Admiral Fallow, Alan Tyler, Cassandra Jenkins, Elephant9, Faye Webster, Fool's Garden, Gemma Cullingford, Nation Of Language,
Album Cover of the Week
Via the Album Cover of the Week accolade, I'm learning a little more about what I like in art, and it seems to be at the more modern end of the spectrum. I liked this. It draws the eye and it's colourful. To me it's a splintered spectrum.
More 'Art Lessons For The Uninformed' comments next week!
This Week's Music
It's been a strong week for records. Each of the Highly Recommended records exceeded expectations whilst remaining highly accessible. And the rest weren't so bad either!
There were a couple of conundrums.
Deep down, are Fool's Gold a heavy rock band or a light and airy bubble rock band?
Have Admiral Fallow ever considered naval gazing?
Would Nation Of Language's preclude them writing instrumentals?
If I receive the answers to any of these questions, I'll be sure to share them.
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
An Overview On Phenomenal Nature : Cassandra Jenkins
This album of sophisticated singer songwriter material draws its strength from its 30 something openness and honesty - and its beguiling lyrics and tunes.
Cassandra Jenkins is a Brooklyn based musician who has served as backing artist to a number of critically acclaimed musicians and bands. She’d fit well into the cast of a Woody Allen film around the time of Annie Hall or Manhattan. And the poignancy of that observation is that the album is imbued with a longing to escape from the city to the coast with all the potential for healing and cleansing that offers.
Sometimes a single song is the key to a whole album. Here it’s ‘Crosshairs’, a lovely and immediately likeable song. It’s the key because it shows the relationship between the vocals and the music. Her quiet vocals represent inner thoughts set slightly apart from the music. It brings together inner thoughts and a bustling world.
Ths saxophone makes a significant contribution to the tone and sound of the album. It’s a beguiling mix of late night listening and personal reflection, of 21st century concerns and 60s / 70s singer songwriter styles, of friendship and self discovery.
Taster Track : Crosshairs
Let Me Speak : Gemma Cullingford
From her name, you might expect Home Counties folk but this is actually as smart a set of minimal electronica as you’ll find anywhere this year.
Snap once sang that rhythm is a dancer. No. Rhythm is the answer that Gemma Cullingford brings to the conundrum of how you bring life to minimal electronica. Well here It’s the rhythm, the rhythm of life. These tracks are like hearing the pure essence of a song, the distillation of all it aims to be. It’s like seeing a cutaway model of a Rolls Royce in full flow.
The first four tracks are instrumentals, but then she finds her voice. By the close of the album she’s using it to make statement records about life, the world and her most inner thoughts. The cover of Bobby Gentry’s ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ transforms it into an epic of repressed horror, giving it an emotional impact that far outstrips the original.
There’s a risk that minimal electronica can sound clinical and soulless, but this is danceable, a mix of 80s John Peel and early, primitive rave.
As much as I enjoyed the pure electronica, it’s the more organic touches that stick in my mind - the flute on ‘Wide Boys’ and ‘Chase To The Beat’ or the gentler, warmer sound of the title track..
Gemma, we’ll let you speak. The (dance)floor is yours.
Taster Track : Let Me Speak
A Way Forward : Nation Of Language
This 5* album of synth pop is a late contender for album of the year, fit to be listened to with the best examples of the genre.
Synthesisers still sound like the future, unlike rocket packs and urban monorails that have fallen by the wayside. That’s important because it helps Nation Of Language to create a world that we’re not part of yet. We listen from the outside, unable to reach out but sufficiently removed to appreciate the emotional impact of what we're hearing. It’s this that overcomes the potential for synth music to sound clinical and even sterile, allowing poignant emotion to leak through. Funnily enough, the distance intensifies these feelings rather than distancing them from us.
Just as some artists have voices that are made for folk, country or rock, Ian Devaney has a voice that’s made for synth. It’s a little sad and wistful as if he’s denied something personal and valuable. It captures the moment of helpless longing in the film ‘Ghost’ where Sam and Molly say their final goodbye.
Musically, Nation Of Language link back to the synth pioneers of the 80s - OMD, John Foxx, and Depeche Mode. They remind me strongly too of a lesser known ‘Father of Synth’, John Maus. (I’ve added his ‘Walls Of Silence’ to the Pop In The Real World Shadowplay playlist.) They are worthy members of that group, avoiding the temptation to exploit the greater capability of synths to go over the top and crush a tune. The songs remain light footed throughout.
This is music that is sharp and on the button. It’s propulsive, tuneful and filled with an understanding of what makes a great song.
Taster Track : Across That Fine Line
And The Rest
The Idea Of You : Admiral Fallow
This album of free flowing, melodic songs has character and quality songwriting to spare.
Admiral Fallow are a Scottish band who have been part of a thriving indie folk scene for some time. That scene is characterised by a host of singer songwriters who have brought thought and imagination to their songwriting to the extent that they are no longer confined or restricted by genre. There are folk elements to Admiral Fallow, but they could equally well be described as a rock band.
They’re a defiantly individual band making music that sounds gentle and melodic. It’s uncommercial in many ways but also rewarding. Its meaning might be elusive but it sounds great. Its winding path through loose structures and quirky time signatures allow each band member to contribute to and shape the music.
They’ve perfected the art of mixing it up to keep the listener on their toes, without destroying the melodies or musicality of the songs. And that means it’s an album that keeps on giving through repeated listens.
The Idea Of You is a poetic album but not in a wishy washy rhyming couplets sense. The poetry is musical as well as in the lyrics. It’s like poetry read aloud in a foreign language. You can grasp the metre, rhythm and flow, but not always what it means. It’s lovely to listen to, but can be difficult to follow.
My advice is simply to sit back and enjoy the experience.
Taster Track : Sleepwalking
Made In Middlesex : Alan Tyler
Alan Tyler’s collection of low key suburban songs is, nonetheless, filled with love for his music. That makes for a warm and engaging listen.
Alan Tyler’s main claim to fame is as the guitarist and lead singer with a country rock band ‘The Rockingbirds’. At a time when their label, Heavenly Records, was pioneering much of the new dance / rave scene, they were defiantly out of step with music trends. On the basis of this album Tyler hasn’t moved much closer to the mainstream!
That doesn’t mean to say that this album is hard to listen to. On the contrary, simplicity is at its heart. These are simple songs, with simple structures and simple melodies. You get the picture.
The songs sound like demos, the bare bones of something awaiting musical cladding and scaffolding. You won’t find pyrotechnics in the style or content, no big finishes or sweeping choruses. They are neither the sound of the vibrant city, nor of awe inspiring nature. You could call it, and I will, suburban folk.
His voice is similarly unflashy and untreated. Quiet and slightly nasal, it’s the only voice he has and he makes the most of it. He’s the poet laureate of unflashy ordinariness, the prince of community songwriting.
It sounds as if the record was made on a limited budget, but the absence of flash production and overpacked tunes gives the songs a sincerity, sweetness and charm. Someone believed in these songs, and that shines through.
Alan Tyler is an artist you have to discover or stumble over. That makes him yours - a quiet secret to enjoy at home.
Taster Track : Lucky People
Arrival Of The New Elders : Elephant9
Norwegian Prog Jazz Rock, with a track called ‘Chemical Boogie’. Don’t worry, it’s a lot more listenable than that suggests.
As it often does, the cover provides a clue. It’s almost a fractured rainbow, restructured into a different format. Some parts are missing ( the colour green) others are new (the colour brown). It’s the same with the music which sounds deconstructed from something familiar but is missing key parts. In the process though, the band have discovered new sounds and ways of playing.
Listening to this album is like listening to a strange, unthreatening beast going about its daily routines. That’s both its strength and its weakness. Imagine watching a David Attenborough documentary with the sound off. There’s still plenty that’s impressive to look at but there’s no explanation for what’s happening before your eyes and limited understanding.
The album covers the jazz, prog and rock bases. I’d say that the split is along the lines of 45/40/15. The opening title track sets the tone. It’s noodly but listenable, pinned down by a bass guitar that allows the other musicians to float to and fro. ‘Rite Of Accession’ may be a little more troubling with its distorted urgency but it’s not typical.
At its heart though, this is a calm, warm and attractive record. I like that it’s not a threatening and unsettling sound, but one you can relax into. It’s not for every day but it’s something new that is worth 40 minutes of your time.
Taster Track : Tales Of Secrets
I Know I'm Funny Ha Ha : Faye Webster
This collection of nicely done singer songwriter songs is a treat for the ears, if a little stuck in its content.
You know how it is when you’re on your own in the middle of a stressful period, and your thoughts keep returning and running through the same old unhelpful thoughts? Faye Webster has turned that situation into songs. There’s a lot of repetition in the lyrics and in the concerns, lots of loneliness, missing someone, loss and trying to fit in.
In ‘Both All The Time’ she sings that there’s a difference between lonely and lonesome and she feels both all the time. Well, if you check the dictionary they’re pretty much the same. They both cover the feeling of sadness or dejection that comes from a lack of companionship or separation from others. Perhaps it’s a sign of how deeply she’s explored these feelings, or how stuck she is in working through them.
As a result, she’s effectively written the same song eleven times. That’s no hardship when that song is as pleasant, comfortable and as easy on the ears as it is here.
The songs are a good blend of strummed and plucked guitar, free flowing jazz light piano, lightly stroked drums that are pummelled with restraint and a steady bass. The tunes work well and, like decent house guests, they never outstay their welcome.
She does spring a couple of surprises. ‘Cheers’ tries to add some heavy, squelchy bass to convey an angrier mood, returning to type in the chorus. ‘Overslept’ is a duet with Mei Ehara. It’s in the same style as the rest of the album, but crosses from English to Japanese.
It’s not to diminish the feelings beneath this album to say that it is, ultimately, high quality, undemanding easy listening. There’s always a place for that in our collections.
Taster Track : Better Distractions
Dish Of The Day : Fool's Garden
Bubblegum pop and stadium rock prove to be uneasy bedfellows in this reissued album from 1995.
Fool’s Garden are a German band, formed in 1991. This, their second album, was released in 1995 and proved to be their most successful. It performed particularly well in Austria, Germany and Switzerland but didn’t trouble the UK charts. I’m not sure what’s changed to prompt a reissue now, except that it is around 25 years since its initial release.
The opening couple of tracks pose lots of questions in the lyrics. That always seems to be a trick to manufacture a sense of deep meaning in a tortured sensitive soul. It doesn’t work here, but as the album drags on a more pertinent question arises. What kind of band do Fools Garden think they are?
They seem torn between being a credible rock act and a disposable froth of a pop band. In the blue corner are the epic power ballad tracks such as ‘The Seal’, ‘Meanwhile’ and ‘Autumn’ which are, sadly, anonymous. In the red corner are tracks such as ‘Lemon Tree’ (the album’s big hit), ‘Pieces’ and ‘Wild Days’ which are naggingly chirpy and infectious almost to the point of irritation. I suspect they dream of swaying stadium crowds waving lighters to their songs but they’re more likely to feature on TOTP wearing multi coloured tank tops and grinning inanely. They are the equivalent of chocolate flavoured candy compared to Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.
OK, they can play. There’s always a place for cheesy pop and guilty pleasures. And it’s always possible that time will treat you kindly and elevate your status to period icons in the way that it has for, say, Cheap Trick or Gilbert O’Sullivan. Ultimately though this is just so much filler, the tracks you’re likely to skip through on a budget compilation of the period.
Taster Track : Pieces