Album reviews: Slaves, Jake Shears, Tomberlin, The Proclaimers and The Magpie Salute

Slaves – Acts of Fear and Love


“Oi!” Punk-rock duo Slaves are back with their third album Acts of Fear And Love having more fun then ever before. From music videos joke-auditioning for a new drummer to enlisting infant family members (guitarist Laurie Vincent’s son Bart) on production, there’s a youthful cheek to this new record that wasn’t so present on their previous works.

They sing with a raw ferocity dripping in sarcasm, mocking Instagram addicts on album opener “The Lives They Wish They Had” on a line like: “Poolside poses, but don’t fall in/You’ll remove the golden glow from your otherwise-pasty skin.” Isaac Holman screams out their moniker as the song closes, reiterating an earlier point about their controversial band moniker, that we are all slaves to a monster like social media.

The spirit of Ian Dury lives on in their witty observations of 21st century living, not to mention their irresistibly rough swagger: Holman’s darker mutterings on first single ‘Cut and Run” contrast against Vincent’s lighter tones.

“Magnolia” opens with their hilariously-convincing quip about how common the paint colour is in British homes, returning to their fondness of mocking social conformity. Meanwhile “Daddy” stars a sprightly guitar hook propping up a sad tale of a father experiencing a midlife crisis (“daddy’s got a new girl young enough to be his kid”), backed by a soft female vocal on the chorus (the same one who featured on 2016's “Steer Clear” with Baxter Dury?).

Second single “Chokehold” is one of the most attention-grabbing, with its simple, catchy riff and Holman spitting furiously about rejection; beneath his typical swaggering delivery there are blunt lyrics about the experience of being dumped that offer a vulnerability rarely heard from their peers.

What marks this album out from Slaves’ first two records is the range Holman and Vincent have proven they possess: where 2016’s Take Control – with the exception of the aforementioned Dury collaboration – felt like one big raging scream, Acts of Fear And Love sees the band showing their sensitive side as well. (Roisin O'Connor)

Tomberlin – At Weddings


Sarah Beth Tomberlin wrote most of her debut album while she was living with family in southern Illinois during her late teens, as she found herself questioning her religious beliefs, identity, and self-discovery.

This heavy period of isolation manifests itself in At Weddings, with a maturity not beyond her years, but rather one found in all young people feeling undervalued or underestimated by the rest of the world.

There’s an exquisite calm in her performance from the off, drawing on the hymns she grew up singing in church to find that same kind of reverence for someone trying to navigate an important stage of their life. She opens with two stunning acoustic numbers: “Any Other Way” and “Untitled”, where she sings over gentle strumming with a sweet, clear voice and simple yet effective lyrics.

Then on “Tornado” she demonstrates her vocal range and ventures into more profound considerations of what it is to be young, to be a woman, to feel lost. “I wish I was a hero with something beautiful to say,” she sings on “A Video Game”. It’s the kind of melancholic, wander-through-the-woods contemplation that an artist like Sufjan Stevens has perfected: lifting herself away from judgement and fear.

Tomberlin focuses on the acoustic guitar and Wurlitzer, but on “Seventeen” there’s a gorgeous violin refrain that drifts in and out of her delicate finger-picking with a heart-aching beauty. “Self-Help” opens with a searing tension that builds after the line: “Electrocuted in the bathtub/Yellow black my bruises become” and is then maintained, trembling, with a fizzy synth line and soft symbols patters.

Closing track “February” offers a cyclical feel as she returns, after some use of distortion on her vocals, to a very clear, light-as-air sound that features bare-bones guitar playing and sweet layered vocals that don’t disguise those beautiful words. Truly, a remarkable debut. (Roisin O'Connor)

Jake Shears - Jake Shears


Six years since the glam-rock troupe Scissor Sisters released their last music, Jake Shears - their vivacious lead singer - unveils his eponymous debut solo record - in the same year he made his Broadway debut and released a memoir: Boys Keep Swinging.

The album arrives following a spell of uncertainty which saw Shears up sticks from New York to New Orleans and the resulting crop of tracks is foot-stomping proof of his exciting rediscovery. While refusing to close the doors on the synth-pop sound so synonymous with Scissor Sisters, Jake Shears also stands out as a progression; call it the same dance up a different street.

There’s the usual - violins, saxophones, plinky-plonky piano - which all manage to conjure the feeling of a barn dance injected with disco adrenaline shot, while the inspiring spirt of the city he now calls home is laid bare for all to see, none more so than on album closer “Mississippi Delta".

The album intriguingly indicates that the showman is not as ebullient as many perceive. “Sometimes I feel that I’m a stranger to myself,” he sings on “Everything I’ll Ever Need”, a theatrical Beatles/Bee-Gees mashup tailor-made for the West End stage, and heralding a number of stripped-down tracks (the lullaby hues of “Palace in the Sky” remains a sleepy standout).

But it’s the up-tempo tracks listeners will be repeating. “Good Friend” is a nostalgic ride splashed with shades of Bowie’s “Modern Love” while “Sad Song Backwards” flips the genre entirely, boasting an catchy chorus comprised of lyrics usually reserved for more morose-sounding melodies.

Shears doesn’t strive for perfection with his self-titled solo record. Instead, he offers up music as therapy to be either appreciated alone on headphones... or with a crowd by the biggest stereo system you can find. (Jacob Stolworthy)

The Magpie Salute - High Water I


The Black Crowes never seemed like much of a closed shop whilst they were together, with sprawling touring lineups and a slew of musicians who could claim past membership, so perhaps it’s not surprising that The Magpie Salute have continued in the same expansive vein.

Having fallen out with his brother Chris over who held the rights to the Crowes name, guitarist Rich Robinson is now front and centre. Initially, his new band toured as a ten-piece, with ex-Crowes Marc Ford and Sven Pipien; now, for their debut album, they’re a relatively slender six-piece, on account of their shows feeling “more like a revue,” in Robinson’s own words.

High Water I certainly doesn’t sound like a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, or of too many disparate ideas clashing. It’s a low-key, subtly composed rock record that sets slow-rolling country and anthemic southern rock as its parameters, and never so much as hints that it might break beyond them.

There’s promising material at both ends of the spectrum. "Color Blind" and the slide-guitar-driven "Hand in Hand’"are infused with a mellow, folky sensibility, and the likes of "For the Wind" should tide over Crowes fans whilst they wait for the brothers to make nice.

Underneath it all, though, is the nagging feeling that this was Robinson’s opportunity to really break loose and indulge some of his more experimental urges; along those lines, the deeply vulnerable ‘You Found Me’ is the highlight here. Instead, for the most part, he reverts to type. Maybe next year’s already-slated High Water II will see him moving past his self-imposed boundaries. (Joe Goggins)

The Proclaimers - Angry Cyclist


Nobody does heart-on-sleeve quite like The Proclaimers, and in the three years since they last put out a record, there’s been no shortage of material for them to mine. The Reid twins have always self-identified as progressives through their songwriting and Angry Cyclist might well represent their sharpest political statement yet: the title track rails against bigotry in endearingly oblique fashion.

Aside from that, their topical fortunes are mixed. There’s an incisively sardonic look at the class system on "Classy", although quite what they were aiming for with "Looted", which is replete with muddled metaphors surrounding the British empire, remains unclear.

Elsewhere, the brothers are happy to stick to what they know. The runaway success of Sunshine on Leith in both its forms - stage musical and feature film - will have left them in little doubt about what it is that most of their followers look for: slice-of-life sanguineness, with an indelibly Scottish flavour to the compositions.

Their accents take care of half of that, of course, but there’s folky strings and wry lyrical observations helping to carry that national identity too - sometimes, both at once. That’s the case on "The Battle of the Booze", at once a paean and an elegy for alcohol’s place in society.

Their conversational lyricism trips over into silliness at points. You’ll do well to hear a dafter opening gambit all year than we get from closer "I’d Ask the Questions", which rhymes "ark" with "Hampden Park" as it wonders how Noah fitted two giraffes onto it and who was the best winger ever to play there, respectively.

Still, that quaintness is what their fans look for; you just sense that there might have been an even more searing political bent lurking beneath on Angry Cyclist, that never quite pierced the surface. (Joe Goggins)