and full-bodied maturity quite distinct from his earlier histrionics with breakthrough band Fraud. Witness how, on Milan, his strident, clear blowing authoritatively guides the rumbling opening cadenza into a sighing ballad.

And Leak’s playing resounds with a highly melodic sensibility, tracing long, full lines crammed with ornamental flourishes that echo Bach as often as they do Keith Jarrett.

No one is going to suggest that this music is breaking new ground. But that’s clearly not its intention. This is assured and sophisticated acoustic jazz with deep roots in the tradition, that knows exactly what it’s trying to do – and succeeds.

BBC – Music – Review of Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer

Over 10 volumes released between 1882 and 1898 (posthumously), American scholar and folklorist Francis James Child compiled 305 traditional Celtic and British ballads in a major and enduring contribution to the study of oral storytelling.

Now, over 100 years later, Vermont singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and New York-based musician Jefferson Hamer are the latest artists to fall under these songs’ spell.

It is another neat example of transatlantic exchange, and a fluid, natural fit. Mitchell’s fascination with Greek myth and legend fuelled her riveting folk-opera Hadestown in 2010, while an abiding love of language – especially archaic Old English – was deeply felt throughout its similarly brilliant follow-up, 2012’s Young Man in America.

Although that record was the first on which Mitchell and Hamer played together, Child Ballads’ lengthy gestation actually predates it by a couple of years.

The first abandoned session took place at Mitchell’s home in Vermont in 2010 (“We had the harmony going for us, and not much else,” rues Mitchell), and the second at a studio in Vancouver the following year (“Once you start overdubbing and adding instruments, it’s hard to know where to stop,” Hamer explains).

The finished product was finally put to tape by esteemed producer Gary Paczosa in Nashville early last year, and its spare, simple nature suits these songs (and singers) well. Against a backdrop of limber, picked acoustic guitars and only the occasional hint of bass, fiddle and accordion, Hamer’s gentle tones complement Mitchell’s sharp delivery wonderfully.

Peopled by lords and serving men, princesses and maidens, doomed seafarers and star-crossed lovers, these songs are dense and knotty yet relatively immediate affairs that unfold over several minutes. They benefit, too, from the pair’s willingness to update some particularly obscure couplets.

From the disapproving father in Willie o Winsbury to the courageous, justice-seeking wife and mother in Geordie, the ballads’ centuries-old characters – and their dilemmas – are beautifully drawn. 

The version of Tam Lin that closes the record is particularly affecting; as the narrative gathers in momentum, Mitchell and Hamer’s fiercely plucked strings start coming on like the very needles and thorns they evoke in ever-more urgent verses.

Mitchell’s greatest success lies in tapping into the common humanity and universal themes that underpin – and are the backbone of – all great myths. And in Hamer she has found a partner who connects with her vision perfectly.

BBC – Music – Review of David Bowie

Even after 10 years away from the spotlight, David Bowie – pop’s most important post-Beatles innovator – still commands unrivalled levels of fascination. 

Just when it seemed that he had slipped into a dignified retirement, which no one would have begrudged, the world awoke one morning in January to the remarkable news of not only a single, Where Are We Now?, available immediately, but also this album.

In the context of the album, Where Are We Now? – a moving, backwards glance at The Berlin Years – seems a slight red herring. Bowie does consider the past, ageing, mortality: on the title track’s chant of “My body left to rot in a hollow tree” and I’d Rather Be High’s stumbling “to the graveyard”.

How Does the Grass Grow? poses the question, “Would you still love me if the clocks could go backwards?” (You Will) Set the World on Fire seemingly addresses his pre-stardom self, a You Really Got Me riff and slick confidence reminding us that he’s always had “what it takes”. This elegiac nostalgia is matched by the beautiful You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.

A complex mood pervades elsewhere, a sense of things gone awry. The nicely sinister Dirty Boys’ expressive, serious vocal depicts a skewed Englishness of cricket bats, “Finchley Fair” and running “with dirty boys”.

The Stars (Are Out Tonight) sees those stars (a recurring theme) anthropomorphised: “sexless and unaroused”, unsettlingly “beaming like blackened sunshine”.

The most experimental cut, If You Can See Me, proclaims – amidst spacey, tumbling rhythms and scattered jumbles of notes and words – “I will slaughter your kind”.

Love Is Lost makes youth seem ominous – newness abounds but still “your fear is old”. Clearly this is no elder statesman simply wistfully gazing into a dappled, romanticised past.

Valentine’s Day and I’d Rather Be High are further standouts – the former is a mid-paced depiction of a character with a “tiny face” and “scrawny hands”; the latter, a furious anti-war song.

The closer, Heat, is a brilliant example of what makes our finest, bravest musician of the past 40 years so irreplaceable. It’s full of spaced-out vocals, ominous noises and bangs, keening strings and disturbing, impressionistic poetry.

With all the opacity and lack of easy answers that you would hope for from this most stylish and creative of artists, this is a triumphant, almost defiant, return. Innovative, dark, bold and creative, it’s an album only David Bowie could make.

BBC – Music – Review of Lady

There’s very little as naturally affecting as vocal harmony done well. The human voice needs nothing material, no flashing lights, no context. There’s little as rousing and thrilling as two voices united as one, in a joint state of emotion. 

Because of that very instinctive and perhaps old-fashioned reasoning, Lady’s debut album is a pleasure. There are no barriers between Terri Walker, Nicole Wray and the listener, the singers holding hands through glorious chorus upon glorious chorus.

Wray and Walker’s transatlantic pairing is beautifully natural. The Lady project wears its heart on its sleeve – it’s endlessly fixated on love, happiness and flipping the traditional gold-digger gender bias on its head. The shady characters it describes give the sense that it’s been written almost as a sequel to Etta James’ diaries.

Mercury Prize-nominated Londoner Walker previously collaborated with Mos Def and T. Williams, while Virginia-raised Nicole Wray was discovered by Missy Elliott at 17, going on to work with Kid Cudi and The Black Keys.  Both have enjoyed solo success, but they’ve never sounded as at home as they do here.

Lead single Money is a perfect example of why – it’s all easy rhymes, light touches and luxurious Stax-evoking production. Hold On’s snappy phrases come easy to the pair, and showcase their perception, versatility and chemistry.

On the latter, solo verses build up to joint choruses, each singer acting as the other’s best friend and confidante, waiting in the wings to back up every word when the baton’s passed. Get Ready’s laid-back groove is perfectly executed too, and a moving homage to mid-60s soul.

Defiant, split-harmony assaults as emotional as this are hardly commonplace. A song like Sweet Lady, an ode to Wray and Walker’s mothers, would be weightless and saccharine in anyone else’s hands. But much like the rest of this record, its expression is so perfectly poised that it transports you right back to the birth of soul. 

The raw power of Wray and Walker’s voices is astounding – and the way this album has been produced reels the listener all the way into the respectful nostalgia at the very heart of its creation.