The sun has nearly set on 2016. Which last minute albums have remembered to pack their torch and an ample supple of batteries and who's going to be stumbling around in the dark, stubbing their toe on the coffee table? Allow me to illuminate it for you (chortle, chortle)...
Let's start with the new album from Maria Taylor, one half of duo Azure Ray. In The Next Life is her seventh solo studio album. If it is possible for an album to be lazy in a good way, then this is it. Taylor meanders along through a selection of simple ditties that showcase her soulful voice, all set to the backdrop of drifting guitars. The album is an endless Saturday in the height of summer, slow rivers and gently swishing grass all cast in the ethereal hue of memory. Soft waves of melody combine effortlessly with Taylor's vocal zephyr beneath a picture perfect instrumental sunset. Not one that I could listen to over and over but ideal for reminiscing about warmer days and happier times.
Also out this week is the soundtrack to the movie Hidden Figures. Ordinarily, I would not contemplate reviewing a soundtrack however, I am making an exception in this case for two reasons. Firstly, Pharrell Williams is involved in nearly every song so it is, by any other name, a Pharrell album. Secondly, the true story behind the film is extraordinary. The subject is Katherine Johnson, who worked for NASA in a department that was at one stage segregated. Despite this, her flight calculations were partially responsible for, among other things, the successful Apollo 11 moon landing and she is credited with helping to keep the USA in the 'space race'.
Film music legend Hans Zimmer is listed as joint composer on the album but this is Pharrell's moment in the sun. He at times invokes the image of dashing round like a headsetted Monica from Friends. A factotum desperate to assemble the best in young, black American talent to truly commemorate one of his country's unsung heroes. The result is well worth it. The album feels polished and the spirit of the sixties is imbibed through a strong brass section that accompanies throughout. Admittedly, a strong start gives way to a weaker middle section but everything is rounded off nicely with the uplifting I See A Victory featuring the gorgeous voice of gospel singer Kim Burrell.
Finally, we have Peace Trail, the 42nd studio album from legend Neil Young. This is the latest in a long line of protest albums that we have seen recently, something which is hardly surprising given the string of baffling political decisions that has been a feature of 2016. Young has an air of Rooster Cogburn about him, a world-weary traveller forced to come back to the fore to address the injustices that he perceives around him.
Some of the material comes across a little preachy and played for impact however the most compelling and relevant tracks on the album are Indian Givers and Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders. The former deals with the treatment of Native Americans by the US Government, particularly poignant when placed next to the images of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The latter is a wry look at the perception of immigrants as something to be feared. When he sings 'I think I know who to blame//It's all those people with funny names', Young manages in 14 words to make me feel ashamed that we live in a world where there are people who genuinely think along those lines.
Young and many others are attempting to make us think about the decisions with which we are all going to have to live now. Would it be too much to hope that at the end of 2017 we are writing about the long line of musicians who released albums referencing how many of the world's problems just resolved themselves overnight and we now live in a harmonious bubble of tolerance and understanding? Are you listening, Santa?
Then again, I might be wrong. I am a Musical Moron, after all...
Young's getting restless
Johnson's shooting for the stars
Taylor's chilling out
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