Album reviews: Travis | Carla Bruni | Emmy the Great | Joe McAlinden
The ever-reliable Travis offer a string of three-minute wonders from the pen of frontman Fran Healy, writes Fiona Shepherd
Travis: 10 Songs (BMG) ***
Carla Bruni: Carla Bruni (Universal/Wrasse) ***
Emmy the Great:April (Bella Union) ****
Joe McAlinden: Edit (Komponist) ****
You couldn’t hope for clearer messaging on what to expect from trusty Travis’s ninth album – 10 Songs to be precise. These mostly three-minute wonders are the pithy distillation of four years of writing from frontman Fran Healy, recorded in London just before lockdown, mixed in quarantine back in his Hollywood home from where he threw himself into directing the accompanying inventive, meticulous Covid-compliant videos.
If not entirely predictable, 10 Songs is at least familiar. The very quality Travis have been criticized for previously provides a sense of continuity, stability and reassurance in turbulent times, even when Healy’s lyrics, such as the opening declaration that “this is no rehearsal, this is the take” or Butterflies’ admission that “inside everything is wrong,” are at odds with the calming music.
Reluctant break-up song A Million Hearts is the gentle shoulder squeeze we are all missing, soundtracked by limpid piano and subtle synth arpeggios. Lead Bangle Susanna Hoffs guests on the aching country-tinged ballad The Only Thing, before the reverie is almost rudely interrupted by the fuzz bass of Valentine and the pacier pop ceilidh of A Ghost.
Healy’s soft, mournful falsetto is used to pleasing effect on All Fall Down while the melodic high point of the album is Nina’s Song, a tribute to the sweeping symphonic 70s pop which fellow Los Angelino Rufus Wainwright coughs up for breakfast.
France’s former First Lady, Carla Bruni, also evokes time-honoured musical tradition on her eponymous new album of classy, understated, relaxed chanson. No big drama here, just dreamy ruminations on life and love arranged with utmost simplicity, from the husky easy listening of Un Secret to the soft canter of Rien que l’extase, the effortless, light romance of Un Grand Amour, the elegant melancholy of Les separes and the relative swagger of Voglio l’amore, performed with her sister, the actress Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi.
Hong Kong-born film, TV and radio composer Emma-Lee Moss, better known in her Emmy the Great singer/songwriter guise, has reconnected with her roots on her latest album. April was inspired by a 2017 sojourn in her birthplace, where she brushed up on her Cantonese before pro-democracy demonstrations engulfed the region. Inspired by her mellow meandering and observations of Hong Kong city life, Moss’s songs are sensitive to the everyday – much like the appreciation of neglected pleasures during the quieter times of lockdown – and she captures the contented calm before the storm with the cleansing purity of her vocals.
Highlights include the mellow, fragrant folk pop of Writer and featherlight electro of Your Hallucinations, while Moss employs subtle oriental inflections on the chiming Okinawa: Ubud and the winsome Chang-E, named after the full moon.
Like Moss, Joe McAlinden is equally accomplished as a pop songwriter and a composer of more impressionistic fare. The former frontman of indie pop outfit Superstar went into semi-retirement in Argyll in the 2000s but has since released a couple of albums in his _Linden guise.
His latest offering Edit – “tide” backwards – is a 30 minute suite, inspired by the power of the west coast surf (and, despite McAlinden’s ear for a Beach Boys harmony, we’re not talking the US west coast), which was then used to soundtrack a 2014 short film by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, before now receiving its own belated release.
Edit inhabits similar territory to Erland Cooper’s recent Orcadian trilogy but is suffused with a sense of grief and loss, where funereal organ, acid guitar and gothic arpeggios are leavened by delicate vocal interludes with breathy harmonies to create a comforting balm.
Mendelssohn: The Cello Sonatas | Trio in D Minor (Vivat 120) ***
While Beethoven liberated the cello from bass line slavery in his cello sonatas, it was left to later luminaries such as Mendelssohn to expand the repertoire. In this trilogy of major chamber works – the two Cello Sonatas, Op 45 & 58, and the Piano Trio No 1, Op 49 – cellist Viola de Hoog, pianist Mikayel Balyan and flautist Marten Root (Op 49 is played with flute rather than violin) perform on period instruments, offering a balance and temperament that is as delicate as it is bright and breezy. The Op 58 Sonata, with an unflagging tunefulness that is softened by the huskiness of the gut stringed cello, gains in warmth what it loses marginally in definition and zest. There’s a lack of opulence, too, in the Piano Trio, the pure flute sound limited in expressive power. The real drama arrives in the turbulent Op 45 Sonata, its outermost storms and passions calmed momentarily by the light-fingered Andante. Ken Walton
Kris Drever: Where the World is Thin (Reveal Records) ****
In Celtic folklore, “thin” places were where mortal and otherworldly realms abutted, although these songs from the Lau singer-guitarist are informed more by the disturbing times in which we live and personal circumstance. Drever combines quirky lyrical elegance with catchy melodies bolstered by collaborators drummer Louis Abbott, singer Rachel Lightbody and bassist Euan Burton. The promise of I’ll Always Leave the Light On rides a wave of jig-time and striking lyrics: “Could be Falkirk or the fiddle-head ferns/San Francisco or the path of the terns.” Scapa Flow 1919, marking the centenary of the German fleet’s scuttling at the end of the First World War, sees jangling guitars escort a dramatic narrative. Burns’s Westlin’ Winds is fondly treated, with vocal harmonies from Siobhan Miller, while Hunker Down with its acoustic guitars and rattling percussion reflects the paranoia of these times. Jim Gilchrist
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