Aaron Lee Tasjan, Andrew Wasylyk, Kate Rusby, Meow Meow, Oh! You Pretty Things : Glam Queens and Street Urchins Compilation, The Paper Kites, Paul McCartney, Smith and Burrows
This Week's Music
Spring is officially in the air, and possibly in our step too. Musically there are stirrings afoot that suggest a brighter time ahead, as this week's selections show.
As ever this week's playlist 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 Who provide the category headings this week.
Only Smith & Burrows Is Good Enough : Smith & Burrows
OK. The question here is, how can you take Tom Smith out of gloom ridden The Editors, and Andy Burrows out of brattish Razorlight and end up with such a sweet, upbeat buddy album as this?
It takes just 11 seconds to register you may be listening to something a bit special. That's when the piano kicks in on opening track ‘All The Best Moves’ This is the resurgent sound of Spring, the feeling of escape from lockdown hibernation.The pacy, tumbling lyrics are like gambolling lambs. It’s also a record that renews and restores your faith in the power of pop.
These songs are about the importance of taking time out and of shrugging off the cares of your world. It’s walking down ‘Parliament Hill’ at six in the morning and remembering to ‘put a little heart in this somehow.’
The album is mainly acoustic, with multi part, multi layered songs that are chock full of rhythmic, clever wordplay. “I was the worst, I was the best, I was the best of the worst and the rest’ comes from ‘Aimee Move On’. There’s a deeply traditional feel to several of these songs. ‘Bottle Tops’ is almost a round. There are steel drums tucked away in the corner of ‘Buccaneer Rum Jam’, not obtrusive but just enough to hint at summer on its way. A little weirdly, ‘Straight Like A Mohican’ could have been lifted from the more energetic moments of the musical Hamilton. ‘Old TV Shows’ is overflowing with singalong moments awakening that longing for a festival experience, lost in a crowd with energy fuelled by nothing more than happiness.
This is simply a glorious record leading to surges of pure joy. We all need that right now.
Taster Track : All The Best Moves
You Better You Bet
Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! : Aaron Lee Tasjan
Once upon a time, all records that were hoping to reach out to a mass audience attempted to sound like this. It’s a masterclass in writing quality chart pop, 35 years after it was needed.
This record takes me back to a time with little responsibility, and nothing to do in a student flat on a wet Sunday afternoon. It’s the kind of record to save the day before the next meeting in the communal kitchen.
The opening tracks ‘Sunday Women’ and ‘Computer Of Love’ set out its stall from the word go. It’s appeal is immediate and undemanding, with hooks oozing from it like cream from an overfilled chocolate eclair. It’s the kind of album that bands that had paid their dues made if they, and the record company, realised that what they wanted and needed was a commercially successful break out album. It doesn’t feel like a sell out though. On the contrary it feels as if a natural effervescence and love of pop has been allowed to have its moment in the spotlight. It’s a triumph for songwriting, melody and production values that allow these to flourish without swamping them in tricksy effects. His voice is warm, friendly and highly appealing.
‘Don’t Overthink Me’ contains good advice for listening to this album. ‘Feminine Walk’ is open about its retro 80s influences but suitably updated for today. ‘Another Lonely Day’ is a prettier song, showcasing his soft way with a guitar. ‘Up All Night’, ‘Now You Know’ and pretty much any of the other tracks could be from 10CC’s classic singles period. There’s also something of the Beatles here - not in the sound necessarily, but in the way the quality holds up across the whole album.
It is, first and foremost, a terrific pop album.
Taster Track : Sunday Women
Fugitive Light and Themes of Consolation : Andrew Wasylyk
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. This record is evidence that you should not judge an album by it’s cold, grey sleeve.
This is a lovely album of instrumentals. The title prepares you for something serious and sombre. What lies within though is warm and life affirming. It feels like a healing collection, full of dawning potential and positive opportunities. Track 7 would make for a more appropriate album title, ‘Awoke In The Early Days Of A Better World’.
It’s hard to explain how it achieves this. There’s often a lot going on - piano, bass, a touch of ambient sound, woodwind, beautifully arranged strings and little touches of electronica. The effect comes from the interplay between them. Nothing is jostling for attention. Every instrument, every element is free to roam where it will. It’s like jazz in that respect, but gently controlled jazz as if it were being shepherded to a conclusion by an unseen sheep dog. ‘The Violet Hour’ is a lovely tune, grounded by a piano motif that does not rely on being ever present or even unchanging. It’s there, comfortably in its place.
There’s a touch of the art gallery about it, but it’s a gallery filled with light, space, colour and smooth lines. It’s chilled but not enervating; pop but without conventional pop structures such as verse, middle eight and repeated refrain. From the onset of the opening track ‘A Further Look At Loss’ it never feels like hard work. ‘Last Sunbeams Of Childhood’ sounds a little abstract. Listen carefully and you can pick up the faint sound of contented children in the background.
All told, this is music that seems to be floating by, allowing you to reach out and grab anything that appeals. Your hands will be full by the end.
Taster Track : The Violet Hour
Hand Me Down : Kate Rusby
Kate Rusby takes folk away from elitists and corporations and gives it back to ordinary men and women.
She's sometimes known as the ‘Barnsley Nightingale’ and her attractive broad Yorkshire accent comes through in places. This is one way that she mutates transatlantic pop hits into something more personal. Take her version of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colours’. It’s immediately familiar, but like a London bus seen in a country village. The melody is the same. The guitar work is fetchingly simplified. From Rusby’s lips though, the way that she sings “And that’s why I love ya” changes its character from a big film soundtrack moment to an at home slideshow. ‘Manic Monday’ shows that folk doesn’t do epic. It doesn’t do stadium arenas. The covers remain true to the original but they’re more homely, smaller scale and more human.
Of course, a covers album is as much about the choices made as it is about the delivery. Rusby dips into the American country pop rock songbook to cover songs from James Taylor and Lyle Lovett. Neither are particularly fashionable or even known at the moment so she’s not going for cheap wins here. Anyone remember the ‘Connie’ TV series from the 80s? Me neither. It was a soap set in the East Midlands garment industry.The fact that it’s included here is another way in which the album drills down to the level of domestic communities. ‘Three Little Birds’ received the same treatment. Jamaican pop translated into and for Yorkshire folk. It’s some skill.
If there’s a criticism it’s that the songs stick to the same template throughout the record, with only ‘Love of the Common People’, and stand out cover ‘Shake It Off’ offering something a little more energetic. ‘Shake It Off ‘is a triumph. The banjo captures the dance beat of Taylor Swift’s original without becoming a novelty record. And as this is Yorkshire through and through she loses the mid song rap. Good decision!
They’re songs brimful of misty mornings and birdsong, across the fields from the local estate. It's a lovely record, reclaiming songs for the hearth and village hall.
Taster Track : Shake It Off
Hotel Amour : Meow Meow
Anyone familiar with Meow Meow as a provocative, occasionally degenerate performer, or with Thomas Lauderdale’s day job with multi-cultural big band act ‘Pink Martini’ may be in for a surprise with this record.
This collection of songs strips away the surface veneer of performance to explore in an understated way the loneliness and emptiness that lies beneath. For the most part it’s a subdued affair, with Thomas Lauderdale’s piano the main instrumental force, supplemented by 1920s / 1930s atmosphere. It is, at heart , a cabaret album of torch songs; a musical of sorts but much more Stephen Sondheim than Andrew Lloyd Webber. It’s a collection that creates its own musical world ,one that is neither camp nor arch, and remains true to it throughout.
Five of the songs are in French or German. Despairing love has never sounded so exotically seductive. Take the titles, which in translation include ‘Without You’, ‘Hello Sadness’ and ‘What’s The Point Of Love?’ Meow Meow’s vocals are sultry, sad and vulnerable. Thomas Lauderdale’s arrangements add little touches - a rasping trumpet on I’m Waiting For You To Come Back’, the sounds of breaking and shattering on Die Blaue Stunde ll’ - that add significantly to the atmosphere.
The tone shifts occasionally. ‘Mausi, Suss Warst Du Heute Nacht’ is a sleazy, period show tune duet with Barry Humphries. An uncredited duet with Rufus Wainwright sounds more upbeat, but that's simply putting a brave face on affairs of the heart. ‘A Quoi Ca Sert L’Amour’, is an Edith Piaf song. He, and the song, fit right in with the underlying mood.
There’s no denying that this is a dark, unhappy album, but it’s also a matchless and moving exploration of its subject and a stylised but worthwhile musical experience.
Taster Track : I Lost Myself (I'm Hungry...And That Ain't Right)
Roses : The Paper Kites
You might wonder what an established 5 piece band with male and female vocalists needs with additional collaborators. This album provides the answer.
This is a Paper Kites album through and through. The guests supplement the band but never swamp it. The collaborators are a mix of known and unknown female artists. They include my current all time favourite, Rosie Carney, which is a good start. The duets with collaborators make for a conversation, in a way that might seem awkward if confined within the band. They take the focus away from the band’s indie folk stylings to make it a relationship album, and a very good one at that.
‘Walk Above The City’ rests on a brooding, strummed acoustic guitar, a lovely melody, slightly ominous reverb and soothing vocals. ‘Climb On Your Tears’ follows a similar path but, don’t despair, there is variety in store. ‘Dearest’ brings a more obvious folk influence to bear but if that’s not your cup of tea ‘Steal Your Heart Away’ has hints of quietly serious bands such as The Blue Nile.
There’s definitely a suggestion of the 80’s sensitive album track to many of the songs. I mean that as a compliment.
‘Without Your Love’ has a rhythm between the singers that sounds like a prelude to something important and imminent. Julia Stone’s breathy, self aware and haunting vocals aren’t lost as the song builds to its climax. ‘Lonely’ feels similar, like a courtly dance in which the participants are equal but sizing each other up. It’s all very Jane Austen or, more likely, Bridgerton, without the costumes.
Successful collaborations need a high level of trust between the collaborators. It’s present here and it makes for a confident, grown up record. It’s an album that is immersed and lost in the relationships that it creates. The band and the collaborators sing and play to each other, not the audience. That’s its power. That’s its charm.
Taster Track : Without Your Love
McCartney lll : Paul McCartney
Like many a former heavyweight boxing champion entering the ring for one last fight, is this a record too far for McCartney?
It’s certainly an indulgent record, and one that asks for our indulgence too. McCartney’s last record, 2018’s Egypt Station, seemed to suggest that he was fighting against growing old. Twelve months of lockdown has triggered many a reflection of who we are. On McCartney lll he’s demonstrating, sometimes intentionally, often unintentionally that he is old. For many years he was held up as a pop star with the secret of eternal youth. That myth can now well and truly be laid to rest.
The most obvious indicator of that is his voice. On all but one track his vocals are tired and cracked. The falsetto on ‘Find My Way’ is croakiest I’ve heard. The peculiar impact of this record is that it deliberately doesn’t cover up what would have been regarded as flaws on any other of his albums. The aged vocals aren’t treated or softened. The lo fi rougher sound is celebrated. He’s saying “This is how I am now, not how you see me in your memory.”
It’s not always successful. ‘Lavatory Lil’ and ‘Seize The Day’ are simply throwaway songs of the kind he can compose in his sleep. There are worthier echoes of his past on tracks such as ‘Slidin’ which calls to mind Abbey Road’s ‘Oh Darling’ or Venus and Mars’ bluesier moments. These tracks will always find a fan though, and everyone else can admire his defiance, and his refusal in these tracks to change.
Musically, it’s more repetitive than I’ve found his music before. Initially I heard this as a flaw, a sign of half formed ideas that made for interesting demos but little more. On closer listening though the repetition is making a similar point to some modern bands. It stops short of a drone, but adds urgency and persistence to some songs. It’s heard most clearly on the album’s centrepiece ‘Deep Deep Feeling’ which sounds a truer, more complete version of who he is now. It’s worthy of any album he’s done since his post Wings days. ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ is a fully realised instrumental showing that there’s still dexterity left in his fingers. 'Find My Way’ is also sounding fully realised.
There’s one song that places the whole album in perspective. It’s closing number ‘Winter Bird / When Winter Comes’. This is the one track where his voice sounds like his younger self. It’s an accepting, ‘let’s get on with life’ track. It’s a very clever conclusion, gently rolling back the years and imbuing the whole album with poignancy.
Back to the opening question: is it an album too far? I think not. It’s a brave conclusion, a wistfully personal album. I listened to these songs indulgently at first, with increasing sadness for what is diminished but in celebration of the glimmers that remain.
Taster Track : Deep Deep Feeling
So Sad About Us
Oh! You Pretty Things - Glam Queens and Street Urchins : Various
How you feel about this latest Cherry Red collection is likely to depend on whether you like your music as a living thing, or as a museum piece. Both have their merits.
The archivists and researchers at Cherry Red have done another excellent job trawling the catalogues, dusty record shelves and unattended bargain bins for songs that capture a bygone era. Here it’s the period 1970 - 1976 between the death of the 60s and the onset of punk. Talk to many people about this period, or look at history books covering that time and you’ll quickly sense that it’s not fondly regarded. How does the music on this album stack up?
Well. it’s as confused as life sometimes felt at the time. Of all the Cherry Red compilations I’ve heard, it’s the least defined. The difficulty is captured in the title. Glam Queens and Street Urchins were unlikely to meet in real life. The result is that there’s a whole mish mash of sounds and styles.
First you have the chart acts to lend commercial appeal to the collection. These include Slade, Sweet, ELO, Mott The Hoople, Sparks, Roxy Music and Ian Hunter. It’s not always their best, most representative or rarest songs though Sweet’s The Six Teens’ and Mott The Hoople’s ‘Saturday Gigs’ are underrated highlights from both bands.
Next you have the theatrical performers such as Bryan Ferry and Leo Sayer. Ferry is mannered and stylised in the extreme; Sayer puts in a commendable turn far removed from his later disco ballads. ‘The Dancer’ from his first album is included here and it deserves to be much better known. David Bowie isn’t represented but his patronage is evident in the inclusion of Lou Reed and Iggy and the Stooges. His songs are represented too in the more mainstream versions of ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ and ‘Andy Warhol’ - a weaker version of the former from Simon Turner but a strong more accessible version of the latter from Dana Gillespie.
There are a few out and out rockers who cannot decide if they want to be heavy metal (Blackfoot Sue,) lad rock (too many to mention) or simply famous, like Thin Lizzy with their creditable glam rock effort ‘Little Darling’.
There’s a handful of acts that are simply oddities and defy easy categorisation and there is a mercifully small group of bands who latch on to and misjudge the sleaze element of glam. Lesson number one is that, whatever the image the songs that back it up must be good. The Trogg’s ‘Strange Movies’ is a dirty old man homage to porn. I can do without ever hearing that again. And The Heavy Metal Kids’ ‘Here Come The Cops’, with its spoken word depiction of decapitation is simply horrible.
There are two further reasons why this compilation feels less successful than most. Although the excellent sleeve notes make a stab at drawing a line from these bands to the present day, it’s ultimately unsuccessful. We know that any evolution that brings a new form into being also leads to widespread extinctions. That was the fate for many of the bands and musical styles here. That diminishes its relevance. It’s a curio for cultural historians rather than a living, breathing and engaging work of pop.
And finally, you can’t escape the realisation that by today’s standards much of this output feels uncomfortably inappropriate today. To give a mild example, Ian Hunter’s ‘Once Bitten Twice Shy’ is an excellent slice of rock and roll. If only someone would rewrite the lyrics, and I don’t mean bleep out or fade the rawer lyrics but start anew. There are risks, of course there are, in listening to music of the 70s through 21st century ears and with 21st century sensibilities. But the fact that some songs sound wrong now doesn’t mean that they weren’t wrong then. And that hinders our celebration of the past in a way that it doesn’t with Cherry Red’s ska, pub rock or electronic synth pop collections.
Taster Track : The Dancer - Leo Sayer
Won't Get Fooled Again
......Unless I have been already!