Francis Lung, Four Tet, GoGo Penguin, Imelda May, Jennie Lowe, Rostam, The Second Hand Orchestra, Tashaki Miyaki
This Week's Music
There's beauty, rage, alchemy, retromania, suffering, and memorable melodies aplenty in this week's records.
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
Parallel : Four Tet
At the back of my mind when I listen to ambient electronica is the risk that I’m entering an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ scenario. Will there actually be anything there other than random noodling and electronic effects? I’m also aware that my attempts to explain what I’m listening to generate clear and present risks of writing or talking a lot of psycho twaddle. Fortunately, good music like this has a mental and physical effect that can’t be ignored. On that basis this is one, special collection.
Undeniably I relaxed listening to this. It’s music suitable for the spa’s immersion tank, or to accompany reflection as you sit outside your simple cabin built in a jungle paradise. I felt calmer, grounded and more balanced after listening to this.That, brothers and sisters in musical wonder, is the evidence before you!
It’s a different musical world with different patterns and rules. Most pieces are built around a call sign - helpful when the ten tracks are titled Parallel 1-10. For the most part they evolve, shape shift and drift in and out over 5-6 minutes. The exception is ‘Parallel 1’. For 26 minutes we’re offered music that is layered, complex, hypnotic and absolutely beautiful. Not a second of this track is wasted.
This album was released on Christmas Day 2020, when COVID-19 had us in a dark place, separated from friends and family, and frightened for what the near future might bring. This music is a gift. I’d suggest accepting and succumbing to it with grace.
Taster Track : Parallel 2
Ghost Tracks : Jennie Lowe
Jennie Lowe’s softly played, confessional Americana songs cover dark moments in memorable melodies.
If there’s a track here around which the album turns, it’s ‘Sweep’. It’s two people, a voice, a double bass and the faintest of percussion touches, probably added later. It’s sparse, naked almost. It also focuses attention on the lyrics, sharply written as they are across the whole album, with an easy melody. It’s an understated but powerful approach and is the purest distillation of all that’s good about Jennie Lowe.
As the album progresses, a darker and lonelier tone emerges. ‘Loaded Gun’ would perhaps be better named after the “Vortex” refrain in the song. There’s a sense of appreciating strong forces at work, but not quite giving in to them. She’s indomitable.
Elsewhere, particularly in the early tracks, she hits that sweet spot between making songs accessible and sincere without overpolishing them. The grit, the smudges and the flaws of real life are all retained. ‘Asphalt’ even has sway - if she ever needs a song to unite a rapt audience this is it.
Her voice is cracked, a sweet voice on the verge of sounding broken. It’s reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Tunnel of Love’ album in its quietest moments. That’s the album where his more mature and sincere concerns kicked back strongly against the polished blue collar rock and roll of ‘Born In The USA’. In the same way, Jennie Lowe brings great songs to the turntable that are given substance by self awareness and emotion, and melodies that are hard to forget - not that you would want to.
This sounds like music made for herself and close people around her. Thankfully she leaves the studio door ajar just enough for us to share in the experience.
Taster Track : Ghost Tracks
... And All The Rest
Miracle : Francis Lung
There’s so much to like in Francis Lung’s new album, but ultimately he tries too hard and the whole is a feat of reverse alchemy that amounts to less than the sum of its parts.
Francis Lung’s pop sensibility is in the air that he breathes. He breaks pop down into its key elements and processes them into something new, but not quite better. He’s trying just a little too hard to make a mark. He has a nerdish understanding of what’s required in a great pop record - the melodies, the key changes, the rhythms, the bursts of sunshine - but they don’t quite fit together. It’s like a complicated flat pack assembly. It looks like a great pop record, and it has the sound of a great pop record, but the bits that have been left out would have brought it into perfect alignment. In the musical kaleidoscope it offers, an extra ¼ twist is needed.
To take an example, some of the songs have codas tagged on. They’re unnecessary, disrupt the flow of the record and jar as the transition from one song to another is abrupt. It becomes an arty take on pop. It’s determined not to be ‘just’ sugar coated pop whereas an out and out 7” single mentality would have created something wonderful. As it is, despite the shots of magic in the mix my attention wandered and that’s not good
I liked that he has drawn on every decade from the 60s onwards, with none dominant but all playing their part. When he nails it, as he does with the strings that see out ‘Lonesome No More’, it’s pure pop oxygen.
In the end it’s an enjoyable, if slightly frustrating listen.
Taster Track : Lonesome No More
GGP / RMX : GoGo Penguin
This remix collection of music from jazz ensemble GoGo Penguin, broadens out its appeal beyond the original jazz audience.
When I started Pop In The Real World, my aim was to review music from the perspective of someone who enjoyed a wide range of styles whilst being an expert in none. How it landed with me was, and is, more important than how it's been made, or what critics think of it. It also meant that although I would sometimes feel out of my depth, if I liked it that would be enough. I didn’t need to understand why. It’s an approach that was made for this album.
I guess ‘remix’ is the producer’s term for cover version. The remixers here come from a variety of genres including American Indie, electronica, classical, electronic jazz and something called a sound designer. The effect is to blur genres in a pleasing, if ultimately background kind of way.
There’s a mix of styles, with the most enjoyable tracks such as ‘F Maj Pixie' turning jazz into a chilled, beatless Ibiza experience. This particular track covers a lot of ground, sounding Spanish upfront until it mutates into something harder. It’s a remix by someone called Rone. ‘Signal in the Noise’, remixed by 808 State retains a stronger jazz influence than most. The closing remix of ‘Don’t Go’ by electronic jazz act Portico Quartet is a good closer to the album, and a good showcase for the approach.
I listened to it while ironing, and it made for a sophisticated accompaniment, lighting up a mundane activity.
I liked it. Is that enough?
Taster Track : Don't Go (Remixed by The Portico Quartet)
11 Past The Hour : Imelda May
Imelda May takes a turn towards mainstream radio with this collection of Irish, accessibly bland tunes.
Opening track ‘11 Past The Hour’ sets out this album’s stall. It’s cinematic, dramatic, familiar and it’s rooted in character. She’s a storyteller, but she sounds as if she’s role playing a part rather than singing from personal experience. At its best, on the title track and on ‘Never Look Back’ it sounds like a James Bond theme waiting to happen. But elsewheres she’s providing a safe, fantasy escape route from everyday life, a kind of musical soap opera for the masses.
Imelda May has always looked back to classic pop from rockabilly onwards. It’s a deep well to draw on, and she makes the most of it. ‘Made To Love’ is classic Radio 2 in the mould of Cher. There’s an Irish lilt to the duets. ‘Just One Kiss’ is drawn from Shania Twain’s country rockers. Occasionally it feels like a template approach that’s a little too obvious, making for a bland collection overall.
If borrowing from the past is a crime, many more than Imelda May stand to face charges. But for now, move along please. There’s little to hear here.
Taster Track : 11 Past The Hour
Changephobia : Rostam
This collection from Rostam, a founding member of Vampire Weekend, is interesting in a good way, showcasing an unusual sound and production style.
The first thing you register about this record is that the production makes it sound unlike anything else. It’s darkly woozy as if experienced in a deep dream. It dominates the album as lemon or mint dominate the taste of any meal they’re used in. If the tone isn’t to your taste, you can probably skip to something else quite quickly.
To hear, appreciate and love the songs you need to push beyond the production. If pushed to name it, I’d say it was Indie-Lounge. The biggest contributor to that is the baritone sax that features throughout, and to particularly good effect on ‘Changephobia’ and ‘Unfold You’. There are light dance beats scattered across the tracks too. It sounds as if it’s coming at you through dense smoke with the vocal melodies and other touches lighting up and cutting through the murk like a searchlight.
Given his track record of jointly forming the wonderful Vampire Weekend, with all their preppy attitude, and working as producer with some of the biggest names around you’d expect the record to sound good. What’s unexpected, perhaps, is the uncertainty that comes through the songs if you look below the surface. It lifts the record up a notch, from enjoyably competent to, really, rather good.
Taster Track : These Kids We Knew
Second Hand Orchestra : The Second Hand Orchestra
This instrumental set is a jolly collection, slight and lightweight maybe but engaging and playful too.
It’s a curious album, a mix of instruments, both electronic and acoustic that are not usually associated with an orchestra. It adds up to something a little different but I’ve had to delve deep into my memory bank to capture how it makes me feel.
First it took me back 40 years to the short-lived period where I had an interest in the French silent comedies of Jaques Tati. If it sounds pretentious to bring that up, I suppose I plead “Guilty”. I can go back over 45 years to school music lessons trying to interest Slade fans in classical music through Peter and the Wolf or the Carnival of Animals. It takes me even further back to listening to Junior Choice when it’s playing one of those introductions to classical music for children. And finally it can take me back to some of my earliest musical memories of music boxes with wonky mechanisms distorting the sound..
That’s quite a profound achievement for some simple tunes.
Occasionally it seems to be trying too hard to be clever, a bit like this review. It’s a commonly held view that the longer a title of a song, the harder it will be to work out its point. ‘Kindness (Was Recently Found In A Box In The Pacific Ocean)’ is a case in point. ‘KWRIABITPO’ sounds as if it has something serious to say about the human condition but it ends up being no more than a showcase for mock steel drums. It’s tracks such as ‘The Train To Bulbul’ that set out to entertain cheerfully that work best.
Inconsequential? Maybe. Childlike? Definitely. Harmless fun? Very much so. And that’s not a bad place to be.
Taster Track : The Train To BulBul
Castaway : Tashaki Miyaki
This album is full of the big, classy ballads that decorate twenty something soap opera soundtracks.
First impressions can be deceptive. Tashaki Miyaki sounds as if it should be a Japanese solo performer producing music with oriental and tinkling water influences. It’s not. It’s an American band, two girls and a guitarist who looks like he has mistaken the studio for the one where his hard rock band were playing but who sounds great in this context too. He’s let off the leash on the final track, and he’s allowed a guitar solo that breaks like thunder on ‘Comedown’.
There are a number of labels attached to them on Wikipedia but these are, at heart, lush ballads. This is a record with a pretty sound that drifts pleasantly by, with melody at the forefront. Big melodies and big sounds. Some other acts would kill for just one of these. Tashaki Miyaki offer you an album full.
There are no sharp edges here and nothing jars. It does sound lovely but a little more grit wouldn’t go amiss occasionally. There’s some present in ‘I Feel Fine’ but elsewhere it’s approached but avoided.
It’s a sound for twenty something professionals who are starting to experience life in all its messy glory. They’re songs for the emotional peaks of, say, Gray’s Anatomy’, ‘One Tree Hill’ and countless other glossy personal discovery series from the ‘00s. (I’m showing my age here, or rather my daughter’s. There must be more recent examples to quote.)
It’s a collection that sounds curiously dated but luscious and complex enough to lose yourself in.
Taster Track : Comedown