Updated: Feb 25
Alt-J, Damon Albarn, Erin Rae, Kreidler, The Lathums, Massage, Mcleod
Album Cover of the Week
Most of this week's album covers were in shades of black and white. That's quite effective in moderation, but a little 'duochrome' if over done. There's a fair amount of black and white in this week's Album Cover Of The Week too.
I thought that the black and white part of the picture was the best of the week, but what gives it that little extra is the golden backing to the top half of the cover. In total the cover captures both the wintery feeling of loss and the joyous celebration of a life well lived.
This Week's Music
Different can be good, as shown by a number of the albums reviewed this week. Reputation and past performance isn't always a guide to how good your latest record will be. And sometimes nothing will appease the listener who got out of the bed on the wrong side. Apologies to the act that fell foul of this last dictum this week.
Here are the reviews.
The Dream : Alt-J
I have only good things to say about Alt-J and this record which is both imaginative and immensely enjoyable..
There’s a real satisfaction from hearing a band that dares to be different without compromising the nature of their music. It’s like having an interior designer reconfigure your living space in ways you would never consider. It's familiar and novel at the same time.
Alt-J manage this whilst always remaining musical and interesting and never lapsing into indulgent experimentation for the sake of it. There is a sense of drama to songs such as ‘Chicago’, and of the operatic to a song such as ‘Philadelphia’. They’re happy to sing as a chorus even as they eschew traditional choruses. Time signature changes nestle next to unobtrusive melodies in multi part songs that stick in your memory.
I’m wary of making comparisons to other bands that may be unfamiliar to readers - if I do so I include them in the Pop In The Real World Shadowplay playlist - but Alt-J remind me in one way of bands such as Gomez, The Guillemots and Steve Mason. They’re all acts who take the time to work out, and work on their songs until they’re exactly right. Their albums are consistently good. At times they may be a little challenging, and they’re not necessarily albums you return to every day, but they exude quality with every song.
It’s a good musical world that finds a road less travelled and draws out the magic and interest along its path. Alt-J are an enduring part of that world.
Taster Track : Chicago
... And The Rest
The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows - Damon Albarn
Damon Albarn is one of those artists who can appear wilfully difficult and defiantly uncommercial. He shows that here but, if you’re patient, there are also moments that recapture his pop nous and offer moments of beauty.
It seems a million years since Blur’s ‘Girls and Boys’ were living the ‘Parklife’. Nowadays, He’s more like Bowie in his late period. Like Bowie, Albarn releases projects rather than albums. They’re works with a purpose that goes far beyond mere entertainment. He’s a composer facing a pop audience, rather than a typical singer songwriter.
Is it clever? It might be. Is it important? It might be that as well. Is it profound in the manner of Eric Cantona’s fish following trawlers or a case of the emperor’s new clothes? It could be all that too.
Consider some of the lyrics:
“Crushed satellite stars in silent conga” (‘Darkness To Light’)
“Joining the saline to start the inspection of the lines” (‘Polaris’)
“Cross dressers of these terrible roads” (‘Daft Wader’)
I don’t have a clue what they mean, and it’s an off putting sensation.
It’s not just the lyrics that sound too clever for their own good. ‘Giraffe, Trumpet. Sea’ with its one word lyric sounds around as meaningful as any of the What Three Words combinations. And the sense of self importance isn’t eased by ‘Royal Mountain Blue’ with “And nothing like this had ever happened (count five beats one, two, three, four, five) before.”
That was well worth waiting for.
And yet… if you can stop wondering what it’s all about, and just let it flow over you like so much meaningless incantation, there are genuinely interesting pop touches that snag the attention. There’s the ‘Royal Mountain Blue’ mentioned earlier, the oompah middle section to the instrumental ‘Combustion’ and the subdued but likeable synthpop of Polaris. There are moments of beauty too, often from the background saxophone.
All told, this is Damon Albarn at his most exasperating. If we can accept that and put aside our prejudices there’s an interesting album to be found.
Taster Track : Royal Mountain Blue
Lighten Up : Erin Rae
This collection of country folk doesn’t put a foot wrong, but neither does it set the heart and pulse racing.
What strikes you from the start is that this is a very old fashioned record. It took me a few tracks to twig who she called mind in her singing. It’s Lynn Anderson of ‘Rose Garden’ fame. Don’t knock it. Idles cannibalised the song very effectively in ‘Model Village. It’s a domesticated sound with an undercurrent of sadness.
Another touchstone is Charlene’s ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’. There is a suppressed sense of regret at the safe choices made in life and her sacrificed dreams. When she sings that youth is full of promise, it’s in the knowledge that the promise has ebbed away.
If there’s a problem here, it’s that she’s too nice. She’s the Walton family’s Mum. She confesses that
“What I saw I could not unsee
That the evil one is me”
It comes across though as the sense of shame and guilt that Teresa May felt when caught running through that field of wheat.
Musically it’s unrepentantly comfortable, with easy melodies. Of its kind it’s very well done. It’s a little dull though, a little worthy - folk music touched with the twang of country. The duet with Kevin Morby, ‘Can’t See Stars’ and the opening track ‘Candy and Curry’ - odd title - are decent pop songs. The remainder is quietly pleasant.
Turn to Erin Rae when you need music that won’t disturb you.
Taster Track : Candy and Curry
Spells and Daubs : Kreidler
This collection of electronic instrumentals aims squarely at the head rather than the heart or feet, but if you can adopt that mindset there’s much here to explore and enjoy.
In theory there should be something here to appeal to nearly everyone. It’s variously described as electronic music, pop, avant garde, post rock, ambient, neoclassical, krautrock, electronica or IDM. I didn’t know that IDM was a genre. It stands for Intelligent Dance Music, and therein lies the conflict at the heart of this record.
Label something as ‘intelligent’ and you create an expectation of something that is dry, clinical, analytical and artificial. ‘Dance’ on the other hand is filled with the prospect of celebration, life, fun and, probably, alcohol. This is definitely music for the brain. It’s the kind of music beloved of hifi salesmen seeking to demonstrate the clarity and purity of their sound systems.
It’s a fair challenge to describe this album as soulless. There’s nothing to warm to, although there is much to understand and appreciate. It’s the inner workings of music and any pleasure derives from working out how it’s put together and structured.
It features repetitive, relentless machine driven grooves that can be hypnotic. It highlights rhythm, beats and electronica rather than sweet melody. There’s an admirable discipline to the approach, a consistency to a set of values that, perhaps, the likes of others including Kraftwerk haven’t achieved.
For an electronic record it's surprisingly percussive. A good half of ‘Dirty Laundry’ is just that. It’s an extremely clean sound but it misses what John Peel picked up on when he said:
"Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don't have any surface noise.
I said, 'Listen, mate, life has surface noise."
It’s only on ‘Arise Above’ that a warmer sound of life appears. Through the introduction of a piano there’s a human connection - although it’s just possible that the sound is replicated by a very good synthesiser.
I don’t often listen to such concentrated electronic music, but I enjoyed it. If we can work out physically, and keep our brains sharp it can’t harm to remind our ears about the nuts and bolts of music once in a while.
Taster Track : Arise Above
How Beautiful Life Can Be : The Lathums
As hyped debuts go this wasn’t bad, although its fresh faced appeal made me feel old.
The Lathums are nice lads. They’re a cause without rebels, and that cause is seeking understanding not conflict. At school they would have been prefects, not stuck in the back row of the class. If your daughter brought them home you’d approve, although she may feel an unfulfilled hankering for The Leader of the Pack. On the album cover they’re sweetly looking after each other with a helping hand as they leap off bollards.
You get the picture, and it’s reflected in the song titles. ‘Circles of Faith’, ‘I’ll Never Forget The Time I Spent With You’ and ‘How Beautiful Life Can Be” all point towards a romantic mindset, the idealised sweetness of youth. Even on ‘Fight On’ with its talk of guerrilla warfare, they’re uncomfortable and reluctant participants. They’re happier working through their feelings for themselves and the world at large, than shouting slogans from the rooftops.
It’s a safe sound. The extra acoustic versions of their songs on the deluxe version are scarcely necessary - the electric versions are hardly filled with screeching feedback and wah wah pedals. The absence of grit might make it a little too saccharine for some but for others it will come as a relief from everyday demands and worries.
This is a collection of strongly melodic songs, well played and nicely sung. In places they seem to prefer the sound of words which are slotted together to give rhythm and momentum to the songs rather than to add meaning. That’s no bad thing. Some of REM’s finest moments have been based on the same approach.
To call them indie rock may be misleading. For now they’re positioned somewhere between McFly and The Rifles or Stornoway. (The latter two bands are on the Shadowplay playlist.)
This is an undemanding listen. Any weaknesses are due to their youth, and inexperience. That’s the one flaw that time will correct! In the meantime they’ve banked considerable good will for their next album.
Taster Track : Circles Of Faith
Still Life : Massage
Massage’s album is a collection of likeable, lo-fi songs with jangling guitars and strong melodies taken straight out of the early 1990s.
There’s something very retro about this album. It’s the sound of a hundred deep dive label samplers, or of the free new music compilation CDs given away with every music magazine in the early 90s. I used to love those, the grown up equivalent of a kid’s comic with a free toy. And the compilations and samplers were an excellent reintroduction to music for me following a few fallow years concentrating on family and work. They were the right thing at the right time.
Fast forward 30 years, and a sleepless night pondering on friends with Covid, the situation in Ukraine, the leak above our kitchen door and the arrival of Storm Eunice and this is, unfortunately, the wrong album in the wrong place at the wrong time for me.
I can hear that it’s great on melody, jangle guitars, indie vocals and thoughtful bass lines. But just as songs don’t receive a fair listen if you turn the treble up high and the bass down low, I’m disproportionately influenced by the seeming lack of energy and the variety in the songs. I hear, and know I can grow to love, the sweetness but I’m registering upfront the relentless, ponderous momentum of some songs. At this moment I’m failing to hear the lightness of touch that would add the magic dust to a strong set of songs.
Even through this jaundiced state of mind I can hear songs that will endure - ‘Half A Feeling’, ‘Made Of Moods’ and ‘I’m A Crusader’ to name but three.
So I want to stress as clearly as I can that this is an album that I will listen to again in different circumstances and expect to love with my heart what my brain is telling me is good. For now though I’m off to listen to something more mindful.
Taster Track : I’m A Crusader
Brother : McLeod
Colin McLeod’s album is dedicated to his late brother Norman. (I assume that the two figures on the left are the two brothers. It’s a celebration from start to finish.)
Commemorative albums can go two ways. They can be a deeply moving and introspective exploration of grief and coming to terms with loss. (Ash’s Tim Wheeler followed this path with his solo album ‘Lost Domain’. This explores the loss of his father to dementia and its impact on him during the illness and after his father’s death. It’s intensely personal and not an easy listen.) Or they can be a musical wake, a celebration of all that was good and positive in a life. That’s the route taken by McLeod.
Thirty people have contributed musically or vocally to this album. They may not be household names, but they’ve all contributed to the British music scene over the course of the 21st Century as supporting members of bands such as I Am Kloot and backing Badly Drawn Boy. That gives you a sense of the esteem in which the McLeod brothers are held.
McLeod himself is a keyboard player with a deep, gravelly voice hewn from the likes of Leonard Cohen and Robbie Robertson - remember ‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’? He sounds like them but this is a much more affirmative and buoyant record. Listen to ‘Coming Home’ for evidence of that.
These are songs that dispense with the slow build that others use in favour of starting with the crescendo and moving forward from there. Think of starting ‘Hey Jude’ with the “Na na na nanana, na” fade out, or launching yourself into The Who’s glorious singalong finale to Tommy - ‘See Me Feel Me’. Mix in some elements of Southern rock and soul, the massed backing singers, the singing style, the horns and the brass as McLeod does on ‘Let The Wolf Run Free’ and you have a widescreen and cinematic sound. It feels more suited to the wide open spaces of the USA than the small town Scotland where the brothers grew up or the drizzly Manchester studio where they carried out their work.
It sometimes feels as if there is too much going on, as if you’ve arrived late to the party and have a lot of catching up to do. That’s partly because the songs only contain ‘best bits’ - the hooks, melodies and exultant release that other songs work towards.
This album is the result of grand ambition and strong desire and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a lovely tribute to his brother, a testament to his legacy and a refusal to let him fade away.
Taster Track : Coming Home
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