Much to my surprise this marks Pop In The Real World's 100th blog. That feels like a milestone so I'd like to say a massive and heartfelt thank you to any one who has provided encouragement, read or simply glanced at the blog, responded with comments via the web page or on Twitter (particularly artists), shared recommendations for new music or listened to the Pop In The Real World playlists on Spotify and YouTube
It still staggers me to think that my early morning musings and opinions may ripple beyond the front door for a short while.
AJ Lambert, Bangs & Talbot, Bartees Strange, Bob Lind, Diatom Deli, The Feeling, Harkin, HOO, JB Dunckel, JCRS, L'Eclair, London Grammar, The Murlocs, Papercuts, Ross From Friends, Royksopp, Sam Mehran, Sea Fever, Tomorrow's World, Valerie June, Vega Trails, Wet Leg
If You Listen To One Thing This Week, Listen To.....
Sumthin' Else by Bangs and Talbot
If, like me, you'll admit to finding Mick Talbot's contribution to the Style Council even more enjoyable than Paul Weller's, this is for you. Mick Talbot busied himself providing the swing and groove that helped their albums to stand out. Add to that the underground dance nous of Chris Bangs, and you won't go far wrong if you allow this album to soundtrack what remains of the Summere.
Back To Business : Bangs & Talbot
I cannot sing the praises of this exuberant retro instrumental collection too highly. It’s the spark to light a summer party.
Chris Bangs was a pioneering and inspirational figure in the British underground dance scene of the 80s and 90s. If you raved in a field or chilled in Ibiza he was probably involved in the music somewhere along the way. Mick Talbot was the one in the Style Council who wasn’t Paul Weller, but who could hammer out a piano led, beat filled instrumental better than anyone else around.
This album captures the spirit of the 60s Mod. It’s hugely enjoyable, conjuring up flotillas of Vespas and Lambrettas along Brighton seafront on an August bank holiday. It’s Mary Quant style set to music. Written now, the music summons up the innocence of the Summer of Love as it bumped up against the mass mods and rockers bundes at the seaside. The liberal use of Hammond organ is another clear look back to the 60s.
An undemanding listen, in the best possible way, this is music that gives you permission to switch off and wind down. It’s the complete opposite of a mood hoover, more a mood booster. There’s nothing cynical about it. It’s joyous pop that prepares you for your favourite company during your best weekend of the year. Swinging with its rhythms and bopping with its beats, it’s as much at home at beach parties as it is at club all nighters.
There’s a lot of jazz piano here and boogie blues. There’s even a dash of Motown in ‘It’s Alright’. ‘Sumthin’ Else’ captures the mood as the different instruments take the lead in mandating a good time. You receive the full impact on the treatment of ‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)’. It’s a familiar song given just the right amount of peppy innovation to make it even more danceable.
I don’t know about ‘Back To Business’. This is simply THE business for that Summer feel.
Taster Track : It’s Alright
Profound Mysteries : Royksopp
It’s eleven years since Royksopp last released a full and proper Royksopp album. God I’ve missed their smooth, seductive and beguiling brand of electropop.
There is no better music to sooth away the anxieties and stresses of life while simultaneously elevating you into a state of gentle euphoria. Their music is like a warm wave flowing over you, welcome even when it contains sadness at its core. It overwhelms you in a musical head rush, and you surrender to it willingly. It’s akin to what I imagine a drug high to feel like. That being something I’ve never experienced, the closest parallel is that point just before a general anaesthetic kicks in but without the consequent uncomfortable hangover.
Euphoria runs through this album. It’s a record for listening to through headphones with eyes closed. Royksopp are Norwegian and there’s a sense of this music coming to you from the Heaven of the Norse Gods, irresistibly and inevitably drawing you closer. The album is a 60 / 40 mix of sung collaborations and instrumentals. Their collaborators include Alsion Goldfrapp and a host of Norwegian female artists. They have one thing in common. They’re perfectly suited to the songs, their vulnerable, siren voices reaching out to you as if from a dream.
Royksopp’s background is in turn of the Millennium techno - not my first choice of music. Those roots are evident in ‘This Time, This Place’ but not at the expense of lush and melodic gentleness. They understand what it is to rave, but have learned to temper the beats with gorgeous melodies.
Highlights come thick and fast, but I’ll pick just two. ‘The Ladder’ is a perfectly poised instrumental, with not a note, beat or shift of direction out of place. ‘If You Want Me’ has a gorgeous, sad melody and an immediacy that strikes like Cupid’s arrow.
This album is enticing and timeless, uplifting and bittersweet, addictive and enduring. Don’t resist.
Taster Track : If You Want Me
The Moon and the Stars - Prescription For Dreamers : Valerie June
Valerie June has a special voice, in the sense of both her vocals and her outlook on life. Her songs come from something deep within. Let’s call it soul.
This is an album that rises above genres. There’s a nod to the blues here (‘Call Me A Fool’), a dollop of quiet positivity there (‘Stardust Scattering’) and a calm introspection throughout. (Try ‘Fallin’’). The combination makes for excellent songs, with the gently bouncing ‘Colors’ being one highlight.
Trying to understand how it works is like trying to understand what makes a joke funny, a relationship click or a song soulful. If you over analyse it, you destroy what makes it special.
Perhaps, with Valerie June, it’s as simple as recognising her songs as pure soul. And that’s not soul in the commercial sense or the ultra excited explosion of lust that masquerades as intense emotion in some songs. They’re from deep within and feel connected to something bigger and deeper. In ‘Within You’ there’s a sense of thoughts floating out of her and into song. The closing track ‘Starlight Ethereal Silence’ captures it best. Rarely has the silence at the end of a track seemed so permanent and soothing.
Her vocals are distinctive but by no means off putting. There’s the slightest echo of Macy Gray. They most reminded me of a singer called Berri Farley who sang euphoric vocals on Pacific State’s ‘Coming Home’ . They’re also as as thoughtful, soulful and accessible as Arlo Park’s ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’
It’s rare to hear an album that stirs up emotions as thoroughly as this. It’s an album I’d love everyone to hear once. I’ll be listening to it a lot more than that.
Taster Track : Colors
Tremors From The Static : Vega Trails
Vega Trails are a new venture from Milo Fitzpatrick, double bassist from the Portico Quartet and the saxophonist from Mammal Hands, Jordan Smart. It’s a moving and achingly beautiful collection, one that acts of the heart, mind and soul as only the very best music from any genre can.
There’s a line in the film ‘Educating Rita’, where the Maureen Lipman character asks the Julie Walters character “Wouldn’t you just die without Mahler?” It plays for laughs a stereotype that swoons to music, usually classical, but also reminds us that it is possible to be totally absorbed and transformed by what we listen to. My short answer to that particular question is ‘No’. And that reminds us that one woman’s Mahler is another man’s Vega Trails, because this album struck a deep chord with me that may not always resonate with others.
All the signs were good for this album. I’m a fan of the chilled and electronically washed jazz of both parent groups. The album title is up there in the quest for the perfect sounding title. The band name is intriguing, perhaps a play on ethereal and temporary vapour trails? And the cover looks like random scribblings, conveying secret but essential messages from long ago.
I must stress that more than most of my reviews, this is a personal response to a record. For me, this music conjures up a repository of forgotten bittersweet memories that strike with renewed force. They’re memories of scenes and people that have been snatched away. They provide sustenance, compassion and love like quenching the thirst of a sick man. These songs are not sad, but moving, touching on what it means to be truly human.
What sounds like out and out double bass jazz at the start of opening track ‘Love Your Grace’ quickly grows to become emotionally rich. It’s absolutely gorgeous. ‘New Planet’ breathes the music of the desert or the outback, coming close to an origin story’s soundtrack. The music in ‘Spiral Slow’ descends like happy / sad tears rolling down a transfixed face. It comes together in ‘Epic Dream’ which combines the power of Radiohead, the emotional honesty of Prefab Sprout’s ‘Desire As’ and Bowie in the atmospheric sounds of his Berlin phase.
So forgive the gushing but this is some of the loveliest, most affecting music I’ve heard in a very long time. Take comfort that somewhere out there is music that can hold you in the same way. If you’ve already found it, you’re lucky. If you haven’t, keep listening.
Taster Track : Love Your Grace
...And The Rest
Manhattan Beach, Swept By Ocean Breezes : AJ Lambert
This collection of strong songs calls to mind something of the 80s but with a sensibility towards 21st century music and concerns and her illustrious musical heritage.
There aren’t many who would guess who lingers in Lambert’s family tree from listening to this album. She’s the granddaughter of Frank Sinatra and the daughter of Nancy. You can’t get much more mainstream than Old Blue Eyes, but on this evidence, Lambert’s boots were made for walking down the more off kilter path of her mother.
Illustrious families sometimes cast long, dark shadows. Lambert is 48 now, and she didn’t release her debut album until she was 44. It’s not the pressure of a famous family that deterred her, but the accompanying lifestyle in which drugs and alcohol played a significant part. For all the pop echoes of the 80s, there's a darkness at the heart of this album. For every ‘Kammi In A Rice Field’s driving bassline, there’s a song such as her cover of ‘I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)’ which sounds like the blues on a very bad day.
She has a distinctive voice and approach to music. Her voice is shown to full effect on ‘Can / Cannot’. Her individual approach allows her to cover older songs with her own stamp. The aforementioned ‘I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)’ has been sung by both Nat King Cole and Sinatra. I’ll add it to the Shadowplay play list unheard, but I'm betting this version will sound very different from theirs.
This is a dramatic album, melding synths and guitars to strong effect. By the end, there’s anguish in the drama too. Try ‘Can / Cannot’ or ‘One Rizla’ to hear that.
These are songs that often blossom from moody verses into hooky choruses. Equally often though, they build slowly, threatening an explosive release that never arrives. Those songs, such as ‘Oh Yeah’, are like an ominous presence passing close by but not towards you.
It’s the fuller sounding songs such as ‘When You’ve No Eyes’ and ‘Questions’ that carry the tantalising echoes of the 80s most strongly. They tend more towards the light too, as does ‘See You Tonite’ with its sprightly synth hook at the top of the song. ‘Mood Indigo’ wanders pleasantly along its chilled path like an escapee from South Pacific updated to the current day.
There’s more than enough here to intrigue and hold interest, even if progress is a little restrained and even ponderous in places. Frank and Nancy can rest easy - the family reputation is safe.
Taster Track : Mood Indigo
Farm To Table : Bartees Strange
This is a well done, well played set of songs that’s quite prog rock at times, but something is missing.
Maybe it’s simply a new generation coming through, a generation reared on the need to hit Spotify playlists rather than attract new listeners track by track. He’s emoting like a new talent, striving for musical credibility but without the finished product. He’s close, but his music is a kaleidoscope that needs one final twist.
It feels as if he may have come up with the ideas, but someone else has steered the end product. There’s musical integrity lurking there but it’s not fully realised. The album has become something that has been moved away from what he truly feels to something he has been told will play well when streaming. In ‘Wretches’ he sings of wanting to be something he saw on TV, in other words, not himself.
There are interesting echoes and influences at play. He appears to try too hard and forces the songs like OneRepublic. In other places he comes across as a wannabe emulator of The War On Drugs. Vocally there are shades of Thom York on ‘Tours’ if he were to sing like a 70s singer songwriter. (Really? That sounds bizarre as I read it back, but it struck me that way at the time.) There’s a warmth to his voice at times that reminds me of a prog rock Ray LaMontagne. That’s another weird comparison, but it’s also a compliment. It introduces warmth to the songs. Most intriguingly there are suggestions of a rock Prince on ‘Hennessy’.
There’s a lot going on. ‘Heavy Heart’ sets out the stall for the whole album. It’s busy, but the melody can be uncovered from the whole song, not just the simpler (and in my honest opinion, better) beginning. Sometimes it feels that you can’t see the wood for the trees, can’t hear the melody for the experimentation.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a serious album, not just a magpie pick ‘n’ mix collection but it doesn’t quite convince. It might reward extended listens but for now it’s a collection of longueurs on an overlong album or heard at an extended gig.
Taster Track : Heavy Heart
Something Worse Than Loneliness : Bob Lind 3
A forgotten figure from the 60s releases an enjoyable album of new songs that offers a portal to that era.
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first. Can he still hold a tune? Bob Lind is 79 and, unlike Paul McCartney, Ray Davies and Rod Stewart, his voice holds up strongly. So strongly in fact that ‘Something Worse Than Loneliness’ opens the album with no musical accompaniment, just his voice. The feeling it sparks is relief and a sense that the first hurdle has been successfully cleared.
Bob Lind was a presence from the mid sixties to the early 70s before returning with three comeback albums from 2012. He’s effectively a one hit wonder for ‘Elusive Butterfly’ which made the Top 5 in 1965, here and in the USA. It has memories for me, aged five as Val Doonican’s 1966 cover is one of the first records I remember, drawn from my parents limited record collection. Happy days.
Where was I? Ah yes.
For a man few remember he’s singing as if he’s a touchstone for a generation. His style lies at the intersection of the charts, Scott Walker and a Las Vegas residency. It’s the album of a songwriting musical arranger and it’s not impossible to imagine Sinatra covering one.
Whilst a serious and generally successful album, it flirts with being a museum piece of brand new material. We all look fondly to the past but not usually as far back as the aviation pioneers, the Wright brothers, on ‘Wrong Again. That focus on the further past is heard too on ‘Terry’s Song (Just Right)’ as he scats his way through to the finish.
If it lacks the memorable hooks and melodies of ‘Elusive Butterfly’, it gains from the updated cynical observations of a Nick Lowe on songs such as ‘How Can You Go?’ and ‘Wrong Again’.
It’s a stylised experience for 2022. These songs are like faded and sepia tinted photographs rather than fresh and bright. That doesn’t make them uninteresting though. On the contrary, listening to this is like 40 minutes spent remembering and appreciating something special.
Taster Track : Terry’s Song (Just Right)
Timelapse Nature : Diatom Deli
This is a genuinely strange but intriguing album, one that I needed help to understand after I listened to it. It’s not without moments of calming beauty.
Diatom Deli is a Mexican multi-instrumentalist whose music is a form of art, with all the layers and complexities that implies.The songs are generally in three parts with acoustic cores bookended by intros and interludes. These are the stuff of ethereal and ambient soundscapes mixed together, as if she delved her hand to the bottom of the sound effects jar and made use of all the different things she pulled out.
I listened to this flying to Canada at 36,000 feet through a gorgeous blue sky with an outside temperature of -61degrees. Somehow that feels appropriate to getting the most from this record. I’m also conscious that a couple of hash brownies might help to draw the music into focus too.
It’s a serious but attractive album. Making sense of it is absorbing, and for a while I forgot or did not know how to make notes of what I heard. More than ever enjoyment of this album relies on impressions. Here are some of mine.
The sounds are a little weird but together with the dialogue samples on, say, ‘Sonrisa : Interlude Hanging With Banana Tapes’ they capture a sense of wonder and amazement. It’s as strange to a UK audience as the exotic plant and animal life of a tropical forest. At times, as in ‘Waves Will See (Your Smiling Face) / Interlude : Angels In Reverse’ it’s incantatory.
Throughout, it’s a mix of unsettling and beautiful ambience and delicate folk. Her voice reminds me of a more robust Vashti Bunyan. They share something of the inhabitation of their own private world.
It’s a remarkable album because it’s so different. I’m not sure though, after a single listen and before the hash brownies, if it’s one to return to time and again.
Taster Track : Sonrisa : Interlude Hanging With Banana Tapes
Loss. Hope. Love. : The Feeling
The Feeling’s first album for six years is as pure a pop album as I’ve heard for some time. Let your inner pop groupie out and enjoy the ride.
This bursts into life, a brightly coloured gem of a collection. It’s classic pop and what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for with grated cheese. It’s naggingly catchy, full of crowd pleasers and benefiting from crystal clear production. This is like the best bucket of ice cream you’ve ever eaten. It may be a bit too much at times but you don’t really regret the experience.
Pop history shows us that there have been a few acts that have become the band that everyone secretly likes. To admit to these feelings would have blown any credibility. Two such bands were The Stylistics and Hall and Oates. Pristine pop, slightly soulful, working its way under your skin with ear worms and melodies. The Feeling are honourable members of that group.
Their songs sound upbeat and sincere. They cover sadness too but it’s coated in a pop sheen, a brave face on a suffering heart. You can enjoy a line such as “Have a buddha bowl with Jesus” without delving too deeply into what on earth it means. You can note and appreciate the little touches such as the radar pulse distress signal that ends ‘Loss’.
These are songs with individual personalities. They’ve not followed a rigid template. Loss, hope and love are big concepts and they’ve received big song treatments. It’s no surprise to learn that they’ve written songs for the musical ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’, some of which are included on this album.
We live in uncertain times. The Feeling have become a band to turn to for reassurance that all will be well and as it was. That’s something to treasure.
Taster Track : Wrong
Honeymoon Suite : Harkin
Harkin’s second album marries guitars with electronica to create something different that’s worth seeking out.
This isn’t a downbeat album but it is a subdued one. What stands out is the attitude. She’s had hard times but she’s resolved to fight back. She doesn’t wallow. She doesn’t get angry. She’s determined on a course and her character is shining through. That makes this a positive album, and a refreshing one too. It’s like a shower at the end of a hard day.
It’s the matter of fact delivery, the assertion of a decision already made that carries the impact. I like the overall effect, but a few haunting melodies would enhance it.
‘Mt Merino’ is one of the livelier tracks, upbeat and energetic, even if it’s coming from a place that may not truly exist. ‘Body Clock’ opens the album asking “Who are you putting yourself in harm’s way for?” It’s a direct challenge, but not an aggressive one. ‘Driving Down A Flight Of Stairs’ is an exception on this album. It’s eleven minutes of electronica that’s atmospheric, dream like, drone heavy and featuring electronically generated spectral choirs.
It’s full of pithy lines. Take this brilliant one from ‘Matchless Lightning’.
“A vending machine of sweet talk”
It adds up to an album that is both easy and unsettling on the ear.
Harkin wrote this album in a one bedroom flat during lockdown. It won’t be long before people are flocking to her door for more of the same.
Taster Track : Body Clock
We Shall Never Speak : HOO
This collection of shoegaze and electronica (shoetronica? electrogaze?) is an immersive set of absorbing, hypnotic and easily likeable songs.
As a recap of genre styles, shoegaze described an effects heavy, introspective form of rock. Electronica, is pretty self explanatory and this is of the Krautrock variety, particularly using the motorik rhythm. Shoegaze can be a bit miserable. Motorilk can be a little relentless and rigid. Breaking it down in this way is highly mechanical. Bring them together as HOO do here, and the result is something special.
The first impression is of something dark. The ominous, throbbing electronica and the deep, reverberating bass suggest that this is the soundtrack to a world ruled over by a malevolent dictator. On the cover is an image of a ballet that also looks like an act of worship to an unseen leader. So far, so ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. We’re in a nightmare slowed down to the level of a woozy return to consciousness from a general anaesthetic.
It’s rescued from the depths though by a couple of things. Shoegaze on its own can sap the spirits. It’s lifted by the energy of the Krautrock rhythms. The bass is offset by lighter melodies, particularly on ‘You Changed The Way You Smile’. And Neil Halstead’s vocals - he comes from shoegaze specialists Slowdive, tempered by the country rock of Mojave 3 - add a human warmth. It helps too, that other vocalists on the record are drawn from folk, the most grounded and life affirming of musical traditions.
This album pulls off a difficult trick, balancing a sense of doubt, uncertainty and anxiety with warm and human vocals. It’s a mix that shouldn’t work, but does and that makes it strangely comforting.
Taster Track : Still Dream
Carbon : JB Dunckel
This album from one half of chilled dinner party musicians Air is a comfortable and enjoyable collection of mid tempo electropop.
As I was still suffering from jet lag, something gentle and tuneful that drifted past sweetly was just what the doctor ordered. It makes a slightly odd first impression, reminding us of what synths can do without taking any risks or exploring fresh avenues.. It harks back to the light novelty of 70s French pop and the sounds of Space’s ‘Magic Fly’ or Jean-Michel Jarre’s chart troubling work. It’s an odd feeling to hear the one time sound of the future sounding quite so old fashioned. The effect is, initially, like a pop up picture that hasn’t fully popped up.
If you can get past all that it develops into an enjoyable mix of electronic effects, popalong bounce and chilled tunes. Yes, it drifts into the background but enjoyably so. Perhaps Dunckle called the album ‘Carbon’ because he recognised that it would not be putting lead in your pencil!
As a flavour of the album, ‘Corporate Sunset’ is sprightly, the soundtrack to watching a TV celebrity artist creating a quick fire masterpiece in under five minutes. ‘Sex UFO’ has it all - melody, rhythm and multiple parts. It sounds like an early Ultravox softer number on happy pills. ‘Dare’ dares to try something artier. It’s a tightrope listen that could fall to earth, but a pulsing bass rescues it from needing a safety net. ‘Shogun’ is a highlight, lowering you slowly and gently into a comfort blanket of chilled sounds.
In the absence of any new album from Air, this is a pretty good substitute.
Taster Track : Shogun
Arclight : John Crawford + Robin Simon (JCRS)
Here’s synthpop in all its epic pomp for good or ill. It’s impressive but ultimately empty.
This album is a collaboration between John Crawford, a founder member of Berlin and Robin Simon, a member of Ultravox in their early days. The big question was whether this album would prove to be one of the Top Guns and ‘Take My Breath Away’ or simply sleepwalk past me so that we remain passing strangers.
I’m afraid that, for me, it wasn’t good news. ‘Firedogs’ opens the album and states its ambition clearly. It’s dramatic, but in an overblown way. It aims for epic but achieves empty and sterile. This is the soundtrack to the debate about the dangers of using AI to make robots more human. It ticks boxes but it lacks something . That something is human warmth and emotion. It’s big on effects but low on substance like a poor sci fi superhero movie.
I think the problem is that they don’t go the whole hog and remove the human element altogether. ‘Vectors Part 1’ and ‘The Universe Suddenly Shrinks With One Thought’ are completely or substantially instrumental.They suggest that cinematic soundscapes of the dystopian kind are within their grasp. The vocals are the issue. They’re strained, simulating passion but stretching too far to sound comfortable.
You can hear the influences on this, and they will be the way in for some people to listen to and enjoy the album. At its best the album calls to mind Simple Minds’ ‘Theme For Great Cities’. At its worst, it’s the more money than sense period of Duran Duran or the tired and over emoted late period of Ultravox. The songs lack the pop classicism of Berlin and the melodic energy of early to mid Ultravox
The better tracks allow for some respite. ‘I Could Stand On My Own’ and ‘The Universe Suddenly Shrinks With One Thought’ point to something better. The rest commits the unforgivable crime in pop of being boring.
A more positive review can be found at Rockposer Arclight Review, but if it's not already clear, this album is efficiently done but…. it means nothing to me!
Taster Track : The Universe Suddenly Shrinks With One Thought
Confusions : L’Eclair
This is a record of continental chill, dub, prog and ambient electronica from Swiss band L’Eclair that is appealingly out of time..
Described as cosmic jams, L’Eclair have been known to go on and on when playing live, leaving it to their audience to decide when they are ready for the song to stop, That could be quite a while because the combination of hypnotic and rhythmic patterns, dreamlike and relaxing chill and an understated funk overtone to some tracks is worth sticking with.
It’s the extended pieces that are allowed to drift that work best, the tunes evolve over several minutes, with new elements introduced throughout the running time. They’re studio based but with warmth and humanity. The tunes have imagination, eschewing easy melodies for a groove that helps the songs along. ‘Timbacrack’, for example, could slip easily into Factory’s roster of songs and artists.
‘Cosmologies Pt1’ and ‘Cosmolgies Pt2’ show their skill and mastery of musical light and shade. Part 2, particularly, is a retreat from the sunshine into the introspection of the cave, conjuring up an image of an animal settling in for the night. ‘
If there’s a problem with this it’s that a couple of tracks are too formless (‘Clubless’ for one) or allows too much ambience to the fore (‘Pangea’). It’s never unlikeable but, equally, it’s never forceful enough to fully command attention. I listened to this on a long train journey, and on finding myself distracted by desires for coffee and cookies, and after being asked to hunt under our seats for my wife’s dropped ball of wool and knitting needle I could easily have left the music there and settled down with my book.
Like a good friend who finds it hard to cope with life’s knocks, L’Eclaire are a comfort that won’t always survive contact with real life.
Taster Track : Timbacrack
Californian Soil : London Grammar
London Grammar’s approach to music is, I think, an acquired taste but there’s enough in this album from last year to tempt me back for more.
Often an opening track called ‘Intro’ is an excuse to pad out the running time with some incidental music that isn’t connected to the rest of the album. Here, it sets the tone nicely. It’s big on atmosphere, as a tolling bell gives way to the sound of haunted singing before lush strings swell out the sound. It’s a product of studio production rather than something organic. It’s been constructed, not written. It’s when this attention to atmosphere and tone trumps melody and emotion that the album is less successful.
I feel sorry for the guys in the band. The focus and all the emotion is in Hannah Reid’s vocals. It’s what you remember but, without the cleverly pitched backing it would not have the same impact. In this way, it’s similar to Tracey Thorn’s impact on Everything But The Girl, or Skye’s on Morcheeba.
Fortunately, there’s enough to keep interest strong. It feels like a personal album, telling of things witnessed if not experienced. Its big strength, almost its USP, is in that it’s expressed very articulately. ‘All My Love’ is hymn-like and simple, but describes an agonising depth of feeling. It must be spellbinding live.
There are less intense moments. The rhythmic energy of ‘Lose Your Head’ and ‘Lord, It’s A Feeling’ are welcome, calling to mind Florence and the Machine. ‘America’ is a strong ending, particularly as it strips back the song to guitar at the end.
This isn’t an album to get the party started but it is an album of intense and personal songs that could live long in your collection.
Taster Track : All My Love
Eyeye : Lykke Li
Swedish singer Lykke Li’s collection delivers late night, obsessive songs of heartbreak from a broken relationship.
Music covers a lot of bases and this is the kind of album that captures the moment when you’re stuck, grieving a relationship and simply unable to move on. She’s obsessing and not, it must be said, in a healthy way. She’ll settle for alcohol rather than her current state of mind, and that’s in the most life affirming track ‘Over’.
It’s a heavy and subdued listening experience, full of anguish and despair and devoid of light and lightness. These are songs of long dark Scandinavian nights, both literally and metaphorically. It’s eight tracks long and that’s enough. Much more would sap the listener’s strength and staying power.
That may come as a shock to anyone who has listened to her before. Sadness has always had its place in her music, but equally songs such as the Magician remix of ‘I Follow Rivers’ show that she can pull herself back to write a song fit for the dancefloor. The closest we get to anything that’s uplifting is in the track ‘Carousel’ It’s an image that speaks for the album as a whole, looking and sounding pretty but never moving on.
This is such a personal album, telling of intense feelings and emotions that it’s almost like a foreign language, a language that, thankfully, can’t be shared by many. ‘U&I’ brings that sensation to life with its sung backward lyrics such as
“Enil lanif eht eb t’nac siht”
The atmosphere created by ghostly vocals distances you from the full force of the emotions on show, so that they can be examined from a safe distance.
The tone of the album is exhausted misery, and that’s not a lot of fun. Its saving grace comes from the simple, slowed down and unadorned melodies of tracks such as ‘No Hotel’, ‘Silver Chevy’ and ‘Carousel’.
This is an album that won’t be for everyone, particularly not at the height of summer. But there’s a place in any creative field for works that hold up a mirror to personal suffering, and teach us empathy. This album is one of those works.
Taster Track : Happy Hurts
Bittersweet Demons : The Murlocs
Australian garage pop with a love of words. It’s a surprisingly strange beast that doesn’t quite fulfil expectations.
I have an image of The Murlocs that I’ve drawn from their music. They’re hip cats, too cool for school wearing paisley shirts and wraparound shades and trapped in a cellar bar from the 60s underground. Google would score me 5/10 for that guesswork, showing images of a band looking like the more conventional Aussie bar bands. The comparison is useful because it highlights that the band aren’t what they seem.
Although in many ways they are a back to basics band with harmonica and plinky piano supplementing the core guitars and drums, lyrically and vocally they’re a beast apart. The closest reference point I can find is if a free thinking and free wheeling Black Country New Road started to record more conventional three and half minute pop songs. The second closest reference point is to listen to the early days of Split Enz before they reined in their excess to realise chart success.
It’s the lyrics that attract and confound in equal measure. ‘Dangerous Nature’ is full of references that zoom over my head. They’re a gateway to a different world, but I don’t have the pass key. The feeling must be akin to how non Americans felt about the early days of rock and roll. They're as much about the sound of words as their sense. That makes for quotable soundbites but limited meaning. It seems so ludicrous I’m wondering where they fit in. That’s their words from ‘Skyrocket’, not mine.
Vocally, they emphasise the end of lines which, in turn affects the way the music is played. Ot maybe it’s the other way round. It’s unusual, and can sound forced, but overall it works. Ambrose Kenny-Smith’s vocals stretch and wind themselves around the lyrics.
It’s a one-off entertaining concept that just about holds its appeal for the length of an album. Ultimately they’re like the last baby pterodactyl flapping around the cave, an interesting relic of the past but without a place to call its own today.
It’s a survivor, but not the future.
Taster Track : Skyrocket
Past Life Regression : Papercuts 3
Here’s an extremely likeable collection of lo fi indie pop all the way from California.
It’s not demeaning to call something a minor classic. It means they’re playing something that reminds you of what you love. It means that it captures what you feel is important in music. And it usually means that you have a secret relationship with them that few of your friends and acquaintances share. They’re your band and a big part of you would like it to remain that way.
This album is a minor classic.
Papercuts play garage pop. That’s ‘garage’ stemming from garage rock, not UK garage house. The distinction is unnecessarily complicated. It’s everything the album is not.
The easy comparison here is with the Velvet Underground but that may be off putting to some. True, Papercuts share the repetitive sound of some Velvet Underground tracks, but they’re not about to compete with them on the dark side of rock. They’re not looking to dive fully clothed into heroin or gain access to the world of Venus In Furs. No, they’re much more likely to write songs about retrieving their jacket from a neighbour.
Papercuts are to music what LS Lowry is to art, a simpler version of what others do, but one that gets to the essence of their subject and says more than you might expect. For that reason they’re more like the elder, student brother of Jim Noir. If you’re unfamiliar with him, try ‘Tower Of Love’ - an excellent album that sets the benchmark for this kind of music)
There’s an appealing, gently distorted and woozy weirdness to the album that never swamps the melodies. It’s as if the slightly strange kid in the street has finally come out to play, and he proves to be a lot of fun.
Quiet highlights are scattered through the album. Everything is in the right place. My favourite is the instrumental break in the middle of ‘Lodger’. It’s close to understated indie pop perfection.
From the off this sounds like an album that Papercuts - and their record company - are proud of and want you to hear. Don’t disappoint them.
Taster Track : I Want My Jacket Back.
Tread : Ross From Friends
This is a new type of music for me, beats driven and effects laden but chilled and trance inducing. It’s a rich aural taste, interesting and tempting too.
One of the pleasures of picking up a new kind of music - to me at any rate - is the initial fumbling for language and reference points to describe it. Just as you would explore any new world, everything is a bit tentative, curiosity reaps dividends and, if you’re lucky, the rewards are plentiful.
This is chilled dance music, dance music for inside your head. It sounds like a message from far away, from a different universe even. ‘A Brand New Start’ is the closest to a recognisable song, one that is both current but also recovered from the past. It comes complete with unbalanced bursts of sound and broken, distorted signals. It’s the kind of thing I imagine was in Princess Leia’s head when she sent out her cry for help to be discovered by Luke Skywalker.
It’s computer generated, probably laden with obscure samples but neither cold nor clinical. It’s like walking into a room where you know no one but sense you’re welcome.
At times, it’s a little impressionistic, a trifle too abstract. There’s a whole genre of such music, Warp Records being specialists in it. All I’ll say is it’s not what you sing in the shower! Certain details shine through bright and clear. I liked the Gregorian chant touch to ‘Spatter / Splatter’
‘The Daisy’ is more typical. It’s cleverly built around a steady beat that constantly evolves. Other tracks swirl and revolve around you appealingly. It’s only afterwards that you realise they might have been in a holding pattern rather than progressing in a straight line.
Ross From Friends earns credit for being adventurous and interesting. There’s a lot to like and discover. I’m happy to be there for him.
Taster Track : The Daisy
Cold Brew : Sam Mehran
Here’s a collection of rock instrumentals that is a lot of fun. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, but it does so with energy and a feel for a good tune.
There’s a sad backstory to this record. It’s some tunes Mehran was working on in 2018, and they have been released to commemorate the third anniversary of his suicide. That makes it surprising that this is as uplifting a set of tunes as you’ll find anywhere.
It’s an odd collection insofar as it feels like songs that were complete in every respect except for the addition of vocals. And what songs they would have been too. Bright spiky power pop with riffs and hooks galore.
It’s so encouraging that these tunes can stand up on their own. ‘Bad Religion’ typifies the bouncy energy that courses through this record. ‘Clashy’ has a distinct crunch, but one tempered with melody too. ‘XYLO’ introduces a punchy, irresistible Motown beat. And if that sounds too obvious, there’s a punk feel to ‘Normie’, particularly in the drum breaks.
The tunes are short, barely breaking the three minute barrier. That maintains pace and interest across the 17 songs. They have the secret ingredient that marks them out as made for American radio. They’re too short to be cinematic, but they could easily serve as the perfect soundtrack to a student frat party just as it turns rowdy. It’s good time, accessible music with a surprising amount of invention within its self imposed musical boundaries. My reference point was to hear the Ramones playing Simple Minds ‘Theme For Great Cities’
The titles are interesting. They’re either christened by unimaginative cricketers seeking nicknames for their team mates, (‘Steelsie’) or so familiar through rehearsals that they are known by their numbers (‘70’, ‘73’, ‘66’, ‘68’ - you get the picture!)
There's an old, old joke about the comedian whose audience knows his jokes so well that he only has to call out the joke number for them to fall about laughing. A new kid on the block thinks he’ll grab a piece of the acclaim. He calls out random numbers that are met with a deafening silence. “What am I doing wrong?” he asks the older comedian. “Ah, well” he replies. “It’s the way you tell them.” Sam Mehran tells old tunes very well indeed.
Taster Track : Steelsie
Folding Lines : Sea Fever
The days of Manchester’s club rock scene in the late 80s and 90s are successfully recalled in this album but without the magic spark to help it truly stand out.
This album is the Felix Auger-Allesine of contemporary British Rock. Who? Exactly.
Felix was the No 6 Men’s Seed at Wimbledon this year, who crashed out unexpectedly in the 1st round. He’s spent years and years practising, absorbing skills and building experience but still most people won’t have heard of him. He’s good, very good. At the time of Wimbledon there were only 5 people playing tennis in the world regarded as better than him. But there’s still a massive gap between him and the Top 3.
That’s Sea Fever for you too. They’re promising, if a little earnest, and definitely one to watch. All the elements are in place - swirling synths, the voice of a non-singer matching the needs of the songs very well, the propulsive beat and the Johnny Marresque guitars. It’s too familiar though. We can add them to the pile of other bands who command a loyal fan base, but never break through to more widespread acclaim.
Sea Fever are steeped in their Manchester heritage, but they’re Sector 25 rather than New Order, Johnny Marr rather than The Smiths. We know the sound and that we’ll find it and many other examples on mid afternoon Radio 6. We can praise it with words like ‘solid’, ‘competent’ and ‘workmanlike’. We know it won’t change our lives but we’ll play it while we have friends round and no one will complain. They’re doing nothing wrong but for now they lack that magic spark to make people sit up and pay full attention.
They combine both the rock and club side of the Manchester scene. ‘Crossed Wires’, Under Duress’ and ‘Built To Last’ are good examples of the former. ‘Le Coup’ offers the dance beats some might prefer.
I’m not meaning to damn Sea Fever with faint praise. They’re a band at the top of their game, and they’re deservedly one of a tiny proportion of bands who break through to a record deal. I’ll eat my words if they headline Glastonbury next year, but I’ll eat my hat too.
Taster Track : Built To Last
Tomorrow’s World : Tomorrow’s World
This 2013 collaboration between Jean Benoit - Dunckel from Air and electropop ice queen Lou Hayter had the potential hallmarks of something special. It’s a disappointment.
Disappointment is one of the absolute killers for your enjoyment of an album. Not only are you listening to something you feel could be better, your lingering emotions are resentful and make it harder to give credit where credit is due. We should be clear. That’s not necessarily due to a weakness on the part of the act, it’s a weakness on the part of the reviewer. It’s a human, fan’s reaction though and I imagine that when Dylan went electric the judgement of a lot of his fans was impaired in this way too.
What’s so disappointing? It starts encouragingly enough. There are some distinct echoes of Air in the key shifts of ‘A Heart That Beats For Me’, but rather than use this as a springboard to take things further, they seem to trip over themselves in an awkward bellyflop, crashing into the depths below.
This sounds like Air on the cheap, a raid on their outtakes song bin. There are some competent - now that’s damning with faint praise - ideas, but they’re developed predictably and with less subtlety and allure that you find with Air. They’ve aimed for a retro future approach but settled for muddy synthesisers. On ‘Pleurer Et Chanter’ it sounds as if the synths and drums aren’t tuned in properly. The vocals sound stale and flat (as in devoid of inspiration, not out of tune. Let’s be fair!) We’ve lost half of Air and Hayter’s unique selling point of ice cold vocals. It shows.
Is it, nevertheless, the sound of something new? No. Perhaps that’s part of the retro future approach. Unfortunately though it means that songs plod where they should soar and lumber along where they could swirl and flow.
It’s nine years since this was released and its impact and reputation can be deduced from the silence in the intervening period. It’s the kind of purchase now found in echarity shops or independent record shop bargain bins.
And, funnily enough, that’s not as bad as it sounds. Stumble across this album in those locations and your expectations are low. You’ll pay a relative pittance for the album, and if you listen to it you’ll find a handful of tracks that are good enough. As already mentioned, the opener ‘A Heart Beats For Me’ offers promise. ‘Drive’ is an example of the ordinary done well. ‘So Long My Love’ makes a better stab at something interesting and ‘Life On Earth’, while a little forced in places, uses piano and pulse to create a cleaner, sprightlier sound.
I’ll concede that this isn’t a bad album that needs to be written off, but it’s a disappointing and dated one.
As always there’s an alternative positive review. Try Guardian Review of Tomorrow's World.
Taster Track : Life On Earth
Wet Leg : Wet Leg
One of the most eagerly anticipated albums of 2022, Wet Leg’s debut combines the knowing humour of Self Esteem with joyful Britpop guitars. It’s a lot of fun.
There was a danger that Wet Leg’s debut would be overshadowed by the success of last year’s ‘Chaise Longue’. Its success was acclaimed in the ‘Best Of’ 2021 charts and the ‘Ones To Watch’ round ups for 2022. As a standalone song it began to sound like a novelty record, possibly even a one hit wonder. But any album deserves to be heard in full when it contains a song with the lines:
“Is your mother worried?
Would you like us to assign someone to worry your mother?
What we have here is something less quirky but full of humour. The title track references the film ‘Buffalo 66’. The film website ‘IMDb’ describes this as an odd film that is sentimental at heart. After a while you begin to hear that in the songs.
It comes at you like a big, inappropriate labrador bouncing up at you to make friends. Inevitably it wins you over. Wet Leg are simply being themselves and they can’t conceive that you wouldn’t like them. Their confidence is not misplaced.
Musically this reminds me of bands such as Sleeper, Elastica and Lush. ‘Being In Love’ sets out their stall with a punky, but melodic indie sound. ‘Ur Mum’ is in a similar vein, complete with a joyous let it all out scream. It has a sprightly confidence that is attractive and crowd pleasing, and it’s typical of the album overall.
‘Chaise Longue’ may be the song that draws you to this album, and it may in time outlive the rest of the songs here. But there’s much more to enjoy in this collection of songs that capture the heady rush of great pop.
Taster Track : Ur Mum
As ever this week's Taster Track playlists can be accessed at https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7cSveL7NpVp1xgrKxPe4av?si=SkFlSnvySeuYFpgG0WJFmA or via the Spotify link on the Home Page. The link to the Youtube playlist is https://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwV-OogHy7Eh_sy55y6i18Qj7w_Z3CQft
The Shadowplay playlists are at: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/01iU7Jy80SMvJO5QBF7Oux?si=00d9d1fb8b2f4baa and https://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwV-OogHy7EjsaT8idWnNv42LqIGEGSmH&feature=share