Cliff Richard, Christmas with Cliff ★★☆☆☆
Is it even Christmas if you don’t hear a Cliff Richard song? Long before Michael Bublé ruled December, Richard was already the unofficial king of the festive chart, with three Christmas number one’s including Mistletoe and Wine to his name.
Though all relied on a blueprint of toe-curling schmaltz and earnest Christian fervour, Richard was a British institution by then anyway. He scored his first hit in 1958 and went on to be the UK’s squeaky-clean answer to Elvis Presley. The fans who first fell for his quiff and wholesome good looks are as devoted as ever to this day, and Richard is still the only artist in the world to score top five albums in eight consecutive decades.
Now 82, his determination to entertain has never faltered, even while battling a distressing high-profile court case against the BBC in 2018 over their coverage of a police raid on his home. His last album Music… The Air That I Breathe sailed to number 4 in 2020 and now he’s back with his first full Christmas record since 2003, brimming with the requisite sleigh bells and angelic choral lines.
Obviously, it’s every bit as corny as you’d expect, skipping gleefully through a perky It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, Jingle Bell Rock and an unexpectedly stately Oh Come, All Ye Faithful. There’s even a nod to his roots with a vapid cover of Blue Christmas, most famously performed by Presley. Surprisingly, the trio of new songs are the real highlight, breaking up the predictable classics with genuine tenderness and showcasing Richard’s still-impressive voice at its best. Though the perpetual cheer and relentless saccharine is almost enough to put anyone off Christmas for life, no one does unabashed sincerity quite like Richard. Needless to say, it’s a Christmas classic in the making. Siobhan Grogan
Fleetwood Mac, The Alternate Collection ★★★☆☆
As if it wasn’t difficult enough keeping up with the break-ups, make-ups and ever-changing members of Fleetwood Mac, the legendary band are now releasing alternate versions of some of their best-loved albums to add a further layer of confusion. Oh, and all of them have already been released individually in recent years.
Now brought together in one collection for the first time to mark this Friday’s Record Store Day, The Alternate Collection comprises a limited-edition boxed set of six CDs or eight LPs on crystal clear vinyl. Each one features alternate takes of the tracks on the five albums the band released between 1975 and 1987 – Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, Mirage and Tango in the Night – plus a live album. All feature the classic 70’s line up of Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingham.
For real devotees who don’t already own these, this collection offers extra insight beyond a mere remaster into the making of these best-selling albums, between the divorce, drugs and infamous diva antics the band soon became known for. There are some real gems here too including a half-formed demo of unreleased track Where We Belong, a charming acoustic duet version of Never Going Back Again, and a rough and ready early rendition of Eyes of the World.
Yet it doesn’t quite go far enough if you’re hoping for something really new or different. Most tracks – including Monday Morning, Dreams and Oh Diane – are simply less polished or more stripped back versions of the finished product and others are almost indistinguishable from the ones on the original albums. As a collection of some of the most influential and darkly complicated pop songs ever released, it’s still a glorious listen, a comprehensive reminder of Fleetwood Mac’s ever-fascinating brilliance. But really, this is one for diehard fans only. SG
Duke Garwood, Rogues Gospel ★★★★★
After a brief period of credibility in the early 2000’s around The White Stripes’ ascent, precious few blues desperados wander the pop landscape these days. On our shores, south London’s Duke Garwood has carved out a singular voice in isolation, his smoky, nocturnal sound and quietly intense purr mesmerizing a cult listenership across six long-players, the last two for hipster label, Heavenly Recordings.
The limelight-dodging, careerism-averse 53-year-old cut a further pair in the mid-’10s with a Transatlantic kindred spirit, Mark Lanegan, the sometime grunge hero who shared his penchant for rootsy, if ever exploratory mood music.
Following Lanegan’s passing in February, Garwood delivers a fittingly smouldering tribute to his friend and co-conspirator at the conclusion of this seventh solo outing, called Lion on Ice, eulogising him as “like a satellite that fell too soon”, and forlornly concluding that “we’re all lost in the game”.
If that sounds a tad bleak for the run-up to Christmas, it cannot be overstated how much warmth, vitality and, frankly, sexiness there is to Garwood’s uniquely simmering take on the blues idiom. He talks of the process of making Rogues Gospel, mid-pandemic alongside his drummer Paul May, “in a heat-soaked fever dream […] to save ourselves from insanity, to invite the angels in.”
His hypnotic picking and May’s jazzy brushstrokes are textured throughout with cryogenically understated organ and, on the penultimate Whispering Truckers, fathoms-deep saxophone, all contributing to that droning meditative version of blues which, also rather like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, almost seems to dissolve the division been tracks and transcend time itself.
Garwood himself would be the last man to shout it from the rooftops, but with every passing album, this unsung master seems to refine his methods, work greater moments of alchemy (here, Neon Rain Is Falling is extraordinary) and generally achieve a higher state of musical grace. Lanegan would surely give him an approving high five for this one. Andrew Perry
David Bowie, Divine Symmetry ★★★★☆
Sitting on the cusp of 2023, it can feel as if every last stone has been unturned in analysing the classic-rock superheroes of the 1960s and 1970s. Last month’s compelling deluxe treatment of The Beatles’ Revolver proved otherwise, and as if hastily to second the motion, there now lands this 4CD trawl through the backstory to Hunky Dory, David Bowie’s transformative album from 1971.
This was the year where the erstwhile David Jones, after various try-outs as a mod-popster, a West End stage songsmith and a hippie folkie, blossomed into the David Bowie that the world came to adore, possessed of playful postmodernism, gender fluidity and outlandish wardrobe.
Divine Symmetry shows that this metamorphosis didn’t happen without a good deal of huffing and puffing. Therein lies its intrigue, as the groundwork is revealed via some 48 unreleased tracks (many even surprising bootleg-collecting obsessives), as well as a 100-page book, and a composite reproduction of Bowie’s notebooks from the era, where he amusingly misspells his own putative album title (Hunky Dorey?), drafts lyrics and setlists, keeps tally of the fiver he’s lent guitarist Mick Ronson, and designs curiously Flash Gordon-esque stage clobber.
A disc of demos often reflects a neighbour’s gift of a piano installed at Bowie’s Beckenham home: one, the histrionic How Lucky You Are (aka Miss Peculiar), was unsuccessfully offered to Tom Jones to record; another, Changes, which eventually fronted up the album and anthemized Bowie’s chameleon ethos, has been miraculously salvaged from a scratchy old acetate.
Disc Two’s BBC In Concert from June 1971 heralds, as MC John Peel drily observes, the arrival of a new ensemble, fronted by Ronson – soon be renamed The Spiders from Mars for the following year’s Ziggy Stardust album, which, incredibly, was being written concurrently – along with a circus of bohemian hangers-on, one of whom, Dana Gillespie, sings the newly minted Andy Warhol.
By Disc Three’s live set from Aylesbury Friars that September, Ronson’s combo begin to amp things up in the second half, covering Chuck Berry and The Velvet Underground, but it’s only when Hunky Dory itself arrives in December that all the planets align under producer Ken Scott’s guidance, and Queen Bitch, after several folksy dry runs, acquires its crunchy electric riff, at a stroke inventing glam rock. It’s a fascinating journey. AP
isomonstrosity, isomonstrosity ★★★★☆
Whether it’s Mike Jones sampling Rossini for a seminal trap song about sex or Nas reinterpreting German composer Carl Orff’s menacing yet triumphant Carmina Burana for a street smash about irritating one’s haters, there’s plenty of examples of hip hop and classical music coming together as one.
At its best, this merging of sounds results in a cinematic atmosphere that sits somewhere between grandiose and rooted in the gutter (see Xzibit’s Paparazzi), but simply throwing together string quartets and 808 drums can also sound trite and sanctimonious if it’s done without meaning and just for the hell of it (yeah, Coolio’s C U When You Get There hasn’t aged too great).
This is a quandary that the group isomonstrosity (a collaborative project between artists and musicians Ellen Reid, Johan Lenox, and Yuga Cohler) mostly overcome on their ambitious debut album, which seems determined to cement the links between these two very different musical worlds.
On Shining, a striking collaboration with avant-pop emcee Tommy Genesis, the results are staggering, as drill is mixed with orchestral and a howling violin is chopped up so it sounds like someone unloading the clip of a machine gun. The experimentation also shines through on Cascades, which is like DJ Premier if he showed up at the ballet, and Careful What You Wish For, where eccentric Detroit spitter Danny Brown spits about his journey from walking bare feet in the street to becoming Kingly, amid flourishes of invention that channel everything from Mozart to Yusef Lateef and Shabazz Palaces.
But this whirlwind of ideas and genres can also sometimes make you feel a little dizzy, with Wake Up (which features Chicago conscious rapper Vic Mensa) all over the place in terms of its execution and ultimately what it is trying to say.
However, isomonstrosity should ultimately be applauded for their ambition here, which hits more than its misses, and results in a project that makes a convincing argument that rap and classical in fact carry the same rule-breaking approaches to things like song-structure and harmony. Thomas Hobbs
Also out this week: Stormzy’s new album This is What I mean, reviewed by Neil McCormick