Def Leppard, Depeche Mode, Gaz Coombes, Patrick Stas, Lucas Santtana, :Peter Hall, Phil Selway
The Front Runners
Strange Dance : Phil Selway
Some music is born to be taken seriously. Phil Selway’s ‘Strange Dreams’ is one such album.
Stevie Wonder sang that love’s in need of love today. He may have anticipated this album with that song because Selway is not kind in his handling of love. This is no romcom soundtrack, but an exploration of love turned bad leaving bitterness and loneliness in its wake.
You’ll be left in no doubt that Selway is concerned with the darker side of love and relationships. Look at the titles - ‘What Keeps You Awake At Night’, ‘Check For Signs Of Life’, ‘Make It Go Away’ and ‘There’ll Be Better Days’. The latter song is not one of consolation but one that accepts it as a fact once you’ve reached rock bottom.
There’s a line in ‘Make It Go Away - “it’s repelling attraction” - that can be read two ways depending on whether you see ‘repelling’ as a verb or an adjective. Both readings apply to this album. He’s in a state of mind that drives love away, but he can’t resist going over and over what’s happened.
It’s safe to say that these songs do not find Phil in his happy place. In ‘Little Things’, which opens the album the music swells at the end to suggest a dawning realisation that what he’s been singing about is a deeply rooted truth not just words to fit a song. There’s a little more appreciation of love in ‘Check For Signs Of Life’, but it’s veiled in regret, loss and a fear of being alone.
This is a record that has no comparators but it feels like it’s only possible because of his life as Radiohead’s drummer. It’s raw, challenging and disturbed music wrapped up in something softer. There are melodies in the vocal lines, and the kind of sweeping strings that accompany epic tales of doomed romance. Selway uses these to guide you into and through the more difficult passages, such as the extended outro to ‘What Keeps You Awake At Night’ which seems to comment on the preceding lyrics. It also means that, for all its challenges and disturbances, this remains an accessible album.
Although he drums with Radiohead, he isn’t drumming on this record. Not all tracks emphasise beats and rhythms but the rhythmic backings to ‘Picking Up Pieces’, ‘Salt Air’ and ‘Strange Dance’ are only possible due to his drummer’s sensitivity.
This is an album that serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of looking after love.
Taster Track : Check for Signs Of Life
The Chasing Pack
Diamond Star Halos : Def Leppard
I’ll keep it simple. This is a good Def Leppard album with more than its fair share of glam pop metal Greatest Hits.
Def Leppard may have come up through the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the 80s, but they’re as much glam rock as metal these days. In the opening three tracks - ‘Take What You Want’, ‘Kick’ and ‘Fire It Up’ - you have one of the strongest starts to a rock album I’ve heard for some time. They combine the metallic pop of late period Sweet with the spelling capabilities of Slade. (It’s possible of course that in a world of texting. ‘U Rok Me’ is perfectly acceptable grammar!)
This is an album that has no deep meaning or concept beyond an intense, concentrated mass of good time rock and roll fun. Rarely have I heard an album that is such a strong advert for their live performances. They explode into the songs as if a tightening anticipation has burst just before the first chords are struck.
It’s a painting by numbers masterclass. That’s not a criticism. It’s recognition that their fans know what they want from their music and the music delivers it with style. Every word, every beat, every note is true to Def Leppard. A song such as ‘All You Need’ is beyond criticism. It’s a cliche of a song, part Queen, part U2, part sixth form wannabe star lyrics and part the indefinable elixir that Def Leppard have made their own.
If there’s a criticism at all, it’s that the album is probably four tracks too long. Of the fifteen tracks it's hard to choose what you would leave out. The first three have to stay. The two songs with Alison Krauss need to be used. She’s a name collaborator, her work with Robert Plant giving her a kudos as essential to a rocker’s album as worn denim jeans. In the interests of balance you need to keep one of the sensitive ones, probably ‘Goodbye For Good This Time’. And I’d be loath to lose ‘Shock’ as a reminder of the Jackson / Mick Jagger crossover ‘State Of Shock.’
It was a few hours after listening to this that I realised its true value to Def Leppard fans all over the world. This album is an elixir of youth. It takes you back to your early, carefree twenties, to the fantasies you gave up to settle for a job and domesticity. It tickles any embers of recklessness and allows you to dream again in your sixties.
DEf Leppard were the lucky ones for whom the dreams came true. This is an album that once again says thank you for that good fortune.
Taster Track : Take What You Want (but it could be any of the seven listed above.)
Memento Mori : Depeche Mode
Depeche Mode return with their first record in six years. It shows they’re still at the top of their game.
Death overshadows this album. The bulk of the songs were worked up during the Covid pandemic. And in May 2022, founding member Andy Fletcher died suddenly leaving the band as a duo of Dave Gahan and Martin Gore.
The thing about duos is that it’s clearer who brings what to the music. It feels as if the Gahan / Gore axis represents bad cop / good cop, devil / angel, the grim one and the bringer of light to the music.
It’s fair to say that this is not music for a warm sunny day but, in the main, for icy darkness. Some might say, with truth and conviction, that this has been their music for many years. If Depeche mode were a film they’d be a film noir shot in black and white.
The tone can feel oppressive at times but that’s a big part of its effect. The atmosphere is set from the start. ‘My Cosmos Is Mine’ is an immediate return to their bleak universe. Ghosts haunt the songs in the titles, lyrics and music. ‘Soul With Me’ is the sound of a crooner singing to an almost empty hall just before the first lockdown. It’s imbued with the absence of people who will never return.
On this album the bleakness is personal and that gives it genuine power. There’s a couplet in ‘Before We Drown’ that is so full of desperation and any hope reduced to the tiniest flicker that it sounds stripped of the essentials that make us human.
“I’ve been thinking I can come back home
So how would that be, you and I alone?”
‘Always You’ is a song that may seem to offer reassurance that they have someone to cling to, but even then it’s an obsessive tale with its repeated refrain of “There’s always you”.
Depeche Mode are often acknowledged as staying relevant after 40 years. It’s staggering to think how far they have come from the perkiness of ‘New Song’ and ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. This album is so muscular, its synths brooding with industrial menace. To give just one example of their strengths, the building, quickening structure of ‘My Favourite Stranger’ is perfectly controlled and genuinely exciting. Their music continues to sound as if it is at the cutting edge, and will still not sound out of date ten years from now.
Forty years on, Depeche Mode remain an important band and a band that demands and deserves to be listened to intently.
Taster Track : Before We Drown
Turn The Car Around : Gaz Coombes
Gaz Coombes is an example of a lovable tyke who’s grown up into someone more serious. His music has gained and lost a little in his evolution.
Think back to the early days of Supergrass, the band with which Coombes first made his name. Now imagine the story that led from ‘I Should Coco’ to ‘Turn The Car Around.’ The songs captured the heady excitement of growing up with mates. In a way he was the Just William of Britpop, permanently and cheerfully ‘Alright’, constantly and nervously in danger of being ‘Caught By The Fuzz’. Someone had a word. They persuaded him to knuckle down. Just William went to university, learned a thing or too, came back and wrote a different kind of song.
This is an album of songs that have been crafted and worked on. They are detailed and even cryptic, full of dream-like, sometimes poetic imagery. The perfect phrase finds the perfect place in a song. Consider this example from ‘Feel Loop (Lizard Dream)’.
“The beats and the chimes of chaos”
It’s a simple line but one he can look back on with pride. It’s unimprovable and rewards the work that went into it.
His craft, though, has come at the expense of exuberance, joyous excitement and spontaneity. He’s in danger of losing the feel for melodic and catchy pop that was once his calling card.
You need to learn how to listen to this record. Study it carefully and you hear that those hooks of old are there from the start. They’re in the repeated three piece set of two notes that feeds its way through ‘Overnight Trains’. They’re in the wistful melody of ‘Turn The Car Around’ and the reassuring tones of ‘Not The Only Things’. They’re in the Simon and Garfunkel storytelling qualities of ‘Sonny The Strong’. Most obviously they’re in ‘Long Live The Strange’, an anthem to stand comfortably next to James’ ‘Sit Down’. The problem is that they’re in danger of being smothered by the demands of mature music making. At times this is music to be heard by a select few in small rooms above country pub bars, rather than blaring through the speakers of your first, tinny transistor radio.
This development is neither good nor bad but both. I’m tempted to draw a parallel between Coombs and near peers Turin Brakes. It’s not just that Coombes sounds similar to Olly Knights. Coombes has arrived at the point where Turin Brakes started. Over a similar time Turin Brakes have refined their songwriting to simplify it and highlight the essential elements that make it work, and make their songs memorable.
Once you get into tis album there’s much to like. There’s certainly no need to turn the car around, but the occasional glance in the rear view mirror wouldn’t go amiss.
Taster Track : Long Live The Strange
If Paul K’s Life Was A Movie, This Would Be The Soundtrack To His Death : Patrick Stas.
This is a strange mystery of a record, mainly electronic but calling on guitars, sax and even a music box when necessary. Strange it may be, but it’s musical and listenable too.
The mysteries start early. Who is Paul K? Google and Wikipedia aren’t much help with this. There’s a South African spiritual singer who may be the front runner, but the music does not reflect any gospel or soulful RnB. There’s a British composer and performer, but no indication as to why you may be anticipating and planning for his demise. There was also a fleeting reference to a Paul K born in Germany, but it vanished from the screen before I could read further.
Listening to this record is like being handed an unusual object and being asked to work out what it is for. It’s a record that appears to have arrived fully formed with no traces of where it came from or where it’s heading. You could describe it as the album equivalent of the Clint Eastwood ‘Man With No Name’ character. (Except, it has the longest name of any album I’ve reviewed!)
And then there is the question of whose album is it anyway? The cover credits it to Patrick Stas, but the individual trucks are variously credited to Albert et Guido, General Thi and Les Fournis, or to Paul K himself.
All this adds up to an album that has more of an arthouse feel to it than most. For the most part it’s the kind of dark, electronic post punk favoured by Cabaret Voltaire. There are the usual syncopated beats, often the sound of big bass loops but they're lit by surprisingly light melodies on top. ‘Softly He Closes Your Eyes. Good Night’ is a music box melody that gently fades, guiding you into sleep or oblivion. It’s an effective piece, unlike anything else on the album.
The most important part of this album is that it’s not noodly and abstract. It’s following a plan, even if it’s not obvious what it is. As soundtracks go, even imagined soundtracks, it’s more upfront and less background than most.
John Peel would have loved it.
Taster track : If I Die, I Die
O Paraiso : Lucas Santtana
This is Brazilian music, but not for tourists. Nevertheless it is an engaging and often delightful listen.
What do I mean by ‘not tourists’. Well, this isn’t a hackneyed collection of overused bossa nova and samba tunes destined for the untouched racks of CDs that litter gift shops in the busiest areas of town. This is more than that and it may, initially, wrongfoot the casual listener.
The title track also opens the album. In many ways it’s the opposite of traditional Brazilian music. It’s jerky, even clunky. It’s not smooth or seductive. It’s out of place as if pan pipes had suddenly appeared on a metal record or as if Vinnie Jones had suddenly appeared in Barcelona’s midfield. It might be effective but it’s also a change of direction.
This is also the first time I’ve listened to a Brazilian album and felt at a disadvantage from not understanding Portugese. Because this is an album that clearly wants to be more than a campfire singalong as night falls on a warm beach, it lacks a context if you don’t know what he’s singing about. I looked up a review which talked about the album being about nature and covering Jungian concepts. Hmm. I’m not sure that helps.
Neither does the cover version of ‘Fool On The Hill’ It starts as a pleasant duet, but there’s something alarming and disconcerting about the play out. It’s as if he’s saying you need to fear the snorklepuss without knowing why or what that looks like.
Fear not though, because inbetween, there are songs that take careful steps to something universal and wondrous. They start with the guitar on ‘What’s Life’. It has the gentle lilt of more typical Brazilian sounds and softens the harsher synths, bleeps and glitches that are laid on top of it. ‘Vamos Ficar na Terra’ is a more definite step towards something quite lovely, and the dreamy ‘Errare Humanum Est’ is even lovelier.
And therein lies a clue. This is an album for everyone. There are songs in Portuguese, French, English and even Latin. By the time we reach ‘La Biosphere’ we’re moving away from the intimate into a much bigger sound involving choirs of children. We’ve left the circle around the campfire to embrace the entire rain forest. The music tells us that whilst there are some matters that need to be attended to, there’s also a lot to celebrate. ‘Muita Pose, Pouca Yoga’ is a welcome slice of bouncy fun.
Santtana’s voice is key. Initially what strikes you is how ordinary it sounds. Then you realise that the Brazilian rhythms you were expecting are there in the vocals. His voice is the voice of a student. It’s engaging but earnest. It says “Listen to me” and you’re glad to do so.
In all the best ways this is an exotic record, one to enjoy and simply sink into.
Taster Track : Errare Humanum Est
About Last Night : Peter Hall
Peter Hall’s version of jangle pop may be a little more reflective than most, but it’s full of the elements that mark the best of its kind.
This is a brief album, barely more than an EP at 23 minutes. Into that short space of time, however, Hall compresses as many sunshine melodies, soaring harmonies and added pop magic as you will find in an album elsewhere that’s twice as long.
He has the charm and naivete of an innocent abroad. In these sugar filled songs, he’s both a wanderer in search of happiness and a wonderer in search of what the future might hold.
These songs are feather light, boosted by a large dollop of addictive Lightning Seeds pop. This may not truly satisfy you in the long term. It’s like kidding yourself that a vending machine packet of crisps and a chocolate bar can constitute a main meal. If you're in need of a quick sugar hit when energy is low though, this is the place to come.
Only in ‘Nothing Happens Now, does a more serious, greyer cloud pass fleetingly across the sunshine pop that fills the rest of the album. Elsewhere it’s the equivalent of leaving your office cubicle to eat lunch in the park on a warm, sunny day.
This is an album to turbo charge your journey towards Summer. Don’t miss it.
Taster Track : About Last Night
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