DAVID BYRNE: American Utopia (Nonesuch)
Verdict: Byrne returns with a smile
JONATHAN WILSON: Rare Birds (Bella Union)
Verdict: Backroom boy takes flight
Sung over backing tracks created by Brian Eno, its ten short songs are illuminated by bright arrangements and a sense of playful immediacy
They emerged alongside Blondie and the Ramones and cut their musical teeth in the celebrated New York punk hangout CBGB, but David Byrne’s Talking Heads were never easy bedfellows with the leather-jacketed new-wave brigade.
The band’s imaginative songs were rooted in funk and R&B rather than three-chord rock.
MOLLY DRAKE: The Tide's Magnificence (Fledgling)
MOLLY was the mother of Nick Drake, the singer-songwriter who won wide acclaim only after his death in 1974, and her sweet piano ballads are the missing link in his story.
Molly, who died in 1993, made these home recordings in the Fifties, but they still intrigue.
A niche release, but a key one for Nick Drake fans.
Moving from the Seventies into the Eighties, they explored electronic sounds and global rhythms on albums that still resonate today.
Only last year, Selena Gomez sampled their 1977 hit Psycho Killer.
But Byrne has been reluctant to trade on his towering legacy. Talking Heads released their last album in 1988 and have resisted all lucrative reunion offers.
Their quirky lead singer has even edged away from making music, with his recent side-projects including a range of bike racks, and musicals about Joan Of Arc and Imelda Marcos.
With American Utopia, he reclaims some of the heritage. His first solo album in 14 years is concise and catchy — and unmistakably the work of a former Talking Head.
Sung over backing tracks created by Brian Eno, its ten short songs are illuminated by bright arrangements and a sense of playful immediacy.
Byrne, who was born in the Scottish town of Dumbarton but moved to America as a child, is one of life’s optimists.
Unlike many middle-aged men in music — he is, astonishingly, now 65 — he refuses to play the embittered old grouch and is currently curating a series of online lectures called Reasons To Be Cheerful, naming the project after an Ian Dury song.
‘I don’t have any surefire answers, but I’m unwilling to succumb entirely to despair or cynicism,’ he says — and American Utopia’s uplifting tone bears him out.
VARIOUS: Concert for George (Concord)
Recorded at the Royal Albert Hall on the first anniversary of George Harrison’s death, this is a star-studded tribute.
Previously only on DVD, the 2002 concert is now out on CD, vinyl and digitally.
It’s a sprawling affair, but highlights include Eric Clapton and a cameo from Ringo Starr. There is fresh poignancy, too, in the presence of Tom Petty, who died last year.
The album opens with the tuneful, yet inventive, I Dance Like This, which begins as a plaintive piano ballad before abruptly changing into a clattering, synth-heavy workout that Depeche Mode would have been proud to call their own.
‘I dance like this, because it feels so damn good,’ sings Byrne, delivering his lines in an instantly identifiable vocal bark.
Employing eccentric animal metaphors, he imagines God as a ‘very old rooster’ on Every Day Is A Miracle before offering a canine take on the human condition with Dog’s Mind.
The healing power of music gets a look in on This Is That, with Byrne eulogising the moment ‘when the melody ends and the rhythm kicks in’ against a soulful, percussive backing.
There are joyous pop moments. It’s Not Dark Up Here is an infectious, Latin American two-step and Doing The Right Thing a cinematic piece set to swirling strings.
There is also a cameo, on the funky Everybody’s Coming To My House, by South London producer Sampha, winner of last year’s Mercury Music Prize.
If rock’s elder statesmen have a duty to offer encouragement rather than negativity to the young, Byrne passes with flying colours.
Now, with this third solo album, the American singer-songwriter is moving centre stage
As the producer of Father John Misty’s Grammy- winning Pure Comedy album and the guitarist in Roger Waters touring band, Jonathan Wilson has been busy behind the scenes.
Now, with this third solo album, the American singer-songwriter is moving centre stage.
ALEXANDRA BURKE: The Truth Is (Decca)
Burke tones down the histrionics on what is only her third album since her X Factor win a decade ago.
She opts instead for the grown-up soul feel of Gabrielle or Beverley Knight on the title track before branching into country-pop on Summer and reggae on Maybe It’s Love.
The less said about a duet with Ronan Keating, the better.
Once a devotee of confessional, West Coast country-rock — he moved from his native North Carolina to LA’s Laurel Canyon because he was such a fan of the music made there in the Seventies — he has now added synths, samples and drum machines to his armoury, and Rare Birds is more expansive as a result.
Wilson still has the bearded demeanour of an L.A. hipster, but his musical touchstones are now largely British, with echoes of Peter Gabriel on Hard To Get Over and hints of Waters’ Pink Floyd on the Sixties-tinged There’s A Light.
With its Abbey Road-era guitars and a nod to the Sgt. Pepper character Billy Shears, Trafalgar Square harks back to The Beatles.
The singer has described Rare Birds as a break-up record, but the heartache isn’t always obvious.
The sombre 49 Hairflips is too explicit lyrically, but these long, languid songs generally don’t outstay their welcome, with veteran American musician Laraaji supplying a new age chant on Loving You and Lana Del Rey’s murmured vocals adding A-List pop glamour to Living With Myself.
- Both albums are out today. David Byrne starts a UK tour on June 14 at the New Theatre, Oxford (davidbyrne.com). Jonathan Wilson starts his tour on Wednesday at Oran Mor, Glasgow (ticketmaster.co.uk).