John Meagher: Music Reviews
James Vincent McMorrow, Bruce Springsteen, Kathryn Williams, Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks
Second-album syndrome? Won't hear of it
POST TROPICAL (vagrant)
Following up a much-loved, critically acclaimed debut usually brings its challenges, but there are few signs on James Vincent McMorrow's new album that he had any trouble harnessing the mojo that made his first so special.
Post Tropical is a sumptuous collection that showcases McMorrow's delightfully soulful croon. Strings and horns are applied judiciously and the Dubliner also has an unerring sense for when a song is best served with a sparse accompaniment. His sure-footed approach is evident from opening track Cavalier, a meticulously crafted composition that will earworm its way into your heart given half a chance.
A willingness to experiment with vocals and texture is evident on the exquisite title track.
It's a song that truly harnesses the potential of the studio and one would imagine a live version would sound quite different.
Unlike many of his Irish peers, McMorrow enjoys international recognition and Post Tropical will ensure that his standing both here and abroad continues to rise and rise.
High hopes fade yet he's still the Boss
Bruce Springsteen/ High Hopes (Columbia)
Just how 'new' is Bruce Springsteen's 18th studio album? It's chock-full of covers, many of which will be familiar from his live shows, features material from his own songbook that has been re-recorded and boasts a song that he has been playing for almost 14 years but only got around to recording now.
So, it's not very new at all -- and even the most devoted aficionado of the Boss might be just a tad disappointed.
The feeling that High Hopes is little more than a stop-gap is exacerbated by the fact that a handful of the songs -- including the rousing Frankie Fell in Love and Harry's Place -- feel like Springsteen-by-numbers. There's a distinct lack of unity to the songs too -- a whiff of b-sides compilation, rather than fully fledged studio album.
And yet, there are several brilliant tracks here that make purchase of the whole thing worthwhile.
The epic 41 Shots (American Skin) is a devastating look at the controversial killing of Amadou Diallo, who was shot dead by police in 1999, while The Wall is a moving account of the New Jersey rocker, Walter Cichon, who never returned from the Vietnam War. Both songs offer a reminder that Springsteen is better than almost anyone else at tackling big American issues.
Of the covers, the most powerful is his druggy take on the Suicide song, Dream Baby Dream. His rendition in the old Point a decade ago was hypnotic and this version is equally memorable.
Crown slips but spark remains
Kathryn Williams/Crown Electric (One Little Indian)
The Liverpudlian has burnished a reputation as one of Britain's most consistent tunesmiths over the course of nine albums and there's plenty to appreciate on this quietly captivating tenth.
Crown Electric -- the name is borrowed from the power company Elvis worked for before he was famous -- is fixated on time and how quickly it goes.
Such a theme has long inspired songwriters, but Williams largely avoids hackneyed clichés and her words carry considerable weight. That's especially the case on Sequins, a deceptively sweet lullaby that's narrated by a coma patient as death nears.
It's a compelling song and one that features the piano-playing of that most underrated of UK musicians, Ed Harcourt. He's not the only songwriting luminary that turns up here.
The lovely Arwen finds James Yorkston duetting with Williams and the results are exquisite. Its title suggests Kathryn has more than a passing interest in The Lord of the Rings.
Undoubtedly, some of the material falls into the pretty-but-slight category, but there's enough beauty amid her compositions to make the listener return time and again.
Paving the way for a hit record
Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks/Wig Out at Jagbags (Domino)
Stephen Malkmus' place in the pantheon of alternative rock icons has long been cemented thanks to the gloriously lo-fi music he made as frontman of Pavement. But that was then, and the fact is the Berlin-based Californian has now made more albums with The Jicks than with Pavement.
Maybe it's time his new band get their due because this gloriously irreverent album isn't far off the high-water mark he set two decades ago. The rambunctious Cinnamon & Lesbians grabs the listener by the throat and won't let go while Chartjunk incorporates a brass section to winning effect.
Malkmus' ear for skewed pop hasn't dimmed with time, and Rumble at the Radio and Lariat are worthy of any early 2014 playlist.