So, this is the last review blog before Christmas. A time to reflect, a time to share, a time to appreciate everything others do for you. It's also a time to wonder if it's better to eat a whole box of Celebrations in one sitting and destroy the evidence it ever existed, or eat half a box and face an afternoon of comment and recrimination.
Talking of Christmas, a quick reminder that the 'Christmas Crackers and Party Poppers', which is all about Christmas songs and links to a Pop In the Real World Spotify playlist, can still be accessed on the Home Page. Sadly, many of us won't be partying in pubs and restaurants this year so perhaps some of the party atmosphere can be recreated in your own home through festive music.
Here's a quick reminder about how I categorise the albums here, together with some temporary festive headings based on reactions to gifts.
The 'Album of the Week' or as it's called this week 'OMG That's Amazing' is usually, but not always, the record I've enjoyed the most. Occasionally it's a record that had me thinking most or wanting to talk about it. And it's probably made it onto my list of records to look out for next time I'm on line or in the shops.
The 'Commended' category (Oh Wow! That's Great) is for records that I've particularly enjoyed during the week and would like to share.
'Good Job' (Just What I Wanted) contains any record that met reasonable expectations. It's consistent throughout and will be one to return to, if not on a daily basis. It's quite possible that others will rate it higher than me.
The albums in 'Promising Underachievers' (Just What I Needed) all have something going for them, perhaps in individual tracks, but it's not sustained across the whole album. It may not succeed on the terms it seems to set itself, or it may be a disappointment because I feel that the artist could and should have done better.
And 'I'll Pass. Thanks' (You Shouldn't Have. No. Really. You Shouldn't Have!) is for those albums that simply didn't work for me. I may have picked up on them from a review that I misunderstood or was a touch misleading, or I've taken a punt on something that didn't pay off. I won't be returning to it. That doesn't mean it's a 'bad' album. If there are never albums in this category it might mean that I'm playing safe.
Each week I'll include the taster tracks in the Pop In the Real World Taster Tracks Spotify playlist. This will eventually include all the taster tracks for the previous four weeks. I hope that by listening to this you can form a view if I'm reflecting your thoughts or if we have very different tastes.
The playlist can be accessed at https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7cSveL7NpVp1xgrKxPe4av?si=SkFlSnvySeuYFpgG0WJFmA or via the Spotify link on the Home Page. I'm looking how to make the playlist more accessible to non Spotify users too. Watch this space.
OMG!! That's Amazing!
Whatever, Man : BLACKSTARKIDS
Does anyone remember American sitcom 'Malcolm In the Middle'? Apparently it wasn't a guide to parenting but a guide to how not to parent. Or so my wife used to say. The sitcom was cry with laughter funny and there are a number of links between the programme and this record.
The actor who played Malcolm was Frankie Munitz and, I guess, the taster track is named after him. The programme was cleverer than it looked, inventive and sassy as is this record.
Musically it's an inclusive mix drawing on classic timeless pop - yes, you can hear S Club 7 in there - soul and gentle, recited rap. I'm not a fan of rap, but I loved this. It's made for radio. There's humour too from the American DJ links between tracks. They're funny and stay the right side of irritating. The band have described themselves in three words as "fun, young, nostalgia" They're not wrong but I'd add happy, inventive and immensely enjoyable too.
The album starts strongly with 'Acting Normal' which introduces three distinct musical styles in the first 11 seconds. There are three group members and they all take a deserved turn in the spotlight, and support each other throughout. 'Friendship' could stand for their theme tune. 'Camp Whatever' is chiming and chilled. The slightly darker songs such as 'Beatrix Kiddo' also work well. 'Let's Play God' and 'Frankie Muniz' are other highlights.
BLACKSTARKIDS are a confident act . Their approach works and they know it too. I'm not going to argue with that when it leaves a broad smile on my face, and tunes lingering in my brain.
Taster Track : Frankie Muniz
Oh Wow! That's Great
Anywhere But Here : Habibi
This week there are two albums that rely on eastern beats and melodies. (For clarification we're talking Iran here, not Essex!) This is the album that uses them to good effect.
Combining American and Iranian influences may not be an obvious cultural starting point, but in fact it works very well. Here, Eastern melodies combine with American girl band rock and roll beats. The effect is curiously as if the Persian Kings of old had somehow joined The Strokes. The songs are a little repetitive but that gives the naggingly infectious melodies a change to lodge in your brain. They're also tightly controlled. You won't be finding a wig out, free jazz jam session drenched in sweat here. There's a third influence creeping into these songs too, in the form of a dance / dub feel to the bass. It helps to reconcile ancient sounds from the East with modern beats.
In Arabic 'Habibi' means 'My love.' Send some love for this record back to the band. You won't regret it.
Taster Track : Hate Everyone But you
Look Up : Mark Morriss
You remember Mark! He was in The Bluetones. You know -The Bluetones from the days of Britpop. B-L-U-E-T-O..... Forget it, this doesn't sound like them anyway. In fact it's much more immediate than they were.
Let's get the criticism out of the way first. As far as I can tell the album cover has nothing to do with the music within. It's a bit gratuitous and unnecessary.
The music is a different matter. 'Adventures' in one of the strongest, catchiest album openers I've heard for a while. The album covers bouncy pop ('All The Wrong People') and acoustic fold strums ('Roll Away') 'But Still' lets rip a little more.
This album is a pleasant surprise.
Taster Track : Adventures
Lifetime of Comedy : The Parson Red Heads
I love it when you stumble across an act you've never heard of, fully formed, with a a back catalogue to explore at your leisure. It's as if you've discovered an alleyway at the edge of town that is either a short cut back home or providing a wonderful view. How could you not know about this before?
I could listen to this kind of music all day. It's music that sounds effortless but can probably only be achieved with a lot of hard work. Steel guitar grounds the songs in country but the rest of the guitar work is fluid and it soars. It's unmistakably American, floating above the landscape on warm, jamming guitar. (I was going to say 'warm currents' but thought that would be confusing when I started talking about jamming. You can thank me later for clarifying that. My pleasure.)
This is a good listening record that should appeal to musicians for the quality of the playing and to everyone else for its winding, blissful solos. By 'listening record' I mean there's a lot to get into and it's less likely that you'll be up and bopping to it
There's a definite 70s AOR and joyous psychedelia feel to it. The vocal melodies are very strong. 'All I Wanted', 'Coming Along' and 'Turn Around' are undoubted highlights that travel where they want. It's well worth coming along for the ride.
Taster Track : All I Wanted
Just What I Wanted
Working Men's Club : Working Men's Club
This has featured in many of the Year End charts. It's OK. It starts as it means to go on. For example AAAA is built around a very solid 5/6 note synth riff but it doesn't really go anywhere different. Repetition is the main force. It gets its head down and charges full speed ahead.
Back in the 70s / 80s, the band XTC were characterised as playing songs that were either for the heart or for the head depending on whether they were written by Andy Partridge or Colin Moulding. My impression is that Working Men's Club provide socially aware songs of student angst played in clubs where it's too loud to do anything else but dance. If that's their target they hit it every time.
That's the main impression but, hidden between the gaps in the beats are a couple of songs ('Outside', 'White Room and People') that offer a chilled, blissed out respite. They're rather good actually. And there's one song 'Angel' that sounds like an extended jam, with the benefit that here they sound like a human band rather than a group of synthesisers fronted by a singer. So, it's not Top 50 of the year in my book, but it's OK.
Taster Track : White Room and People
Without People : Donovan Woods
If Working Men's Club target a younger student audience, Donovan Woods is targeting their parents who are dealing with their own issues while their offspring are away.
This is a sad album, that feels drawn from middle aged real life. There's bewilderment and confusion that life has somehow gone wrong and you don't know how. And we're not talking about recording Love Island instead of Panorama. We're talking about relationship dissatisfaction and slow progress towards relationship breakdowns. 'Whole Way Home' is half an argument, with the singer receiving the silent treatment and trying to find out why. 'Grew Apart' deals with that point in middle age when you need to come to terms with mistakes and misjudgements made when you were younger. The whole album is about taking stock, reflecting on the past.
Musically it treads a fine line between acoustic singer songwriter material washed by gentle electronic effects and more generic, radio friendly playlist material. That's become the default singer songwriter template since Bon Iver struck gold with it. Bon Iver though continues to sound unique - the Radiohead of the troubadour generation. Given all that, it's an enjoyable listen. And there's always the chance that it will strike the perfect chord with someone struggling in the same way.
Taster Track : Grow Apart
Just What I Needed
Something For Everyone : Burghers
There may be something for everyone here, but you need to penetrate a fairly relentless, assault of thrashing guitars to find it.
I'm left slightly frustrated by this record which I turned to after reviews that promised Buzzcocks style accessible punk.The thing about the Buzzcocks is that their take on this was a melodic one. 'Ever Fallen...', 'Promises', 'Harmony In My Head' - they're all, first and foremost great tunes. Burghers have the potential, no doubt about it, but you have to dig mighty deep into the songs to find the tunes that realise it. The strongest hint comes in 'She Does Everything For Me' where a wall of guitars are allied to 60s influences and power pop melodies in a chaotically charming way.Things calm down slightly as the record proceeds. 'Watching Paint Dry' / 'Paint Bossa' and 'Something For Everyone' offer a quieter build that provides some much needed relief.
Taster Track : She Does Everything For Me
Looking Through A Glass Onion : The Beatles Psychedelic Songbook 1966-1972
So, what do we learn from this covers take on some of the Beatles' finest moments?
Well, the main lesson for me is that there were a lot of acts around at the time who saw the Beatles as a way to further their own careers particularly via album tracks. Those with musical integrity made changes in an attempt to create something that was their own. But this was the Beatles, remember, and every decision to change something was a choice the Beatles didn't make in generating perfection. Trucial States, for example, provide bluesy covers of 'Oh! Darling' and 'Birthday' which stand on their own merits but in a slightly diluted form of the original.
Those who were, let us say, less committed to moving away from what the Beatles had done, (whether that approach was favoured by artists, producers, record labels or managers) deliver something that remains faithful to the original without being nearly as good. In a few cases, there's a sense that the band aren't going to push themselves. They roll their eyes at being a Beatles cover band and treat the song flippantly or without respect. I'm sorry to point the finger at Rainbow Folly's 'The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill' as an example of this.
There are a couple of tracks that stand successfully on their own merits. Andy Ellison's 'You Can't Do That' introduces a relaxed lounge vibe. And Big Jim Sullivan's take on 'Within You Without You' is arguably better than the original as it's without the droney vocals and combines the Indian style with Celtic influences in an unusual and effective way.
So what's the point of this collection? Well, the collection has a lot of curiosity value if not musical value. It shines a light on the feeding frenzy at the time generated by new songs from the Beatles. Most importantly though it preserves and celebrates bands that would otherwise disappear without trace. And that's a good thing for the future of music and for our musical heritage.
Finally, I should say that I've based this review on the 24 track version on Spotify, not the triple CD 68 song version. The 44 remaining songs will have to wait for another day, perhaps in another decade!
Taster Track : You Can't Do That - Andy Ellison
You Shouldn't Have. No. Really. You Shouldn't Have.
Gipsy Hill Producing : Various
I've mentioned the Wax and Stamp Vinyl Subscription service a couple of times. You don't know what you are going to receive and that's strangely liberating. There have been a number of gems over the years. Equally there have been a few misses, and this producer spotlighting compilation is one of them.
It's the second of the albums featuring sounds from the East and they rather swamp each track bar one. That's the Drowned In Sound offering 'Six Steps' which reminds me most of the Arctic Monkeys spin off. The Last Shadow Puppets. It's a bit weird in context.
The taster track is the opening track which sounds fresher simply because of its position on the album. Unfortunately I cannot find it on Spotify, but here's a link to the song on YouTube.
It will be to someone's taste but, sadly, not mine.
Taster Track : Special Brew - Koby Israelite