Album reviews: Kylie | Ariana Grande | Gorillaz | The Bathers
After the let-down of her underwhelming 50th birthday album, Golden, Kylie’s latest offering is a joyful slice of disco fun, writes Fiona Shepherd
Kylie: DISCO (Darenote/BMG) ****
Ariana Grande: positions (Republic) ***
Gorillaz: Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez (Parlophone) ****
The Bathers: Lagoon Blues/Sunpowder/Kelvingrove Baby (Marina) ****
Disco has been good to Kylie over the years, from the retro references of Step Back In Time to the gold lamé hotpants with which she reboot(i)ed her career in the Spinning Around video. Following her ill-fated flirtation with country music on underwhelming 50th birthday album Golden, she is back on the Studio 54 guest list, making far more appropriate use of her reedy soprano to communicate a coquettish ecstasy.
Despite the upper case urgency, DISCO is more relaxed hangout than frenzied party. In keeping with its fabulous period pastiche cover, this joyful album mostly evokes the aspirational Eurodisco of the 70s – all satin halterneck dresses, garish stripes of pink blusher and the possibility that Brian Ferry might pop by in his safari suit.
Last Chance – an affectionate nod to Donna Summer’s Last Dance, perchance? – is a Bee Gees-meets-Baccara time portal to Top of the Pops 1977.Monday Blues is a Pina Colada party soundtracked by electro jazz funk keyboards, while Dance Floor Darling revels in some serious synth riffing and vocoder backing vocals.
Recent single Say Something is tepid in comparison, its banal, floaty hooks a halfway house between Golden and this gleeful 70s odyssey. Real Groove is a better evocation of 21st century disco, seamlessly blending the laidback electro funk, synthetic handclaps and autotune of Daft Punk with a cute, catchy tune. As Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia provided uplifting escape during the initial lockdown, so DISCO will keep you warm through the Covid winter.
While Kylie hits the dancefloor, Ariana Grande’s pandemic response is to indulge in multiple duvet days. Her sixth album, positions, is an intimate affair, breathy pillow talk for her and her man on which we are permitted to eavesdrop.
The smooth, slow jam production is every bit as stylistically focused as Kylie’s communal celebration, just nowhere near as much fun. Grande reins in her ample vocal abilities to deliver an undemanding light and airy listen from the fluttery Just Like Magic to the husky yearning of Safety Net. She ups the pace slightly with the urgent swirl of disco strings on Love Language and engages in a smooch-off with fellow sleepy R&B crooner The Weeknd on Off the Table.
Best of all, partly thanks to a delicious jazz guitar intro and brief burst of soulful trumpet, is the rapturous R&B of My Hair, an invitation to mess with her barnet which pushes her stratospheric range up into Mariah Carey dog whistle frequencies.
Time to rejoin the party, this one hosted by the ever-sociable Gorillaz who have released a collaborative tune with one of their musical mates every month of 2020 via their YouTube channel. Song Machine gathers these together, with bonus material, to create what main man Damon Albarn describes as a “season” of music rather than an album.
The guest list is diverse and engaging and there’s not a bum note to be struck. The Cure’s Robert Smith understates “strange times to be alive” with an unusual cheerfulness, Malian diva Fatoumata Diawara hosts a carefree Afro disco, St Vincent parties around a hangdog Albarn on Chalk Tablet Towers, Elton John spars with languid rapper 6LACK on woozy ballad The Pink Phantom and kindred geezers Slowthai and Slaves get stuck in to the knees-up punk of Momentary Bliss.
Fronted by former Friends Again founder Chris Thomson, The Bathers were the bridesmaids of Glasgow’s blue-eyed soul scene, erring closer to Blue Nile broodiness. Their baroque pop, smoky soul and Caledonian country has aged well judging by a trilogy of 90s albums, now re-issued by their Hamburg-based label Marina Records – 1993’s Lagoon Blues, 1995’s Sunpowder, featuring guest vocals from Cocteau Twin Liz Frazer, and 1997’s gruff Cohen/Dylan/Waits homage Kelvingrove Baby.
Stef Conner: Riddle Songs (Delphian) ****
Armed with a childhood passion for imagined ancient history and real-life expertise as a singer, lyre player and composer, Stef Conner finds a powerful medium through which to conflate these things in her beguiling new album Riddle Songs, recorded with fellow singer/harpist Hanna Martin and vocal ensemble Everlasting Voices. The texts are real, including “riddles” taken from the 10th century Exeter Book anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, but the music is a 21st century reimagining by Conner of how she perceives songs of that period to have been conceived and flavoured. Five Rune Poems act as a bitingly primitive framework to a wider array of settings, some like Seed Spell implying a kind of medieval pop song, others such as Fire and Sky Lights using wraparound dissonance to enhance their mystical enchantment. There is compelling charm in this music that stems from Conner’s own self-belief in her self-confessed passions. Ken Walton
Catriona McKay: Love in Secret (Glimster Records) *****
Catriona McKay is a widely acclaimed harpist, notably in her longstanding duo with fiddler Chris Stout. Here, however, she plays solo in a love letter to her instrument in which she luxuriates in its magically glittering character, not least in the way she dwells on the opening title track of her eight-movement suite, Love In Secret, in which she explores and elaborates on some classic old Irish harp tunes, allowing their melodic substance to come and go. There’s a very personalised major-minor nudging, for instance, of Sí Bheag Sí Mhór, which never loses sight of a well-loved tune, while another old favourite, Carolan’s Concerto, receives cheekily scintillating treatment. Glitter Path is sparklingly Irish but with a faint Latin American echo to its staccato cascading. Dedicated to two harpists who both died tragically young, the album enshrines their memory with forward-looking brilliance. Jim Gilchrist
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