Meg Baird, Corntuth, ENZSO, Fergus McCreadie, Leah Weller, Lowly, Steve Mason
The Front Runners
Freedom : Leah Weller
A debut album of self written sweet and soulful pop that’s a warm breeze across the airways. What’s not to like (and who needs a famous Dad anyway?)
Leah is Paul Weller’s daughter. There it’s out in the open, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Her mother is Dee C Lee and if you’re looking for influences on this record you’re more likely to find them from her than from anything that Paul Weller has released since his Style Council days. Even then it will be the softer side of their work, not the political funk.
Connections help any artist. Of course they do. This album is produced by Steve Cradock from Ocean Colour Scene and a member of Paul Weller’s backing band. He’s done a very good job showcasing Leah’s natural talent rather than fitting her into a preconceived sound. There’s a strong feeling that this album is the product of good guidance rather than the grand plan of a corporate Svengali. This is an album that deserves to be heard and enjoyed on its own merits.
It takes just a couple of seconds of ‘Freedom’ to take you into the world of Minnie Riperton, the high pitched vocals hitting you in the ears with the purity and precision of a top of the range stylus. Later, there are echoes of Janet Kay in the same vein too. The vocals deepen as the album goes on. ‘Strength’, ‘Unity’ and ‘Reason’ are all examples and, if they lose the buoyancy of the earlier tracks, they remain warm and engaging.
‘Pale Blue Sky’ and ‘Dive In’ are perfect pop soul for lazy Summer days. ‘Wonder’ captures the big cinematic presence of Dusty Springfield. This is blue eyed or, in Leah’s case, brown eyed soul at its finest.
These songs are classic and quality pop music. They’re easy to listen to and easier to like. OK, they’re a little radio safe but they build a platform from which to take more risks in future. In interviews she’s threatened to bring her Marilyn Manson likes into play so she has plenty of ideas stacked up already.
It’s a strong start to a promising solo career, and a sure sign that the family business is in safe hands.
Taster Track : Pale Blue Sky.
Brothers & Sisters : Steve Mason
This is an excellent album, driven by rhythm and melody that challenges us to make our voices heard.
Mason is a preacher man, speaking to and for the people with stirring charisma. He’s everything from the charismatic church preacher in ‘Pieces Of Me’ to the soldier missionary of ‘No More’. He’s inciting action and uprising and has the songs to do it.
It’s an album that takes in everywhere from the deserted clubs of lockdown to the African townships of ‘No More’ and the Pakistani ecstasy of ‘Brixton Fish Fry’. Placing his songs around the world and in different cultures makes his exhortations and rallying cries universal.
This album is based on rhythm. There’s a rhythm to the beats and a rhythm in the voice and a rhythm in the handclaps of ‘Pieces of Me.’ These driving rhythms meet the repeated refrains to create something urgent. Dip into any track and you’ll hear chants persistently and insistently hammered home. “Hard, hard, hard” and “No one said it was gonna be easy”, “no more, no more, no more, no more…” from ‘No More’ and “Brothers and sisters, pump up the volume” from ‘Brothers & Sisters’. Where have I heard that call to the dancefloor before? It fits perfectly and is glorious music.
If there’s the tiniest quibble, it’s that you sometimes need respite from being exhorted. You might need a space to sit down and catch your breath. There’s one gorgeous track that allows that. It’s ‘Brixton Fish Fry’, a collaboration with Pakistani singer Javed Bashir, with gentle chants, soaring strings and ecstatic vocals. It’s probably a sequencing thing, but if it came a couple of tracks earlier it would pace the record better.
This is a stirring album, an important reminder, of the need to speak out.
Taster Track : I’m On My Way
The Chasing Pack
Letters To My Robot Son - Corntuth
This is a concept album of ambient electronica from Brooklyn. There’s a couple of things in that thumbnail summary to trouble the casual listener, but rest assured that this is a warm and lovely collection of soothing instrumentals.
Corntuth makes music using 80s computers. The non musician in me wonders why you would make a challenging process even more difficult. After all, it’s the music that counts for the listener, not the process that went into making it. Fortunately, Corntuth has made an album that stands on its own musical merits.
Writing about ambient music is like humming about books. It requires a different mindset and so does listening to it. There’s a Catch 22 at play. This is music to give you time for yourself, but you need to have time for yourself to listen to it properly, immersing yourself in its ebb and flow. It’s perfect music for early commuting or for programming into your alarm clock for a gentle wake up call.
There’s a concept at play too. These tracks, as the album title makes clear, are wordless letters to his robot son. It needs a significant feat of empathic imagination to connect the music to its bland, numerical titles.
A robot son is some way in the future but, if we assume that technology has allowed future robots an understanding of human emotions, we can begin to feel what that son will take from these letters. He will take something that is devoid of anger and negativity, something tentative but warm, loving and individual beyond words.
Back in the 21st century, good ambient music always has me thinking about floating safely through space with just the music of the Heavens for company. Corntuth achieves just that. There’s something reliable about this approach. Like zero gravity, it’s a constant. You feel that it’s not going to break down on you or take any unexpected left turns.
The pieces are repetitive and quietly hypnotic, transitioning seamlessly from one piece to the next. The longer pieces - ‘E-001’ and ‘E-007’ - are most effective, giving you the time and space to sink fully into the piece.
It’s not just sound though. There are faint echoes of conventional pop in the mix too. ‘E-001’ dragged up a few blurred memories of Japan - both the band and the country. There are a few notes of yacht rock too in ‘F-003’. I may be the only person in the universe that detects those echoes, but you will find echoes of your own too. That’s the great joy of ambient music.
This album is one to make time for, to approach with an open mind and to savour the warm textures it offers.
Taster Track : E-001
ENZSO2 - ENZSO
One of the more surprising collaborative ventures - the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the songs of pop band Split Enz - turns out to work rather well. It’s good fun too, partying if it was 1999, which it was when the album was released.
You may not remember too much about Split Enz. They had one hit single - ‘I Got You’ in 1980 - and a fair amount of daytime / drive time radio play. In New Zealand, however, they were huge, deservedly so given songs such as ‘Poor Boy’, ‘I Hope I Never’, ‘Six Months In A Leaky Boat’ and ‘Shark Attack’. They had Hadron Collider levels of energy and the beguiling charm of a puppy circus. What they didn’t have, was any sense that they had the seriousness to move beyond the restrictions of the three to four minute single.
This album changes that perception. Their songs survive the full blown orchestral treatment extremely well. The treatment here is not simply to add a few strings and draw in a classical singer for the vocals. This is the full works. ‘Pioneer’ serves as an overture to the album. Their version of ‘Six Months In A Leaky Boat’ is stripped of its lyrics. In this form it’s as close as it will get to ‘Rule Britannia’ - multi part and made for New Zealand promenaders.
The orchestral treatment turns the songs into something more. ‘Shark Attack’ is a more savage rendition of the original song, a short story in classical and theatrical form. ‘Maybe’ shows how the orchestral approach brings out life in the song in glorious technicolour.
There are two reasons why this album succeeds while imitators have parked in the lay by marked lazy sell out. First, Split Enz’s melodies were things of wonder and joys to behold. Secondly, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has a feeling for pop songs and treats them with just the right mix of seriousness and fun.
ENZSO shows more than that the songs can survive in a new setting. They show how the songs can thrive too.
Taster Track : Six Months In A Leaky Boat
Forest Floor : Fergus McCreadie
Fergus McCreadie is a Scottish jazz pianist who plays in a jazz trio of piano, bass and percussion. He was nominated for a 2022 Mercury Prize with this album.
First, a disclaimer. This is full on jazz. I find it daunting to review something when it’s clearly brilliantly played but I lack the proficiency to understand, explain and convey how good it is to you.This is as much a review of my listening skills as it is of McCreadie’s jazz piano skills.
I’m going to take a leaf out of the jazz critic Ted Gioia’s approach and let the music wash over me, recording my response to it. I’m afraid that you, the casual reader who may have dipped into this in the hope of catching the latest Madness record review or something more suited to Classic 80s radio, will have to do the same!
At the outset, I’d been looking forward to this, lulled into comfortable expectations by its Mercury Prize nomination and previous experience of crossover jazz from the likes of Andrew Wasylyk, Mammal Hands and Vega Trails.
This is less a record of two halves and more a record of 7/8ths and 1/8th. I’ll start with the 7/8ths which I found a lot easier to admire than to love. I’m blown away by the technical skill but it distances me, like watching the BBCs ‘Young Musician of the Year’ competition. I have no emotional connection. It’s impressive, but not personal.
His sensitivity to the music, the way that he captures the sense of time looping around to return slightly changed to the same point and the lilting Scottish folk influences that intrude from time to time all point to a craftsman at work. ‘The Unfurrowed Field’ is the best example of the album's Scottishness.
At 25, McCreadie is a ridiculous talent, almost a Mozart of modern jazz. The trouble for me is that he’s a Mozart heard through the ears of Emperor Joseph II, and too many notes prevent a clear melody from coming through. There’s not much chance to settle in to this record. His piano playing on the opening track ‘Law Hill’ is incendiary. It’s played mostly as a pell mell rush of notes tumbling over each other at incredible speed, rather than capturing the quiet, still nature of the forest; it's as if it accompanies the urgent panic of animals fleeing a forest fire.
The Ted Gioia approach works best on the ten minute centrepiece ‘The Ridge’. Just letting the music wash over you makes for an immersive escape as the track builds in its closing section.
And then there’s the remaining 1/8th, and it’s the closing track ‘Glade’. What a gorgeous piece of music. It cuts through the notes to connect you with calm. It’s the perfect way to reset yourself after a stressful day or position you for the day ahead. It’s a track that carries more power because of what has gone before and it’s a track that makes the album as a whole worthwhile.
I know that jazz triggers strong reactions, particularly from readers of Pop In The Real World. I don’t expect this review or McCreadie’s record to change that. But I’ll plead with you to give ‘Glade’ a listen. As the advert has it, you’re worth it!
Taster Track : Glade
Keep Up The Good Work : Lowly
Here’s something a little different, some therapeutic, electronically washed goodwill from Denmark.
I’m listening to this at home, not far from the A308. It’s a busy road, one of the main connections between the M4 and the M40. The image of being able to walk down the middle of that road to avoid others is a defining image of 2020’s first lockdown. This music is its soundtrack.
If there’s a criticism of this record it’s that it may have missed its moment. We’ve moved on. That said, the songs here address the feelings of that time. It’s a strange beast, and a product of strange times, but it locates beauty in the fear and the kindness of our responses to it.
Lowly see unconditional help as their mission. Their music is the equivalent of an immediate welcome into a new group of friends after a move into a new world. The opening track, ‘What A Day’, is a safe refuge after a long, difficult and tiring journey. ‘Keep Up The Good Work’ tells us to “Applaud me, I’m breathing”, a reminder as Pete Townsend once sang that sometimes just a little is enough.
The melodies are in the vocals, although they occasionally disappear into a tide of electronic and vocoder effects. The atmosphere comes from the music, quietly capturing the jittery background against which gentle reassurance is provided. The effect is as if you’re listening to this album through low level hypnosis.
It’s a difficult album to pin down. ‘You Are Good And I Love You’, with its Vocoder vocals, acoustic and gently twisted guitars, trippy electronic beats and warm, upbeat sentiments is as good an example of the album as a whole that you’ll find. You’ll hear faint reminders of Kings of Convenience and Asgeir in places but ultimately this is unlike anything else.
Listen to this album when you’re feeling low, frazzled and beginning to consider giving up. It might help.
Taster Track : What A Day
Furling : Meg Baird
This unusual and serious record draws you into a magical, half-glimpsed world.
That magical world is a fantasy mix of Enid Blyton’s ‘Magic Faraway Tree’, Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and Bergman’s film that features a chess match. No, not the musical that’s written by the boys from Abba, but ‘The Seventh Seal’.
It’s a haunting, atmospheric and immersive record. The opening track ‘Ashes, Ashes’ sets the tone with its unusual but attractive rhythm. Piano leads the song to a steady beat, over a siren’s keening backing vocals heard but unseen through the forest.
There’s a sadness at play too. It's not overwhelming but adds depth to songs that are otherwise gentle and unhurried. Despite its sadness it also feels like music that comforts in its beauty and artistry
Baird’s voice is delicate and soothing, an instrument in its own right. She’s respectful and almost reverential to her music. The guitar on ‘Cross Bay’ sounds like a woodman’s guitar with the type of playing that might feature in specialist records by the likes of Steve Gunn and William Tyler. The pace is generally leisurely, only breaking from the slow speed of a melting glacier to a gentle jog on ‘Will You Follow Me Home?’
This is a grown up record for those with a deep love of folk in all its charms. It’s always easy on the ear and occasionally enchanting.
Taster Track : Will You Follow Me Home?
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