Bill Fisher, Earl Slick, Foo Fighters, Kit and Sebastian, Mano Le Tough, Medicine Head, Sarah Davachi, The Sheepdogs, Various (Modern Love Compilation)
This Week's Music
I'm back to the (ab)normal way of selecting records to listen to this week. There is definitely a frisson of excitement that comes with not knowing what to expect each morning - all that exciting new music to listen to!
As it happens there is a distinct retro feel to this week, not least because there's an album of Bowie cover versions, a band that have been around unchanged since the 90s, a couple of acts that have been around since the 70s and a couple of acts wearing their 60s and 70s influences on their sleeves.
This week I'm introducing a new accolade, a subjective judgement lacking any consultation with others. This week I award 'Album Cover of the Week' to Modern Love - the compilation of Bowie covers. It's simple but effective - a doodle of the 'Heroes' cover and representative of the simpler versions of Bowie's songs to be found within.
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
At The Moment : Mano Le Tough
It’s a long time since I’ve heard an electro dance record that is as good and as enjoyable to listen to as this.
Mano Le Tough is an Irish DJ / Producer living in Zurich. The DJ part is interesting. In the beginning DJs were people who arranged the music for you to dance to in clubs or entertained you on Radio 1. Then came the personality cult of a Tony Blackburn or a John Peel, and the name became an indication of what they might play and a validation of quality. Or otherwise!. Fast forward to the 80s and they started to mix and engineer the sort of tunes they wanted to be playing in their clubs, contributing to the music rather than just playing it, and picking out or sampling obscure lost tracks. In the 21st century DJs became superstars in their own right, headlining festivals with DJ sets and over-running beaches all over the world with their followers. It was a long way from Radio 1’s Seaside Special roadshows. Inevitably it comes as no surprise that the DJ now takes the final step into making music of their own. What is a surprise is that the music is as good as this album from Mano Le Tough.
Thankfully this is no collection of Radio 1 techno, it’s much more creative and interesting than that. There’s much more to this than an extra loud collection of big beats. Melody is an essential and integral part of the mix. This is dance in the electropop sense, in the sense of Royksopp and Air and in the sense, first and foremost, of being music.
In ‘Fado Fado’ there’s a mock guitar riff that shows the kind of sound DJs are adept at manufacturing. It’s the kind of sound that Bowie’s DJ would be proud of.
There’s not a dull moment here, no longeurs that would have you heading from the dancefloor. ‘Ay Ay Mi Mi’ is as infectious as anything I’ve heard for a while. ‘No Record Without A Turn’ brings some acoustic elements into a dance record and if ‘New / Cycle’ has a deeper, darker sound, ‘Empty Room’ is reassuringly heavy on melody.
This is music you can dance to, music you can hum along to and music that you can listen to with total enjoyment. It’s dance music for the ears as much as for the feet.
Taster Track : No Road Without A Turn
No Simple Thing : The Sheepdogs
The Sheepdogs’ take on straightforward rock with a pop sheen is a joyful reminder of the pleasures that come from timeless music, irrespective of genre.
Recommended by a friend from the west country, I’d built The Sheepdogs up in my mind as a small scale, local phenomenon. They were probably a good live way to kick start a raucous Friday evening, their energy masking any technical shortcomings.
Well, I got that completely wrong.
The Sheepdogs are a Canadian band with a stellar reputation built up since 2004. They’ve toured the world, been nominated for a number of national awards and were the first unsigned band to feature on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Where I was a little closer to the mark is in recognising that they preserved the enjoyment they feel from playing in a band, understood the value of sticking with the basics and were committed to the euphoric power of the three minute single.
There are shades of AC/DC, Status Quo, The Sweet and the sounds of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ southern rock. Their feel for 70s rock is deep but lightly worn. This is music to perk up the soul and trigger a smile of recognition as you listen. It’s pop with a polished rock sheen, a collection of 3 minute bursts of a good time.
They’ve called their EP ‘No Simple Thing’ and then spent the record demonstrating that at its purest, rock and roll is the exact opposite of that..
Taster Track : Keep On Loving You
And The Rest
Hallucinations of a Higher Truth : Bill Fisher
With this collection of piano led pieces, Bill Fisher provides something that is easy on the ear, surprising and dark in equal measure.
It was with a sense of foreboding that I began to listen to this. I’d streamed it on the basis of a brief review in Shindig magazine. They may not be the best known of the music press. Their USP is a mix of 60s psychedelia, light prog and continental pop. They often come up trumps with records that aren’t reviewed elsewhere. But the initial burst of enthusiasm that comes from the review can quickly fade. The cover image, the album title and the fact that he performs with a group called Church of the Cosmic Soul had me wondering if I’d seriously bitten off more than I could chew.
The opening piano notes provided enough reassurance that here was something that I could come to like a lot. Apparently it’s a marked departure from his usual stoned metal so I guess I got a little lucky with this.
Trying to describe this tied me up in knots, until I realised that the best description I could come up with was that it’s very Old Grey Whistle Test. It’s a solo album that sounds like a trio of piano, bass and drums. His voice, particularly, is OGWT in its sound and phrasing, and the mood is black and white and packed with gravitas. The piano is rich and the multi tracked voices that add a mini choir to some tracks contribute to a hymn like quality that threads through the first half of the album.
As the album progresses it moves from something conventional to something quite theatrical, more possessed and even a little demonic. It’s as if he’s no longer able to hold himself together as he approaches the realisation in ‘Evil In Your Eye’ that “No one can save you at all.” Maybe that’s the moment that he breaks through the hallucinations to discover the higher truth. If so, it’s a pretty bleak discovery.
It’s stronger before this point. ‘I’ll See You Around’ has a rich and appealing piano sound that’s easy on the ear with a highly accessible coffee shop jazz feel. The cover of Status Quo’s ‘Caroline’ is a surprise. It’s a seriously slowed down version that teeters without quite falling into the kind of cover beloved by lounge bar pianists - the kind of cover that throws out the challenge of “Do you know what it is yet?”
So, not what I expected or feared then. I’m left with the impression that this is an album by someone who wants to be mainstream but who will never fit in. That tension is a strength, but it’s also a little sad.
Taster Track : I’ll See You Around
Fistful Of Devils : Earl Slick
A 55 minute collection of instrumental rhythm and blues is unimprovable as it stands, but these days it feels like a niche field.
The chances are that if you ask anyone if they’ve heard of Earl Slick, it will be as Bowie’s sidesman for more than 30 years. And I must confess that I turned to this record mostly out of curiosity to hear if any Bowie magic had rubbed off on the music.
Earl Slick rides a different beast. He’s retreated to what he knows best - jamming to create muscular rhythm and blues. There’s the merest shadow of Hunky Dory era Bowie in the left turn that occurs midway through ‘Black’. A heavy blues number, light suddenly pours into the song via some perky, bar room piano which enters stage right before quickly disappearing stage left.
Slick coaxes extraordinary sounds from his guitar. It’s an unimprovable and unimpeachable example of blues rock, an air guitarist’s dream.
It’s fully committed to its style from the opening notes, so much so that it starts to sound like one of those sound effects records from the BBC’s archive - “Sound Effects Volume 71: Howling Blues Guitar and Rock Riffs”. You could say that this is music that’s been turned inside out. Each track could be a strong middle eight that’s been stretched to 5 minutes or so to make a track. You could also say that this is a collection of backing tracks looking for a song.
With this collection, Slick does for blues guitar what Jools Holland has done for boogie woogie piano. He’s written, played and curated a selection that preserves blues guitar for future generations. That, more than his work with Bowie, may prove to be his legacy.
Taster Track : Vanishing Point
Medicine At Midnight : Foo Fighters
Here we have the Foo Fighters doing what the Foo Fighters do better than any band in the world but, after 30 years maybe it’s time to add something new to the mix?
If Wikipedia is to be believed, strange things happened in the recording studio while they were making this record. Instruments fell out of tune, songs were mysteriously wiped from the equipment and microphones turned themselves on to record an empty studio. It sounds like an episode from Scooby Doo, and Foo Fighters didn’t hang around long to see and hear what developed.
The speed with which they recorded this is evident. It’s what they do well, almost as a second nature. You could say they can do this with their eyes and ears closed. Yes, there’s a funkier sound to some of the guitar work, but with a little more time they might have decided that less is more and stripped away some of the overcrowdedness going on.
The trouble is they’ve not changed much over 30 years. They’re solid, consistent and reliable. Power trumps variety but without thrilling the listener. Weird things may have been going on in the studio, but they haven’t led to anything different on the record. There is the obligatory quieter, sensitive song (‘Chasing Birds’) and the relatively but effectively low key ‘Waiting On A War’ but you have to ask yourself if that’s enough for one of the biggest bands in the world after nearly 30 years.
Live, I suspect they are an exhilarating proposition. That’s where the money is now so you can’t blame them for focusing on songs that will deliver on stage, but it’s a corporate attitude rather than one infused with the spirit of rock.
It sounds harsh but the case against Foo Fighters is that they are resting on their laurels, and it’s a strong one.
Taster Track : Waiting On A War
Melodi : Kit and Sebastian
Two of the beautiful people combine to reproduce a 60s infused cinematic and sunshine sound that isn’t as substantial as you’d like it to be.
There’s a lot of music going on here for a duo, the full musical works and a pot pourri of musical genres. It's a big band sound covering latin music, Brazilian rhythms, jazz, middle eastern vibes and, by the end, an off kilter 60s pop sheen.
It’s good music to escape to and occasionally it veers towards music you’d like to escape from. They sound like a mid afternoon festival act, lovely in the warm sun but not commanding your full attention. It’s the soundtrack to a 60s film score where location and style have been prioritised over plot and character. You’re not hooked in, just carried along for the ride.
To its credit, it has an authentic feel and sound even down to the vocals which sound as thin and secondary to the music as they have done through the years. Closing track ‘Please Don’t Take This Badly’ is the closest to a pop song here, but it’s a good one.
Ultimately this is background music, but background music that is pleasant and undemanding.
Taster Track : Please Don’t Take This Badly (That’s the title, not a plea to the artist!)
Warriors Of Love : Medicine Head
If bluesy power ballads are your musical bag, this is for you.
You may dimly recollect Medicine Head. Not quite one hit wonders, they had a handful of Top 30 singles in the early 70s the most successful of which was ‘One And One Is One’ which climbed to No 3. John Peel was a big, early champion and their first single ‘His Guiding Hand’ made it into his celebrated box of treasured singles. Since 1976 they’ve released just four albums under the Medicine Head label, and to show how deep they’ve wandered into the mists of time you cannot find a studio version of ‘One And One Is One’ on Spotify.
Some records arrive fully realised in unshaven, denim clad, bourbon soaked glory. This is one of them. It’s a reminder that to have the blues isn’t about being fired up by pounding drums and blockbusting riffs, it’s about melancholy and sadness and feeling defeated by life. I find that an album full of such music does wear you down a bit.
True, on some tracks such as ‘Want Your Love’ they forcefully put the 12 bars into bar room blues. Mainly though, this is a collection of power ballads the like of which haven’t been heard since ZZ Top displayed their sensitive side and Whitesnake realised that there ain’t no love in the heart of the city. The issue with power ballads though is that it’s a genre whose time hasn’t yet come again. Power balladeers have been replaced by sensitive, tattooed acoustic troubadours.
This is an album that is played and produced by musicians who are masters of their craft. On the majority of tracks the sound is crystal clear. Where it’s muddier on the more raucous tracks it’s by design not by accident. It sticks to its template with only ‘Love In Your Eyes’, with its throbbing bass providing much by way of variety. ‘Dancing In The Rain’ and ‘The Ballad Of Ruby Rose’ are exemplary examples of this type of music.
Listening to this is like watching someone make lace. You can admire the effort and the craft in making it even if you don’t value the end product.
Taster Track : Dancing In The Rain
Antiphonals : Sarah Davachi
I found Sarah Davachi’s collection of drone pieces, occasionally flickered into life by analogue keyboards, quite intimidating.
When my in-laws were alive they would occasionally take my wife and I to classical concerts and performances. Lovely as they were, they did not want me to feel excluded even though it wasn’t my thing. The hardest part for me was talking about the music afterwards when I hadn’t understood much about what was going on.
Sarah Davachi is a Canadian experimental artist with an imposing CV. Her Wikipedia page lists various achievements including a Masters degree in electronic music and recording media, work on a PhD in Musicology, and academic research on organology and timbre. She’s worked at Canada’s National Music Centre as an interpreter, content producer and archivist and lectured at university and film school. The page lists six artist in residencies around the world. She’s 34. She’s named her album after a specific type of alternate singing and the album opens with the sound of the harpsichord. There is no greater indicator than the harpsichord that you are about to embark on something that is not going to fit comfortably into any contemporary musical style
With hindsight, I stood no chance.
If patience is a virtue, it’s never more so than when listening to this album. Despite the harpsichord, the key feature of ‘Antiphonals’ is a drone and ‘Magdalena’ is 10 minutes of slowly shifting drone tone. Disrespectfully, I imagined that even the kitchen fridge could be utilised on an album such as this. Knock me down with a feather, but I’m pretty certain that it, or something similar, appears towards the end of ‘Abeyant’. To my ears these pieces bear the same relationship to electronic music as tuning up does to the work of an orchestra.
It’s true that there is a meditative quality to the tracks. On a positive note, it’s a suitable accompaniment for watching the Northern Lights, or perhaps dawn breaking over a frozen wasteland.
There’s a feel of church music to the album too. Be prepared though. It’s not the ecstatic communion of a gospel choir, more the reverential but solitary soundtrack to the dead weight of the Maundy Thursday / Good Friday Easter vigil.
Three tracks offer something that gestures towards escaping the drone. These are the harpsichord driven ‘Chorus Scene’, the almost pretty ‘Gradual Of Image’ and the mournful piano opening of ‘Abeyance’
This defeated me, and that doesn’t often happen. In the interests of balance, I should say that the music review website ‘Pitchfork’ gave it a score of 7.3 out of 10 and that’s not bad going. A link to Pitchfork’s full review is Pitchfork 'Antiphonals' Review
Taster Track : Gradual Of Image
Modern Love : Various
You may be wondering if the world needs any more David Bowie tribute albums, but this is one of the more thoughtful and successful ones. It focuses on the soul, R&B, jazz (not too much) funk and gospel influences in his songs.
There are four reasons to release a compilation of Bowie covers. First they draw attention to lesser known songs in his catalogue. Secondly they serve as a showcase for new, under the radar artists or add credibility by association to more established and better known acts. Thirdly, it raises the profile of covers as a musical genre in their own right. Fourthly it rakes in money for Bowie’s estate and record company.
I’ll take these in reverse order to avoid ending the review on a negative and possibly contentious note.
The attention paid to Bowie since his death in 2016 is excessive. We know that he’s a giant of popular music, an innovative risk taker who pushed boundaries. We also know that since the 1990s, with some notable exceptions including his final album, his work was a lot less interesting. Despite this, it seems that a couple of times a year there’s another repackaged collection, perhaps with the bait of alternative takes, demos or live versions served up at ludicrous prices.
The trend extends to cover versions too. This is the second Bowie tribute album I’ve listened to this year after David Bowie In Jazz. There must be more. And Ronnie’s Scott’s has hosted live David Bowie evenings too.
Here’s the thing. Bowie doesn’t strike me as the kind of artist who would have been told what to release or not to release; what to license and what not to license. The versions out there are the ones he thought were best. Everything else was not. All the repackaging, rehashing and regurgitation of his work is missing one of the key things that made him great, and that’s the sense and judgement that comes from having artistic control. It’s happening with Prince too. If you ignore the commercial benefits for the record company and musical estate, all that's happening is that you’re adding more water to what started as a fine whisky and diluting its quality and impact.
Moving swiftly on before my harrumphs wake the wife, one of the big benefits of a covers album is to encourage different takes on songs. It’s a bit like the fable of the robin hitching a lift on the golden eagle to get closer to the sun. It’s not all your own work, but it’s possible that you add at least a little to the song.
This album does well on that score. Generally these covers soften the songs, making them more chilled and losing the jagged edginess and emotion. I liked that. It shows that there were good songs at the heart of everything Bowie did, even if he sometimes distorted them into unusual shapes.
At a time when new artists find it hard to obtain financial backing, this album showcases artists in need of a push. Of the 17 songs here, only two of the artists were familiar to me. I’m encouraged and plan to find out more about Helado Negro, Bullion and Meshell Ndegerocello.
The big benefit is that a collection such as this helps you recover some of the album tracks that have slipped from the memory. In fact it’s the better known tracks such as ‘Life On Mars’ and ‘Space Oddity’ that come off worse. They’re so familiar that the cover versions can only be compared to the originals rather than heard in their own right. On the other hand, ‘Right’, Lady Grinning Soul’, ‘Fantastic Voyage’ and ‘Where Are We Now?’ fare particularly well.
This is a good, relaxing collection of songs. But to anyone out there preparing to repackage Bowie’s B sides, demos, live treasures or new tributes I’d just say that enough, for the time being, is enough.
Taster Track : ‘Right’ - Khruangbin