The Cinematic Orchestra: Live At The Royal Albert Hall
Ninja Tune

The curmudgeon in me grumbles that The Cinematic Orchestra's Live at the Royal Albert Hall is a too-soon and unnecessary retread of last year's Ma Fleur (six of the live set's nine pieces appear on the studio release), and that furthermore much of the revisited material is more definitively realized in the studio versions. The more generous side of me wants to indulge the band's claim that the live versions (recorded November 2, 2007) do more than merely replicate the originals but rather re-invent them. The band loosens the reins in some places—“Child Song” stretches out to accommodate Rhodes and Tom Chant's sax soloing, and guitarist Stuart McCallum assumes a more prominent role throughout—while the enhanced line-up (over forty musicians, including original member Patrick Carpenter on turntables, cram the stage at times) sometimes forces Jason Swinscoe and co. to hew more tightly to the songs' arrangements.

While the orchestral strings of the twenty-four-piece Heritage Orchestra do enrich “All That You Give,” Heidi Vogel—as soulful a singer as she is—doesn't equal Fontella Bass's majestic turn in the original (not included on Ma Fleur). An unfair comparison perhaps—Vogel's youthful exuberance naturally lacks Bass's gravitas—but one invited by the proximity with which the two versions have appeared. Vogel's impassioned delivery impresses more on the epic ballads “Familiar Ground” and “Breathe.” “To Build A Home” shows that Grey Reverend (singer/songwriter L.D. Brown) is no vocal match for Patrick Watson's tenor, or perhaps the bigger problem is the shift in tone from the original's piano-driven soar to the new release's plaintive, guitar-based treatment. A highlight is the appearance of Lou Rhodes (formerly of Lamb) whose emotive quiver shines magnificently upon the elegiac “Time and Space”; the stirring combination of her voice and the lush strings almost justifies the album's release all by itself.

At times, the live setting allows The Cinematic Orchestra members greater opportunity to shine. In powering the jazz flow of “Flite,” Luke Flowers demonstrates his deft drum artistry. On the other hand, the live format includes familiar indulgences, most noticeably during the too-long fifteen-minute instrumental “Ode to the Big Sea” where we're subjected to extended piano, drum, and soprano sax solos. In sum, Live at the Royal Albert Hall is a passable enough tour document which, for those already possessing Ma Fleur, verges on superfluous; those without the earlier album are advised to first add the original to their collections before the secondary live set. In some respects, we're in “for completists only” territory here.

May 2008