Ada Lea, Elton John, Lala Lala, Lana Del Ray, Mac McCaughan, New Build, Tim Bowness, Vivien Goldman,
Album Cover of the Week
Album cover of the week is 'Late Night Laments' from Tim Bowness. It could have been created to ensnare all those who like poring over maps, watching Through The Keyhole, or raving about displays of 70s ephemera in museums. There is so much to look at and speculate over in this cover.
This Week's Music
There's some good stuff around this week, much of it distinctive and difficult to categorise. It's not just this week, either. Now that the big record companies seem to be putting most of their money behind the Coldplays, Adeles and Ed Sheeran's of the music biz, there may be less pressure on smaller acts to conform to a corporate template. That's been my recent listening experience anyhow. Independent record labels and record shops have never been more important promoting the music that the majors leave behind.
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
One Hand On The Steering Wheel The Other Sewing A Garden : Ada Lea
Ada Lea’s album displays a love of language set to strong tunes.
You can see from the title that she loves words a little more than she loves punctuation. Does that mean she has a lot to say? I think she does, and I’m happy to listen because she is an engaging narrator. She’s a writer’s singer songwriter who lives in her imagination, rather than in a world of getting things done. She’s Hamlet in drag. There’s a recurring theme of escape from life, but little action to that end. It’s the words that give ‘Damn’ a rolling momentum that swells over the course of the song
She has a nice line in conceits. In ‘Backyard’ she’s persuading someone close, not to leave. She sings “You said the stars couldn’t leave the backyard for as long as we ask them to stay.” It’s not a lyric, more poetry set to music.
It’s a small town record with hints on ‘Saltspring’ of something more pastoral and a little folky. Given the subject matter it would be easy to make these songs sound scuzzy to add an impression of grit, but the sound here is clean and polished. She has a deep well of good tunes to draw on too, and it doesn’t run dry.
She reminds me of Cigarettes After Sex. She doesn’t sound downbeat though as her deep reflections are laced with emotion. They’re the thoughts that come to you on a long, solitary walk not the thoughts that intrude at three in the morning during a drug and alcohol come down.
In the end it’s an album that succeeds in enticing you into her world, to share her thoughts and concerns. In the end that's all you want to do.
Taster Track : Damn
Blue Banisters : Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey’s second full length album of the year is a dark affair, with brooding atmospherics and a sombre tone. It’s unlikely to cheer you up or provide the first dance at a wedding, but it’s a compelling album nevertheless.
When she debuted in 2005, one of the terms used to describe her music was ‘sad-core’. I have no idea what that term means, but if we take it at face value - songs with sadness at their heart - this album sees that sadness festering and mutating into something darker and more twisted. She wants payback for the way she has been treated. That’s how it sounds anyhow.
Singing about her demons is appropriate for Halloween, and this album is mainly an exploration of negative emotions. ‘Black Bathing Suit’ is sultry but dark. The madness suggested in the song is both off-set and boosted by tinkling music box piano.
More than anything this called to mind the unvoiced horror of Huckleberry Finn, and of the film ‘Deliverance’. There’s something ominous, suppressed and obsessive in the music, a feeling that grows as the album progresses.
Perhaps Lana Del Rey should be regarded more as a poet than a singer. She paints scenes and emotions with a muted musical backing to allow clear sight of the words. Even the brass that fills out ‘Arcadia’ is handled so quietly that it comes no closer to our ears than the mid distance. There’s just a couple of songs - ‘Dealer’ and ‘Thunder’- that stand alone with more conventional verse and chorus structures.
Uncomfortable as the record sounds, this album is extremely well done. It creeps under your skin and leaves a powerful impression, maintaining Lana Del Rey’s position as one of the must hear artists of the moment.
Taster Track : Dealer
And The Rest
The Lockdown Sessions : Elton John
Elton’s latest album of the big radio friendly tunes he’s made his own is enhanced by his collaborators to make it his best for quite a few years.
It’s a very rock star way to behave. Spend lockdown connecting with your celebrity friends to make a record. It’s a Barbara Streisand, Diana Ross thing to do. However, Elton also appears to have reinvented himself through his Apple radio station as a professional mentor and promoter of up and coming artists. He’s happy and generous enough to stretch out a hand and offer his music as a platform to promote newer and lesser known acts.
How you feel about this album depends on how you feel about Elton. It’s a personal thing for me. Elton, along with Bowie and Rod Stewart, all featured in that heady first few weeks of discovering pop back in 1973. Even their names trigger a happy nostalgia for when I was 12 years old and the charts were full of proper hit records. Whilst they drifted through different styles in the following years, they were always anchored to songs such as ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, Life On Mars, and ‘Oh No, Not My Baby’ and there was always the chance that they would produce something new that recaptured that heady and emotional time. They rarely did, although Bowie came closest in different musical styles for a few years.
Elton is both resting on his laurels here, covering all the musical styles he’s dabbled in over the years and reaching out to new generations through rappers and the latest Elton clones. He’s enjoying himself in every track. True, he crams too much into ‘Nothing Else Matters’. Elton John? Over the top? No, he couldn't be!
Some of these collaborations are predictable -. Charlie Puth ( Young Elton), Stevie Nicks ( a meeting of two members from pop’d holy canon) and Stevie Wonder (there had to be a harmonica involved somewhere). Others are a little more surprising - Gorillaz (sadly, a plodding affair), Young Thug (rappers can be friendly) and Glen Campbell (he’s dead).
What else have we learned from this? Well, Elton and rap isn’t as cringeworthy as it sounds. He can still knock the stuffing out of the young guns, as we hear in his cover of the Pet Shop Boys ‘It’s A Sin’ with Years and Years. And only the irrepressible Elton could get away with the face mask on the cover. It makes him look younger.
Highlights for me were the mash up of some of his hits on ‘Cold Heart’, the catchy ‘Chosen Family’ and the electronically infused ‘Orbit’.
Despite all the collaborators this remains, for good or ill, an Elton John album, and a good one at that.
Taster Track : Cold Heart
I Want The Door To Open : Lala Lala
Here’s a performer who’s a little different. This is an intriguing and surprising collection of attractive indie synth music.
Lala Lala is aiming to be an artistic performer and she’s making a decent fist of it. The album cover sees her dressed as one of those human statues that suddenly reaches out to touch you. That sense of surprise, or rather the anticipation of it, is central to this record. It’s not always a calming record. ‘Diver’ contains threat and panic. It is however constantly intriguing. You’re hooked because you want to hear what comes next.
The opening track, ‘Lava’ catches you unawares. It’s a heavily synthetic sound that verges towards jazz. As first impressions go it’s a strong taste to begin with. It’s followed by ‘Colour Of The Pool’ with a synth rhythm and beat that anchors the song to a better melody. After the initial shock of the new, it’s possible to start enjoying the strange beauty that characterises these songs..
The image that sticks in my mind, triggered by the music, is that of a friendly automaton moving steadily but unswervingly along her chosen musical path. I hope it takes her to new, different but equally intriguing places. Catch her now before her essence is diluted.
Taster Track : Beautiful Directions
The Sound Of Yourself : Mac McCaughan
Every now and then an album comes along that is so individual and distinctive that it doesn’t fit neatly into an existing genre. Mac McCaughan’s collection of rich and odd songs is one such album.
The album title is telling here. ‘The Sound Of Yourself’. Everyone’s sound is different, and McCaughan’s is as individual as they come. You can’t help but create a character around a voice. The strained but earnest sound of McCaughan’s voice called to mind a wizened guardian of secrets, an underling but nevertheless a protector and he’ll look like Dobby from the Harry Potter saga.
The voice roams around the spacious soundscapes on offer like a child let loose in a magical mansion. The music is full sounding, the very opposite of sparse, with aural nooks and crannies to explore. The voice approaches from an unexpected quarter, both within the song and within McCaughan himself.
The songs come from a vivid dream that doesn’t make complete sense. They’re a sound that is part rock, part psychedelia, part choral and part floaty electronica. It’s an unusual sound, not unpleasant, but strong and untethered. It takes you to a different world, not unfamiliar to you but not the world you live in either.
On the title track he asks “Do you ever get used to the sound?” We’ll see.
Taster Track : Burn A Fax
Yesterday We lived And Lost : New Build
This 2012 side project for a couple of members of Hot Chip and an engineer / composer collaborator, Tom Hopkins, is an interesting and worthy effort that doesn’t quite soar. It has its moments though.
First, let me get one slight irritation off my chest. I’m not sure why a pop album needs a track to serve as an introduction to the album. It seems to combine self importance and grandeur with a throwaway piece of music that wouldn’t otherwise make the cut. And it may be an introduction when it’s in a book, but as the opening to a substantial piece of music it’s more usually an overture!
Any side project comes with expectations. That can give the new venture a lot to live up to, but also a starting platform on which to take the music further and in new directions.. New Build makes a fair stab at retaining Hot Chip’s danceability while creating something with a poppier and more commercial feel. For a while I couldn’t shake an unsettling similarity to Duran Duran at their most self serious but, fortunately, that faded as the album went on.
Any song has a number of elements to juggle, including rhythm, beat, melody, lyrics, passion and overall sound. New Build have prioritised rhythm and beat with some added attention to serious lyrics. The issue for me is that, like the face trapped in the lemon on the album cover, they feel trapped and tied to the rhythm and beat. The songs lack the looseness to truly soar. The album plays largely like a horse running with blinkers on, rather than one running freely in a field. This is dance music aiming for the head rather than the feet or heart.
It does this consistently well, but it's not quite enough. Towards the end, we’re grateful for ‘Last Gasp’. It hints at what could have been. It’s a piano driven piece with a sweet melody that provides some welcome variety and suggests the confidence to depart from their self imposed template.
That said, this is fine at what it does. A little more ambition could have made something special though.
Taster Track : Behind The Shutter
Late Night Laments : Tim Bowness
This collection captures the musical mood, tone and atmosphere needed to accompany calm reflections during sleepless nights.
This album is a dream for people who like to scour album covers for clues to the music within. You can’t escape that the room is cluttered. The songs are not. Everything is in its place once the music starts. Scattered around the cover are books, records, newspapers, works of art. They’re all indicating a man who takes his music seriously. There are signs that prog looms large but the music here is not at all full of overblown pomp.
Tim has the TV on, but he’s not watching it. He’s reading an album cover which is a bit like listening to the pages of a book. Perhaps he’s searching for clues or answers too
This doesn’t sound like lonely music. There’s likely to be an unseen companion in the room. Either that, or he has a long stretch to reach for his cup of coffee. Maybe it’s an invitation to us, the listener. Maybe I’m reading too much into the picture. And maybe, Tim, a coffee isn’t the best drink for late at night when you’re lost in your thoughts.
Tucked down by the side of the chair is what could be a Christmas album. There’s something in his voice, a voice that is smooth and filled with wonder, that suggests he would make a great grown up Christmas record. It nagged at me that his voice was familiar. Thankfully, before it kept me awake at night, I made a link to Paddy McAloon, the singer with Prefab Sprout. (I’ve added a track to the Pop In The Real World Shadowplay playlist if you’d like to hear this for yourself.)
The cover could suggest a hoarder’s instinct. Nothing is thrown away. That might explain the inclusion of five bonus tracks. They extend the running time a little too much. Less, in this case, would be more.
The remarkable thing about the music here is its absolute evenness and consistency. It sets the benchmark high from the off, and doesn’t fall from that level. That means it’s an album to lose yourself in rather than skip to hear the highs or avoid the lows. They’re songs that are thoughtful and atmospheric, serious and deliberate. They prompt contemplation without diving into misery, sorrow or regret despite what the title might suggest. And it’s always a joy to hear an artist who has taken the time to perfect the tracks.
I’m left with the feeling that, as with the album cover, there is more to discover if you take the time to do so. And if repeated listens won’t set your pulse racing, they won’t be a hardship either.
Taster Track : The Hitman Who Missed
Next Is Now : Vivien Goldman
Vivien Goldman’s album is a genuinely alternative sound. That’s alternative in the sense that there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else but there is much that’s accessible to explore and enjoy.
Vivien Goldman’s main career has been as a music journalist for stellar publications, including the big 3 in the 70s and 80s of NME, Sounds and Melody Maker. As a musician her output has been limited, but she made a significant contribution to the voice of the startlingly different Flying Lizards in 1979. You may not remember the name but, once heard, their vocals are never forgotten. 42 years later she has released what I think is her first full solo album.
Her voice remains distinctive, but it’s no longer the icy, Siri gone rogue sound of the Flying Lizards. Now, it’s the sound of polite, middle class suburbia. Beware though, because beneath that sheen she has an attitude akin to a kryptonite drill. She points out of the album cover accusingly, and she issues a stern warning to our leaders that “I have a vote.... I have a voice” as the album closes. Nothing is off limits in her songs - if she chooses to sing about it.
As she draws on the heavy bass of dub music (‘Russian Doll’ ), the slinky groove of disco (‘My Bestie and BFF’) and the other world sensations of, say, ‘Driverless Car’ she sounds like a woman who is both out of her time and unwilling to be confined by genre. It’s a combination that demands attention and it’s hard to anticipate what might come next.
Her vocals soar quietly above the music which floats and drifts like clouds pushed across the sky. Like clouds, her songs are disconnected from the rest of the world.
It’s an intriguing and mesmerising sound and collection that invites you to listen again, dig deep and discover more.
Taster Track : ‘Home’