Art D'Ecco, Carter Tanton, Chris Cornell, Ed Dowie, Hannah Peel, Jef Maarawi, MF Tomlinson, The Polyphonic Spree, Telex
This Week's Music
Covers seem to be all the rage at the moment, and there are two and a half differing collections this week. It must be a lockdown thing!
As ever this week's playlist 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 Obvious I : Ed Dowie
To describe this album as a collection of great synth pop songs does not do justice to its ideas and inventiveness.
Ed Dowie is a former choir boy who’s songs feature the sound of church organs. Add to that touches of what I can only describe as baroque synthesiser, and a structure to some songs that appears to set them up as a perpetual canon or ‘round’ as we called it at primary school - thanks Wikipedia - and some of you may feel it’s time to head for the pub. Don’t. This is something different, but it is also immediately engaging.
The devil may have all the best tunes, but the choirboy offers something seductive, affirming and restorative. There’s a place for both just as there is for the pub lock in, and an effective hangover cure.
At a time when a scuzzy sound seems to suggest authenticity, the pure clean sound throughout this album is refreshing. You can hear the loving care and attention that has been paid to details and flourishes in every track, never detracting or distracting from the core song but perfectly enhancing the experience. It reminds me of Yazoo at their most tuneful. ‘Under the Sea’, with its extended instrumental opening is brimful of ideas and sounds. ‘The Island’ has a fairground lilt to it, inviting you to gaze through the gate at a world you long to be part of. ‘Robot Joy Arm’ has a more percussive, mechanical and rhythmic sound. But it’s the songs such as ‘Then Send Them’, ‘The Obvious I’, ‘Red Stone’ and ‘Dear Florence’ with their sweet melodies, and impeccable pace that linger longest.
Taster Track : Then Send Them
And The Rest...
In Standard Definition - Art D'Ecco
Art D’Ecco successfully resurrects the sound and spirit of glam mixed with charismatic synth pop, in a dozen highly enjoyable songs.
Image was always the strongest element of glam rock and early 80s synth pop, even when the songs proved to have enduring appeal. Think of Roxy Music, Sparks, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and, above all, Bowie. Art D’Ecco also has a strong image, but it’s the music that draws attention. These are songs that scream “look at me” and aim to build devout followers in the same way as Bowie or , uhum, Adam Ant. There’s nothing modest or vulnerable in these tracks. For the most part they’re all swagger and thrust.
Opening tracks ‘Desires’ and ‘TV God’ are slightly camp, over the top and very enjoyable. The rasping sax on ‘Desires’ and ‘ Bird of Prey’ adds a healthy dose of sleaze. The message of ‘The Message’ sums it up. “The message is breaking up (Say it louder)” If the 80s sound is more your style, you’ll find that in ‘I Am The Dance Floor’ and the softer sounds of ‘In Standard Definition’ and ‘The Message’. It makes a refreshing change to hear proper, gig friendly choruses across the whole album.
There are three songs that break the established mould. The two instrumentals ‘Channel 7 : Pilot Season’ and Channel 11 : Reruns’ sound out of place and serve as an interlude, nothing more. It’s the final track, ‘I Remember’ that adds depth to this collection. It’s a poignant closer, reflective and suggestive of taking off the image and the costumes to reveal the man beneath.
The strength of this album though is that, ultimately, it’s not reliant on image, shock and outrage. At its heart, these are simply good songs.
Taster Track : Desires
Carter Tanton : Carter Tanton
These stripped back songs create their own atmosphere - one that’s downbeat and hard to take en masse.
I know that how you respond to music at any one time is influenced by your own circumstances. I listened to this in temporary self isolation awaiting the results of a coronavirus test for someone I’d been in close contact with. That hasn’t helped. Listening to this album specifically during ‘22’ I felt imprisoned in a room on a miserable rainy day, listening to someone practice on the piano with nothing to distract me from. I wanted,noe needed, it to end.
That may be the harshest review I’ve ever written, so I’ll restate that it’s a personal response to a particular time. The thing is though that if there’s not much going on besides guitar / piano you need strong melodies, good stirring lyrics and an appealing voice.
There’s not much hummable melody to be found here. ‘Out Fayette’ doesn’t provide one. It’s a sombre affair that drags on to become a bit of a dirge. ‘V Rose’ and ‘Honey In Tea’ are short, inconsequential, ambient instrumentals. ‘Willowy Fire’ has more going for it, perhaps simply because it’s played at a higher pitch. It does meander around the houses though.
I can hear a bleak beauty in songs such as ‘Steep Angles’ but they push me towards feeling down and defeated. ‘Steep Angles’ and ‘Mirrors’ are both lifted by the mournful sound of harmonica. That’s not a sentence many have written and it gives you a clue as to how the rest of the album lands.
His voice is an undoubted asset. It’s experienced and world weary and retains a clarity, even purity in its tone. However, as ‘Uneven High Places’ shows how the music in itself may sooth, his experience, world weary and pure voice only left me despairing, and defeated
As you’ve probably guessed, this wasn’t for me. For balance, this month’s Mojo magazine describes it as “a tantalising album begging you to sit and spend some time with it, aching to be slowly picked apart.” There you go - it’s make your mind up time.
Taster Track : Mirrors
No One Sings Like You Any More : Chris Cornell
This collection of covers, some familiar and some not, is in a soulful rhythm and blues classic rock style that feels somewhat old fashioned. But it has added poignancy as the last record compiled, sequenced and recorded before the singer’s suicide in 2017.
Following tragedy, we’re always looking for clues that can explain what happened and why. David Bowie’s death a week after he released his final album sparked an onslaught of re-evaluation and interpretations, which probably felt a little awkward for those reviewers who had spectacularly misjudged the point in their initial reviews. There’s a longer lapse here between the death and the album release but the temptation is the same. Listening to this collection, there’s undoubtedly a poignancy that isn’t in the originals. The songs strike as more personal; the themes of loss (or fear of loss), regret and pain are more loaded with significance.
It makes it harder to assess the record in musical terms but, this being a review blog, I’ll offer some thoughts.
It’s an interesting selection mixing well known songs (‘Nothing Compares 2 U’), less known songs from rock’s aristocracy (John Lennon’s ‘Watching The Wheels’) and covers of songs by acts I’d never heard of (Ghostland Observatory, anyone?) It’s not the hard rock grunge album you might associate with Chris Cornell. He has a used, sandpapered voice. It’s much more aligned with the Great American Rock Singer in the soulful blues tradition. It’s a treasure trove of songs for the next set of big voiced American Idol contestants.
There are some unduly safe choices that don’t fare too well out of context. ELO’s ‘Showdown’ and Prince / Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ are insufficiently personal as if they lacked the confidence to divert too much from the original, The strings on ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ jar. It sounds as if he’s merely copying the original rather than offering an authentic expression of how he feels.
How much of the effect is the original song, and how much is in the treatment is a good question but ‘Sad, Sad City’ has a lightness of touch that sounds like his own and the cover of ‘Watching The Wheels’ is both effective and reminds you that it is a great, underrated song. The killer track in the collection though is the opener, Janis Joplin’s ‘Get It While You Can’. It’s a hopeless expression of regret for missed opportunities, poignant in the extreme.
Musically it’s an album that is a little flat. Emotionally it’s an album that carries a punch that is more than the sum of its parts.
Taster Track : Get It While You Can
Fir Wave : Hannah Peel
As a collection of electronic ambience, this has its moments of beauty that reward your attentive listening.
I feel for musicians. Ultimately their reputation and the perception of their work rests on how it is received by a potentially unqualified and ill equipped audience. I’ve banged on before about how real life intrudes on the ideal listening experience. In this case I was up early but distracted by plans for the day ahead. I was also aching from work in the garden the day before and looking for a comfort wrap of sound to cocoon me from reality - at least until the day’s first coffee kicked in. On that basis the opening track ‘Wind Shadow’ came across as the sound of mournful, sacred music heard through a badly tuned radio. Not a promising start, but one that perhaps set in place the necessary building blocks for an ultimately rewarding listening experience over the next 35 minutes.
Hannah Peel has a dual musical life. She’s rightly renowned in the folk world but her recent work has seen her explore a more experimental electronic approach. Here, according to reviews as I don’t have the benefit of a press release, she’s sampled the 1970s BBC Radiophonic Workshop who are acknowledged as the UK pioneers of electronic, synthesised music. That may sound a little arty, dry and out there; a little more bleeps and random effects than conventional music, but I guarantee you’ll be familiar with their most famous work. It’s the original theme for Dr Who. Hannah has incorporated samples of their work into an occasionally glitchy but constantly evolving set of tracks.
The second track ‘Emergence In Nature’ serves the album well. The album, as with most ambient music, is heavy on atmosphere and sounds and light on formality and structure. Allow yourself to sink into the track though and you’ll find more conventional rhythms and melodies to enjoy. There are about three separate tunes in this one track, none outstaying their welcome but experienced as if heard passing through deep space. (I think I’ve used this image before, but it captures the feel of this record particularly.)
It takes some effort to submerge yourself in this album, but two standout tracks - ‘Ecovocative’ and ‘Fir Wave’ - make it worthwhile. Both lose the skittering beats and static interference present elsewhere to create something calming and peaceful out of fragmented ambience.
So, put the effort in and reap the rewards of an album that reveals its strengths slowly and sporadically, but beautifully.
Taster Track : Ecovocative
TERRA PAPAGALLI : Jef Maarawi
Jef Maarawi was born in Brazil, lives and works in Athens while singing in English. This beguiling, personal and sincere collection justifies the tag World Pop.
There’s a real mix of influences at play in this record. It combines strong melodies and great musicality to create something a little different that rewards repeated listening. And if you’re worried that his background points to a calculated mix of bouzouki strings and samba rhythms do not fear - this is as accessible and enjoyable as anything Europe has to offer.
There’s a delicate balance achieved between passion (for example ‘Terra Papagalli’ and ‘Consume Me’) and reflection (for example ‘Protector’ and ‘Supermarket’) ‘Terra Papagalli’ is in the tradition of stream of conscious protest songs stretching back through the likes of Elvis Costello’s ‘Tokyo Storm Warning’, REM’s ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) ’ all the way to Barry McGuire’s ‘Eve Of Destruction. ‘How To Sustain Minor Losses’ and ‘Senna’ strike a quieter chilled tone. They may not build quite as climactically but the musical backing - lapping synths and acoustic strums - draws you into the song.
Jef is open about the fact that this is a personal exploration and he carries it through in a voice that is both easy on the ear and full of character.. That’s clear on ‘Supermarket’ with its strong, engaging and personal story. It’s one of the sparser songs on the album but all the more effective for that. There’s a dreamier, introspective feel to the extended ‘Fashion, Faith and Fantasy’. It’s a suitable conclusion to the whole album, an appropriate destination for the earlier songs.
I was predisposed to like this album. It would have been awkward to have agreed to review an album that I simply did not like. That’s not turned out to be an issue. This is a thoughtful, tuneful and memorable collection of songs.
Taster Track : Senna
Strange Time : MF Tomlinson
‘Strange Time’ is a stylised musical concoction of charm and wit.
Someone, somewhere should start compiling a lockdown archive of songs that convey to future students of our time how lockdown felt. The opening track ‘Strange Time’ should be first on the list. It’s a lockdown song guaranteed to trigger recognition and reminders of the unease we felt, but also of the benefits we cautiously came to appreciate.
Tomlinson writes pretty tunes and has a nice line in dry wit:
“You said this year would be different.
I should have asked you what you meant.”
Or try this line from ‘Baby’s Been Gone’
“When the cat’s away, everything goes to the dogs.”
It’s certainly prompted a need for understanding, and his quest for that is what drives this album. He makes no bones about it, singing in ‘Them Apples’
“Talk to me world
Why won’t you talk to me?
Tell me everything.”
The album has a 60s troubadour vibe, slightly mannered in places. The music, as on ‘Spring’ can be theatrical, raising expectations that something important is on its way. The vocals, and this is not meant unkindly, are those of an actor singing.
Musically it flows by, eddying and tumbling like a stream not quite sounding the same twice. There’s a small jazz band feel to ‘Spring’ that’s nicely loose. If there’s a criticism it’s that, in places, the songs are over complicated, too clever for their own good. ‘Them Apples’ is the main culprit here. The rhythms, backing vocals and lead vocals are constantly chopping and changing while remaining out of sync with each other. It just sounds a bit messy to me. ‘Baby’s Been Gone’ and ‘Thursday, 8pm’ are simpler, and much better for it.
There’s much to like in this album which smacks of something grander than mere songwriting, a generally successful attempt to create a performance.
Taster Track : Strange Time
Afflatus : The Polyphonic Spree
This collection of cover versions, shows a great choice in songs which have been faithfully covered rather than transformed into something new. It’s still a lot of fun though.
If The Polyphonic Spree are new to you, then you should know that they come across as a musical high priest, surrounded by his adoring cult. With that in mind, calling your album ‘Afflatus’ - a “divine creative impulse or inspiration” according to Google - is really claiming a lot AND hedging yourself from criticism.
They’ve chosen good songs to cover, cheesy and familiar for the most part. Where else might you find inspiration drawn from The Bee Gees, The Monkees, Barry Manilow, Abba and The Rolling Stones at their most camp?
However…… The Polyphonic Spree’s unique selling point has been a completely over the top, almost operatic approach to songwriting. It’s a rolling, pounding, exhilarating cacophony of sound, almost too much at times. On this album they only come close to that a couple of times. The opener ‘Don’t Change’ is a flagship for their all whistles and bells approach - well, bells definitely. The closer, ‘Spirit of Radio’, runs with Rush’s big hair rocking wig out successfully too. Elsewhere though, the covers are faithful to the original. On ‘She’s A Rainbow’ they’ve managed to rein in the sound, even though it’s the kind of song that seems custom made for them to do their thing. It’s as if their High Priest,Tim De Laughter, has opted out of walking on water and contented himself with a paddle in the deep end.
That said, ‘Run To Me’ is confirmed as a lovely song well suited to De Laughter’s voice. ‘Could It Be Magic’ showcases their love of tongue in cheek pomp. The rest are faithful renditions of great songs.
It’s a lot of fun and will bring a smile to your day but I’m left with a nagging feeling that this is a missed opportunity.
Taster Track : Don't Change
This Is Telex : Telex
With this retrospective collection, Telex take us back to the beginnings of the synthesiser in pop and prove particularly handy with a cover version.
Telex passed me by back in the day, and may yet go down as one of the great lost electro pop bands. They're Belgian and their continental attitude fits nicely with the music. Their songs are a sampler for early synthesisers from its plinky, trebly beginnings in the ironic tribute to Eurovision called, surprisingly, ‘Euro-Vision’ to the warmer, fuller sound of, say, ‘Rendez-Vous Dans L’Espace’. They were actually Belgian’s entry into Eurovision in 1980, with the song Euro-vision (note the hyphen). They came 17th out of 19 entries. It seems that most of the juries had no sense of humour!
Cover versions abound. With their cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Dance To The Music’, complete with the build up to a dance floor classic one instrument at a time, they show an ability to take a familiar song and make it new. They cover Sparks’ ‘No 1 Song In Heaven’ and give it a brooding, almost menacing sound by emphasising the bass and the lyrics. Above all their cover versions capture the sheer undiluted fun of the band, particularly ‘Twist A Saint Tropez’ and ‘La Bamba’.
This selection of songs provides a deserved tribute both to the band and the era and does it with a smile on its face.
Taster Track : La Bamba