Albums

An exhilarating debut: Peltokoski’s Mozart Symphonies reviewed

Grade: A- Here’s an oddly structured album of Mozart’s symphonies 35, 40 and 36 from the world’s most fashionable young Finnish conductor – and, no, it isn’t Klaus Makela, the 28-year-old maestro of the Oslo Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris who’s taking over in Amsterdam and Chicago. It’s Tarmo Peltokoski, 24, who hasn’t yet had to cope with iffy reviews hinting that he’s been overpromoted. Peltokoski is cute, clever and scarily self-assured. He’s already music director of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and is about to hold the same position in Toulouse. He’s principal guest conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and also the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, the Mercedes-Benz of chamber

Let the Lemon Twigs pour warm syrup into your ears

Grade: A If you enjoy the sensation of having warm, jangly syrup poured directly into your ear, then this is probably the summer album for you. You might think that syrup cannot, by definition, be jangly. But imagine treacle with popping candy in it – poured into your ear in a kindly manner by a smiling young man. This Long Island sibling duo have been honing their pastiche for eight years or so and here reference almost every power-pop band that ever existed, from the Byrds via the dB’s to Teenage Fanclub, but also taking in the winsome pop which dominated our charts before the Beatles came along (but post

The weird, hypnotic world of Willie Nelson

Many years ago, I wrote a book about Willie Nelson. At its conclusion, I reached for an elegiac, valedictory tone. In 2006, when The Outlaw was published, Nelson was already 73, and it seemed plausible to suggest that one of the great American lives might be winding down. I pictured Nelson rolling off the road and into the sunset, his work on Earth more or less complete. Nelson embodies both sides of an increasingly divided nation; hippie and redneck, patriot and agitator Well, scratch that ending. Having recently turned 91, Nelson is still going strong. The touring has slowed down a tad – we haven’t seen him in Britain for

Yunchan Lim’s Chopin isn’t as good as his Liszt or Rach

Grade: B- In 2022 the South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim became, at 18, the youngest winner of the Van Cliburn competition, displaying a virtuosity that stunned the judges. You could see conductor Marin Alsop’s astonishment as he bounded through the finale of Rach 3, combining accuracy and swirling fantasy at daredevil speed. It’s been viewed nearly 15 million times on YouTube. In truth, though, he’d have had to screw up badly not to win, because he’d already dispatched Liszt’s fiendish Transcendental Études with perfect articulation and mercurial wit; in places he out-dazzled even the current master of this repertoire, Daniil Trifonov. Decca snapped him up and here’s his first studio

Fat White Family’s new album is much, much better than I had feared

Grade: A- The irresistibly catchy – if you are not quite right in the head – ‘Touch The Leather’ was probably my favourite single of the previous decade, aided by a video which was simultaneously marvellously seedy, threatening and infantile. ‘Left-wing skin on the right-wing leather – touch the leather leather…’ Well it did it for me, and so I set great stock by these scrofulous squat-dwelling skaggies from Brixton, until with every subsequent dim-witted release the notion began to embed itself that they weren’t, actually, very good. ‘Touch The Leather’ was maybe just one of those glorious singular flukes you find in pop music by performers who aren’t really

Taylor Swift’s new album is exhausting

How to explain the supercharged star power of Taylor Swift? An undeniably gifted artist, Swift’s albums 1989, Folklore and Evermore, in particular, are excellent. She has written a battery of terrific pop songs. She is a generous and skilled performer. To suggest she is overrated is not an insult, therefore, but simply a comment on the absurd critical mass of her popularity, in which every lyric, scrap of artwork, cultural reference and personal tit-bit is weighted with a monumental significance which, it is becoming apparent, does her work few favours. Anybody listening to Swift’s new album without prior knowledge of the layers of gossipy context surrounding it might well wonder

The greatest British symphonist you’ve never heard of

Grade: A Rejoice! A glorious symphonic cycle by a British composer has been issued as a set for the first time. George Lloyd (1913-98) was treated with lofty condescension by the musical establishment because his twelve symphonies contain barely a single dissonance. They’re sprinkled with jaunty tunes that have the feel of an Ealing Comedy – heresy! Also, it didn’t help that for decades Lloyd made his living as a mushroom farmer in the West Country. But he was no amateur: he could write perfect fugues as a teenager and by his early twenties had a fine opera under his belt. Then in 1942, the ship on which he was

Clever, beautiful and sonically witty: Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter album reviewed

Grade: A+ Carter is a useful surname to have if you’re making a country album. So it is with Beyoncé: she married into the name when she got hitched to Jay-Z, but he is from New York, not Poor Valley, VA. Helps if you’re from Texas too – just to convince folks that this bit of genre-hopping is rooted in authenticity. It isn’t – but who cares? This is a clever, beautiful and sonically witty album. Country music’s conventions draw out of Beyoncé perhaps the most sublime melodies she has written, or part-written. There are cameos from Dolly Parton, half-forgotten black sharecropper’s daughter Linda Martell, Willie Nelson and the ghost

Why I was wrong to think Idles obvious and depressing

I never had Idles down as a great Bristol band, I confess. In fact, I never had them down as very much of anything at all. Through occasional and accidental contact, I associated the quintet with a cadre of unlovely groups – Sleaford Mods, Shame, Soft Play (formerly Slaves), Viagra Boys – that emerged in the 2010s and made shouty, angry music which wanted to Say Something Important about our times, most of it pretty obvious and deeply depressing. Idles had a song called ‘I’m Scum’. It was a hard pass from me – more or less sight unseen. Turns out I got it wrong; or perhaps Idles got it

Cheekface are uplifting and witty but also very punchable: It’s Sorted reviewed

Grade: B+ Cheekface are apt to divide opinion rather sharply. There are those who believe that the Los Angeles indie nerd-rock three-piece dissect late capitalism and the American psyche with an uplifting and insightful laconic wit. And then there are those who want to punch them repeatedly in the face, especially the singer Greg Katz – punch them and punch them until there is nothing left but broken teeth. I get that. I swing between both camps. In this respect, and several others, they are rather like Weezer, except a little less cute. In the end people decided that a punching was probably the right option for Weezer and they

Small moments vs Big Ideas: Peter Gabriel’s i/o reviewed

Peter Gabriel is terribly fond of a Big Idea. With Genesis he would sing in character as a lawnmower, a fox and as ‘Slipperman’. His final work with the band, in 1974, was The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a double album driven by what we might kindly describe as a ‘kaleidoscopic’ narrative involving a Puerto-Rican protagonist on a voyage of self-discovery in New York City. Since going solo there has always been plenty of stuff whirling around each new Gabriel project. His Real World HQ in the West Country is part recording studio, part hi-tech hippie lab, encompassing conceptual technological probing, multimedia collaborations, NGOs and various foundations. i/o is

Can everyone please shut up about Maria Callas?

One thing that exasperated me intensely during my many years as an opera critic was the assumption that I must be a passionate admirer of Maria Callas. She is the only prima donna who most people have heard of, and her supreme status has long been taken for granted, to the point at which the sound of her voice, as well as her personal story, have fomented a myth, a legend, an icon, and made any rational judgment almost impossible. She is Callas, La Divina, the embodiment of opera: one can only fall down and worship. The Callas bibliography runs, according to the British Library, to 136 books In a

The case against re-recording albums 

In 2012, Jeff Lynne released Mr Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra. Except it wasn’t. It was 11 new re-recordings of classic ELO songs – which isn’t the same thing at all. Lynne, bless him, believed that having gained more experience as a producer, he could now improve the songs that made him famous. ‘You know how to make it sound better than it did before,’ he said, ‘Because I have more knowledge… and technology.’ Sheesh. How wrong can one man be? Pop music is all about the definitivearticle. Not only the bold prefix attached to its greatest practitioners – Beatles, Byrds, Wailers, Temptations, Fall, et al

The Goldberg crown has settled on a new head: Vikingur Olafsson’s Golberg Variations reviewed

Grade: A+ In 2018, the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson released a solo Bach album. It bounced along unforgettably. Olafsson’s subsequent albums for Deutsche Grammophon were all lovely, but like many ‘intellectual’ pianists blessed with a pearly touch he could sound a bit precious. I missed the playfulness of his Bach, and so when he announced he was recording the Goldberg Variations I was excited. Could he sprinkle the magic of his original album over this famous Aria and its 30 tightly argued variations, at a time when there are more than 200 rival recordings on piano floating around – and roughly the same number on harpsichord? (When Glenn Gould cut

The real reason you shouldn’t buy Roisin Murphy’s new album

Grade: B The rather wonderful, liberating thing about being a sentient human being, rather than a moron, is that one can agree with Roisin Murphy that giving kids puberty blockers is a kind of child abuse, while at the same time not liking her new album very much. Just as a sentient human being can enjoy watching Michael Sheen pretending to be other people quite well in films, while thinking him an egregious tit. The cancellation of Murphy was, of course, as obscene as it was predictable – but I do not quite swallow the idea that we are required, as a consequence, to buy Hit Parade. The title is

The best new album I’ve heard this year: Being Dead’s When Horses Would Run reviewed

Grade: A– The point of a sudden, abrupt change in the time signature and instrumentation of a song is to surprise the listener and undermine his or her expectations. If, however, you do it in every song, then the point is lost, and the listener finds himself actually waiting for the weirdnessto begin. So it is with Being Dead – and it’s about the only thing I have to carp about, because overall When Horses Would Run is a lovely album, full of often complex but always catchy melodies and imbued with an agreeably surreal sense of humour. The band is comprised of Falcon Bitch, Gumball and Ricky Moto and

An album of not terribly happy ballads: Blur’s The Ballad of Darren reviewed

Bands that have hung around, or gone away and come back again, occupy an increasingly sizeable percentage of pop’s bandwidth. When it comes to making new music, many are happy not to rock the boat, scraping by on the goodwill accumulated from past endeavours. Others strive to present a moving target, enjoying a more evolved, even argumentative, relationship with the sounds of their glory days. Two new albums tackle this dilemma, with varying degrees of success. Together for the first time since 2015, Blur do a fine job of straddling past and present. Fresh from the emotive nostalgia-fest of two nights performing at Wembley Stadium earlier this month, they have

Let’s hear it for the lesser-spotted nepo daddy

Rob Grant releases his debut album, Lost at Sea, this week. A 69-year-old millionaire and former ad man, furniture exec and domain developer, Grant has made a record of ambient, ocean-themed piano doodles glorying in titles such as ‘In the Dying Light of Day: Requiem for Mother Earth’, ‘A Delicate Mist Surrounds Me’ and ‘The Mermaids’ Lullaby’. Not incidentally, he is also the father of one of the world’s biggest (and best) alt-pop stars, Lana Del Rey. The title track features his daughter’s unmistakeable contralto, while her name is emblazoned on the front cover. Father’s Day is just around the corner, and Ms Del Rey has delivered a pearl of

In praise of goths – the most enduring of pop subcultures

More than 40 years on, every town still has them, wandering the streets with pale skin, more make-up than you can find in Superdrug, swathed in acres of black fabric. Goths, rather unexpectedly, have turned out to be the great survivors among pop subcultures. Others have risen and faded, but the goths – laughed at, ignored, dismissed – have endured, seeing their style and their musical tastes slowly incorporated by everyone else (there’s even a goth version of hip-hop, known as ‘horrorcore’). Goth was a fitting name for the music: overbearing and foreboding; delivering ecstasy through the building and releasing of tension rather than through major chords and primary colours;

Heartfelt but bland: Ed Sheeran’s – (Subtract) reviewed

Whether by accident or design, the mathematical theme of Ed Sheeran’s previous album titles (+, ×, ÷ and = respectively) resolves rather neatly with – (Subtract). I interviewed Sheeran around the time of × and found him likeable enough but a bit out of reach. Multiplication did indeed seem to be foremost on his mind. Perched on the edge of a bed in a room above RAK studios in central London, he came across as a man obsessed with sales figures and chart placings, a coolly pragmatic mix of talent and ambition. (You don’t think Sheeran is talented? I watched him entertain 60,000 people in a football stadium for two