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Difficult Shapes and Complicated Rhythms

Starring


A Man Called Adam, Beach Fossils, Bianca James, Glenn Astro, Lyndon Scarfe, Susanna Sundfor


The Front Runners


The Girl With A Hole In Her Heart : A Man Called Adam


The duo that helped to set the benchmark for electronic chill music in the 1990s return with a startling focus on its dark side.


The title helps you to understand the album. It’s both about an individual girl who fascinated A Man Called Adam, and about the fact that there is something missing at the heart of how we live. There’s a strange, hollow emptiness at our core, a desperation that we can’t completely blot out.


This is music for the dead hours between everything closing and the world reawakening. It’s music that goes beyond the club come down room. It’s for the aftertaste of a night out as the make up smudges and the body starts to protest at how it has been treated. It reminds you that at some time you have to go home and face reality and that clubs are often located on the grim side of town. Above all, this is music for the dark side of club culture.


Although nothing like the post euphoria Balearic chill experience I was expecting, this is a riveting exercise in creating and maintaining a mood. ‘Hidden Dragon’ may be the key track, maximising the impact of Sally Rodgers' deadened vocals as she struggles to express herself in the chorus. There’s a strong sense of what the album contains in ‘Stochastic’ too. It’s the sense of suppressing panic.


Musically it’s an impeccable exercise in quality. The seven minute title track ‘The Girl With A Hole In Her Heart’ is complete and unalterable in the way it unfolds. There’s an unresolved tension in the House chill of ‘Fight Or Flight’ between the stuttering keyboards and the lounge piano. It’s quite soulful too. ‘In Favour Of The Storm’ is an excellent ambient piece full of rain and threatening thunder. It verges on Nu-classical. The most dance friendly song - ‘It’s Science, Baby - Funkified’ closes the album as if making amends for the unrelenting social reality that comes before it. It’s excellently done.


Don’t come to this album for a euphoric chilled experience. Come to it for its surprising but haunting tone and the range and quality of the songwriting.


Taster Track : Fight Or Flight




The Chasing Pack


Bunny : Beach Fossils


This is a record that sounds great but it could wear you down with its lyrics.


These are the lyrics of a perpetual student who’s on the point of being thrown out of Siouxsie’s ‘Happy House’ for being too gloomy. That may sound judgemental so I should back it up with evidence. These lines are taken from the openings to some of the songs.


“I don’t know what to say

I’m tryna get myself together”


(‘Sleeping On My Own’ - the title doesn’t alleviate the mood!)


“Staying out all night, we’re all taking drugs ….

…. Might be too depressed, lost in A.D.D.”


(‘Run To The Moon’ - Yup. That’s probably far enough.)


“Woke up in California.

Fucked up when we were younger.”


(‘(Just Like The) Setting Sun)


“Coffee and Ativan

My thrills are getting cheaper”


(Anything Is Anything)


“Something

I would love to tell you but

I can’t.

I guess

I’m alive ….”


(‘Numb’ - we all are by now.)


It’s too much, all this negative emotion. The complaint, the frustration, the self absorbed loathing and the feeling of guilt induced in this listener that he can’t be more empathic. This is a wasted life, in both senses, and one accurately, relentlessly and painstakingly captured in song.


Fortunately, the music is spellbinding with its echoing and chiming guitars, its melodies and its knack of playing rhythm off against pace as on ‘Feel So High’. It’s enough to rescue the album from the back of the rack.


If you can weather the lyrics, this is a strong album. The answer to their predicament is in their own hands, and they recognise that in closing track ‘Waterfall’.


“Now don’t look back

Just put it all behind

And you could be happy.”


Get that attitude into song and they could be your new favourite group. Here’s Pitchfork’s review that is less obsessed with the lyrics. Pitchfork Beach Fossils Bunny Review


Taster Track : Feel So High



Bianca James : Bianca James


Bianca James is a Canadian singer songwriter whose debut album shakes off the shackles of earnestness to provide a big splash of technicolour entertainment.

My heart sank just a little when I read that Bianca talks of Adele and Amy Winehouse as two of her chief influences. Does the world really need another X Factor tribute act? Put that unworthy thought to one side. Bianca James is the real deal, more than earning her seat at their top table.


It’s Bianca’s third named influence that is key here - Mark Ronson in his ‘Version’ days. These songs are not so much radio friendly as radio ‘move in and make babies together’. The key ingredient here, that’s missing from the likes of her influences, is fun.


The opening track, ‘Black and Blue’ does wear Winehouse influences on its sleeve, but the second track ‘Monaco’ is close to a revelation. It’s a headlong and contagious rush of pleasure and excitement, an uncovered playlist gem with the zest and zing of classic girl pop that sets the tone for the rest of the album. The exception is the obligatory quiet number, ‘Till I Remember’. It’s a cut above its competitors due to the soulful backing vocals.


It’s easy to overlook the mainstream in the quest for something new, but it’s the mainstream that fuelled our love of pop in the first place. Bianca captures so much of the timeless pop of yesteryear in this record. At various stages I heard revitalised echoes of Lulu’s energy, The Supremes’ harmonising, Blondie (in their ‘Parallel Lines’ heyday), Caro Emerald’s theatricality and S Club 7’s shameless cheese. It’s a heady and addictive mix.


This is the kind of Summer record we need in 2023. It’s the sunshine after the rain.


Taster Track : Monaco



Nothing Is Real : Glenn Astro


This is a set of ambient electronica, a collection of sounds, bleeps, beats and whooshes that allow occasional tunes to break through. It’s a deep dive into the club come down lounge.


Glenn Astro has fashioned his own sonic universe and, for a while, it had me fooled. The clue’s in the title ‘Nothing Is Real’. I’d dismissed him as a producer rather than a performer, a gun for hire who polishes the work of his collaborators. True, I wondered what the collaborators brought to the party. Strip away the production effects, I thought, and there’s precious little left. Well, it seems that the likes of Mental Trance, Eye Soul8r, DJ 1999, Crystalline Reality and Brain Liquor aren’t real people. They’re inventions to create a kind of virtual reality to which this is the soundtrack.


Once you’ve stopped being distracted by the twist, you can begin to appreciate the textures at play. They’re pretty impressive. Genuinely interesting sounds tickle your ears as they buzz or float by. If your i-phone was capable of some of these it would be pretty cool.


In a way it’s like jazz. You may not make sense of it as a whole but there are plenty of individual elements to snag your attention, even as your head starts to tell you it’s time to move on.


We’re deep into ambient electronica here. Any tune emerges slowly from the beats and sounds - the bass line in ‘The Growl - Crystalline Mix’ for example. There must be a tune because it reappears in the later remix ‘The Growl - Dark Mix’.


Like all ambient music it’s soothing but destined for the background. It becomes music you want to understand, not feel. It’s his ‘collaborations’ with Brain Liquor that stir themselves most. ‘Blame It On’ feels like the most human of the tracks here.


On its own terms it works impressively but for me personally it’s destined to remain out of sight and earshot in the recesses of a club I’ll never enter.


Taster Track : Blame It On



Horizon : Lyndon Scarfe


Lyndon Scarfe’s collection of ambient, electronic drones turned the tables on me. Read on to find out why.


Scarfe is a musician with a daunting track record. He’s been in a number of experimental bands of which I’d heard only of The Danse Society. I owe him an apology in advance of this review, because his album revealed less about the quality of his music and a lot more about my deficiencies as a listener.


Let me explain. As far as I can recall this is my first foray into drone music. I felt unable to reach a judgement on what I heard. My response is a series of impressions. As long term followers may remember, I started this blog to review music in a real, living environment complete with annoying cats, flushing loos and other distractions missing from a studio environment. And I found it hard to concentrate on this to the level it deserved.


There’s a stop / start feel to the tracks. ‘Eternal Flow’ isn’t eternal at all. Like several of the tracks here, it feels fragmentary. In places, this music felt like musical exercises rather than finished pieces, scales rather than compositions. There’s little help to be gained from the titles, no easy connection between them and what unfolds. It takes effort to remain engaged with this and, to my shame, my mind wandered. Now, sometimes music can take you to a place where your thoughts coalesce and gain clarity. Sadly, I’m no nearer knowing what to buy my wife for her birthday and I plead guilty as charged to finding the music a distraction from that thinking.


That’s a shame, because there are moments here that are revelatory about a different kind of music. This is a difficult album to understand, not to listen to. There are things to cling to like ropes thrown to a struggling swimmer. When you find something familiar, like the beat in ‘21 Days In Iowa’, it becomes quite stirring. ‘Mandelbrot Set’ is a slow number, layered with drones and glitches but sweetened by a simple melody. The mix becomes quite compelling.


This music did not alienate me as I feared it might. Neither did it entrance me. It’s given me a glimpse of something new and intriguing. I feel less dismissive and intimidated by this than before, but it’s too early to claim to be a fan.


Taster Track : Mandelbrot Set



Blomi : Susanna Sundfor


Susanna Sundfor is a Norwegian singer who has collaborated with Royksopp on some of their prettiest songs. This challenging solo album has its moments, but not enough to win over a mainstream audience of Royksopp fans.


If I can digress, over 40 years ago I went to see a black and white Russian arthouse film called ‘Stalker’. It remains my benchmark for arty incomprehensibility. ‘Blomi’ does not match ‘Stalker, but it comes too close for comfort at times. Sundfor challenges herself artistically and she’ll challenge you too.


The album opens and closes with strange spoken word pieces. ‘Oro Volu’ has an earnestness to the words that she’s fumbling to understand. They’re spoken over a backing, best described as strange, a mix of electronica, gurgling static and some warbling woodwind. The transition into the final piece, ‘Oro Hjaratons’ is clever. The sung note of the previous track ‘Nattsongs’ transforms into its electronic opening. Inbetween we have a mix of English, Norwegian, Old Norse and (spoken) German. It’s a veritable return to Babel and just as confusing, not helped by a closing few words, brimful with a positive wellbeing at odds with the rest of the album.


The title track, ‘Blomi’, is the first piece to approach a conventional song, and it’s worth waiting for. ‘Leikars Ljoo’ is genuinely interesting. Tentatively gaining in confidence through its handclaps it blossoms into a grand gospel number before a coda that’s straight out of Odin’s Halls of Norse Mythology. It’s odd but can’t take away from what has come before. ‘Alyosha’ breaks through a fuzz of buzzing insects to veer towards something lovely with its epic, synthetic strings. There’s a true sense of destructive self empowerment in the lines:


“Love yourself more than any other

But that is not what I will live for.


It’s an unexpectedly strange and disconcerting album. It sounds as if Sundfor has listened to too much Rufus Wainwright and taken his influence into the dark recesses of her mind.


It’s not for me, but you may take more comforting insights from this review in the Guardian which finds more to appreciate. Susanna Sundfor


Taster Track : Alyosha



Playlists


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






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