Here’s our latest round-up of four current, recent and forthcoming record releases worth a listen.
More will follow as the year goes on.
• David Bowie: Blackstar
Rock legend David Bowie’s 26th and final solo album is a difficult one to judge solely on its musical merits, given how emphatically its release last Friday was overshadowed by the death of its creator from cancer just three days later.
The obvious temptation, given that London-born Bowie had been diagnosed 18 months previously with the disease that killed him at the age of 69 and had reportedly been aware that it was terminal for months, is to look for portents of his impending doom, and there are plenty of them.
The opening line of the single Lazarus – “Look up here, I’m in heaven” – is the obvious one, but there are a fair few more dotted around.
The fact that there are just seven tracks here is possibly the most striking feature of this album, although admittedly one of them, the title track, does clock in at almost 10 minutes, stretching its running time to 41 minutes.
Two of its five songs – Sue (or in a season of crime) and ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore – formed the A and B sides of a single put out to accompany the 2014 compilation album Nothing has Changed, however, giving this the feel of something cobbled together hurriedly and posthumously, oddly enough, rather than conceived and created as a lasting legacy, as was the case.
That song count makes it his skimpiest offering since the six tracks that comprised 1976’s Station to Station refused to outstay their welcome by bowing out after just 38 minutes.
There’s nothing on Blackstar to match up to the likes of that album’s Stay, Golden Years or Word on a Wing, however, making it all the more ironic that it is likely to be his biggest hit for years, being a dead cert for the No 1 spot later today.
The new LP’s brevity is surprising given the abundance of inspiration that fuelled its predecessor, 2013’s The Next Day, available in 14 and 17-track formats and later as a revised version offering a further five songs, plus two remixes.
Quantity isn’t the same thing as quality admittedly, but Blackstar, being a bit too jazz-influenced for my liking and resembling 1993’s Black Tie White Noise more than any other of its 25 predecessors, falls short against the latter criterion too.
Only three of its songs are anywhere near worthy of ranking alongside Bowie’s best work – Lazarus, Dollar Days and the lovely closing track, I Can’t Give Everything Away – and another, Girl Loves Me, is OK if you’re a fan of Bowie doing his Cockney spiv routine.
Both sides of the Sue single are utterly inessential, though, and the title track, a sprawling, self-indulgent mess full of jarring changes of tempo not unlike those found in the Bertolt Brecht songs that made up his 1982 Baal EP, is Bowie at his most inaccessibly arty and obscure. There are the makings of a classic song, or possibly even two, in there somewhere, but this isn’t it.
This might be his weakest album since 1997’s Earthling, but Bowie was incapable of making a record without merit, his two Tin Machine efforts included, and his voice here is as compelling as ever and often surprisingly youthful-sounding, and the playing of the jazz musicians he drafted in to back him up, if not everone’s cup of tea, is pretty much impeccable.
It is far from the testament to his genius fans of his might have hoped for, but it’s still a damned sight better than nothing and, taking into account the troubled and traumatic circumstances it was created in, it’s probably a good deal closer to greatness than we had any right to expect.
• Hinds: Leave Me Alone
Spanish indie rock girl group Hinds display a remarkable amount of faith in their boisterous, ramshackle sound for a band only formed in 2014 and then faced with the unwanted distraction of having to change their name from the Deers after being threatened with a lawsuit by Canadian act the Dears.
They’re quite right to, however, as its wilful sloppiness and joyous delivery are a winning combination.
The playing on its 12 tracks might be rough and ready and the harmonies so off-kilter they’re barely harmonies at all, but it’s fuelled by an undeniable, irresistible sense of fun sure to make this feisty foursome crowd-pleasers at students’ unions and on the summer festival circuit for years to come.
• Steven Wilson: 4½
Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson’s latest release is called 4½, he says, because despite following his fourth album, last year’s Hand. Cannot. Erase, a No 13 hit, it’s not really substantial enough to constitute a fifth LP, only consisting of six tracks with a total running time of 37 minutes.
Four of its songs are out-takes from the sessions that yielded the last album, a No 13 hit, and one is a leftover from the LP before, 2013’s The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other stories), a No 28, and its final track is a nine-minute-plus version of Don’t Hate Me, originally recorded by Porcupine Tree in 1998, sung as a duet with Ninet Tayeb.
London-born Wilson, 48, is generally labelled a prog rocker, but he’s so progressive that much of his material doesn’t sound very prog at all, and that’s probably more the case here than ever before.
Though Wilson, coming to Newcastle City Hall later this month, is not giving full measure here, this is as well produced and thoughtfully put together as its predecessors and will be welcomed by fans of his impatient to hear album number five.
• Various artists: The Hateful Eight (Original motion picture soundtrack)
Reservoir Dogs director Quentin Tarantino has a knack for making his films’ soundtracks memorable, often thanks to judicious recycling of pieces of score written by legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone for past pictures.
Though repeatedly asked by Tarantino to write original music for previous films of his, the 87-year-old had always turned down his approaches until 2012’s Django Unchained, for which he supplied one song, then reportedly said he would never work with the American again.
Morricone – famous for his music for the likes of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and For a Few Dollars More – has since had a change of heart, supplying a full score for Tarantino’s new western, the first original soundtrack the 52-year-old has commissioned, and though it’s not as memorable as some of the earlier works that made his name as a composer, it does its job well, employing everything from minimalist acoustic guitars to full-blown orchestras to underscore the moods of the movie, starring Samuel L Jackson and Kurt Russell.
Songs by Roy Orbison, the White Stripes and David Hess are also included.