Updated: Apr 24
Alison Sudol, Billy Reeves, Caroline Rose, Courtney Pine, Drugdealer, Eddi Reader, Gemma Cullingford, Jennifer Touch, The Long Ryders, Phoenix, The Reds Pinks and Purples
The Front Runners
Nostalgia Of The Future : Billy Reeves
Here’s an album drenched in nostalgia with songs that capture an overwhelming yearning for past times.
Billy Reeves formed theaudience, the band that also gave Sophie Ellis Bextor her first break. The future looked bright, but a near fatal car accident threw Reeves off track. When he returned he found himself more inclined to radio production and sports commentary. There’s a strong sense running through this album of the gap between then and now and a quest for understanding how you arrived here from there. ‘Golden Days’ is a sadly chirpy song that makes it clear that you can’t cross that gap any more.
It feels like a concept album, one that gives us an exploration of a life. In places it could be a stage musical, an effect heightened when Billy allows himself to sing in character, London accents to the fore. A better picture may be of those films that start with a black and white flashback before slowly turning to colour as we are transferred to the present.
Overthinking this album is not necessary. It stands up well on musical terms alone. This is music for the still point of the day, that brief period when work is done but your night out has not begun. ‘Drift’ is perfect music for filling time when there is nothing else to do.
It’s also an indication of how the album works its potent magic. It includes the line
“When I wake up, I’ll put on my make up.”
You’ll be immediately taken back to Aretha Franklin’s ‘Say A Little Prayer’, the time and the place that you were when you first heard it and the feelings you associate with that older song. Like me, you may also register the ‘wake up / make up’ rhyme clearly for the first time. What’s cleverly constructed in the original song is drawn out in bold colours here. That filteirng is a big piece of this album's impact.
This is a lovely album, one that encourages contemplation and reflection while melting away your stress.
Taster Track : Drift
Hiding In Plain Sight : Drugdealer
Drugdealer immerses you in an uncannily faithful recreation of 1970s AOR and Yacht Rock. This is time travel to an intense degree.
Have you ever seen those stories about people who dedicate their lives to celebrating a figure from the past? They think nothing of shopping dressed as Elvis, or showing off their unimaginably huge collection of Marilyn Monroe frocks. It’s beyond a heartwarming interest and heading at top speed towards a full blown obsession.
Drugdealer does something similar with music, with the crucial exception that it’s not awkward or strange but very good. From the opening notes of ‘Madison’ this is 70s AOR and light soul recreated down to the smallest detail.
It starts with the cover. This is the kind of music you’d expect the stereotypes of 70s living and lounging to like. It moves immediately to the warm, worn vocals of a reborn Michael McDonald or a one man Doobie Brothers with a splash of other 70s radio staples like Christopher Cross, Bozz Scaggs and Rupert Holmes. It’s in the desires to escape suburban living to be a free spirit, the sounds of electric keyboards, stumbling funk bass and slide guitars.
Let's not forget. To a teenager in the mid to late 70s this calls to mind the Sunday morning Radio 1 playing in the kitchen whilst lunch was prepared, music that accompanied the growing feelings of boredom because on a Sunday then there was nothing to do. It’s the music we thought we’d escaped from either via disco or punk.
But its call across the ages is seductive. It’s easy to listen to, to rediscover the unthreatening comfort and safety of that time and to indulge in its unreal fantasies. It’s the music that Starsky and Hutch might have listened to in the downtime between leaving the late night bar and their next bout of crime fighting.
From the opening notes I found myself wondering if this was for real. Was it intended to be ironic, an affectionate look back at a style that many thought consigned to the realms of Golden Hits radio? I don’t think so.
It’s a sincere form of - consults Google to be sure he’s not making an ass of himself here - anemoia. That’s the sense of nostalgia for something you haven’t experienced yourself. Drugdealer lovingly plays on this, recreating the sounds of the time in more vibrant and intense tones. If it were a coffee, it would have the intense hit of a macchiato. For some that’s a taste that needs to be diluted. For others - me included - it can be wonderful, but too easy to fall into an addiction for it.
His collaborators fit in well on the ensemble piece closer ‘Posse Cut’ and, particularly, on the Kate Bollinger led ‘Pictures Of You’. The library jazz of ‘To Live and Drive In LA’ - great title - may not impress jazz aficionados, but it’s perfectly in keeping with soundtracks of the time seeking a touch of sophistication. The outros throughout are outros to savour, the hooks that will bring you back for one last taste of guilty pleasure.
This is as rich a taste of 70s AOR as you’ll find anywhere, including the music of the time. Dive in and sample the past. You might like it there.
Taster Track : Baby
Tongue Tied : Gemma Cullingford
Gemma Cullingford’s second album is full of danceable, listenable electropop. It’s a near faultless example of the genre.
She sets out her stall in a line from ‘Chronicle Of Sound’.
“Sample it, fuck it, whip it and eat it up. Move your feet to the beat.”
It’s a consistent message that underpins every song. (It’s also, as the less innocent amongst us will appreciate, not something to play for the kids.)
Cullingford has a split personality on this album. She’s alternately the ice queen of ‘Accessory’ and ‘Bass Face, at other times she's the girlishly romantic pop goddess of ‘Tongue Tied’. She’s as happy on the dance floor as she is in the bedroom; as happy in the throes of a romantic story as she is in the middle of her darkest fantasies. She’s the closest we have to a new Alison Goldfrapp in ‘Strict Machine’ mode.
In her debut, ‘Let Me Speak’ released in 2021, the songs came across as crisp and clean but occasionally antiseptic and sterile. The strengths are still there and the record sounds wonderful. There's a great balance struck between the slinky bass grooves, the club clicks and beats and the layers of melodic synth up top. The big change is in her vocals which break out from a default robotic ice queen to bring warmth and life to the mix, especially in tracks such as ‘New Day’.
This is electopop as a drug, the naggingly infectious bass lines anchoring and driving the songs making for a much more confident sound. Everything comes together in brilliant synchronisation in ‘Red Room’.
Cullingford is one of the brightest lights in UK electropop right now. This album is pretty damn close to perfect.
Taster Track : Chronicle Of Sound
Alpha Zulu : Phoenix
Pop doesn’t get much better than this. Clever, witty, sophisticated, tuneful and French. Sit back, relax and enjoy.
I read somewhere recently that it was good to hear groups who take time to grow into their own sound rather than groups who reinvent themselves from album to album in the hope of finding a magic formula that makes them rich. I couldn’t agree more. Phoenix are a group that have done just that.
I’ve followed Phoenix for years, believing I should like them more than I did. They seemed to try too hard, often falling flat on their face. With ‘Alpha Zulu’ though they’ve perfected the art of effortless pop.
This album is chic and stylish, combining slinky rhythms, lightly dancing pop beats and lyrics that flow over the top with a natural rhythm. There’s a moment achieved by ballerinas when any upward momentum is perfectly in balance with gravity. It’s a moment of grace and strength and Phoenix achieve it on ‘Alpha Zulu’.
Phoenix have always created memorable melodies, but not as consistently across an album as they do here. They’re like gentle tingles that you can’t ignore, and they tighten their grip with every listen. On a song such as ‘Winter Solstice. The melody whirls around you, spinning you into a giddy joy.
This is fluid music, with no harsh edges. It’s a cream cleaner, not a scouring powder, better suited to warm Summer rain rather than the stinging hail of early Spring. Phoenix create voices calling you through the darkness to bring you safely home.
This is music you will find yourself listening to and enjoying time and time again. Make the most of it.
Taster Track : The Only One
The Town That Cursed Your Name : The Reds, Pinks and Purples
Indie pop that truly strikes at your heart and emotions is rare. In that respectThe Reds, Pinks and Purples are becoming the quality hallmark and setting the standard to beat.
Glenn Donaldson, the man behind The Reds, Pinks and Purples must be one of the most prolific writers in pop. He released an album in 2021, two albums in 2022, and ‘The Town That Cursed Your Name’ last month. You’d think the law of diminishing returns must be starting to creep in. Absolutely not! This is the best of the four.
Inevitably you lose the initial impact of Donaldson’s attack on your heartstrings, but the recurring themes of disappointment and letting people down swell into an emotional tsunami that comes closer and closer to overwhelming you.
Pinpointing what makes him so vulnerable and in need of reassurance that you want to reach out and give him a hug is difficult. It’s in the title of ‘Life In The Void’ and the way that the song cuts through like a distant train whistle heard at night, distorted by the distance it has travelled. There’s also something in his voice, in the solitary loneliness of the vocals. ‘Here Comes The Lunar Hand’ is beautiful and is able to move you to tears.
If he were a mythical figure hunting down the elixir of love and happiness, he’d arrive at the magic well after everyone else and drink deeply from it before realising that all he has left are the dregs of self doubt, unfulfilled dreams and missed opportunities.
These are simple songs with a unique and special sound. He describes them as kitchen pop but listen to them attentively and they will work their way under your skin. He provides 21st century blues for the indie pop generation.
This is one of Donaldson’s best albums, and one of the best albums of the year so far.
Taster Track : Here Comes The Lunar Hand
The Chasing Pack
Still Come The Night : Alison Sudol
This is an intriguing and puzzling album and, ultimately, a satisfying and good one too.
It’s rare that you’ll come across an album with so many tensions within it, but out of them comes a curious sort of energy. It’s a dense, haunting tangle of a record sweetened, in the words of ‘Peaches’ by melodies that are so sweet they hurt. This is an album that teases and challenges. It’s a stir crazy, caged animal. On songs such as ‘Playground’ and ‘Come On Baby’ there’s a suggestion that, if she chose to, Sudol could lose all restraint. It’s full of emotions held in check but at the point of erupting. It’s a scary kind of internal control.
It’s a different sounding album that draws on a real melting pot of influences. They are influences that can’t quite be placed as if they need to be dredged up from a messy fog of memories. The influence that bubbles to the surface most clearly was the chorus to ‘Venus In Furs from the Velvet Underground. It has a melody that breaks free of the substance of the song and elevates it. The songs on ‘Still Come The Night’ are full of such heavy, memorable melodies. There’s also some lost in the dark forest, far from home folk too.
The shape that this record fits into hasn’t been described yet. Just as you think you may have a handle on it, along comes ‘Meteor Shower’. It closes the album but it sounds as if it’s included simply because it is too good to leave off. It's a different sound from what has gone before, but it captures the same tone.
Sometimes you don’t have to understand an album to be gripped by its power. This is one such time.
Taster Track : Come On Baby
The Art Of Forgetting : Caroline Rose
Caroline Rose’s collection of songs is a love album of strong passions and feelings. Be warned though, it’s about as far from seeing the moon in June as you can get.
This is an album about love in its negative disguises. By turns it’s angry, resentful, bitter, passionate and holding nothing back. It’s love as an addiction and a mania. It’s as concerned with the casualties of love, not just the break ups but the victims of turbulent emotions too.
She’s fully aware of what she’s doing.
“Just because I’m brooding and wanna kill everything moving
It doesn’t mean I’m losing my marbles, I’m just moody.” (‘Miami’)
It makes for strong stuff and a difficult listen at times. Expect the roar of a wounded lion, not the cooing of lovebirds. She’s tumbling out of intense relationships left with just the vinegar in the meringue, the thorn stripped of its rose. There’s little here by way of softness. She’s laundry, baked dry under an unforgiving sun.
You’d be forgiven for giving this album a wide berth. But wait. There’s something thrilling and irresistible in her ability to give vent to her darkest feelings. The imagery is dark but propels her songs powerfully and you ask yourself what’s coming next.
It’s as if the songs have been built out of damaged building blocks, pushed together without being a natural fit. This could irritate you if you don’t hear this as a reflection on conflicting and rubbing thoughts and emotions trying to occupy the same space.
There are moments when the songs move towards something with a poppier feel. ‘Everywhere I Go I Bring The Rain’ is one for the radio, capable of snagging attention without being a savage mood kill. ‘The Kiss’ and ‘Love Song for Myself’ may still sound fractured but there’s also a healing sweetness creeping in to lighten the tone and stem the love victim’s decay.
What ultimately saves this album is the sense of redemption and of coming back to a position of some strength. Throughout the album there are snippets of phone callss from a worried and sincerely loving mother figure. The call is returned at the end and it brings the soothing sensation of a salve caressing a burn. The album ends with ‘Where Do I Go From Here?’, a realisation of what needs to happen.
“ Come on now, babe. Take all this pain
And learn to love yourself again.”
There’s no better description of this record than these lines, from ‘The Kiss’ are some of my favourites.
“Nothing on the street tonight but a burning heart
Reaching out and ready to explode”
And…… breathe. We’ll leave it there.
Taster Track : Where Do I Go From Here?
Spirituality : Courtney Pine (with Zoe Rahman)
This collection of mainly covers from jazz musicians Courtney Pine (saxophone and lots of other instruments) and Zoe Rahman (piano) is pretty but underwhelming.
Over the years Courtney Pine has become one of jazz’s national treasures peaking with a CBE in 2021. From starting out as the leading light of an outfit styled ‘The Jazz Warriors’ you can’t get much more Establishment than that. It shows in this album.
There’s a formula followed in this album. Take an acknowledged standard from the pop world or age of musicals, say ‘Smile’, ‘Blue Moon’ or ‘What’ll I Do’. Allow Pine’s sax to steal the melody, languidly giving you something to follow. Give Zoe permission to wander away from the melody for a bit so that you don’t recognise the song too easily. Check out ‘Windmills Of My Mind’ to hear what I mean.
From time to time Pine’s sax will wander off track like a school child striking their first blows for independence. ‘Black Water’ seems full of notes that are chosen to sound unexpected but fear not, he’ll always be back in time for tea.
The real danger with albums like this is that you respond to the song, not the treatment. It’s an easy option. We saw the nadir of this approach in 70s and 80s when every gift shop had collections of pop songs rearranged for pan pipes.
This isn’t that bad. As you’d expect it’s well played, but that’s the minimum expectation for a record like this and performers of Pine’s and Rahman’s stature. The saxophone can produce some of the most gorgeous sounds ever heard. It can send shivers racing down the spine as it draws out the sweet heart of a melody. What’s missing here is any success in that kind of emotional engagement.
Rather than uncovering new perspectives on old songs these treatments are listenable but background, pleasant but not captivating, safe and unnecessary. Other reviews, such as this one from Jazzwise ( Courtney Pine Spirituality ) find a masterclass in control, nuance and authenticity. I’m afraid I don’t. I find a case of the Emperor’s new clothes, laced with disappointment.
Taster Track : Windmills Of My Mind
[Unfortunately, there's no video clip of this on YouTube]
Light Is In The Horizon : Eddi Reader
Eddi Reader, the Fairground Attraction perfect girl, has combined folk, light jazz and the songs and feel of Hollywood and Broadway to make an appealing, old time album.
I’d been warned that this was very folky. For a woman whose past records include an album of Robbie Burns poetry set to traditional music that’s an alarming thought. It’s a false alarm though. There is nothing to be afraid of here.
This is an album that acts as a gateway to a happier, sentimental past, coloured in cloudy sepia and filling your heart with comfort and warmth. Eddie understands the musical workings of the past, the power of sentimentality and it flavours all the songs here. It’s an album that asks us to consider if the music of Hollywood and Broadway from seventy years ago is our new folk. Something like ‘Fools Rush In’ pulls people together in a glossy version of the blitz pub singalong.
If this is folk, it’s folk that has been made warm and familiar, not strange as if from a foreign place. It’s like stumbling across your childhood record collection after 50 years.
It’s true that there are moments of pure folk here, but they’re welcoming, not off-putting. They’re helped by the sequencing of the first three tracks which gently dip you into the sounds of the past. ‘Love Is Pleasing’ is accordion fuelled and regionally sung, but rather than prompting you to switch off you’re transported to the world of a Highlands fair on a hot Summer’s afternoon.
The gentle ebb and flow of the backing to ‘Beneath The Lights Of Home’, the images in ‘Here Comes The Weak’ of “reading books beneath the covers” that are rendered old fashioned by Kindles, her voice which has matured from bubbly celebration to the warmth of of a best friend grandmother. All these elements help this album to be as warm and comforting as an old TV film when you’re recovering from flu.
This is a musical dip into a turbulent past that turned out alright in the end. Escape into it when you need a respite from the present.
Taster Track : Fools Rush In
Midnight Proposals : Jennifer Touch
This is a truly distinctive album of songs, eking out the full potential of synthesisers rather than seeking commercial rewards.
When she was younger, Jennifer Touch was told that there was no point trying to become a musician because all the melodies in the world had already been found and taken. The implication was that she wasn’t the person who might prove that theory wrong. This album takes a step towards testing that. You can sense too that rather than seeing the statement as a barrier, Touch has used it as a motivation and incentive.
This is an album that is as much about sound as it is about music. She pushes her synths hard, incorporating ideas and effects into songs such as ‘Summerchild’ as she goes along. That keeps what might otherwise be repetitive, spontaneous and fresh. The layered vocals on ‘Sold Out’ seem to give us access to her spoken words and inner thoughts simultaneously.
She’s a dark and confrontational character with attitude. You hear it in the music and register it in her vocals. That’s how she sees them as she changes her personality with the speed of the vocals on ‘Prayer’.
This is an album that works best if you don’t have the lyrics in front of you but hear them against her chosen musical backing. There’s only one false note struck. It’s in the intonation of “naked tits” on ‘A Day’. She falls into the voice of a Year 12 schoolgirl trying too hard to shock.
It’s worth asking who she thinks she is, or rather who she wants to be as a musician. The short answer is someone fiercely standing alone. Musically she claims Depeche Mode as an influence and you can hear that coming through, most clearly on ‘Sacred Type’. In defiantly bucking the mainstream you can feel the influence of Siouxsie and post chart seeking Gary Numan. And for resolute commitment to individuality, Grace Jones is a definite role model.
This is a record from someone who, without arrogance, knows who she is and makes no apology for it. It’s also an excellent example of innovative electronica.
Taster Track : Rumor
September November : The Long Ryders
This heartwarming set of country rock feels as if it could have been released at any point the last 65 years.
September November was an unexpected recommendation from a friend - unexpected because it’s not what I thought he listened to. Now I can’t say what he thought about it, but it goes to show that this record might appeal to you even if you’re usually into pop, rock, electro or Bulgarian Throat Warbling.
This album is a return to guilty pleasures. It’s back to the days of the Eagles, The Hollies, The Byrds and even the Teenage Fanclub of more jangle pop times. It hits the spot where bar room rock ad roll meets country or western.
Its simple and sweet innocence is captured in this line from ‘Flying Down’.
“The season changes, but my love with stick around.”
Call me a sentimental old fool, but it touches something deep inside that makes it impossible to dislike and it calls to mind the idealistic 60s of the Zombies and others. And if their 60s predecessors could protest against Vietnam, The Long Ryders make a stand for Ukraine, with the simply titled instrumental ‘Song For Ukraine’.
At heart, The Long Ryders are good old boys, showmen through and through. Just listen to ‘That’s What They’ll Say About Love.’ They may have got into a few scrapes but inside they just want to please themselves and you. To enjoy this fully, you need to give yourself up to it. Do so. It will be a heartwarming experience.
Taster Track : Flying Down
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