Anna of the North, Barbara, Birmingham Electric, Gabriels, James Yorkston Nina Persson and The Second Hand Orchestra, Mamas Gun, Robert Forster, Todeskino
If You Listen To One Thing This Week, Listen To.....
On one level this is a simple folk song from a straightforward folk album. In its clarity and simplicity though it becomes a song that transcends genre. It's the opening track of an album that will take your expectations, song by song, and twist them into something new. It's an album that is full of surprises and you should give it a go.
Crazy Life : Anna of the North
You can’t better this take on modern chart friendly pop. It’s familiar yet fresh, contemporary yet timeless and polished until it gleams.
Anna of the North is a 30 something Norwegian with a feel for inoffensive ear worms that avoid irritating. It’s the very model of modern, melodic music - the kind that is made for singing to a hairbrush with your BFF. Listening to this is one step closer than watching your early teenage daughter enjoying the first pop she’s chosen for herself.
It’s a nice balance between good pop and light dance. It sounds as if Anna has something to say about the relationships that have fuelled pop since the 1950s. That’s much better than standing someone in front of a microphone and handing them a sheet of paper with words they sing the first time they see them.
This is as inclusive as radio pop can be. It could be girl singing to boy or vice versa. It could equally be a boy to boy or girl to girl relationship at the core of these songs. Back in the day, Anna’s audience would have been drawn from the Smash Hits readership. Today, it’s more likely to be the readers of Classic Pop.
Of course these songs conform to the chart pop template, but they colour it nicely. They’re the sound of Radio 1 playing perkily through a hundred hairdressing salons. Being old school, if there’s a guitar to be heard beneath the electronic rhythms and beats that’s a plus. You can hear it here and it grounds the songs giving them the depth that goes along with being a singer songwriter rather than a scantily clad clothes horse for an algorithm driven corporate songwriting team. (There’s no science to back me up on this, just shameless, personal prejudice ingrained over a couple of decades!)
I don’t usually include a link to another review when I’ve enjoyed an album or hoped I’ve done it justice. However, I stumbled across this review by Evie Gower on Gigwise - Anna of the North Crazy Life Review - and it’s a good one. It’s written by someone closer to the music in terms than I can hope to be. I thought its perspective might be interesting.
The DNA of glossy disposable pop is in good authentic hands with Anna and the North.
Taster Track : Meteorite
Communication : Birmingham Electric
You pretty much have the whole history of synth pop contained in this album from its innocent early days to its more grandiose remix eras. It’s great.
Birmingham Electric is an expat American called Andrew Evans. It could be that America has nothing like the same history of synth pop as the UK and that’s why he‘s invested so much in getting these songs exactly right. It’s a genuine labour of love.
There’s a startling opening to the album, the harsh electronic dialling tone trying to reach a disconnected phone. It grabs your attention before lapsing into the kind of “she doesn’t want to speak to me any more” lament of the geek confined to his bedroom with his synth and headphones.
This is an album that grows track by track from something that’s a little cliched, but still good fun, to something grander like an overwhelming emotional surge. It finds its feet slowly but aided by some excellent remixes by Mark Reeder - a synth pop / electronic giant, even if you have never heard of him - it moves to the summit of this kind of music. ‘Light of the World’, in particular, is a six and half minute triumph.
Evans plays his synth like it’s capturing the whole era from 1984 to the mid noughties. His music conforms to an idea and memory of what synth pop sounded like at the time, but you may find it hard to put your finger on who he sounds like. There are a whole host of influences in there including OMD, Depeche Mode, late New Order and Dollar. There are the requisite elements of cheese and drama there too. The mix is very well done. The price is that it perhaps lacks a Birmingham Electric personality.
It’s often the touches in the mid ground of these songs that are the most effective. That’s where you will find the hook for ‘Circles’ hiding and the itchy sequencing of ‘How Do We End Up Here?’.
Musically he’s hit the bullseye. Vocally, he has the perfect voice for the youthful innocence that early synth pop practitioners brought to the party. It’s a mixture of yearning and complaint. Lyrically, well, synths were so new back in the early days that you didn’t really notice what they were singing and you could say the same here. You will notice though that there’s a self consciousness to some of the songs like ‘The Jungle’ suggesting a slight lack of confidence in his ability to deliver what he’s taken on.
It’s groundless. Birmingham Electric end up delivering a masterclass in synth pop.
Taster Track : Circles
The Great White Sea Eagle : James Yorkston, Nina Persson and The Second Hand Orchestra
This collaboration between Scottish folkie James Yorkston and Cardigans singer Nina Persson, ably backed by Yorkston’s go to orchestra is surprising and enchanting.
Listening to this album is like a conversation with a younger version of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. There’s nothing urban about this record. It’s as rural as scarecrows and as coastal as hearing seagulls as you watch them below you from a cliff.
These are more like songs in the classical sense of a lieder than in the sense of having a song in the Top 40. They are undeniably folk songs, with a sense of heritage and tradition. ‘Keeping Up With The Grandchildren, Yeah’ is about sharing the lessons of the past but withholding some for now. Bringing the past into the future opens the album up into an enchanting other world, a world that’s not quite understood and leaves you unsteady on your feet. It’s a world that hints at uncertain magic, where futures may be decided by Tarot cards.
Lyrically there’s something strange going on. ‘An Upturned Crab’ contains the line
“How unfortunate I was to have missed that.”
It’s not a musical line at all. It sounds like a translation and that emphasises the sense of being in a place that’s different.
If it’s a little odd lyrically, musically it’s filled with gorgeous melodies and infectious rhythms. The simple ‘Sam and Jeannie McGregor’ has a sweet, memorable melody. ‘A Sweetness In You’ has a sweetness within itself too, stripped back to a single piano and with gently rolling drums like distant thunder. ‘Peter Paulo Van der Hayden’ has an irresistible rhythm, and the rhythm to ‘The Heavy Lyric Police’ wouldn’t be out of place at a ceilidh.
The three elements of Yorkston, Persson and the Orchestra gel together nicely. There’s no ego here. If an element isn’t needed in any song, it isn’t used. Persson’s vocals are gorgeous and Yorkston’s are full of character.
You may come to this record with fixed expectations. It will turn and twist those expectations inside out, and leave you thinking you’ve heard something unusual and special.
Taster Track : Sam and Jeannie McGregor
....And The Rest
Mildly Entertaining : Barbara
This EP from two brothers who call themselves Barbara is twenty minutes of glowing pop spiced with an arch knowingness.
You need a sense of humour to call your album ‘Mildly Entertaining’ and then run riot through the sound of 70s golden pop. You need a sense of humour to wear the tank tops and fixed grins they’re sporting on the cover too! But just because you have a sense of humour does not mean that you shouldn’t be taken seriously, because this is as skillfully and lovingly created as it can be.
If anything they’ve tried too hard to achieve success. You have the Beach Boys harmonies, the 10CC pop opera feel, the wordy lyrics, the soaring unfuzzy guitar work and the overall feel of ELO without as many restraints in place. And, yes, that means they are way out there like a puppy off the leash for the first time who hasn’t mastered the meaning of recall! ‘Rainy Days In June’ even has a refrain that is straight from Eurovision “Ba da da dee dum” playing over and over and over and over and….
They’ve grabbed what they can from pop’s handbook and decided to use it all. For all its faults though it’s likeable and engaging, sending itself up with style. Of course there’s more to this than the surface bubble gum. It’s one thing to recognise what’s going on and quite another to pull it off with the style and flair heard here.
Barbara - they’re a one trick pony but what a trick.
Taster Track : Rainy Days In June
Angels and Queens Part 1 : Gabriels
This short album tells the story of Black America today. It combines the voice of angels with the music of forces of darkness. In more than one way it’s a battle for soul.
There are two kinds of soul music. There’s the kind that lifts the spirits and addresses the feet. It’s the sweet soul music of Arthur Conley, Stax and Tamla Motown. And then there’s the darker, socially aware side of soul heard in the Temptations ‘Ball of Confusion’ or Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ album. Gabriels are firmly in the latter camp.
It may be a debut but it feels as if it has aimed straight for the short list of albums that come to be seen as important, defining an era and challenging us to see it for what it is. While the UK has seen a political period of black farce in the last year or so, black America has risen up to condemn its treatment, battling the real effects of discrimination and violence. This album soundtracks that turmoil.
For the casual soul listener it's a challenging but ultimately rewarding listen. This is heavy soul, introspective and full of anger at the world around. They’ve seen what Michael Kiwanuka and Sault can do, and taken it a step further. ‘Mama’ is an epic, capturing the state of Black America’s world. ‘The Blind’ lurches powerfully forward like an injured and battle scarred war veteran returning home. This is what you might see and hear in your PTSD nightmares.
Songs are built around Joseph Lusk’s astonishing voice, delivering a range of emotions supported by menacing and threatening strings and rhythms.
There’s a buzz around Gabriels at the moment. They were placed in the BBC Sound of 2023 list (No 5). The second instalment of Angels & Queens is out later this year.
Prepare for it with high expectations and not a little trepidation.
Taster Track : Mama
Cure The Jones : Mamas Gun
Mamas Gun lovingly recreate the sound of radio friendly 70s soul. It’s turbulence free time travel.
The opening line of this album is “Life has a funny way of pulling surprises.” They’re not wrong. From the band name you might expect some form of hard drinking American swamp rock. There’s another surprise in store too. Listen to this without knowing who it is and you’ll visualise dinner jacketed musicians, straight from Las Vegas, scattered across the stage, a row of doo wop backing vocalists looking like the Pips without Gladys, and a spotlight lingering on the lead vocalist. Think again. Mamas Gun are an endearingly scruffy, five piece band from London.
This is the musician as the curator of past sounds. Andy Platt has performed this trick before on yacht rock as part of Young Gun Silver Fox. It’s embedded in the sound of 1970s Sunday morning radio. ’Cure the Jones’ has the music that defined an era before punk and disco - smooth, lazy, languid and, perhaps, a little soporific. 1970s Sundays were days with nothing to do, and this music was its perfect soundtrack.
Mama’s Gun perform soul as it was before it became RnB. A thousand Romeos gave thanks to it, picking it up to woo their next conquests. I’m sorry to repeat myself but this is so smooth - the vocals, the Philly strings, the quietly funky bass and the falsetto on ‘Get Through It’ all glide from the speakers. It’s full of big production numbers such as ‘Cure The Jones’ and an obligatory, huge closing number in ‘Daffodils’. It’s the sound of Marvin Gaye, the Blackbyrds with a sprinkling of early Hall and Oates.
‘Cure The Jones’ is an album that’s so well made that you can’t help but admire it even if it’s not your usual cup of musical tea.
Taster Track : Looking For Moses
The Candle and the Flame : Robert Forster
Robert Forster’s new album shows his skills as a classic singer songwriter, but for this reviewer something, as always, is missing.
All reviewers should approach all reviews with an open mind. There I’ve said it. And now I have a confession. I can’t do that with Robert Forster. Ever since his band The Go Betweens he’s seemed to be someone I should love. Reviewers I respect have raved about him. What they hear as glorious, thoughtful indie pop rock should push all the right buttons for me and trigger the same overwhelming rush. But I don’t get that. I’ve invested the time in his music and I’ve always been underwhelmed. Put simply, it’s not fair.
His latest album is imbued with the confident authority of an unchallengeable classic songwriter. It shows in a song such as ‘Tender Years’. He’s at the stage in life when memories are bigger than dreams. His songs are filled with the positivity and optimism of a man who has come through trials and tribulations. (Biographical Note: Since writing these songs Forster’s wife has begun a battle against cancer. I hope his positivity and optimism helps them both through this.)
He writes and repeats simple melodies as if it’s blindingly obvious that nothing is served by making them more complicated. He’s like an artist who can capture a complex personality in just a few brush strokes. The downside is that the songs can lack colour and interest. They can become, whisper it quietly, dull.
In songs like ‘Tender Years’, ‘Always’ and ‘Go Free’ I catch glimpses of what his fans find to be special. There’s sincerity, a line of lyric that resonates or the perfectly timed shift in tone or energy. I can hear how in ‘She’s A Fighter’ the music, the basic lyrics and their delivery combine into a whole that is greater than its individual parts. They’re just not enough to give me the disciple’s buzz that comes through for others. Grr!.
Annoyingly though, they are just enough to send me back to the various Go Betweens songs I’ve acquired over the years to search again for what I haven’t heard. Wish me luck.
Taster Track : Always
MMMiniatures : Todeskino
Todeskino’s ‘MMMiniatures’ takes you on a journey of electronic discovery via the most irritating album title of the year so far. Lessons were never like this in my day!
This is one of those strange musical universes that emerges from unknown acts and makes the case for their wider recognition. It’s interesting in a good way, not in the euphemistic sense of “get me away from this!
With apologies to every band that has used something similar as an album title, you could say that this represents new adventures in electronic recording. It recognises that sound can be part of music even if the reverse doesn’t always apply. This is a record to appeal to both the listener and the technician just as the Tour de France appeals as a spectacle of human endeavour, while the bikes appeal as a designer’s dream.
Tracks such as ‘Bitorchestra’ are alien and irregular but also eager to please. On ‘Burnt Toast Mountain Chain’, as the melody breaks down, music and electronic sound combine in surprising harmony. Sometimes the balance between music and sound wobbles. ‘Pink Chewing Gum’ moves to ambient noodling a little as the tracks explore where they want to go and expect you to follow.
Todeskino himself confesses that his aim is to help your mind take a nostalgic trip back to sweet and melancholic childhood memories. I’m not sure the music engages personally and emotionally enough to achieve that. Instead it captures the childlike wonder at discovering new worlds.
It may take a couple of listens, but time invested in this album could reap disproportionate and long lasting benefits.
Taster Track : Bitorchestra
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