Modified Images: Streakz Mascara (Baking Vinyl)****
William Orbit: The Painter (Warner Records) ***
Ezra Furman: All Of Us Flames (Bella Union) ****
Julia Jacklin: Pre Pleasure (Transgressive Records) ****
In the early eighties, Modified images led the Scotpop charge to Top of the Pops and beyond, with charismatic singer Clare Grogan as the poster boy for the Sound of Young Scotland. Unlike some of the bands that came in their wake, from Texas to Del Amitri, the original line-up couldn’t stay the course but left behind some of the most engaging songs in the canon.
Thirty years later, Grogan reformed Altered Images with an all-female line-up as their live concern, but it took the second national lockdown for the seeds of a new album, the first in nearly 40 years, germinates as Grogan and her husband Stephen Lironi (an IA alum circa 1982) began writing together and with friends, neighbors and associates, including Bernard Butler and Robert Hodgens, aka Bobby Bluebell.
The result is a set of bubbly melodies with a playful attitude and a seam of melancholy. As its title suggests, Mascara Streakz is a party album with its heart in Studio 54. Chic and Blondie are clear touchstones, as is Kylie’s homage to shiny disco glamour. She certainly wouldn’t release the Roxyesque electro-pop class odyssey Color of My Dreams from the VIP room, but Grogan and Lironi also infuse the likes of Home with that ’80s Scotpop leg as much as a touch of disco.
Beautiful Thing, co-written with Hodgens, is built on a familiar guitar jangle and drum shuffle, but a quasi-gospel backing chorus lifts the song out on an exultant high. Changing My Luck combines lean chic funk, shimmering Kraftwerk synths and one-line R&B vocals while Double Reflection’s full-on disco funk is your chance to dance yourself to an 808 drum machine.
Some of the most thoughtful moments include the nostalgic rock waltz Your Life Is Mine and the luscious lullaby Sleep, with its disco strings and trip-hop textures closing out this sleek, smart and stylish pop collection.
Respected composer and electronic producer Guillaume Orbite helped shape the careers of U2, Madonna… and Harry Enfield, but has traded music for painting lately – hence the title of his first album in more than eight years, after a hiatus marked by drug addiction and poor health.
The Painter is a sweet catharsis, a suite of fluid electronic vibes punctuated by beatific vocal cameos from previous charges Katie Melua and Beth Orton and new muses including multi-instrumentalist Georgia, Colombian singer/songwriter Lido Pimienta, Ghanaian producer -American Gloria Kaba and the singer Polly Scattergood who directs the breathtaking reverie of Colors Colliding. However, it’s the sampled vocals of Tanzanian singer Hukwe Zawose on Afrobeat mood track Heshima kwa Hukwe that have the most hypnotic effect.
Disjointed indie rock charmer Ezra Furman completes a loose trilogy of philosophical rock ‘n’ roll albums with All Of Us Flames, combining its signature clash of lyrical neurosis and freewheeling musical wit to manifest the party at the end of civilization. Dressed In Black’s swooning indie doo-wop comes with rock ‘n’ roll brutality, religious imagery imbues Book Of Our Names roots slam rock (Furman started and then quit rabbinical training) while Forever in Sunset is pure entertaining melodrama with an indie Springsteen flourish.
Australian singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin Briefly heels up on their new album, but Pre Pleasure is mostly in a meditative mood. She laments a distant relationship with her mother on Less of a Stranger, and unearths a childhood memory of starring in Jesus Christ Superstar for the witty but melancholic Lydia Wears A Cross, conveying porch intimacy in the same stadium as Adrienne Big Thief’s Lenker, sometimes touched by the vulnerability of a Velvet Underground ballad.
Alison Balsom: Quiet Town (Warner Classics) *****
For the first outing of her new five-album deal with Warner Classics, trumpeter Alison Balsom finds inspiration in a program of almost exclusively 20th-century American music that features the trumpet or is arranged for it. It opens with Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, its plaintive solo strains lavishly taken up by supporting Britten Sinfonia under Scott Stroman. The atmosphere persists via discreet Bernstein until a sudden awakening by Gershwin’s racy Rhapsody in Blue in a suave arrangement by Simon Wright. Ives’ timeless, mystical unanswered question bridges Gil Evans’ (for Miles Davis’) smoky reimagining of Rodrigo’s Adagio from his Concerto de Aranjeuz. Balsom ends with more magic from Evans, a dreamy, fragrant version of Kurt Weill’s My Ship. Don’t miss the appearances of Nicholas Daniel on English horn (Quiet City) and pianist Tom Poster (Rhapsody in Blue). Fascinated to see where this series goes next. Ken Walton
Fara: Energy Islands (Fara Music) *****
The importance of their native Orkney as a center for the development of renewable energy has inspired this new album by the Fara quartet. But it doesn’t matter wind or wave power; violinists Jeana Leslie, Catriona Price and Kristan Harvey and pianist Rory Matheson generate a powerful energy of their own. The album seduces from the pizzicato strings and the dancing piano which announce the first track, Solar, before the force of the violin is unleashed. Wind Dancers, inspired by a poem by George Mackay Brown, opens almost like a Vivaldi movement, with furtive violin strokes behind beautiful solo playing, while Harvey’s poignant tune, The Hampshire, marks the centenary of the sinking of this ship in 1916. songs too, with a cheerful urgency to the composition of Leslie Fair Winds, the group joined by guest violinist Seonaid Aitken, and a beautiful piano invoked around Merry Dancers, adapted from a poem by Lucy Dougall. Jim Gilchrist