In Review

Albums of the week: The Art of Losing, Variations, As Days Get Dark

New releases from The Anchoress, Clare Hammond, and Arab Strap

1

The Anchoress

The Art of Losing 

The Anchoress  The Art of Losing 

If you’re looking for pop stars with PhDs, there’s the two brainy Brians – May and Cox – said Tim de Lisle in The Mail on Sunday. And now there’s The Anchoress. As an academic, Dr Catherine Anne Davies published a study of American epic poetry. As The Anchoress, she is a “proper pop star”: a performer who “oozes charisma”, lights up the stage, has a voice that (Annie Lennox-like) mixes “vulnerability with verve” – and creates literate, “life-enhancing” music. 

Davies’s fearless and “compelling” second album as The Anchoress is a “visceral and honest” collection that draws on experiences including sexual assault, bereavement and a cancer diagnosis, said Dan Cairns in The Sunday Times. There is rousing electro-rock, on which her narratives recall “fellow experimentalists David Bowie, Kate Bush, The Cure, Talk Talk and Tori Amos”. And there are beautiful instrumentals for piano and cello that, in a symbolic motif, thread through the record. “What a brave and inspirational album. And what a remarkable artist.”

2

Clare Hammond

Variations 

Clare Hammond  Variations 

The British concert pianist Clare Hammond has a gift for “mixing repertoire to revealing effect”, said Fiona Maddocks in The Guardian. Her previous album brought together a range of esoteric piano études, and on her new one she presents a bold selection of variations composed between 1904 and 2017, by the likes of Birtwistle, Adams, Copland, Szymanowski and Hindemith. The variations format (a theme repeated many times with modification) might be off-putting to some, but the “displays of invention” on this “virtuosic recital” are dazzling – nowhere more so than in the grand finale: Sofia Gubaidulina’s ambitious Chaconne (1962). 

Hammond is a pianist of “immense power”, said Geoff Brown in The Times; that power tightly harnessed to “the moment’s expressive needs”. I’m afraid she couldn’t win me over to the “bristle of her Birtwistle” or the “dry mechanics” of 1930s Hindemith. Even so, I emerged “refreshed and enlightened” by her “formidable technique, lack of preening and insatiable repertoire probing”.

3

Arab Strap

As Days Get Dark 

Arab Strap  As Days Get Dark 

Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton’s first album as Arab Strap in almost 16 years is “also the best of their career”, said Patrick Clarke on NME. Never a band to shy away from “life’s grim underbelly”, the Falkirk duo have returned to the point where they left off, with a “superbly seedy” album that is “dark, debauched” and tragic – and with a lyrical focus on sex, addiction, death and sociopathy. Yet for all its “gruesomeness, As Days Get Dark is also a beautiful record”, full of tenderness, wit, and romanticism, as well as the relentless honesty for which the band was always known. 

“Coming on like a union between Sleaford Mods and Leonard Cohen consummated in a Glasgow pub toilet, As Days Get Dark serves up bleakness and gallows humour” in spades, said Kitty Empire in The Observer. Age might not have mellowed Arab Strap, exactly. But the “callowness” of their 1990s youth (they took the band’s name from a sex toy) has certainly “been replaced by something altogether more lived-in and existential”. On this evidence, it suits them.

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