By BRUCE DENNILL
Neville D: Beauty Of Difference – Season 2
Miles Davis & Robert Glasper: Everything’s Beautiful
Korn: The Serenity Of Suffering
Anderson East: Delilah
David Gray: Gold In A Brass Age
A live concert recording, Beauty Of Difference – Season 2 sounds, as worship music should, like a joyful noise, with the opening quartet of songs – Our God Is Bigger, The Sun Will Shine Again, Smile On My Face and Nobody Like Jesus all energetic, major key tunes. That sort of tone returns often throughout the collection, which features superb musicianship – listen out for Alvin Hendricks’ basslines, particularly – and the sort of open-ended structures that occur in a live setting when the musicians and audience get carried away by their shared enthusiasm. There are also a great number of key changes, further pushing the dynamic scope of the compositions. Broken and I Need You, back to back, make for a useful time of reflection. Judith Sephuma appears on the final two tracks – both studio recordings and thus noticeably different in feel – adding a fresh vocal angle. Supremely competent contemporary gospel.
MercyMe have now released 17 albums in their 24-year history, so the suspicion that they may be massaging their sound both as a means of staying relevant to new listeners in a challenging market and to keep themselves interested is reasonable. If that first hypothesis is true, the bass-heavy, densely-produced nature of the opening pair of songs on Lifer, the title track and You Found Me, could be written off as a not-entirely-successful experiment. This is not to say they’re poor songs, but that MercyMe’s more natural stock-in-trade sound – singer Bart Millard, whose voice is run through a dozen filters for these tracks, can handle anything from emotional country crooning to a towering rock bellow – suits their collective skill-set more. They strike a better balance on Best News Ever and then produce the album’s best moment in Even If, which tackles the eternally tough question of how to respond to God allowing bad things to happen. There’s encouragement aplenty in We Win, which brings back the fuller production but applies the formula more successfully, making the music and the lyrics uplifting. Happy Dance is a nailed-down bounce-along live favourite before Ghost closes matters in a thoughtful way, examining the impact of the Holy Spirit in the band’s lives.
Miles Davis is present on Everything’s Beautiful as the inspiration and the glue that holds its myriad performers together, rather than in too many immediately recognisable ways, such as the sound of his trumpet. Producer and musician Robert Glasper is the driving force behind the project, and his vision seems to have been to celebrate Davis’ perspectives on music and art as much as the late jazzman’s output. As such, he searched for like-minded individuals as excited as he was to create a musical landscape that might both introduce the newcomer to Davis’ aesthetic and add an innovative twist to material that long-time adherents are likely intimately acquainted with. As is the case with much of Davis’s output, the material here will probably polarise listeners. Many of the featured artists, who are also credited as co-writers where they add lyrics and melodies, are alternative entities, generally playing outside the mainstream and no closer to it as a result of these collaborations. Everything’s Beautiful is (as Davis was) uncompromising, not inclined to make any concessions to commercial interests, so the more experimental your taste, the more likely you are to find something to your liking. Singers including Bilal (Ghetto Walkin’), Erykah Badu (Maiysha (So Long)) and Laura Mvula (Silence Is The Way) are all unconventional in both the sound of their voices and their phrases, leaving the listener to seek initial appeal in the emotional tone of each performance rather than hooks or lyrical content. Late on, I’m Leaving You, featuring John Scofield and Ledisi, delivers stripped-down funk that gets under the skin straight away, and closer Right On Brotha is fascinating for the way that Stevie Wonder – playing, not singing – makes the composition recognisably his own without denying its original character.
Plain heaviness without melody can quickly become burdensome for listeners – the power of a massive riff or a throat-shredding vocal is thrilling, but if that’s all there is, the sell-by date for that formula arrives pretty quickly. On The Serenity Of Suffering, Korn make sure each song offers the best of both worlds – gut-punching distortion and drumming, but also hooks and tunes led by Jonathan Davis’ versatile and still commanding vocals. The band are still not happy campers – their favoured themes are revealed via song titles such as Rotting In Vain, Black Is The Soul, The Hating, Everything Falls Apart and Die Yet Another Night – but that darkness is channelled into intensity that any listener can appreciate most of the time, without being sucked into a gloomy vortex. Rotting In Vain was the first single and is a grungy minor-key affair with a relatively wide dynamic palette and harmonies that are at once effective and sinister. And there’s the odd plus of an interlude in which Davis does his high-energy gorilla scatting thing, which is perhaps more exciting to hear than it is to read about… Take Me is perhaps more hard rock than it is nu metal, recalling Disturbed or similar and having a slightly simpler arrangement than many of the tracks around it. Elsewhere, as in When You’re Not There, instrumental breaks seem to have been included for sheer enjoyment of the sounds combined, and certainly – played loud – there is much enjoyment to be had. If anything, the sheer weight of the suffering in the lyrics may begin to wear if the album is listened to in its entirety in one sitting, but break this tracklisting up a little and its sonic clout will invigorate rather than demoralise.
In keeping with the theme suggested by the album title Delilah, Anderson East’s second release is not likely to thrill women’s lib advocates (see song titles Satisfy Me; Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em And Forget ‘Em – a cover of a George Jackson song, to be fair; Devil In Me and Quit You). That observation aside, though, there is a strong, retro appeal to this collection. East’s raspy blue-eyed soul style and full-blooded performances (ironically, probably a major drawcard if he’s looking for company) express an energy that transfers easily to listeners, with most of the songs being fairly fast-paced and encouraging the drumming of fingers or nodding of heads. One of the slower offerings, What A Woman Wants To Hear, is probably the stand-out composition, recalling the slow drawl and emotive phrasing of Ryan Adams (who, sadly, seems to have thrown away the right to tell women anything, what with the accusations being levelled against him by various ex-partners and colleagues). Satisfy Me is a strong single, with East’s voice supported by horns, slick organ runs and gospel backing vocals. The arrangement for Keep The Fire Burning suggests a Smokey Robinson tune, presumably high praise for an artist with East’s influences. A strong collection with an authentic soul feel.
David Gray is a musician who, particularly since the massive success of his breakthrough hit Babylon and its parent album White Ladder, seems content and secure doing what he wants without too much obvious concern for whatever the current chart trend is. This is not to say that he’s a contrary sort, but merely to underline that whatever new ideas he may introduce into his output are likely the natural result of fiddling around during the songwriting process or in the rehearsal room or studio. Broadly speaking, what experimentation there is on Gold In A Brass Age is evident in the electronic instrumentation that supplements the more traditional folk elements in the arrangements. Notably, this expanded sonic palette never gets anywhere close to overwhelming Gray’s melodies, thanks to the fantastic production nous of Ben DeVries. The songs sound large but empty (in the emotive sense, rather than the vacant one), and will sound superb on just about any system. Gently swinging opener The Sapling is a strong start, with a horn arrangement that beautifully accentuates the melody line, and the title track has a relatively straight-ahead pop tune pleasingly blurred by a melange of synthesised sounds. It’s Late has a mellifluous arrangement that, in keeping with its title, is perhaps designed to not wake anyone up, while Tight Ship places Gray’s voice much further forward in what is one of the more radio-friendly piece in the collection. Hall Of Mirrors offers energy and closer If 8 Were 9 is as close to a singalong hook as Gray delivers here. This is not an album that compels you to listen to it again and again, but it has many gentle charms and aural tics that will continue to emerge along the way.