Courtney Marie Andrews, KT Tunstall, Leftfield, Pale Blue Eyes, Ricky Ross, Shilpa Ray, Ted Barnes
If You Listen To One Thing This Week, Listen To.....
Globe by Pale Blue Eyes
It's been a while since a record has so comprehensively time travelled back to the glory days of synth pop. That's not to say that this sounds stale. Far from it, this recaptures the heady euphoria of the early to mid 80s, calling up influences from New Order, A-Ha and OMD. It's a joy and not to be missed.
Souvenirs : Pale Blue Eyes
Oh, I loved this trip back in time to the sound of 80s synth pop when it was fresh, shiny and new. Happy days, and they’re here again.
Indulge me, please, as I think back to 1980. I was a student and just beginning to work on the student paper. The job a lot of people coveted - sadly, never mine - was to edit the Rock pages. A simple telephone call to a record company and, each week, a package of new albums and singles would arrive in the newspaper office. Later you'd be back in someone’s digs, sitting on the floor listening to those records as you drank too much, smoked too widely, and consumed too many chips. Those records soundtracked what were probably some of the happiest days of your life.
And then Pale Blue Eyes come along and pull back the curtain, triggering memories and recapturing feelings from those days. As they sing on ‘Globe’ the effect is to transport you to somewhere “between real life and dreams” and it’s a happy and welcome experience.
There’s a slowly growing cadre of synth pop acts - Nation Of Language, Au Suisse and now Pale Blue Eyes - that don’t yet amount to a movement but might be the vanguard for one. That’s the best time to catch them, while the music is fresh but not diluted for mass appeal.
Pale Blue Eyes create a dreamy, woozy place. Their prime purpose is to entertain rather than emote. This is a splash of classic synth pop with the energy, momentum, great tunes and a lightness that would have made them certain covers for Smash Hits. There are two or three good tunes in every song
This is the music you would expect if you locked early New Order, A-Ha and OMD into a recording studio for a few weeks. Listening to it is like catching a wave that takes you further than you thought possible. The songs are perfectly constructed. Even the 7’22” of ‘Dr Pong’ doesn’t drag, but accelerates gently until it finds the perfect place to stop.
This is pop, pure and simple. Very good pop.
Taster Track : Globe
.... And The Rest
Loose Future : Courtney Marie Andrews
This is neither country, folk, nor country folk but it contains elements of each, blending them into an affecting mix of mature concerns and classic songwriting.
It’s an unusual record in many ways. As you think it’s beginning to wander down a country route, signposted Long Suffering Complaint About Her Man and leading to a song like ‘You Do What You Want, it slips into a more self reflective route marked ‘Trying Not To Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth’ on ‘Change My Mind’.
It’s an album that has a lot to offer, but it has to work hard to make it evident. Fortunately she has a number of tricks in her back pocket to lift the album out of the ordinary.
Initially her voice comes across as thin and strained. There’s a hint of a whine underneath it, but she moderates it into something that adds to the songs. She uses backing vocals to great effect. They call to mind the whistle of a far off train on ‘Older Now’. She may have a second career an a bird and animal impressionist if the bird like trills on ‘Satellite’ and the dog like yelps on ‘Thinkin’ On You’ are anything to go by. She uses her music nicely too, particularly on ‘Satellite’ where it reinforces the satellite experience.
Ultimately, her songs succeed in breaking away from typecasting genres. She may be a country voice singing American folk songs but she’s also much more than that. She’s personal in a reflective way and her songs are all the better for it.
Taster Track : Older Now
Nut : KT Tunstall
KT Tunstall blends classic singer songwriter Radio 2 rock with a more intriguing and interesting folktronica on her new album.
Since exploding on the music scene with the rhythmic and strangely titled ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’, KT Tunstall has been slightly outside the mainstream, not quite following the expected paths. As a result, she’s never been totally fashionable but she’s often been rather good.
This album offers her the chance to make a transition because it falls into two camps. She rocks, and having seen her live earlier this year that’s not the result of her production team’s efforts it’s built into her. Without the live buzz though, the rockier songs sound, not bad, but not special either. ‘Out Of Touch’ opens the album. It doesn’t quite cut the chorus, and the drums are over complicated and frantically busy. It feels as if she’s trying too hard.
The second camp is the quieter, folktronica side, strong on atmosphere but retaining gentle, hummable melodies. I love these songs like ‘I Am The Pilot’, ‘Three’ and ‘Synapse’. They wash around you, over you and into you.
It sounds as if she is on the verge of transitioning from a rockier sound to a Beth Orton inspired airier sound. These quieter songs feel tucked away on the album, but they are worth your time and attention. Like a faltering, novice ice skater, she’s willing to let go of the rock rail but not for long enough to build up momentum and let the quieter songs glide across the whole album.
A quick digression is in order to consider the ‘hidden track’ phenomenon in a streaming age. KT has included ‘Brain In A Jar’ as a hidden track. That makes no sense. It’s a relic from the days when CDs ruled your pocket. ‘Brain In A Jar’ is a short song. There’s nothing wrong with it but I can see why she hasn’t built the album around it. Calling it a hidden track though, when Spotify takes you seamlessly into it, is a bit odd. Rather than appearing as a bonus gift you’re offering the listener, it sounds as if you’re ashamed and hiding it away like an undesirable relative.
Back to the album, it’s a solid 7/10 record with at least three very good tracks. That makes it well worth a listen in anyone's book.
Taster Track : Three
This Is What We Do : Leftfield
The Godfathers of 90s electronica, well one of them anyway, release their latest album of dark music. It matches the heights of their glory days.
They used to be a duo but Neil Barnes is all that’s left of Leftfield in its original form. The brooding menace of their early days remains intact. It’s dark electronica, full of threat - the music we’ll hear in the aftermath of a long struggle for dominance between humans and machines where the machines end up victorious.
This is an exciting album, exciting like the thrill of a bleeping amusement arcade to a child, or a shoot ’em up computer game. It’s music for a near future film noir without many soft edges.
Leftfield grow their music from beats and synth effects. It follows a clear path of pulse / rhythm / beats / repeat, but within that finds variety and interest aplenty. The songs build through repetition, insistently burrowing their way into your consciousness.
Often, acts that have returned after a long break are returning sheepishly to what they do best, but sound like a shadow or an echo of their glory days. That’s not Leftfield. They’ve not lost what made them great in the first place. Compare them to their original peers such as the Chemical Brothers or Fatboy Slim and you can hear that Fatboy and the Brothers start from a place of colour, moving through the full range of the spectrum. Leftfield’s music comes more from the dark, brutally illuminated by flashes of light.
Leftfield have always secured the right collaborators for their songs. It’s hard to forget Johnny Rotten’s snarl on ‘Open Up’ and here, Fontaines DC singer Grian Chatton adds exactly the right tone to ‘Full Way Round’.
You can’t hide from the fact that this is machine driven music. Something about it brings out intelligence and cleverness. It’s music for the head rather than the heart or feet. That doesn’t prevent it occasionally reaching into something more celebratory and even gentle. ‘City Of Synths’ and ‘Machines Like Me’ are evidence of that.
If I'm honest, I prefer my electronic music a little warmer and melodic, but this is what it is and it’s an excellent version of it.
Taster Track : Machines Like Me
Short Stories Vol. 2 : Ricky Ross
Forget what you remember of Ricky Ross’ pop past with Deacon Blue. This is stripped back, autobiographical song writing at its most intimate.
It poses a problem for the reviewer. There is, literally, very little to write about. There’s generally a solo piano, some added string backing and Ross’s voice. On the few tracks such as ‘The Foundations’ or ‘Spanish Shoes’ the presence of acoustic guitar and backing vocals is intrusive and barely acknowledged.
These are stripped back, emotionally naked versions of Deacon Blue and Ross himself. They are chamber performances that bring intimacy. Ricky is engaging directly with you. He’s singing directly to you. If you weren’t there he’d sing them in the same way. You cannot get closer to him or his stories than this. I can say that with some confidence as I heard him talk about his life and music at a literary festival and it’s not the same.
This is an approach that brackets him with the likes of Springsteen at his most soul searching or Randy Newman at his least satirical and cynical. It was released in the Summer and is by no means a Christmas record but its quiet reflections and recollections are suited to this time of year.
It’s an album that will pass the test of time and a strong addition to Ross’ catalogue..
Taster Track : The New World
Portrait Of A Lady : Shilpa Ray
Explicit Content : Warning - This review contains some very rude words that may cause offence
Shilpa Ray gives us her views straight and with both barrels. She makes some exciting rock and roll along the way.
Sometimes I wonder if I play my musical choices too safe. Then I met, and enjoyed Shilpa Ray. I asked myself if I would introduce Shilpa to my mother, and concluded that would only hasten her demise. I considered if I should play this album to my wife and grandchildren and realised that to do so might just provoke interest from psychotherapists and social workers.
OK, I exaggerate but I suspect that she wouldn’t be disturbed by those eventualities.
She sets out her stall in her titles, letting you have her views with both barrels.. ‘Heteronormative Horseshit Blues’, ‘Manic Pixie Dream Cunt’, ‘Bootlickers Of The Patriarchy’ - the list goes on. She’s carried along on a shock wave of transgression.
Her songs fall into two camps. There are the quieter songs wrapped around her mocking feminist views. In these she sounds vocally like Lana Del Ray, simultaneously languid and pointed. There are also exhilarating ‘don’t give a fuck’ rock and roll numbers. ‘Manic Pixie Dream Cunt’ is a female Nick Cave in his Grinderman ‘No Pussy Blues’ persona. ‘Lawyers and Lawsuits’ is Iggy Pop on his worst behaviour, striking to the core of punk.
The difference for the audience is that you are mocked, chided and berated in the quieter numbers but even her targets will fall for the adrenaline rush of her punkier side.
Back in the 19th century Lord Byron was described as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ . Shilpa Ray could be his direct descendent, and this scathing and exhilarating album is testimony to that.
Taster Track : Lawsuits and Suicide
Portal Nou : Ted Barnes
Ted Barnes is different in a uniquely individual way. This album helps to show why.
It’s an odd and even eccentric album. From the opening track ‘Ghost In The Cupboard’ there’s an old time European feel that percolates every track. The title of the album is in Spanish. There are whispers of Hungary, France, Kent, Flanders and the flavours of rural folk life. It’s not in how it sounds, particularly. It’s in the tone and feeling of magic happening in unobserved ways.
It’s a soundtrack to one man’s imagination and as such, it’s impossible to classify. It’s a dream brought to life, and improbable connections happen in dreams all the time.
Many of the tracks are instrumental, building impressions that will vary from person to person. The vocals, whether by Barnes or his collaborators, are barely musical but they fit the record like a collar fits its dog.
Generally it’s a kind of soundtrack to a bustling, different world, the music that plays over the sepia tinged credits of BBC’s latest version of the Classics. There used to be a feature in museums and amusement arcades that was a diorama, showing a lost world in all its colour and character but in miniature. That’s what Barnes achieves here.
The album progresses from the playful innocence of the early tracks, to the pain and suffering of ‘If The Truth Hurts’. The pain isn’t allowed to last long though, and the track picks up jauntily by the end. The album is book ended by the two most accessible songs. ‘Ghosts In The Cupboard’ conjures up jolly ghosts, not to be afeared of. ‘Dreams and Hopes’ brings the album to a catchy, and brightly optimistic end, serving as a Shakespearean chorus wrapping everything up before fading away like a vivid dream.
It’s a work of art rather than a pop album, but there’s much pleasure to be had in pausing to take it in.
Taster Track : Ghosts In The Cupboard