In Review

Albums of the week: Handel, Billie Marten and Olivia Rodrigo

What are the critics saying about Flora Fauna, Sour and Rodelinda?

1

Handel

Rodelinda (The English Concert)

Handel

Rodelinda, one of Handel’s strongest operas, premiered in London in 1725 and was an immediate success, providing a showcase for the great singers of the time, such as the “legendary castrato” Senesino. These days, said Richard Fairman in the Financial Times, the Baroque era’s castrati roles can be sung either by women or men (mezzos or countertenors, respectively). In this case, Senesino’s role (as Bertarido) is taken by Iestyn Davies, as “expressive a countertenor as they come”.

This terrific disc is the first in a new Handel opera series performed by The English Concert, and directed by Harry Bicket, said Fiona Maddocks in The Guardian. Davies is wonderfully intense, and “sends the dramatic temperature soaring at each entry”. Soprano Lucy Crowe sings the title role with “brilliant” precision and expressive power. The supporting cast is crammed with first-rate “Handelian talent”, and The English Concert’s playing is “pliant, warm, elegant. If the rest of the project reaches this standard, we’re in luck.”

2

Billie Marten

Flora Fauna

Billie Marten

The 21-year-old Yorkshire singer-songwriter Billie Marten was “discovered” on YouTube aged 12, and released her first album at 15. Her talent is often described as “precocious”; her music swathed in adjectives like “pure” and “pretty”, said Annabel Nugent in The Independent. On this third album, however, Marten shakes off these descriptors “like a wet, gleeful dog”. It’s her first release since being dropped by Sony in 2019 (“the best day of my life”) and her sense of “liberation” is clear, in her confident songwriting and an experimental, beats-driven sound.

Marten learned bass and listened to lots of krautrock while making this superb collection, said Charlotte Krol on NME. The melodies here are “her most moreish”, the storytelling her most open, and the sound her “biggest and boldest” to date. Before, her music tended to be “pretty but safe”; on this album, there are “noodling basslines”, jabbing piano chords, and darting guitars. It’s Marten’s most mature, vivid work yet – “and would be impressive from an artist of any age”.

3

Olivia Rodrigo

Sour

Olivia Rodrigo

Seldom does a fully-formed superstar explode onto the scene overnight, said Will Hodgkinson in The Times. But “so it is with Olivia Rodrigo” – an 18-year-old Californian whose music has all the “revelatory, relatable aspects of Lorde, Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish rolled into one”. Her debut single Drivers License was one of those rare heartbreak ballads – like Adele’s Someone Like You – that give “universal resonance to personal experience”. Now her first album, Sour, proves it wasn’t a fluke: “intimate, conversational and really rather sweet, this is bedroom pop of the highest order”.

Rodrigo’s just-spiky-enough sound takes Swift’s “sleek traditional songcraft”, adds Lorde’s “widescreen harmonies” and stirs in Eilish’s “whispery” vocals, said Neil McCormick in The Daily Telegraph. The final crucial ingredient is the “rocky brashness” of Alanis Morissette and Avril Lavigne. Co-writer and producer Dan Nigro has roots in the alternative rock scene, and he gives everything a “satisfying crunch” that means Sour’s “pop opera” never sinks into “gloop”. World domination here we come.

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