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McAlmont & Nyman, Union Chapel | reviews, news & interviews

McAlmont & Nyman, Union Chapel

McAlmont & Nyman, Union Chapel

Minimalist and soul man invent a new musical language?

It’s taken David McAlmont over 15 years to find the right outlet for his remarkable voice and songs but, fingers crossed, it looks as if he's finally done it. In prospect, McAlmont's collaboration with Michael Nyman and his band, which received its first public airing last night at the Union Chapel, seems rather random. What, you might well ask, has a man with the vocal chops of a soul legend such as Curtis Mayfield got to say to a minimalist composer and soundtrack specialist with a gift for classical pastiche? Seldom have the musical codes of the street and the salon been more obliquely positioned.

In the event, the sequence of songs named The Glare sounds less contrived and more emotionally engaged than anything either McAlmont or Nyman has previously attempted. Nyman might have been overegging it when he claimed recently that the pair had created "a new musical language" but there is no denying that they have achieved a rare understanding - and in the strangest circumstances.

Each of the 11 songs in The Glare is based on a pre-existing instrumental piece by Nyman, either from a film soundtrack or one of his stand-alone works for strings and brass. To these McAlmont has added melodies and lyrics derived mainly from human-interest news stories from around the world that have caught his attention. These range from the American exploits of the Scottish X Factor finalist Susan Boyle, which make up the title track, to the experience of a pregnant Nigerian drug mule imprisoned in an Asian jail, the subject of the hauntingly beautiful ballad "In Laos".

His most eccentric choice of topic has to be Joanna Lumley's trip to Nepal, which is detailed in "A Great Day In Kathmandu". The most straightforward song in the collection is "Going To America", an upbeat recollection of McAlmont's first trip to the US, which bounces along to the strains of some signature, frantic arpeggiating from the Nyman band.

They all came over powerfully at the Union Chapel last night, despite McAlmont's rather downbeat presentation. Delivering the songs in the identical order to that on the forthcoming CD of The Glare probably wasn't an issue for most of the audience who, unlike me, hadn't heard them before on advance review copies. But a few well-chosen introductory words from the singer would have been welcome, given the obscurity of some of the lyrical material. The chronically mute McAlmont couldn't even manage a "hello, London." Clad in a smart charcoal suit with a giant sparkly something pinned to the lapel, the shaven headed tenor sang as well as he ever does, but he looked uncomfortable in front of the 12-piece Nyman ensemble. Their leader's fondness for standing up and stepping out from his Steinway grand to take a bow after every third number or so probably didn't help.

Hubristic foibles aside, this debut performance of The Glare showed Nyman to be a much more versatile composer and arranger than he is often taken to be. Anybody who associates his work with wearisome repetitive motifs, hammered out with pointlessly manic intensity, will be pleasantly astonished by the variety and subtlety of the music here. The restraint evident in "Friendly Fire", one of the evening's quietest and most vocally fraught moments, was as impressive in its own way as the more exuberant parping and farting from the brass section in "City of Turin". Compared to the serviceable alt-rock stylings of McAlmont's most successful incarnation hitherto - his on-off partnership with the guitarist and producer Bernard Butler - The Glare wins hands down in all areas, from song construction to dramatic execution. Ahead of its release next week, it already feels like a shoo-in for the 2010 Mercury Music Prize shortlist.

How long this mercurial duo can hold things together is the question. So far, mutual respect has allowed them to create one of the most characterful albums of 2009, with talk of a proper tour to follow. Here's hoping it doesn't turn out to be a one-off.

The Glare by Michael Nyman and David McAlmont is released on MN Records on November 2. Buy it here.

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Comments

The song Going To America has nothing to do with my first trip to America. It is about Abdiwali Muse's journey to America to be tried for the crime of piracy. I appreciate your positive review but I was not mute at the show. I thanked the audience after each number and allowed the songs to speak for themselves. It's good to see you writing again. David M.

The performance at the Union Chapel was breathtakingly beautiful on Saturday night. As with the reviewer, I had heard a pre-release copy of the album and was pleased to hear the album played in order, as no doubt that order was chosen for a reason! David's voice was as smooth and luscious as it has ever been on his solo work or other collaborations (better, probably) and he was very gracious with the audience. Secrets, Accusations & Charges has to be a front-runner for song of 2009 - wonderful!

We were also present at the Union Chapel on Saturday night and can assure your readers there was nothing hubristic about David or Michael's delivery of this remarkable performance. They were also graceful in their acceptance of the audience's standing ovation which you neglected to mention. On leaving the Chapel, both Michael and David were on hand to chat with the audience. According to Amazon and iTunes, The Glare is available in the UK from today.

Anita Sandall It was a beautiful evening. Robert and I took our daughter Grace, to what was her first proper show. It is Michael Nyman's birthday, today, btw. Anita Sandall

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