December 2020 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

Saunder Jurriaans: Beasts
Decca (16-bit/44.1 kHz streaming on Qobuz). 2020. Saunder Jurriaans, prod.; D. James Goodwin, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

While Saunder Jurriaans was writing his solo debut, he became a sought-after soundtrack composer with musical partner Danny Bensi. They helped create the grim, ethereal moods of Ozark, The OA, and Fear the Walking Dead. With Beasts, Jurriaans soundscapes his own story. The result is engrossing.

The album journeys from chaos into a greater understanding, with musical timbres as the storytelling language. The opening track moves toward a destination with its lumbering guitar pattern and many percussive sounds. As the strings, played by Bensi, swell to a climax, they're cut through and deflated by Jurriaans's lonely guitar.

That sense of unwelcome solitude continues in the piano-and-string-quartet texture of "A Different Shade of the Same," which finds Jurriaans singing "I'm falling faster than light, faster than I can scream," in a halting rhythm. The songwriter's interest in meditation and Eastern philosophy comes across in the introspective "All the King's Men," accompanied by repeated mantra-like guitar patterns.

The rainbow of inventive tone colors broadens in "Last Man Standing," Jurriaans providing a clarinet obbligato and adding layers of vocals and bright percussive slaps. "Brittle Bones" is a haunting homage to the Spanish guitar tradition, displaying Jurriaans's skill, while in "The Three of Me," Bensi's weirdly dissonant violin emphasizes the vulnerability in Jurriaans's voice.

The album closes with "Miles to Go," a rumbling acceptance of life's trials. The overall effect is terrifying and hopeful at once, a dichotomy that speaks to anyone who has tried to grow beyond suffering.—Anne E. Johnson


Tricky: Fall to Pieces
False Idols. K7S391 (CD) 2020. Tricky, prod.; Andrew Hockey, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Early acclaim can be a curse. Bristol, UK–born rapper Tricky came to prominence with Massive Attack's debut album, Blue Lines (1991), which many (including me) regard as one of the most innovative albums of the 1990s. Four years later, his solo debut, Maxinquaye, received similar praise (yep, from me too). Both helped create the genre of trip-hop and opened up a space for Brit rap to operate in.

Although he has produced some very good music since, he has yet to return to such Olympian heights. With Fall to Pieces, he still hasn't, but perhaps that's an unrealistic and unproductive wish. What matters more is that this is a very good album indeed. It isn't a long one, at under half an hour, but that makes it all the more powerful.

It's not an unusual thing for heartbreak to help create great art. Maxinquaye had the death of Tricky's mother as its influence; here, it's the suicide of his daughter. "Hate This Pain" and "Chills Me to the Bone" lay bare the agony he feels. It's not a barrel of laughs, but it also is not a test of the listener's endurance. Tricky has always had the ability to add detail and nuance to his familiar style, giving it interest, and despite either its subject matter or delivery, an upbeat feeling.

He operates well with a female singer. Here, it is Marta Zlakowska, co-writer of many of the songs, who he discovered singing in a Krakow bar. Maybe that's how they manage to create the retro feel of a late-night piano bar, with Tricky in the corner alternating lead and support to Zlakowska while, within a modern-but-minimal hip-hop beat, her pure voice contrasts his deep smoky rasp. The effect makes Fall to Pieces a wonderful, graceful, passionate album.—Phil Brett


Doves: The Universal Want
Heavenly/Virgin. V 3248 (CD) Dan Austin, prod.; Jez Williams, eng.
Performance ***½
Sonics ****

Doves have not had the profile of Coldplay and Elbow, with whom they share Brit alt-rock sensitivity and facial hair. That lower profile might be due, at least in part, to the fact that The Universal Want is their first studio album in more than a decade.

Singles such as the album opener, "Carousel," have let fans know that the long wait is not a sign of radical departures. There are still the complex rhythms and samples, with Jez Williams's vocals of sadness and resilience. There's an overall dreaminess to the album, which usually has an anthemic chorus of hope not too far from the surface. Sometimes, such as with "Carousel" and "Mother Silverlake," they are reminiscent of a soundtrack of a nonexistent indie movie set in the snowy wilds. "Carousel" reminds me of the TV series Twin Peaks. The wonderful album cover (from photographer Maria Lax, it's a contender for best album sleeve of 2020) fits the vibe.

But I guess we're talking emotional metaphors here, as maybe you wouldn't have a drum sample from the much-missed Tony Allen on it if you were developing anything literal. There's also an afrobeat on "Mother Silverlake." The songs of The Universal Want describe the isolating and upsetting situations we sometimes find ourselves in, but we can, with luck, escape them. In "For Tomorrow"—for me, the best song of the set—Williams encapsulates the optimism of The Doves' world, singing Are we really from different worlds?/So, for tomorrow we will breathe again/For tomorrow we can see home/No more sorrow we will laugh again/I hope, I hope. Sounds like a positive philosophy to me. You can just see an audience, mobile phones aloft, torches on, singing along.—Phil Brett

DaveinSM's picture

Adrian Thaws is a unique musical talent. Thanks for reviewing him here, of all places.