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Forgotten Title (It Was Going To Be Good!)

Starring


Croquet Club, Maven Grace, Omni, Paul Weller, Pet Shop Boys, Saint Saviour, Soft Cotton Club


The Show Horse


66 : Paul Weller [New Release]


Paul Weller is 66 now. This album shows him acting his age and it’s a pleasant surprise.


Indirectly, Paul Weller is responsible for Pop In The Real World. When his 2020 album ‘On Sunset’ came out it was greeted with rave reviews and gushing comments on Twitter from people in the know. It was a ’must hear’ release, so I listened to it and it was ….. Ok. It didn’t blow me away and it didn’t strike me as a career high but it was pleasant enough. I couldn’t help noticing that for all the hype it didn’t rule the year end charts anywhere. So I felt that something that allowed for a more measured consideration away from the white heat glare of the publicity machine could be helpful. 


None of that was Paul Weller’s doing, but the same thing applied to 2021’s ‘Fat Pop’. And here we are with ‘66’, 2024’s new Weller record. This time, though, it feels different. This time it feels like he’s made the record he wanted to make, a record filled with the music he enjoys listening to and playing now. That makes a big and positive difference.


It impresses you from the start. ‘Ship Of Fools’ is a quiet beginning. It’s not a beginning that announces its presence with a blare of horns or a rocky guitar riff. It’s an acoustic conversation with no raised voices. Its standout moments come from the flute and it takes you by surprise.


This is an album with a relaxed, reflective feel, more at home in the Albert Hall than the Camden Roundhouse. There’s an understated soulful jazz running through the songs but it’s the fact that the arrangements are awash with melody and rich backings that carries the songs. He’s done this before but now it feels more like a natural expression of who he is in 2024.


There are links back to the Style Council, but it’s the Style Council of ‘The Paris Match’ and ‘You’re The Best Thing’ not ‘Dropping Bombs On The White House’. He’s no longer an angry man but a reflective one. It suits him and his voice.


It’s not exactly retro. A song like ‘Soul Wandering’ sounds like a new way of assembling musical elements that he’s found over the years work well. ‘Jumble Queen’ is probably the only song that paddles noticeably in the past. It has that 70s Exile On Main Street feel to it.


I’m impressed. I wasn’t expecting that. Happy birthday Paul.


Taster Track : Ship Of Fools




The Front Runners


Nonetheless : Pet Shop Boys


For nearly forty years the Pet Shop Boys have consistently delivered excellent albums. Nonetheless, this may be their finest yet.


This is a quintessentially Pet Shop Boys’ album. There are no new departures, but just like a Ferrari doesn’t need to be a Lamborghini, the Pet Shop Boys are themselves here, but better!


Their gift for melody keeps turning up gold. Neil Tennant’s voice is unchanged even as he turns 70. On ‘Feel’ and elsewhere, they show they can still capture and express the feelings of youth, awkwardness and unexpected ecstasy.


Of course they haven’t stood still. Refinements are everywhere. The sense of melancholy nostalgia for something that seems to have gone, fuels ‘A New Bohemia’. There are counterpoints that develop songs from their early days. ‘New London Boy’ feels like an updated ‘West End Girls’. ‘Why Am I Dancing?’ starts with the euphoric wake up blast that heralds the call to an early morning hunt. Perhaps they wouldn’t normally do that kind of thing. They’ve added a wonderful lushness to their sound, with rich strings allowing the songs to soar higher and further.


To look at them you’d think they were Gilbert and George, the oddball visual artists. They share a belief in their work as art but lighten it with a dry, knowing humour. You hear it in their shameless rhymes. Take this from ‘A New Bohemia’


“I wish I lived my life free and easier

I’m on my way to a new Bohemia”


This album reveals the Pet Shop Boys as present day heirs of Abba and Burt Bacharach and cements their reputation as one of the greatest pop groups ever. No question. It’s a purer, stronger version of their essence.


It doesn’t get better than this.


Taster Track : Feel




The Chasing Pack


Fugue In Twilight : Croquet Club


It’s odd, sometimes, what triggers and motivates an album. Here it seems to be an attempt to meditate in song.


Now, I’ll admit that in the past I’ve found mindful meditation helpful. But the honest truth is, I couldn’t take too much of this. It wanders towards new age music with its pipes and trills. Strip out the vocals and you could be in a group yoga class.


It’s undeniably pretty. If you were up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, you could listen to it without waking the rest of the household. The issue is that, for such a gentle sound it could polarise strong opinions. If you cannot succumb to it, you may find it makes you impatient. If you watch ‘Race Across The World’, the reaction to this music might be the same as a couple stuck in luxurious surroundings but losing time in the race. 


The opening track ‘Don’t Say’ stands alone as a song that features smothering electronica. Big emotions build and fade. The lyrics come as simply stated short emotions that give the songs an air of certainty. Some of the songs - ‘Slowly’, ‘Fugue In Twilight’ for two - drip with love and understated passion. The unworthy cynics out there will say “It’s not going to last”. 


The Croquet Club is a one man summer of love. Your inner hippy will love it. Your 21st century mindset may find it awkward.


Taster Track : Fugue In Twilight





Sleep Standing Up : Maven Grace


Here’s a collection of dreamy ballads soothing with its loveliness as they delve deep into sadness.


This is Maven Grace’s debut album. It’s not an album that could be written by teenagers. There’s too much lived experience and understanding of complex emotions woven into its songs. It’s mature in the best possible way and it keeps you listening.


There’s a kind of soundtrack that plays over the end credits of a BBC psychological drama, leaving you stunned and engrossed as you prepare to shut down for the evening. There’s an inevitability to the narrative that you hope to avoid but know, deep down, that’s impossible. It’s what Maven Grace were made for.


Is there a sadder cliche in life than “It’s all for the best” from ‘When The Butterfly Comes Down’? What starts out as a reluctant and nervy acceptance of loss takes you to the brink of tumbling into an abyss by the end. The chief emotion of ‘Blood Red Moon’ is powerlessness. On ‘Lost Souls (Don’t Leave)’ the song moves beyond sadness and towards desperation. 


Sometimes a song such as ‘Triumph Herald’ feels so drenched in sadness that the melody is unable to seep through. For the most part though, they don’t put a foot wrong in these songs.


Maven Grace are Henry Jack and Mary Home. When she sings, she sings with a lightness that hints at but avoids sinking into darkness. When he sings he’s a natural fit for her. Their greatest strength is restraint. In the wrong hands these songs could be big ballads swamped in a smothering lushness. It’s in cases such as these that restraint is an attractive proposition.


They have a knack in a song such as ‘Me Versus The Volcano’ of switching genres mid-song. They can shift from the dreamy pop of Dubstar to the unexpected alternative sounds of Radiohead. They’re not a million miles from the swooning ballads of John Grant or Bell X1.


This is a striking debut that will absorb your full attention.


Taster Track : When The Butterflies Come Down.




Souvenir : Omni


Omni are an American band pushing an authentic brand of post punk that keeps the flame of good, alternative music burning.


Of all the genres that have existed since the original explosion of rock and roll, post punk is probably the one that had the most space to create something new. If punk blew the doors open, post punk was the first genre to rifle through the debris for something new.


Omni have travelled back to that time and headed straight to the sector containing angular and fractured pop formed with stuttery and irregular rhythms. If it sounds like every band member is encouraged to play what they like, so did the original at times. Listening to this helps me to feel young again. It was the essence of my John Peel listening years.


The best post punk came from the likes of Gang Of Four, Devo and Wire in ‘Damaged Goods’, ‘(I Can’t Get Me No) Satisfaction’ and ‘Outdoor Miner’. It recognised that creating something new while keeping one foot in good choruses and singalong moments was the best way to establish the footholds that allowed their ideas and newness to flourish. Their post punk was a counterpoint to their popness, not a replacement of it.


Omni haven’t quite attained that level. Their songs are full of twists, ideas and creativity. But they’re like a pacesetter in the marathon, excellent athletes in their own right but destined to give way to others who lead the way home. They break the mould of corporate chart pop satisfyingly, but forgot to bring the musical glue to patch it back together in shapes that could endure. ‘Compliment’ comes closest to the perfect post punk pure pop balance in its outro.


If pop sometimes feels like a barren landscape, celebrate the green shoots that show something of value is being nourished and kept alive.


Taster Track :  Compliment




Sunseeker : Saint Saviour


This collection of gentle, summery off kilter pop is just what the world needs right now.


Saint Saviour has an established solo career that’s taken her a long way from her starting position as Groove Armada’s singer. If you used to find her in the club, now - and perhaps thanks to Groove Armada - you’re more likely to find her ‘at the river’.


This is an album that draws influences from the margins of pop. Within its grasp it holds chamber pop, folk, ye-ye and, yes whistling. In places it’s a little improvised and experimental. The special ingredient that makes the album special? That’s charm.


There’s a pastoral feel to the album. The songs are bright and breezy like Spring. They’re fluffy white clouds of song, conjuring up all different shapes as they drift across a trouble free blue sky.


It’s common to anticipate certain albums with interest and excitement. This album takes you one step further. You’ll find yourself revelling in the songs and looking forward to each song in anticipation of the treats it will offer you. The songs are brimful of happy melodies and joyful harmonising. To take one example, I loved the line:


“Samuel telling me to smooth the cowlick out.”


Every syllable is carefully enunciated and it sent me scurrying to Google to find the meaning of ‘cowlick’. It’s not what I thought!


‘Better Than’ and ‘Let’s Go Outside’ have an innocent allure to them. The duet with Orlando Weeks - ‘A Picture Is All I Have’ - could be Kings of Convenience. ‘Be Gentle’ blends flavours that are familiar, but not that I’ve heard mixed in quite this way before. In an unfussy way, these are some of the prettiest songs you’ll hear all year.


In ‘Poetry’ she sings to another person that they are becoming sunshine. She could be singing about her own album.


Taster Track : Be Gentle




10 Years of Travel : Soft Cotton County


This is music to listen to if you want to be lulled into doing not very much at all. On the one hand it’s absolutely lovely; on the other hand it will transport you to a place where you won’t be very productive for the foreseeable future.


Very little is available on line about Soft Cotton County. The one image shows a trio, two men and one woman, but no names. That’s a shame because ‘she’ has a lovely voice that you could listen to all day. It’s reminiscent of Dubstar or Sarah Cracknell


The music is dream pop and has melodies and points of interest aplenty. That keeps it in your head and renders it too much to be ambient. It has an ambient feel though, drifting by without a strong sense of purpose like the astronaut caught in a bubble on the cover. In fact, that’s the word I’ve been searching for over the last four or five hours. This is weightless music.


In ‘Blue On Blue’ they suggest they are happy in outer space, and this album feels like a message from out there. It sedates rather than energises, almost as if giving you permission to float safely with it. ‘On A Roll’ is quietly jaunty, but even ther you have a sense of the vocals fading quietly away. ‘It Could Happen To You’ is the stand out track. It’s delicate and fragile, but a thing of beauty like an empty wasps’ nest or a butterfly’s chrysalis.


This is one of the most relaxing listens I’ve heard for a while, almost too relaxing. It’s a pretty, mid-paced album that has the same effect as a gentle, occasional massage in your favourite spa.


Taster Track : It Could Happen To You.



Playlists


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.



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