By BRUCE DENNILL
Michelle Williams: Journey To Freedom 4
Maya Spector: My Simple Little EP 6
Brett Newski: American Folk Armageddon 6
Various Artists: Ghosts – A Soundtrack To The Novels Of John Connolly, Volume IV 8
Various Artists: Shadows – A Soundtrack To The Novels Of John Connolly, Volume V 7
The Other Member of Destiny’s Child, Michelle Williams, didn’t wander too far from the old formula when she kicked off her solo career in 2008, and the same urban R&B touches are all over Journey To Freedom. First single If I Had Your Eyes has all the minor-key grandiosity of a Beyonce ballad, while the perky Yes and Fire recall Rihanna at her chirpiest. Williams has a huge vocal range – almost Mariah Carey-esque, but her use of that instrument, like her choice of songs and arrangements, doesn’t make for a particularly coherent collection. There’s a bit of everything, and while variety is generally a good thing, this feels like too many genre staples have been packed into a limited area in the hope that a all the diverse parts will somehow result in a desirable sum. They quite often don’t, though the above-mentioned tunes and opener Believe In Me have sufficient flow and points of interest to stand out as highlights.
My Simple Little EP’s title belies the sophistication of the music it contains. The name does give a sense of the mood of the compositions, which is generally joyful, though not always in the clap-your-hands-jump-up-and-down sense. The sort-of title tune almost does just that, being a laid-back lounge groove propelled by fresh soul backing singers and well-arranged horns. It’s the type of track to have even the most cynical listener clicking their fingers. There are no guarantees in that regard for the next track, Slow, which adds reggae to the mix without completely committing to that genre. Bad Man is better, venturing into the neo-soul that made Amy Winehouse so famous, with Spector stretching her range to maintain that feel. Then it’s back to the lounge (though much later, when the place is thick with smoke) for closer Eyes For You, a vocals and piano number that confirms Spector’s songwriting nous and vocal talent. This is an excellent taster – bring on a wider range of what she can offer.
Brett Newski is something of a bard, travelling as he writes and plays his music and finding alternative narratives along the way to further fuel a growing legend – even if it’s one only he really cares about. His style of music – sparse, spiky folk – fits that model, being easy to put together and reasonably easy to stage on a small budget. His tunes are generally short, too, with the 10-song American Folk Armageddon being barely half an hour long. He starts with Dirt, a foot-stomping, chord change on every beat song with a touch of anger and supports that mood with Vs The World (“It’s not the doing that gets tricky; it’s the approval to go ahead”. No Anchor is a mission statement, acknowledging the limitations of having no place to call home while also pointing out that the rat race is not something to aspire to. Perhaps because of the simple formula he uses, many of Newski’s songs sound similar, with only hooks or phrases (like the Death Cab For Cutie-ish “Follow me through the dark”) in Hell Will Be Better (If We’re In It Together) lodging in the brain at a first listen. The Maths is clever lyrically, with Newski figuring out numbers but not relationships. Despite (or perhaps because of) his happy-go-lucky lifestyle, Newski sees the world’s ills clearly, particularly the modern tendency to do everything through a digital filter, and his closing We Are All F***ed is a solid, if not particularly erudite, assessment of much of the current state of play.
Soundtracking novels is a growing trend that’s becoming more multi-faceted as those authors that embrace it develop their own takes on it. Thriller writer John Connolly was an early adopter (as suggested by the title suffixes here) and offers a more integrated feel for the concept than simply, for instance, creating a character that likes music and then allocating them a certain playlist. Connolly does often reference specific songs in his books, but as ways of highlighting themes rather than providing background buzz. Some of those tunes are here, while others are counterpoints to what he’s written, occupying the same brain space. XTC’s Greenman is a supremely creepy but wonderfully singable opener to Ghosts, and speaks to Connolly’s fascination with dark folklore. Among The Leaves by Sun Kil Moon was inspired by a Connolly phrase after the author had been inspired by the music of the band’s singer Mark Kozelek, so it’s not surprising that it works well here. Susanna Wallumrod’s take on Abba’s Lay All Your Love On Me is perhaps the best musical summation of what Connolly does in many of his Charlie Parker books, adding both darkness and consequence to scenarios that might in other hands read fairly tamely. Shadows continues in this vein, filled with beautiful, eerie spaces. There’s a consistency of tone (even when inserting instrumentals) that most major label compilers – supposed experts – can’t manage, with Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell’s Hares On The Mountain, The Blackeyed Susans’ This One Eats Souls and Kristin Hersh’s mesmerising Your Ghost (with Michael Stipe on backing vocals) being some of the other highlights.