The listener

Yunchan Lim’s Chopin isn’t as good as his Liszt or Rach

Grade: B- In 2022 the South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim became, at 18, the youngest winner of the Van Cliburn competition, displaying a virtuosity that stunned the judges. You could see conductor Marin Alsop’s astonishment as he bounded through the finale of Rach 3, combining accuracy and swirling fantasy at daredevil speed. It’s been viewed nearly 15 million times on YouTube. In truth, though, he’d have had to screw up badly not to win, because he’d already dispatched Liszt’s fiendish Transcendental Études with perfect articulation and mercurial wit; in places he out-dazzled even the current master of this repertoire, Daniil Trifonov. Decca snapped him up and here’s his first studio

Fat White Family’s new album is much, much better than I had feared

Grade: A- The irresistibly catchy – if you are not quite right in the head – ‘Touch The Leather’ was probably my favourite single of the previous decade, aided by a video which was simultaneously marvellously seedy, threatening and infantile. ‘Left-wing skin on the right-wing leather – touch the leather leather…’ Well it did it for me, and so I set great stock by these scrofulous squat-dwelling skaggies from Brixton, until with every subsequent dim-witted release the notion began to embed itself that they weren’t, actually, very good. ‘Touch The Leather’ was maybe just one of those glorious singular flukes you find in pop music by performers who aren’t really

The greatest British symphonist you’ve never heard of

Grade: A Rejoice! A glorious symphonic cycle by a British composer has been issued as a set for the first time. George Lloyd (1913-98) was treated with lofty condescension by the musical establishment because his twelve symphonies contain barely a single dissonance. They’re sprinkled with jaunty tunes that have the feel of an Ealing Comedy – heresy! Also, it didn’t help that for decades Lloyd made his living as a mushroom farmer in the West Country. But he was no amateur: he could write perfect fugues as a teenager and by his early twenties had a fine opera under his belt. Then in 1942, the ship on which he was

As good, and inventive, as modern rock music gets: Black Midi’s Hellfire reviewed

Grade: A+ The difficult question with Black Midi was always: are you listening to them in order to admire them, or because you actually enjoy the music they make? By which I mean when you’ve finished listening to them is it a sense of admiration which lingers in the mind, or are you captivated by one or another of their songs? Previously it has tended to be the former – and there is an awful lot to admire. If you add superlative musicianship to a certain witty and anarchic imagination, you end up with this rather deranged, occasionally irritating, millennial mash-up of styles, where jazz fusion meets post-punk, James Brown,

An intense slab of religiosity: Nick Cave’s Seven Psalms reviewed

 Grade: B There has always been a seriousness and intelligence about Nick Cave quite at odds with that which usually attends to the rancid, tottering, old tart that is rock music, so there should be no surprise that he’s left it completely behind. This is a collection of seven spoken word prayers to that entity with which the Australian has had a long and not always straightforward relationship, God. They are accompanied by minimalist synth and piano compositions – kind of three-note fugues – from collaborator Warren Ellis and none of them clocks in at more than two minutes. Intense religiosity has always both repelled and attracted Cave: here he

Humour, sweetness and sincerity: Father John Misty’s Chloë and the Next Twentieth Century reviewed

 Grade: A– In which Josh Tillman reimagines the whole back catalogue of 20th-century American pop music (except for rock), tilting heavily in favour of the 1930s-1950s. Lush strings, polite jazz and sometimes cocktail piano, big band stuff etc., plus the expected Tillman mordant humour and some unexpected sweetness and sincerity. There’s the country torch of Patsy Cline on ‘Kiss Me (I Loved You)’, the cabaret samba of ‘Olvidado (Otro Momento)’, Rodgers’ and Hart’s ‘My Funny Valentine’ homage on ‘Funny Girl’, and what we’re told is an attempt to kind of rewrite Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ on ‘Goodbye Mr Blue’. The problem? If you hold yourself up before a century of

No one should be doing indie rock at 43: Band of Horses’s Things Are Great reviewed

Grade: B That thing, ‘indie rock’, is so well played and produced these days, so pristine and flawless, that it has become almost the antithesis of what it was back at the end of the 1970s, when the term was invented. Then it referred to bands who released stuff on small independent labels because the big labels wouldn’t take them on. Shouty, angsty and angular, or just weird and beloved by the befringed dolorous yoof, in their anoraks or donkey jackets, the whole thing had a pleasing DIY feel to it, even if it sometimes grated. These days ‘indie’ just tends to mean anodyne power pop played by whining blokes

See this Russian hip hop star before they arrest him: Oxxxymiron’s Beauty & Ugliness reviewed

Grade: A+ I was going to review hyperpop chanteuse Charli XCX’s album this week, but it was such boring, meretricious, grandstanding 1980s retread electropop vacuity that I thought, nah, even if it is headed to the top of our ravaged charts. So have this instead. Oxxxymiron is Russia’s No. 1 hip-hop artist. Yes, Russian hip hop is indeed an oxxxymiron, much as would be Serbian reggae or Iranian gospel, but never mind. He’s a youngish Jewish bloke born in Leningrad, with a degree in Middle English from Oxford University, and is hugely popular in his home country. Is it any good, this album released late last year? It’s darker and

Fabulously boring: Weather Station’s How Is It That I Should Look at the Stars reviewed

Grade: C– Anyone remember that TV advert for Canada from the 1980s – a succession of colourful images, including a delicious pink donut, downtown T.O. and soaring mountain peaks, displaying the beauty, vitality and vibrancy of the country? It made me want to visit. Wild horses wouldn’t drag me there now – that glorious, vast expanse now the sine qua non of smugness and condescension. It has become a terminally precious country and we should withdraw our ambassador, or invade (that being the fashion). Weather Station, led by the fabulously irritating Tamara Lindeman, were once okayish indie folkies who have now become pretentious, half-assed purveyors of somnambulant fake jazz, like

Too neat but it has hooks aplenty: Avril Lavigne’s Love Sux reviewed

Grade: B Yay, life just gets better and better. World War Three and now this. More petulant popcorn pre-school punk in which Avril spells words stupidly and tells ‘bois’ how much she weally, weally hates them but acksherly weally loves them. This was momentarily captivating on the magnificently catty glam-rock thrash of ‘Girlfriend’ 15 years ago. Trouble is, Avril is now 37, older than the Prime Minister of Finland – and there’s something a little unbecoming in a mature woman still hanging around the school bike sheds and shrieking at those bois: ‘When I think of you I wanna throw up!’ Shouldn’t she be writing about pre-nups, the onset of

Pretty astonishing: Black Country, New Road’s Ants From Up There reviewed

Grade: A+ It is not true, fellow boomers, that there is nothing new under the sun nor no good new music being made. Just almost nothing new and almost nothing good. The majority is indeed toxic landfill, rehashes of that least appealing of decades, the 1980s, and performed by pasty-faced, limp-wristed, deluded woke idiots whose chief concern is to tell you their gender. But there are yet pockets of brilliance, just as there were in 1975 and 1995 — and this youngish Cambridge band (the only other place they could have come from is Oxford) inhabit one of those pockets. Upon completion of this, their second album, the lead singer

Has the whiff of Spinal Tap: Jethro Tull’s The Zealot Gene reviewed

Grade: C+   I bought the ‘seminal’ Jethro Tull double album Thick as a Brick from a secondhand shop when I was nearing my 13th birthday. I played it once and then wrote off the £1.85 of my pocket money with buyer’s grave remorse. Sometimes, when the yearning for that much better decade, the 1970s, overwhelms me I take it out of my vinyl collection as a salutary corrective: remember those ten years also gave us Baader-Meinhof, Idi Amin, the IRA and Jethro Tull. If folkish prog is on offer, I prefer the Strawbs, even if Dave Cousins is clearly a lot dimmer than Jethro’s idiosyncratic and likeable Ian Anderson.

Lovely and wistful: Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Barn reviewed

 Grade: A I have persisted in buying everything Neil Young releases since I first heard On the Beach as a callow but pretentious 13-year-old. To tell you the truth, the past 27 years have somewhat tested this commitment. There has been a fatal laziness in the songwriting, lyrically and melodically, since 1994’s Sleeps with Angels and the preaching has become ever more tiresome. But I continued forking out in the increasingly forlorn hope that he’d turn out something if not wonderful, then at least reminiscent of wonderful things past. And for lo, the grizzled old troubadour has done exactly that. This is a subtler incarnation of Crazy Horse, helped incalculably

Truly godawful: Ed Sheeran’s =

 Grade: C= My wife’s ill with Covid and demanding inexhaustible libations and difficult meals, which she will leave uneaten. The dog thinks it deserves a walk in the filthy sleet. The kitchen is a tip and the bins need emptying. I have a headache, a runny nose and the ghost of a ticklish cough. Can things get worse? Yes, yes they can. It’s The Spectator on the phone. Can you please review Ed Sheeran’s new album? As in: look, you’re feeling rough and put upon at the moment. So can we come round and smash your spectacles and rub human excrement in your hair? And all this a few weeks

Reprehensible – but fun: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s Complete DG Recordings reviewed

 Grade: B It must have been an interesting day in the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s press office when Blair Tindall’s memoir Mozart in the Jungle hit the bookshops in 2005. ‘He sat in the desk chair, pushed aside the first oboe part of Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers and tapped a pile of cocaine on the glass’ runs a typical anecdote. Even in 2005, it wasn’t really what anyone expected to hear from a former member of Orpheus — a youthful, conductor-less New York outfit who used to pose for album covers dressed in spotless white. For a brief moment during the 1980s CD boom, Orpheus was going to save classical

Cheap schlock has now become expensive schlock: Adele’s 30 reviewed

Grade: C The problem I have is that I thought she was pretty awful before — when she was just fat and from Tottenham. Now that she has been marinated in SoCal for six years, she seems to have become even worse: a kind of Meghan Markle with a larynx. It was cheap schlock all the way back then; it’s expensive schlock now — that’s the only difference. This is her divorce album, her ‘Hollywood’ album, her mature album, her BRAVE album according to her adoring… critics is obviously the wrong word. OK, it starts off with words — ‘I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart’ —

Decent dream pop: Beach House’s Once Twice Melody reviewed

Grade: B+ Everything these days devolves to prog — and not always very good prog. Where once synths were vastly expensive, difficult to master and hell to maintain they are now in a place beyond ubiquity; every sound you want conjured by the press of a key, your song suddenly washed over with sonics that make it sound more important than it really is. It almost makes you yearn for Yes and ELP — at least they knew they were pretentious dullards using electronic wizardry to elevate the slightest of compositions. Dream pop and its self-harming kid sister shoe-gazing — both genres dating from the mid-1980s and the likes of

Repetitive, spiritless, god-bothering music: Kanye West’s Donda reviewed

Grade: C– The nicest thing one can say is that this is a marginally better album than we would have got from either of the other two presidential candidates. Just about. But sheesh, it’s still nearly two hours of the most repetitive, spiritless, god-bothering music you will ever hear, full of portentousness and self-pity and utterly devoid of any insight or humour. Rap, trap, snap, all the tiresome bases covered. Decent tunes and memorable rhythms are few and far between. I like West, the man, for his stoic refusal to kowtow to the stupid liberal orthodoxies demanded by the music business. But his self-importance is now so bloated he resembles

Hugely unmemorable: Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever reviewed

Grade: C+ Time to get the razor out again — Billie’s back. The slurred and affected can’t-be-arsed-to-get-out-of-bed vocals. The relentless, catatonic introspection, self-pity and boilerplate psychological insights. The queen of sadgurls has a new album — and yes, of course, the title is the closest Billie has ever come to making a joke. Of course she’s not happy — that would be her schtick sold down the river. If Billie ever professed herself really happy her fans would quickly go elsewhere to slake their misery jones. Eilish has talent, along with the over-weening narcissism that comes with affording your every feeling a sense of great, dramatic import. But it is

Is there anyone more irritating and stupid than Bobby Gillespie?

Grade: B– Is there anyone in rock music more irritating and stupid than Bobby Gillespie? The rawk’n’roll leather-jacketed self-mythologiser. The affected drawl. The shameless pillaging of every hard rock album made between 1969 and 1972, but especially the Faces and the Rolling Stones. The moronic lyrics. The hard-left radical chic posturing and condemnations of Israel from a man with all the geopolitical understanding of a nipple-clamp. The desperate, pathetic, yearning to be cool. Trawl back through those Primal Scream albums and show me a moment of true originality. There isn’t one, is there? Which isn’t to say that — annoyingly — they’re devoid of fun and the occasional good tune.