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CD reviews: Eugene McGuinness sends urban pop down a new road

Plus, Candy Coated Fury, Reel Big Fish; and Cut The World, Antony and the Johnsons.

Eugene McGuinness The Invitation to the Voyage (Domino)

Among the brilliant, big-selling talents on the roster of Domino Records – home to the likes of Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys – Eugene McGuinness has always seemed a bit of a Rick-Astley figure.

Astley, you may recall, was the "tea boy" at the 1980s hit factory PWL (best known for launching the pop careers of Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan) who eventually proved to be the most gifted singer in their books. Now McGuinness is making his own bid for an Astley-style breakthrough, with a similar quiff but a wildly different musical outlook.

Initially regarded as an acoustically inclined nu-folk act, the East Londoner is reborn as a charismatic crooner on this, his second album proper. "It's a hoedown, a showdown, a shindig and a knees-up, too," he hollers on the scene-setting, party-starting Harlequinade. That may suggest barn-friendly strumming but The Invitation to the Voyage actually offers a novel new path for urban pop.

McGuinness has previously professed a love for Rufus Wainwright and Cole Porter, and his performances here are suitably grandiose and garrulous, exploring everyday tales of city life plus frequent flights of lyrical fancy. "Grab an umbrella and hover over town," he warbles effusively over the sparse beats of Concrete Moon, "where they're tearing the decorations down".

Sugarplum, on the other hand, could be a late 1970s punk-funk rarity from Talking Heads, aside from a very modern mobile phone mishap: "I should have said it, when I had credit," sighs McGuiness, whose wayward high notes often resemble a young David Byrne. And on the Duane Eddy-like rockabilly of Lion, having already confessed to a "disgraceful quest for immortality", he insists that "I was raised by wolves, in the brutal wilderness". That brutal wilderness was Leytonstone, also the birthplace of David Beckham. Thankfully, they have very different voices.

McGuinness's vocal range is actually a marvel throughout: quirky, soulful and hugely versatile – useful, given the array of styles he negotiates. The album was produced by the veteran Clive Langer – famed for his work with Elvis Costello and Morrissey - and Dan Carey, who has manned the desk for numerous cutting-edge electro-pop acts. This improbable creative team has conjured a terrifically diverse, very distinctive whole.

In truth, The Invitation to the Voyage is probably too odd to catapult McGuinness far beyond his current niche, but discerning listeners will be thankful that such wilfully ambitious records still have an outlet. The Domino effect continues.


Reel Big Fish Candy Coated Fury (Rock Ridge)

Alternative rock has a proud history of providing succour for troubled, lonely souls. Think Nirvana, Radiohead, The Smiths … and Reel Big Fish? The Californian ska-guitarists return with their first original album in five years, and an unlikely agenda. Candy Coated Fury is a collection of failed-relationship songs; angst-ridden but still channelled through their traditional riot of drums and trumpets. This causes some curious clashes of tone. She's Not the End of the World would be the perfect theme for a teen sitcom, if not for the lead singer Adam Barrett contemplating suicide throughout ("If you're really my friend you'll put a rope around my neck"). Next up is a similarly bouncy cover of The Wonder Stuff's Don't Let Me Down Gently and its Morrissey-like sentiment that "it would be great to die together". The bad-romance gripes are good-humoured, though, culminating in a mock-metal ode to "the wicked witch I wasted my time with" on PS I Hate You. Time to let it go, Adam. After all, she has just inspired a whole album of material.

* Si Hawkins

Antony and the Johnsons Cut The World (Rough Trade)

Rarely giving the listener anything they haven't heard before, live albums typically exist for little purpose other than bleeding fans of their cash. But there's never been anything "typical" about Antony Hegarty. The enigmatic British-American artist's latest release sees him revisiting some of the most memorable moments of his career, but with stunning new arrangements by Nico Muhly, Rob Moose, Maxim Moston and Hegarty himself. The opener Cut the World is the album's only new song and, although beautifully moody, it makes for a somewhat directionless start. Things soon change on the favourite Cripple and the Starfish, which benefits from the addition of menacing strings and wintry wind instruments, giving the bittersweet ode an almost operatic feel. Elsewhere, Rapture, The Crying Light and Epilepsy is Dancing all receive broad, sweeping arrangements that surpass the original recordings. Unlike many live releases, this pushes its singer's voice right to the forefront. Thankfully, Antony's tormented lyrics withstand the greater scrutiny this brings. Far more than a showcase of his best work, this album builds an ambitious and cohesive artistic framework around it, delivering a level of heartbreaking beauty that seems almost impossible.

* Oliver Good

Updated: August 7, 2012 04:00 AM

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