Album reviews: Gorillaz - Humanz, Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell Live, Feist - Pleasure, and more

Andy Gill

Gorillaz, Humanz

★★★★☆

Download: Momentz; Andromeda; Busted & Blue; Let Me Out

Though by no means as complete and satisfying as Demon Days or Plastic Beach, there are enough intriguing moments to make Humanz a worthy addition to Gorillaz’s cartoon universe. According to Damon Albarn, the theme this time is less political than Plastic Beach, despite his having tasked contributors, during recordings, with imagining a world in which Donald Trump had become American President – a “dark fantasy” that must have seemed a droll jeu d’esprit at the time.

In the event, he wisely removed all references to trumpety Trump from the finished album, which rather leaves it floating in a more amorphous dystopian twilight – an impression supported by some guests’ struggle to pin down their song. On “Carnival”, for instance, Anthony Hamilton sounds as if he’s trying to build the lyric as he goes along from disparate phrases; and Albarn admits that Grace Jones’s vocal to “Charger” was culled from four hours’ improvised singing (“I am the ghost, I am the soul”, etc) over its waspish fuzz-guitar motif, painstakingly cut-up and reassembled into the finished piece.

By contrast, others rise to the task, notably De La Soul, returning to deliver a new take on the carpe diem theme for “Momentz”, a stomping march featuring Jean-Michel Jarre’s synths; and Benjamin Clementine, whose comic absurdist-pomp vocal brings just the right mock-gospel tone to “Hallelujah Money”.

Albarn’s wan vocal character, by comparison, seems much more downbeat and retiring when set alongside his guests’ delivery. At times it appears almost an extension of the more personal, introspective approach of his solo album Everyday Robots, albeit applied here to the shuffling electro beats and synth tones devised by co-producers Remi Kabaka and The Twilite Tone. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to get into his stride until the album’s mid-point, with “Andromeda”, a striding electro-yacht-rock groove in updated Hall & Oates style. Dedicated to his partner’s late mother, its recommendation to “take it in your heart” is one of Humanz’s redemptive counterbalances to the darker underlying theme, alongside the singalong positivity of “We Got The Power” – in which he and Noel Gallagher add backing vocals behind the lead of Savages’ Jehnny Beth – and “Let Me Out”, on which Mavis Staples and Pusha T advise that “Change is coming, you best be ready for it”.

Musically, the album’s prevailing electro mode affords a surprising breadth of styles, from the John Carpenter-esque synth progressions of “She’s My Collar” to the Earth, Wind & Fire-flavoured funk-soul flavour of “Strobelite”. Most notable of all, perhaps, is Albarn’s solo piece “Busted And Blue”, in which synth chords gradually impose shape and structure over a fading backdrop of crickets and jungle noises, building a gossamer atmosphere akin to Art Of Noise’s “Moments In Love”. Or maybe that should be “Momentz In Love”?


Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell Live

★★★★★

Download: Death With Dignity; Should Have Known Better; All Of Me Wants All Of You; John My Beloved; Drawn To The Blood; Blue Bucket Outro

Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens’s valedictory reflection on his late mother, is an unusually tender and revealing reminiscence; and this live recording is, if anything, even more moving. There’s a sense, throughout, of emotional fragility redeemed by humanity: in “Should Have Known Better”, the way the backing vocals furnish much of the song’s colour brings blessed human warmth to its tangle of regret, forgiveness and redemption; while setting Stevens’s vocal against sparse piano or guitar lends a disarming intimacy to the painful revelations of “The Only Thing” and “John My Beloved” (“There’s only a shadow of me, in a manner of speaking I’m dead”).

Ingenious arrangements illuminate the songs, notably the blissful synth solo reaffirming life and love in “All Of Me Wants All Of You”, and the 12 minutes of keening sounds, like the moaning of whales, appended to “Blue Bucket Of Gold”. The closing addition of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” seems, in context, an attempt to stabilise listeners’ emotions: a suitably thoughtful conclusion to a remarkable performance.


Johnny Cash, The Original Sun Albums 1957-1964

★★★☆☆

Download: I Walk The Line; Folsom Prison Blues; Get Rhythm; Big River; So Doggone Lonesome

This 8CD retrospective has the unfortunate effect of making one marvel at how Johnny Cash managed to go so far with, essentially, so little. There’s a huge surfeit of Cash’s trademark trotting rhythm, as on hits like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk The Line”; while the unwelcome addition of staid backing vocals cripples tracks such as “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen” with a veneer of parental propriety.

It’s not all bad, of course: Cash’s songwriting skills are evident from the start in the aforementioned hits, and an additional outtakes CD affords the opportunity to hear his debut demo recording “Wide Open Road” and oddities like the tonsorial fetish “You’re My Baby (Little Woolly Booger)”, which Cash believed was “the worst thing I ever conceived”. But the impression of a little going a long way is confirmed by the same tracks appearing on album after album, Sun capitalising on Cash’s most popular cuts time and again, even years after he’d left for Columbia.


Kasai Allstars​, Around Félicité

★★★★☆

Download: Tshalemba; Mabela; My Heart’s In Highlands; Fratres

Around Félicité is the soundtrack to an award-winning film drama based around, and featuring, the Kasai Allstars. Alongside the Congotronics band’s driving trance works here are three Arvo Part pieces played by the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra – a strange but oddly effective alliance of contrasting cultures.

The Allstars’ pulsing grooves employ twinkly soukous guitars over a percussive bed of log marimbas and likembe thumb-pianos, with the angry-wasp buzz of the giant bass likembe furnishing a distinctive character to tracks like “Tshalemba” and “Kapinga Yamba”. At full throttle, allied to their repetitive chant on the 12-minute “Mabela”, the hypnotic, surging result recalls the early Can of Monster Movie, almost an Ethnological Forgery in reverse. The classical interludes, meanwhile, provide a calming contrast with the urgency of their urban dervish music: Bibiche Ntemo Wazola’s vocal on “My Heart’s In Highlands” is simply captivating, while the Kinshasa Symphony’s arrangement of “Fratres” is one of the most intriguing Part interpretations I’ve encountered.


Thurston Moore, Rock N Roll Consciousness

★★★★☆

Download: Exalted; Cusp; Smoke Of Dreams; Aphrodite

Working with avant-rock guitarist James Sedwards, My Bloody Valentine bassist Debbie Googe and his old Sonic Youth colleague Steve Shelley, Thurston Moore has created one of the cornerstone works of his entire career with Rock N Roll Consciousness. Themed around appreciation of a restless feminist spirit who’s “sweet talker, soul stalker, spell weaver, receiver”, tracks like “Exalted” involve a risky but rewarding musical alchemy in which Moore’s native New York stylings – repeated guitar figures like odd, abstract scales; scrubbed guitar noise; and discordant Velvets-style drones – are yoked to bursts of lead guitar with the questing fluidity of Quicksilver Messenger Service: an unexpected alliance of east and west coast influences.

The calmer musings of “Smoke Of Dreams” and enigmatic arpeggiations of “Turn On” spread the band’s explorations further afield, before “Aphrodite” brings proceedings to a euphoric climax which somehow blends the ringing guitar clangour of Popol Vuh with the visceral snarl of Hendrix: a thrilling close to an ambitious album.


Feist​, Pleasure

★★☆☆☆

Download: Pleasure; Lost Dreams

The influence of PJ Harvey looms a little too large here over an album seeking to peel emotions back to a state of sore intimacy, via sparse arrangements built around raw guitar parts which in several cases retain the character of seeming extemporised on the hoof. As Canadian singer Feist sings in “Get Not High, Get Not Low”, “I can’t tell guitar where to go”. But then, this is a deliberately visceral, bare-nerve experience, from the hypnotic pulsing of her breathy vocal on “Lost Dreams” to the furious guitar thrash driving “Any Party”; even the mellotron in “I’m Not Running Away” sounds oddly raw and exposed. The key to the album’s emotional confusion lies in the opposing tug between Feist’s claim in the title track that “There’s no pleasure in your pleasure/That’s a sin”, and her later admission, in “Century”, that “I wanted feelings/They got in my way”. Unfortunately, there’s not much pleasure here for the listener, manoeuvred into the position of reluctant psychoanalyst.


Joan Shelley, Joan Shelley

★★★★★

Download: The Push And Pull; If The Storms Never Came; I Didn’t Know; Pull Me Up One More Time; Where I’ll Find You

In Jeff Tweedy, singer-songwriter Joan Shelley has surely met her perfect production partner. This, her fourth album, is simply magical. With the guitars of Shelley and Nathan Salsburg augmented by the subtlest of rhythm sections, eddying electric guitar figures and keyboard tints, the arrangements quietly evoke several esteemed influences, from the Pentangle-esque guitar interplay of “If The Storms Never Came” and relaxed tone-blending akin to John Martyn on “Pull Me Up One More Time”, to the Jolie Holland-style slow shuffle of “Go Wild”, which uses a migrating-bird metaphor to urge exploratory instincts. But the arrangements are never allowed to obscure Shelley’s remarkable voice, a pristine source of balm even when confronting troubled emotional matters or, as in “I Got What I Wanted”, employing the fatalistic tone of a traditional folk ballad. Best of all is “The Push And Pull”, a lovely samba-like shuffle in which the to and fro of a relationship is tracked in her dipping and diving vocal line.

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