Hamish Hawk, John Grant, Public Service Broadcasting, The Specials, Teenage Fanclub, Tindersticks, Villagers
This Week's Music
Some rules don't make much sense. Some rules achieve much good. But all rules can be broken when the time is right.
In an early blog I described the very complicated 10 step method I used to decide which album I would listen to each day. Don't worry I'm not going to repeat that here. What I am going to do is make an adjustment for its major weakness. That weakness is that if a record is released that I am particularly looking forward to hearing it may be some time before it is selected.
This week I've over ridden the process to fast track some of those records. That means expectations were very high and a frisson of tension, hope and nervousness accompanied each listening. Basically I've been living on the edge this week, and the results are covered 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
Protest Songs 1924 to 2012 : The Specials
This collection of protest songs through the 20th and 21st centuries is both an excellent record by The Specials and a spotlight on a musical genre that is frequently overlooked.
One of the surprising things about this album is just how few of these protest songs are well known. Bob Marley’s ‘Get Up Stand Up’ is a classic and I’d heard Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’ before, but the remaining 10 songs had passed me by. That’s a bit troublesome if you think about it because it calls into question how effective music is for delivering protest messages. You’re likely to be preaching to a converted fan base. Let’s face it, having heard this album I didn’t scour Google to see how I could contribute to the cause, I got up and made a cup of coffee. There’s recognition of that typical reaction in ‘Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes’ in the line “All the singers of this song cannot right a single wrong.”
But as that cup of coffee begins to take effect, and I make myself a second cup because it’s Friday, I feel more positive about the role of protest songs in our listening lives. These are by and large songs of the people, either to be sung by them or directly to them. Their value lies less in raising an awareness of an issue and more as a reminder that protest is rooted in our knowledge and experience and our understanding of the world needs it for that reason. And that’s why I’ve just Googled ‘Working Conditions of Coffee Growers’ and read about their links to extreme poverty and modern slavery. This second cup doesn’t taste as good.
An album is all about the music though, and this is a highly accessible collection of songs. It’s folk music in its own storytelling way. Many of the songs deliver slightly downbeat lyrics while bouncing along. There’s a mix of protesting against your personal lot and protesting against the system. There’s seriousness here in the cover of Talking Head’s ‘Listening Wind'' and the energy is upped in ‘Trouble Every Day’. It’s probably no coincidence that this latter song is from the 60s when protest was both urgent and fashionable. In addition to folk there are also splashes of the blues, gospel and marching songs. The latter influence feels truly subversive and is heard in ‘Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around”.
Is it a Specials album? Yes it is, and a very good one. From the opening beats of ‘Freedom Highway’ to the bitter humour running through many of the songs it’s connected to some of The Specials finest moments. The Spotify version contains two of their own songs that fit right in - one from their 2019 comeback album ‘Encore’ and the other from Terry Hall’s Fun Boy Three.
Listen to this album and let the spirit of protest seep into your soul.
If you’d like to know more about the song choices, there’s a good interview / article with The Specials at U Discover Music that takes you through the album track by track, and gives some background to the songs. U Discover Music Track By Track
Taster Track : Trouble Every Day
Endless Arcade : Teenage Fanclub
I loved this. Teenage Fanclub’s latest album fully lives up to high expectations, combining musical and songwriting excellence with a mature perspective that is both highly enjoyable and unexpectedly moving.
Classic Teenage Fanclub songs have a rolling momentum all of their own. They’re made of harmonies, fluid guitar work, steady and propulsive bass and drums and an underlay of tinkling piano. It’s pretty much the DNA of good pop rock. It’s how I imagine riding the crest of a wave to feel, and is embodied here in a track such as ‘Home’. It’s the sound of sunshine coming through your speakers.
This album takes a small step back towards the fuzzier sound of their early work, leaving behind the smoother guitars and faint bias towards synth embodied in their last couple of albums.
That’s how it sounds and ‘Ain’t That Enough?’ as they sang on a previous album. Well, your pleasure will be maximised if, like me, you’re in late middle age. There’s a perfect balance between sweetness and sadness here and it’s in tune with that stage of life where celebration and reflection join hands. These are guitar based love songs about parting, leaving, returning and pleading for someone to join you. There are no bigger subjects to sing about.
‘Endless Arcade’ and ‘Back In The Day’ are just two of several songs on the album that combine a sound and a feeling to perfection.
These songs strike the sweet spot like the moment in films where the hero dies a valiant death and as he finally closes his eyes he sees his long lost love reaching out to him (or her!)
Taster Track : Back In The Day (Very hard to choose over ‘Endless Arcade’)
Distractions : Tindersticks
Tindersticks have maintained a unique sound and style over a career spanning nearly 30 years. This may be their most accessible and beautiful collection of music yet.
In addition to releasing excellent albums, Tindersticks have also created film scores, particularly for French film director Claire Denis. And there’s undeniably something of the art house about Tindersticks, that may be off putting for some people.
Fight that feeling, because if you accept that you won’t always understand what’s going on and simply sink into the sounds and music before you, an alluring world of gorgeous music unfolds.
These are songs that deal with unsettling, erotic, even creepy emotions. Obsession features prominently as does anxious paranoia. But Tindersticks’ greatest strength is to find beauty in ugliness. The situations in the songs are uncomfortable sometimes but, nevertheless, they are filled with the kind of tenderness and emotion you might feel for a caged bird. The birdsong on ‘The Bough Bends’ is more likely to be the nightingale than the lark or blackbird, because these are songs for the quietest hours.
It’s a unique sound. They occupy their own world, sonic and imaginary, but they invite you in and offer you a glimpse of something different.
The music unfolds like a slow motion film of ink spreading through water. It can switch from soothing and hypnotic sound to something jittery and jagged in a moment before returning to something strangely comforting. It’s like a dream pulling you abruptly from sleep but passing quickly and not waking you properly.
Tindersticks have such a strong musical identity but it’s one that still allows for elements to take you by surprise. ‘Lady With The Braid’ startles with its country feel. On this album it feels as if the bass is more prominent, providing an almost Kraftwerk like foundation for some of the songs. The 11 minute ‘Man Alone (Can’t Stop The Fading)’ takes you on a journey, gently shifting and evolving with one brief,stark departure into something different midway through. It’s the melodies that win you over though, haunting and seductive, the kind of melodies sung by sirens on the rocks to Jason and his Argonauts.
As ever with Tindersticks there are the defiantly challenging pieces. There’s one song sung in French and a couple of spoken word pieces above an freer form musical backing. The spoken word pieces reek of atmosphere, but it’s the out and out songs that are something special.
Taster Track : A Man Needs A Maid
Fever Dreams : Villagers
This collection of lush, romantic songs is a masterpiece in developing a musical concept that works, and remaining true throughout to a vision of how music can sound.
This album is a reviewer’s dream, or possibly nightmare. It’s an album that is a wholly successful recreation of the music you might hear in a dream and, like a dream, it’s virtually impossible to describe.
This goes way beyond being dreamlike. Lots of artists have pulled off that trick. Listening to this immerses you fully in a rushing, chaotic, illogical and magnificent experience with moments of sharp clarity and lucidity. It’s a jumble of a sound that makes perfect sense as you listen to it. The track ‘Fever Dreams’ is the most literal example of this, the music interspersed with spoken word snippets. ‘Circles In The Firing Line’ is a vivid, rapidly changing piece with the line “You’re fucking on my favourite dream.” landing like a punch from a different song.
At heart these are classic Burt Baccarach type songs given an extensive makeover to create something lush, technicolour and unforgettable. The near falsetto vocals and glorious melodies wrap around you like a warm breeze, a bubbling jacuzzi or a soft plumped pillow. The songs are slightly out of focus. There’s lots going on but it’s as if some of the transmission channels are blocked or that the music is heard through a badly tuned radio.
It’s a rich and beguiling mix unlike any other record I’ve heard this year.
Taster Track : So Simpatico
And The Rest
Boy From Michigan : John Grant
John Grant has returned to form with this album which is full of the emotion, drama and sweeping melodies that mark out his best work.
You know that John Grant isn’t always going to give you an easy listen. Fair warning here, the cover shows him to be some kind of avenging angel or a prophet of doom. And, true to form, ‘The Only Baby’ is a song of unrepentant, unleashed anger set to music. It’s strong stuff, and a welcome venting, but it’s not typical of the album as a whole.
The album darkens as it proceeds. It’s a long album to listen to attentively and that makes you work for its rewards. It’s 75 minutes long and it flagged by the end. There’s enough material here for two albums - one that allows the full force of his anger to be heard and another that showcases his more meditative side.
That’s my only issue with the album and it’s more a reflection of my weakness as a listener, not an indication that the songs don’t work.
At the core of this album is a set of songs that rank with the best he has ever sung. It’s an album of self reflection, of trying to understand his past. There’s a sense in songs such as ‘Just So You Know’, with its line “I always knew that you loved me”, that he’s using his songs to revisit the past and set it right. It’s intensely personal.
A few years ago he switched his sound from one based around piano and guitar to one driven by synths. In recent albums he’s perhaps overdone the synths, but here he uses them musically to add to the atmosphere of a song. The synths draw you in rather than push you away.
Patience is a virtue when listening to Grant. This is an unhurried album of 12 songs unfurling across 75 minutes. Several tracks feature extended intros that set the mood before launching into song. But patience is fully rewarded when it leads to a glorious chorus, as it does on ‘Boy From Michigan’, ‘County Fair’ and ‘The Rusty Bull’.
It’s clear from his back catalogue and past interviews that some of the biggest influences on his work have been very poppy. He’s a massive fan of bands such as Eurythmics and, particularly Abba. You wouldn’t know that from the tone, but reach the big, lush, dramatic and romantic melodies and their influence is unmistakable. There’s no one better at setting the personal against an epic backing.
This sounds like an album John Grant felt compelled to make. There are no throwaway tracks here. And though it’s an album that has a few obstacles along the way, its high points are Everest like.
Taster Track : County Fair
Heavy Elevator : Hamish Hawk
This is something a little different, and like the first experience of anything new it might take time to acquire a taste for it.
For the first time, I have a dilemma here. I know a man who raved about this album as he recommended it to me, but I’m not convinced. I feel mean letting him down with my response. It’s a bit like saying to the parents of a new born child that their baby would be a solid League 1 contender in the Beautiful Baby stakes. It’s good but it’s no Champions League. The bottom line though is that I found this distinctive but not magical.
Hamish’s voice is one of the clearest baritones I’ve heard, beautifully enunciated. You won’t need to consult any lyrics website while you’re listening to this. The trouble I have is that the voice is not a conventional pop voice so it often sounds like a performance rather than singing. That makes it a bit Marmite and as with Marmite I’m not sure yet that it is for me.
I prefer the songs where he reins it in a little, as on the sparse tones of ‘Heavy Elevator’, or the lightly adorned pulsing synth track that exposes his voice fully on ‘Vivian Comma’. Perversely where the song takes a more rock based approach as on ‘Bakerloo, Unbecoming’ it sounds more generic. It loses its distinctiveness if you can’t focus on the voice, but focusing on the voice draws attention to something that I’m not sure I like. ‘Daggers’ seems to strike the right balance and that may be because the backing vocals soften the sound. It may also be because it’s the most mainstream thing here.
Lyrically, there is exceptional promise here. I’m in awe of anyone who can fit a title such as ‘The Mauritian Badminton Doubles Champion 1973’ into the chorus of a song without it seeming forced or arch. Musically too, there’s some interesting stuff going on particularly with the skittery beat and rhythm of ‘Caterpillar’
Hamish Hawk sounds like the name of a Marvelverse superhero. This album holds the promise of something special if you learn to love his voice, but the transformation into a superhero is not yet complete.
Taster Track : Daggers
Bright Magic : Public Service Broadcasting
This is a successful demonstration of the technological power of music to thrill and immerse the listener. It’s a less successful history lesson.
Public Service Broadcasting have built their career on capturing and highlighting pieces of history that may not be fully understood or appreciated. As their record company explains it, they’re dedicated to explaining the past through the music of the future.
Here they’re looking at the history of Berlin. To understand Bright Magic as a concept I think some prior homework is required. The problem with the history side is that previous albums benefit from the spoken samples drawn from people involved. Those are more limited here, and almost exclusively in non CSE German. I’m willing to learn, but without these it feels as of I need at least an A level in Berlin studies or a detailed bibliography to read in advance
It should be clear by now that this is not a casual invitation to the cabaret.
The band themselves cite Bowie’s ‘Low’ as a major influence. That doesn’t help much either. ‘Low’ is an album of two distinct halves. The first is the cheery chart pop of ‘Sound And Vision’; the second is the dark and ominous sound of ‘Weeping Wall’ and ‘Subterraneans.’ That must have come as a shock when you flipped from Side 1 to Side 2 on first release! Public Sector Broadcasting have adopted a similar approach, splitting the album into three sections. They say that the album is split into sections looking at building a city, building a myth and bright magic. To these ears though it’s hard to hear how one section differs from another.
Some of you may be wondering when I’ll get to the music. That’s kind of my point. The concept here is less a framework and more of a distraction. I found myself trying to understand the music rather than enjoy it.
That’s a shame because there is much here to enjoy if you can simply listen to it. ‘Der Sumpf (Symphonie Der Großstadt)’ is an effective mood piece of ominous piano leading to a threatening synth and beat. It’s the sound of running feet in the dark. ‘Blue Heaven’ is as much Manic Street Preachers as Bowie. ‘Der Rhythmus Der Maschinen’ does exactly what it says on the tin and does it very well. And scattered throughout the album are epic slices of melody and thrilling passion. It’s a record that reminds you of the power of musical technology to manipulate and make you feel, and it’s a record that reminds you that history teaches that anything that makes you feel can be dangerous in the wrong hands.
My head hurts now in a way that it hasn’t since grappling with a subject I didn’t understand at school. I’m going to listen to this again without worrying about the concept or that I’m failing the band as a listener. Wish me luck!
Taster Track : Im Licht