The Boo Radleys, Booker T, Johnny Marr, Luke Buda, Pictish Trail, Robert Finley, Sam Fender, Scott Twynholm, Tirzah,
Album Cover of the Week
It wasn't easy to choose a cover this week. Some were too similar to those I'd chosen before. Instead I went for one that had a nostalgic pull, the pull of holiday homes and Air BnBs and family holidays in Northern villages, a short walk from good pubs and tasty restaurants.
And yes, I realise that probably wasn't Sam Fender's intention when he agreed this cover photograph.
(I also like the Springsteenish type face and lay out too.)
This Week's Music
Quite a lot of this week's music was experimental and out there. In different ways Pictish Trail, Scott Twynholm and Tirzah all tried to redefine the boundaries of music.
It was good to welcome back the Boo Radleys and Booker T too.
In detail, here are this week's reviews.
Keep On With Falling : The Boo Radleys
The Boo Radleys return after 20 years, without their main songwriter, to deliver a euphoric burst of classic pop that, nonetheless, deals with some dark thoughts.
This is the version of the Boo Radleys that produced the sunshine pop of ‘Wake Up Boo’ rather than the more distorted and louder version that produced the still excellent ‘C’mon Kids’ and ‘What’s In The Box (See Whatcha Got)’. That’s not to dismiss it or to mistake this for a lightweight record.
Arguably it’s taken a leaf out of Mary Poppins’ book, recognising that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Writing about planned suicide or euthanasia in ‘A Full Syringe and Memories Of You’ is as dark as it comes but you wouldn’t know that from the music.
The sound of this record is the sound of a sunshine explosion or candy floss pop. Shimmering, soaring strings, blasts of bombastic horns and massive singalong choruses make for a multi colour mess at times but always an addictive mix. The higher pitch of Sice Rowbottom’s vocals make for a beguiling blend of innocent adolescent vocals and the life experiences of a mature adult.
The Boo Radleys are a band that enjoy the grand flourishes. It’s in the horn and the strings and also in the guitar soloing that ends ‘I Can’t Be What You Want Me To Be’.
What struck me most strongly is just how much fun it was to hear The Boo Radleys again, doing what they do best at their very best.
Taster Track : Alone Together
Buda : Luke Buda
Luke Buda takes a break from The Phoenix Foundation to sing of sadness, self doubt and weakness with self-effacement and lovely melodies.
Luke seems to suffer from most of the unfair pressures of modern life - body dissatisfaction, failing relationships, daily inadequacies. You name it and he’s unhappy, ashamed and apologetic for it. As he sings in ‘Private Message’ “I’m just a misery guts.”
If he’s a failure, he’s an appealing one. “I’ll add it to the list. I didn’t get around to it.” he sings on ‘Brain Jam’. He’s hopeless in the sense of being useless and being without hope. And he’s real too. I defy any beta male not to identify with at least some of his observations.
The songs are shot through with a sweet and sincere sadness and a self aware, apologetic humour. Rather than empathy, they generate a caring concern for him. He’s no rock God, but he may be an apprentice angel.
What saves this album from being an outpouring of self pity and temptation is that it sounds gorgeous. ‘Here Comes The Wind’ is all dreamy, drifting guitars accompanied by celestial backing vocals. Throughout, the confessional lyrics are heard through a softening gauze and melodies that scoop you up to see you safely home.
It’s a record that draws out the best of our emotions - compassion, concern and kindness. A record that can do that is a record to treasure.
Taster Track : Brain Jail
Colourgrade : Tirzah
This is a very strange, very different sound. It’s not just that it will reward further listening - I’m sure it will - but it needs further listening to appreciate it fully.
A demanding English teacher once insisted that you have to read every book at least twice. In the first reading you find bearings and learn what the book is about. In the second reading you learn how it works and why it works in that way. This record requires the same approach. If you want to unpick it, fully understand it, appreciate it or even love it you will need more time.
Necessarily then, this review is a first impression. The opening track ‘Colourgrade’ hardly makes it easy for the new listener. Distorted electronic incantations set against broken beats, this is electronic music imagined by machines. It throbs at different pitches and vibrates into whines. Other reviewers have described the backing ‘vocals’ as what you might expect if The Clangers went moonlighting. It’s a pretty demanding start.
The couple of songs that follow begin to draw out its appeal. Rhythm holds together both ‘Tectonic’ and ‘Hive Mind’ helping both songs to stick. Tirzah and her backing vocalist, Coby Sey, weave around each other, interlocking and moving apart, swirling into different shapes like an early perpetual motion screensaver. That’s the thing with this album, it’s hard to describe it in conventional terms. They simply don’t apply.
This is music made by someone who thinks they cannot be overheard. It’s also music that triggers a WTF response if you hear it cold but hear it in context and it makes perfect, seductive sense. ‘Crepuscular Rays’ is an instrumental that seems to come from Tirzah’s very core. A one note guitar creeps in underneath the hypnotic surges to off-set bleeps that pattern themselves into your brain. It’s compelling and hypnotic.
Colourgrade is a mutant form of music that will inevitably generate strong responses. I’m undecided for now, but I’m interested in digging much deeper.
Taster Track : Hive Mind
... And The Rest
Potato Hole : Booker T
This 2009 album from the legend behind ‘Green Onions’ was voted Uncut’s 197th greatest album of the last 25 years. It’s OK.
On initial release, much was made of the involvement of Southern Rock group Drive By Truckers, and living legend Neil Young. I’m not surprised. They sound more responsible for the feel of this album than Booker T. At the time, I can see how that would have been an audience draw, something new and an unexpected marquee collaboration. Coming to the album fresh 13 years after the release though and you’re drawn by the name Booker T. The prominence given to what is essentially a backing band comes as a bit of a disappointment until you recalibrate your expectations.
Knowing that Booker T was the man behind the sprightly sound of ‘Green Onions’ and ‘Soul Limbo’ ( the theme tune to Test Match Special ) cannot prepare you for the loudness that hits you with the opening track ‘Pound It Out’. Standing in front of the speakers at a Van Halen gig, or stumbling across the roar of an unleashed Harley Davidson while on a quiet country walk may do so. It knocks you back with its force so you forget to listen to it.
If there’s a fault with Booker’s chosen instrument, th Hammond Organ, it’s that it can sound shrill and tart when it’s strained. Here, it’s often fighting to avoid relegation to the back seats behind the crunching guitars. There’s not a lot of nuanced subtlety in many of the tracks.
There are some bright points. Once you adjust you can pick out the Southern Rock groove. A cover of Drive By Truckers’ ‘Space City’ is cool, calm and collected although you feel that Booker T is supporting them rather than the other way around. His way of saying “Thanks guys” perhaps? ‘Reunion Time’ is a lovely standalone tune, mainly because the guitars tone it down allowing the organ to take centre stage and breathe. It’s like finding shelter from a heavy storm. And the cover of party classic ‘Hey Ya’ shows the inventiveness that is lacking a little elsewhere on the album.
That’s the trouble with charts, they raise expectations. For this to be in my Top 300 of the last 25 years it would have to be in my Top 8 of any one year. It’s OK, but it’s not even in my Top 8 albums of this month!
Taster Track : Reunion Time
Fever Dreams Pts 1-4 : Johnny Marr
Epic describes this album best. Sadly that’s not enough to make a memorable album.
Coming to a Johnny Marr album means navigating a lot of baggage. Here we have a man who, in his time with the Smiths, was hailed as the saviour of rock and roll. With Electronic he produced some of the sublime pop moments of the late 80s. In the years since then he’s joined Paul Weller as someone you’re not allowed to dislike.
That’s a problem when an album that is hyped to the nines turns out to be no more than OK. As Bob Dylan has found you can’t abdicate from being the proclaimed saviour of rock, you can only disappoint people with impossibly high expectations.
The opening track ‘Spirit, Power And Soul’ sets the tone. It’s all crashing synths and manufactured urgency, a fitting soundtrack to fantasy ‘one against the world’ computer game soundtrack. The songs sound good, but it’s a bit relentless and they’re not really distinguishable from each other. Even the quieter songs such as ‘Ariel’ and Lightning People’ are too much.
This sounds like an album that has gone big on effect and left the real Johnny Marr behind. It’s a small point maybe but when did he, a down to earth Mancunian, start to sing in Sesame Street speak as on ‘God’s Gift’ ( “The A - Zee of your despair” - What’s wrong with ‘Zed’ Johnny?) It helps to build an impression akin to the Wizard of Oz. Behind the screen of effects, is there just a bit of a fraud sitting there?
For all the epic synth and all the noise, the songs sound empty. They’re little more than musical bombast. He’s done a U2 on us, still writing stadium sized songs but somewhere along the way the decent tunes and the ability to relate to an audience that grew up with you has gone astray. His heart’s in the right place but he’s lost the means to express it.
There are moments when you catch a glimpse of what could have been. “Spirit, Power and Soul’ puts the roll into rock and roll. ‘Counter Clock World’ stands out for the first couple of minutes, an acoustic strum adding something different. ‘The Whirl’ and ‘Tenement Two’ have a catchiness that cuts through the song. ‘Rubicon’ possesses a serious and reflective quality that matches some of Steven Wilson’s best work.
There’s no hiding from the fact that this is a disappointment. A return to basics would be welcome.
Taster Track : Rubicon
Island Family : Pictish Trail
Island Family’ is a creative work of great power but leaves a strong taste that may not be to everyone’s liking.
It’s all here in Island Family - beats, electronic rhythms, more beats, bursts of unexpected nursery rhyme melodies and a horror atmosphere that chills the ear drums. It’s not what I expected at all.
Pictish Trail has always been hard to categorise. They’ve been not quite folk, not quite pop and not quite anything else you might hear on the radio. It’s fair to say that they’ve never been as dark as this before either.
The opening title track is simply strange. ‘Natural Successor’ which follows it has a much heavier riff that makes it clear we’re not listening to Scottish folktronica any more. This is the soundtrack to a Chris Brookmyre novel, one that doesn’t end well, or a Scottish Island horror flick. Madness has filtered its way into the music. It’s unlikely to dispel the concerns of anyone whose image of the Scottish Islands is formed by the Wicker Man.
The album is a muscular electronic set but one that is often mixed with a bastard version of rock and roll. There’s some respite on the gentler ‘Thistle’ and some tracks such as ‘Remote Control’ are more accessible, but it’s relative.
I can’t decide if it’s genius or simply crazy. It’s certainly impressive in its way but it doesn’t make for an easy ride, or an easy listen. I can hear its creativity and imagination but it’s strong stuff and not for me.
Taster Track : Remote Control
Sharecropper’s Son : Robert Finley
Robert Finley offers a masterclass in traditional blues, with just enough updating to keep it fresh. It’s a heritage lesson to treasure.
Leaving aside your personal response, there’s something special about the blues. It’s the bedrock of virtually everything that followed - soul, gospel, R and B, rock, punk. You name it and it draws on the original blues or its direct descendents. It’s like finding evidence and reminders of the first humans in Africa.
And it works. No matter how familiar the sound, no matter the lustre added to the raw material it works. At the core of every song handed down from the early bluesmen is rock’s DNA.
Robert Finley is not a familiar name but he knows how to play and sing the blues. It begs the question of how many more impeccable bluesmen are out there plying their trade under the radar. This album is autobiographical. That gives it an honest, confessional appeal that drips authentically from the speakers.
His guitar howls. His vocals distort fuzzily to create a sound that is helpless to contain its passion. His falsetto on ‘Souled Out On You’ adds a dash of soul. ‘Make Me Feel Alright’ is a joyful take on the blues - if that’s not a contradiction in terms.
This album works as a reminder of why the blues were and are important. It’s a highly enjoyable album in its own right too.
Taster Track : Make Me Feel Alright
Seventeen Going Under : Sam Fender
Hailed as the new Bruce Springsteen, there’s plenty of evidence on Sam Fender’s album to suggest that the accolade will be deserved.
He’s a Springsteen for North East England. The parallels are easy to hear, but he’s no mere copycat. His songs are too brutally drawn from his own experiences for that. The anger, frustration, contempt, incomprehension and unanswered accusations of the opening two songs ‘Seventeen Going Under’ and ‘Getting Started’ are amongst the most heartfelt and powerful descriptions of trying to break free committed to record in recent years. It’s fairer to say he’s inspired by Springsteen rather than directly influenced by him.
These are big, big songs even when they’re quiet. Lyrically they’re convincing and brilliantly captured. Musically they’re often perfectly paced and captured. ‘Aye’ is a standout track in this respect. Intros serve as ticking clocks, counting down to an explosive burst into full song.
Springsteen isn’t the only inspiration. The songs serve as accusations and condemnations as well as a call to arms. That’s what the Clash did and, more recently, Fontaines DC. And if Fender left it there, we’d have a 5* album on our hands.
It feels though that Fender still wants it both ways. He wants to change the world and arrive at a better understanding of himself. He wants to unleash energy and collect his thoughts. Springsteen was similarly conflicted and resolved the matter by releasing albums that were split between solo works, and works with the E Street Band. Both could be excellent.
What I find with Fender is that the two halves make for uncomfortable bedfellows. Musically it means that the angry tracks propel the album but the brakes are continually applied by the more reflective tracks. It’s as if ‘Born To Run’ was suddenly the centrepiece to ‘Nebraska’. There’s a reason that the Clash rarely recorded ballads.
Fender makes no secret of his left wing leanings and his admiration for Jeremy Corbyn. With songs these passionate and socially aware he may, in time, face the unfortunate consequence of being claimed by all sides as their inspiration and influence. I’m not sure Paul Weller has ever come to terms with David Cameron claiming ‘Eton Rifles’!
All told though, Fender is the Premier League Academy star most likely to break through to the first team.
Taster Track : Seventeen Going Under
Tekstura : Scott Twynholm
These generally sombre piano pieces, supplemented by foreboding synth drones and mournful cello stand where the classical world meets the nu-classical one.
Indirectly I came to this via Belle and Sebastian. Twynholm is a composer of film scores who’s also a member of the glitchy but sweet electronic band Looper. Looper was formed by Stuart David after he left Belle and Sebastian.
Don’t come looking for this if winsome indie pop is your thing. They’re from different worlds. To a simple “Gimme the beat , boys” pop lover this is music that is trying so hard to be serious that it stumbles into pretentiousness. Maybe I’ve missed resonances in the Russian word ‘Tekstura’ that are absent from the English word ‘Texture’. I understand better what he’s aiming for in English. Tracks such as ‘Piano Lumineuse’, ‘Schumann’s Resonance’ and ‘The Vorkapich Montage’ seem self important when attached to pieces - why not tunes? I’m falling into the same trap! - that are quite simple and occasionally soothingly lovely.
It’s probably me. A melody’s a melody after all.
Tracks suchs as ‘Piano Lumineuse’, ‘Odessa 4am’, and ‘The Vorkapich Montage’ display a lightness and bounce that can win over the most stubborn of listeners. Is it classical or pop or something in between? Spare the mental energy. It’s like worrying about the difference between broccoli and calabrese. It all tastes the same in the end.
As for texture, sorry tekstura, I can appreciate that in the album. It seems less connected to the piano than to the layers of synth in ‘Piano Texture #2’ or the cello in ‘From Northern Storms On The Sea’. The piano sets the tone. The rest creates the texture.
There is something Russian in the tone, like an enigmatic whispered conversation set in a darkened room and filmed in balck and white. It’s music that takes you into a solitary world of your own. If you let yourself go, it’s soothing even if it’s not quite fully immersive or consistently engaging.
It’s music for when you’re alone and a little stir crazy.
Taster Track : Odessa 4am
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