Andrew Bird, A Taut Line, Gabriel de Rosa, The National, Pretenders, Romy, The Suede Crocodiles
The Front Runners
Outside Problems : Andrew Bird
Quirky, different and absorbing - ‘Outside Problems’ is an album to explore and treasure. Instrumentals have rarely sounded so intriguing.
‘Outside Problems’ sounds like a companion piece to last year’s ‘Inside Problems’ In fact, it’s been a work in progress for a few years and inspired the sound of ‘Inside Problems’ rather than the other way round. It shows Bird going from strength to strength. He’s pulled together a rich and complex mix of tunes from just a violin, guitar and bass. (And of course, his exceptional whistling!)
There is nothing quite like this album, but it's not in the slightest way off putting. It’s full of accessible hooks and melodies which have, somehow, been used differently. For those who welcome comparators, they’re hard to find. The closest I can find is that he may have drunk with the orchestra at the Penguin Cafe.
This is a record where the instruments come individually to the party. Frequently it’s as if the music emerges reluctantly, squeezed out of him and his instruments as if strings have been stretched out of tune but are being forced back and, with difficulty, held in shape. It’s curiously beguiling and makes for enthralling listening.
Tunes are given the time and space to grow and build. It’s interesting that the two shortest tracks- ‘Heaven’s Bough’ and ‘Improvisations on a Familiar Theme’ - are undeniably pretty, but less satisfying than the rest of the album.
From the bluesy bass that introduces ‘Mancey’ to the celebratory shuffle of Festivus that might have come to you via Salem or the land of the Wickerman, this is an album that intrigues as it brings pleasure. It has its darker edges, for example, the laboured breathing beneath the wordless trilling on ‘Mormon House Party’. But it’s the unnatural beauty and captivating melodies of, say, ‘Epilogue that give this album its broader, lasting appeal.
When Andrew Bird’s problems (inside or outside) produce music this good, I’m hoping he doesn’t find solutions to them any time soon.
Taster Track : Epilogue
First Two Pages of Frankenstein : The National
This excellent new album of low key songs with strong emotions from The National has the power to change lives.
With this album, I finally ‘get’ The National. Here they are chroniclers of the aftermath of breakdown and separation just before the final slither of hope that all can be fixed disappears. If you’re thinking “that sounds depressing”, it’s not, because empathy, understanding and honesty are positives whatever the circumstances. The National pull off the trick musically and lyrically of helping you feel for all the participants in their songs. It’s a restrained but powerful achievement that succeeds in expressing the inexpressible.
Rock and roll may have started for teenagers but this is how it sounds when it grows up, and focuses on the adult world and its personal concerns. It’s music that throbs like a rising migraine, or a building temper. Again, that may not sound like your cup of tea but if this were literature it would be, to quote a Dave Eggars title, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.
Its power is in its quiet restraint. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this is December music shorn of Christmas festivities. It’s music for the year’s Winter, full of wee small hours, dark mornings and the impending fear of time’s wheel ticking over.
Matt Berninger’s vocals are centre stage, but the quiet playing of the band behind them is equally important. The collaborators remain discreetly in the background of the songs, bar Taylor Swift who duets as an equal. The tone that Aaron Dressner has struck with Taylor Swift’s change of style works brilliantly here too.
Only ‘Grease In Your Hair’ threatens a meltdown. The strongest songs, ‘Once Upon A Poolside’, ‘The Alcott’, ‘Tropic Morning News’ and ‘Send For Me’ among them, move with a graceful, troubling sadness.
With ‘First Two Pages of Frankenstein’ The National have made an album that could change lives in the same way as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen have done so over the years.
Taster Track : Once Upon A Poolside
Mid Air : Romy
Romy’s album is a lovely homage to the trance inducing dance pop of the gay clubs she visited in her youth. It’s an uplifting slice of music.
Romy is best known for singing in the XX, with Jamie XX and Oliver Sim. If Sim’s album ‘Hideous Bastard’ is all about the anguish and torment of coming out as gay, Romy’s take is focused on her relationships. It’s an album of love songs pure and simple, dedicated to the stage of a relationship where friendship could become something deeper.
She covers moments of revelation and reassurance, uncertainty and regret. This is a thoughtful album full of songs like ‘The Sea’ which brings you quiet, calm reflection set to the music of the 00s. It’s also, you’ll be glad to hear, an album with a happy ending in ‘She’s On My Mind’.
This is an album to lap up greedily. From the opening notes of ‘Loveher’ anticipation and recognition kicks in. If you were in a club, you’d hear the shuffling of people getting to their feet and heading for the floor. That’s not because these are bangers, but because a song like ‘One Last Try’ will carry you there on a warm wave of melody and mid paced beats, happy to dance alone, content with your thoughts.
Romy is openly influenced by Everything But The Girl around the time of ‘Missing’. (She also looks like a younger Tracey Thorn, but that’s probably a coincidence.) The influence is there, but Romy’s songs carry life more lightly if no less deeply felt. You can hear The XX here too, but a warmer, accessible version.
While recording this album, Romy lost both her parents. That accounts for the melancholy you can detect, and adds poignancy to ‘Enjoy Your Life’. She turns her mother’s advice into something quietly celebratory. It’s followed, and the album closes with the declaration of love she receives in ‘She’s On My Mind’.
File this album under ‘Dance Pop’ and ‘2023 End of Year Lists.’
Taster Track : Loveher
The Chasing Pack
Never Any Gain : A Taut Line
This is beat driven club music for dark nighttime hours, when everything feels twitchy.
‘Never Any Gain’ is an interesting and intriguing album that occasionally drifts towards nondescript background music.
It’s not for the daylight hours. Radio 6 might play this any time between 22:00 and 05:00. It’s challenging but worth exploring, uncommercial but containing its own rewards. Hard core night owls, found outside the club in the back door alley, away from the neon glitz of the entrance will recognise the heft of this music and empathise with its tone. The rest of us may feel that without the hedonism, stimulation and club environment it’s a bit dull.
The music is always listenable but it doesn’t command your attention. Four tracks in, and the songs are heading down the same beat-en path. ‘Cameraphone’ grinds its way along like machinery never missing or varying a beat. There are times when, like a programmable lawn mower, you can turn it on and leave it to go about its business. It’s reminiscent of the music you find on club samplers, filling the spaces between the more ear catching tunes.
And yet there are a few moments that stick in your head. The blend of harsh beats and vocals with gentler bass and unobtrusive lounge keyboards on ‘Never Any Gain’ is different in a good way. The electronic wind chimes to ‘Colour Science’ provide an oriental feel that is westernised by Chocola B’s breathy and appealing vocals. ‘Carmine’ and ‘The Limits and the Lows’ both contain niggling hooks that wrap themselves around your head.
This is an album dressed in a cloak of darkness that is tentatively peering out into a daylight world. What happens next could be quite special.
Taster Track : Carmine
E O Que A Casa Oferce : Gabriel De Rosa
Gabriel De Rosa’s authentic bossa nova will be the most restful 27 minutes of your day.
As we leave summer behind, a dose of light, quiet Brazilian music may be just what we need! You may try to resist, but eventually you will allow yourself to drift away with bird song and trickling water, float into dreams on its rhythms, sway and mood. You’ll register the guitar, hand patted drums, strings and flute and smile. This is bona fide bossa nova, as immediately identifiable as reggae or flamenco music
It’s a potent sound, much more than middle of the road lounge music. It’s like being given something familiar from childhood, a return to childhood haunts or a particular favourite meal. Or it’s a trip to your grandparents who insist on indulging you like the child you were. You may feel it’s unnecessary but in the end you’ll succumb with good grace. Bossa nova is the sound of the summers in your memory, idealised and even unreal, a picture with all the bad bits filtered out.
If I were to disturb the peaceful effect of the music, I’d say that it has everything it needs for the perfect bossa nova experience except, perhaps, an absolute killer melody that allows you to summon up the songs at will. ‘Jasmin Parte 2’ comes closest to achieving this.
For now though, find a sunny spot warmed by the sun of our Indian Summer, reach for a cool beer or colourful cocktail, close your eyes, and enjoy yourself.
Taster Track : Jasmin Parte 2
Relentless : Pretenders
A new Pretenders album occasionally falls short of expectations. Not this one. Its foray into a more classic form of bluesy rock shows Chrissie Hynde in fine voice and on top form.
When you have a glorious past, it’s difficult to drift too far from it. The risk is the law of diminishing returns, rehashing the template without the freshness that made it attractive in the first place. Pretenders avoid that trap. Whilst ‘Relentless’ may lack the out and out pop nouse of ‘Brass In Pocket’ or chart friendly light touch of ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’, it has built on the harder edge of ‘Day After Day’ and ‘Tattooed Love Boys’. Its recognisably the work of Chrissie Hynde but also clear that she hasn’t stood still. If the glory years were an explosion of pent up demands to “listen to me”, ‘Relentless’ is a steely expectation that you will pay attention.
There is a downside to that. Songs such as ‘A Love’ sound like great rock songs, but rock songs that have been worked out rather than flying unbidden from a fount of inspiration. They lack just a little of the hedonistic spontaneity that came from the bottle labelled ‘Magic’.
However, Hynde is older now. She’s begun to reflect, pause and consider what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. That gives us the stunningly personal ‘The Copa’. Like ‘The Promise of Love’, it’s a move into torch song territory. The pause before the final line is more powerful and elegant than anything we’ve heard from her before.
There’s nothing throwaway on this album, nothing that has been rigorously assessed against the quality standards set for the band. It’s a record with muscle, trimmed of fat. As she sings on ‘Let The Sun Come In’.
“We don’t have to get fat, we don’t have to get old.”
This is growing old at the top of its game.
Taster Track : The Copa
Stop The Rain : The Suede Crocodiles
The Suede Crocodiles - indie pop’s great lost hope, or just one more band that failed to deliver on its potential? Read on to find out.
This is a slightly unusual review for me. I don’t usually review compilations but it bugged me that a band that could produce a single as good as ‘Stop The Rain’ seemed to have disappeared without trace. The thing is, they never released an album in their heyday. Fortunately, a few years after they split, someone pulled together all their known recordings into this compilation. It’s the equivalent of an archaeologist building a picture of a civilisation from a few pieces of kitchen artefacts.
First things first, the single ‘Stop The Rain’ is the best thing here. It’s the very definition of glorious indie pop - jangling, fast paced and infernally catchy. It’s as good as Haircut 100, but less twee. They may not have possessed the social commentary of the Housemartins, but they’d have pepped up any number of happy hours and given them a run for their money. Their Scottish independent roots would have aligned them with the Bluebells without diluting the magic with forays into folk.
The rest of the album isn’t bad either. There are hints though in ‘Happiness Sound’ that they never built the self confidence that a hit album would have provided or the self belief that a good producer would have tapped into.
You don’t have to look too far though for further highlights. Every song seems to possess a memorable fade out. ‘Crying Over You’ has one of the best. Infectious hooks swirl to the fore on a track such as ‘Great Expectations’ (How cruelly they were dashed!) There’s a rolling momentum running though the album and showcased in ‘Perhaps Maybe (The Indecisive Song), the joyful energy of a band on the brink of……….. not very much as it turned out.
There’s a handful of live tracks which show that the band were as comfortable on stage as they were in the studio.
If you had discovered them back in the day, you would have been convinced they were on the brink of something special. They’d have been the band most likely to break through against all the odds, a Leicester City winning the league band, or a Brighton and Hove Albion tantalisingly close to a dream ending.
To answer my own question, they could, would, should have been great. Their snappy, crackling pop would have made them as likeable as Rice Krispies.
Taster Track : Pleasant Dreamer (Obviously ‘Stop The Rain’ is their classic, but I want to dig deeper.)
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