Beth Orton, Weather Alive ★★★★☆
The chill-out rooms of rave culture would have felt empty without Beth Orton, who has been an intriguing flavour in British music since the early 1990s. Her distinctive, fragile voice provided lyrical motifs (sometimes spoken, sometimes half-sung) on tracks by ambient techno pioneer William Orbit, big beat powerhouse The Chemical Brothers and acid jazz trio Red Snapper.
This evolved into an acclaimed solo career as a singer-songwriter, whose Mercury Prize-nominated 1996 debut Trailer Park and 1999 Brit Award-winning follow-up Central Reservation blended acoustic flavours with synths, beats and contemporary sonic effects. Dubbed “folktronica”, it is a style that has arguably evolved into a mainstream digital pop format that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Taylor Swift or Billie Eilish record.
Orton, though, has been pushing in other directions. She was last heard on 2016’s Kidsticks, a sonic misfire that pretty much did away with the folk side of the equation, obscuring her talent for poetic lyrics and gentle melodies in glitchy electronica.
Six years on, the beautiful and strange Weather Alive should re-establish Orton’s reputation as queen of the comedown, but rather than recreating familiar sounds it pushes her into richer territory suiting her age and experience. “I made an art out of believing in magic,” Orton sings on Fractals, a loose-limbed, dreamy mantra of burbling bass, shuffling drums and amorphous sax and synth, swimming around her delicate piano and vocal lines. Self-producing for the first time, Orton demonstrates that the apprentice has become her own studio master, shaping the tangled tendrils of her career into a pleasingly free-form tumble of sound and emotion.
She is aided by a fantastic ensemble of crossover jazz musicians, notably a nimble rhythm section comprising drummer Tom Skinner, of Mercury-nominated collective Sons of Kemet (and Radiohead side-project The Smile) and bassist Tom Herbert of The Invisible. I’d be tempted to call it “folk fusion”, if that didn’t make it sound even more clumsily unappealing than folktronica, or undersell its emotional heart.
At 51, something has happened to Orton’s voice, which sounds battered and weathered. But she uses it so well – a tonal instrument adapting to ever-shifting soundscapes – that her cracked edges become sensuous. A mention of Proust’s madeleines among the clickety Americana groove of Friday Night opens a window to the album’s core concerns. “Go back in time, go back in time,” Orton calls out forlornly amidst the swirling melancholy of Forever Young.
A bittersweet reminiscence of the easy love of youth percolates through Arms Around a Memory, while the sadness of memory’s ultimate erasure underpins the album’s closing track Unwritten. Throughout Weather Alive, Orton’s past constantly looms close before suddenly receding. “When the sea comes in it’s hard to believe/It’ll ever go out again,” she sings on Friday Night, commemorating a youthful drinking companion later lost to alcoholism and death.
At times, Weather Alive evokes the psychedelic rush of The War On Drugs with a battered Lucinda Williams riding shotgun. In other moments, you hear the twilight tenderness of The Blue Nile, the spooky jazz gospel of Alice Coltrane, the mystic longing of early Van Morrison, and the spatial distortion of Thom Yorke. That is some company to be keeping, but Orton digs so deeply into her own personal spaces and memories that what she finds there is unique. Middle-aged discontent has rarely sounded so lovely. Neil McCormick
Jake Blount, The New Faith, ★★★★★
Take Me To The Water, the opening track to 27-year-old Jake Blount’s second album, invites listeners in through the ambient sounds of birds chirping and rolling waves. A sense of serenity in a stolen moment, just as dawn breaks.
“Take me to the water, take me to the water, take me to the water to be baa-aaptised”, croons Rhode Island, Providence-based Blount, his baritone full of longing and resolution. And so, we are initiated into this conceptual landscape he has created in The New Faith.
Throughout, the songwriter, singer, banjo and fiddle player, scholar and self-described Afrofuturist has woven spirituals, Black southern folk songs, gospel harmonies, old time bluegrass, percussive loops and hip-hop poetry (care of North Carolina rapper and banjo player Demeanor) into a lively and adventurous rollick through the deepest roots of Black history through a fantasy-futuristic lens.
Blount began with the enquiry: “What would Black music sound like after climate change renders most of the world uninhabitable?”
His search drew him back through generations into the suffering, yearning and faith of African Americans during the violence of slavery and the communal, resilient power of music to unite in times of desperation and to celebrate each other.
The Downward Road introduces a base of sizzling banjo, hand-clap percussion and the sharp, soaring fiddle underneath melodic hip-hop verses. Two percussive gospel heartbreakers pay homage to great women talent: Didn’t It Rain (made famous by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson) harks to the biblical Noah and the Flood, and Once There Was No Sun (by American folk singer Bessie Jones) implores us to respect this fragile world.
Blount is traversing similar musical, thematic territory to both Fantastic Negrito, who released rootsy-blues-funk masterpiece White Jesus Black Problems earlier this year, and Ben Harper's searing, searching blues-soul album Bloodline Maintenance.
The New Faith is hymnal, rich with chants and layered, organic instrumentation. It is deeply and spiritually moving, vibrant and celebratory. Revelatory, even. Cat Woods
Sports Team, GULP! ★★★☆☆
Second albums are a notoriously tricky business. For acts whose debuts are a triumph, there’s an almost unachievable expectation around the follow up. Just ask U2, The Stone Roses, Razorlight and Primal Scream.
So, it was always going to be difficult for Cambridge University-formed six piece Sports Team to produce a sophomore to rival their Mercury Prize-nominated Deep Down Happy, which sold more copies than any other debut from a British band in four years when it was released in 2020, and only very narrowly missed out on the No1 chart position spot to Lady Gaga.
Filled with soaring riffs, self-deprecating lyrics and humorously cynical observations about small-town Britain, the indie rock record earned frontman Alex Rice and his bandmates a reputation as a bunch of mischievous roof raisers. Gulp!, out today, is 10 tracks of their same spirited, scrappy Britpop, which moves away from the mundanity of commuter belt towns, instead questioning the malaise of modern existence. As Rice puts it, “If you're young and living in the UK, what do you tie meaning to?”
Unfortunately, this time around, the lyrics tend to be too opaque to pack quite the same punch. On R Entertainment, a rumination on social media and the overwhelming glut of narratives jostling for our attention, Rice croons “Oh, a blinding light, Oh, the seraphim's here”. On Kool Aid, about conspiracy theories like QAnon, he sings “rumours… like gravy on an overflowing plate”. It’s all rather hard to follow.
That said, there are plenty of songs sure to please diehard Sports Team fans, from the Bryan Ferry-inspired anthemic opener The Drop, to the slower-tempo Cool It Kid, which is about when the band all lived together in a Camberwell house-share (“living with you is making me sick”).
Ultimately, Sports Team are best known for being brilliant live, having sold out 5000-cap venues right at the start of their career. While these raucous songs might not excite the critics, they are sure to keep the young crowds coming. Kathleen Johnston
Oscar Jerome, The Spoon ★★★☆☆
Oscar Jerome’s second album The Spoon begins with the sound of powering down. An overdubbed guitar lumbers over the weight of its own heaviness, too tired to strike a chord. Clattering percussion stops and starts with a sleepy frenzy, like a patient on an operating table trying to fight off the anaesthetic. It’s a very neat set-up for an album that sounds like a busy mind trying to escape its own body.
For the past half-decade, Oscar Jerome has been touted a forerunner of London’s nu-jazz movement: a coterie responsible for turning one of music’s most purposely intemperate genres into something that could be played at barbecues without pricking ears. Jerome simplifies and adds pop to the form, without bowlderising it. Barbecue music, to be sure, but high-end barbecue music.
The Spoon wears its West African influences on its sleeve (Jerome was formerly part of the London Afrobeat collective Kokoroko): from the Wassalou folkiness of Aya & Bartholomew to the Malinese groove of Path to Someone. Yet they’re rendered with a distinctly London sheen. On The Spoon, Jerome ends up sounding less like Fela Kuti and more like one of his London-based contemporaries, such as Westerman or Nilüfer Yanya.
Jerome’s vocals meet somewhere between the sexy assertion of Tricky and the searching emotional cadence of Oliver Sims (of the xx), but the more buried in the mix, the better they sound. On Feet Down South, one of the only songs on the album where his vocals are set centrally in the mix, he ends up sounding like a cockney Jamiroquai. The glib and on-the-nose lyrics don’t help either. “Knock, knock. Who’s that? Anxiety’s at the door.” Perhaps these songs would have worked better as instrumentals. Emma Madden
Maya Hawke, Moss, ★★★★☆
Stranger Things star (and daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) Maya Hawke has gotten bolder since her folk-pop debut Blush, which was a thoughtful look at being a young adult today. Hawke’s star continues to rise as her acting and music career ascend in parallel: her second album Moss comes a week after her high-school comedy Do Revenge hit Netflix, and she will soon star opposite her mother in thriller The Kill Room.
For Hawke – whose talent is clear, regardless of her family privilege – writing songs came from a love of writing poetry. Moss, titled after Hawke’s desire to shake off life’s overgrowth and look at what lurks beneath, poignantly and daringly explores themes of heartbreak, family and loss.
On Driver, Hawke turns voyeur on her parents as she sings, “I imagine my mum and dad / Loosely necking in the back of a taxi cab / I’d give everything I’ll ever have to see them happy / Kissing just like that”. She even longs to be “the pervert driver”, before mentioning her mother again on the song Sweet Tooth, wanting to protect her: “Told my mother that I loved her / and that I’d lie to the accountant / if she wants”. The joyful track features upbeat, twinkling guitars as she sings beautifully about love and gratitude.
Hawke is a deft storyteller, and on Luna Moth she sings about an art teacher who once told her about how accidentally stepping on a Luna Moth (a rare, giant silk moth) can bring bad luck. On Hiatus, Hawke brings together her acting and musical worlds with the lyrics: “I kissed my co-star / in rehearsal anyway”. With soulful vocals, delicate stories and vulnerable lyrics, Moss makes for a delightful listen. Narzra Ahmed