The Brother Brothers, Joan Shelley, Julia Stone, Modern Hinterland, Nick Powell, Roisin Murphy, The Snuts, The Still
This Week's Music
I'll warn you now. I went into full on rant mode with one of this week's albums. It felt good, and if you disagree you can let me know.
As ever this week's playlist 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
60 Summers : Julia Stone
Julia Stone adopts a different approach to her 3rd solo album. It's a bold and successful move towards the dance floor that doesn’t compromise her songwriting strengths.
Let’s be clear. Julia Stone has a message to deliver to her partners in life. They’re disappointing her and they need to step up. There’s going to be trouble. There’s going to be fireworks.
And that’s what we get musically too - a bright, colourful record that lights up the room like fireworks. The opener sounds like nothing she’s done before, fizzing potently and shooting out sparks with it’s heavy percussion, breathy and semi spoken vocals, angular rhythms and Caribbean flavours recalling Blondie in their ‘The Tide Is High’ phase.
These are songs that are brimful of fully realised ideas, lyrically and musically. They combine a number of separate parts that come together into a glorious whole on a song such as ‘Queen’. ‘Fire In Me’ is where the bass of glam rock meets the disco. It’s a banger. There are bright, colourful touches throughout. And whilst she lets rip at disappointing partners there is also room for celebration and optimism too, particularly on the quieter duet ‘We All Have’ and in the brass blasts on ‘Free’ which add texture and light up the air like a roman candle.
She’s moved away from her acoustic roots but in heading for the dancefloor she’s not left behind her ability to communicate. And once she reaches the club, she’s as at home on the dance floor as she is in the come down suite. I love the more fully developed sound on tracks such as ‘Dance’ The electronic touches are enjoyable without swamping the record - the background, squawky pulse of sampled vocals on ‘Unreal’ for example. Even the vocoder comes off well on this track and on ‘Easy’.
This record came as a breath of fresh air without a damp squib in earshot.
Taster Track : Dance
And The Rest...
Calla Lily : The Brother Brothers
This set of melodic folk pop, with an undeniable Simon and Garfunkel and Everly Brothers influence, is a warm treat.
If there were an organisation that campaigned for real music in the way that CAMRA campaigns for real ale, this is what it would promote. It’s music for small clubs or, better still, pub gardens playing long into the evening and fuelling the warm camaraderie that originates from good company and just the right amount to drink. It’s unobtrusive but its charm still shines through.
This is timeless songwriting that draws a line back past Simon and Garfunkel to earlier singer songwriters, such as Billy Fury, even to Lonnie Donegan but without sounding in the least dated. It’s not flashy or gimmicky but is built on sweet melodies. ‘Circles’ is typical with its lovely, quiet guitar playing and honest lyrics. ‘On The Road Again’, and ‘Sorrow’ repeat the trick. ‘Seein’ Double’ provides some country tinged rock n roll that could start your very own hoe down.
There’s a more obvious Irish folky influence to ‘The Road Runner Song’ as the fiddle makes an appearance. And if that causes panic in your eyes, don’t worry. It’s not overdone and it feels much more natural than the Irishness of, say, The Corrs.
Therein lies the soft power of this record. The Brother Brothers are an American duo, playing music with Irish influences that would work well in a traditional English setting. It’s music that builds communities and promotes friendship that crosses boundaries.
Taster Track : Circles
Joan Shelley : Joan Shelley
Joan Shelley’s album from 2017 is a set of personal, intimate and subdued songs, beautifully played and sung.
There’s no getting away from it. This is a serious album in mood, tone and content. It has a reverence for its songs and their playing and this is heard in the precise technical proficiency on show throughout and the emotional impact of the lyrics and their delivery.
Joan Shelley is playing for you. Her voice is confessional and confiding - not about her deeds but about her thoughts and reflections on her relationships. It’s a clear and unshowy performance in perfect balance with the restrained playing. It invites you to the corner of the room where she sits, playing her guitar by the light of an open fire. She’s successfully enlisting your concern and your empathy.
‘We’d Be Home’ sets out the stall with its simple, understated melody and unaccompanied guitar playing. There’s a yearning lilt to ‘Where I’ll Find You’. The yearning is typical, if not the lilt. Leaving aside the lyrics the guitar provides a masterclass throughout in creating atmosphere.
If there’s a complaint it’s that the album starts to feel a tad oppressive over its 34 minute running time. It’s the absence of any resolution to her feelings. She’s still questioning and still in a state of uncertainty as the record draws to a close. The feel is one of exhaustion and of being almost defeated.
All told, this album succeeds both in its musicianship and in its exploration of deep vulnerability.
Taster Track : I Didn't Know
Diving Bell : Modern Hinterland
Modern Hinterland are a London band that mix the sound of classic American songs with classic Britpop. It’s a mix that eventually works..
That mismatch between the sound of the music and the band providing it helps to explain why I initially found it hard to pin the sound down. It certainly sounded American but I couldn’t shake the sense of Britpop being in the mix somewhere too. The songs seemed to grow from epic Britpop of the Champagne Supernova camp, and the nasally vocals only added to the effect. I characterised it as No Man’s Land rock, but as the songs came tumbling forth it developed into a niche that is all their own.
The album takes a little while to settle down. Opening tracks ‘California (August 16th 1998)’ and ‘If I Knew You Well’ are a little busy and crowded, trying to cram too much in. It’s when the quieter moments come to the fore - the ending to ‘No Escape’ and the opening to ‘Final Warning’, for example - that the music and the band start to show their own character. Songs such as ‘Hard Luck’ and the instrumental ‘Good Luck’ are allowed the space to breathe. They also allow more distinctive touches to add a nice twist such as the wavering but effective Flaming Lips backing vocals on ‘Everybody Better Be Nice Today.’
It’s an album that needs a little patience but that patience is amply rewarded in the end.
Taster Track : Hard Luck
Walls Fall Down : Nick Powell
Nick Powell writes music for theatre and film. Here he successfully translates that skill and experience into a collection of edgy, dark rock songs.
For an album to make sense as a whole, there’s often one track that clicks everything into focus. Here it’s the quiet closing song ‘Dust 2’ which opens and ends with birdsong. Via the novel ‘Birdsong’ it reminded me of WW1, as it’s portrayed in film. And then it struck me that Nick Powell’s album is the sound of a war poet, but the war is against the stresses and strains of modern life.
The album is bookended by ‘Dust’ and ‘Dust 2’. The first creates a strong sense of headlong rushing into a nightmare; the last hints at escape and recovery from it. Inbetween, there’s a sense of panic, out of control urgency and being overwhelmed. It’s created musically. In ‘Walls Fall Down’ the music overlaps itself as if falling downstairs. In ‘Dysto’ there’s a real sense of menace from the cello / bass aggressive rhythms, the punchy vocals and from the way the music seems to encircle itself. ‘Feels Like We’re Dancing’ may sound more upbeat but its electronic sound is heading to the same place.
Nick Powell’s film experience plays a major part in the impact of these songs. In films the soundtrack signals suspense, threat and disaster. This is what it sounds like when it’s built into songs. ‘Overwhelming’, which could stand as a title for the album as a whole, is a track where you can feel your breathing quicken as it proceeds.
It’s certainly a rock album but it’s one where strings rather than guitars govern the atmosphere. We’re not talking Andy Williams strings either! There are definitely melodies present, but they take second place to the rhythms throughout. There’s no escaping that the lyrics are dark. Try these from ‘Out Of Key’:
This whole world gets down upon its knees,
Singing kill me, but if you can’t kill me.
Catch my disease.
And I wouldn’t describe Nick’s voice as musical but its gruff ordinariness is well suited to the songs.
So, an album of strong and scary emotions that sings of the kind of psycho traumas that could keep a counsellor busy for months. But above all, it’s not a negative album at all. It’s a different and thrilling sound that lingers.
Taster Track : Out Of Key
Crooked Machine : Roisin Murphy
This remix album of tracks from last year’s ‘Roisin Machine’ is an insistent and hypnotic collection.
I have a confession to make. I listened to this without realising it was a remix album. Appraising it is a bit like commenting on someone’s house extension when you didn’t know the house in its previous incarnation. It’s hard to appreciate the transformation, which is pretty much the whole reason for a remix.
Nevertheless, first impressions were good. ‘Kingdom of Machines’ opens the album and defiantly positions it as music to dance to rather than listen to. It feels like a glorious throw back to the days of the extended 12”. It’s defiant because, personally, I’m unlikely to dance to this in solitude at home, and I shuffle rather than dance anyway. And no one else has been dancing publicly for over a year. That’s a shame but part of this record’s appeal is to provide happy memories of more sociable times, and encourage people to limber up for a return to the club.
It achieves this well. ‘Crooked Madame’ opens up with the classic ‘boom, chk’ beat that’s an invitation to take the floor that’s as strong as being led there by the hand. ‘Hardcore Jealousy’ is a euphoric closer. There’s no gentle come down here.
The difficulty that I have with this as a collection is this. In a club it’s easier to lose track of time. Sitting at home and listening to this allows the luxury of hearing how the music unfolds but, equally, it becomes more obvious where the music drags a little.
The saving grace throughout this record is less the beat and more the rhythm. Even a slower track such as ‘Echo Returns’ earns attention. And the strongest tracks for listening at home, are where the rhythm infects the vocals as on ‘Capable Rhythm’ and ‘Name Changer’. Here the songs break free of the programmed beat and address the listener more directly. It makes for an irresistible combination.
Ultimately this remix album is more than strong enough to succeed on its own merits.
Taster Track : Capable Rhythm
W.L. : The Snuts
This album provides radio and playlist friendly Scottish indie pop in abundance. It may not be pushing the boundaries but it’s an enjoyable listen.
First things first. Let me get something off my chest. I hate the name. It sounds as if it wants to be punky and that doesn’t represent the band’s sound.
Secondly, this tells us a lot about how albums are packaged and offered nowadays. This is a compilation album before they’ve released an album. According to Wikipedia, it brings together 10 previously released singles with three bonus tracks. If you buy the deluxe version you have another 4 tracks thrown in for free. As Spotify doesn’t offer the non-deluxe version, what’s effectively the standard version comes with 17 generally 3 minute tracks, 10 of which have been previously available. I can’t help thinking in this case that less would be more.
Wikipedia also tells us that the album debuted at No 1 in the official album charts on 9th April. And understandably the band make a big deal of this in their promotion material. The trouble is that a number 1 record these days doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the album. It reflects more the excellent work of the marketing and PR teams. A week later W.L. was at No 17, and a week after that it had disappeared out of the Top 30 altogether. There’s no criticism here - the music industry is what it is. But let’s be clear what a No 1 record means these days before listening to it.
Thirdly - at last! - what about the album itself? I hate to fly in the face of any marketing blurb, but it’s OK. It offers little that’s new. They’re not letting rip or breaking down barriers, but they are offering an appealing set of traditional guitar based pop songs. There’s an energy to tracks such as ‘All Your Friends’, ‘Glasgow’ and ‘Don’t Forget It (Punk)’ that feels genuine. They have a nice line in melodies. Their strength lies in the flow of the lyrics in tracks such as ‘Somebody Loves You’, ‘Boardwalk’ and, particularly ‘No Place I’d Rather Go’. The sound doesn’t always do them any favours. It’s fuzzy and a little distorted as if it’s coming across on a frequency that isn’t quite there. A cleaner sound would help. They try for anthems. The one long track, ‘Sing For Your Supper’ aims high and falls slightly short but hints at potential and ambition for album number 2.
There’s little to dislike here. Equally there’s not a lot to rave about either. They’re a young band with promise, but I sense that their identity is subsumed into whatever is marketable. If, however, they prove to be in the vanguard of a return to guitar based pop and rock songs their job, and that of their marketing team, will have been well done.
Taster Track : No Place I'd Rather Go
Got It : The Still
This dense and generally funeral paced collection of tunes draws on a hybrid of styles and influences. Like a complex wine before it’s ready to drink, there are flavours here that are interesting but they don’t quite come together as something that is constantly enjoyable.
Let’s start with those influences. At various stages I picked up jazz in the bass lines, and nu classical minimalism in the tiny incremental shifts in tone. I was also picking up the experimental work of those synth pop bands such as Japan and Talk Talk that outgrew the need for commercial success in some of the atmosphere and even Kraftwerk in the pulse of one track.
On four of the five tracks, restraint and repetition are the key features. Each track builds through repetition but never reaches the point of release. This is music that drives its way quietly into your skull and lodges there inescapably as an ever present feature. Older readers may remember the Radio Luxembourg call sign playing repeatedly for 15 minutes before programmes kicked off. In those 15 minutes it would pass through welcome familiarity, to irritation before triggering a form of hypnotic trance. That’s what this music does.
‘The Tortoise’ is aptly named, slow moving and lumbering. Its four repeated notes underpin a track that is constantly but minimally changing, allowing new instruments to pick up the themes. It’s clever too as the tone subtly changes to something more menacing over its eight minutes before passing by like a French Revolution wagon on its way to the guillotine. ‘The 54’ is interesting. Midway through the bass stops its relentless plod for the only time on the album for about 40 seconds. It feels all the more present for that. The track that stands out is ‘The Chunk’, thirteen minutes of propulsive rhythm before it simply and deliberately runs out of steam for the last couple of minutes.
This is a record that allows you the space to lose yourself in deep, dark and serious thoughts. It’s a complex listen that may, nevertheless, reveal its power over time.
Taster Track : The Tortoise