Back to the great catch-up....
I want solo albums from the members of the Manic Street Preachers about as much as I want a pot of piss for Christmas, but I do have to concede that there's a ramshackle grandeur about James Dean Bradfield's 'The Great Western' that I rather admire. With its marriage of Phil Spector-sized arrangements to rather tacky drum programming, the album captures both the epic quality of 'Everything Must Go'-era Manics (bloody hell, can it really be ten years since that album was first released?) with the roughshod, DIY ethos of the solo side project. More importantly, the quality of songs on offer here demonstrates that Bradfield easily has a long term future outside the band. As ever his voice is tremendous - bold and bellowing, and many of the songs here benefit from really huge chorus melodies. The songs have the real emotional depth that characterised the best moments of 'Everything Must Go', and there is little of the clunky bluster that marred 'Know Your Enemy'. 'Run Romeo Run' and 'On Saturday Morning We Will Rule The World' are the real highlights - potted epics which sound almost soulful. Bradfield gives a creditable and appropriately melancholic rendition of Jacques Brel's 'To See A Friend In Tears', although he perhaps comes unstuck with 'An English Gentleman', a tribute to the Manics' sadly deceased manager which sounds uncomfortably jaunty. Still, this album is thoughtful and compassionate - and where recent Manics albums have seemed like considered reactions to their predecessors, this is a mature work occupying its own space.
One album I've been eagerly anticipating for some time is 'Nashville', a country record from the king of rock 'n' soul Solomon Burke, a record being heavily marketed as the third in a trilogy since he returned to secular music with 'Don't Give Up On Me'. Since these three records have all been released on different labels, and have benefited from the input of very different producers (Joe Henry, Don Was and Buddy Miller respectively), it's hard to see much of a link between them other than their consistent quality. 'Nashville' is a good deal less slick than last year's 'Make Do With What You Got', and Miller has captured a sensitive, dry and unfussy sound that serves these excellent performances well. There is, at least to these ears, the first evidence that Burke is finally suffering some form of vocal degradation (and it would be surprising if his age and relentless recent touring had not had some kind of impact), as the upper end of his range is beginnning to sound a little forced. His phrasing and dynamic control remain unrivalled though. As on the previous albums, he transforms relatively lightweight material ('Ain't Got You' could never be described as one of Springsteen's major works) into riveting performances.
This collection is another timely reminder of the close links between country and soul, emphasising that, far from being the conservative genre that it is frequently caricatured as, Nashville country music can be rich in emotion and full of genuine grit. This is certainly the case for most of this album, which comes with a fervent passion that not even several inevitable guest appearances can quash. In fact, a handful of the duets are genuinely superb. 'Valley Of Tears' places Burke alongside Gillian Welch and David Rawlings for a touching acoustic lament. Even better is the lovely 'Tomorrow Is Forever' with Dolly Parton, her tremulous lip quivering put to particularly effective use. Whilst sometimes these 'songbook' albums can seem a little scattershot, 'Nashville' flows effortlessly, always focussed on the sheer mastery of Burke's vocal presence.
'Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain' is a truly ghastly title for the new Sparklehorse album. I wonder now if critics are beginning to over-indulge Mark Linkous a little. I've tried listening to this album several times, but as yet it has completely failed to engage me. The songs seem slippery, elusive and one-dimensional, and Linkous has not really expanded his sonic armoury since 'It's A Wonderful Life'. Sparklehorse albums used to have a somewhat scattershot charm, but this one seems to be resolutely stuck in the middle of the road. It is genuinely difficult to see exactly what innovations co-producer Dangermouse brought to the table, especially given the audaciousness of his own work with Gnarls Barkley. The songs lack immediacy or melodic hooks. This slipperiness might not be such a problem were the arrangements more varied or compelling - but Linkous settles time after time for wishy washy atmospherics in place of genuine tension. The most memorable songs are heavily indebted to The Beatles - and I for one have no desire to hear any more songs built on the template of 'Dear Prudence' or 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds'. There is more to musical history!
Hard to believe that the excellent Junior Boys have been supporting Hot Chip on tour in the UK this month - surely they should be headlining similar shows of their own by now? 'So This Is Goodbye' is one of those atypically warm electronic albums, characterised by feeling and sensitivity as much as bleeps and loops. It's first half is faultless, coming bolstered with one of the very best singles of 2006 in the form of 'In The Morning', with its almost pornographic sounding backing vocals and hummable vocal melody. It's perhaps a little disappointing that it's by far the most audacious moment here, although there is plenty more to savour. 'Double Shadow' and 'The Equaliser' actually recall some fairly unfashionable 80s synth influences - more OMD than New Order perhaps, and the understated vocal delivery melds effortlessly with the atmospheric music. It's mostly a very serious concoction though, and the album drifts somewhat aimlessly in its second half, becoming increasingly tiresome and challenging. So, whilst it's not a masterpiece, its first half is sublime, synth pop with emotional gravitas and the potential for longevity.