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Music reviews: Mac DeMarco, the Gloaming, Shostakovich, Alex Lahey and more

The Gloaming is surely the only band rooted in Irish traditional music that would dare to begin an album with prepared piano. When Iarla O Lionaird joins – with an instantly haunting melody sung in Gaelic – you have an encapsulation of why this is not just a good band, but a great one. Firstly, it continues to find imaginative ways to expand the possibilities of Irish music (and thereby ensures the tradition not only survives, but thrives). Secondly, this expansion is not achieved by borrowing frills and sounds from farther afield, but by digging down beneath the emerald green to this music’s wellspring, and by bathing all they do in that wellspring. Even if you don’t give a toss for traditions, Irish or otherwise, this music has a profundity that few can match in any idiom, and this applies whether it’s at its saddest, or is flecked with a muted joy, like seeing a child laughing silently through a thick mist. Each member is pivotal: the aforementioned O Lionaird, the peerless Martin Hayes (fiddle), Caoimhin O Raghallaigh (hardanger d’amore), Dennis Cahill (guitar) and Thomas Bartlett (piano, production and a sprinkling of inimitable magic dust). Their best yet? I think so. JOHN SHAND

NEO-SOUL

Jamila Woods

LEGACY! LEGACY! (Jagjaguwar)

★★★★☆

Legacy is something artists reckon with, but on her second record Jamila Woods abandons furthering her own to celebrate the lives of black activists, artists, poets, and musicians. Each song is a titular homage to the greats, from contemporary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat to singer and activist Eartha Kitt. Woods explores trauma (Sonia), memory and strength via tributes to her predecessors, while also exploring the pain, triumphs and tribulations of her community. The record’s success lies in its sampling, which, rather than plucking out hooks and melodies, references interviews, essays and poems. The Chicago poet and activist’s voice shimmies over the beat, as smooth as chocolate, even inspiring her featured guests to make their own eulogies. New York MC Nitty Scott lays a witty, intelligent verse on Sonia, reminiscent of the late TLC rapper, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. While Baldwin, featuring trumpeter Nico Segal, is jazzy and upbeat, it’s also a sobering look at the black legacy inspired by James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time. Legacy! Legacy! is sonically a bit of everything: house (Betty for Boogie), R&B, and neo-soul (Sun Ra), but ultimately it’s an effervescent celebration of Black America. KISH LAL

AFRICAN

Blick Bassy

1958 (Tot ou tard/No Format)

★★★★☆

From its arresting, brassy, almost symphonic opening bars, singer-guitarist Blick Bassy’s new album feels like a film score. The short, focused tracks (without solos or extended grooves) confirm the artist has a story to tell, and won’t be distracted. Its tragic hero, Um Nyobe, a forgotten leader of Cameroon’s independence struggle, was gunned down by French forces in 1958; his comrades subjected to torture, executions and napalm attacks. France eventually granted Cameroon puppet-government independence, which erased Um Nyobe’s group from official history. Bassy’s songs have touches of 1950s rock’n’roll, Cuban music and traditions from Cameroon’s equatorial rainforest, where Um Nyobe’s group hid out. These elements aren’t blatant, but subtly incorporated, as they would be in a film score or an orchestral work by Dvorak or Copland. His guitar influences include Egberto Gismonti, Bill Frisell and Cameroonian greats like Theodore “Zanzibar” Epeme and Vincent Nguini, while his vocals variously evoke Skip James, Marvin Gaye, Caetano Veloso and Prince. Justice Mukheli’s atmospheric, visceral videos (which can be watched online) enhance the experience of this impressive opus. EUGENE ULMAN

CLASSICAL

Shostakovich

UNDER STALIN’S SHADOW (DG)

★★★★☆

Shostakovich walked a tightrope between triumph and the gulag, in a life of unremitting tension and drama. Perhaps the most compelling drama is the story of his Symphony No 7, Leningrad, written for the city under the ravages of a 900-day Nazi siege. This astounding work, the first movement of which boasts perhaps the longest crescendo in classical music, was played by a half-starved orchestra, including on loud-speakers across the city, colossally boosting morale. Musicians were hard to find: the conductor, Karl Eliasberg, hearing that the snare drummer (who has a large role) was dead, went to the morgue to check, and found the supposed corpse’s hand twitching. Fed and succoured, he recovered. The work receives a compelling account in the latest of Andris Nelsons’ Shostakovich symphony cycle with the Boston Symphony: intense, precise, powerful. The double album also contains the sixth symphony (unusual in its slow opening movement followed by two mercurial movements); the ominous and evocative incidental music to King Lear; and the joyous Festive Overture (six trumpets and trombones, eight horns) written in 1954 after Russia had emerged from Stalin’s shadow – very welcome fillers. BARNEY ZWARTZ

INDIE ROCK

Mac DeMarco

HERE COMES THE COWBOY (Mac’s Record Label)

★★★★☆

Mac DeMarco is renowned not only for his calm, conversational tone and unpretentious lyrics, but also for his goofy sense of humour and sometimes questionable antics. His new album hints at signs of maturity and growth, with refined sounds and simple, complimenting textures and layers. Preoccupied steps away from the giddy guitar effects we have heard in DeMarco’s previous work, instead narrowing down to an acoustic guitar and a simple base line, allowing a wave of warmth and radiance to emerge. The singer also dabbles in new textures and layers in songs like Choo Choo (an unhurried funk with syncopated rhythms and lingering cymbals) and Heart to Heart, a song that oozes placidity with simple, jazz-like piano chords, a subtle recurring percussive rhythm and drifting synth accompaniment. All of Our Yesterdays is for those who appreciate DeMarco’s more traditional sound. It starts with a warbly guitar that dissolves into the brush of acoustic guitar, and has easy-going, conversational lyrics that reflect upon memories and lost time. Here Comes the Cowboy proves DeMarco can still own his psychedelic, lighthearted sound, while adding something fresh and novel. SIMONE ZIAZIARIS

POP

Alex Lahey

THE BEST OF LUCK CLUB (Nicky Boy/Caroline)

★★★½☆

This second album from one of our most exciting talents offers rewards and upgrades for long-time listeners, and a solidly argued entry point for first time callers. Compared with her debut, I Love You Like a Brother, it has a fuller sound, with heavier guitars and a sense of beefiness overall, but also quieter soft moments and more complex emotional responses. The connections to the ’90s alterna-ground have broadened to encompass a sound which would sit as comfortably on a modern hits rock station as on triple j. Unspoken History would fit a good Missy Higgins record; Black RMs would have improved any Eskimo Joe album. At the same time she’s been emboldened by the success of the outright pop last time around to cast pearls such as the shiny Isabella casually before us. This is in every way a more mature record, but, perhaps not surprisingly, maturity has clipped some of the more exuberant looseness. Energy is here but it’s harnessed rather than unleashed; pleasure is here, but it is more responsible. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, and there’s a good argument for it being necessary. But I do miss the less tightly controlled pop fun. BERNARD ZUEL

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