Music journalist Sharon O’Connell selects four standout recordings to listen to this month - including a triumphant new release from Laura Mvula, a confident debut from London soul artist Joel Culpepper, a collection of devotional songs from Alice Coltrane, and a breakup-themed concept album from a surprising musical pairing…Tags: Music,
To say Laura Mvula has gone through the mill is something of an understatement: after being dropped by her label four years ago, via email and without explanation, she found herself at a crossroads and even contemplated a change of career – this from a Birmingham Conservatoire-trained artist who holds one Ivor Novello and two MOBO awards and was honoured by Prince (who covered her 2013 track, 'Green Garden'). She’s also struggled with anxiety and has endured panic attacks for years.
None of this appears to have left a mark on Mvula’s third album - her first in five years. Rather, Pink Noise signals a triumphant rebirth, announcing itself in a colour-saturated explosion that fizzes with electro-funk energy and 1980s synth-pop glee. With Australia’s Dann Hume sharing the production chair, it's a case of out with the considered mix of jazz, R&B and orchestral pop, and in with big, unabashed pop songs borne up by irresistible grooves, soaring, multi-tracked vocals and deep-plush production. There are nods to Chic in the title track, and Michael and Janet Jackson on the indecently feel-good 'Got Me', while 'Conditional' suggests an Afrobeats banger given Peter Gabriel’s cavernous, art-pop treatment. That all this is managed without compromising on nuance or integrity shows just how brightly Mvula’s star still shines.
Out now. Label: Atlantic
On paper, it’s an unlikely combination – the Stones and Funkadelic-loving frontman of the famously hedonistic Primal Scream, and the ex-singer of Savages, who dealt in dark, artfully austere post-punk. Away from their defining partnerships, of course, artists draw fresh breath - and so it is with Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth’s debut, which taps the tradition of country duos like George Jones/Tammy Wynette and Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris.
That said, despite a nod to the Stones’ 'Wild Horses' on 'Your Heart Will Always Be Broken', Utopian Ashes is not a countrified set; it’s cast more along the classic lines of Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker (whose spirit is summoned for 'English Town'), musing on once passionate relationships which have soured or simply slid into ambivalence as the years pass, via lyrics that favour unvarnished honesty over self-conscious poeticism. "Feeling like I’ve lost you / Where did we go wrong? / Tell myself I can’t live without you / Am I really not that strong?" wonders Gillespie in the melancholically swinging 'Remember We Were Lovers'. As a reversion to louche-rock type, 'Living A Lie' is the least convincing song here but Primal Scream’s Andrew Innes, Martin Duffy and Darrin Mooney lend their talents without railroading the record – another indicator of its admirable restraint.
Out now. Label: Silvertone / Third Man
The list of young soul artists shooting for vintage authenticity at the expense of their own expression seems to grow by the year: however accurate their replication of sonic tics and impeccable the end result, something is ultimately lost. Thankfully, that’s not how [Joel Culpepper]() plays it on his debut. There’s no denying the Londoner’s 1970s R&B/soul and funk inspirations (Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack, Shuggie Otis), nor the fact that Prince has left an indelible mark, but Culpepper's twist – executed with the help of several producers, notably the genre-fluid Swindle – comes via the mix of other sounds that lend the record a modern, ineffably British feel, right down to the police-radio chat and sirens that spike the stylishly orchestrated 'Return'.
The album's title suggests that Culpepper is an artist in command and that’s very much the case here. In fact, it's hard to pick highlights in such a confident and effortlessly smart set, but deserving of special mention are the hepped-up 'W.A.R', where the singer’s falsetto is in full, sweet flow, the libidinous 'Kisses', with its hint of Daft Punk and the album's closer 'Black Boy', which channels something of Terence Trent D’Arby into the celebration of an independently minded child who offers “hope for tomorrow” - rather like the spirit that ripples through this record.
Out July 23. Label: Pepper Records
Journey In Satchidananda, released in 1970, remains Alice Coltrane’s best known album. Featuring both improv and compositional pieces with the harp as their focus, it marks her transition from bebop musician to spiritual jazz exponent and devotee of Hinduism. Kirtan: Turiya Sings (Turiya is the short form of Coltrane's adopted Sanskrit name, Turiyasangitananda) is the same in one aspect – it’s devotional music – but it represents a deeper connection to her faith and is not a jazz record.
Originally released on cassette in 1982, the album was intended exclusively for the students of Coltrane’s Californian ashram and features nine compositions in the form of Vedic chants. It was produced by her son, Ravi Coltrane, who in 2004 found previously unheard mixes of his mother singing and playing the Wurlitzer. Her voice is earthy and sonorous, yet tender, an anchor for the murmurous organ swells that connect to the gospel tradition and Black American church music. Made in praise of a perceived higher power, this recording is nothing like 'relaxation' music - though it is calming and restorative. Kirtan… isn’t meant for cherry-picking, either, but 'Yamuna Tira Vihari', where Coltrane’s voice switches between deep lowing and an ecstatic quiver, and the synth-inflected, almost bluesy 'Hara Siva' are especially sublime.
Out now. Label: Impulse!