Album reviews: Roots Manuva, Bryan Adams, Joanna Newsom, and Dave Gahan & Soulsavers
One of hip-hop’s most interesting voices is back on form, but Bryan Adams can't sustain interest beyond a few numbers on his new album
Fourteen years on since releasing the hip-hop anthem Witness (1 Hope), taken from his stunning breakthrough album Run Come Save Me, Rodney Smith (aka Roots Manuva) is rightly acknowledged as UK hip-hop royalty. Whether creating wonky club bangers or on-the-nose social commentary, the veteran south London rapper, once labelled by The Times as “the voice of urban Britain”, has always dabbled with deep introspection with a whiff of paranoia. On his sixth album Bleeds, the darkness still rains heavy (although thankfully it’s a big step away from 2005’s Awfully Deep, where Smith’s mental health was seriously questioned) but his thought-provoking lyrics are still blessed with shining wit. Produced by Adrien Sherwood, with the added talents of Switch and Four Tet (the fantastically fidgety Facety 2:11), Manuva’s mix of styles often flits from dub to hip hop to classical, often within the space of the same song, as on thudding bleak opener Hard Bastards. With menacing synth (Me Up!) and eerie beats (Stepping Hard, One Thing), the MC’s tongue is still wedged firmly in cheek, and still as wickedly sharp as ever.
It was in the summer of 1991 that I developed a deep hatred for Bryan Adams. For four months the insipid MOR hit single Everything I Do (I Do it For You) sat at the top of the UK charts, and was played to nerve-grating death. Even now the twinkling piano and opening plea to “Look into my eyes” makes my skin bristle with contempt, but I’m aware the massive record sales were no fault of the humanitarian Canadian rocker, and I have long since forgiven him. After releasing a photographic portrait collection of injured soldiers last year, the 55-year-old songwriter returns his attention to music, with his 13th album, Get Up. With sweet and sickly production from ELO’s Jeff Lynne, it opens promisingly with the upbeat rockabilly lead single You Belong to Me, but it’s not long before we are back in familiar bombastic rock-radio territory. Go Down Rockin’ is just about bearable thanks to its Stonesy chorus, but the stuffy Yesterday Was Just a Dream has certainly reignited some deeply buried feelings.
Much like Kate Bush and the Icelandic pop pixie Björk, I have always found kooky harpist Joanna Newsom’s oddball vocals and undulating twee melodies to tiptoe precariously between insanely annoying, and spellbinding genius. Co-produced by the revered Steve Albini, Divers is the plucking neo-folk songwriter’s first album in five years, and the follow-up to her ambitious triple album Have One on Me. Newsom’s operatic indie-folk fairy tales have always led her to sound both simultaneously modern and from a bygone era, and on first listen, Divers is more immediate and far less grandiose than her previous recordings. The acoustic sparseness, which allows the typically eclectic and winding narratives to breathe more, may seem a less complex approach but it’s equally as enthralling. As with everything Newsom produces, it requires a little patience from the listener. Working with contemporary classical composer Nico Mulhy, many of the tracks are piano driven, although almost every conceivable woodwind and string instrument makes an appearance. With poetic, intelligent and beautifully confounding lyrics throughout, Newsom has proven she is still a unique voice in music.
Dave Gahan & Soulsavers
Angels & Ghosts
For nigh on 40 years Dave Gahan has been the enigmatic frontman of synth-pop messiahs Depeche Mode, but it’s only in the past decade or so that the velvet-toned Essex boy has ventured down other creative avenues. With two accomplished solo albums under his belt, Angels & Ghosts is Gahan’s second collaboration with electronic production crew Soulsavers, following 2012’s The Light the Dead See. The soundscapes are less electronic and more dusky Americana than Gahan’s regular nine-to-five, main Soulsaver Rich Machin excelling with his noirish cinematic arrangements. Opener Shine, with its loops of bluesy slide guitar and gospel flavour is the bastard son of Primal Scream and Depeche Modes’ I Feel You, and is followed by the brooding You Owe Me. In fact, throughout its nine tracks, Angels & Ghosts plays like a downtempo gospel sermon, Gahan’s deep croon backed by church organs and tambourines. Unfortunately, the lyrics are full of cliched religious imagery as the singer continues his fascination with faith and devotion, and with the overuse of gospel backing vocals it lacks the grit of their first collaboration.