Updated: Jan 12
Duane Pitre, Floating Points, The Institutes, Julie Doiron, Lunar Vacation, Max Richter, Neal Francis, Pearly Gate Music, The Reds, Pinks And Purples,
Album Cover of the Week
I'm always going to fall for a record cover such as this. Its cutaway design, its clean, geometric shapes, the sense of magically floating beneath a colourful font - I'd have it on the wall of my music room like a shot. See the review below to find out if I am likely to be buying it.
This Week's Music
Music that you come across in the run up to Christmas can get lost in the Winter Wonderland of carols, mistletoe, wine, and not forgetting Wham. If it happens to the records I listened to this week that would be a real shame. At least three of the albums are excellent and deserve to be listened to on repeat for some time.
I hope you agree and also that you find a special treasure in the other albums reviewed.
Merry Christmas everyone. I hope it's a good one for us all.
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
Inside Every Fig There Is A Dead Wasp : Lunar Vacation
It does the heart - and ears - good to come across a fresh new band that prioritises good songs above a corporate template and celebrity aspirations. Lunar Vision are one of those bands.
Don’t judge a record by its title or cover art, that’s all I’m saying. If there’s a sting in this record it comes from the unexpected quality of the songwriting not from mishandling the titular wasp.
If you can track Lunar Vacation down on line you’ll see that they are emphatically and persistently described as indie rock. That’s a broad title and, to be fair, Lunar Vacation currently have a generic sound. It’s a sound to appeal to sixth formers taking the first steps out into independence and all life’s joys and problems. If you wanted to be more specific you could call it bedroom indie because it’s small scale and personal.
They remind me of a cross between the Cardigans and The Sundays without sounding especially like either. It comes across in the vulnerability, innocence and charm of ‘The Waiting Game’. They have the gift of combining slow burning melodies with hooks that have the potential to make great songs. There’s a songwriting integrity in songs such as ‘Making Lunch (Not Right Now)’ that is worth more to them in the long term than any amount of corporate activity.
They describe themselves as four individuals within a band. That’s good, but they’re like four interlocking pieces of a jigsaw that are more substantial together than apart.
Lunar Vacation are less a dead wasp in a fig and more of a caterpillar growing into a beautiful butterfly. They’re not quite there yet, but they’re on the cusp of becoming your favourite band that no one else knows.
Taster Track : Cutting Corners
In Plain Sight : Neal Francis
This album is full of excitement. It’s a series of love songs to the pleasure of making music
Neal Francis is a man who nearly lost his way as a result of addiction to drugs and alcohol - all very rock and roll. A prodigy on the piano, he had a promising future as a side man in American boogie woogie funk bands. It all disappeared before him, but the realisation that his addictions were preventing him from realising the songs in his head brought him back from the brink. This record is the result.
Unlike much of my listening in recent weeks, there’s no jazz, ambient, folk or experimental electronica in sight. It’s a breath of fresh air, a sudden burst of warmth as you step out of a raw wind into sunshine. There’s a retro 70s feel alright - or should that be AWWLRIIIIT! It oozes out of every note from the piano and every spiralling guitar solo. It jams and grooves and is the kind of music Paul Gambaccini used to play on a Radio 1 Saturday afternoon. Francis is comfortable in this musical skin, and his enjoyment is palpable.
It invites you to play a game of Spot The Influence. Here you detect some Nicky Hopkins piano for The Rolling Stones. There you can hear some mid 90s Primal Scream when they were a rock and roll band first and foremost.. In the voice there are memories of Ray Davies and, if you listen hard enough, Leo Sayer around the time of ‘Moonlighting’. He’s putting on a show with verve and pizzaz
This is music that’s in love with simply being music. And on that basis it’s as life affirming as anything I’ve heard for a while.
Taster Track : Alameda Apartments
Uncommon Weather : The Reds, Pinks And Purples
I fell in love with this record which captures the truly indie feel of music from the early 90s.
Oh my gosh. I was not expecting this and nearly missed it altogether. It crept into a year end Top 50 compiled by Record Culture, a shop in Stourbridge, based on votes from their customers and industry pals. It made the heady heights of No 50.
It’s a record that made me want to cry in a good way, a record that reminds me of why I fell in love with music outside the Top 30 in the first place.
The Reds, Pinks and Purples are a one man band called Glenn Donaldson from California. He may be Californian but his record sounds more Mancunian. It may roll like Californian psychedelia, but it hits with the resigned acceptance of a struggling tenement dweller. It’s the sound of 90s homemade indie, a sadder Teenage Fanclub or The Smiths without Morrissey swamping every song. (How long have I waited for a band like that? Too long!)
Telling you that the songs are short but fully formed, that they sing what they’ve come to sing and move briskly on isn’t the point. Understanding that the shuffling momentum comes from the guitars not the rhythm section isn’t the point. Knowing that there’s a slightly scuzzy, echoey tunefulness to every song, laced with wry humour isn’t the point. And listing the highlights isn’t the point because I can simply refer you to the entire tracklist.
The point is that this is a love song to songs and their power to mean something and to shape how you feel about your world. It’s captured in ‘The Songs You Used To Write’:
“The songs you used to write,
They changed my life.”
This album is for life, not just for Christmas.
Taster Track : I Wouldn’t Die For Anyone
....And The Rest
Omniscient Voices : Duane Pitre
Ambient experimentalism - not unpleasant but not a must have record either.
I’ve had a few traumatic experiences with experimental music recently in both electronic music and jazz, so I approached this as you might approach a door handle that has given you a nasty static shock the last few times you’ve touched it.
I needn’t have worried too much. There’s no discord or distortion here, just considered and spread out notes that never quite add up to a melody. This is sound, nice sound, more than music. There are strings that sound like gentle feedback or the harmonious humming of machines. It’s beatless and features drones - two of the hallmarks of experimental music (Quick question: If experimental music commonly features drones and a lack of beats can it still be regarded as experimental? I’m asking for a friend)
There’s a hushed awe about its sound that doesn’t convert to similar feelings for the listener. It has a place though, clearing space for thinking and it’s not unpleasant as an ambient backing. It’s not intrusive. In a way the songs reminded me of some of the girls I met in the early days at university. They’re interesting but not lovable.
Titles such as ‘Messages On Bits Of Bone' and ‘Homage To Those Before Us’ show the seriousness hanging over the record.
The album has a single flavour running through it. I’ve chosen the shortest track as an introduction to the album. It ends with 25 seconds of silence which I’m guessing is a homage to John Cage’s ‘4’33’, his celebrated recording of silence. I’m guessing also that this is a much cleverer album than I give it credit for.
Taster Track : Homage To Those Before Us
Promises : Floating Points
This combination of ambient electronica, tenor sax and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) strings section floats by just out of reach. That makes for an infuriating listen.
First of all, who’s who. Floating Points is a 35 year old British electronic music producer, DJ, and musician. He’s also found time to earn a PhD in Neuroscience. As at the release date Pharaoh Sanders was 80 years old, a jazz saxophonist who has played with legends such as John Coltrane in his career. (Both feature in the photo alongside this review.) The LSO is 117 years old, the oldest of London's orchestras and since the 1960s, regarded as its best. (Thanks Wikipedia!) It’s an intimidating line up.
This is an infuriating record for the casual listener. It’s either a work of restrained genius or a case of Emperor’s new clothes. It’s seriously intellectual music that is different and brave but also, unfortunately worthy and…. dull. Uncut magazine has placed it at number 2 in their list of the best records of 2021 yet their original review gave it 7/10, a solid but not outstanding score. This album will split opinion.
The ambient electronica is based around a core of 7 repeated notes. They anchor the movements but become monotonous. The jazz saxophone sounds good and improvised but its meaning in the piece isn’t clear. The strings don’t appear until Movement 7. They add a lush backing but it has the effect of thinning out the rest of the album.
I can sense its cleverness and beauty but, like whale music and Bulgarian throat warbling, it does not work for me. It’s perhaps too clever. The silences at the end of Movements 8 and 9 feel calculated, not natural. In Movement 8 the music comes to an abrupt stop almost in mid note. Movement 7 ascends to a climactic crescendo but why I’m not sure.
Its restraint is what will appeal to people or turn them away. I kept waiting for something to happen that never arrived. I sense that with effort and repeated listens I could find elements to like, perhaps love. But with so much new ambient electronica, jazz and nu classical music around at any one time, where’s my incentive to return?
As ever, an alternative view may be helpful and The Guardian review may help. It’s here. Promises Review.
Taster Track : Movement 2
Colosseums : The Institutes
As recommended last week as a Member's Choice, this is a blast of huge sound that’s part Britpop, part shoegaze and part straightforward guitar rock.
The trouble with labels is that they mean different things to different people. Call this Britpop, as some reviews do, and some will expect the chirpiness of Blur, the spikiness of Elastica or the laddishness of Oasis. They won’t expect it to take itself too seriously. How could the genre that gave us Menswear - literally all image and no substance when they were signed in one of the most cynical music moves in history - be viewed otherwise?
The Institutes take themselves very seriously. The four band members share the same commitment to a musical vision and they deliver it uniformly across the album. That vision is not the simplified Britpop vision described above. It’s a second cousin from the shoegaze side of the family with blurred and muddy sounds.
To cut to the chase, there’s no space in these songs that isn’t filled with rumbling bass, thumped and clattering machine gun drumming, or squalling guitars. It’s as if the band is so equal that not one of the four members is allowed to take precedence or miss out. That’s admirable co-operative working but it means that the words that come to mind when describing it are words like ‘relentless’, ‘onslaught’ and ‘bombardment’.
There’s no subtlety or nuance allowed, no opportunities to dive for hidden depths. It’s a Pompidou Centre of a record with everything on the outside. There’s nothing to draw you in, just a force that tries to keep you away. The only way to distinguish the tracks is to take the Friends approach and call them “The One Where…. They Sing About Drugs” and so forth.
For an up and coming band it’s a solid start. The energy, volume and anguish offered here will appeal to some right away. And there’s enough ideas and promise here for the rest of us to keep an ear open for album number two.
Taster Track : All That You’ll Ever Know
I Think Of You : Julie Doiron
Julie Doiron’s album is a collection of competent indie rock that has its moments without ever suggesting it will change the world.
This brisk collection mimics a man with a list in M&S in the weeks before Christmas. Get in early. Stay focused. Get out quickly. These are songs that mean business and are played with conviction, purposefully delivered and never deviating from the template.
It’s journeywoman indie rock, the bedrock of music. You might accidentally hear it on the radio, think “that’s good” but never get around to following it up. It’s a record that’s not skewed by gender perspectives, an everyman recording.
What’s the music like? It’s good - fuzzy but not to extreme, catchy in places but not overdone, sparse in other places but not bleak. “You Gave Me The Key’ is 1990’s Teenage Fanclub, ‘Darkness To Light’ adds slide guitar to add some variety to the template.
Her voice is suited to the songs. It has an appealing quavery croakiness in places. And if that sounds a little frog like, it comes across as a sign that she’s given the songs her all.
The album is probably 3-4 songs too long. ‘Ran’ begins to sound laboured, lacking the brightness of the earlier tracks, and that continues through to the end
All told though, this is an enjoyable listen.
Taster Track : You Gave Me The Key
Voices 2 : Max Richter
Max Richter may have hit on the perfect combination when collaborating with Mari Samuelson (violin), Robert Ziegler (conductor - orchestras) and Ian Burdge (Cello). The result is a mournful, peaceful and often beautiful collection of music.
This is a companion piece to Richter’s ‘Voices’ which included spoken word readings of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Without those Voices 2 is less compelling, but it stands in its own right as a gorgeous piece of music.
It’s described as Nu Classical and is simpler and less complex than full blown classical. Richter appears on Spotify playlists called Cloud Gazing, Deep Listening and Sad Classical. That may give you a better idea of what to expect.
It serves two purposes. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a moment of reckoning, when the course ahead is clear but unwelcome, helping to clear your head before taking actions that must be taken. It’s also calm, unhurried, waking up music preparing you for the day ahead. It’s hard to argue against accusations that this music can be soporific. De Quincey’s English opium eater would find much to like here.
If we were left with Richter’s piano this could be a solemn record indeed, notwithstanding the simple but unusual rhythm that adds life to ‘Origins’. We’re not though. Out of the drone that quietly begins ‘Psychogeography’ comes the ebb and flow of repeated strings. The scarcely heard dogs barking in ‘Little Requiems’ and the wind in the background of ‘Mercy Duet’ are little touches that have a big impact, lodging the tunes in the real world.
Ian Burdge’s cello is made for Richter’s music, mournful and serious but full of barely suppressed emotion. The highlight though is the combination of Mari Samuelson’s tear welling violin alongside the stately piano on ‘Prelude 2’ to create something that is achingly beautiful and peaceful.
This is serious stuff, but give it a chance to work on you and it can become a magical experience.
Taster Track : Prelude 2
Mainly Gestalt Pornography : Pearly Gate Music.
Pearly Gate Music aims to go deep in a Dylanesque way but ends up becalmed in the space between impenetrable and dull.
Pearly Gate Music is the performing name of Zach Tillman. Zach is the brother of Josh Tillman who performs as Father John Misty, and was the protegee of the late Richard Swift. By reputation that’s like leaving Mowgli to grow up under the sole influence of Baloo and King Louis.
Zach shares with Misty and Swift the talent to create the perfect elements of a killer song, but put them together in a way that fails to satisfy and ultimately turns off the listener. As the latter two have shown in songs such as ‘Mr Tillman’ and ‘Losing Sleep’, when it comes together it creates some of the finest music around. So there’s hope yet.
There’s always been a market for a musical sage to show us who we are and what the world is really like. In different ways Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman have filled the role. Pearly Gate Music is a pretender to that throne. His lyrics aim to go deep but, like the symbolism on the cover, I’m not at all sure what it all means particularly on a track such as ‘Chiron’s Bow.’ Just as golf is sometimes described as a good walk spoiled, here the lyrics detract from a good tune and pleasant rhythm.
Unlike the cover, there’s little colour in the music. There’s no arc to the songs which travel along a straight unwavering road until they stop. As his predecessors have shown, a good tune, a snappy rhythm and a surprising rhyme all help to get across what you are trying to say. ‘If Life Is A Dream’ comes closest, mainly through its surprising reminder of Mud’s ‘Lonely This Christmas’ in the tune.
What truly infuriates about this record is that it could so easily have balanced the desire to make truths known with music that holds your interest and invites you to stay. It’s by no means a bad album and it will have its fans, but if pop in its broadest form is the medium, the message needs to speak in the same language.
There aren’t many reviews of this album out there, but Mojo Review is the brief description that led me to listen to it.
Taster Track : If Life Is A Dream