Amyl and the Sniffers, Charles Watson, Jose Gonzalez, Peace Flag Ensemble, Prins Thomas, Robert Stillman, Stephen Fretwell, Teleman,
Album Cover of the Week
There's something soothing about this cover - the soft colours, the gentle curves and the warmth it conveys. And it looks good when shrunk to thumbnail size too!
This Week's Music
Chris Bailey of The Saints died this week. There's a strong case for hailing him as Australia's first punk. It's fitting to include Amyl and the Sniffers in this week's selection - the latest Ozzie punk incarnation.
Elsewhere the reviews cover modern ballads, experimental but highly listenable jazz, early electro disco, musical considerations of what it is to be American and tow of the best releases I've heard this year.
With no further ado, here are the reviews.
Local Valley : Jose Gonzalez
This is an album of simple and effective acoustic folk songs with gorgeous guitar work. It’s one of the best records of 2022 so far.
Jose Gonzalez is Swedish of Argentine descent. His parents left Argentina to escape the troubles tof1976, a couple of years before he was born, and his music reflects an awareness of what’s wrong in the world as well as a Scandinavian Kings Of Convenience style of music.
He’s always been a singer who offers hushed vocals and intricate acoustic guitar work. It’s powerful if you can tune into it but a little oppressive if you cannot. He’s always seemed meditative. I found out early on, that writing notes as you listen does not help.
Something’s changed though, and it’s a change for the better. He’s taken what was hushed and intense and imbued it with warmth and life. Before, his music was in his head and heart. Now, it’s out in the world too. His songs balance their message against feeling, thought with movement. You can imagine people gathered at his feet to listen, or congregating around a campfire, dancing gently in its light.
In ‘Head On’ he sings as a leader of a prophet. ‘El Invento’ introduces that Kings Of Convenience vibe with Spanish lyrics that entice and beguile in equal measure. What they mean is unimportant. ‘Lilla G’ is a folk chant that could be nonsense but sounds hypnotically beautiful. And the South American lilt of ‘Swing’ is the sound of irresistible Balearic evenings, the kind that cause every care in the world to disappear.
This is an excellent record, a record to draw people to you in harmony and contentment.
Taster Track : Swing
Noteland : Peace Flag Ensemble
Oh my heart sank when I realised that I’d chosen a record described as experimental jazz. Yours may have done so too. But this relatively short album, coming in at under 30 minutes, is a delight. You can enjoy this for how it sounds regardless of your taste in music.
What I’m about to write may sound so blindingly obvious that you feel you have to read it twice. I listen to music because it’s music. My recent experience of experimental works is that it relies on drones (No!), discordance (NO!!) and simply noise (Please, NO!!!) This album is different. Its sound is the most striking part of it. Each instrument is so pure, each note so crystal clear. In the right hands a single note can say as much as a whole song. Just think of the final chord at the end of The Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’.
If it’s experimental, it experiments with structure. ‘Woke Up Like The Room, Tarzana’ stops and starts so it sounds almost stitched together. It sounds as if the ensemble is having a kind laugh at our expense in the sudden switch from tenor sax to glitchy electronica in ‘Wilted Sax’ or the sudden drop away in ‘No Police In The Parade’. This is jazz and not to take it seriously feels as inappropriate as giggling at a funeral. There may not be many obvious melodies but, nonetheless, it sounds melodic and in harmony.
This is a record that stimulated me, rekindling my interest in new music that is outside my musical comfort zone.
Taster Track : Wilted Sax
Sweet Morning EP : Teleman
Teleman’s five track EP came out last year. It’s a gorgeous collection of pop songs highlighting everything they do well and showing them at their very best.
Their debut ‘Breakfast’ was released in 2014 and set a high bar for their future releases. ‘Brilliant Sanity’ was very good, if not quite as special, and ‘Family Of Aliens’ was OK but sounded as if they had lost direction a little. This EP is a brilliant return to form.
One of the reasons is that they have returned to a smaller sound that suits their songs. It allows their sweetness, yearning and melancholy to come to the fore. They sing of battling disappointment by savouring moments, avoiding harm and of struggling but just keeping their head up.They capture the fragility of everyday life.
“I’ve got everything I want, until this moment’s gone.”
It could be depressing but it’s not. They’re The Boy Least Likely To’s older brother still making lemonade out of life’s lemons.
The songs drip melancholy sweetness. It comes from Thomas Sanders’ vocals and the melodies that briefly soar but swoop again. The melodies are looser too this time around and are allowed to play out naturally. “Right As Rain’ and ‘Sweet Morning’ are some of the best songs they’ve ever produced while ‘Storm Chasing’ is an immediate entry on my list of favourite songs of all time.
There was a moment, not so long ago, when I thought Teleman had peaked and the law of diminishing returns had set in. This is an EP to restore faith in their music, their sound and in them.
Taster Track : Storm Chasing
... And The Rest
Comfort To Me : Amyl and the Sniffers
Amyl and the Sniffers’ second album of Australian punk is rowdy and loud. It’s a blast.
There’s a confidence in this album that adds an appealing swagger to the songs. They’ve pitched their festival tent centre stage. It’s punk that starts next door to Motorhead, and takes few steps down the road towards the arty rhythms of post punk or the chart friendly sounds of new wave.
This is full of punched lyrics and rhythms. It contains as much energy as a hydrogen atom stuck in the Hadron Collider. It feels like a power wash of the ears.
It’s very well done, but it’s not new. If I was coming to punk for the first time, I’d be repulsed by lines such as “Come on maggot. Put your maggots in me.”. Remembering punk from its first time around softens the shocks and adds a layer of nostalgia to what you’re hearing. It’s the same as when people look back to the Dunkirk spirit or the Blitz - catastrophic times that, as years pass, almost lead to fond memories.
It sounds authentic, particularly to themselves, but is it? The swearing, and there’s a lot of it, sounds like it’s burst forth uncontrollably. If that’s the case they’re lucky that it matches the rhythm of the songs so perfectly. If it’s not the case then it’s part of an act to work the crowd.
This is punk that’s personal. It’s more concerned with the troubles of gaining access to the pub (‘Security’) or deterring unwanted attention or (‘Don’t Need A C**t (Like You To Love Me)’). It’s music that prods and pushes you to let go and give voice and tantrums to the frustrations that grind you down.
Leaving aside all the analysis, these are good rock songs. They’re not threatening like so much of the early punk but stirring, energising and physical. They’re the soundtrack to waking up from the night before, bruised but exhilarated.
For 35 minutes - the length of a headlining punk set with encores back in the day - you can join in choruses until your voice is hoarse and broken. You can let go, forget who you are and, perhaps, remember who you were. Let’s celebrate it.
Taster Track : Security
Now That I’m A River : Charles Watson
This is a highly listenable collection of panoramic songs, songs that sound made for the American midwest. Do they have anything like that in Sheffield?
I had some unusual reservations about listening to this. He shares a name with the Charles Watson who, as a member of Charles Manson’s 60s cult took part in the murder of five people. He had an edgy collaboration with Rebecca Taylor in Slow Club, now recording as Self Esteem. And he was recommended to me by a friend whose idea of easy listening can be Stephen Jones (aka dark and bitter singer songwriter BabyBird).
Those reservations were groundless.
I’d describe this as proper music for grown ups. It’s the type of music that attracts musos of all kinds to talk about the technology behind the songs and swap obscure musical references. He’s left his indie youth behind and embraced his more mature singer songwriter.
Although he’s English, it’s music that thrives on American reference points. A title such as ‘Abandoned Buick’ couldn’t translate to a British context. ‘Fly Tipped Metro’ would be the equivalent and I just can’t see that working. Ultimately this is Americana from Sheffield.
It’s a gentler sound, comforting in places, even as it diverts subtly from the Americana template. The blues throb of ‘You’ve Got your Way Of Leaving’, the military drumming of ‘No Fanfare’ - neither of these are quite what you expect. Beneath the surface the songs are slightly out of kilter.It works best on ‘Now That I’m A River’ where the backing vocals are slightly ahead or behind the lead vocal as if part of the river that’s continually flowing by.
These are good, thoughtful songs amounting to an album that, if not essential, is definitely rewarding.
Taster Track : Voices Carry Through The Mist
8 + 9 : Prins Thomas
Here’s a double collection that is like discovering new music from a bygone era, in this case from the early synth based days of disco.
It has a name - space disco. It’s a mix of disco, house, minimal techno, electro, Krautrock, jazz fusion, space rock and more, In other words it’s a little bit of everything needed to nudge you towards the dance floor. It’s also some of the least offensive music you’ll hear from anywhere at any time. If you remember Meco’s disco version of the Star Wars theme or the catchy ‘Magic Fly’ from Space or even Jean-Michel Jarre’s ‘Oxygene 4 you’re primed for what’s in store here. There’s also an element of 21st century acts such as Groove Armada and Air.
It drifts by like the view from a train as it speeds through attractive countryside. There’s lots to catch your eye or ear, but little to concentrate on. If ‘on hold’ music were better it would sound like this - sprightly and tuneful but something to listen to while your mind is elsewhere. It’s music to have on while you’re working. It’s some of the prettiest dance music you’ll hear, but designed to showcase your gentle warm up moves before you let rip.
OK, there’s an obvious criticism. It can be anonymous, slightly bored music - library music with no real personality. In its day though, this type of music was commercial enough to leave the club and venture into the charts. It’s not too fast, not too slow, nice and steady. This is music made for the extended 12” versions that allow a DJ to nip to the loo without losing the audience.
And here’s the thing. It’s very easy to become lost in this music. Like an all inclusive, pool based holiday you find that it’s an effortless experience with no incentive to move away from it. Both albums together last for 70 minutes. I had no problem with that, no problem just letting it run its course until it stopped.
I’m now nicely chilled at the start of the week. And that can’t be bad.
Taster Track : Cool Coronas (from ‘8’)
What Does It Mean To Be American? : Robert Stillman
Don’t worry. Robert Stillman is not an experimental musician, he’s an avant-garde one. I’m glad we cleared that up. For our purposes it means he’s released an album of clever pieces, often taking Dixieland jazz as their starting point. Unfortunately it’s an album that ends up feeling mixed and unsatisfactory.
Asking the questions in your album title invites an answer, So, based on the music alone, here’s my takeaway about Americans. They’re a lively, complicated bunch. At times they’re bright and colourful, brash, noisy and exhausting. They live in busy cities. Whilst not over inclined to contemplation, they can sink into introspection and become lost amidst the frenetic bustle of their surroundings. They prefer freestyle lifestyles rather than regular and rigid routines.
Stillman’s not the first musician to ask what it means to be American, directly or indirectly. In different ways Randy Newman, Bruce Springsteen and The War On Drugs have all explored this subject. Stillman’s approach is different. Rather than tell us about or show us Americans he’s mainly opted for instrumentals that leave us to form an impression. If he’s offering a mirror up to America, it’s a curvy ‘Hall Of Mirrors’ one.
Musically, this album is an interesting mish-mash that takes a little while to get going. It starts off on the wrong foot with an eight and a half minute centrepiece song ‘Cherry Ocean’. Purely because of the mournful piano and irregular and stumbling time signature, it had me shifting uncomfortably in my seat. It’s a strong reaction, but I wanted it to stop.
It’s not typical of the album. ‘It’s All Is’ picks up a happier Dixieland steamboat vibe. It still stumbles its way through the time signature like a man waking from a deep sleep to tend to a crying child but in part it has a good tune. ‘Self-Image’ is a tighter, more interesting piece. It balances self-confidence with inner insecurity. ‘Acceptance Blues’ is hurried and noisy.
The great strength of this album is the way it floats between layers. The elements on the surface give way to more ambient sounds which in turn give way to new surface music. There’s a perpetual sense of movement once you get past the opening track. I guess that captures the essence of Americans in itself.
And so it continues. Each track has something to commend it and each track has a point where it wanders off course. It’s an interesting album though, an arty collection that offers a lot to chew over
Taster Track : Self-Image
Busy Guy : Stephen Fretwell
‘Busy Guy’ is an album of intimate, intense songs that, more than most, will reward close listening. It’s the sound of a man using his music to reclaim memories.
Millions of people will have heard at least one Stephen Fretwell song without realising it, as his song ‘Run’ was used as the theme song for Gavin and Stacey. It’s a typical Fretwell song, not pushing itself forward but containing gallons of quiet yearning for something tantalisingly just out of grasp.
He’s a singer songwriter with a poetic way with lyrics. He’s a direct descendent from people like Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Tim and Jeff Buckley (‘Hallelujah’ anyone?) and Cat Stephens in his late songs he wrote before he became Yusuf Islam. His songs are best described as intense intimacy. They’re atmospheric and compel attention, but contain just enough melody to add light to the song like an isolated firework seen exploding silently from a distance or through a train window.
I’ve often found the likes of Cohen, Drake and Buckley hard to take. Fretwell has a couple of advantages over all of them. His voice is an attractive one, musically worn without being growly. It prevents the songs from seeming too delicate, too fragile or fey.
The second advantage is in the phrasing which draws you in. It’s evident throughout a song like ‘Copper’ and is particularly effective in ‘The Goshawk and the Gull’. He sings
“But you are an angel……….. aren’t you?”
That pause brings out a multitude of meanings, both persuasive and challenging.
He has a nice line in lyrics too. There’s a fresh image in every other line. “I should have written all this down” he sings ruefully in ‘Green’ summing up the songwriter’s complaint almost as an aside. I loved the line in ‘The Long Water’ that says:
“Aiming for the bottom of everything”
My Chemistry and Latin teachers could have used that annually in my school report!
It’s a subdued album, and you have to dive deep for the pearls. After a while it can feel as if you should take a break. That’s a sign that you’re losing concentration. Regain it and you will be rewarded. It needs to be heard in silence, not to a background of murmured chatter or household movements.
His earlier albums had bursts of straightforward pop tunes to ease the intensity. He’s pared back the songs further this time around, producing melodies that almost explode into best selling life but retreat. There’s one in ‘Green’ to accompany “I should have written all this down.” It’s the trick that made ‘Run’ such a good fit for Gavin and Stacey.
This is an exemplary album on its own terms, an album that moves and sustains in equal measure.
Taster Track : The Long Water
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