New Releases & Reissues: March 20
This week we’re looking at an artist who ages like fine wine, an atmospheric duo, and the latest from The Smiths’ polarising singer…
Baxter Dury – The Night Chancers
What we can call, for want of a better phrase, rock music even now has a problem with the ageing process. It’s not that rock musicians don’t continue performing long past middle age, or that their back-in-the-day war stories get any less fascinating when related on BBC Four documentaries, or indeed within these pages, it’s just simply that most musicians make their best records when they’re younger.
But there are exceptions, those who get better with age, like fine wine or esoteric cheese. Chief among these over the past 10 years has been Baxter Dury (48), a man who seems to react to the passing of time by becoming, as a performer, more monstrous, more lascivious, snarkier. All of which might become tiresome if it weren’t for the way this invention and projection of a larger-than-life persona has been accompanied by a sense that it gives him cover to show his vulnerability, too. Here, the subject matter of Night Chancers, his fifth LP in a decade, including his work with B.E.D, helps. It’s an album largely concerned, to quote Dury himself, with times “halfway between heartbreak and getting back on your feet, when you’re rebuilding, not necessarily successfully, your outlook on life”.
So it is on the title track that we find Dury being left alone in a hotel room in the early hours of the morning “with the crumbs of my spare thoughts” after a girl leaves him there alone. In a room adjacent, a party rages. For all the life going on all around him, Dury cuts a desolate figure.
Not that we should see the album as especially biographical or introspective. At other times, Dury leaps on the opportunity to get in your face and to play characters. The sheer relish with which he intones the words “murder shoes” in Slumlord, for example, is mildly disturbing. The creeping sense of eavesdropping on nasty musings in Carla’s Got A Boyfriend scarier still.
Musically, the songs, while featuring strings and lush textures, are essentially straightforward. Dury, new writing partner Shaun Paterson and longtime producer/collaborator Craig Silvey (Arcade Fire, John Grant, Arctic Monkeys) don’t bother too often with complicated or tricksy sections. Instead, these are tracks built on grooves and beats that let the words, and some songs are close to monologues, cut through. Indeed, there are moments when Leonard Cohen’s later records come to mind, especially as, like Cohen, Dury often uses a chorus of female voices to support his own speak-sung lines.
Nevertheless, Dury is definitively his own man, someone who long ago emerged from father Ian’s considerable shadow and, to return to where we began, has found a way to make albums that are mature without being boring, vital without trying too hard. “Baxter loves you,” declares the refrain in the final minute of closer Say Nothing, and don’t be surprised if you find you love Baxter back, albeit with certain misgivings as to where the stains on his clothes originated. A dirty charmer of an album.
Roger & Brian Eno – Mixing Colours
Astonishingly, the Eno brothers have never previously collaborated as a duo. Younger sibling Roger’s first appearance on vinyl was on Brian’s 1983’s seminal Apollo, but there the brothers’ work together was augmented by Daniel Lanois. Now, they’re on their own. It’s therefore a relief to report that Mixing Colours is very much what fans of either artist would hope for: stark, spacious and atmospheric settings from Brian using distinctive piano-led melodies from Roger. The project started, as Roger puts it, “as a back-and-forth conversation we were having over a 15-year period”. Typically, Brian has conceptualised their work, comparing traditional instruments to islands and noting that electronics enable, “all the spaces in between those islands” to be explored, “yielding new sounds that have never previously existed.”
It would be easy to be cynical about this and point out that we’ve heard a keyboard shrouded in reverb before, but that would be churlish because this is a great album. Roger’s yearning piano melodies are subtly given distinctive mood and space to breath by Brian without distracting the listener with superfluous sonic experiments. The running order reads like a swatch list from Farrow & Ball, (Deep Saffron, Rose Quartz, Desert Sand) and all the tracks blend into an enormous landscape. Listen closely and themes emerge – Spring Frost, Verdigris and Cerulean Blue all share the same descending melody, for example. The listener can thus easily relocate to a peaceful solitude of icy tundra.
Rustin Man – Clockdust
What we might call the ‘new pastoral’, music rooted in the folk tradition without being constrained by it, is largely
the preserve of younger musicians. The re-emergence of Rustin Man, aka former Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb, proves it needn’t be so. Clockdust is his second LP in a year, remarkable when you consider its predecessor, Drift Code, followed 17 years from his acclaimed collaboration with Beth Gibbons, Out Of Season.
Clockdust is subtly different from its predecessor, made up of songs that, in Webb’s open estimation, are spacier and less densely layered than before. In terms of the listening experience, that means a melancholy album that deals with nostalgia, and finds a sepia-tinged sweet spot somewhere between Daniel Blumberg and Bill Fay. It’s an utterly beguiling LP.
Morrissey – I Am Not A Dog On A Chain
Who, exactly, is calling Morrissey “a dog on a chain”? He’s recently provoked other colourful epithets, but canine references have been sparse. Fortunately, headlines about his 13th solo album ought to focus on how it’s better than many predecessors. Jim Jim Falls’ programmed percussion and rubbery synths may shock those who consider him technophobic, and Once I Saw The River Clean shudders like the 80s pop he disdained. Bobby, Don’t You Think They Know?, meanwhile, features big-throated Motown veteran Thelma Houston, and What Kind Of People…’s guitars acknowledge his Smiths past. This time, though, his lyrics, once a source of empathetic joy, now occasionally spiteful, and sometimes condescending, are less appealing, suggesting that, like Alf Garnett with a quiff, Morrissey seems lost in another era.
Ben Wardle, Jonathan Wright & Wyndham Wallace