Albums: new music from David Gray, Ghetts, The Hold Steady and Mogwai
DAVID GRAY – SKELLIG
DAVID Gray's 12th studio album may well be one of his best. The album's title and sparse arrangements are inspired by a group of monks who settled at Skellig Michael, the most westerly point of Ireland, in 600AD.
Gray created his own small colony as he hunkered down (pre-pandemic) at Edwyn Collins' Helmsdale studio in the extreme north of Scotland with six co-vocalists to create a haunting and intimate collaboration.
Dun Laoghaire, which is rhymed in true Gray style with 'teary' and 'beery') is an early stand-out and the gorgeous single Heart And Soul will be the most familiar-sounding to Gray's long-time fans, but the album is one to immerse yourself in as a whole, preferably through headphones, and drift away for nearly an hour of beautiful tranquillity.
GHETTS – CONFLICT OF INTEREST
GHETTS' third album Conflict Of Interest is not as 'pop' as its list of collaborators suggests. Yes, it features Ed Sheeran, Stormzy and Emeli Sande – but Ghetts manages to illustrate his soul-baring vision of gospel and grime on his own terms, joined by talented newcomers such as Pa Salieu, Backroad Gee and Miraa May.
Each album has seen Ghetts mature his vision a little more and, taken as a whole, Conflict Of Interest portrays an artist at the height of his powers. The track Autobiography literally tells his story from the moment he "started out in Nasty crew just after Dizzee Rascal blew" and features a recording of presumably his mother recalling his burgeoning talent as a boy.
Long a critics' favourite, Ghetts brings his complex wordplay and deft social commentary to issues like colourism, sexism and violence. He has made a rare thing – an album that offers both mainstream appeal and artistic integrity.
THE HOLD STEADY – OPEN DOOR POLICY
WITH lyrics that tell short stories about epic parties and lost weekends on the neon-soaked boulevard of broken dreams, Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn has spent much of the past two decades on the road.
Their eighth studio album is full of songs that will one day soundtrack memorable nights out when they can play them live. Finn's literary songwriting style, complete absence of irony and unabashed celebration of rock music is not to everyone's taste, and the influence of Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed and The Replacements is clear.
But The Hold Steady always sound unmistakeably themselves, Finn's unique vocals, somewhere between speaking and singing, backed by Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge (guitar), Franz Nicolay (keyboards), Galen Polivka (bass) and Bobby Drake (drums).
Although written and mostly recorded before the pandemic, Open Door Policy's themes of mental health and medication, technology, consumerism and above all survival are all too relevant now.
MOGWAI – AS THE LOVE CONTINUES
PAT Stains and Midnight Flit bear many of the classic hallmarks of these Scottish post-rock veterans, with rousing, soaring, shimmering guitars and strings doing battle on a race through space, while album highlight F*** Off Money is a glorious, almost balletic anthem evoking Air and F*** Buttons played at half-speed.
While the record begins with a razor edge it does start to blunt after a time, and later tracks Ceiling Granny and Supposedly We Were Nightmares are at risk of feeling a little post-rock by numbers, even if these guys did create the template themselves a couple of decades ago.
Nonetheless, Mogwai's essence has always been best captured at their monstrously brilliant live shows, and As The Love Continues evokes that heady experience better than many of their previous studio recordings – perhaps intentionally, given the circumstances we're all in.
Oh, to stand shoulder to shoulder with strangers, sweating, desperate for the loo and breathing in every last snap of the snare drum.