Blossoms, Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Donny McCaslin, Ian McNabb. John Sebastian and Arlen Roth, Linda Fredricksson, Tapani Rinne and Juhi Maki-Patola,
If You Listen To One Thing This Week....
I've opted for something old this week from Nada Surf. 'See My Bones
This is 'See These Bones' from their 2008 album 'Lucky'. The track passed me by at the time but I saw it performed live a few years ago at The fleece in Bristol and it was incredible.
You'll form a view pretty quickly about the song, but stick with it to the end when the various elements come together and soar.
Open : Tapani Rinne and Juha Maki-Patola
This collaboration between saxophonist and clarinettist Tapani Rinne and multi instrumentalist and composer Juha Maki-Patola is a strange, beautiful collection of tunes.
Some things should be experienced rather than described. Elephants, extreme cold, a baby's smile and first love are four of them. We can add this album to the list.
It’s difficult to describe but I’m going to try. This is the sound of the Northern Lights, shimmering, colourful and quietly beautiful. Like a huge glacier or a giant iceberg it’s a seamless piece of music that slowly shifts its position. It has the impact of being alone in a giant vaulted cathedral as music starts up from an unseen source.
The music is reflective, meditative and calming and simultaneously stately, powerful and unstoppable. It’s the music of awe, music that stops you in your tracks to consider properly what you’re hearing. It had me feeling strangely emotional without understanding why.
You could argue that it verges too far towards ambient but, if so, it has an effect unlike any other ambient music I've heard. ‘Open Pt1’ is a quiet conversation with a saxophone. ‘Open Pt 2’ has the most beautifully controlled fade out. ‘Fall’ is almost religious in its intensity.
Some music is made for dancing. Some music is made for singing along with. The music here is music that allows you to be fully immersed in and absorbed by it. It’s music that transcends genre and is best listened to as a whole. It captures the sublime power of music to change you.
I don’t think I’ve exaggerated here and that makes it very special.
Taster Track : Open Pt 1
... And The Rest
Ribbon Around The Bomb : Blossoms
Blossoms’ fourth album provides more of their sweet and wholesome pop, but the warning signs are there that they need to move on.
Blossoms are masters of a sugar sweet, idealised and unthreatening form of pop. It’s much more than bubblegum pop but it’s closer to the children’s TV of McFly boy bands than they might wish. They’re living their dream with eyes wide open and filled with wonder (‘Ode To NYC’). You can’t begrudge them that, particularly when it’s very well done and drifts pleasantly by.
It lacks bite and substance. It’s a Latte not a Machiatto, a milky taste that won’t be for everyone. They’re the equivalent of banoffee pie, strawberry pavlova or Eton mess, nice for afters but unsatisfying as a main course.
The problem may be that they’ve become unmoored from the real world. Their experiences now are about being in a pop band. Their issues are about writing difficulties rather than the excitement of discovering new relationships or working to fulfil your dreams.
They’re running out of inspiration. I expect a song on their next album to be about breaking up with an agent rather than a first love. Musically, their biggest risk is to add the disco lite treatment to ‘Care For’.
Other bands have struggled with the same dilemma. Some, like Depeche Mode, successfully transition to a darker, more mature sound without losing their pop sheen. Others, like Haircut 100, know when to call it a day before their reputation has grown stale. Blossoms need to decide what they want to be - a boy band in perpetuity or grow into banned boys singing of the grittier things that come from experience. For now, they’re accepting their fate as a band that can never grow up.
In ‘Edith Machinist’ they ask “When did we get so hardcore?”. I wouldn’t worry about it lads. You didn’t.
Taster Track : Ode To NYC
Backhand Deals : Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard
Cardiff based Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard draw their sound from the 70s, but their material from living under our current government. It’s a delighted, mischievous and provocative album.
It doesn’t take long to understand where they're coming from or their thoughts on looking after No 1 at the expense of compassion as these lines from ‘You’ demonstrate.
“There’s a clear distinction between eater and eaten
To serve as proof of my wonderful life”
It’s a skill drawn from the likes of Randy Newma. Take what you see, extend it to its extreme and overturn expectations by seeing it as a good thing. If Randy Newman’s life is good, so too is Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard’s. Of course, the scathing reality is different.
Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard are described as a rock band. That’s a wide church. They’re certainly not like Idles. They avoid slogans and punk metal guitars. Their starting point is the sound of 10cc before they made ‘I’m Not In Love’. It’s most obvious in the deeper vocal echo and repetition in ‘Break Right In’.
It’s also in the punchy three and half minute songs. Probably the ideal length for a pop song, it allows you to come in, make your point, not waste a note and give people a good time.
Like 10cc too, the non-singles lack the best melodies that lodge in your memory but that’s a minor quibble. There’s more than enough to keep you engaged.
There’s always a welcome for a mischievous, provocative holding up of the mirror to ourselves. Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard do so in a very listenable way.
Taster Track : Faking A Living
New Fragility : Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah
The new likeable set of indie rock from Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah is a restrained affair, and that’s its strength.
Alec Ounsworth, the lead in Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah, sounds as if he could be a tortured soul. It’s in his tremulous vocals that stay just on the right side of being whiney. He keeps it in check though, letting us know his anguish without lapsing into hysteria.
Musically this is a chugger. That’s not a bad thing. As ‘Thousand Oaks’ shows it’s a sign from the off of what you can expect, as effective in its way as a Bo Diddley rhythm and beat. It’s always appealing. The overall feel is restrained, as if the band are holding something back. It allows for a slow build in songs such as ‘New Fragility’. It means that any little flourishes such as the strings on ‘CYHSY, 2005’ stand out and can be better appreciated.
Occasionally it doesn’t work, and when that happens as on ‘Dee, Forgiven’ and ‘If I Were More Like Jesus’ it’s a little weary and wearisome.
This isn’t what I was expecting. From rare forays into some of their earlier songs I was prepared for the peculiarly American brand of power pop that sometimes sounds as if it has lost the box of tricks labelled ‘Melody’ and replaced it with the one marked ‘Loud and Fast Guitar’. This is a much more thoughtful and reflective offering that comes to more than the sum of its parts.
Taster Track : CYHSY, 2005
Blow : Donny McCaslin
This is an experimental hybrid between jazz and rock. It has much to admire but less to love.
McCaslin played saxophone on Bowie’s final album ‘Blackstar’. Clearly inspired by that experience he’s reconvened Bowie’s backing band to make his own record. That's a tricky move to make. I read a lot of critics who raved about Blackstar, particularly when they revisited it after Bowie’s death. I know far fewer fans who pretend to love it.
The kind of person he has to win over is the kind of person who notices that ‘Exactlyfourminutesofimprovisedmusic’ is actually four minutes and two seconds long. He’s no Bowie, and doesn’t pretend to be. He may have the vision but he doesn’t combine it with emotion. We’re applauding technique without feeling the soul.
It’s a surprise to hear so many vocal tracks. ‘What About The Body’ is catchy, and ‘The Opener’, a short story set to music is engrossing at the expense of pushing McCaslin and the band firmly into the background. The remaining vocal tracks are the weaker half of the album.
The interesting parts of this album are in the instrumentals and particularly the sax. That’s his greatest strength but he hasn’t made the most of it. His inclination to make an experimental rock album means that the sax is restricted in places to where it can rip through the song like an alien erupting from John Hurt’s stomach.
In the aforementioned ‘Exactlyfourminutes…’, there’s a lot going on and a lot of it to like. ‘Club Kidd’ is a cauldron of special effects. He coaxes sounds from his sax that have you questioning if he’s introducing a new instrument to the mix. ‘Break The Bond’ is a merry go round of a record, full of spiralling, wheeling and soaring sax that returns to the core melody time and again during its 9+ minutes. It’s exhilarating.
You don’t often hear this kind of music these days. From my limited knowledge of the man it flows from the likes of Frank Zappa and is best filed under ‘Interesting’.
Taster Track : Break The Bond
Ascending : Ian McNabb
The new album from Ian McNabb revisits songs from his early days with the Icicle Works. It’s much more than treading water or a vanity project.
Back in 1981, when the Icicle Works were spinning with the energy and drive of a band trying to get noticed, they recorded a cassette of some of their songs. This was sent to John Peel, record companies and distributed at gigs but the songs never made it to a recording studio even as demos. Forty years later McNabb’s recorded them properly, and they’re not bad at all.
What struck me forcibly is how vested the early Icicle Works were in science fiction. They took their name from a science fiction short story ‘The Day The Icicle Works Closed’ by Frederik Pohl. Running through the song titles here you have ideas of a lunar holiday, cures, artificial worlds and the gleam of a scientist’s eye.
All this points to the songs being works of imagination rather than experience. He has yet to find the voice of his more mature solo work. They have a gentler sound than that too, as if the passion and frustration that fuels the later songs hasn’t built up yet. He still has hopes and dreams.
The songs, with their 2021 treatment, stand up well particularly against their most successful single ‘Love Is A Wonderful Colour’. The songs have strong melodies and simpler constructions. There aren’t many soaring middle eights to take the songs on a trip away from their foundations. The unwavering nature lends tham an intensity and insistence though, an approach that says “I’ve started so I’ll finish”.
Generally he isn’t letting rip for good or ill. The exception is ‘All In The Gleam Of A Scientist’s Eye’ which has a much larger and ambitious sound that heads off into the magical and alternative solar system of prog.
The songs are updated sensitively, never forgetting that they were intended for the early 80s, not the early mid 21st century.They don’t sound dated though. ‘Lunar Holiday’ captures this best with its synth squelches carrying echoes of early Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. ‘Are We Dreamers’ is a stand out track with its simpler melody
This works as an intriguing example of time travel, but also as a strong collection of songs for today.
Taster Track : Are We Dreamers?
John Sebastian and Arlen Roth Explore The Spoonful Songbook
Here’s a bit of a curiosity- a revisiting of a selection of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s songs for no other reason that they're there. It makes for a relaxed and pleasant listen.
John Sebastian was a founding member of The Lovin’ Spoonful, alongside guitarist Zal Yanovsky, who died of a heart attack in 2002. Arlen Roth is a respected session player and guitar tutor. Together they’ve revisited a number of songs from The Lovin’ Spoonful back catalogue excluding ‘Summer In The City’ which is, maybe, their best known song in the UK and including ‘Daydream’ as an instrumental only.
The big question is, why? There’s no revitalised interest in their career, no milestone anniversary, no recent recognition for their work and no suggestion of a big commercial payday from the project. It’s like those moments in ‘Avengers : Endgame’ when Iron Man, Captain America and Thor have chances to revisit and review their past.
Both men show that they still have what it takes, and there’s a palpable sense of relief and enjoyment that flows from that, particularly for John Sebastian who has struggled with throat problems as he aged, leaving his voice growly where once it was wholesome.
You could call this album self-indulgent but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad or unenjoyable one. I hear it as an equivalent of watching someone sew lace. It’s interesting, even impressive, but it belongs firmly to another time.
What you also get though is nostalgia in its purest sense of sadness at the loss of something special. It’s nostalgia for both the songs and the time and for their youth. It’s a double nostalgia because, even at their peak, they would have been seen as harking back to the sound of the Everly Brothers and early Roy Orbison of a few years earlier.
They’ve collaborated on a number of tracks with The MonaLisa Twins, whose own work is steeped in recreating the sounds of rock and roll and the mid 60s. Their contribution adds variety to the sound and, along with a couple of instrumental versions helps to keep interest in the songs high.
The songs ooze charm. The playing is reverential and respectful while the arrangements are changed sufficiently to hold interest without damaging the original.
If you took the sound of Johnny Cash on his late albums, the simplicity of Johnathan Richman at his most appealing and the fond empathy of Nick Lowe’s recent work for the harmony soaked rock and roll years, you’re close to understanding the sound of this record.
In a few words, it’s sweet and perfectly balanced to go down a treat.
Taster Track : Darlin’ Companion
Juniper : Linda Fredriksson
This is pure jazz saxophone with an atmospheric modern twist.
As this album opens we’re transported to an empty alleyway at the junction with a dark and rainy deserted street. It’s that kind of sax, mournful and lonely but with a simple melody. It grows into something more urban and sinister. She takes her melodic sax and she strangles it - in a good way.
Jazz like this doesn’t take many prisoners. There’s a sense of being trapped in the music with only occasional respites into gentler sounds. The track inspired by her nan's dying (‘Nana - Tapalle) captures this feeling well.
It doesn’t want to engage, lashing out if you try to do so. There are some moments of warmth but it’s the warmth of a brazier on barren wasteland, surrounded by ne’er do wells. You don’t want to approach too closely.
Fredriksson is Finnish, and Nordic Noir sums up the feeling of this record. If it’s off-putting, it’s off-putting in the same way that film noir is. You want to turn away but are unable to do so, and the memory of what you see or hear lingers long after the credits roll.
This is definitely Fredriksson’s record, but a lot of the atmosphere comes from the band playing beneath the sax. It’s brooding but interesting with plenty of little touches to listen out for.
The sax sounds husky rather than smooth, a sax that has spent too long smoking and sobbing. The exception is ‘Lempilauluni’ which means ‘My Favourite Song’ when translated into English. The wordless vocals are another distancing device. She’s completely absorbed in her world, but playfully so. It makes for a rare, lovely track.
Always thoughtful and in control, and sometimes unsettling, this is music that exposes you to new feelings.
Taster Track : Lempilauluni
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