Albums of the Week: AngelHeaded Hipster, Peter Grimes, American Head
The three best new releases you should listen to
This week’s best new releases include various artists singing the songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex, a new recording of Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera and the latest record by The Flaming Lips.
Various: AngelHeaded Hipster – The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex (BMG £13)
Marc Bolan was the “platonic ideal of a pop star - glamorous, impish, lovable yet elusive”, said Tim de Lisle in The Mail on Sunday. Now, 43 years after his death, he receives “one of the biggest compliments known to songwriters” - a tribute by Hal Willner, the great producer who sadly died earlier this year of Covid-19, soon after completing work on this wonderful album. Willner’s special gift was for matching material and artist, and here a starry array of Bolan fans - including U2 with Elton John, Joan Jett, Nick Cave, Peaches, and Marc Almond - deliver beautifully realised covers of some of his best songs.
There are moments when Bolan’s “defiantly gibberish” lyrics feel exposed, said Neil McCormick in The Daily Telegraph. “I got giraffes all up in my hair and I don’t care,” croons Father John Misty on Main Man. But in fact, it scarcely matters. With its “intriguing cast, exotic songs and dazzling arrangements”, this treat of an album is a “loving, rich, strange and rewarding delight”. My advice: “Bang a gong, and get it on.”
Britten: Peter Grimes (Chandos; £23)
This superb new recording of Benjamin Britten’s breakthrough 1945 opera, by the Bergen Philharmonic under Edward Gardner, is up there with the “finest” ever, said Erica Jeal in The Guardian. It was made last year following several semi-staged performances and acclaimed concerts – and the recording is thus “extraordinarily well run-in”. Even in audio only, it registers as a “genuine music drama”. The music “leads us through the story in one urgent, vital sweep”, the sound is “huge and thrilling”, and there’s “sparkling interplay between singers and orchestra”.
This “outstanding” Peter Grimes is one to “cherish”, agreed Hugh Canning in The Sunday Times – and it preserves Stuart Skelton’s “immense incarnation” of the title role. His Grimes is “brutish” in his treatment of the apprentice, yet “heart-breakingly vulnerable” in the mad scene. Erin Wall and Roderick Williams provide fine support, and the Bergen choruses (with singers from the Royal Northern College of Music) “share the honours with Gardner’s superlative orchestra”.
The Flaming Lips: American Head (Bella Union; £10)
Recent Flaming Lips albums have been “gimmicky or unlistenable”, said Will Hodgkinson in The Times. But on American Head, they rediscover “what they do better than anyone, which is a dreamy, richly melodic take on psychedelic rock containing stories culled from experience”. Their best album since 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, it’s a strangely moving “hallucinogenic epic about the other side of the American dream”. Harmonies and melodies “unfold with ease” and crescendo before breaking into “musical Technicolor” and there is a luxurious, Beatlesque quality throughout. Just wonderful.
This is an album about memories of childhood and adolescence, said Elisa Bray in The Independent. The sound is “accessible, tender and surreal”. Many of the songs are augmented by backing vocals from Texas country star Kacey Musgraves. And the bucolic tone throughout “conjures flashbacks with wide-eyed wonder”, especially in the “melodic gem” Dinosaurs on the Mountain. Evocative and beautiful, the album is a thrilling return to peak form.