Album reviews: Bland ballads back for good
The best and worst of the week's releases
Since I Saw You Last
In Take That's first coming and their equally successful current incarnation, Gary Barlow has proved himself to be a songwriter of considerable ability. Their most recent album showed he had an instinct for Beatlesque melodies that all of his peers in manufactured boy bands could only dream of.
But his way with hooks and memorable tunes has been found wanting on his solo albums and this fourth effort is no different.
There's precious little of the spark that helped make Take That such a force to be reckoned with and all too often he opts for bland ballads that only serve to reinforce the Bland Barlow sobriquet he was lumped with when the group first split up.
The lack of inspiration is most apparent on Face-to-Face, a song that strives for profundity but comes up short. It features Elton John, but the veteran singer is on autopilot: even he can't fashion a silk purse out of the proverbial pig's ear.
Barlow's time as a judge on The X Factor seems to have imbued his music with even more schmaltz than before and it is difficult to listen to the naff More than Life and not want to throw up.
But there are signs of former glories for those who look hard enough.
God manages to be smart and clever and would probably have more of an impact if he had gifted it to Robbie Williams, whose Swings Both Ways album suggests he is in need of help too.
But it's the beguiling We Like to Love that restores one's faith in Barlow's ability to craft a song of cast-iron robustness.
Play it to anyone who dismisses him as a bland pop muppet and watch the smirk disappear from their face.
Key track: We Like to Love
Hold onto the Colours (Melia Music)
Trying to categorise Paul Melia is a fool's errand. The Sligo musician's debut album finds him delving into pop, classical, soft rock, indie, jazz...
This eclectic approach ensures Hold onto the Colours rarely gets boring but it can be a trying experience for the listener, especially as Melia is far more comfortable with some genres than others.
At 61 minutes, he's got plenty to say although the album would have felt much better focused if he'd pared back tracks here and there, but there's plenty to appreciate including the smartly arranged Heart Broken Symphony and the compelling Coma.
Several compositions feature lush orchestration courtesy of Malmo's Scandinavian Session Orchestra and among the large cast of Irish musicians who contribute is Ben Rawlins, one half of Dublin experimentalists Saso.
If Melia can focus more on the song than the bells and whistles, he's capable of releasing something special.
Key tracks: Heart Broken Symphony; Coma
As we head into a lean period for new releases when the schedule is awash with best-ofs and festive offerings, it would be easy to neglect this masterful debut album from these Brooklyn-based newcomers.
Fronted by 24-year-old Ellis Ludwig-Leone and featuring a large troupe of musicians, San Fermin is one of the great American albums of the year -- a complex, daring and utterly compelling excursion into chamber pop.
Throughout, male and female vocals mesh together beautifully, not least on the gorgeous brass-inflected Methuselah -- I defy anyone not to be charmed by its beauty -- and there are wonderfully esoteric flights of fancy elsewhere that manage to stay on the right side of self-indulgent.
Allen Tate is the vocalist who sounds a little like our own Adrian Crowley, while the effervescent female singing is courtesy of Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe of New York band Lucius.
Christmas is coming: buy this for someone you love.
Key tracks: Methuselah; Daedalus (What We Have)
Little Things Left Behind
(All Saints Records)
While Brian Eno needs little introduction to even the most casual music fan, his younger brother, Roger, is far less widely known. Still, he has been making music under the radar for the past 30 years, and while Brian is happy to mix his esoteric work with highly commercial collaborations (step forward U2 and Coldplay), Roger remains defiantly in the avant-garde shadows.
This double album collects tracks from five albums released between 1988 and 1998 and the quality rarely flags. Eno's minimal ambient electronica is often marvellously evocative and in those moments that centre on piano he delivers music that's every bit as subtle and moving as his brother's groundbreaking work in the 1970s.
The most compelling tracks find him collaborating with the English multi-instrumentalist Kate St John and on Days of Delay the results are exquisite.
Key Tracks: Days of Delay; While the City Sleeps