This week I came across an article about a group of scientists who make music from radioactive decay.
In other news, on Tuesday, nineties grunge gods Soundgarden will release its first album of new material in a decade and a half. (It streams free until then at iTunes.)
“We’re doing what we’ve always done as a band and we’re fortunate enough to have a long enough history that someone could actually suggest that we’re a nostalgia act,” brooding frontman Chris Cornell recently said. “Good for us.”
Sure, good for them.
Soundgarden, who reunited in 2010, is a nostalgia act – one that on King Animal more or less re-establishes its stoner-rock uproar, though Cornell’s vocal chords are gunked-up and frazzled pipe cleaners at this point. He rises up on his hind legs during the sinewy four-minute-long riff that is Non-State Actor, but his ravaged cry is much less than the scorching wail we remember. (On the non-screaming parts, he’s up to the challenge.)
It seems to me that while there’s still some progression to the game of Soundgarden’s Seattle peer Pearl Jam, Cornell and company are up to nothing more here than getting their feet back on the (familiar) ground. Lyrics are crushingly stilted – “a motherless country, of thee I sing” – but these guys don’t sag elsewhere.
Rowing is the final of 13 tracks, but it will be the favourite of some. It’s deep, shattering blues, enriched with yellowcake uranium perhaps. Guitarist Kim Thayil gets up to perfect-storm squalling on that guitar of his, and the whole thing works off a nifty bass-riff axis. “I heard an echo, but the answer had changed from the word I remember that I started out saying.” Cornell isn’t worried about currents or who else’s oars are in the water any more. At this stage, it’s about keeping your head down and pulling your own.
There’s no scent of Cornell’s fascination with the Beatles here; Worse Dreams, instead, touches the earth of Jim Morrison, before switching gears and directions into tougher stuff. Halfway There is strummed midlife existentialism, about initial ambitions and compromised dreams: “Did almost become good enough?”
It will have to be. The mountain is high, and Soundgarden’s peak days of Superunknown powers are no more. On the muscled strut of Been Away Too Long, Cornell questions the timing of it all. He only “wanted a break,” and now he worries about the layoff. “You can’t go home,” he concludes. Not a problem. Soundgarden makes it halfway there; the band’s audience will carry things from here.
Soundgarden plays Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre, Nov. 16.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
- The Souljazz Orchestra
- Three and a half stars
Those unfamiliar with a given genre at least have a stock image of the music, for example Sweet Home Chicago for blues. However, the idea of “soul jazz” is likely much less crystallized, to you and to Ottawa’s sweaty hepcats the Souljazz Orchestra, whose fourth album differs from their previous one and whose fifth will be different still. With recruited guest singers the troupe often travels wild in the upbeat – Serve and Protect struts to an Afro-Latin tension and hustle; Conquering Lion swaggers and swerves to a mad psych-funk soundtrack. Lyrics sometimes address socio-political issues. Reggae happens. Salsa too. Sweet home? Bring a map. Brad Wheeler
- Songs From a Gypsy Caravan
- Bill Bourne
- Three stars
This dude’s plugged into a heavy mainline, his songs coming through him as a steady, soulful charge. The eclectic Canadian veteran mostly uses a finger-picked acoustic guitar and sometimes a stomp box as he purposely works through such things as dirt-road gospel (Hand on the Plow), mesmerizing folk (Scent of the Bloom) and Delta stomp-and-slide (Queen of Hearts). On Summer at the Circus, a baritone clue is given to the troubadour’s admiration for Leonard Cohen and things a little Roma. “The midday sun is shining, lighting up a sea of blue / When it’s summer at the circus, in the dance of love with you.” Bourne is about the human kind, and he’s damn essential, obviously. B.W.
- The Abbey Road Sessions
- Kylie Minogue
- Three stars
As a concept, The Abbey Road Sessions is so deeply cheesy that it may as well have come wrapped in cheddar. To celebrate Minogue’s 25th anniversary year, she decamped to London’s most famous studio to cut an orchestral album of, erm, classic Kylie. But the results are anything but camp. The arrangements find unexpected depths in the songs, revealing soulful balladry beneath Better the Devil You Know, and recasting I Should Be So Lucky as melancholy musical theatre. But the real surprise is how well the settings suit Minogue, whose singing boasts enough subtlety and lustre to make us wonder why she’s pulled her punches all these years. J.D. Considine
- Edward Elgar and Elliott Carter: Cello Concertos
- Alisa Weilerstein, cello; Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, conductor
- Four stars
American cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s interpretation of Elgar’s Cello Concerto has aficionados running to Jacqueline Du Pré’s 1965 EMI recording with the London Symphony Orchestra for comparison. Du Pré’s blistering performance is mythical: Even those who haven’t heard it insist it’s the best. Weilerstein records here with conductor Daniel Barenboim (who was married to Du Pré), and it is a powerful performance, sharing, with Du Pré‘s, an extraordinary emotional intensity, but the two are very different. Weilerstein’s playing is more self-consciously nuanced and less elegaic, and she works her vibrato harder than Du Pré did – sometimes the line is as much about the singing as the song, but what passionate singing it is. Elissa Poole