Album reviews: Laura Mvula | Mumford & Sons | Liz Lochhead

The sound is sometimes greater than the songcraft but Laura Mvula's sonic inspiration is eclectic and exciting
Laura MvulaLaura Mvula
Laura Mvula

Classically trained choirmistress Laura Mvula is not your obvious major label signing, but she succeeded in capturing and captivating an audience with the fluid yet unconventional use of melody and rhythm on her 2013 debut album Sing To The Moon (****). Although a new artist to most, her distinctive style was instantly recognisable on the radio. But all was not well behind the scenes.

Her second album was written and recorded against a backdrop of personal troubles, including divorce and a crisis of confidence which certainly doesn’t show in the finished article. Once again, Mvula sounds entirely comfortable in her sonic skin, mixing jazz, gospel and Afropop with orchestral arrangements as rich and ambitious as those which grace the most recent Joanna Newsome album.

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The Amazonian Phenomenal Woman was inspired by the Maya Angelou poem of the same name. With its robust rhythms and tribal incantations, it looks straight through Beyoncé to Nina Simone. She picks up the conscious soul baton again on People, blending racial politics and musical exploration with the boldness of fellow creatives from Kendrick Lamar to Kamasi Washington – though neither of them would think to add a mournful colliery brass band backing to the mix.

Mvula’s arrangements sound both sophisticated and intuitive, with plenty of room for the music to float freely. Her choral background informs several numbers, most notably the soaring Angel, while the romantic devotional Show Me Love is exquisitely orchestrated.

However, she does tend to favour chants over tunes, a preference highlighted in a sample of a touching phone call with her wise nan who bids her “write a song I can jig me foot”. The Dreaming Room boasts hooklines aplenty, but not much you might consider mainstream pop music – Nile Rodgers’ funky guitar contribution to Overcome is treated as only one element in the sonic jigsaw, but the full picture is so ravishing that one can forgive Mvula the lack of accessible songcraft.

Mumford & Sons have reached that point in their career where they wield sufficient power to do whatever they want, so while their songwriting remains as predictable as ever, they have at least aspired to an imaginative musical link-up with Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal, South African popsters Beatenberg and London outfit The Very Best, which has produced this mini-Graceland, five breezy but bittersweet songs recorded over two days in the city after which it is named (***).

Maal digs deep on the slick but soulful Si Tu Veux, his beseeching tone raising the musical game throughout. His contributions appear to be a means of dressing up the Mumfords’ middle of the road pop rather than producing a satisfying fusion of traditions, but if Johannesburg does anything to broaden tastes and outlook for artist and listener alike, it is to be welcomed.

Poet Liz Lochhead fronts a more integrated partnership with The Hazey Janes and her regular saxophonist collaborator Steve Kettley. Commissioned by and forged at Tobermory’s An Tobar arts centre, The Light Comes Back (***) is a fond tribute to the late Michael Marra, with whom Lochhead toured her In Flagrant Delicht show. Marra’s children Alice and Matthew are members of The Hazey Janes, effortlessly blurring musical boundaries, as their father did, to create the evocative jazz and folk-influenced soundtrack to Lochhead’s recitations, which include The Optimistic Sound, written on the day of Marra’s funeral, and the urban romanticism of Some Old Photographs.

However, their absence is felt on un-hep beat poetry number In Praise Of Old Vinyl, on which Lochhead waxes lengthily about her old record collection. Fiona Shepherd

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CLASSICAL: Anne Schwanewilms: Schöne Welt | Rating: **** | Capriccio

Flick to the second track of this lovingly compiled Lieder disc by soprano Anne Schwanewilms and pianist Charles Spencer and experience perfection. This is the opening group of Schubert songs, the first of two An der Mond settings, and the sustained purity, nuanced intensity and pinpoint intonation from Schwanewilms’ performance is breathtaking. There is both fragility and stability, simplicity and psychological complexity in equal measure. And so it continues with the three Schubert groupings acting as a delicious ritornello to two diversionary episodes: Franz Schrecker’s 5 Lieder op 3, their exotic late Romanticism sumptuously explored; and the elusive, mysterious tonal twists of Erich Korngold’s Drei Lieder op 22. It’s a pity that the opening Schubert, Die Götter Griechenlands, suffers slightly from a discomforting inconsistency of tone. Otherwise superb.

Ken Walton

JAZZ: Pat Metheny: The Unity Sessions | Rating: **** | Nonesuch

Lifted from a filmed performance out on DVD, this double album from Pat Metheny’s Unity band – whose previous album won the guitarist’s 20th Grammy – sees Metheny, saxophonist Chris Potter, drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Ben Williams (with multi-instrumental contributions from Giulio Carmassi) on top form.

The Unity project is the first time since 1980 that Metheny has recorded while sharing the front line with saxophone and the results are impressive, notably in Roofdogs with banshee howling from sax and guitar over purposefully lumbering bass and drums.

The elegance of Metheny’s playing is evident in Adagia. His wonderfully Heath-Robinson-ish Orchestrion gadgetry adds the cascades of ripples and chimes that introduce Come and See, while dark and plangent excursions of guitar-synth, sax and arco bass colour a vivid reworking of the previous album’s title track, Kin. Jim Gilchrist