Ben Lee (and Guests), Bleachers, The Catenary Wires, Natalie Bergman, Prince, Ronnie Lane, Sebastian Plano
This Week's Music
Normal service is resumed this week with seven wonders of recorded music reviewed for you below.
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
Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night : Bleachers
It’s 40 years since the 80s, but this album captures the pop euphoria of that time while keeping it fresh.
Keeping it fresh is no mean feat. Travel back 40 years from 1973 when I first fell into music and you would have been faced with Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. Geniuses all, but old fashioned too, even then.
The album title is apt. This is the joyous sound of stadium filling singalong crowd pleasers. It’s the return of the big power ballad playing on the soundtrack to the Breakfast Club or, if you want to be truly up to date, The Brunch Club. Bleachers are made for the Walkman, Live Aid and MTV generation. These are songs that carry you along on the sugar sweet adrenaline rush of songs that take it down to the floor before reaching high for the sky. They must have a filofax full of big name contacts, hence the collaborations with Bruce Springsteen and Lana Del Ray. The saxophone on ‘How Dare You Want More?’ is solid bling 80s.
It’s a perfect, knowing album destined to become a future guilty pleasure.
Taster Track : How Dare You Want More?
Birling Gap : The Catenary Wires
This is a glorious melange of pop influences from the 60s onwards that combines into a glorious yet understated whole.
The Catenary Wires have pedigree. Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey have previously been members of bands such as Talula Gosh and Heavenly - underrated suppliers of excellent indie jangle pop to the masses in the late 80s and early 90s. They’ve expanded the line up in recent years but still retain the intimacy of a duo.
‘Birling Gap’ is the gentle distillation of all they’ve absorbed musically over the last 35 years. If it were a wine, it would be described as complex but smooth and satisfying.
It’s a beguiling mix of folk, dream pop, light psychedelia and 60s / 70s singer songwriting. They duet like Sonny and Cher, if they wanted to break away from chart hit after chart hit. Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood may be a better comparison. You can draw later parallels too - 80s disco, 90s indie, shades of Lush and Belle and Sebastian.
There’s an attractive sense of culture and community too. I hesitate to call it Englishness in a post Brexit world, but references to mirrorballs, real ale, the sea and church bells abound.
All told, this is a lovely record, a calm record, a record to celebrate and love.
Taster Track : Mirrorball
And The Rest
A Mixtape From Ben Lee : Ben Lee (and Guests)
Here, Ben Lee showcases his pleasant but slightly underwhelming songwriting through the voices of others.
He’s chosen a mixtape format. It seems a little odd to make a mixtape of your own songs performed by others, but maybe it’s a calling card in an attempt to become better known. He deserves to be. He’s a bit of a trailblazer as there’s a mixtape on the shortlist for this year’s Hyundai Mercury Prize shortlist - Berwyn’s ‘Demotape / Vega’.
The mixtape is a powerful tool. More discriminating than a playlist, and less market driven than a compilation it’s a statement of your personal taste. It’s saying “Listen to this, and you’ll understand me better.” It’s something to give to others rather than keep to yourself, making a connection. Famously, it used to be the case that the right mix tape to the right girl (or boy) would persuade them of your suitability as a partner, a spouse, a lover , or a co-parent. I’ll confess to not making a mixtape for Mrs Pop In The Real World in our early days. I realised that songs about drug dependency and fighting the system were unlikely to advance my cause with a classical loving home counties maiden more interested in Mozart than Mozza. The power of the mixtape was still evident in later years though, rescuing many long car journeys with the kids from chaos and civil war on the back seat. “Can we have the music on?” was a phrase nestling neatly between “Are we nearly there yet?” and “I feel sick.”
The songs themselves feature an impressive list of indie pop collaborators, including members of Gomez, Empire of the Sun, Cardigans and Eels. It’s unmistakably a Ben Lee album though - straightforward songs, nicely arranged with a sense of release in the choruses. It has a consistent style - you could not accuse it of being a mixed up mix tape. He’s a songwriter for hire if you need an album track that is a radio friendly, potential single. It’s a playlist friendly collection that’s a little unadventurous, worthy rather than thrilling but a good listen nevertheless.
Taster Track : You're The Reason (featuring Zooey Deschanel)
Mercy : Natalie Bergman
An album of Christian music isn’t the first place you’d look to find 60s girl group soul, but this celebration of being a Christian and of Christian beliefs is also an excellent pop album.
Before I listened to this, I didn’t realise it was an album of Christian music. Had I realised, my awkwardness at being confronted by the fixed smiles and suffocating sincerity of the worst kind of happy clappy church goer would have paused my download finger. And that’s the worst kind of prejudice, because Christian music has been responsible for some of the greatest pop music of the last 60 years. Where would Tamla Motown have been without gospel music? Mark Kozelek’s hushed renditions of Christmas carols add reverence to the Christmas season, as does Belle and Sebastian’s version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel. And, deep down, who goes to a church service without hoping that ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ is one of the hymns?
The Christian messages on this album are explicit, not wrapped up in imagery, allusion or allegory. But they’re wrapped up in sugar sweet pop melodies, straight from the Christian disco. Just one example is the 60s girl group soul of ‘Sweet Mary’. They’re love songs to God. The fact that they are personal hymns doesn’t invalidate their emotions.
I haven’t been a regular churchgoer for many years but there is proof here that the devil no longer has all the good tunes. It’s a joyous and moving collection of songs.
Taster Track : Speak To The Lord
Welcome 2 America : Prince
This is a new release from Prince, written in 2010 but released now for the first time. It’s recognisably filled with the Prince take on funk, but by his standards, it’s a subdued affair.
Before moving onto Prince, let’s think about David Bowie for a moment. What’s your favourite Bowie album? I guarantee that it won’t come from the late 80s or 90s. Everyone with a long career has a fallow period where their records are out of fashion. The albums released during this period have some good songs but lack inspiration. They sound as if his full attention lies elsewhere. When we evaluate an artist’s legacy we forget this. Bowie is a genius. Prince is a genius. But not all their records are good.
In 2010 the biggest selling albums of the year in the UK were by Take That and Michael Buble. Also in the list were the likes of Mumford and Sons and Florence and the Machine. There was a larger than usual sprinkle of uber hyped acts too - Justin Bieber, Susan Boyle and Olly Murs. Although the likes of Lady Gaga and Rhianna were in there too, all in all it wasn’t a musical climate that could easily accommodate Prince in his prime. The decision not to release ‘Welcome 2 America' in 2010 may have been a sound one.
Does it stand up better with a rose tinted legacy perspective. I’m not sure it does. It starts promisingly with ‘Welcome 2 America’ which takes its lead from ‘Sign O’ The Times’ or Stevie Wonder’s extended version of ‘Living In The City’. It’s unhurried funk with a conscience. There’s a stronger ensemble feel to the record with the backing singers allowed to share centre stage. It’s a more controlled performance, less reliant on extended and frenetic jams. It’s Prince on a smaller scale, aiming to rule the clubs rather than the stadiums.
The trouble I have with this collection is that it cannot cope with the burden of his back catalogue. Without that, as a fresh new sound, it would be lauded. But standing next to ‘Purple Rain’ or ‘1999’ it lacks passion, energy and the downright dirtiness of his classic works. There’s no glorious pop high on this album. ‘Hot Summer’ strives to be this but its retro sound is lightweight and throwaway. Individually these songs sound like a collection of also rans.
As an album its subdued consistency sets a tone that will have its place soundtracking dinner parties and soirees, but is that what Prince would have wanted?
Taster Track : Welcome 2 America
Just For A Moment (The Best Of) : Ronnie Lane
This greatest hits collection from a leading, but perhaps under-appreciated, figure in 60s and 70s rock is a great introduction to his work.
Ronnie Lane, was a member of The Small Faces (‘Lazy Sunday’, ‘Itchycoo Park’) and The Faces (‘Pool Hall Richard’, ‘Stay With Me’). You can trace the Small Faces’ influence on the likes of Paul Weller and Ocean Colour Scene and the ‘lad rock’ influence of The Faces directly leads to Oasis. If you’ve seen the TOTP video of (I think) Maggie Mae, Ronnie Lane is seen scrambling back on stage mid way through the performance with Ronnie Wood. Sadly, he succumbed to multiple sclerosis in his 30s, dying aged 51 in 1997. His solo work started in the mid 70s and he released his last album in 1979. That’s the period covered by this compilation.
Knowing the back story inevitably colours your reaction to the songs. He was plagued by financial worries after leaving the Faces, not receiving royalties for his work that were later ruled to be due to him and that adds a poignancy to his cover of ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime’. In his autobiography ‘Let The Good Times Roll’, Kenney Jones paints a picture of Ronnie Lane that is uncommunicative, disappointed and even bitter. Those emotions don’t come out in these songs which are highly personal. He writes and sings about what he knows and it comes out in his songs. In several songs, ‘Just For A Moment’ and ‘Annie’ among them, he’s counting his blessings.
It’s unfortunate that his solo career clashed with punk. It’s gentle folk rock that led to two charting singles ‘How Come’ which just missed out on the Top 10 and ‘The Poacher’ which is my favourite but just scratched the Top 40 . You could describe tracks such as ‘Little Piece Of Nothing’ as chamber folk. ‘One For The Road’ captures the matey singalong style of an acoustic Faces. Ultimately that’s the major feel of this collection. He, and his band, are a collection of travelling minstrels or buskers. They’re musicians having a good time and inviting you along for the ride as long as you take them as you find them.
One nice touch is that after his death, Manor Park in East London named a road after him. Inevitably it’s called Ronnie Lane
Taster Track : Just For A Moment
Save Me Not : Sebastian Plano
Sebastian Plano’s thought provoking and reflective collection of sombre, nu classical pieces may not be to everyone’s taste, though it’s a beautifully produced body of work.
Plano was a new name for me. He’s a composer of video game music and is described on Wikipedia as ‘nu classical’. He’s won awards for New Age composition in the past, and he occupies a similar musical space to Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnalds.
I find responses to this kind of music tricky to explain. They’re dependent on how I’m feeling at the point of listening to it. I hope for something that calms and reboots a troubled mind. This takes me in the opposite direction. It’s bigger on atmosphere than tunes, but it’s a post apocalyptic atmosphere with a sombre tone throughout that’s imbued with fear and anxiety. There’s no doubt that it’s a serious work fully in keeping with these coronavirus times.
I felt that this was music drawing its inspiration from what has passed over the last 18 months or so, rather than offering hope and positivity for the future. It’s not harsh or brutal, but there’s a lack of hope and a sense of defeat lingering across most of the tracks. There’s a sense that we’re picking up the pieces in a world that has changed forever and in ways that we may not fully understand.
Quite gloomy then, and probably not the soundtrack most people will reach for to accompany warm summer evenings. The only bubbly sensation on offer will come from your Prosecco. Don’t dismiss it out of hand though. There will come a time when we need to take stock, and this music may help us do that.
Taster Track : Never Learned