THE BIG RELEASE
The Waterboys, Where The Action Is
Cooking Vinyl ★★★★✩
WHAT a blast Mike Scott’s latest is. The third album since 2015 from the man who now is The Waterboys affirms that his creative fires still more than match his productivity.
The first section storms along in whirlwind 1960s mod/soul fashion, as if possessed by the spirit of Spencer Davis, yet Scott being Scott, he still infuses it with his trademark folkish mysticism. This becomes more explicit in the second part, which concludes with Piper At The Gates Of Dawn — a marvellous reading of that extraordinary, unnerving pagan chapter that tends to be omitted from quainter renditions of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows.
Scott’s album deals with the past without miring itself in regret. It has two chief protagonists: the younger Scott, romantic, idealistic progenitor of ‘The Big Music’; and the Scott of the present day, who looks back at his counterpart with a mix of amusement, affection and pride. The beauty of it is the older Scott is in no way jaded or cynical and his vision is undiminished. He’s just shrewder, more forgiving.
Scott grasps that having a grown-up mind doesn’t demand you relinquish your youthful fervour and its passions. ‘I once knew a man never thought he was wrong/ He would argue with every damn word of this song’, he sings on the title track, among the most wry and pleasing pieces of lyrical self-reflection since Bob Dylan’s famous refrain on My Back Pages. This is a joyous, wise and generous album, one you want to wrap up in a hearty hug.
Mike Scott delivers a shrewd, joyous and grown-up album, free of regret
Mavis Staples, We Get By
We have become happily accustomed to second acts from major artists in their later years. In the case of Mavis Staples, what we are witnessing is more like her third or fourth. Hers was the standout voice in her family’s gospel/R&B band, The Staple Singers: acclaimed as ‘God’s greatest hitmakers’, and at the forefront of the 1960s civil rights movement
She had repeated tilts at a solo career but it wasn’t until she hit on the formula of albums in an artfully updated retro manner, each defined by her work with a notable collaborator, that she hit her stride. Her seventies have been her most prolific and successful solo decade by far.
Two months shy of 80, she releases We Get By, whose spare, bluesy feel is largely defined by writer and producer Ben Harper. Harper is an interesting figure, a talent whose records have often been outshone by his intense live performances. In the studio, he veers towards the earnest, which suits the gritty feel of We Get By. As symbolised by its Gordon Parks cover photo of black children gazing through wire fencing at an unattainable playground, it’s a record that suggests Staples’ old struggle is once again necessary. As well it might.
Understandable, then, if it lacks the joie de vivre of her recent collaborations with Jeff Tweedy and M Ward. Where those albums were frequently exhilarating and life-affirming, this one is sturdy and sombre, pulling no punches.
Morrissey, California Son
Morrissey has not, surely, been deliberately engaged in a lengthy attempt to alienate all but his most fervent fans while repulsing those parts of society not responsive to the ugliest forces of reaction. But if he had been, it’s hard to imagine what he would have done differently.
True, his persona was founded on being an utter misery. But he earned his fame as a droll and sympathetic figure, as distinct from the illiberal curmudgeon of which he has latterly done such an effective impression.
It’s with some astonishment, then, that his latest album has a fair bit to recommend it and, perhaps more surprisingly still, little from which to recoil. What you might call the personal covers album — a set that delves into the artist’s formative sources — is a genre that goes back at least as far as David Bowie’s Pin-Ups, and relies largely on how noteworthy both artist and sources happen to be. Morrissey, for whom of all people dullness should be a sin, has picked an intriguing selection — such cultish figures as Jobriath, Phil Ochs, the underrated Melanie and the divine Laura Nyro feature alongside Joni Mitchell, Roy Orbison and Carly Simon.
Moreover, he seems energised by it all. The interpretations are for the most part sensitive, distinctively his own, and in a couple of cases — Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Suffer The Little Children (an intentional Smiths echo); Lenny’s Tune by Tim Hardin — approach the definitive. It seems to have done Morrissey a rare power of good to deal, for a change, with things he actually likes.