Here's this week's review of albums I've been listening to. Some are new. Others were new to me and may be a few or even many years old.
These judgements, as all judgements, are a matter of taste. It's personal and that means they address the likes of a 59 year old, white male whose tastes were formed in the melting pot of 70s chart pop and early 80s Gary Crowley and John Peel. I've kept up with current releases though the music press, review sites and numerous friends.
There's so much new music around. Musical genres and influences merge to create new sounds. Established acts carve out a new direction. It's not possible to keep on top of everything. That's why I like to share discoveries, and I hope others will signpost towards or away from their discoveries too.
Let's face it, 'Let It Be' is not as good as 'The White Album'. 'Let It Bleed' is a better album than 'Bridges to Babylon.' That's the way it is, but sometimes from reviews you'd believe that acts simply go on getting better and better or at least plateauing at their highest level. I'll commit to seeking out the positive in everything I listen to, but I'd prefer to say "It's OK" if that's what it is.
I should say a little about how I categorise the albums here.
The 'Album of the Week' is usually, but not always, the record I've enjoyed the most. Occasionally, as it is this week, 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 is for records that I've particularly enjoyed during the week and would like to share.
'Good Job' 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' 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' 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.
A surprising amount of this week's listening was dark musically and emotionally. That's not really typical of my listening, but it's the way the stylus landed this week. I also hadn't realised until coming to write this that it's proved quite an international week with acts from France, Germany, Poland, Wales and Korea with a number singing in their native language. There's still room for some cheesy synth pop too.
Album of the Week
Voices : Max Richter
I was not prepared for this beautiful, thought provoking and very moving record.
It's background is Max Richter's concern at the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and the human rights abuses that were carried out there.The full story and the issues raised are at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guantanamo_Bay_detention_camp It's been a decade in the making but, in a time of Trump, Covid 19 and Brexit it feels as current a reminder of basic human rights as I've heard in along while. In summary, voices recite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948, against a backdrop of compositions that weave their spell at a point where classical music starts to appeal to people who don't like classical music.
That's all very interesting and worthy but this is a record, and records are there to be listened to, so does it work on those terms? I've seen it described as experimental classical, so the first thing to do is to seek out all those people who disappeared behind the sofa with a cushion to cover their ears, and reassure them that this is not discordant, difficult or inaccessible music. It's experimental in the sense of mixing the matter of fact spoken voice with deeply emotional music. It works like a dream.
Musically the tracks tend towards mournful, but try Chorale Part 4 for luscious orchestration that builds, ebbs and flows like a boat on a swelling sea and creates a sense of imminent danger that can be overcome if we act quickly. There are two taster tracks for this album because they show the impact of this. In Pt 1 Eleanor Roosevelt primly introduces the Declaration. In the second an actress, Kiki Layne, takes over, her phrasing and modulation challenging us to think about what we're in danger of allowing to happen.
It's a record that will lodge in the mind for some time to come.
Taster Track : All Human Beings Parts 1 & 2
Something To Lose : Better Person
This is a time capsule of perfect, guilty pleasure, 80s synth pop with echoes of China Crisis and even Howard Jones all over it. If you recall, for a brief period all synth pop featured fey, super sensitive souls with long dewy eyed sad stares gazing into the camera in an accompanying video. Better Person nails that attitude and persona, and he does so knowingly but never archly. There are repeating synths, light melodies and pleasant melancholic motifs throughout. It's as indulgent as hell, but who cares. Just enjoy
Taster Track : Hearts On Fire
Rough Trade Counter Culture 2020 : Various
There's one compilation that is indispensable if you want a heads up on the musical tyros of the future. It's the annual Rough Trade Counter Culture collection. It could come with two guarantees. First you will not like every track included here. Secondly you will find lots to like and some tracks and acts to love. Its strength is the breadth of genres - indie, country, rap, prog rock, electropop, singer songwriter and more. Some of these acts are so fresh that they have yet to release a full length album. They'll have something out in 2021 though. There's a special mention for the Taster Track which takes an optimistic look at Covid-19.
This compilation is available as a Spotify playlist or on vinyl / CD from Rough Trade. I'll finish this section with a list of the acts I'll be looking out for in the future.
Becca Mancari (with possibly the saddest opening line on First Time for many along year!)
Rudy De Anda
A special mention too for The Avalanches excellent 'Running Red Lights'.
Taster Track : Keep It Chill In the East Vill - Jeffrey Lewis
Best of 2019 : Pomplamoose
Here's the drill with Pomplamoose. Each month they disappear into the recording studio and record four songs, usually covers and often mashups. True, these versions are slighter than the originals but they're happy songs that never outstay their welcome. The whole project is drenched in influences from French pop. The 'Breakup Mashup' shows the creativity needed to make the idea work. Why should you invest time in listening to a group cover other people's songs? Simply because it's fun.
Taster Track : Sweet Dreams Seven Nation Army Mashup
Shadow of Fear : Cabaret Voltaire
Cabaret Voltaire has intimidated me a little since the 70s. Listening to their early industrial sound and dark atmospheres was hard work. Musically they were jagged and angular and the harsh violent tones in some of the songs made for a discomforting experience. But I'm older now, more inured to violence and horror simply by virtue of having lived a lot longer. Surely Cabaret Voltaire will have mellowed with age too?
The first words you hear are : "I did it. I killed him. By mistake." in the voice of Batman's nastier brother. That answers the mellowing question then! The possibility remains of threats from the shadows.
A closer listen reveals that the nightmarish tone is made more palatable by decent beats and cinematic melodies. Throughout, these 'songs' are more like soundscapes, an impression reinforced by the lack of sung vocals. On closing track 'What's Going On' the creepy vocals and threatening brass capture the Cabaret Voltaire statement perfectly. This is not for the faint-hearted, but there is much to savour for those who are prepared to take the risk.
Taster Track : What's Going On?
Melyn : Adwaith
Adwaith won the 2019 Welsh Music Prize with this album. It was a deserving winner. I've seen them described as post punk but that does them a disservice. The album feels like a seamless whole in part due to the track sequencing and the short gaps between songs. The songs are like still water - they're not jarring, turbulent or harsh but they run deep. I love the propulsive groove provided by bass lines on 'Lipstick Coch' and elsewhere. (If you haven't come across that word before, it means a coloured cosmetic applied to lips to change or enhance their colour. ) They've taken lots of influences from the past but melded them into something that sounds fresh and current.
The album becomes more subdued as it progresses. Closing track 'Tair' sounds like the last look around the hall before packing up.
These songs are just too good to be overlooked simply because they are sung in Welsh.
Taster Track : Lipstick Coch
Film Music 1976 - 2020 : Brian Eno
I enjoyed this album of film music but I have an observation. For the most part, it's music that is designed not to be obtrusive or even listened too in isolation. It succeeds in the film if it is able to heighten the mood of the film at any given point while remaining resolutely in the background. Can anyone remember the music that is playing when the alien bursts out of John Hurt's stomach? I thought not, and that's exactly as it should be.
I can see that the pieces may trigger memories of seeing the film, but I haven't seen any of the films featured on the album. Not even 'Trainspotting'. (Although I've heard enough about it to realise that the loveliness of Deep Blue Day probably soundtracks an interlude or dream sequence in the film.)
It's easier to get a hook into the actual songs that appear here ('Under', 'You Don't Miss your Water') which can stand on their own merits. And I can draw a sense of wonder from 'Prophecy' without knowing if it's an appropriate response. (Sudden thought - that might make a good panel game. Ask panellists to describe a scene from a film they haven't seen, purely from the music. I'd call it 'Sound Unscene' You're welcome.)
But back to the music. I feel that it's not music to listen to casually. It demands attention and concentration. That's a good thing, but in the real world it may not always be possible. Then you have something that veers dangerously close to wallpaper music.
I'd like to ponder the music more deeply, but my grandson is piloting yogurt as a finger food and it's getting messy.
Taster Track : Deep Blue Day
Nowhere Land : Karkara
I've mentioned Wax and Stamp's vinyl subscription service before. Having the choice of what you listen to taken away is liberating and throws up some very different experiences. This is a case in point.
It's loud. It's very, very loud but in a curiously refreshing way. Somewhere within this onslaught is a story of travelling to and through a fantasy land but what is registered is the sheer power of the music, which stops just short of overwhelming. The riffing is a genuinely awesome mix of Eastern melodies and sledgehammer guitar. It's thrilling, although best taken in small doses.
Karkara are French. This is about as far from typical French pop as you can get. If there's a parallel it's in King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. But, if you want to experience something similar without streaming or otherwise investing in Karkara I think the best alternative is to stand as close to Niagara Falls as you can, feeling the force of cold spray in your face, whilst musical pile drivers tuned to a major scale play alongside you.
Taster Track : Setting Sun
As Long As You Are : Future Islands
I used to think that how you feel about Future Islands was dependent on how you felt about Samuel Herring's vocals. I've never taken to them. It's as if Richard Burton had been reincarnated as a pop vocalist, mannered and perhaps over the top. But I think I've found a way to appreciate Future Islands inclusive of Samuel Herring, and in doing so revised my view of them.
The trick is, for the first few tracks, concentrate on the synth backing. They're not groundbreaking but they are attractive, reminiscent of OMD around the time of 'Forever Live And Die', or a gentler New Order. If you do this, somewhere about the mid point it all slips into focus. By 'Moonlight', Samuel Herring's voice has become at one with the music and is quite affecting. 'Born In A War', 'The Painter' and 'Waking' are other highlights in what transpires to be an enjoyable record.
Taster Track : Moonlight
Drauf Und Dran : Roedelius
And..... breath! This is the soundtrack you need after a particularly stressful day.(Or a session with Karkara!) It's mindfulness music prompting time for personal reflection. By that I don't mean it's an accompaniment to some form of meditation - although don't discount that either if it helps you to destress - but it's unhurried, stately and introspective music. This isn't music that will swamp you with melodies, but it's pretty and the actual sound of the piano is gorgeous.
There's an interesting backstory too. According to Wikipedia Hans-Joachim Roedelius was a reluctant member of the Hitler Youth and was imprisoned after the war for trying to flee from East Germany. It's a past that covers troubled times. I wondered if this music was, in some way, autobiographical and a way of making sense of a life in retrospect. That's an emotional response rather than one rooted in psychology, but it adds something to the experience.
Taster Track : Gewiß
How Can I : Pak Hye Jin
With thanks to a friend who recommended 'Like This', which is as good a piece of chilled electro as I've heard for a while. The EP from which it is taken is a bit more of a mixed bag. 'Beautiful' is rescued by a nagging tinkly motif. 'Can You' is an interesting take on confusion, with lyrics that alternate between "Can you be my babe?" and "I fucking hate you." The remainder though sound like the connecting tracks in a dance mix, not standalone tracks.
It seems to be making a performance statement and in doing so may even have created a new hybrid genre. Art Dance anyone?
Taster Track : Like This
I'll Pass. Thanks
Nope. Nothing to see here. Move along please.