CARM, The Fernweh, H Hawkline, The Natural Lines, SG Lewis, Tennis, U.S. Girls
The Front Runners
Bless This Mess : U.S. Girls
This is one of the best sounding, retro albums I’ve heard for some time. It’s witty and clever too.
U.S. Girls - there’s only one of them, Meghan Remy - have delved into the past for inspiration before. Her last album made the most of Tamla Motown. Here, she taps into the moment in the 80s when disco became a new form of RnB.
Perhaps, in the light of pandemics and becoming a first time mother of twins, she’s seeing comfort in the music of the past. Perhaps it helps her to deal with her present and future. These songs represent an attempt to reboot in order to face her new normal.
New normals are one of her themes. ‘Screen Face’ is a song that addresses Covid style dating by virtual means. ‘Futures Bet’ is a reassurance for coping with anxiety and panic attacks brought about by our changed world. (“Everything is fine. This is just life.”)
Not that her new normal is likely to be ours. She talks with God and speaks on her behalf. (God is ‘She’ in this song.) She pumps relentlessly, not to up the volume but to feed her hungry, demanding twins. Oh yes, and she enters into the voice and mind of a tuxedo making all kinds of points about dependency and cravings while she is at it.
This is a clever album, the kind that Talking Heads could have made if they stayed the course. In ‘Roy G Biv’ she combines the sight of a rainbow with a passing shout out to Pride. She takes the language of the hot, sweaty New York dance floor and nightlife and sets it in a new context. It’s clever and occasionally funny.
Just a few seconds into the album and I was thinking “Steely Dan!”. It’s the smooth, laidback, jazz and funk influenced sound of ‘Only Daedalus’. It oozes class. Soul disco drives the next track ‘Just Space For Light’ and before too long we’re in the world of the 80s 12” and the exemplary re-creation that is ‘Tux (Your Body Fills Me Too)’
‘Bless This Mess’ is an ambitious album that succeeds on all fronts. It will satisfy your brain and your feet.
Taster Track : Tux (Your Body Fills Me Too)
The Chasing Pack
CARM ll : CARM
Here’s a different approach to music, one that promotes background instruments - trumpet, french horn- to centre stage. It makes for an album that is always interesting, often exciting and occasionally breathtaking.
CARM is CJ Carmieri, an in demand trumpeter who played trumpet on The National’s ‘Fake Empire’ and is the brass player for Paul Simon. He asked himself a couple of questions. “What would the trumpet heroes of yesterday be playing today?” and “What would music sound like if background instruments took centre stage?” This album is his answer to those questions.
Think of the trumpet, and you may think of it as a contributor to the noise of battle, a forebringer of the biblical apocalypse. You could hear it as a joyous addition to the sound of Motown, adding joy and exuberance to classic songs. It’s likely that you could recall the sweet trumpet melancholy at the end of the Housemartin’s ‘Think for A Minute’ or the heartstopping, tear brimming beauty of Chet Baker’s trumpet at the end of Elvis Costello’s version of ‘Shipbuilding’. There are elements of all these thoughts in this album.
CARM turns music inside out. That feels wrong at first but when it clicks into place, as it does at times in the opener ‘Aptap’ it’s as glorious and thrilling as catching the perfect wave. Elsewhere, as on ‘Breaks’, reversing the songs adds chaotic energy, unleashing a new dimension like a superhero shedding his day to day clothes and donning a cape, ready to save and change the world.
At times, this is a challenging listen but it’s always interesting. CARM is upfront that this is neither jazz nor classical music although it contains elements of both. Initially you may feel it’s disconcerting and brash, but it gradually turns into a sonic landscape with much to explore.
It’s true that ‘I Fall’ slips into loudly experimental ambience that won’t be for everyone. But ‘New Eyes’ attracts attention with its beats, adding to the sense of something new and a little unnerving. In the midst of all the chaos stands ‘More And More’, a lovely collaboration with Edie Brickell. It provides a respite, laying a blanket of calm over the cacophony beneath, like bringing a hyperactive child to rest. In this song the trumpets and french horn bring genuine emotion.
In the end, this album is less about ‘New Eyes’ and more about bringing new ears to bear on music. It’s commendable for that.
Taster Track : More And More
Torschlusspanik! : The Fernweh
This good natured set of folky psychedelia is a warm and engaging listen.
Torschlusspanik is a German word which has no direct equivalent in English. The closest that translators have come to it is to say that it’s the fear of time running out. The music on this album has no direct equivalent either. It borrows from all sorts of places to make something that is all its own.
The trouble with anything described as psychedelia is that it sometimes seems that you need to be under the influence of drugs to get the most from what you’re hearing. That’s not the case anywhere on this album. Its charms are immediate and obvious. If you were to categorise it you might call it jangle psychedelia from a time before psychedelia became too heavy.
It starts with ‘The Wounds Of Love’, the kind of song that might accompany that sense of falling as you drift off to sleep or a ride in a plummeting lift that manages to slow itself before it's too late. ‘Happy As Larry’ comes next, a strange but enchanting mix of the pastoral and the chamber sound, music for a Mad Hatter’s tea party. Arcade Fire come to mind in the pitch of the vocals and the off kilter sounds of ‘I Want To See Your Name In Lights’. ‘Sad Face’ steals its interludes from ragtime and ‘The Pike’ is a glam stomp complete with buzzing brass. The sweet melodies of ‘Every Cross To Bear’ are characteristic of the whole album.
It’s their closest comparators, Cosmic Rough Riders, who come up with the best description of their sound. It’s melodic sunshine. It comes from its own world. Bizarrely, and without the benefit of drugs I promise, it occurred to me that this is the sort of music the Teletubbies would enjoy through adolescence. It’s happy, colourful and full of sweet charm.
Taster Track : Every Cross To Bear
Milk For Flowers : H Hawkline
Grown up songwriting doesn’t come much better than this new album from H Hawkline.
‘H’ - no relation to his Steps namesake as far as I can tell - sings, writes songs, plays in high profile bands, DJs and is a graphic designer with a number of album covers under his belt. He’s also bilingual in Welsh and English and has a name that wouldn’t be out of place for a Marvel superhero. The key question though is : Has he made a good album?
The answer is a resounding “Yes”.
This is quality pop, not the chart chasing pop of [insert poptastic artist of your choice here], but the album pop of Harry Nilsson or Randy Newman, with added Elton John polish. They’re almost songs in the classical sense of song cycles, performances to be savoured from start to finish. It’s a trick mastered by the likes of John Grant, Duke Special, Nicholas Krgovich and, most of all, Father John Misty. This is pop in the modern style, not afraid to combine melody with freer structures and try out new ideas without over-egging them.
It feels wrong just to provide a list of influences, but Hawkline’s strengths and magical touches are hard to extract from the songs and difficult to define. I’ll give you one example. In the generally jaunty ‘Milk For Flowers’ there’s only one line that is sung quietly . “And I miss you so much” - it’s the core of the song and captures the tone of the whole album.
‘Milk for Flowers’ is a personal, occasionally stylised, album. It’s not an album to dance to or sing along with, but it is an accessible album that rewards careful listening, revealing new pleasures with every listen.
Taster Track : Milk For Flowers
The Natural Lines : The Natural Lines
This is a quiet but moving collection of songs, a collection that covers parts of the human condition often left under wraps.
The opening to Tolatoy’s novel ‘Anna Karenina’ tells us that "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." He may have qualified that view later in the book. I don’t know. I’ve never made it past the first page. But, having listened to The Natural Lines I do know that the view of unhappy families also applies to musicians.
This is an album about sadness at the end of its tether. It’s sad, but not depressing. It avoids self pity and triggers empathy. Listening to this is like watching someone close go through a bad time but being powerless to reach out and help. It’s sadness observed through a soundproofed window and it’s very moving.
The only crack in the record’s fabric comes three quarters of the way into the eighth track, ‘Person Of Interest’. It’s as if the music has erupted from a pressure cooker but, like all explosions, it doesn’t last long.
Matt Pond has the kind of voice that draws you in. On ‘Mahwah’ and elsewhere he manages a kind of detachment, hinting at inertia. These are songs that are honest and vulnerable, heartfelt and sincere. Acoustic guitars have never sounded as lovely in rock, particularly on ‘Spontaneous Skylights 2’. Strings are gorgeous throughout, locating the beauty in sadness.
This is a record that, if you let it, is capable of moving you to tears.
Taster Track : Alex Bell
Audiolust & Higherlove : SG Lewis
Stick with this album and allow the gentle beats to work their magic. I promise it grows on you.
You’ll detect from that opening that there could be a reservation at the heart of this album. You'd be right, and it’s this. The lyrics and point of view in the songs are a bit self obsessed, even irritating.
Take these lyrics from ‘Oh Laura’
But I’ve been watching you closely
And you’ve got no future with me.
Oh Laura, I’m cutting you off
I’ve been wanting to tell you
All evening, I’m letting you go.
Don’t do it like this SG! Talk to her. Breaking up is something to discuss, not evaluate unemotionally before coming to a unilateral decision!
It doesn’t help that the vocoder vocals strip the emotion from the song. Too often in the early stages this sounds like romance lived by a sociopath. It’s slightly uncomfortable and unreal, even shallow. It’s sad too in the sense of evoking pity, not making a criticism. Maybe that’s what life is like out there for a 20 something.
The music tells a different story. Each track is flavoured with chilled dance beats, daytime RnB and the soft, smooth and musical sounds of yacht rock. The strings on ‘Another Life’ draw you in and make a connection that is missing from the lyrics. There’s lots to like in ‘Epiphany’ too. It’s one of those extended pieces gently shape shifting as it drifts along carrying your thoughts with it.
And the good news is that, over the course of the album SG mellows somewhat. On ‘Plain Sailing’ and on ‘Lifeline’ he’s singing to someone, not about them. It makes a big difference.
I liked this album a lot and, in the end, I liked SG a little more too.
Taster Track : Epiphany
Pollen : Tennis
Warm, comfortable synth pop is the order of the day on Tennis’ new album ‘Pollen’. It’s enjoyable in the moment, if unlikely to linger long in the memory.
Tennis offer lifestyle pop. They’re a couple who have been making music together since 2010. Yes, that’s right. Tennis are a true love match. Their creation story is interesting, partly because it informs their music. They either met as philosophy course mates at university, or they got together after an eight month sailing trip or they worked in the same hotel - not the sort that’s a crash pad but the sort that offers valet service.
It’s high end stuff, and so is their music. There are two tracks here about valets. There are hints of world travel in several of the tracks. And the chorus of ‘Never Been Wrong’ is sung in Latin. The first line is “Lingu dicere potest non quid nescitur”. This translates as “The tongue cannot say what is unknown”. My Latin ‘O’ level and Google Translate let me down on the rest. Mea culpa!
The music itself is smooth and pleasant. What it lacks in passion it makes up for with sophistication. If Tennis were an A2Z road atlas they would be adept at showing the attractive shortcuts and the byways that make a walk more enjoyable. Songs set out on a gentle groove and somewhere in the mix there will be a mid-song break or the beginning of a long play out that contains the release of a singalong moment.
They’re the stuff of guilty pleasures, a Hall and Oates for the 2020s. There’s a chance that you’ve never heard of them, or that you have but they’ve slipped from your memory. All I’ll say is that but 1.3m monthly Spotify listeners can’t all be wrong. Tennis have aced their bid for mass appeal.
Taster Track : Forbidden Doors
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