Music reviews: Neneh Cherry, Alfred Brendel, Elixir, Soap & Skin and more
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Music reviews: Neneh Cherry, Alfred Brendel, Elixir, Soap & Skin and more

ELECTRONIC POP
Neneh Cherry
BROKEN POLITICS (Smalltown Supersound)
★★★★☆

On 2014's Blank Project, her first solo album in almost two decades, Neneh Cherry had a leonine snarl and an urgency to make up for lost time; it was a breakthrough or breakdown return. Her immersive follow-up slows down and takes stock of the world that the singer-songwriter and pop-star prototype sees, measuring intimate situations against the ugly framework of contemporary society. Cherry, who performs in January's Sydney Festival, has made an album laced through with empathy. "Lies travel faster than the truth," she sings, and these songs are a corrective: gun violence is dissected in Shotgun Shack, inequality has a worn face on Fallen Leaves, while Kong turns history's dark undercurrents into rhapsodic self-belief. Working with producer Kieran Hebden (aka electronic artist Four Tet) and long-time partner and collaborator Cameron McVey, Cherry weaves together swaying grooves, glinting percussion, Ornette Coleman samples, and warm keyboard tones to create welcoming textures that ebb and flow. Maturity is a dirty word in popular music, but Broken Politics is masterful in how it speaks to lacerating public failings with compassion and experience. CRAIG MATHIESON

Neneh Cherry: measuring intimate situations against the ugly framework of contemporary society.

Neneh Cherry: measuring intimate situations against the ugly framework of contemporary society.Credit:Wolfgang Tillmans

POETRY/SONG
Elixir/Katie Noonan/Michael Leunig
GRATITUDE AND GRIEF (Kin/Universal)

★★★★☆

The dichotomy could not be wider, and yet it is exactly this that makes the album work so well. Firstly Michael Leunig reads one of his picture-of-innocence, charm-laden, spell-casting poems in his uniquely lugubrious way, and then that same poem is set to music and sung my Katie Noonan in a voice that is as ethereal as Leunig's is rooted in the earth. This happens with 10 poems, and it is like looking at the same set of words through two different kaleidoscopes: one of muted browns and yellows, and one of flaring golds and silvers. The compositions are attributed to Leunig, Noonan and Noonan's two collaborators in Elixir: her husband Zac Hurren on saxophones and that great Australian sorcerer of the electric guitar, Steve Magnusson. As well as the latter pair's delightful solos, string arrangements flesh out some pieces, while others are left more naked, like a monochrome Leunig cartoon. The words – mostly wry observations and homespun philosophies of coping – seem made for song. Try these from Love Is Born: "Love is born/With a dark and troubled face,/When hope is dead/And in the most unlikely place; Love is born/Love is always born." JOHN SHAND

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EXPERIMENTAL/AMBIENT
Soap & Skin
FROM GAS TO SOLID/YOU ARE MY FRIEND (PIAS)

★★★½☆

"Just as you wanted to avoid it, you already hold it in your hand," sings Anja Plaschg in the closing line of Athom. It is unclear whether she's happy or not about this state of affairs, and that is the push-me-pull-you paradox at the heart of the Austrian songwriter's third album as Soap & Skin. Plaschg has said these new songs are about separation, forgiveness and healing. There is an intensity and intimacy here that make it obvious that she is dragging some personal demons to the surface. Her vocal delivery is a blend of Nico's Teutonic tones and Bjork's child-like clarity, while the instrumentation uses live playing and then cuts it up and reassembles the parts. Italy tips its hat to Suicide, as whirring organ winds around a preset rhythm, the free-form patchwork of horns and strings in Heal echo David Bowie's Blackstar, and (This Is) Water sounds like a duet between monks and mermaids. Plaschg closes by covering What a Wonderful World (made famous by Louis Armstrong). The song so often used to soundtrack cinematic happy endings is sung over a spooked backing that suggests Plaschg is, at best, cautiously optimistic about the state of her world. BARRY DIVOLA

CLASSICAL
Alfred Brendel
LIVE IN VIENNA (Decca)

★★★★½

How wonderful that 10 years after Alfred Brendel finally left the concert platform at 77 we should have two "new" marvellous performances. Both were recorded live in Vienna, one being the Schumann piano concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic and Simon Rattle in 2001, and the other a 1979 account of Brahms' Handel Variations. Brendel, for me, is close to the perfect pianist: a flawless technique always at the service of the music; idiomatic interpretations that always sound exactly right; a cool intelligent naturalness, but not at the expense of vitality. He has recorded the Schumann at least three times previously, but this is surely the Brendel ideal: the pianist's delicacy and subtlety matched by the Vienna musicians and Rattle, and the recording is first rate. Brendel never recorded the Handel Variations in the studio, saying in the album notes he found the "neo-classicist/neo-baroque corset" irritating, but he reconsidered the Variations' merits when he heard this performance from Austrian Radio archives, and registered the "wealth of different characters, the colour, economy and masterful disposition of the pieces". He's right, and we are much the richer for it. BARNEY ZWARTZ

SOUNDTRACK
Phillip Johnston
THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (Asynchronous)

★★★★☆

If you've seen the film, to hear the music is to have the magical images once more dancing before your eyes. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is Phillip Johnston's score for the revolutionary silent feature film of that name made in 1926 by Lotte Reiniger, which brings tales from The Arabian Nights to life in silhouette animation. Johnston's intricate score (for his own soprano sax, James Greening's trombone, and the keyboards of Alister Spence and Casey Golden, plus recorded loops, samples and Nic Cecire's drums), only deepens the mystery of the images, while highlighting the humour, drama, and, of course, romance. To listen to it independently of the film to be struck by the breadth of musical ideas that can hurl themselves from zaniness once moment to explosive grooves the next, and on to eerie beauty, while leaving scope for pithy little solos. Simultaneously Johnston has released a new album from his band the Coolerators, Diggin' Bones, on which he is joined by Spence, Cecire and Necks bassist Lloyd Swanton. This presents another facet of his music: a love of aerated, groovy, organ-based jazz. They are both worth the cost of admission in their own ways. JOHN SHAND

POP
Say Lou Lou
IMMORTELLE (a Deux/Cosmos)

★★★☆☆

On their Spotify artist page Swedish-Australian duo Say Lou Lou have created several playlists, including one called Opium. "Haze, smoke, sheets, somewhere between waking and sleeping, silk, Arabian wood," is how they describe it, and this also sums up the sound and aesthetic of Immortelle. Comprising genetically blessed twins Miranda and Elektra Kilbey (daughters of the Church's Steve Kilbey), Say Lou Lou combined breathy vocals and wistful melodies with pretty, gauzy, production on their 2015 debut, Lucid Dreaming. The effect was alluring, but also somewhat anaesthetising. They relocated from Stockholm to Los Angeles to record this follow-up, which swaps their debut's gossamer textures for a smokier, more noirish sound. Bond film soundtracks are an audible influence in sweeping, sultry songs such as Ana and Limbo, which adds trip-hop horns and smoulder, and on Phantoms and Immortelle they recall another Swedish sister duo, First Aid Kit, albeit in a muted, misty form. Their cover of Under the Milky Way, penned by their father and mother, Karin Jansson, is a tasteful, beguiling interpretation. Like smoke, though, these songs tend to disappear without leaving a lasting impression. ANNABEL ROSS