Birdie, Ed Harcourt, Greg Foat and Gigi Masin, The Lemon Twigs, Me For Queen, Shida Shahabi.
The Front Runners
Some Dusty : Birdie
Discovering this album of charming indie pop from 1999 is the kind of discovery that makes your day.
Birdie - not to be confused with the singer songwriter, Birdy - were formed by two members of St Etienne’s backing and touring band, Debsy Wykes and Paul Kelly. It’s a domestic joy, indie pop of the simplest, model kind. That’s clear from the opening notes of ‘Laugh’, but it’s the smiles of delight and recognition that come with the Bacharach trumpet at the beginning of ‘Dusty Morning’ that alert you to something that’s a bit special.
These are songs by the girl next door, songs about small moments that can, nevertheless, bring big sorrows. In the main, the songs ooze warmth and contentment. It sounds as if they were written on a quiet day, lying undisturbed in a field under a warming sun. ‘Lazy Day’ sums up the attitude even before it slides into a gentle chorus with a jaw droppingly good melody.
It makes the Alan Rickman moment of ‘Thanks For The Birthday Card’ all the more heartbreaking. (Let us not forget his betrayal of Emma Thompson in ‘Love Actually’. The world is full of people who have yet to forgive him for that!). It’s a song of put on strength, crumbling in the face of the smallest gesture. And it’s brilliant!
Birdie share something with St Etienne’s poppier moments. They share their style and add a touch of Burt Bacarach class to the arrangements. There’s also the feel, if not the sound of Tracey Thorn in her Marine Girls and early Everything But The Girl guise.
When pop is brought into real lives it’s special. That’s what happens here and we should all be grateful for it.
Taster Track : Lazy Day
The Chasing Pack
Monochrome To Colour : Ed Harcourt
Ed Harcourt’s 2020 collection of passionate instrumentals is a cocktail of stirring, powerful and unsettling music.
The album cover paints a picture of the music within. It's the calm in the immediate aftermath of a storm, with no promise that the storm won’t return. The music is played out beneath a wild sky and above a hurricane flecked sea. If the Shipping forecast were to review this album, the review would read “Harcourt. 4. Rising 7. Imminent”.
Harcourt released his debut album, called ‘Here Be Monsters’, in 2001. By the sounds of this album, 22 years later they’re still hanging around. This is music that faces towards classical music while retaining a close link to its pop and rock roots. It has the great romanticism of a tortured Heathcliffe from the brooding swell of ‘First Light’ via the sudden marching pace of ‘Last Rites’ to the exhausted calm of ‘So Here’s To You, Hally’.
Even as your ears register something that could soothe you, your mind recalls previous examples of tunes reigniting into a turbulent passage. ‘Childhood’ is a case in point. From its simple music box melody it still feels like the exhausted sleep of a child disturbed earlier in the evening by night terrors. Is that the sound of a faraway, wailing train that opens ‘Monochrome To Colour’ or the sound of a thousand suffering and unredeemed souls?
This is a rich brew, perhaps better taken one track at a time rather than in a single sitting. Thinking of other keyboard led instrumentalists, this won’t give you the uplifting joy of Gnac, or the opportunity for reflection of Olafur Arnalds. It will give you stirring passion, and a chance to battle your demons.
Ed Harcourt - still rocking the boat in his quest for peace.
Taster Track : Last Rites
Dolphin : Greg Foat & Gigi Masin
This is a gentle, soothing album of ambient jazz - with the accent firmly on ambient.
Greg Foat is a jazz pianist. Gigi Masin is an Italian ambient musician, composer and producer. Together they’ve created an album that unwraps its pleasures slowly but irrevocably.
One of the problems of modern life is the way that it pressurises people into always being busy and never switching off. One of the solutions to that situation is this album. Its unhurried restraint is a prescription for rest. It's the kind of music you need with you on a long overnight flight to help you to deal with multiple time zones.
It won’t be for everyone and you will need to give it a chance to prove its worth. Its abstract ways may be too easy to ignore. Its seemingly formless constructions may feel like the kind of music piped around a stressful location, or like hold music for a business that doesn’t want to be linked to cheesy synth tunes.
The eight minute opening track,’Lee’ is full of gentle ambient waves of sound. You’ll be grateful for the sharp and abrupt clatter of a drum fill that starts the following track ‘London Nights’. It’s a reminder that the music is there, like the knocking of a judge’s gavel, it’s requesting your full attention.
This is music that sounds improvised but it could only develop with the kind of musical empathy that Foat and Masin display to each other. ‘Love Theme’ shows two distinct and individual musicians giving each other time and space to add to the piece. In ‘Leo Theo’ timing is all - the pace, the pauses, the hesitations all add to the effect. ‘Dolphin’ is like an intricate music box steadily revealing its magical tune. ‘Sabena’ is simply music that wears a peaceful and assured smile on its face, a happy reverie from the first days of true love. As you acclimatise to the sound, you’ll find a way to engage and grow to love it. The cooed “Ooh oohs” of ‘Viento Calido may be softly presented but they are quickly irresistible.
By the end of this quiet and unassuming album you’ll be a willing captive to its charm.
Taster Track : Dolphin
Everything Harmony : The Lemon Twigs
The title gives us a clue. This is an album of 60s / 70s folk, soft rock and jangle pop pumped up to provide a big, big sound.
It’s quite possible that The Lemon Twigs want to smash through the usual limitations of a duo to become the biggest band in the world. They have a lovely knack of recreating the harmonies and melodies of Simon and Garfunkel , the jangle of The Byrds and layered magic of The Beach Boys. The issue is that they also want to make the impact of an Elton John in the full glory of his costumed pomp.
It’s an album of lovely touches - the sweet melody of ‘Corner of My Eye’, the interplay of ‘Still It’s Not Enough’ and the layered, cascading harmonies that bring ‘Every Day Is the Worst Day of My Life’ to a close particularly stand out.
Sometimes though, it seems as if there are no limits. When in doubt, slip in another layer. Use every song to make the biggest splash possible. I’m listening to you, ‘What Happens To A Heart’ and to you ‘When Winter Comes Around’. Was it truly necessary to supplement the loveliest folk arrangement with an outburst of noisy volume in the middle?
One minor casualty of their ambition is that the vocals sound as if they have been pushed as far as they can do. They never tip over into anything harsh, but you can sense the effort needed to place them that high up the register. There are huge crescendos here too. Like a flavoursome courgette that grows into a flavourless marrow, sometimes smaller is better.
They have big ideas for songs that might benefit from a smaller treatment. The songs are very good. They don’t need the turbo charge that is constantly given to them. It turns this into an album that is the result of a worrying obsession rather than an album of pleasing and delightful songs.
It’s hard not to applaud their vision and, for all its faults, it’s still a surprising and very good album. But they could have produced an album that ranked with the best of the bands they seek to emulate, and they have fallen short of that.
Taster Track : Corner of My Eye
Microclimate : Me For Queen
Me For Queen is a grounded singer songwriter with a pretty and distinctive way with words and music. That makes for an enjoyable listen.
This is an album that grew out of Covid lockdown, an exploration of thoughts that filled the empty spaces and her reaction to altered circumstances. She has the manner and ideal voice for radio at a time of national crisis. There are no emotional outbursts here, no howls of frightened rage. Her delicate playing suits the mood. She’s charmingly matter of fact, reassuring sensible. Her experiences are relatable. Her delivery is perfect for the tone and time. With the memories of lonely isolation yet to fade, she has an inviting voice you want to befriend.
She has a love for words and phrasing. She keeps it direct. Thoughts flow out of her head, through her pen and onto the page. It’s particularly noticeable in ‘Drip By Drip’, ‘Exercise’ and ‘Beautiful Cosmos’. Her half spoken, half sung delivery is well matched to this approach.
Two things help these songs to stand out. First the arrangements are gorgeous, building on simple openings to construct something that flirts with pop, folk, jazz and classical without becoming tied to any of them. Secondly, she’s reined in the quirkiness of her earlier work without losing it all together. It’s no longer a distraction and makes for something distinctive but with substance. Just listen to ‘Bigger Than Us’ to hear what I mean.
With Me For Queen, we’re in safe hands. She gets my endorsement anyway.
Taster Track : Bigger Than Us
Living Circle : Shida Shahabi
This is an album of post classical music that hints at the mysteries of the universe. You may need to work to uncover them though.
What is post classical music? I looked it up. It’s a combination of classical and ambient styles, slow moving and supported by electronic and digital effects. That only takes you so far. If ‘Living Circle’ is typical of the genre it’s also a dark and brooding presence. It’s certainly powerful and imposing. You may need to ponder it for a while to find it likeable, but persevere.
Shahabi doesn’t make it particularly easy to listen to. The opening track ‘Kinsei’ is drenched in the sound of a rumbling drone and the sound of a cello slowly stirring from a sleep that has lasted for millennia. This sounds like music for the very beginning of time. It dives deeper with the following track ‘Deep Violet of Gold’. Here, the cello serves almost as an additional drone. It creates a dark and threatening ambience, atmospheric in the extreme. You may feel, as I did, that you are in need of a break.
It comes with the gently soothing and quite lovely nine minutes of ‘Living Circle’. The thing about drones and the cello is that they tend towards a lower register and, in the case of the cello, a mournful sound. ‘Living Circle’ ups the pitch, and it only takes something as simple as that to unveil the quiet, slow beauty of the approach. It’s as inventive and atmospheric as what has come before, but it soothes and sounds as if it's coming from the stars. Heard on headphones this is a beautifully produced record. Heard in a vaulted cathedral with almost spiritual acoustics and this could trigger an epiphany
This is a record that will demand intense concentration from you. If you can give it, you will be rewarded. Little details, such as the ambient scratching of ‘Remain’, will take on greater meaning. If you can listen to this in company, the shared experience may help you to retain your focus.
How’s that for an outcome? For all its brooding menace and dark notes this may just turn out to be a record that brings people together.
Taster Track : Living Circle
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