The Antlers, Cheap Trick, Crumb, Israel Nash, Lindsay Lou, Moby, Portico Quartet, Wolf Alice
This Week's Music
Summer has arrived at last, and with it thoughts of the kind of music that sounds good in the open air while the Pimms and Peroni flow (Other lagers are available, but they're not as alliterative!)
I'd say that at least half the albums reviewed this week would work well in a garden setting. In the next week or so I'll give some thought to a Pop In The Real World summer playlist.
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
Recommended Sharing Platters
Green For Gold : The Antlers
This is a breathtakingly beautiful album of quiet, luxurious songs that are impeccably paced and gorgeously melodic.
The Antlers are American, but something in their sound reminds me strongly of Scandinavian bands and Europe’s northernmost territories. It’s the sound of late night listening when the sun doesn’t set, or music to soundtrack the northern lights.
The songs are not lullabies exactly, but pieces that allow you to rest or wake gently. They drift melancholically but they aren’t sad songs. There’s something in this gentle, warm and emotional music, whether it’s the key it’s played in or the unbroken but fragile vocals that triggers a need to well up. It’s heart stoppingly beautiful in places, the need to catch your breath being indulged by the short musical pauses that end each song.
The only negative from this album is the resentment you could feel if you’re pulled away from it half way through.
My new benchmark for an excellent album is one where I stop taking notes and simply listen, letting the music wash over me. That’s what happened here.
Taster Track : Stubborn Man
Blue Weekend : Wolf Alice
This is such a good, epic pop album. That’s not just due to the quality of the songs, it’s also down to the confidence and delight that is evident in every track.
I couldn’t help but notice that from album to album Wolf Alice’s song titles have grown longer. That seems fitting. They have more to say now lyrically and musically. There are moments of personal and professional reflection that take stock of just how far they’ve come. They won the Mercury Music Prize in 2018 - testimony to their songwriting. What seems to have happened here is that the strengths from that album have been built into a kaleidoscope which has turned and exploded everything into a riot of colour. They’ve mastered the art of making big songs even when they sound quiet. They’ll sound great on the festival stage and coming through the radio.
Ellie Rowsell’s voice still draw attention. It’s gorgeous. She’s pretty much a one woman choir on some tracks but her vocals are just as much at home on the shoutier ‘Play The Greatest Hits’ - a punk pop classic that is still laced with sweet moments. There’s so much in the music too. It’s the perfect base for the vocals with countless little touches to hook the listener. Just listen to the slow build to euphoria on ‘Beach’.
I hesitate to make a comparison that may not be welcome to them, but it's meant as a big compliment to say that if you took the very best pure pop, and magnified it, you’d have some idea of what to look forward to with Wolf Alice.
As the second track on the album has it, this is most certainly a ‘delicious thing’.
Taster Track : Delicious Things
And The Rest........
In Another World : Cheap Trick
This is guilty pleasure, over the top, slightly inappropriate power pop rock and roll that successfully channels your inner 15 year old.
You can sum up this album in the title of one album track - ‘Boys & Girls & Rock n Roll’. It states their priorities upfront, and in the refusal to overuse the full word for ‘and’ demonstrates their commitment to keeping it brief.
This is guilty pleasure pop music. To keep you hooked Cheap Trick provide sugar coated anthems. That’s their job. It’s what they do, and they do it very well. They start with ‘The Summer Looks Good On You’ and ‘Quit Waking Me Up’ and simply don’t look back. They’re a band that should be playing to packed festival crowds on a hot Summer’s day without a cloud in the sky or a care on the horizon. You won’t find subtlety or emotional depth here. It’s riff, chorus, solo, repeat. And there are good tunes, most definitely good time tunes.
They do show a sensitive side on tracks such as ‘So It Goes’ and ‘I’ll See You Again’ like the teenager offering poetry to their latest crush. They’re fooling no one though and they can’t or won’t let this define their album. Heavens, they offer a reprise of the slower ‘Another World’ in their straightforward energy fuelled style just in case you think they’re going soft.
This isn’t music that will sustain you across a whole album or for a long time. It’s a ‘snaccident’ that leaves you hungry for more nourishing and fulfilling food later. They’re AC / DC on a sugar rush, Status Quo with a lighter touch.
The best approach to Cheap Trick is simply to give in to them. They’re full of the energy, power, tunes and cartoon fun that made many of us fall in love with pop in the first place.
Taster Track : The Summer Looks Good On You
Ice Melt : Crumb
Interesting alternative synth sounds from Crumb can’t disguise that the album doesn't quite work as a whole.
Why is that?
It could be as simple as the band don’t have a clear idea of what they want to achieve. Ramani is quoted on Song Genius that she doesn't know what her lyrics are about until they’re written. That approach could apply to the rest of the bad too. The result is that the songs are interesting but sound incomplete and half formed. Equally they sound like a band that loses sight of their strengths in a bid to be different.
There are several positives here. Lila Ramani’s vocals are seductively attractive. They have a great sound, bursting with ideas.
When things click, as on ‘Balloon’, all is good. But too often they lack the killer hook or melody to connect with a listener. ‘Seeds’ is another track that feels completely formed. ‘Up And Down’ is held together by the vocals, but elsewhere the song sounds laboured. ‘Tunnel (All That you Had)’ is held together nicely by the percussion. There are moments in each song where you think it’s going somewhere only for it to fizzle out before the end.
There’s lots of interest here, but for now Crumb strike me as a band who won’t recognise their strengths in their determination to be different. As a result they amount to less than the sum of their parts.
Taster Track : Balloon
Topaz : Israel Nash
Israel Nash’s passion for symphonic country soul makes for a luxurious listen, but there comes a point where it’s all a bit too much.
Seventeen musicians are credited with contributions to this record. There are guitars of all shapes and sizes in the mix including the pedal steel guitar to secure that authentic country sound. There are keyboards, a choir of backing vocalists, a horn ensemble and even a harmonica player. Together they’re almost the size of a small orchestra. Most of the musicians appear to feature on most of the tracks. Add to that a production that magnifies the sound further and you’re dealing with a true musical force.
The music they create is lush and can be exhilarating. On first hearing ‘Dividing Lines’ you’re likely to be blown away. It’s a big, panoramice song to which one response would simply be “wow!”. This, and the following track ‘Closer’, offer less of a wall of sound than a wide open space of sound in which every square inch is filled with music. It’s music of the plains viewed from the top of a flatback mountain. It’s a magnificent beast of a record that still finds space on tracks such as ‘Down In The Country’ for the garrumphing horn sound that adds the dash of classic 60s Stax soul into the mix.
The problem, if indeed you feel it is a problem, is that these are, deep down, pretty conventional songs, dressed up in spectacular clothing. It’s a trick that works well until you notice it and then you begin to wonder if there’s a Plan B to do more appropriate justice to the content. The working method isn’t so much ‘less is more’ but rather ‘if more isn’t enough, add a bit extra’. The record becomes the musical equivalent of a travelogue showing so many glorious views that you become immune to their power to impress.
There’s much to admire in the sound of this record. It’s stirring stuff but it’s best consumed in small doses.
Taster Track : Dividing Lines
Ionia : Lindsay Lou
This collection was my introduction to bluegrass, the stripped back, acoustic form of American country, and their equivalent of our traditional folk music. Hmm.
It’s easy to appreciate and acknowledge the skill and technique involved in blue grass. Its finger picking style sounds both authentic and natural. The understanding between Lindsay Lou and her musicians is a wonder to behold. Each element of the songs sounds carefully planned and practised - too carefully perhaps as it excludes any spontaneity. I’d say that these are bluegrass musicians at the very top of their game.
Lindsay’s vocals are similarly perfect. They blend a purity with a down to earth country, gospel, bluesy feel. She’s the perfect enabler for this music. Although you sense strongly that it’s her band and she makes the decisions, she’s generous with the spotlight and the band takes centre stage in many places. ‘Ionia’ is an instrumental and ‘Sometimes’ is led by its male vocals with Lindsay in a supporting role. I’ve chosen it as the taster track but that’s more for its aching harmonica than anything else.
However, it didn’t work for me for one overwhelming reason. I can admire the technical skill but it doesn’t engage me emotionally. It’s too perfect. It’s the sound of a band playing for themselves at the exclusion of the listener. I never thought I’d say this, but there’s not enough ‘yee haw’. And I have the feeling that this music developed as a back porch community activity as suggested on the album cover. But I don’t sense that the community would be welcomed if they joined in. It’s the equivalent of taking a child to a model railway exhibition and instructing them firmly not to touch anything. It makes sense, but it also sucks the enjoyment from it.
I’d recommend this if you’re keen to explore a lesser known genre but if you’re looking for music to love then, like me, you may need to look elsewhere.
Taster Track : Sometimes
Reprise : Moby
Moby’s latest collection offers a fresh take on the Greatest Hits package by recasting his rave and electronica into radio friendly songs with added choirs, strings and guest vocalists.
Let’s recap a little of Moby’s career. He started out as a hard core dance / rave practitioner. His support for animal rights activism lent him a punky air. He was earnest and a little odd. In 1999 he released ‘Play’. I vividly remember that this was well received critically, a left turn that took people by surprise. At the time, his samples on songs such as ‘Natural Blues’ were different and he was poised to lead the way in electronic dance music for years to come.
Then, something happened. ‘Play’ became huge. There was no escaping it after he licensed all the tracks for corporate advertising. What had started as a ripple of interesting music became a tsunami swamping everything in its wake. Far from representing a new development in electronic music, it became the album of choice for couples who would buy just one album a year to play at dinner parties. He became known as Mr Advertising, and virtually created a new genre - aural wallpaper. (Thanks NME for that description.) In becoming a phenomenon, we lost sight of the fact that at its heart there were good songs with chilled beats and some heartbreakingly gorgeous melodies. People began to switch off, avoiding Moby and his music as you would avoid a meal that had given you food poisoning.
‘Play’ was the album that destroyed Moby’s career.
Since then, the changes in how we listen to music have pretty much killed off the traditional Greatest Hits package. Who’s going to fork out for a collection of songs that can be replicated in playlist form in just a couple of minutes? We’re all curators of our favourite artists’ legacies now. Moby’s answer is to rework his electronica into a more acoustic and orchestral form. Curiosity was my motivation for revisiting those songs through this collection.
It’s partially successful, but still susceptible to accusations of being little more than aural wallpaper. Although strings are evident everywhere, he’s avoided the temptation to swamp the songs in saccharine. They don’t always sound too different from the originals either. What he has done, unless I missed this tactic in his later work, is introduce gospel choirs all over the place. They add wheelbarrows of schmaltz to the new versions of ‘We Are All Made Of Stars’, ‘Almost Home’ and the Lion King friendly ‘Lift Me Up’. It’s music for the masses that can be hard to resist. Gareth Malone’s ears must be twitching with excitement at the sudden influx of fresh material for his next choir.
Some songs suffer in their new forms. Gregory Porter tramples all over ‘Natural Blues, breaking its anguish and despair as easily as snapping a match. The cover of ‘Heroes’ turns it from the desperate euphoria of Bowie’s original into something very pretty, but a little lame, and that isn’t going to win many friends. ‘Why Doe My Heart Feel So Bad?’ loses something too. It’s smoothed out and loses the aching loneliness that made the original special.
Elsewhere though there are some pleasant surprises. The simplicity of ‘Everloving’ makes for a good opener. ‘Porcelain’ isn’t markedly different from the version on Play but the different vocalist and some added little touches keep it strong. Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olaffsun’ spotlights the influence Moby may have had on the more accessible end of the Nu Classical genre. ‘We Are all Made Of Stars’ is transformed by jazz piano and a more acoustic treatment. And yes, the gospel choir makes an appearance here too. The most successful track is ‘The Lonely Night’. Mark Lanegan and Kris Kristofferson provide gruff vocals and achieve the kind of impact that Johnny Cash had with his late career renaissance. And ‘Extreme Ways’ is more reflective, an edge of a crack up record. It’s tempting to see it as a career statement.
Ultimately it’s a collection that meets reasonable expectations. It’s a reminder of some of the good things about Moby but also a reminder of the impact of ‘Play’ on his credibility. It’s more than worth a taste, but consume in large quantities at your own risk.
Taster Track : Extreme Ways
Terrain : Portico Quartet
This ambitious slice of minimalist, ambient, jazz electronica in three movements works its power slowly but effectively. It will reward repeated, attentive listening.
The Portico Quartet has an interesting history. Starting out as a dedicated jazz quartet, using an instrument called the Hang to create a distinctive sound, they subsequently built a reputation for electronic music performed under the simpler name of Portico. This record shows that they’ve successfully blurred the line between the two, combining elements of both in three extended tracks.
I simply don’t know how you start composing something like this. Awe, and a feeling at being out of my depth are part of my response. My beginner’s efforts describe this as having slow building electronic structures with jazz flourishes on top. My inner wine critic would describe it differently - full bodied with complex structures, best laid down for a while. No, wait. The laid down - that’s me trying to get my head around all this.
The music is repetitive but constantly evolving. 12 minutes into ‘Terrain 1’ you’re in a completely different sound from the one you started with. As with a lot of ambient jazz it draws you in unexpectedly at various points - the sax bursts that punctuate ‘Terrain 1’ midway through or the softening drum sweeps that end that track. It’s a real benefit of how they’ve structured these tracks that the different elements have the space to make an impact.
In my book this is a difficult album to appreciate straight off, but there’s enough here to encourage me to explore again and more fully.
Taster Track : Terrain II