Albums of the week: From Van Morrison to U2
There are Christmas releases aplenty thanks to actor Simon Callow and former Westlife star Mark Feehily, while Belfast soul man Van Morrison unveils Versatile, his 38th studio offering.
SIMON CALLOW WITH THE BRIGHOUSE AND RASTRICK BAND — A CHRISTMAS CAROL
If you’re sick to the Christmas stockings of cheesy festive pop tunes by the time you drive home for the holidays, then here’s your solution. We all know Dickens’ 175-year-old seasonal story inside out, but there is something about Simon Callow’s toffee-toned received pronunciation recounting the tale of nasty Scrooge, lovely Bob Cratchit and the three ghosts — with voices, of course — against a gorgeous orchestral soundtrack that brings back a hint of giddy childhood excitement to don a hideous woolly jumper, get the cocoa going and start tackling the gift wrapping.
With two discs to choose from, it’s one heck of a lot of Christmas cheer in one go, but the rundown of classic carols, beautifully performed by the Brighouse and Rastrick Band, can easily be saved for some calming and traditional background tunes on the big day.
9/10: Francesca Gosling
VAN MORRISON — VERSATILE
With Versatile, Van Morrison brings out his third album of the year with a nostalgic melange of swing classics and freshly-penned pastiches. While the Northern Irish crooner is by no means re-inventing the wheel, his band is vibrant and fresh, and his voice — though a little reaching at times — remains as charming as ever.
It is during such jazz standards as Gershwin’s A Foggy Day and Bye Bye Blackbird that Morrison shows the strengths and limitations of a triple-album year. Both will be well-loved by the collectors and the long-time fans, but will draw no new listeners with their tried and tested formulae.
Though his covers are somewhat unimaginative (did the world really need another recording of Unchained Melody?) his original compositions hold charm and skill, albeit inconsistently. Though Affirmation could have taken a few more months of germination (Morrison frames a stunning flute solo from James Galway with unfortunately rudderless warbling), in I Forgot That Love Existed and Only A Dream, he proves his already stunning compositional credentials by restoring an unfettered quality that harks all the way back to his prime.
7/10: Zander Sharp
U2 — SONGS OF EXPERIENCE
Three years have passed since they controversially gave themselves away and U2 are ploughing on, with or without you. Their 13th album, Songs Of Innocence, burrowed under the cover of night into the library of many an iTunes user who reacted as though persecuted, and a Washington Post writer labelled it “dystopian junk mail”. Their core fan base, accrued over the band’s remarkable 41 years together, could nevertheless hardly believe their luck. And although the first step from Innocence to Experience is marked by the disarming switch from Bono’s familiar raw delivery to an auto-tuned, anaesthetised vocal in the ballad Love Is All We Have Left, this is a record that again plays to the band’s established audience.
Frontman Bono recently addressed a health scare and on Lights Of Home he broaches mortality with its stark opening line, “I shouldn’t be here ’cause I should be dead”. That song contains a songwriting credit for Haim and there are cameos within the album by Kendrick Lamar and Lady Gaga, amid extensive credits.
6/10: John Skilbeck
MIGUEL — WAR & LEISURE
Following the darkly intense R&B masterpiece Wildheart in 2015, Miguel makes his much longed for return with his fourth studio album, bringing with him his signature R&B/rock infusion style, tinged with psychedelic hints, dashes of dreamy interludes and soft vocals. Everything Miguel does is raw and soulful, but this time he includes a bright splash of sharp beats and sparkling synth.
There are serious party vibes in War & Leisure, and a whole new carefree spirit that pushes away the old Miguel, whose previous musical efforts suggested he was teetering on the edge of losing himself to a dark underworld of introspective, torturous yearning. There are fewer lyrics about love and death and, overall, the album seems to be more leisure than war. Miguel’s more positive stance on life is clear, but the most notable change he has made is how he’s taken his vocals to another level. He hits the challenging notes soulfully, effortlessly.
Hints of bird song and harps and hazy echoes give the album a heavenly feel, but the reverse of vocals in opener Criminal suggests Miguel is recreating a lucid state, underlining the album’s ambience.
7/10: Sophie Goodall
MARK FEEHILY — CHRISTMAS
In a market over-saturated with Christmas cover albums, is there room for another one? Don’t be a Scrooge, of course there is. This time it’s the turn of ex-Westlife star Mark Feehily and, while he’s no Buble (who is undeniably the musical version of mulled wine and snowflakes and jolly good cheer), there’s something enriching and enchanting about the Irish singer’s new spin on the most beloved festive tunes.
Feehily has done away with the hackneyed sleigh bells and other saccharine, yuletide-friendly elements in his tracks and this, combined with his genuinely magnificent singing voice, means his songs are less cliched than most Christmas covers tend to be.
Think bluesy, jazzy ballads with pared-back production; familiar tunes wiped clean of all the fuss. Highlights include O Holy Night and his goosebump-inducing take on Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.
Think of this effort as being like Feehily’s own little Christmas concert: you can almost see him sitting at a Westlife-style high stool, surrounded by a few hundred tinsel-wrapped candles... and you won’t even miss the other guys.
8/10: Lucy Mapstone
Belfast Telegraph Digital