Album reviews: Sheridan Smith, Eliza And The Bear, Barbra Streisand, The Prodigy
A Northern Soul
SHERIDAN Smith is back with her second studio album, her first of original songs. It's always a risk moving from cover versions to new tracks but Smith was up for the challenge and she's clearly given this new effort a lot of thought, having worked with writers including Grammy-winning producer Jimmy Hogarth. Smith has had a difficult few years following her father's death in 2016, as well as her own health issues, and she lays herself bare on A Northern Soul, a jazzy, soul-infused collection that offers the listener a real look at one of the UK's brightest stars of stage and screen. Her bluesy vocal suits the vibe she is going for, particularly on the slower songs with a big band element, such as the excellent The One and groovy Remedy In The Melody. A highlight is the poignant Are You Just Sleeping, while the robust Why Can't I Fall In Love could be a pop at headlines about her "unlucky in love" status.
Eliza And The Bear
ELIZA and the Bear are back with a new sound with their second album, Group Therapy, which offers an upbeat, inspiring take on issues around mental health. The indie rockers arrived on the scene with their eponymous album two years ago but Group Therapy has an altogether more synth-pop vibe. Written when the band was unsure what the future held and the members were all facing their own demons, the album tackles important topics in spite of its predominantly positive mood. Lead single Real Friends is a highlight and is truly difficult to resist dancing along to. There are slower, more melancholy moments in but Sweat Out The Small Stuff is an optimistic and poignant end to the album. The record may stem from a dark place but the London-based group has magically constructed an album that has real significance in encouraging conversation about mental health, while also encouraging cheer and a bit of dance.
BARBRA Streisand has fire in her belly, her Democrat soul reinvigorated by the horror of Donald Trump in the White House. For her fans, this can only be a good thing. Her disgust at America's present state has sparked her first album of mostly original material in more than a decade. Walls is Streisand's state of the nation address - a grand gesture painted in broad strokes. On its 11 tracks she pays homage to the Statue of Liberty, laments the lack of kindness in the world and goes after Trump. Her voice, huskier with age, sounds different without sounding weaker. With this new tone comes a new fervour. When she contemplates hope, life and fear in her songs, she risks straying into cliche. She's sincere but it's hard not to balk at the earnestness of it all. Regardless of the album's politics, Walls is finely crafted and puts Streisand's voice front and centre, just where it belongs. In troubled times, that might be enough.
ON ONE hand, a lack of tourists is a sign you're somewhere completely unspoiled and authentic; on the other, that you're exploring an area nobody else wants to visit. For their seventh album, Liam Howlett and company have pitched themselves firmly in the arena of stripped-back, bleepy dance-rock and refuse to veer away from it, even if the results are so old-school they sound pretty dated. Former Firestarter Keith Flint brings some of his 1990s snarl to a handful of tracks, muttering about "civil unrest" on Champions of London, while the raucous Fight Fire with Fire brings in rap duo Ho99o9 to add a bit of foul-mouthed attitude. For all the raucousness, though, it's very tame compared to the group's Fat Of The Land heyday. What was guaranteed to terrify the establishment in 1997 can't help sounding silly coming from middle-aged men. It might be expected from the fathers of dance but this is very much an album your dad might dance to.
This Christmas Day
IT HAS been a case of long time no hear from the Jessie J camp. There has been some quiet years from the singer/songwriter before the release of R.O.S.E. in September 2017, then three months in China competing on Singer 2018 - a competition that she won, becoming their first European winner. Now Jessie has turned her focus to ramping up festive cheer with her first Christmas album This Christmas Day. It is a selection of well-known and well-trodden classics, plus the title song - the only original track on the album. Jessie J hasn't stepped far from her regular style here and hasn't really added anything new to these Christmas radio staples, which to be honest is rather disappointing. With a great voice and vocal range, this collection of songs could have been so much more but Jessie J has definitely brought her vocal gymnastics game to Christmas this year.