The Bats, Django Django, The Notwist, Philip Glass, The Shanghai Restoration Project, Samia, Sunstack Jones, The Weather Station
This Week's Music
One thing I've noticed about recent releases is that there's no musical genre you could say is the defining sound of the early 2020s. I wonder if that's because, with a year of lockdown and no gigs, artists are thrown more on their individual musical styles rather than fitting into a scene, or being exposed to a number of different ideas and styles. Just a thought, but happy to be persuaded otherwise.
Another musing I had listening to this week's music is that in a couple of albums I could clearly hear the influence of Talk Talk. That's interesting because I've never listened to a Talk Talk album all the way through. I've rectified that by adding one album to thier list, and I'll include it in the weekly reviews in due course. (I'm in big trouble if they turn out to be a noise metal ska band!)
As ever this 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
There was a significant milestone birthday in our family this week and, in honour of that, all the category headings come from 1991.
The One And Only
Chesney Hawkes was the one and only. No room for any other!
Shiny Happy People
The Baby : Samia
Last week I provided a harsh review of Pearl Charles’ album ‘Magic Mirror’. Here’s an album from Samia that shows how the same ground can be covered in song convincingly and authentically.
Samia sings about the first baby steps into young adulthood. It’s an unusual but personal and honest approach to the process of finding her place in the world. Her tremulous vocals capture the hesitancy of stepping into the unknown. Although I’m probably 40 years past her target audience, I do still recall being unable to imagine what life holds, the continual panic that I'm doing life wrong and the insecurity of feeling at times, that my experience did not match the confident story of others.
Samia doesn’t sing about her feelings so much as convert those feelings directly into song. It’s the difference between writing about swimming from the shore, and capturing the experience of moving through the water and the frantic energy expended beneath the surface.
She’s produced a strong set of songs. There’s the bright indie-pop of ‘Fit N Full’, the conversational but restrained pop of ‘Big Wheel’, and 'Stellate's sparser build into something fuller and outward looking. ‘Triptych’ is another song that blossoms over the course of its three minutes or so. She packs a lot of emotion and feeling into each song and guitars and synths combine nicely throughout. For my liking there’s a run of three songs (‘Does Not Heal’, ‘Waverly’ and ‘Winnebago’) which falls a little flat, but that’s simply a difference of taste. The closing track, ‘Is There Something In The Movies?’ is the album highlight. It’s raw but delicate, and the sound of experience and disappointment overcoming innocence and idealism. It can’t be avoided that this is a sad album, but it’s not a depressing one.
Bear with me now as I abruptly change tack. Have you seen the last two Avengers’ films - ‘Infinity War’ and ‘Endgame’? At the end of ‘Infinity War’ half the Avengers are dissolved. It’s a downbeat, despairing ending. By the end of ‘Endgame’ the Avengers have fought back. The world’s not perfect (Ironman’s self sacrifice still gets to me every time) but it is accepting of a different future. I hope that Samia’s journey is at a similar midway point and her next album will show her happiness, acceptance and resolution. That’s the sentimentalist in me, but it’s a while since an album has had me caring about hat happens to the singer to such a degree.
Track : The Big Wheel
Glowing In the Dark : Django Django
If, like me, you enjoy tapping out rhythms on any surface you can find, this album is your text book.
There are many words to describe the sound of this electropop collection, all of them positive, Let’s start with bright, clean, colourful, sunny and fun. The approach is to start with a rhythmic pulse to which a strong vocal melody is quickly added. As ‘Got Me Worried’ demonstrates, everything else builds on that. Once the groove is established - and ‘groove’ is undeniably the right word to use here - repetition rams it home. ‘The Ark’ is an instrumental track that distils their sound to its core, apart from the vocal melodies. Obviously.
That’s how it works, but more important is the impact it has on the listener. Well, a minor quibble is that this electro pop doesn’t feed the heart or emotions so it can feel a little one dimensional and shallow. A consequence is that the album feels just a little overlong. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. That said, the tracks each take care not to outstay their welcome. They’re brisk, make their point and move on.
The overall impression though is that Django Django have set out to make an album that can simply be enjoyed and they’ve succeeded in this very well. ‘Spirals’ as the opening track brings us up to speed with what the band are doing across the whole album quickly and literally. Each song, while following the template, sounds distinct. In fact, a good question might be how many pulses and rhythms can one band find to use on a single album? ‘Glowing In the Dark’ is a playful number - another good word to describe the band - which only faintly sounds as if a kid has been let loose on the vocals channel with an effects pedal. ‘Waking Up’ is a duet with Charlotte Gainsburg. ‘The World Will Turn’ is a quieter, acoustic number that comes in at just the right time to provide a breather from the bustling, perky electro rhythms elsewhere on the record.
All told, it’s hard to dislike this relentlessly bouncy and addictive collection.
Taster Track : Got Me Worried
Ignorance : The Weather Station
One of the good things about listening to new music is that it feels like the safe way to take a risk. Invest 40 minutes of your time in the unknown, and you could have that repaid in pleasure many times over. Well, let’s be honest, in lockdown lots of things feel like a risk - shopping for compost at Homebase, walking along the pavement trying to avoid pedestrians and traffic and listening to the new album from the Weather Station.
Years ago I read ‘Electric Eden’, an excellent book by Rob Young on the evolution of folk music away from maypoles and morris dancing towards some surprising areas. One of these was that former 80s synth pop band ‘Talk Talk’ could be regarded legitimately as making folk music in their later career. This album is folk in the same way, supported by quietly propulsive synths, urgent strings and little jazz flourishes.
Here’s an album full of messages that are presented in an intriguing way, eschewing (oh how I love that word!) singalong choruses and easy ear worms. Is it a difficult album? Not really. It's summed up in the song ‘Trust’:
I know it’s important and I should pay attention.”
The vocals, breathless in places and making judicious use of falsetto, ensure that you want to listen.
There’s a natural feel to the songs. ‘Parking Lot’ shows how she’s effectively setting her thoughts down to music rather than creating songs, with all the artifice that brings to the listener. This album is strongly rooted in a female singer-songwriter tradition which goes back to the 70s, taking in the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell.
‘Robber’, has all these components which threaten to spiral out of control whilst remaining tuneful throughout. ‘Atlantic’ uses a saxophone to imitate the mewing of seagulls. ‘Separated’ is built around the rhythm of the title.
Is this album a risk worth taking? I think so, yes. I've listened to it again since making initial notes and it's even stronger on the second hearing. It’s clearly impressed the critics, but it rewards the listener at home too, becoming an important album for some. Expect to see it featuring in many of the 2021 Year End charts.
Taster Track : Robber
Brave New World Symphony : The Shanghai Restoration Project
It’s not a promising beginning. Do you remember the electronic beeps that introduce ELO’s ‘Telephone Line’? That’s what opening track ‘RO’ sounds like. No beats, no melody but, crucially, no glorious pay off either.
Fortunately things improve quickly. Second track ‘Involuntary Prophet, introduces beats and rhythms, demonstrating a nice grip on musical timing. The timing feels all the more pronounced for being electronic. This track bounces, weaves it way and grows ever bigger, like a giant football travelling purposefully down a steep hill. It’s a good step forward that continues with ‘Present Continuous’. We’re well on our way now.
There’s a vaguely sinister sense of development through the album, in keeping with the 'Brave New World' analogy in the title. By ‘Hart Island Hymn’ it feels a little on autopilot, as if the machines have demonstrated they’ve got the hang of it now, and the musicians can leave the room. ‘Balcony Garden’ sounds like the music Alexa or Siri might produce if you asked them to write you a tune! The impression, if we’re a little less willing to enter the world of dystopian fantasy, is of test card music. It’s the sound of the pre-programmed music on a electronic keyboard that’s designed to demonstrate what the keyboard can do - showing off a little too much.
Despair not though, because ‘Positive Disintegration, brings the musicians back to the studio. The jazzy tones achieve what’s needed, and reintroduce a human element to the sound as does ‘Night Odyssey’ which is one of only two tracks alongside ‘Present Continuous’ that include vocals.
In an album dominated by technology and in need of the human touch in places, ‘Zoom Christmas’ highlights both the strength and slightly off qualities of the album. It’s self-evidently intended as a Christmas tune, but without the slightest hint of the festive season. The album was released in December and it’s as if the computer thought “Human’s like a Christmas song” without the skill or understanding to incorporate human warmth or to use the tune to trigger personal memories. It is, however, the catchiest tune on the album.
Despite the reservations, it’s an enjoyable listen. But if this is the brave new world to which the titular symphony is dedicated, I may find myself more inclined to look backwards than forwards in future.
Taster Track : Involuntary Prophet
Vertigo Days : The Notwist
Here’s a cautionary tale, partly told against myself. Just as you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, neither should you judge a record by what you read about it beforehand. I’d read that this was a record of electronic soundscapes, perhaps with a grunge feel. So it was with a sinking heart that I pressed play, only to find there was a pleasant surprise in store.
This is electronica with a human touch, more Talk Talk than Kraftwerk. There’s little chance that a machine could compose these songs, with their warmth, contrariness and unexpected twists and turns. The flute on ‘Sans Soleil’ and the woodwind on ‘Into The Ice Age’ may be reproduced electronically, but they speak of human involvement.
Several of the tracks feel improvised, the product of an extended jam session.. The music is neither harsh nor jarring, although there are a few abrupt changes of style in some of the songs. You might find you like parts of a song, and those parts drift in and out in an unexpectedly soothing way. Highlights include ‘Exit Strategy To Myself’, ‘Ghost’, and ‘Into Love / Stars’
But what really overturned my expectations was the dawning realisation that this is a love album. There are tracks such as ‘Into Love Again’ and ‘Night’s Too Dark’ that are moving and human.
This is an album that I feel is sticking with me. I want to hear it again and suspect that repeat listens will reveal its hidden strengths.
Taster Track : Night's Too Dark
Foothills - The Bats
So, here’s a band that’s been around for 40 years that’s failed to register with me. They’re not the most prolific band admittedly but that’s a shame nonetheless.
Lead single ‘ Warwick’ shows what they do well. It’s good, straightforward, melodic indie pop. They do a bit of whimsy too (‘Red Car’) and, for reasons that I’ll come to in a minute songs such as ‘Another Door’ reach into the kind of soft rock, west coast songs beloved of Radio 2 listeners of a certain age. It’s unthreatening stuff but in a good, pleasant, non-boring way. It’s a wholesome beef casserole with mash, rather than a fancy boeuf bourguignon with creamed potatoes.
Back when they started they would have been fresh faced, bright young things. I’m guessing they’re roughly my age now but they’re still playing in a similar style, slightly tweaked by the wider listening (west coast, soft rock) they’ve come to enjoy over time. There’s not an ounce of criticism there because what they now have is an added sheen of sweet nostalgia for their timeless sound. ‘As You Were’ captures this beautifully.
From its earliest rock and roll beginnings, pop music has developed to create a bedrock of songs and styles. It’s not a bad thing to have, and it’s not a bad place to be. Let’s be thankful for The Bats who can remind us of that fact and take us there.
Taster Track : As You Were
Glassworks : Philip Glass
A few seconds into this 1982 album from PhilipGlass, I had an intense memory of setting off for work, not unhappy, and curiously pleased that the basic structure of my day would be taken care of. It was akin to deja vu, although I don’t recall having had that feeling when I was working. I’m reviewing the album through that lens as it was such a strong feeling. (I’ve also intimidated myself out of a more musical appreciation as I’ve just glanced at the Wikipedia entry on the album and seen references to ‘triple eight notes’, ‘duple eighth notes’ and ‘measured phrases’ in the first few lines. I know when I’m out of my depth!)
So, the opening track, called ‘Opening’ that triggered the feeling is a lovely rolling piece of piano with a repetitive but attractive melody. It reminds us that each working day is basically the same but with little variations below the surface the music is constantly shifting and that keeps it interesting.
Track 2, ‘Floe’, is completely different. All the instruments are working at once and are out of time with each other. It’s not discordant, but strangely hypnotic and reminiscent of the chaos of peak time commutes or landing in the midst of a busy office. (Or glassworks. The album title could be a pun!) There’s a sudden break around two thirds of the way through this track, a break that captures part of the rhythm of the working day.
‘Islands’ is a pretty enough track, one that allows you to lose yourself in the melody and sounds. If ‘Floe’ is all busy, busy chaos ‘Islands’ portrays that part of the day when you can be lost in your work and free from distraction. Honestly!
Weirdly, ‘Rubric’ calls to mind the Oompah Loompahs who worked in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s the soundtrack to a timelapse film, with everyone in full swing. It’s another hypnotic track but one that retains a sense of life.
Even in factory conditions there are moments of creative beauty. ‘Facades’ captures that and also points to that moment of balance and calm that T S Eliot called the still point of a turning world. It’s a beautiful piece of music.
The closing track, appropriately called ‘Closing’, brings us full circle. It’s an orchestral version of the opening track and is twice as lovely for it.
Philip Glass released this album to take his work to a wider audience. It was marketed as Philip Glass for the Walkman generation. It’s an accessible mix of classical and jazz, but not difficult or avant garde so nothing to be frightened of.
I liked it, quite a lot.
Taster Track : Facades
Things That Make You Go Hmm.....
Golden Repair : Sunstack Jones
At a time when moods are dark, mental health is under threat and we’re coming up to the one year anniversary of lockdown restrictions, are we in the mood for lyrics such as:
“There's a bomb in the neighbours house
People on fire and they can't get out
I will look the other way
I'll wish it to go away”
(Track 4 : Glass Boat)
It’s not just the lyrics though. This is a dark and heavy album. And that’s heavy in the sense of feeling weighted down, not in the sense of sounding like Black Sabbath. Title track ‘Golden Repair’ grinds out separate but constant guitar and bass riffs. It's a lumbering sound. ‘Where You Gonna Go’ is literally a song of two halves. There’s a simple folk melody to begin with. Exactly at the mid point, the mood changes in what appears to be an extended mid song break. Slowly it dawns on you though that it is, in fact, a highly extended outro taking up half the song. Even the Beatles on Hey Jude didn’t bring that off successfully!
It’s well played. You can’t deny that. But it’s music for musicians - inward facing, self absorbed, indulgent. ‘Shouldabin’ is one of the more successful tracks, not just because it’s one of the shorter ones on the album. It incorporates an attractive melody, but the guitar work sounds as if it comes from an earlier, now unfashionable, era. Overblown Britpop maybe or 70s rock born out of endless studio jamming.
The tragedy is that there is a strong hint of what might have made for a balanced, more hopeful album. In places, the vocal melodies stand out like sunshine breaking through black, thunderous clouds. They offer the listener something to cling to.
I don’t want to condemn this album out of hand. In its way it’s well crafted and committed to its vision. It’s not a bad album but, for me, it’s misplaced in tone and time. There’s a place for it, but in our house it’s in the box marked ‘seldom played’.
Taster Track : Shouldabin
Sadness Part 1
No tears this week.