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Paolo Nutini: Last Night In The Bittersweet (Atlantic)
Verdict: Strong, if erratic, return
Regina Spektor: Home, Before, And After (Warner)
Verdict: Where the heart is
UB40 ft. Ali Campbell and Astro: Unprecedented (UMC)
Verdict: Sun-kissed reggae bliss
The day someone comes up with an award for the tardiest man in music, Paolo Nutini will be on the shortlist.
Oblivious to the commercial imperatives that spur on so many singer-songwriters, he moves at his own, leisurely pace.
His latest album is his first in more than eight years. The Glaswegian is a rarity — a leading pop star seemingly devoid of ego. Since topping the charts with his third album, Caustic Love, in 2014, he has reportedly written hundreds of songs he has kept to himself, prompting fears that his indifference to fame and fortune might lead him to squander his considerable talent.
At 35, he has ground to make up. Since we last heard from him, his more motivated peers have carved out lucrative careers. George Ezra has released three albums and Ed Sheeran, the embodiment of a highly-driven performer, four.
The day someone comes up with an award for the tardiest man in music, Paolo Nutini will be on the shortlist
A lack of ambition shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of ability, and Nutini throws his all — sometimes too much — into this comeback. Alongside his usual, blue-eyed soul ballads, there’s humming electronics and tub-thumping, industrial rock.
It’s a record that dispels any notion that he wants to be a pop pin-up.
At the outset, you even begin to wonder whether he’s taken complete leave of his senses.
Opening track Afterneath is an untidy mishmash of crashing cymbals and howled vocals. It’s not a promising start, but he’s soon back on familiar ground with gentle rocker Radio and tender ballad Through The Echoes.
When he first tasted success in 2006, Nutini was described as an old voice on young shoulders.
His raspy tone saw him compared to Rod Stewart and Joe Cocker. Now, 16 years later, he’s gained more experience and his singing, particularly on the ballads, is even more gravelly.
Across 70 sprawling minutes, Last Night In The Bittersweet, a double album in all but name, darts between styles.
Lose It, which resurrects the electronic beats of 1970s German bands such as Can and Neu!, appears to address his time out of the limelight: ‘I could not seem to find a way out of my worried mind,’ he sings.
‘Feeling I’d been left behind was bringing me down.’ There’s also some Cure-like indie-pop on the catchy Petrified In Love, and a lovely, Johnny Cash-style country ballad in Abigail.
On Shine A Light, he revisits the arena-rock dynamics of U2’s The Unforgettable Fire. After so much time away, it’s as if he’s trying to cram four different albums into one.
Such variety is admirable, but it also makes for a scattergun approach. It’s only towards the end of the album, where he delivers a string of beautifully crafted ballads — some acoustic; others building into grand orchestrations — that Last Night In The Bittersweet flows with real coherence.
Regina Spektor’s eighth album, it dials down a little of her old quirkiness in favour of songs with warmth and heart
Regina Spektor has never been easy to pin down. Born in Moscow, but a New York resident for 33 years, the Russian-American singer became synonymous with her adopted hometown’s rock scene after supporting The Strokes.
She’s since made her mark on Broadway and become a mainstay of TV and film soundtracks. Among her celebrity admirers are Peter Gabriel, who covered her song Après Moi, and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
What’s missing, in this country at least, is the mainstream pop success her songwriting flair and flowing piano playing deserves. Home, Before And After might be the record to change that.
Her eighth album, it dials down a little of her old quirkiness in favour of songs with warmth and heart.
Spektor, 42, has sometimes been defined by her eccentricities: past party pieces have included mimicking the sound of a trumpet and perfecting (on 2009’s Folding Chair) an impression of a singing dolphin.
There are some typically whimsical twists here. Loveology casts her as a school teacher specialising in porcupine-ology and antler-ology.
Becoming All Alone finds her singing of a chance meeting with God, whom she bumps into as she walks home alone. The Almighty suggests they go for a beer (‘We didn’t even have to pay, ‘cause God is God and he’s revered’).
She’s also a sophisticated, highly original performer. Beneath its bizarre storyline, Becoming All Alone is a powerful song about loneliness.
Up The Mountain looks for answers in the natural world
Elsewhere, Spacetime Fairytale is a jazzy, nine-minute suite about the mysteries of the universe, and Coin an inventive ballad about the contrasting outcomes of giving cash to a shaman, a president, a scientist and a baby (the latter ‘swallowed it whole’).
She warrants a wider hearing.
Singer Ali Campbell’s incarnation of UB40 is one of two rival factions of the Birmingham band doing the rounds. Their latest offering, Unprecedented, is not only a sparkling sequel to 2018’s A Real Labour Of Love. It’s also a fitting memorial to his former bandmate Astro, who died two weeks after the pair had finished making this album last November.
It’s a sunny, upbeat affair fuelled by the band’s original reggae spirit. Campbell has a knack of putting a mellow, melodic reggae spin on unlikely tracks. Here, he covers East 17’s Stay Another Day, Stevie Wonder’s protest number Do Yourself A Favour and, most surprisingly, Kris Kristofferson’s hangover song Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.
Amid a handful of originals — Ali and Astro dovetail superbly on the title track, just as they did on UB40’s version of Red Red Wine — there are two nods to Britain’s reggae lineage in covers of Gappy Ranks’ Heaven In Her Eyes and Louisa Mark’s lovers rock standard Caught You In A Lie, the latter delicately sung by Ali’s daughter Indica.