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This article was published 13/12/2018 (255 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships (Interscope)
In the streaming era, some musical acts remain staunch traditionalists, writing, recording and touring on a two-year cycle, releasing albums as summaries of their recent creativity. Younger artists, especially those in hip hop and pop, happily embrace the immediacy of releasing individual tracks as soon as they are complete, spitting out content as the mood strikes.
Both approaches have their merits. Traditionalists like to curate and market their material, taking their time to craft a sound that matches a vision. The younger set, meanwhile, can rack up millions of listens quickly. They can also be dismissed just as swiftly for simply flinging random stuff at the wall.
Manchester group the 1975 seems to have a foot in both camps. The quartet first came to attention with a flurry of EP releases but has since settled into a more traditional cycle. Its third album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, is filled with carefully crafted pop-rock tunes slotted next to a stylistic hodgepodge of songs, which hints at a lack of focus. Frontman and principal songwriter Matt Healy has created some real gems, among them the Bloc Party-esque single Give Yourself a Try and a stunningly beautiful, no-holds-barred paean to heroin (he’s a former addict) called It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You).
For every one of these, though, there’s a song such as I Couldn’t Be More in Love, a full-on pop-soul take (replete with choir) that seems as if it’s been made by another group, or the jazzy Mine, which could have been made by players 30 years older than these Cheshire kids. There’s talent here, no doubt, but it lacks definition.
★★★½ out of five
Stream these: Give Yourself a Try; The Man Who Married a Robot/Love Theme; It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)
— John Kendle
The Prophet Speaks (Caroline International)
The first thing longtime Van Morrison listeners will notice is the lack of angst — his 40th studio album is missing the usual complaints about the greed and cynicism of the music business. The next and most remarkable aspect is the relaxed, easy groove that permeates through The Prophet Speaks, which finds Morrison relishing his relatively recent incarnation as a jazz singer backed by an expressive, moody band.
It’s rather remarkable that Morrison has been singing for well over half a century and he’s rarely sounded so comfortable and unforced.
He’s once again using the considerable talents of Joey DeFrancesco and his band. The results are impressive, with 73-year-old Morrison focusing on the feel and texture of each song rather than seeking the revelatory, soul-stretching crescendos of some of his earlier works. He seems to have found a style that fits him as he ages, a blend of instruments, including Hammond organ and horns, that could have been heard in the late 1950s but sounds perfectly fresh today.
There are a few straightforward covers of old favourites, including John Lee Hooker’s Dimples and Solomon Burke’s Gotta Get You Off My Mind, that let Morrison pay tribute to departed performers he used to share bills with. A half-dozen new songs — including Spirit Will Provide and the title track — conjure up Morrison’s more mystical approach to lyrics and arrangement.
Even more compelling is Ain’t Gonna Moan No More, a Morrison original that both swears off his often complaining, self-pitying ways and pays homage to the greats who preceded him, including Muddy Waters, Hooker and, in some depth, Louis Armstrong.
★★★½ out of five
Stream these: Ain’t Gonna Moan No More, Spirit Will Provide
— Gregory Katz, The Associated Press
Socks (New West Records)
When is a Christmas album not a Christmas album? Oklahoman JD McPherson and his band have created a new high water mark for seasonal fare with the wildly entertaining Socks. McPherson is a dyed-in-the-woolretro-rock artiste and these 11 tracks, thankfully, have zero to do with chestnuts roasting on an open fire and more to do with getting down to some seriously old-school R&B grooving.
All the tracks are originals and practically every one has "new holiday standard" written right through it. Hey Skinny Santa details Old Saint Nick being a tad on the thin side for the suit he needs to fill and exactly what to eat to gain some girth, while the smooth and bluesy Ugly Sweater Blues out-Bublés the Canuck icon at his own game. The hotness quotient is spiked considerably on Bad Kid, a surf-y take on yuletide juvenile delinquency ("government surveillance since I stared to walk, ain’t no tellin’ what I did...") and the rockabilly driver Santa’s Got A Mean Machine. On the jolly What’s That Sound, McPherson delivers a delectable Stevie Wonder-ish vocal take while the band frolics with abandon. The fabulous title track ("it doesn’t beep or buzz or bop or rattle in the box, why’d you waste the paper on a lousy pair of socks?") rates as one of the best anti-Christmas jingles and can confidently take its rightful place beside the Bobs classic Christmas In Jail.
The McPherson band proves its admirable mettle in swinging throughout as if no time has passed since the fellow Oklahoman Roy Milton and his Solid Senders were tearing up dance halls in the late 1940s. Need a stocking stuffer that won’t disappoint? Socks!
★★★★★ out of five
Stream these: Holly Carol Candy & Joy, Bad Kid
— Jeff Monk
François Houle, Alexander Hawkins, Harris Eisenstadt
You Have Options (Songlines)
Vancouver-based clarinetist François Houle is a prodigious talent who is comfortable across a wide range of musical expression. He is teamed here with fellow Canadian drummer Harris Eisenstadt and British pianist Alexander Hawkins, both of whom are longtime colleagues.
The trio was originally convened for the 2014 Vancouver Jazz Festival, and has periodically reunited. You Have Options, the latest studio session for the trio, is pure pleasure. The overall mood of this album is melody-centred within wide improvisational swings. There are dissonant and edgy tracks, like Def Leppard’s Run Riot, mixed with the melancholy tinged The Pitts, Steve Lacy’s Art or a beautifully improvised version of Charles Ive’s Largo.
The style is not always gentle, but within a melodic frame, the music is complex and accessible at the same time. There’s a line from an old pop song that talks about a tune "with a constantly surprising refrain." These tracks provide wonderful surprises that are revealed easily and then refined and deepened with further listenings.
I have long been a fan of Houle’s clarinet sound and his creative improvisations. While I am less familiar with Hawkins, he demonstrates how cohesively his style blends with his colleagues’ here. Eisenstadt, who has led many excellent avant-garde bands of his own, understands and adds to the intent of the music. I hope there is much more music either already recorded or in the plans for this top-notch trio. Highly recommended.
★★★★½ out of five
Stream these: Prayer, You Have Options, I Have A Lawyer
— Keith Black
Hymn (Decca Gold)
Everyone’s favourite classical crossover artist Sarah Brightman brings her soaring vocals to 12 orchestrated songs in her latest full-length album released by Decca Gold, two years in the making.
Her 15th release — and notably, her first studio album since Dreamchaser in 2013 — features both traditional and more contemporary fare, with the Grammy-award-nominated British songstress joined by guest choirs, as well as the London Symphony Orchestra, which further lends an overall cinematic sensibility. She establishes an uplifting tone with pop-inspired title track Hymn, composed by British prog-rock band Barclay James Harvest, that shows off her stratospheric, three-octave range, agile phrasing and innate ability for telling a story through song. The more dramatic Miracle also incorporates music by Japanese superstar composer Yoshiki, while Sky and Sand in turn features German DJ Paul Kalkbrenner.
Brightman is arguably at her expressive best with Italian offerings: Canto Per Noi begins with a gentle guitar waltz accompaniment, while Gia Nel Seno is sung simply and eloquently, as is Tu Che M’hai Preso Il Cuor. Other highlights include the sultry Follow Me and the more intimate You, which further showcase the singer’s angelic vocals against warm string harmonies. She saves the best for last with a solo version of her signature ballad Time to Say Goodbye, famously sung as a duet with Andrea Bocelli. Her own newly penned text in lieu of the Italian also demonstrates her skill as a lyricist; her heartfelt words make this farewell song even more poignant for English, and eager, ears.
★★★★ out of five
— Holly Harris