New music

Reviews of this week’s CD releases

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POP /ROCK Beth Orton

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POP /ROCK

Beth Orton

Weather Alive (Partisan Records)

The way she tells it, Beth Orton was uncertain she would write and record music again before she happened upon an old piano in London’s Camden Market, bought it, installed it in a garden shed and then became enthralled by the sounds she was making.

We’re lucky she did, as the eight songs on Weather Alive (which came out in September but didn’t appear on this reviewer’s radar until best-of-2022 lists began appearing) are some of the most luxurious and hypnotic of Orton’s career.

Still, Orton had to be bloody-minded to get this record made. Her original ideas for the album, based on her piano noodlings and musings, were rebuffed by the “name” producer with whom she was supposed to work, so she walked away from that arrangement and opted to finance and produce the recordings herself.

She put together a jazz-leaning group of musicians who had previously worked with her or her husband, folk singer Sam Amidon, and so saxophonist Alabaster DePlume, bassist Tom Herbert, multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Tom Skinner then set to work, helping Orton bring these languorous, shimmering songs to life.

Two seven-minute tunes bookend the record, evidence that the sessions for Weather Alive began as groove-based jams, enabling the players to become comfortable with each other, and the resultant vibe calls for compulsive, multiple listens.

Orton’s voice, a usually fragile instrument, modulates from her sing/speak warble to a near-falsetto across the record and she adapts it to match the mood of each song and lyric. The opening, title track is an exultation in the ultimate beauty of nature, while the sentimental longings and bittersweet tones of Friday Night, Forever Young and Arms Around a Memory (surely a Johnny Thunders reference, especially as it recalls a youthful affair in New York City) reflect Orton’s emotional stock-taking.

Fractals is the album’s most upbeat song, a funky reflection on the nature of love and regret and memory, while Lonely is its most angst-ridden, drawing out a pained vocal performance reminiscent of Lucinda Williams. ★★★★ out of five

STREAM THESE: Weather Alive; Friday Night; Arms Around a Memory

— John Kendle

POP/ROCK

Sam Fender

Live From Finsbury Park

Seventeen Going Under Deluxe Edition (Geffen)

It’s an interesting play to release a live album just as you’re emerging as an artist of arena-rock stature. But that’s exactly what Sam Fender has done with Live From Finsbury Park.

Turns out it’s not a bad idea.

That’s because the album, recorded in July at an outdoor concert in London, will only whet the appetite of worldwide audiences who have discovered Fender’s angsty, substantial rock ’n’ roll but haven’t seen him live. He released it on vinyl, in tandem with a deluxe CD edition of his breakthrough 2021 release, Seventeen Going Under, that includes two solid new cuts.

Tickets will be harder to come by now.

Fender hails from a working-class seaside town in northeast England, and his music has been compared to Bruce Springsteen. That’s fair. He has acknowledged in interviews that Springsteen is his favourite artist, even as he says the comparisons don’t do him any favours.

The similarities surface in concert more than on his studio work. The sound of 45,000 people singing along with gusto to every achy lyric of Fender’s brilliant song, Seventeen Going Under, will feel familiar to Springsteen fans. So will the crowd spontaneously carrying on with the “oh-wo-wo-wo-wo” melody well after the band stops playing.

But Fender is no copycat. He’s so direct and honest in his delivery that he connects with audiences on his own terms. His sound is identifiably British, and he writes soaring, anthemic songs that rarely feel derivative and sings them with passion and conviction.

He sings about his father on Spit of You (“I can talk to anyone, but I can’t talk to you”), and of mental illness on Dead Boys, a song about young men he grew up with who didn’t make it. He sings about difficult relationships, lost relatives, faith, hope and regret. His experiences are his own, but he makes it all feel universal.

Fender has played in New York and Los Angeles but cancelled North American concert dates earlier this year to look after his own mental health. This new music makes it a near certainty that his audience will be there when he’s ready, primed to sing along. Both albums ★★★★ out of five

STREAM THIS: Seventeen Going Under (Live)

— Scott Stroud, The Associated Press

JAZZ

Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra

Voices: A Musical Heritage (WJO Music)

Since Richard Gillis and Sasha Boychouk founded the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra in 1997, it has blessed our jazz community and released terrific albums. This is No. 6 and it continues the development of the music with a collection of commissioned tunes from eight composers reflecting some of Manitoba’s diverse musical heritage: First Nations, Métis, Ukrainian, Jewish, Chilean, Brazilian, Nigerian and Icelandic.

A reviewer’s problem here is to give enough detail about the music and the composers in the available space without leaving out essentials; it is strongly recommended to buy the album and visit the website for all the details.

For now, the personnel here is the “usual suspects” with added brass sections and percussion. The Ukrainian component is a three-part suite, The Parallel Steppes, by John Stetch. Rodrigo Muñoz’s Homenaje has terrific Chilean rhythms. Andrew Balfour’s Ishpiming means “up” in Ojibwe. Gillis, the leader of the orchestra, contributes arrangements on several tracks, including his reference to Iceland in Shadows.

This is jazz with strong roots in describing the diverse nature of our community. Bassist Henry Onwuchekwa is from Nigeria, where Oriri means “party” and sounds like a good one. Inspired by the Amazon rain forest, Marco Castillo offers Choro Para Amazonia, and Michelle Gregoire’s Bison Hunt reminds us of our local history. Trombonist Jeff Presslaff’s tune The Living Mind explores the musical foundation that has informed music of all kinds for millennia.

There is a constant element of intensity and pride in the messages being delivered musically here. The overall mood therefore is complex and has a depth that is further revealed with each listen. There is a wonderful rhythmic range, with exceptional solos on all tracks.

Again, I urge you to check put the full personnel list — it features Winnipeg’s finest. The ambitious project of giving voices to some of our many cultural parts is a success. Long live the WJO. ★★★★½ out of five

STREAM THESE: Take your pick!

— Keith Black

CLASSICAL

Andrea Staier

The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (Harmonia Mundi)

Harpsichordist Andreas Staier follows up his prior recording of J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, with the first volume of the short pieces regarded a cornerstone of the solo piano repertoire — and a part of the bible for pianists also including Beethoven’s monumental 32 Sonatas.

The critically acclaimed German musician brings clarity to each of the pairs of works (a respective prelude and fugue composed in each musical key), with his deft treatment of the latter, highly polyphonic form noteworthy throughout the nearly two-hour album being released in early January.

Highlights include his fiery interpretation of Prelude in C Minor, BWV. 847 matched by its companion fugue, as well as a lightning-speed Prelude in C Sharp Major, BWV 848, propelled by brilliantly executed passagework. The artist’s crisp baroque ornamentation including trills and mordents is further displayed during the following Fugue in C sharp Major, among others.

Others include Staier’s carefully measured Prelude in D Minor, BWV 851 and more dramatically intense Prelude in G Minor, BWV 861, with the latter’s subsequent Fugue further attesting to his technical prowess, as well as careful control over the music’s interwoven, independent voices.

One could never do wrong than hearing another performance of the work that launched these two perennial volumes: the soloist’s relatively brisk interpretation of its first offering, Prelude in C Major, BWV 846, performed with lute stop, and on the fingertips of keyboard artists around the globe for nearly 300 hundred years, allowing the music’s simple beauty to unfold throughout its constantly shifting harmonic lens. ★★★★ out of five

STREAM THIS: J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C Major, BWV 846.

— Holly Harris

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