Album Review: Michael Maclennan – The Wolves

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For those of us yet to encounter him Michael Maclennan is a Scottish singer/songwriter, declaring himself as “An old-school piano fighter, who allies true craft with infectious passion in his music”. Brought up deep in the northern highlands of Nethy, far from any conventional musical scene, Maclennan independently forged a musical career through natural talent with a piano from the age of 7. This ability won a place in the Royal College of Music that launched the artist’s extensive schedule of performances and recording.

Michael is one of the many talented solo artists striving for a greater audience. A constant performer at all manner of gigs, from bars to restaurants to theatres, especially in the bustling Edinburgh music scene. Further afield Michael has been found performing intimate gigs anywhere from the Savoy Hotel, London to the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow. In 2009 his first official recording, the jazz-pop EP History, was released. Three years, several festivals and hundreds of hours in the studio later MacLennan has returned with his debut album Wolves. The question is does this new slice of pop deserve wider coverage outside of Scotland?

From the offset listeners to opening tracks ‘Fall Down on Me’ and ’Keep a Light On’ will find themselves in familiar territory. Formulaic love ballads of romantic memories and desires complete with catchy, pop choruses. Michael’s strong vocals, accompanied by some beautiful piano and guitar, easily diversify across the softer and more powerful aspects of his material. The lyrics are heartfelt although some will find lines such as, ‘Get a map and I’ll draw you the line/I can feel between your heart and mine’ inevitably a little bit on the sickly side.

Either way the album really develops its depth when it comes to track ‘To the Fire’ and takes on a new air of socio-political angst. A building crescendo of emotionally charged choruses that question unemployment and class inequality. Rarely elsewhere are the vocals so powerful than in such demanding lines as ‘nobody takes the blame like they’re playing a game and don’t care what they’ve done.’ Michael Maclennan is at his best when he exhibits these changes in subject and pace. ‘Avalanche’ is a soft yet poetic song full of allusions to rainfall, sombre piano and a slow drumbeat. Whilst ‘How Come‘ adds an element of quick jazz beats and ferocious piano solos sadly not explored anywhere else. Such tracks can’t help but stand out above the more predictable love songs on the album around them.

Finally the end of the album peters out with two scaled down tracks of soft piano melody that expose the softer side of Michael’s vocals as he laments topics of disasters and global destruction. ‘The Old Tree’ provides a beautifully sombre finish even if some of the album’s momentum is regrettably lost.

When listening to MacLennan’s jazz/pop style it’s hard to avoid comparisons with the likes of Jamie Cullum or Paulo Nutini, but that’s not bad company to be in. Wolves marks an important development in the Scotsman’s ambition to cover jazz, acoustic and various percussion alongside his previously established strong vocals and catchy chorus’s. So too has the subject matter branched out beyond romance to deep worries of war, politics and economics. Wolves is unlikely to sway those dramatically outside its genre but most will appreciate at a basic level its great vocal arrangement and easy listening piano style. Let’s hope MacLennan’s music continues to make its way over the Scottish border, then.

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