Anton Witter, Belle and Sebastian, Gabrielle Aplin, Rachael Dadd, Ramzi, The Shop Window, Vieux Farka Toure and Khruangbin
If You Listen To One Thing This Week, Listen To.....
Mahine Me : Vieux Farka Toure and Khruangbin
This is a great example of how pop can merge and evolve. Joyful African music meets woozy down tempo, end of the night wooziness and both elements are enhanced as a result. This is colourful, vibrant and alive, a warm delight of a record full of lazy evening African sunshine, and teasing interplay between good friends.
Late Developers : Belle and Sebastian
With their second album in six months, there’s no sign that the quality of Belle and Sebastian’s joyful pop is diminishing. This is the third of a three record purple patch to rank with the best.
‘Late Developers’ is an album that is full of the sweetest nostalgia - for both your memories and the sounds of the past. It has you longing for the sweet anticipation of a Tuesday lunchtime Top Thirty rundown, and for the heady excitement of a TOTP likely to feature your favourite bands. More than ever, this has a naive, unrivalled optimism that hasn’t always been there but is gorgeous beyond belief.
Live, Stuart Murdoch has a messianic status amongst fans. I’ve seen him passed over the crowd at the Albert Hall, rapture written on his face and the faces of his fans. On this album though he continues the practice of letting his band apostles take on more of the responsibility. Belle and Sebastian are big enough to rotate lead vocal duties, and to incorporate duets into their songs. That gives them an unrivalled capacity to present different perspectives..
What’s surprising about this album is the range of styles they’ve adopted without losing the essence of Belle and Sebastian. Opening track ‘Juliet Naked’ is as lo fi as I’ve ever heard from a big name band. The title phrasing of ‘Will I Tell You A Secret’ gives you a clue that they’ve not abandoned their left field , slightly off kilter idiosyncrasies. I first heard ‘When We Were Very Young’ on Radio 6 and it’s one of those songs that just sounds perfect on the radio, with a wonderful chorus that calls to mind Madness at their most melancholy. ‘When You’re Not With Me’ captures the heady joy of Northern Soul, ‘I Don’t Know What You See In Me’ could rival Kylie at the disco and the Caribbean lilt of ‘Late Developers’ is a different touch to close on.
Under Murdoch’s guidance, Belle and Sebastian have become a Burt Bacharach for our times. And, as another songwriter almost put it, Belle and Sebastian may not write the songs that make the whole world sing, but they certainly give us a lot to smile about.
Belle and Sebastian’s ‘Late Developers’ is the first great album of 2023.
Taster Track : When We Were Very Young
A 4 Letter Word : The Shop Window
The Shop Window are unashamedly jangle pop, unapologetically small scale and undeniably brilliant.
They’re a four piece band from Maidstone, Kent formed by Carl Mann and Simon Oxlee with a couple of friends. Carl played occasionally with Sleeper on tour. Simon was a sometime band member for Kylie, even earning a co-write credit for one of her B sides.
I love those details and the justified pride they take from being part of the supporting cast of pop’s rich fabric, the equivalent of an unnamed one line character in a Hollywood blockbuster. It sums up their endearing and, hopefully, enduring appeal. These are men that enjoy the same music I love and have the talent and wherewithal to keep it alive. I give thanks for that.
This is music that is the opposite of epic. They are the shop window, not the window on the world. It brings people together rather than elevating egos. If you visualise them playing this, they will be playing to a small festival on a hot sunny afternoon. It drips with optimism and positivity. There is no jangle pop song that I know that encourages you to wallow in self pity. These songs are a good mood generator.
They’ve not reinvented anything here. Sixty (!) years ago the Beatles, the Byrds and others helped to introduce jangle pop to the world. Thirty years ago, a revival took jangle pop towards the dance floor and to any field with an E fuelled rave underway. Another thirty years on and, perhaps the 2020s are suddenly looking up musically.
‘Lay of the Land’, ‘Dancing Light’, ‘Circles Go Round’ and ‘Maid of Stone’ are just some of the songs where you'll find dreamy blissed out melodies and feel the love. These are three and four minute slices of unimprovable pop highlighting once again the power of a proper chorus to launch a song into something memorable and special.
Three weeks into January and in ‘Eyes Wide Shut, they have produced a contender for my song of the year. It contains all their melodic, ear catching strengths. With about a minute of the song left the chorus evolves into a blossoming, blooming slow build, before swapping to choppy indie guitar, mutating again into some lightly psychedelic wah wah guitar before returning to a fading chorus. It’s perfect.
The Shop Window - comfort pop of the highest order.
Taster Track : Eyes Wide Shut
.... And The Rest
Notes from a Dreamstate : Anton Witter
In more than one way, this is an uncanny representation of the synth pop music of 1984, and it’s very well done.
It’s funny how 1984 remains a shorthand term for a harsh, cruel future society even though it’s nearly 40 years behind us. 1984 is also the year that Frankie Goes to Hollywood scored the top two best selling singles of the year with ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’. Both these songs worked as pop, but also contained a dark and foreboding underbelly.
Whilst sounding nothing like Frankie, Witter has captured the Orwellian mood perfectly. The cover shows a world of concrete set against the colour of a burning sky. It’s the soundtrack to a near future state. If this is a dreamstate, it’s one that will leave you with a vague feeling of unease on waking.
The music may be light and bubbly on the surface, but underneath it throbs and pulses with genuine menace. ‘Home’, usually a bastion of safety and comfort, opens with the sound of a heavy and stormy sea before the tune is pierced with the urgent sound of a morse code distress call. ‘Overland’ may be softened by its synthetic strings but it still ends with the sound of a police helicopter or military drone circling overhead. ‘Ocean Blue’ is the only tune that keeps it light, starting with a huge but calming sea presence before slipping into the bouncing surf of a day at the beach. It’s an image, though, of escape from the here and now to faraway places.
The album feels deliberate, not free flowing. Everything is locked into place, programmed as the incidental soundtrack of this future state. The tracks progress inexorably from note to inevitable note. Look back to the synth pop of 1984 and this is much closer to Gary Numan than Howard Jones!
This is one of the most impersonal records I’ve heard in a while. That doesn’t make it a bad one. Every touch on this album is perfectly judged. Anything that makes you feel something is of value, even if those feelings are of unease, alienation and suppressed fear. And it’s important to say they work because they are suppressed feelings, not not because they hog the surface.
On its own terms this is a highly successful album.
Taster Track : Overland
Phosphorescent : Gabrielle Aplin
This is an album of good songwriting that, nevertheless, fails to ignite the senses.
Gabrielle broke through to mass acclaim when she sang the John Lewis Christmas song in 2012 - a cover of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘The Power of Love’. This album is largely dedicated to exploring the frustrations, turmoil and regrets that can be triggered by that power.
They say write about what you know, and Gabrielle pours her life out into her songs. She sings of decisions she’s quickly regretted, drunken emails sent at 3AM, even her TV choices (David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’ if you're interested). She can dress these up in tunes that call to mind an older S Club 7 (‘Anyway’) but she can’t escape the feeling that she’s written a soundtrack for a 30 something soap opera.
She speaks to her generation. These are songs for those who see their last chance of a meaningful relationship coming up on the horizon. They’re songs dressed in impatience and quiet desperation with an undercurrent of panic beginning to grow.
John Lewis (other middle class retailers are available) is a good touchstone for her songs. They’re luxurious and inviting, showing attention to detail but ultimately safe. To be fair, she includes the odd ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ in her lyrics and sounds authentic with it. I realise that slightly undermines the John Lewis comparison. In my experience their staff avoid curses and profanities even under the most stressful circumstances.
‘Phosphorescent’ is a good title too. The songs bring light to emotional turmoil, but not the warmth to draw others to listen to them.
This is music for Radio 2, and it is done well. Her voice is appealing, has a good range and is always listenable. She includes the necessary ‘oohs’ and aahs’ to enhance that white soul sound. You could trace her musical influences back to Christine McVie and Joni Mitchell, although she’s a paler version of both.
She has more than 3 million monthly listeners on Spotify. That’s a lot of people who potentially relate to her life choices and issues. It’s not for me, but I suspect it’s not intended to be.
Taster Track : Anyhow
Kaleidoscope : Rachael Dadd
Rachael Dadd’s album is a musical treat, even if you’re not drawn to her brand of wide screen folk.
Rachael has a lovely voice, one that balances the traditional folk sound with an infusion of wonder that adds a dreamlike and reverent quality to the songs. She sings about everything around her from the newly fallen white snow, to the galaxy above via rivers and the moon. As you can see, this is not vested in a small community centred around the blacksmith’s cottage. There are strong folk influences to be heard in songs such as ‘Ox’ or ‘Ghost’ but they are not allowed to swamp and dominate the songs.
It’s Wikipedia that described her music as lo-fi and ‘folk’. I’d say it’s better described as acoustic, a simple description that isn’t pinned down by genre. There’s a lot going on here. Far from being lo-fi it’s almost orchestral in sound, scope and aspiration.
The piano takes a bigger role than you might expect. It’s hard to imagine the folk minstrel wandering from village to village with a piano strapped to his mule, so that’s another element that defies the conventions of traditional folk.
This is a highly musical album. That may sound odd, but it means that it’s less concerned with messages or encouraging you to dance or exciting the senses in flashy, neon ways. Its musicality comes through in the precise care and evident love that’s invested in each song.
‘Kaleidoscope’ is a good name for this intriguing and interesting album. The power of its attraction changes within and between each song as if there has been another turn of the kaleidoscope's dial. No sooner might you begin to have doubts that it is for you, then something new and unexpected turns up in the mix. The unheralded inclusion of brief runs down the keyboard in the background of ‘Ghost’, the insistent bass line that underpins both ‘Children of the Galaxy’ and ‘Footsteps’ and the change to a direct pace that brings ‘Join The Dots’ to an end are all well done and welcome.
In the end, what strikes most about this album is the high quality that oozes from every note and every element. That’s not something you can honestly say of many albums.
Taster Track : Footsteps
Hyphea : Ramzi
This is electronic dance music for the last man and woman standing. It hits the sweet spot too.
You will require fully attentive listening if you’re to enjoy this music. Beneath the surface there’s a lot of detail bubbling away, like an experiment running overnight in a chemical laboratory. It’s multi-layered and richly textured. Take ‘Chantilli’ which has eastern and desert influences running alongside its deep bass notes. Elsewhere there are sampled field vocals, flute and any number of bleeps and glitches.
It’s by no means an abstract piece though. ‘Mille et Une Nuit’ is not alone in its three note bass groove. This is music that is neither in your face nor faffing around. The beats skitter here and patter there. There’s a rhythm underpinning each track that allows for a gentle warm down after a full on night. You should dance to this as the club begins to empty, and most of those that remain are slumped at tables.
At the same time this is music you can listen to, while lying down. That’s not because it nudges you towards sleep but because it’s music that sounds better if you make yourself comfortable.
Highlights for me were ‘Mille et Une Nuit’, ‘Egregores’ and ‘Fly To Me’ but once you’ve settled you into its vibe, you can enjoy and drift along to the whole album.
Taster Track : Fly To Me
Ali : Vieux Farka Toure and Khruangbin
This collaboration between Mali guitarist Toure and dub soul trio Khruangbin works surprisingly well - well enough to feature in a number of 2022 Year end lists.
On the face of it, mixing Toure’s lightly tripping African guitar sound with the woozy, stoned deep bass sound of Khruangbin sounds like a mismatch of messy confusion, a clash of two styles that simply refuse to gel. In practice it’s a blind date that turns into something special. The trancey bass slows down and softens Toure’s guitar which in turn lightens the dense Khruangbin sound. It’s like adding yogurt to an over spiced curry. You wouldn’t want a plate full of either, but together they bring out the best in each other.
More than most musical genres, African music pulls you back in time. It feels as if it remains closely attached to its heritage. At the same time it’s evolved into something contemporary to appeal to present day audiences. That’s mainly the result of respect. The album is a tribute to Toure’s father who died in 2009 but there is also respect for their past, respect for the music and respect for each party’s contribution to the record.
The music is repetitive, circling around itself in cycle after cycle. The repetition locks you into a groove. ‘Tongo Barre’ even swings. ‘Savanne’s beat has the steady propulsion of a train as it wends its way across the Savanna watched quietly by giraffe, hippopotamus, zebra and gnu too.
One of the features of African guitar music is a distinctive but odd tuning. It’s the sound you hear through Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ or Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Buffalo Girls’. The guitar echoes the blues and, in ‘Tamalid’ it acquires a disconcerting sense of the bagpipes.
This isn’t an exercise in musical anthropology. It’s more colourful, vibrant and alive than that. It’s a warm delight of a record full of lazy evening African sunshine, and teasing interplay between good friends.
Taster Track : Mahine Me
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