Soweto Kinch skewers modern Britain, Olly Murs infuriates everyone – the week’s best albums
Soweto Kinch, the LSO and Lee Reynolds: White Juju ★★★★☆
Anger is the fuel that powers much of black British jazz right now, but in no album that I’ve encountered recently have so many targets been blasted, and with such scorn, as on the latest from 44-year-old British saxophonist, composer and rapper Soweto Kinch. Titled White Juju, which refers to a West-African fetish or amulet often associated with magic powers, Kinch chose the name because “perhaps the bizarre fetishes and obsessions of a cult religion are more visible in modern Britain than Third World countries”.
From the racism that continues to disfigures the country to the iniquities of the lockdown and the idiocy of social media, it seems that none of Britain’s contemporary ills escape Kinch’s ire. That might make it seem as though his new suite, composed for and recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and his own quartet at last year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, is something to be endured rather than appreciated.
In fact, it’s a joy. Kinch is extraordinarily intelligent, humane and a formidable musician. He knows that guilt isn’t entirely one-sided, and that unrelenting anger can dry up the wellsprings of human sympathy. His winking self-awareness is best illustrated by Idiots, the 13th movement of this 16-movement suite. Having confessed that he can’t resist his morning shot of anger courtesy of his smartphone, he launches into an amusing (if not always audible) rap on the ubiquity of idiocy, centred on the increasingly exasperated question, “What if the idiot was…?” His quartet of pianist Rick Simpson, bassist Nick Jurd and drummer Gregory Hutchinson whip up an increasing storm of confusion, until falling abruptly silent at the punchline: “What if the idiot was… me?”
But from such bitterly delivered lyrics as “they tell us it [racism] is all in our heads”, there’s no doubting the main target of Kinch’s anger – even if in these moments the music suggests sorrow. There are moments of engagingly innocent pictorialism, as in the twittering birds at the beginning of the second movement, Dawn; a parody of a pompous military march in The Natural Order; and in The Old Normal, a mock-earnest busyness falling somewhere between Bach and athletic 1920s neo-classicism. Kinch’s musical learnedness is reflected in the literary nature of his raps, which are peppered with Biblical and other references.
Described thus, it could all seem a mite too clever (and at 75 minutes, it is maybe a touch overlong); but in fact the strongest impression is one of open-hearted lyricism, combined with a harmonic subtlety which keeps sentimentality at bay, as in the 14th movement, Eternal, where anxiously circling, acerbic harmonies cast a strange light on the melody. The musical subtlety of Kinch’s score clearly inspired the players of the LSO, who actually sound as though they’re enjoying themselves – which isn’t always the case when orchestras play alongside jazz musicians.
And Kinch’s own quartet, above all Simpson and Kinch himself on alto saxophone, are a joy to listen to. In all, this suite is that rare thing: an album that escapes the dourness of “political” music and seems wholly life-affirming. Ivan Hewett
White Lung: Premonition ★★★★☆
The Vancouver thrash-punk trio White Lung have promised that this fifth album is their last. Their 2010 debut, It’s the Evil, slammed and elbowed through a wave of rock and hardcore releases to carve them out their own space in the pit. They give a collective middle finger to minimalism on this final album, just as they always have done.
White Lung’s restless and ferocious (but melodic) punk won over a generation who’d been raised with Fugazi and Black Flag, thanks to elder siblings or friends. Deep Fantasy (2014) and Paradise (2016) showed their evolving confidence and melodic complexity. Premonition is a finely wrought, searing career-coda, determined to take a sledgehammer to the cliché that growing older must result in complacency.
In 10 tracks that whiplash from opener to closer in under 30 minutes, guitar wheedles in vertical spirals before shattering out into fragments; Mish Barber-Way’s vocals alternate between melancholic dreaminess and the deceptively anodyne; Anne-Marie Vassiliou’s drums are pummelled under the skewed, metallic sheaths of guitar and shimmering, icy synths.
Becoming a mother and battling to maintain her sobriety, Barber-Way began to question the vacuous priorities of her adopted hometown, Los Angeles (as detailed in the furious, fearful Date Night). She confronted the precarity of human life while pregnant, laden with the weight of expectation and the novelty of being responsible for a child when her punk-rock life had largely excused selfish fascinations.
Transition is at the heart of her lyrical narratives: from girl to woman, self-saboteur to sober mother, and her emergence from twenties into thirties. This album is a love letter to her kids. Bird promises her then-unborn son that he’s never at fault for the struggles to come, while in Girl she promises to love, protect and empower her younger daughter in a world built by and for men. RIP White Lung, and thanks for the riffs. Cat Woods
Leftfield: This is What We Do ★★★★☆
Club culture was in crisis even before pandemic-related closures kicked in. But post-lockdown freedom has brought a sense of rebirth around dance music, and it seems that many of its big players have spent the past couple of years honing bigger and better bangers with which to soundtrack that eventual feeling of liberation.
For Leftfield’s one surviving founder member, Neil Barnes, recent times have been doubly challenging, as he battled both depression and bowel cancer, all of which doubtless lent an extra zing of joie de vivre to the consequent music on This is What We Do. In the early ’90s, Barnes’s singles and remixes alongside drummer/DJ Paul Daley prompted a whole new subgenre, “progressive house”, and with Leftism (1995), they became one of UK dance’s biggest attractions, a success partly fuelled by a thrilling team-up with punk king John Lydon on Open Up.
Always painstaking in quality control, Barnes’s sudden reappearance here comes fronted up with another fabulously exciting rock-singer collaboration, as Fontaines DC’s Grian Chatten yowls over Full Way Round, against a breakbeat cacophony every bit as pulse-quickening as The Prodigy’s Smack My B---- Up. Elsewhere, the poet Lemn Sissay delivers defiant rhymes over Making a Difference, which keys into Leftfield’s roots in west London reggae.
The 11 tracks, however, each serve up a masterclass in some aspect of dancefloor endeavour, without too much regard for vocal hirelings. Whether it’s pulsating acid house (Accumulator), a mesmerising Underworld-style tech-adventure (Heart and Soul), or The Power of Listening’s stately Detroit techno-futurism, Barnes and his engineer sidekick Adam Wren prove themselves fluent in any given art, and deft at incorporating it within their own individual narrative-in-sound.
Behind its rather mundane title, This is What We Do contains multitudes of grooves, with both a positive spirit and a physical imperative that are nigh-on impossible to resist. Andrew Perry
Various: A Tribute to Ryuichi Sakamoto – To the Moon and Back ★★★☆☆
Tokyo-born Sakamoto first made waves in the West with his techno group, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and soon morphed into one of the world’s most in-demand soundtrack composers, writing scores and themes for blockbusters such as Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and The Revenant.
In the past eight years or so, he has been struggling with cancer in his adopted hometown of New York, but has remained musically active. In advance of a new solo record called 12, to be released next month, and a live-streamed solo piano concert next weekend, his management and label have put together this tribute album, as a kind of contemporarily refracted guide to Sakamoto’s greatest hits, each of the 13 entries denoted as a “remodel” – a fittingly arty catch-all term for some kind of remix or cover version.
The opening pair kick things off in a deeply reflective Zen mood, the second a hushed reading of Grains (Sweet Paulownia Wood), with characteristically minimal, Satie-esque piano and quietly emotive voicing from David Sylvian. Many contributors, like Sylvian, are familiar Sakamoto collaborators: fellow soundtracker Alva Noto tackles themes from The Sheltering Sky, while Japanese psych-popster Cornelius brings Broadway cheese to Thatness and Thereness.
The more interesting tracks are submitted by fans far enough removed from their subject to allow for a little irreverence: Thundercat’s take on Thousand Knives, for instance, jolts against the ambient tranquillity to infuse a characteristically cartoon-ish splash of urban funk, while Gabrial Wek renders Sakamoto & Sylvian’s Forbidden Colours with a blurry, fluctuating techno thump.
Tribute albums are always, by nature, a maddeningly mixed bag, an assault course between the sacred and the profane, and To the Moon and Back is certainly no different in that. For this listener, however, it could probably have done with a little profanity – a sense of adventure which might’ve more aptly honoured Sakamoto’s legacy. AP
Olly Murs: Marry Me ★☆☆☆☆
For a 2009 X Factor runner-up who peddles anonymous pop-by-numbers fare, Olly Murs hasn’t done too badly. No P&O Cruise gigs for this British singer: his music career endures via primetime TV presenting, six platinum albums, and vast streaming numbers and tour sales.
On his seventh album, Marry Me, he has even shaken things up a bit, discarding his usual multi-collaborative approach in favour of working with songwriters David Stewart and Jessica Agombar, known for their triumphs with K-pop superstars BTS. They diligently apply their touch to Marry Me: sticky steel drums on the opener, Die of a Broken Heart, 1980s synth on I Found Her, and a bouncy disco track with the imaginative title Don’t Stop Dancing.
The style is normally harmless, even likeable when inhabited by somebody charismatic. Unfortunately, Murs lacks charisma. Though he’s long ditched the trilby, he remains a hapless Norman Wisdom type, who regularly falls over or splits his trousers on stage. That disposition trickles into the songs. Go Ghost, informed by “what was TikTok-ing”, shoots for Harry Styles but lands in One Direction terrain. Murs frequently employs pop’s most irritating gimmicks, such as aggressively chirpy la-la-las, or building a chorus around a repeated number. Do Me Like That emulates Maroon 5, while – worse – Best Night of Your Life adopts the emo-clown style of Yungblud.
Marry Me’s collection of basic grooves and sentiments are bound for radio broadcast, so you would hope that the album was at least generic enough to evaporate into the airwaves. But Murs has included what seems to me a misogynistic track called I Hate You When You’re Drunk. If, as I assume, it’s about a woman, it appears to have more than a whiff of misogyny about it – possibly even coercive control, with a veneer of cutesy strums. “I hate you when you’re drunk,” sings Murs; but it might be the only way to listen to his album. Kate French-Morris