Three strong records from experienced solo artists this week. 1990s veteran Beth Orton is back with an album of poised and textural folk. Alex G delivers another well-written, quirky pop/rock album, while Cass McCombs delivers an accomplished singer-songwriter record.
Beth Orton wasn’t an artist I was expecting to review on this site this year. She’s best known for her 1999 album Central Reservation. It won her a Brit Award and featured terrific songs like the jazz-tinged ‘Sweetest Decline’ and a requiem for her mother on ‘Pass in Time’, a duet with Terry Callier.
Dropped by her record label during the Covid-19 pandemic, Beth Orton wasn’t sure if she’d ever make another album. Her writing process was sparked by finding a battered piano for £300 at Camden market. She works with drummer Tom Skinner, a member of Sons of Kemet, who also played with Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood in Smile. She’d already started on Weather Alive when she was dropped, and she had to take a bank loan to finish the project.
Weather Alive is similar in tone to last year’s Weather Station album from Canada’s Tamara Lindeman. Both offer jazzy and introspective songs with textural arrangements that recall late-period Talk Talk or John Martyn. The standout track is ‘Friday Night’, where Orton reminisces of drinking sessions with a teenage friend. The melody of the opening line always reminds me of Springsteen’s ‘Incident on 57th Street’.
But I’ve been dreaming of Proust all in my bed
And he speaks to me in my sleep
Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last nightBeth Orton/Bruce Springsteen
With bruised arms and broken rhythm
Orton’s tuneful resignation is well-served on Weather Alive – it’s lovely to have her back.
God Save the Animals
Philadelphia’s Alexander Giannascoli, known as Alex G, is a product of the Bandcamp self-promotion era. He’s self-released bedroom pop albums for a decade, building a profile. On God Save the Animals, he took advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to work in an actual studio. His music sounds more polished than before, but it’s not fundamentally different. As before, Giannascoli writes likeable and robust tunes, then dresses them up with quirky vocal effects.
The jangle of ‘Runner’ recalls Soul Asylum’s ‘Runaway Train’, although it adds enough elements to stand on its own. The deep counterpoint vocals and Giannascoli’s scream at the end of the last chorus are great moments. ‘Miracles’ is gorgeous, Alex G delivering an intimate and confessional tune. The fiddle is lovely, and there are terrific lines like “You say one day that we should have a baby, well/Right now, baby, I’m struggling, we’ll see, yeah.”
As well as fully-fledged songs, Alex G also excels at semi-instrumentals. On tracks like ‘Headroom Piano’ and ‘S.D.O.S.’, the low, pitch-shifted vocals are just window-dressing. The main appeal are the instrumental parts. The simple lead guitar part that appears near the beginning of ‘Headroom Piano’ is memorable – it’s a great arrangement trick, as it’s withheld for the rest of the song, leaving the tantalising feeling that something’s missing.
God Save the Animals is a lovely record; Alex G’s quirks don’t disguise the fact that he’s a terrific songwriter.
California’s Cass McCombs has been making classy singer-songwriter records for years. His work is austere, and he’s easier to admire than adore. But in terms of songwriting depth, McCombs has the gravitas of giants like Dylan and Prine. Heartmind is his eleventh record, in a career stretching back to 2003’s A.
The most striking song on Heartmind is ‘Unproud Warrior’. McCombs writes about a young army veteran struggling to readjust to civilian life.
You were only seventeen when you enlisted, you rememberUnproud Warrior, Cass McCombs
SE Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was just fifteen
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was nineteen
At twenty-three, Stephen Crane published The Red Badge Of Courage
Which is still known as one of the most realistic depictions of war
Even though Crane was born after the Civil War ended
Maybe sentiments of regret are not all that unrelatable
You’ve always taken lengths to be aware of your own choice
McCombs is always subtle and understated, but Heartmind is diverse – the title track, with its haunting saxophone, recalls the adult-contemporary weirdness of 1980s Van Morrison records like Common One. The country-tinged ‘Karaoke’ has the terrific line:
You sang a melody, unchainedKaraoke, Cass McCombs
But will your love godspeed to me?
Are you going to stand by your man
Or is it just karaoke?
McCombs’ work isn’t always easy to embrace, but his range and depth are impressive on Heartmind.
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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