Hollie Cook, Hollie Cook (Mr Bongo)
Of late, reggae hasn’t had much success in reaching an audience outside the long-established centres of fandom. While the more abstract dub experiments from the 1970s onwards continue to attract interest from all corners of the avant-garde world, vocalists of a more traditional bent have lost a large part of their international audience because of a tendency to repeat the same old riddims and lyrical themes ad nauseam. A sad dedication to misogynist, homophobic and/or rabidly fundamentalist Rasta lyrics has also pushed reggae to the edges of popularity. Interestingly, for this male-dominated world, two of the most interesting albums of the last few years have come from women. There’s Terry Lynn’s terrific and innovative Kingston Logic, and now Hollie Cook’s Hollie Cook. Hollie is the daughter of an ex-Amazulu and an ex-Pistol whose first steps in the musical public were, tellingly, with Ari Up and the reformed Slits. Her debut album oozes class and flair. With consummate ease and great charm, she takes an old and often hackneyed sub-genre of British reggae, lovers’ rock, and, thanks also to an ace band that includes Pioneer George Dekker and Matumbi Dennis Bovell, turns it into something as fresh as a daisy and utterly relevant. Produced by Prince Fatty aka Mike Pelancoli, who once tried a similar feat with Lily Allen, from the first note of the irresistibly summery ‘Milk & Honey’ to the last twinkling of ‘Body Heat’, this is an utter delight.
Brian Eno, Drums Between the Bells (Warp)
Drums Between the Bells is a fascinating cornucopia of ideas, thoughts and sounds from the tireless sound experimenter Eno and the poet Rick Holland. The music ranges from spidery laptop funk to shimmering ambientscapes. Over these pieces, various voices (including a receptionist from the fitness centre Eno frequents) intone words that may or may not be taken in by the listener. Either way, like the best of Eno’s ambient albums, Drums changes the space in which it is played to invite contemplation, thought and – more unusually in such a context – musical appreciation.
Berne, Black & Cline, The Veil (Cryptogramophone)
By day, guitarist Nels Cline plays with Wilco, purveyors of elegant alternative rock – which undoubtedly helps to fund his musical alter ego as a long-standing member of the small and daring community of American free improvisers. Here, he teams up with alto saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Jim Black. The encounter (recorded live) leads to a music that is fiercely muscular, often very loud and yet subtly lyrical. A rewarding trip, though possibly not for the faint-hearted.
Other Lives, Tamer Animals (Play It Again Sam)
Other Lives hail from the small town of Stillwater, Oklahoma, where they have their own studio and are thus able to spend as long as they want on anything they do. Tamer Animals, their second album, comes with a wall-of-sound production that could have been orchestrated by Phil Spector, had he been a Fleet Foxes- and Sigur Rós-loving post-folkie. A certain ramshackle quality saves the music from sounding ridiculously grandiose, and principal songwriter Jesse Tabish somehow manages to sound chirpy and melancholy at the same time.
Susanne Sundfor, The Brothel (Grönland)
The Norwegian singer-songwriter’s third album has been out in her native country for a while, and only now is word of its brilliance trickling over the borders. Sundfor plays various keyboards, plus vibraphone and marimba. Many other instruments are involved, ranging from lap steel guitar to viola, trombone and ‘water harp’. In Sundfor’s hands, an orchestra never sounds bombastic; instead, her arrangements are deeply subtle and unusual, and all the more dramatic for it. ‘It’s All Gone Tomorrow’, for instance, marries luscious orchestral swirls to a dubstep-like clatter of beats. Truly gripping stuff.