Arlo Parks, Ben Folds, Bret McKenzie, Decisive Pink, Everything But The Girl, Galen and Paul, Gilead Hekselman
The Front Runners
Ticket To Fame : Decisive Pink
Russia and the U.S. hit it off and combine to make an album of quirky electronica that’s a lot of fun.
If the late Ryuichi Sakamoto had decided to jam with Tom Tom Club in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory after an evening spent listening to unreleased Abba records this is what it might sound like. Strange but addictively wonderful. This is a record that has retained childish glee long after its peers have become too important for that. It’s like drawing back a veil to reveal a marvellous new musical world.
On ‘Destiny’ they sing “Do you want to break the rules?”. Decisive Pink don’t just walk away from the rules, they hardly notice their existence. ‘What Where’ is one of the more artistically interesting tracks. It’s a fractured conversational experiment, music that’s the equivalent of reassembling the shards and splinters of broken pop into something new. ‘Potato, Tomato’ is just weird. It sounds like an insider joke, and one where barely suppressed giggles show that they are not afraid to lighten up.
It’s different and exciting. ‘Haffmuch Holiday’ marries a highly accessible melody to noodly, electronic experimentation. The melodies may come from a lost Abba songbook but the music is straight from the secret laboratory of a mad genius. It’s addictive, not irritating.
It only works because it’s anchored to the right touches from more conventional pop. There’s the staccato pulse to the vocals of ‘Destiny’, the oriental touches to Cosmic Dancer and the bubbling momentum of ‘Rodeo’. It’s a satisfyingly full sound that branches out into unexpected and unexplored directions.
This sounds like an album that they had a lot of fun making.That makes this an album to pep up your day.
Taster Track : Dopamine
Can We Do Tomorrow Another Day? - Galen and Paul
This surprising release of 60s continental flavoured pop is a sweet delight, a splash of the perfect Summer.
Galen and Paul are the archetypal odd couple. She’s the daughter of psychedelic Brit Kevin Ayres. She was born into a hippie commune in France and grew up in Spain’s artistic community - when she wasn’t following her Dad around on tour. He’s the bass guitarist fromThe Clash. The driving force behind their reggae sound and vocalist on tracks such as Guns of Brixton. So far so different, but both share a passion for activism through song.
All of which neatly points you in the wrong direction when you come to play this album. They come together like Frank and Nancy Sinatra. The sound they make is closer to the ye ye sound of 60s French pop. It’s impeccably done on the opening track ‘Lonely Town’.
It’’s light like a mousse foam or the bubbles in a glass of champagne. She’s sunny and optimistic. He’s a grumpy old man but nevertheless with a smile on his face. They duet like a mismatched pair thrown together in Heaven.
This is a record that’s all about tone. It’s explicit on ‘I’ve Never Had A Good Time… In Paris’. It’s a good humoured, flirtatious bicker, that’s warm, companionable and friendly. It’s the sound of two good friends worn out from a day trekking around the streets. For all their differences Galen and Paul fit together like a well made tongue and groove joint.
The sense that this is the ideal music to accompany you on a sunshine filled European holiday is sealed by the songs sung in Spanish. To monolingual ears they’re exotic, seductive and inviting. ‘Esmeralda’ is the best of a strong bunch.
And like the best holidays, this is something you won’t want to end, a record that lifts your spirits, and takes you to new places.
Taster Track : Lonely Town
The Chasing Pack
My Soft Machine : Arlo Parks
Arlo Parks’ second collection of urban soul is pleasant enough, but without the startling feel of her debut it sounds a more comfortable affair.
If ever there was a a record that illustrated the difficult second album syndrome, this is it. Her debut won the 2021 Mercury Music Prize, and reached No 3 in the album charts. So far, this has peaked at No 9. That’s OK. It’s not bad, but it’s not as good as before.
I’m trying not to damn with faint praise here. Her lyrics remain full of strong images such as “Puppy dog trapped in a smoke grey Honda” from ‘Puppy’. Her dissection of relationships, past and present, remains sharp. Her vocals are still distinctive, vulnerable street talk learning to deal with life in a grown up world. Her songs will always talk to and for many. She’s becoming a Joan Armatrading for our times.
It’s just that her gritty take seems to have been repurposed for gentrified dinner parties. Maybe the success of her debut has brought her closer scrutiny from the record company. Maybe the different approaches to some of the early tracks - the spoken word opener ‘Bruiseless’, the Japanese vibe to ‘Impurities’ and the rockier sound of ‘Devotion’ - undermine her authenticity a little. Maybe it’s just that her unique and heartfelt experiences are smothered beneath a more generic blanket of white soul music. Whatever it is, after the opening three tracks, the remaining songs merge into one..
There’s an instructive parallel to be taken from the band Faithless. Similarly gritty and concerned with real issues,vocals were shared between the beaten down street messaging of the late Maxi Jazz and the dulcet tones of Dido. Both have undeniable strengths but with ‘My Soft Machine’ Parks has taken a sharp shift towards the sounds of Dido.
Listen to this album knowing that and you’re less likely to be disappointed.
Taster Track : ‘Puppy’.
What Matters Most : Ben Folds
Three words to describe Ben Folds’ new album of classic singer songwriting. Return. To. Form.
Folds isn’t the first person to develop his art away from the approach that built his reputation. There’s a temptation to take something that was close to perfect and make it more so. When that’s not enough, there’s a desire to stretch out, to branch into something with a chamber orchestra maybe. And if talent and inspiration desert you, lesser acts always bring out an album of cover versions or hire the current hotshot producer or make a live album of the hits that made you famous. And then it’s over, the unique talent that made someone special long lost along the way.
Ben Folds has followed some of this path but, thankfully, he’s returned to the simplicity of his early years. It makes for songs that are very good indeed.
He’s a singer songwriter who tells stories, drawn from his innermost thoughts. They’re the thoughts of pianist in a 5* hotel who had dreams of being the next Elton John but has settled for much less. When he’s at his best, as he is here on ‘Back To Anonymous’, ‘Fragile’ and ‘Paddleboat Breakup’ no one writes and sings more exquisitely about settling for less, reaching the end of your tether or arriving at rock bottom.
These are songs that are stained by disappointment and regret and by the “beautiful mistakes” that showcase the awful awkwardness of trying to do the right thing as it all goes wrong. He tells of the ill advised sexual encounter (‘Exhausting Lover’), and of breaking up at the wrong time, in the wrong place (‘Paddleboat Breakup’). He writes in these songs with the humour of a more adult Barenaked Ladies - a humour that stems, to be frank, from sharing too much information! He’s a performer who can make you laugh through your tears.
It’s a quirky combination of baroque pop and a feel that these could serve as songs for a bittersweet rom com that has yet to be written. These songs are extremely pretty. He’s a successor to Randy Newman at his most tender and least cynical.
‘But Wait, There’s More’? On this form I certainly hope so.
Taster Track : Back To Anonymous
Songs Without Jokes : Bret McKenzie
This is an album that resets the musical clock to the soft pop sound of pre punk America. It captures the spirit of those times very well.
McKenzie is one half of musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. That explains the album title. He wants us to know that this time he’s being serious. He’s from New Zealand but lives in LA and it’s the LA influence that runs through this record. He writes of what he knows and that seems to be songwriting, get up and go attitudes, tricky relationships and feeling aghast at what is happening to the planet. What comes through though is that he almost seems disenfranchised by music and fame, detached from his roots.
In song he’s a sharp, confident man probably with an entourage. His songs fit him like a crisp linen suit. He takes us back to a time when there was us (the audience) and them (the performers) and a gaping chasm between the two. These are songs that are as authentic as a glossy prime time drama but, fortunately, as likeable as the cast of Friends too.
You could argue that McKenzie is neither a comedian nor a singer. He’s an entertainer and his album is full of brio and pizazz. Take in the New Orleans jazz feel to ‘This World’. These are memorably catchy songs, very 70s and very soft rock. He sings of LA with a ‘what can you do’ shrug in ‘That’s LA’. There’s even a little bit of LA lounge in the piano of ‘Carry On’.
These songs may not have jokes, but they have wit and verve. They may lack edge, but they are all beautifully arranged with an evident love for this kind of music. This is the kind of music that’s drawn from the sound of Wings and ‘52nd Street’ era Billy Joel. ‘Dave’s Place’ and ‘America Goodbye’ are particular standouts.
It’s a hard heart, indeed, that won’t find something to enjoy here.
Taster Track : America Goodbye
Fuse : Everything But The Girl
The first album under the Everything But The Girl banner for 24 years has been keenly anticipated. It’s good, but its downbeat electronica is not quite what I expected.
There’s been a lot of publicity for this album. Everything But The Girl - or Tracey and Ben as it seems right to call them here - have spoken at length about how it felt to be recording together again, their nerves, their concerns if they would even want to work with each other at all. Their understandable excitement on Twitter as release day drew nearer was palpable.
So….. deep breath and press play.
It’s an oddly tentative start with ‘Nothing Left To Lose.’ It’s endearing in its way but, equally, it suggests that in fact they felt they had an awful lot to lose. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed it, but was left wrong footed by it.
To an extent, this picks up from the point they reached when ‘Missing’ was remixed intglobal sensation. There’s a tone of quiet desperation running through the album. There’s no euphoria or aching beauty, but there is pain. On tracks such as ‘When You Mess Up’ and ‘Lost’ there is a strong whiff of defeat. It’s exceedingly well done, but it’s also on the bleak side.
We shouldn’t forget that in the last 24 years they've come a long way. Children, Ben’s illness, solo albums, second careers in record labels and writing, a pandemic. That’s the thing with ageing, it gives you more experience to mull over. And above all this is an album about the concerns, worries and regrets of time passing.
It’s cleverly done, hard to tell if a song like ‘When You Mess Up’ is sung for their children or themselves. You could say that it’s actually a record for their generation. It’s a rare ability to make great music that reflects where you are in life at any one time. Johnny Cash had it. Nick Lowe has it. Tracey and Ben are living and singing it. And they have poetry in their words to impress us.
If there’s a drawback it’s the lack of variation across the tracks. Only ‘No One Knows We’re Dancing’ stirs itself a little with a slowed down 80s vibe.
This is an album that brilliantly conveys reality. That is its great strength and minor weakness. As TS Eliot said “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
Taster Track : Caution To The Wind
Far Star : Gilad Hekselman
Gilad Hekselman is an Israeli jazz guitarist, collaborating with a contact book full of rising stars. He’s made an attractive and listenable album that is, for the most part, highly accessible.
At its heart, it’s a work of beautiful simplicity and honey soaked melody. On its fringes it could meet the preconceptions of those who run a mile from jazz. Let me take you through it track by track.
‘Long Way From Home’ starts with a quietly whistled melody that’s picked up by guitar, played with and stretched into new shapes. In many ways it’s what you expect jazz to sound like, but it keeps one foot lightly placed in the rock camp. It’s a collaboration with drummer Eric Harland, who plays drums lightly and quickly - as hard to pin down as his near namesake Erling Haaland on the football pitch.
‘Fast Moving’ is as fast moving does. It’s a blur of guitar, drums and piano with lingering melodies left behind in the rush. It’s jazz that isn’t trying or wanting to be anything else, and certainly isn’t offering a compromise to those who may fear to dip their toes into the genre.
It’s followed by two tracks that capture all that is best about this album, and should encourage uncertain listeners to stay for the ride. ‘I Didn’t Know’ is happy just trotting along with the sweet melody plucked from its acoustic guitar. ‘Far Star’ follows a similar path, unthreatening and strangely soothing like watching raindrops search out their individual tracks down a window pane. Both of these are easy to like and sink into.
On the other hand there’s an edgy purposefulness to ‘Magic Chord’. It’s the purposefulness that comes with searching for your passport on the morning of your flight. It starts in complete control but degenerates into panic well before the end as drawers are pulled out and emptied in frantic attempts to locate the missing document. It’s a track that is impressive and admirable in its playing, but not so easy to love.
‘Cycles’ is out and out loveliness, the guitar fluid and soothing, wandering and returning. It’s gorgeous.
‘Headrocker’ is a slight misnomer. It’s more of a head nodder, nodding in approval and with satisfaction at its sedate but cocky strut. It’s a track that ends all too quickly.
The album ends with ‘Rebirth’ - a growling uprising of a record building with a sense of menace that comes from unseen forces and leaves you uncertain if you need to switch on your fight or flight instinct.
Hekselman’s collaborators all add their own style and touches to their tracks. This is a record that is well worth a listen - the sound, perhaps, of a new generation breaking through.
Taster Track : Cycles
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