BY BRUCE DENNILL
Andrea Bocelli: Opera – The Ultimate Collection 6
Seether: Isolate And Medicate 7.5
Tim Hughes: Pocketful Of Faith 6.5
The Eskimo Writer: First Ray Of The Sun 5
Andrea Bocelli is arguably the only opera singer to have approached the levels of popularity – across all audiences – previously enjoyed by Luciano Pavarotti, still the marker for accessible excellence in this genre. This collection, though excellent, doesn’t quite elucidate the reasons for all of that esteem (Bocelli’s offstage humility and gentle charm plays a large role there), but it does underline his technical brilliance as a singer. For less than devoted opera fans, the only guaranteed highlights here are the album’s bookends – La Donna E Mobile (from Verdi’s Rigoletto) and Nessun Dorma (from Puccini’s Turandot) – both instantly recognisable compositions, even for listeners with no clue as to their context. But grand as they are (and if you can listen to the latter on anything but maximum volume, you’re a paragon of self-control), they’re only two examples of a man at the top of his game; the game. Pay special attention to the long sustained notes at the end of many of the tracks, the most obvious examples of a bond between performer, music and celebrated tradition that few have achieved, or will again.
Billboard had this album as number one on its rock, alternative and hard rock charts, underscoring the range of approaches in its tracklisting and the effectiveness with which Shaun Morgan and his Seether bandmates deliver their brand of darkly heartfelt post-grunge. Morgan’s discontent (much of it understandable; his well-documented back-story involves divorced parents and the loss of two siblings) still informs his writing. Album opener See You At The Bottom – the intro for which vaguely suggests a minor-key Come Together – sets out his stall for the collection, combining a slightly pared-back guitar squall with a strong melody. Same Damn Life (this time the intro, weirdly, recalls the “I love Him” refrain from the musical Sister Act’s I Will Follow Him) is hard-edged pop featuring tambourines and falsetto vocals bolstered by a heavier chorus, while Words As Weapons adds arena-sized atmospherics and brings back the minor keys. Crash is another heartfelt tribute to Morgan’s late brother Eugene, before Suffer It All combines the heaviest passages on the album with a loping, harmony-laden chorus. Nobody Praying For Me shows that Morgan is still combining rage and catchiness better than most, before Save Today proves that sensitivity need not be mushy. The deluxe edition includes Goodbye Tonight, a collaboration with Van Coke Kartel that’s both punchy and populist, telling a story of the depth of South African rock talent.
Tim Hughes long ago earned his stripes as one of contemporary worship’s greats, matching his mentor Matt Redman in many respects and positioning himself as a major cog in the Worship Central movement that continues to spread around the world. That status as a mover and shaker at corporate level, rather than as an individual with, perhaps, more room and time to reflect on his own journey, means Pocketful Of Faith has a different feel to his other solo albums, a less intimate atmosphere. To be fair, every song on the collection is a co-write, which was not the case in the early days, so that may have something to do with it as well. For opener Here With Me, Phil Wickham is one of the collaborators, and his keyboard-led, electronic style comes through strongly. There are similar production ideas on Only The Brave, with co-writer Martin Smith’s God’s Great Dancefloor being an obvious touchpoint. It’s only three songs in, in the intro to the title track, that what might be considered Hughes’ trademark sound – a lone acoustic instrument (a piano in this case) with a heartfelt but relatively muted vocal encouraging focus on the lyrics – comes to the fore. Set Apart is a very Worship Central-type piece, with its pop arrangement bolstered by a big catchy chorus that will certainly hook the younger audience at which it is aimed. Plans has touches of old-fashioned gospel, but it is largely a rollicking pop-rock venture that’ll get feet tapping. Switching mood abruptly, Arms is then a quiet reflection perhaps listened to alone for maximum effect. Towards the end of the collection are two older songs – The Cross Stands (previously recorded by Matt Redman) and The Way, off a Worship Central album. The first is one of those songs that will work in any format and be effective whenever and wherever it is sung, while the latter reflects the desire to reach a school- and university-aged audience with a more electronic, beat-driven style. Why Hope And Glory, the other standout future classic and most potent reminder of Hughes’ capacity to create truly great work is left until the second-last place on the tracklist is open to debate, but it’s worth waiting for. There is impressive work here, but not of the exhilarating collective quality of Hughes’ early output. Where he goes from here in a solo capacity will be interesting to see.
The Eskimo Writer is South African singer-songwriter Sivan Pillay, supported on this album by a gaggle of talented friends including Craig Hinds, Laurie Levine, Slikour and Mauritz Lotz. He begins the collection with a few tracks that underline a penchant for wordy, minor-key verses leading to more upbeat choruses. That formula is pleasant enough to listen to, but is not obviously radio-friendly. Afterglow – the first of a trio of studies called Love, Life And Lullabies – is a different proposition, free-flowing and featuring some lovely picked classical guitar, and Sleep Boy Dream King suits guest Laurie Levine’s own storytelling style, though the general sameness in tone and pace nullifies the freshness that comes with introducing a collaborator. It’s that uniformity of feel and approach that is the album’s greatest challenge: at 16 songs and over an hour in length, more variety would have make settling in to listen to the whole project in a sitting a more tempting prospect.