Jack White: Entering Heaven Alive (Third Man) ★★★★☆
It can be hard to keep up with Jack White. He is an artist who bears comparison to Neil Young and Prince, near-volcanic fonts of creativity from whom extraordinary music seems to pour out ceaselessly. In the 21 years since he first raised his head above the cultural parapet in 1999, White has released 17 albums solo or with original duo The White Stripes and side bands The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather.
He also runs his own archival label, Third Man, where he regularly mints one-off singles (pressed at his own dedicated vinyl plant) and has written and produced for an eclectic array of artists including Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, and been involved in assorted collaborations with Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Beck, the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan and Insane Clown Posse. Dedicated fans could spend their lives feasting on his output. For the less committed, the question becomes which of his many albums are worth focusing on.
Entering Heaven Alive is White’s second release this year, following three months behind the hard-rocking and experimentally bold Fear of the Dawn. The two albums were originally conceived as one wildly eclectic double, Jack White’s own take on The Beatles’ sprawling White album (apparently the first album he ever bought on vinyl as a teenager, and still an all-time favourite). But White couldn’t find a way to sequence all his disparate musical threads, likening it to putting a Miles Davis record in the middle of an Iron Maiden one, with results that were “jarring” rather than “flowing”. He elected to split them instead.
Indeed, the albums could not be less alike. Fear of the Dawn was a noisy, challenging progression of the White Stripes frenetic rock attack, whilst Entering Heaven Alive represents something new in White’s canon, a wordy, acoustic-flavoured, Seventies-style singer-songwriter set. As such, it may not be his most compelling record, but it could prove his most accessible.
Although on the gentler end of White’s wide musical spectrum, this collection of philosophical, melodic songs is not as stripped back as it might first appear. Indeed, the more bucolic aspects of The Beatles would be a fair reference. White’s intricately picked or lustily strummed acoustic guitars are born aloft on spacious arrangements often featuring striking piano hooks. Eruptions of organ and drums stir a Zeppelinesque drama to All Along the Way, whilst the influence of Page and Plant remains tangible amidst the dubby groove of I’ve Got You Surrounded (With My Love), a voodoo blues with a crustily distorting electric solo.
The jazzy swing of Queen of the Bees and chirpy Help Me Along interpret roots music with the baroque pop stylings of early Bowie and Rolling Stones. There’s a Dylan-ish streak to the twisting guitar ruminations of Love Is Selfish and steady rolling Tree on Fire from Within, whilst White spins down alleys of flippant wordplay on the delightful Madman from Manhattan, coasting on a burbling, jazzy, funky bass and dazzling piano, which sounds like Bill Withers and Gil Scott-Heron at a beatnik poetry slam.
Lyrics throughout are infused with romantic positivity, presumably reflecting White’s state of mind leading up to his onstage proposal and marriage to fellow musician Olivia Jean during a concert at Detroit Masonic Temple earlier this year. Entering Heaven Alive may not be his most ground-breaking album and won’t entirely satisfy those who come for the great White guitar wail. But this master musician really sounds like he’s enjoying himself with results that are pretty heavenly. Neil McCormick
Nina Nastasia, Riderless Horse ★★★★★
The story behind Nina Nastasia’s first album for 12 years is harrowing in the extreme. The American folk singer stopped releasing music after 2010’s Outlaster album due to a controlling, dysfunctional and abusive relationship with her partner and creative collaborator Kennan Gudjonsson. The pair lived in a small New York apartment, a place about which Nastasia recently said: “It was as if black mould was growing beneath the surface, undetected, and the two of us were dying and getting too weak to ever leave.” But on January 26 2020 Nastasia did leave, announcing that their 25-year relationship was over. The following day, Gudjonsson killed himself.
Riderless Horse documents Nastasia’s profound grief, sadness and guilt. It is an album about raw internal conflicts and equally raw external realities. It is about love. Brutal in its honesty, there is also – ultimately – a seam of acceptance, release even, that runs through these tracks. Comprising a dozen acoustic songs produced by Nirvana and PJ Harvey producer Steve Albini, Riderless Horse is far from an easy listen for obvious reasons. But hearing the 56-year-old Nastasia describe and attempt to understand these stark events is never less than compelling. The late John Peel was a fan. Laura Marling is one. With just a guitar to accompany her candid lyrics, Nastasia’s music is as unembellished in form as it is in content.
The album’s opening sound of a cork being popped and a drink being poured – followed by a song called Just Stay In Bed that verges on the optimistic – lulls you into a false sense of comfort. Because what follows is brutal. You Were So Mad charts chaos: “You set a blaze inside our house / You burned us down and smoked us out / You really don’t know what you’ve done / How can I love you from now on?” The song Nature addresses violent abuse, while Ask Me sees Nastasia wonder about the price she’ll pay for freedom.
There are elements of the confessional, dark and honest delivery of Dory Previn here (but without the occasional histrionics), and smatterings of Joni Mitchell. Riderless Horse also shares the brave and uncompromising forthrightness of Angel Olsen’s recent album Big Time. It’s quite a year for deeply personal albums by US female singer-songwriters. Closing track Afterwards ends with Nastasia’s manifesto looking ahead. “I want to live,” she sings delicately. “I am ready to live.” James Hall
The Kooks, 10 Tracks To Echo In The Dark ★★★★☆
Social media loves a throwback, so perhaps it isn’t all that surprising that “indie sleaze” has emerged as one of the key trends of 2022, making the British bands, fashion and photos from the late 2000s-early 2010s achingly aspirational for a generation who take their cues from TikTok.
The Kooks are one such band rising the wave of this renaissance, with a renewed reputation as indie trailblazers and a dedicated fanbase on streaming platforms – some of whom surely remember their quadruple-platinum-selling debut album Inside In/Inside Out, and others who were but bouncing babes back in 2006, when She Moves in Her Own Way was an inescapable hit.
Today, the three-piece – made up of Luke Pritchard, Hugh Harris and Alexis Nunez – release their sixth studio album, 10 Tracks To Echo In The Dark, updating their signature sound by incorporating new, progressive techniques while staying true to The Kooks’ core DNA. The funky, upbeat opener Connection is an anthemic statement of intent which, while still guitar-led, has a fresh electronic vibe and a futuristic finish that gestures towards two of Pritchard’s key inspirations: sci-fi novels and the city of Berlin.
The second single, Cold Heart, is a disco-inspired, indie-pop floor-filler about finding forgiveness and perspective that is sure to please fans old and new. Standout track Jesse James features soaring electric guitar, euphoric Eighties-style synths and uplifting lyrics (“And as the music plays, we're flying through the air / Living without a care”) that reflect the record’s positive outlook as a whole. This album is the first that Pritchard has made since getting married and becoming a father, and his newfound optimism is infectious. On Oasis, another bop-inducing love song, he sings “Because you make this place feel like an oasis / Yeah you put the smiles on all of these faces”.
The record certainly feels nostalgic, although this is largely down to Pritchard’s distinct vocals. It’s difficult to listen to Without a Doubt or Beautiful World without immediately thinking of Naïve, which, in the 16 years since its release, has now been streamed 450 million times on Spotify.
Without a Doubt is the final track and one that translates as a dedication both to Pritchard’s new family life and to the bands’ loyal listeners. The choral refrain, “Without a doubt you’re the best thing in my life”, is delivered over pared-back guitar chords, showcasing the once-wild frontman at his most authentic. Kathleen Johnston
Jamie T, The Theory of Whatever ★★★★☆
Jamie T’s music sits somewhere between The Streets and The Clash, with a dollop of Billy Bragg thrown in. The Wimbledon-born musician (real name Jamie Treays) is a raucous troubadour, a bedroom punk, whose hybrid rap-singing and ear for a belting melody have resulted in a slew of exhilarating tunes such as If You Got The Money, Sticks ‘n’ Stones, and Zombie over his 15-year career. The 36-year-old is now back with his fifth album – his first for almost six years, an age in modern music – and it’s among his best work.
Treays apparently whittled down The Theory of Whatever’s 13 tracks from 180 songs that he’d written since his 2016 album Trick. He has said that this album is about “the psychogeography of wee hours London”, among other things. And there is certainly a sense of foreboding that ricochets between woozy and urgent depending on the track.
But don’t let this put you off. It’s a cracking album, whose influences are delightfully esoteric. The song British Hell features a sample of 1981 track London Dungeon by US punk band Misfits, while opening track 90s Cars is his interpolation of British collective This Mortal Coil’s 1984 cover version of Big Star’s Kangaroo.
St. George Wharf Tower is a lovely, minimalist ballad about, bizarrely, the vast high-rise tower in Vauxhall known by some as The Marker Pen. “Are you living in the clouds/ Or on the A3205?” he asks, referencing the road otherwise known as Nine Elms Lane.
I suspect the live highlights – and Treays’s gigs are fantastic, as evidenced by his headline set on Glastonbury’s John Peel stage last month – will be A Million & One New Ways to Die and Between The Rocks, two bangers that will slot easily between Zombie or Sheila. Meanwhile 90s Cars shows that Treays’s knack for sonic invention is as keen as ever. It's been 15 years since his debut album Panic Prevention was released. Jamie T is still going strong. JH
RZA Presents Bobby Digital and The Pit of Snakes ★★★☆☆
It’s impossible to overstate the RZA’s impact on hip hop culture. As the producer and ringleader of legendary collective the Wu-Tang Clan, the RZA (real name Robert Fitzgerald Diggs) fused guttural growls with the bloody, eccentric chaos of late-night martial art flicks like Five Fingers of Death and Fists of Fury. The influential Wu-Tang Clan ripped through Staten Island like a gang of masked samurais intent on revenge.
With his deliciously macabre work with The Gravediggaz, the RZA also helped to pioneer the horrorcore sub-genre, bringing twisted surrealism into hip hop and proving you could be the antithesis to commercial yet still leave a crater in the rap game.
RZA Presents Bobby Digital and The Pit of Snakes is a revival of the producer’s divisive alter ego, Bobby Digital, coming with a graphic novel and this accompanying soundtrack. It’s an eight-track collection that features Bobby, a cyberpunk antihero, spitting his usual nutty bars about rearranging molecules and experiencing ego death while riding around in the bulletproof Digimobile. If this all sounds incredibly weird, well, it is, with Bobby Digital basically a more acid-baked, Afro-futurist version of Adam West-era Batman.
This is some of the slowest music Bobby Digital has ever rapped to, with his promise to go “slap boxing with the kangaroos” on Under The Sun an odd juxtaposition to the song’s cleansing, Americana-flavoured guitars. Although it features the warped drums that made the RZA famous in the first place, Something Going On also has a slower pace, with a topsy-turvy flute arrangement and anti-capitalist sentiment (“Would you rather have a smart phone or a smart child?” he spits). It makes Bobby Digital feel like an old-timer in a Western, complaining at a saloon bar about society’s brisk changes to whoever will listen.
Fight To Win is celestial yet down-to-earth, with dark bass and bursts of quirky sci-fi synths competing for attention, as the RZA/Bobby excitedly chants about no longer being a slave. It’s a real rush. Not all of the ideas land – Cowards features whiney guest vocals that are particularly grating – but the RZA should be applauded for trying to do something different and continuing to push himself, even as an elder statesman (he recently turned 53).
For the Wu-Tang purists, twitchy for a return to the raw Only Built 4 Cuban Linx sonics, the music here isn’t exactly going to quench your thirst. But it’s further proof that what the RZA truly savours is stepping outside of his comfort zone, and it's a relief to once again hear a little weirdness in rap. Thomas Hobbs
Runkus x Toddla T, OUT:SIDE ★★★★☆
This August, after a two-year pandemic-induced hiatus, Notting Hill Carnival returns to the capital. Although the line-up has yet to be announced, one west London resident sure to be deeply embedded in this “bounceback edition” is the prolific producer Toddla T. His sets have been the stuff of carnival legend since 2009, evolving later into a full eponymous sound system and stage that became a yearly hotspot for those who love dance music and hip hop as much as reggae and dancehall.
The Sheffield-born 37-year-old, aka Thomas Bell, who is married to DJ and writer Annie Mac, is one of the most influential players on the British music scene, having produced for the likes of Stormzy, and remixed artists from Little Simz to Jessie Ware. Beyond being a platinum-selling and Oscar-nominated producer, Bell is a mainstay at festivals and club nights around the world, having had his own BBC Radio show for more than ten years. Today he releases a collaborative album with Runkus, the twice-Grammy-nominated rising star who Toddla T has called “the most exciting artist in Jamaica right now.”
A fun, upbeat and technically ultra-impressive record, the 10-track OUT:SIDE is a homage to the collaborators’ shared love of reggae, dancehall and hip hop, mixing old-school roots like Lover’s Rock with sounds associated with dance music (see: Garrison, which starts as a smooth melodic lullaby before descending into raucous rap, delivered over heavy drum and bass-style percussion). Reggae heavyweight Chronixx features on Pretty Suit, while Ky-Mani Marley, son of Bob, delivers a performance well worthy of his father on Goodlove.
Thematically, the album is an ode to Runkus’s close friend and collaborator, the late France Nooks, a promising young reggae artist who was killed in 2018. On the last song, Taxi: Zion, Nooks’s vocals feature, with Runkus delivering lyrics that combine conscious Rastafarian thought and religious references (“I was my brother’s keeper”) with contemporary nods in the rap to the likes of Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson and Virgin Airlines, all while showing off his incredibly alluring, wildly versatile voice.
That’s not to say the tone is sombre, though. As the name suggests, OUT:SIDE makes you want to quite literally get outdoors and, rum cocktail in hand, dance in the sunshine for as long as your legs can carry you. Carnival has well and truly come early this year. KJ