Albums of the week: The National, Lewis Capaldi and Carly Rae Jepsen

The National - I Am Easy to Find

(4AD)

****

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The National’s long upwards crawl across two decades, from Brooklyn also-rans to Grammy-winners who can play the O2, has been far more interesting than the standard cycle of album-tour-album-tour. It’s a Marvel Cinematic Universe of orbiting characters, spin-offs and new stories: curating festivals and all-star compilation albums, soundtrack work, a six-hour live art installation at MoMA. Last month, guitarist Bryce Dessner was at the Barbican performing minimalist classical music with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.

The quintet’s eighth album is as ambitious as anything in their rich past, arriving alongside a short film by 20th Century Women director Mike Mills in which Alicia Vikander acts out an entire life over 24 minutes. The album is almost three times longer and characterised by guest appearances from female singers, including Sharon Van Etten, Gail Ann Dorsey and Lisa Hannigan, which are far more than cameos.Matt Berninger, whose weary baritone ordinarily dominates, reduces himself mostly to a background murmur on the propulsive, energetic Where is her Head. Hannigan’s is the main voice on the textured piano ballad

So Far So East. It’s a lot to digest, with subtleties that only bubble up after multiple listens — at the back end there’s the rat-a-tat drumming of Rylan and the layered, wordless voices of Underwater. At times, as with much of their recent material, it can be too tasteful and serene. More raw passion would provoke a stronger emotional response. But to see a band pushing further, dramatically changing the formula this far into their career, is a beautiful thing.

by David Smyth

slowthai - Nothing Great About Britain

(Method Records)

****

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“What's so great about Britain?” slowthai snarls on the title track of his provocative debut. Via candid anecdotes and evocative storytelling, he explores the division and deprivation of Brexit Britain through a highly critical lens. The Northamptonian’s sound is uniquely ambiguous: not quite punk, rap or grime, he creates an idiosyncratic sound somewhere between Sleaford Mods, Skepta and the Sex Pistols. Over minimalistic strings and synths, his message and sound are dystopian, yet there are brief moments of hope and humanity too. Northampton’s Child is a redolent recollection of slowthai’s council estate roots and one of the album’s most brutally emotive tracks; the urgency of album standout Inglorious haunts and challenges.

An artist whose voice will transcend divisions.

by Elizabeth Aubrey

Lewis Capaldi - Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent

(EMI)

***

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Sad songs and social media silliness have proved a winning combination for Lewis Capaldi. With a big No 1 single (Someone You Loved) in the bag and a pair of sold-out Wembley Arena shows next year, the heavy lifting has already been done ahead of this debut. The gravelly voiced Scot seems as surprised as anyone by the success of his old-fashioned songs. Quavering break-up ballads sit alongside jauntier tunes such as Hollywood, which has the ebullient charm of Paolo Nutini. There are intriguing hints of rawness on Headspace, a stark arrangement with shades of Jeff Buckley. But it’s the Adele-style emotional drama of Don’t Get Me Wrong that will maintain Capaldi’s career trajectory.

by Andre Paine

Carly Rae Jepsen - Dedicated

(Interscope)

***

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Former Canadian Idol contestant Carly Rae Jepsen, below, makes the sort of hummable, hard-working, bubblegum pop that was supposed to have been outlawed when Miley Cyrus twerked at the VMA awards. She claims to have written and recorded 200 songs before selecting this 15, having pulled off a similar trick with Emotion (2015), winning admiration from nerdy indie blogs and your little sister in the process. The tunes are precision-tooled bursts of longing, but Jepsen is always most likely to catch when she’s at her most throwaway. There are the spangly highs of Julien, the hi-speed lows of Party for One . But mostly it’s an album of creamy middles.

by Richard Godwin

Brad Mehldau - Finding Gabriel

(Nonesuch)

*****

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Revered American pianist Brad Mehldau has been reading the Bible between gathering guest talent, revisiting jazz-fusion and experimenting with synths, vocals and breath. Indeed, aw deep inhale is advised before diving into this epic work, in which nine thematically linked songs document a search for lost faith, taking their cues from scripture. Album overture The Garden features the soaring choral vocalese of Becca Stevens and Gabriel Kahane, the crashing breakbeats of drummer Mark Guiliana and golden trumpet lines by Ambrose Akinmusire that surely hark to the angel of the title. Symbolism is obvious: The Prophet is a Fool lays out its anti-Trumpism. Mehldau exhales hard before starting Make It All Go Away, a track lent gravitas by a booming Kurt Elling. Astounding.

by Jane Cornwell

Stephan Micus​ - White Night

ECM

****

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Stephan Micus is a unique figure. He’s a musical explorer collecting musical instruments around the world and then playing them in his own combinations. On this album - his 23rd for ECM - he’s focusing on African kalimbas (thumb pianos) and the deep, reedy blown sound of the Armenian duduk. There’s a bass duduk here that goes lower than I’ve ever heard before. It’s incredibly soulful. Micus also sings vocals, solo and multi-tracked, in an imaginary language. This ‘universal’ language makes sense because his music is from everywhere and gives every culture an equal value. Micus is never bland or New Agey, but brings a new vision to the instruments he’s decided to work with. Every one of his albums is a unique voyage and one worth taking.

by Simon Broughton

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