Updated: Aug 22, 2022
A Mountan Of One, Andy Shauf, Bananarama, Beach House, Butcher Boy, Dubstar, Feeder, Martin Courtney, Me For Queen, Phillip Schiepek and Walter Lang, The Sheepdogs, Stars,Tallies, Vanderwolf
If You Listen To One Thing This Week, Listen To.....
No Dream Of Fayres by Tallies
Maybe I've just been lucky recently, but we appear to be in a moment of catchy choruses and top quality, dreamy pop. This song from Tallies is one of the best.
You Had A Kind Face : Butcher Boy
This latest release from Needle Mythology is a lovely introduction to the Scottish Indie pop of Butcher Boy. The record label describes it as literate, melodic pop. They’re not wrong but that doesn’t do justice to its rich appeal.
Talking to a friend recently, I mentioned that I had bought a copy of Tindersticks Greatest Hits. He laughed and said he didn’t think Tindersticks had released anything that could be considered a ‘hit’ although it was very good music. He’s right, and that’s why I’m glad that this Butcher Boy release is billed as an anthology. It’s an excellent introduction to a band that had completely passed me by.
Listening to this album is like seeing the face of a future partner for the first time. It may take time for its beauty to reveal itself fully, but before long you’re in the throes of a fully fledgedl crush.
These songs are romantic and poetic, and it's no surprise to learn that poetry lurks in founder John Blaine Hunt’s background. Spotify’s time sync feature even shows the lyrics in blank verse prose. He’s a true wordsmith with the stream of conscious approach of early Lloyd Cole - his second appearance as an influence this week!- and the precise imagery of Ian Dury, without the Cockney accent! The most obvious influence is early Belle and Sebastian but there’s so much more to discover too.
This is rich music, avoiding epic crescendos but adding flourishes to discover on future listens. It’s too big for chamber pop, but not as overwhelming as a fully serviced classical apartment. Perhaps it fits in as en suite music. It’s everyday music, with added emotion.
The vocals are stylised in their careful enunciation and clear articulation. It’s an approach that never did The Divine Comedy or even Noel Coward any harm.
Like a taste of forbidden sweets, this is an album that leaves you craving more and a desire to return to its joys time and again.
Taster Track : Dear John
(PS That Tindersticks compilation is called ‘Past Imperfect’.)
Magical Sign : Martin Courtney
Martin Courtney’s new album is refreshing balm for the soul, containing nothing but gentle tones and good music.
Martin’s day job is with American indie band Real Estate who make dreamy indie music that hovers around you. In his solo guise he is like a stranger you meet at a party that you feel comfortable with immediately. He sounds like a nice guy. His mix of indie, country folk and jangle pop is wrapped up in warm and likeable vocals.
In these songs, he’s looking back on moments in his life and he is thankful for them. He’s giving the benefit of the doubt and assuming good intent. He’s singing of a world where everything is OK, reminding himself on ‘Terrestial’ that “nothing’s wrong, nothing’s wrong”. He’s come to appreciate what really matters. The closing song ‘Exit Music’ is a matter of fact love song to his wife.
If you’re searching an antidote to cynicism, insincerity, ego and contemptible behaviour look no further. This is the kind of music a modern day version of The Waltons would welcome into their home. It has an honesty and decency about it that charms but never sounds pious or po faced. Unusually, this may be an album best listened to in private to reset your thoughts, free from distraction.
Like all good songs, these sound effortless, natural and flowing. They’re unassuming and free from ego, content to sit away from the spotlight and wait for you to find them. ‘Sailboat’ is a rockier number but not in a ‘look at me guitar hero’ kind of way. He’s produced an album full of refreshing sweetness that perhaps only a modern day Teenage Fanclub can match.
It’s music that would be abashed to hear me sing its praises, but music that deserves those accolades nonetheless.
Taster Track : Corncob
From Capelton Hill : Stars
Stars have delivered an album containing some of the purest indie pop I’ve heard for many years. It’s a joy and, more than that, a celebration of a whole era.
I’ve listened to Stars before and found them to be enjoyable but lightweight, appealing but easily disposable. This is different. It’s a love album that’s light and textured and pretty and gentle and melodic. There’s a looseness at play that can never be mistaken for a loss of control. The variations in the phrasing of the lyrics are only possible because the band has a respect for and deep understanding of classic indie pop.
It’s more than just the music though. They’ve been around for more than 20 years and it feels as if they’ve grown into a comfortable maturity. They’re a band and this is an album that recognises the pull of the mid past. It reaches out to pull you back into a bittersweet earlier life that is remembered with fond sadness. It comes as a mild shock to listen to the more downbeat closing track ‘Snowy Owl’. It’s a reflection on now rather than then, and it punctures the tone set by the rest of the album.
It’s a deceptively easy listen. You need to commit to the album to allow it to cast its spell, otherwise it will simply glide past with no chance to make its impact.
When searching for influences and comparisons, I felt this was a case of Lloyd Cole singing songs written by Deacon Blue, accompanied by Prefab Sprout. That’s three strong reasons to give them a listen but, ultimately, they have a lovely sound that is all their own.
Taster Track : Back To The End
Patina : Tallies
This album of jangling dream pop from Canadian band Tallies strikes a perfect balance between music and effects.
Even though this album has come out on Bella Union record, the shadow of 4AD looms large across it. From the styling of the cover to the sound of the music, you can’t ignore the influences of, say, Cocteau Twins or Lush. That’s not too surprising when you realise that Bella Union is owned by Simon Raymonde who played bass for The Cocteau Twins at their peak.
This is jangle pop with softer edges, taken to the point where it becomes something dreamier. Everything is locked into place. It’s reverb heavy, oddly tuned, suffused with fey, breathy Tinkerbelle vocals and totally immersive. It’s a headrush of a record.
‘No Dreams Of Fayres’ slips straight into a comfortable, dream-like groove, supported by one of the catchiest choruses of the year. ‘Wound Up Tight’ is like a surfer’s wave at the point of breaking or a black hole about to turn in on itself. It’s barely hanging on to what it was, and loses the vocals dramatically in the mix.
You sink into the total experience of this record rather than the individual songs. It’s best to let go and the music will gently carry you along for the ride.
Taster Track : No Dreams Of Fayres
....And The Rest
Stars Planets Dust Me : A Mountain Of One
Balearic meets Madchester in an enjoyable album of what the Guardian calls psychedelic dance, and the rest of us might consider to be come down music.
One of the benefits of trying to write a weekly blog of album reviews is that you have to feed it with music that might otherwise pass you by. That’s the case here.
For those of you who like to pin down the terms used in reviews - and why not? - MixMag magazine explained ‘Balearic’ in the following terms
What the 'Balearic concept' has taught us is that it doesn't matter what genre the track falls into, as long as the beat 'n' groove move the feet and what's on top of 'em is pleasing to the ear.
Madchester was the name given to the indie dance scene centred on the Hacienda club in - surprise, surprise - Manchester, although it quickly spread more widely.
In both cases, appreciation of the songs was enhanced by your recreational drug of choice. Allegedly.
Whatever, this is a lovely sounding trip full of chilled, tuneful music to bring you back down to earth after a night raving in clubs. It’s a procession of gentle beats and songs that are forever moving forward rather than looping back to what has come before. It’s a floating circus of sound passing by as you watch from a comfortable armchair on the pavement.
It’s music that slows you down, allowing you to take time to drift amongst your thoughts with no pressure. It’s dance music inside your head, something you’ll suddenly hear yourself humming or realise that you’re tapping your feet to unheard music. It might look like twitching or fidgeting to others. Don’t let that put you off!. You could have this on a loop all day, scarcely noticing how it evolves from one thing to another.
It’s not perfect. The downside of its relaxed gentleness is that it may not maintain your attention. When it diverts from its chosen template, as on ‘Stars Planet Dust Me’ it turns into a bit of a dirge too slow and serious for a song clocking in at nearly eight minutes. ‘Soft Landing’ does the subdued approach better as it retains a light melody to carry the song. It’s the kind of thing inspired by Madonna’s ‘Ray Of Light’ album.
Generally though, it’s a joy. The spacey House piano on ‘Black Apple Pink Apple’ has crept out of the lounge to invite you in. ‘Dealer’ provides a shot of euphoric energy that still won’t contribute to an after party headache. ‘Surrender’ calls to mind the more soulful elements of early Heaven 17. The average length of each track across the album is more than seven minutes and this extended running time suits the music very well.
It’s 07:20am and I’m set up nicely for the day. A shot of warm, sunny Balearic to leaven some drizzly overcast Madchester is just what my inner DJ ordered.
Taster Track : Black Apple Pink Apple
Wilds : Andy Shauf
Andy Shauf is a Canadian singer songwriter whose short but deceptively intense album dissects the passage of a relationship.
It’s an aching, subdued album. It starts with ‘Judy (Wilds)’ a slice of mundane musings about buying a lottery ticket and not winning. It ends with him passing along a wedding reception line without her in ‘Jeremy’s Wedding (Wilds)’). The tone is captured in the sadness of the lines
“Part of me
Misses you almost all of the time:”
It’s a stream of musical consciousness, sometimes no more than a trickle yet it is also brimful of tension and unstated suffering. The album feels infused with the shock and trauma of the break up described in ‘Believe Me’
Is it likeable? Yes it is. Catchy guitars and pop rhythms lie beneath the downbeat lyrics and vocals. Odd, unconventional tunings give the songs character. It’s a lofi,budget, introspective collection that doesn’t vary much from its chosen path but travels it well.
In ‘Television Blue” it pulls off the trick of sounding like both Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel without once bringing their vocal styles together. If you like the sound of that, you’ll also like the sound of Josh Rouse, particularly his album ‘Under Cold Blue Skies’.
There’s no escaping that this is a minor and low key album in every way. It’s also one that exquisitely skewers both sweetness and trauma, sometimes in the same song.
Taster Track : Judy (Wilds)
Masquerade : Bananarama
This is Bananarama’s 12th studio album. It’s a dance pop fiesta - very listenable but lacking the mischief that characterises their classic songs.
Think back to 1982, when most people stumbled across Bananarama via their collaborations with the Fun Boy Three. They were new, they were excited and above all they were fun. In that first bloom of success, songs like ‘Cruel Summer’, ‘Robert de Niro’s Waiting’ and ‘Venus’ soundtracked impossibly sunny and cheery Summers. They were the girls to start a party, teasing and flirting their way through the 80s. That doesn’t come through in this album. Bananarama have decided not to use their Bananaramalamadingdong!
Fast forward through 40 years of real life - families, relationships, all the usual pressures and issues of growing older - and what’s changed? In some ways, the answer to that is “Nothing much”. They still slip down as easily as an alcopop slush puppy. They’re about as substantial as that too. In song, they haven’t grown up or grown old. They still sing of bad love, staying wild and being forever young.
The thing is though, that they’re the same age as me and, inevitably, that lends a sheen of wistfulness and nostalgia to the songs. They never say so explicitly but looking back from their 60s while singing in the present tense constructs a fantasy, memories rewritten under a coating of what should or could have been. And that lends a thoughtfulness to what would otherwise be a happy set of instantly disposable songs.
The record is carried by its electronic backing. It follows the broad path of Madonna at her most poppy and Kylie as she dips into and out of confectionary pop and it’s paved with a light, House touch. It’s still classic pop. On opener ‘Favourite’ they outdo Abba at being Abba.
It’s hard to tell though how much this is a Bananarama album and how much it is a studio album that happens to be fronted by the girls. Producer Ian Masterson and his technical team deserve at least equal credit for this album.
These are songs that work best if you let them pass by without too much analysis. They’re clinging to and recreating 80s fun. Look too closely and the fizzing bubbles burst and, in the end, why would you want to do that?
Taster Track : Favourite
Once Twice Melody : Beach House
Beach House’s latest album of lush and layered songs is enjoyable on its own terms.
I’ve given Beach House more last chances in the past few years than the Tories gave Boris. Every time they released an album to great acclaim, I was filled with hope that this time it would be different. The album would deliver what was promised in the reviews. Their undeniably distinctive sound would flex sufficiently to welcome new admirers. And there would be more than one track in each album that knocked you for six.
Well, like Boris it’s clear that they are not going to change. Unlike Boris though, and almost against my better judgement, I’m won over by their latest contribution. The reason for that is simple. On this 18 track album, coming in at around 80 minutes, they’ve incorporated pop as well as atmosphere into their music. By ‘Over and Over’, the extended outro feels like it’s marshalling the listener for the rest of the record.
It’s a cumulative effect. Track after track of lush, orchestrated synth smothers resistance and you succumb to it as you would to the hugs of an overly affectionate grandmother. Synthesisers permeate every millimetre of this record from the surging, swelling and swooning strings, to the motorik rhythms and vocodered vocals at various points.
My problem with Beach House has usually been the sapping lack of energy in their music. What energy there has been feels like the energy summoned up to run for a bus in the early hours of the morning. It’s not going to last for long and a recovery period will be needed once you’ve slumped in your seat. There’s still an element of that in the slow, leisurely pace and length of this album but it’s rescued by a more melodic and expansive approach. I can’t shake the feeling that this is the kind of music that is dragging you out of a deep sleep, but this time it feels as if a liberal shot of espresso has been applied to ease the process. And, as it drags you to a place of warm consciousness I’m asking myself “Where’s the harm in that?”
Their trademark Cocteau Twins type woozy production is still present. It works particularly well on ‘Another Go Around’ which captures a dreamlike merry go round appeal. ‘ESP’ is another woozy confection, a ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’ for the 21st century. ‘Superstar’ and ‘Runaway’ stand out too.
It’s a good album, a final last chance that has been seized and made to work.
Taster Track : Another Go Around
Two : Dubstar
Dubstar’s second album since they reconvened in 2018 is another replication of their pristine, dance friendly synth pop. It’s influenced by their early stuff, the Pet Shop Boys and Covid.
We’re now getting a constant stream of albums conceived and recorded while Covid was alive and experienced daily. You can see and hear it here. The album cover is of a dark and deserted multi story car park. Songs from this time are full of personal reflection, focused more deeply on what is important.‘Hygiene Strip’ deals with the 1984 brave new world of pre-vaccination lockdowns and includes the line
“It must be illegal to kiss by now.”
There’s another less obvious way that Covid affects this record. As a trigger for uncertainty, isolation and fear, Covid taught us to keep safe. And that’s what Dubstar have done on this record. They’ve kept it very safe indeed.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect fit for a generic synth pop mould, full of easy melodies and gentle dancefloor rhythms. It’s not an album that takes risks or wants to be different. It feels like a high quality painting by numbers job, rewarding and enjoyable but not a masterpiece
There’s nothing here to drive you away, but neither is there anything to compel attention. It’s the sound of music from a thousand radios (remember those?) or playing from every trendy High Street boutique. In a world full of music, it’s at the very centre of the crowd, not in a space of its own.
Sarah Blackwood’s vocals remain a key part of Dubstar’s appeal. She’s the germ free adolescent, bathed in hand sanitiser who grew up to be the singer in a band. She’s Sophie Ellis Baxter’s non identical twin and she makes a very good job of it.
This is an album that is consistently playing to its strengths and influences. That makes it a good and enjoyable if unchallenging listen.
Taster Track : Token
Torpedo : Feeder
Feeder have released a new album, full of their customary metal Britpop. And that’s really all you need to know.
Incidentally, this is Feeder’s eleventh album, but they’ve also released twelve compilations. How does that even add up?
It’s been a while since I listened to Feeder. In my memory the Feeder sound is based on volume and power and that turns out to be a neat summary of their work. For a trio, they make a hell of a noise. It can be exhilarating and there are always moments where they nail a decent pop melody over the crunching riffs. They make music for a big screen, and as an antidote to excessive lofi bedsit intimacy they have a lot going for them.
The problem is that there’s not a lot else, no emotional substance. This is the soundtrack to a shoot’em up from the safety of your sofa computer game. It addresses cartoon threats and dangers like a less successful Marvel film. They’re in a state of constant panic about the ‘ifs’ of this world that might never happen. Like an empty wasp nest you feel their music once contained buzzing threats but now it’s just a shell with nothing at the core.
It’s a product of imagination rather than experience, but in an album of continually heightened drama it’s hard for any one track to stand out. They remind me of Muse, loving being rock stars but keen to move on from the pop elements of Britpop to something that marks them out as serious players. In the process they’ve lost any wit, any self awareness, any emotion.
‘Magpie’ shows what they do well. ‘Torpedo’ is a power blast of a record. ‘The Healing’ makes a concession to a social conscience that makes something more hopeful. The rest of the album is OK, but dull and one dimensional.
Feeder - play it loud. Otherwise there’s no point playing it at all.
Taster Track : The Healing
Loose Ends : Me For Queen
Me For Queen, or Mary Erskine as her birth certificate would put it, is new to me. Her take on traditional singer songwriting is a little different, enough to make it individual without it becoming hard work. I liked it a lot.
She claims a number of out there influences including Regina Spektor and Bjork. That’s fair enough. You can hear echoes of Bjork in the structures but, fortunately, shorn of the screeching vocals and fingernails scratching down blackboards. There’s something of the 70s American singer songwriter too, perhaps a few shades of Rickie Lee ‘Chuck E’s In Love’ Jones in the mix too. Two more modern comparisons come to mind too. King Creosote is someone who shares her Scottish perspectives, and Roxanne De Bastion, could be her soulmate sister, particularly vocally. (That's enough of the references to acts that most people won’t know. Some are featured on the Shadowplay playlist if you’re interested in learning more.)
Initially I thought there was something appealingly quirky at play in the background of these songs. And there is. It’s in the sense that you’re listening to someone quite motherly, not in the sense of bellowing up the stairs to make sure you’re getting up for school but in the sense of someone calm and wise, proud and reflective. It’s reinforced by a track such as ‘Snow On Snow’ which captures the stillness of an early morning, looking out of the window as a fox or bird disturbs the settled overnight snow. On a track such as ‘Loose End’ her vocals trill and flutter like a bird.
It’s an intimate and conversational record, made for listening to live in the small upstairs room of a market town pub. There’s a little Scottish indie pop in the arrangements of a song such as ‘In This Skin’. Her guitar playing is lovely, and virtually the only instrument on ‘Jessica’. Her flowing keyboards are brimming with swelling passions. Brass is used creatively throughout.
This is grown up music to savour.
Taster Track : Mainframe
Cathedral : Philipp Schiepek & Walter Lang
This collaboration between the new jazz guitar kid on the block, Philipp Schiepek and the musically wise hands of Walter Lang on piano applies education’s 3Rs to music. It brings reverence, respect and romance to your speakers.
Now, I’m happy to bet that I listen to more jazz than most, if not all, the people who will read this review. That qualifies me to say that I don’t think this is jazz at all. It’s much closer to classical music. That should win over the non listeners!
Initial impressions of this album were that it has a lovely rich sound and mediaeval melodies that call to mind ‘Greensleeves’. It’s a stately sounding record , the opposite of rock and roll in so many respects. Fortunately it avoids the curse of romantic piano which is to sound like Richard Clayderman, complete with his offer of an extra three notes for every note written on the score. Then I read that Walter Lang had died from cancer at the tail end of last year, aged just 60. That transforms how you hear this music. If I were a close friend or relation of Lang, the sound of every track would move me to tears.
It’s a calming and meditative collection that represents a long, hard journey towards hope.The piano leads delicately. The guitar lends light, shade and colour. The instruments wrap their contributions around each other. There’s a very strong sense of the instruments playing together to create a picture of mixed hues rather than providing a palette of separate colours.
Knowing that this was Lang’s final album, and appreciating that Schiepek is a tender 28 years old, there’s a sense too of passing the baton, not quite like the regeneration of Dr Who, but certainly ensuring that the musical bloodline continues.
‘Cathedral’ is an album of strong, unvarying moods that runs for nearly an hour. The borders between jazz and classical are fluid on this album. That doesn’t stop it being an album of calming, emotional music.
Taster Track : Estela Cadente
Outta Sight : The Sheepdogs
The Sheepdogs, from Canada, are stuck in a 1970s time warp. Don’t worry about them. It’s their happy place.
The Sheepdogs play pre-punk, 12 bar boogie with half an eye on making whatever qualifies as Top of the Pops these days. It’s classic rock music for a cartoon TV band. You can’t help but call Status Quo to mind or The Faces with a lighter touch. They’ve realised their dream and they’re inspiring countless bar room bands to do the same. You couldn’t accuse it of having too much depth, but it’s harmless good time fun that whips up a crowd and leaves a smile on your face.
It’s an air guitarist’s dream record. If you listen to ‘Roughshod ‘89’ alone, you’ll hear a compendium of 70s rock styles
It’s easy to criticise this for being derivative, but that’s hardly the point. This sounds as if it’s their whole life. They can play. They’ve chosen their path, even if it’s unfashionable, and they’ve perfected their approach. You might as well criticise reality TV programmes for not featuring ordinary everyday people.
Lyrically? Well they’re unlikely to be the second musical recipient of a Nobel Prize for Literature. ‘Mama Was A Gardener’ features 31 ‘whoahs’ and ‘oohs’ in 208 seconds
But as they sing on ‘Here I Am’:
“Here I am
With the band
Sing it loud
That’s the plan.”
Taster Track : Roughrider ‘89
12 Little Murderers : Vanderwolf
An album of two halves - rootsy garage blues on the one hand with a softer psychedelic feel to follow. And there’s a healthy dose of weirdness thrown into the mix too.
Apart from the fact that it was made in London, this is the sort of album that could only come from America. And you’ll notice here that we’re not talking about the America of mid western picket fences! It sounds like Americana mixed with the blues. The cover looks like the children of ‘Deliverance’. The band look like survivors of a Charles Manson cult.
There’s a strong musical vision at work here. In places it feels as if they are deliberately avoiding commercial success, defiantly treading a path that by passes the mainstream. And yet it’s a strangely compelling listen. There’s a kind of horrid fascination with how it sounds.
The bluesier, rootsier first half begins with an unrepresentative track, ‘I Am Not A Mountain’. It’s almost bluegrass, almost taking us down to the river to pray. It quickly shifts to a wig out form of garage blues that hits its peak with ‘Something For Nothing’. ‘Stand By Your Fool’ sounds like a frontier preacher, with a bible in one hand and a gun in the other.
Cut to the second half, and it’s a less manic experience, extended pieces and more accessible. Tracks such as ‘Walking Away’, ‘Glisten’ and ‘Aftermath’ act as the calm after the storm with extended psychedelic guitar and gospel backing vocals stirred into the mix.
It’s a different listening experience, one with much to offer and just a little to be wary of.
Taster Track : Walking Away
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