Albums of the week: Bjork, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds and The Staves
Bjork - Utopia
Bjork Guðmundsdóttir’s last album, Vulnicura (2015), was so emotionally draining that the Icelandic singer claimed she reached a point where she could relive its heartache on stage no longer. Then she wrote Arisen My Senses, the first track here, and everything seemed fresh and new again. Utopia is the sound of a reawakening: harps, flutes, so much birdsong the avian community might seek royalties.
Her new musical paramour is Arca, the Venezuelan laptop prodigy she first collaborated with on Vulnicura: but for all his efforts to pull things in a distended, dubby direction, she is mostly in the pastoral mode of Anchor Song or Pagan Poetry. Only with a few scores to settle: “Not repeating the f***-ups of the fathers” she sings on Tabula Rasa.
There’s nothing resembling a versechorus pop song but there are moments where it all threatens to coalesce into the purest beauty.
by Richard Godwin
(One Little Indian)
Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Who Built the Moon?
For all its commercial success Noel Gallagher’s post-Oasis output has hardly been a study in boundary-pushing experimentation. Finally, thrillingly, Who Built the Moon? sees him venture outside his four-chord comfort zone. On opener Fort Knox, the poet who brought us such couplets as “I know a girl called Elsa, she’s into Alka-Seltzer”, abandons lyrics entirely.
Keep On Reaching, meanwhile, is a funk-soul number with a refrain (“keep on reaching up for that higher ground”) that nods to Stevie Wonder. Be Careful What You Wish For continues the long-held Gallagher tradition of ripping off John Lennon — it’s essentially Come Together with an acoustic guitar.
However, that’s forgivable within the context of an album that sees Gallagher take more risks over the course of its 11 tracks than he has over the previous 11 years.
by Rick Pearson
The Staves and yMusic - The Way is Read
A trio of sisters from Watford, The Staves used to specialise in three-part harmonies and lovely, lilting folk. They shook things up earlier this year with bluesy tune Tired as F*** and now they’ve collaborated on an album with New York ensemble yMusic.
Any fears that The Staves have been drawn into the genre known as classical crossover — watered down arrangements marketed on prime-time TV — are soon allayed by the startling results. Developed from a live collaboration, the siblings’ voices are blended seamlessly with the instrumentation on haunting, experimental compositions where folk and contemporary classical meet halfway.
It’s probably too much to hope that the album becomes a hit but songs like the gorgeous Trouble on My Mind deserve better than being consigned to late-night Radio 3.
by Andre Paine
Sufjan Stevens - The Greatest Gift
Sufjan Stevens’s 2015 album Carrie & Lowell, an exquisite meditation on the singer-songwriter’s strange relationship with his late mother, was widely regarded as his best. Adoration for its songs has enabled it to live on in new forms, first as a live album and concert film in April this year, and now as this collection of out-takes, remixes and demos.
If that description makes The Greatest Gift sound like a set of inferior floor sweepings, that’s far from the case, with new songs such as Wallowa Lake Monster proving every bit as beautiful and ambitious as the album proper. Meanwhile, remixes such as Helado Negro’s version of All of Me Wants All of You maintain the original’s delicacy while expanding it with subtle electronic touches. The whole is a worthy companion piece with multiple treasures of its own.
by David Smyth
Maya Youssef - Syrian Dreams
Syrian-born Maya Youssef has made a name for herself as a rising star on the qanun, the plucked zither that is at the heart of the sophisticated Arabic classical tradition. This is her first album, produced by the esteemed Joe Boyd, with a supporting trio on oud (lute), double bass and subtle and inventive percussion.
Two tracks here are emotional responses to the war in Syria, the qanun solo Syrian Dreams and Bombs Turn into Roses. Other tracks are more nostalgic evocations for what is currently a lost world. Most ambitious is the substantial Seven Gates of Damascus, evoking in a different mode the character of each of the old city gates. An assured and exciting debut.
(Harmonia Mundi Latitudes)
by Simon Broughton
Laura Perrudin - Poisons & Antidotes
French singer and electric harpist Laura Perrudin has drawn comparisons with everyone from Debussy to Flying Lotus and then a mesmerising solo turn at the recent EFG London Jazz Festival that saw her harp used as both orchestra and drum kit.
This sophomore record is a dreamy confection of electronica, neo-soul and psychedelic folk, threaded with vocal experiments including clicks, breaths and whispers and multi-tracked harmonies that soar and soothe. Tracks including The Ceiling Maze, with its chilled R&B vibe, and the offbeat Diurnal Fireflies, revel in this painterly approach. Two poems by William Blake, Auguries of Innocence and The Sick Rose, feel otherworldly. An arresting work by an artist destined for greatness.
by Jane Cornwell