In Review

Albums of the week: Good Woman, For the First Time, John Eccles - Semele

New releases from The Staves; Black Country, New Road; and The Academy of Ancient Music

1

The Staves

Good Woman 

The Staves: Good Woman 

Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor – The Staves – are a trio of singer-songwriter sisters who have long attracted influential admirers from Tom Jones to Bon Iver, said Neil McCormick in The Daily Telegraph. Their principal gift is for “perfectly dovetailed harmonies, voices that blend so effortlessly in terms of tone and phrasing that you can’t separate them”. On this terrific third album, themes of loss, struggle, identity, insecurity and self-vindication dominate – but don’t overwhelm. On the title track, for example, a “gently assertive anthem for our times”, the “union of voices make it less a grumbling protest” than a “blissful proclamation of soft power”. 

When they first emerged, ten years ago, I found The Staves’ modern take on acoustic folk rock “pleasant”, rather than inspired, said Will Hodgkinson in The Times. Since then, they’ve dealt with “heavy moments” including grief, childbirth and heartbreak, and there is a “greater depth” to their “still pretty and spacious” music. This new album is a “welcome return”.

2

Black Country, New Road

For the First Time 

Black Country, New Road: For the First Time 

Black Country, New Road are “one of those bands who appear in your life suddenly and then never leave you, in sound or in spirit”, said Emily Bootle in the New Statesman. This seven-piece experimental rock band are already darlings of the live music scene, with a “thrillingly chaotic” sound that draws on everything from moody alt-rock (LCD Soundsystem, Slint, The Fall, Nick Cave) to klezmer. And while the “constant lyrical irony” occasionally wears thin, their debut album marks them out as “one of the most confident, exciting and original British bands to have emerged in years”. 

The group, originally from Cambridgeshire, are “every bit as jaw-dropping live” as the hype suggests, said Luke Cartledge on NME. This “thrilling” debut album includes their most “tender” song yet, Track X, on which keys, violins and sax “flutter beautifully” around the guitar line, before opening out onto a “totally unexpected plateau of angelic backing vocals and goosebumpy staccato”. The whole thing’s a “triumph”, and promises future greatness.

3

The Academy of Ancient Music (Perkins)

John Eccles – Semele

The Academy of Ancient Music (Perkins): John Eccles – Semele

Following the death of Purcell in 1695, John Eccles was England’s most notable composer of theatrical music – but his career was all but entirely eclipsed by the arrival of Handel 14 years later, said Geoff Brown in The Times. This excellent recording of his opera Semele suggests that he has been unjustly neglected. Set to the same Congreve libretto that inspired Handel’s own Semele 36 years later, this 1707 work “bowls along with particularly English vigour”, and is performed with “forthright flourish” by the Academy of Ancient Music under the director and harpsichordist Julian Perkins. 

The opera is more reminiscent of work by Purcell than Handel, said Erica Jeal in The Guardian. Arias are short, and the story – of the mortal seduced by Jupiter – moves forward rapidly and with dramatic intent. Musically, it may not be a stone-cold classic, but it’s a “colourful gem” that offers a fascinating insight into its era. This “clean, light-on-its-feet version is a truly gratifying listen”, which should put its composer “firmly on the map”.

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