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A Bear Lost In The Underground Grass


Starring


Astrid Sonne, Idles, Jaakko Eino Kalevi, Office For Personal Development, Umber


The Front Runners


Doing. Is. Thinking. : Office For Personal Development



What a pop gem lies within this album from the Office For Personal Development. It’s the synthpop pearl within the oyster’s unglamorous shell.


The Office For Personal Development (OPD) is the creation of Trevor Moss and his wife Hannah-Lue. It starts as a satire on management guru methods but gradually unwinds to look at personal life through the same lens. Through the course of the album it’s everything pop should be - tongue in cheek, witty, bitter sweet, melodic and memorable.


This is an album that coats the corporate takedowns of Heaven 17 and the sweet side of The Beautiful South in the glossy sheen of French sophisti pop. It’s as if the grim greyness of Sheffield and Hull has taken a holiday in the French Riviera. Alternatively you can see it as TV’s ‘The Office’ set to music.


They introduce themselves on opening track ‘Take Me Back’. You smile, and settle down knowing you’re in for a treat. In the title track ‘Doing. Is.Thinking’ you’ll savour manic management guru speak set to propulsive rhythm and beats. You might sense it’s getting a little out of control too. The tipping point, the switch from technicolour display to shadowy real life comes with ‘Risk To Benefit’ which applies management culture to the world of personal affairs. 


Doubt and vulnerability break through in ‘Strong Enough’. Bitter perception makes itself felt in lines such as:


“Love’s a whisper and hate’s a shout.”


They are there in the sadness of ‘Born To Be’ and the delusion and internalised howls of ‘Do It all Over Again. 


As the album draws to its wonderful close, ‘Invisible To Me’ summons up the lump in the throat of Abba’s saddest songs.  This is an album that is less about the tears of a clown and more about the suppressed sobs of a management consultant on the edge of a breakdown.


Venture into the playlists Spotify has curated for similar acts, or that the OPD have said are their choice for dancing around the water cooler, and you’ll appreciate how difficult it is to make something like this sound so airy and …… perfect.


Nothing comes close.


Taster Track : Risk To Benefit



The Chasing Pack


Great Doubt : Astrid Sonne


This short, 27 minute collection of experimental songs crams a lot in. It’s continually interesting - and that’s a compliment.


It starts gently with the short overture ‘Light and Heavy’. Bright and gentle flute suddenly transforms into something dark and threatening. It’s like being overtaken by stormy clouds while all in front of you is sunshine and light. 


Spoiler alert - this is not an easy listen but it can be a rewarding one. It’s an album that leads you firmly through. If you commit to the album you have to follow because there is no way of anticipating where it will go next or the route you will need to take. On ‘Everything Is Unreal’, for example, you’re suddenly immersed in poetry.


There are abrupt changes of tone and composition in ‘Give Me All’. In ’Staying Here’ and a startling simulation of sirens through strings to bring that piece to an end.


If they unsettle more than they entertain, don’t despair. The plucked strings of ‘Almost’ don’t quite lock into a natural melody but its sparse repetition is appealing. The fractured synths of ‘Boost’ and its breaks into unaccompanied percussion before being closed out by the gentle arrival of the flute are all interesting in the best kind of ways. You wait to hear where she’ll take you next.


Eventually Sonne takes you to ‘Say You Love Me’. It’s the most accessible piece here and finally a lot of what came before makes sense. It's less bare and full of rich tones and sounds, still experimental but not off putting in the slightest. And it conveys feelings of pure beauty too.


It’s fair to say there are no singles here, but open your ears and you’ll find much to appreciate and like.


Taster Track : Say You Love Me




Tangk : Idles


Idles are back, but they’ve tempered their trademark onslaughts with loss and vulnerability.


Quiet emotions, held in check, can be scarier and more deadly than a cathartic outburst. That’s when you know that real damage has been done. That’s what Idles bring to Tangk. 


And be prepared for that to mean love in all its phases. Even the hardest men crumble under its force. In ‘Hall and Oates’ Joe Talbot sounds as giddy as the Pet Shop Boys in the line 


“It feels like Hall and Oates are playing in my heart.”


Being Idles though, this isn’t a state of mind that’s going to last for long. Perhaps the biggest surprise in this album is the vulnerability and emptiness at the heart of ‘A Gospel’. It strikes the same note as The Streets ‘Dry Your Eyes’, helpless and broken.


That comparison with The Streets is apt in other ways too. Idles have the same love of wordplay and pithy lines as the best rap stars. It may not look much on the screen, but hear the line “Watch-watch, my-my steed-steed go-go far, far”  spat out in three quick repetitions during ‘Gift Horse’ is genuinely thrilling. 


There’s no hiding that this album covers the ugly and discordant side of love and life. ‘Gift Horse’ is the song most like the Idles of Ultra Mono and earlier. ‘Roy’ is hard and tough, loving how the words sound and their impact. ‘Grace’ contains the brooding menace of a tortured soul. ‘Jungle’ is an unapologetic nightmare in song. On this album you can only visualise Idles as a returning Messiah rising from the smouldering ruins of a post apocalyptic landscape reminding us that, despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary, love is all.


The thing is, you may not want to find yourself in Idles’ world, but their point is that, like it or not, it’s all around you. Idles are happy to provide that wake up call.


Taster Track : A Gospel




Chaos Magic : Jaakko Eino Kalevi


If you yearn for the days of 80s synth pop, you’ll find much to love here. Perhaps too much.


This is an album of tunes that will take you back to evening Radio 1 around 1984 and to the less commercially successful songs on pre- ’Now….’ compilations, some of which were pretty good depending on your taste. 


From early on ‘Drifting Away’ allows you to do just that. It’s very relaxing. You should put off whatever you are supposed to be doing and simply wallow in it. 


It soon settles down into a collection of repeating synth patterns and boop boop drum programmes. When it all clicks into pace as it does beautifully in ‘Palace In My Head’, it’s super synth pop. Where it doesn’t do that, for example on ‘The Chamber of Love’ it comes across as unfashionable and monotonous.


The problem is that it doesn’t work as an album.It’s a bit too cheesy and out of its time. It’s enjoyable but too much, like a party you’re pleased to have attended but you want to leave early.


There are some worthwhile collaborations throughout, particularly French model and actor Alma Jodorovsky. She sings on two of the simpler and more accessible songs.


The album is bookended by the two tracks that buck the trend. Opener ‘Chaos Magic’ is a blast of what can only be described as Ibizan prog with jazz tendencies. It’s the flute that does it. The closing track ‘Let’s See How Things Go’ is a thirteen minute epic that’s less tinny synth pop and more a healthy dollop of electropop that builds its way to a fitting climax.


I’ve realised while writing this that the album is big on ambition, and that’s highly commendable, but for the most part the songs remain resolutely lightweight and unable to rise to the occasion.


Taster Track : Palace In My Head




Sometimes That Light, That Shine, Seemed Like A Pretty Nice Thing : Umber



Here’s 40 minutes of quiet ambience that can set you up for all the day ahead sends your way.


Umber is Alex Steward. He has an unobtrusive and understated presence on line, and his music shares the same qualities It doesn’t push itself forward but passes by and is simp[ly there.


It’s a lovely experience, reliant on tone, pitch, atmosphere, soft keyboards, gentle beats and harmonious drones. It’s music for gently stirring and awaking and it often becomes something lovely. ‘Glisten’, which opens the album, is a good example. It swirls around gently before coalescing into something with a little more substance. (But just a little!) So does ‘It Is Going To Be Ok’ - as substantial as a dandelion before it releases its spores.


This is music that conjures up the feeling of dew forming and falling, of night creatures retreating out of sight from dawn. It’s a satellite in quiet orbit, its reassuring presence always there as it completes its elliptical circuit. It’s filled with wonder and marvels at those transcendent moments filled with warmth and happiness, that occasionally strike us as we wander home through a sleeping town.


The music can feel tenuous but there’s usually a recurring underlying motif to strengthen it, anchor the tune and keep you hooked. These are tunes that wander across the spectrum to take a lingering look at ambient new age music before returning to the safer quarters of ambient chill. Sometimes this happens within the same tune as in ‘When The West With Evening Glows’.


If there is a weakness in this album it’s that it can sometimes feel like therapy music beloved of yoga teachers and less suited to life in the bustle of the day.


It may not be for everyone. I suspect it won’t be for anyone all day long.There will be times though when nothing else will do.


Taster Track : When The West With Evening Glows



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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