Air (with Alessandro Baricco) Alyssa Gengos, Cass McCombs, Fontaines DC, Hot Chip, Sessa, Whitney K
If You Listen To One Thing This Week, Listen To.....
I Love You - Fontaines DC
Don't be fooled by the sweet title. This is a classic Fontaines DC dose of barely suppressed passion and anger. It has fantastic lyrics too literary, poetic and absolutely on the button
Mechanical Sweetness : Alyssa Gengos
There’s something refreshing about Alyssa Gengos’ new album of classic and unforced indie pop.
It’s one of the first times it's struck me that the ability to record music by yourself, on a laptop, means that you are hearing a purer, unfiltered version of what the artist is all about. It’s easier to present this self to the world too. No more the need to buy demo tapes and travel perhaps a few hundred miles to hand deliver tapes to maybe a dozen record companies a day. Now you just press Send to as many people as you can think of, and set up an account on Bandcamp.
On that basis it helps if your pure, unfiltered self is someone that others will want to hear. It’s lucky then that Alyssa Gengos has a vibe of the most popular girl in class about her. She doesn’t have to try too hard to fit in. People will be drawn to her. As calling cards go, it’s a likeable one that you’ll be happy to follow up.
Of course, the downside of making songs on a laptop is that, like a doodle, you don’t know when to stop and continue to add to your creation until it collapses, bloated under its own weight. Alyssa doesn’t fall into that trap. She doesn’t need to be too loud to be heard. I like the way that the guitar remains recognisably at the heart of her songs. Vocals may float above bent and stretched notes, but the songs aren’t dragged back by too many tricksy effects. This doesn’t sound like music that has been forced into a mould, but music that she has enjoyed writing and singing.
The result is that you have a record that can appeal beyond its initial audience. Just as the pop sweetness of Kim Wilde and Bananarama could sit alongside the spikier edge of Elvis Costello and Paul Weller, so Alyssa can appeal comfortably to those who like the brasher sounds of Wet Leg or the stadium anthems of Florence and the Machine.
This is indie pop that may have started at home, but deserves exposure on a big stage.
Taster Track : Me and My Reflection
Freak Out / Release : Hot Chip
Hot Chip’s latest is a joyous electro dance record with a huge pop heart at its core.
I had reservations about this album. On their last album ‘A Bath Full Of Ecstasy I felt they were going through the motions. It was well reviewed but I felt they’d crossed the line into a bland generic dance sound, and that they weren’t being true to themselves. ‘Freak Out / Release’ blows all those reservations out of the water. This sounds like an album they wanted to make.
This is the perfect record to listen to at the end of a tough week. Every now and then a record comes along that can’t help but lift the spirits and vanquish the mood hoovers in your life. This is one of those, an album to restore you, an album to promote happiness, friendship and pleasure. It’s a new battery for the Duracell bunny. (Other battery brands are available!)
It starts with the cover, a technicolour hand stretched out and reaching down to pull you up. It continues with the opening track ‘Down’ an infernally catchy piece of retro dance that is a slice of pure joy. Its essence, if not its sound, is the essence of Earth, Wind and Fire. This is dance music to possess you.
Backing vocalists are the unsung heroes of pop, from the glory days of Tamla Motown right up to this record. Here. they add a sense of togetherness, an interaction between the frontman and the band, the band and the audience.
Upfront, Alexis Taylor’s vocals are less stylised and more everyman here. They’ve always been distinctive and were a big part of Hot Chip’s early appeal. Toning them down though means they’re less of a distraction and the record feels more of a band piece as a result.
The album highlights their pop core. ‘Freak Out / Release’ is what Kraftwerk would have sounded like if they had been a pure dance act. ‘Eleanor’ is the second great pop song by that name after the Turtles 1967 hit. They sound completely different but they conjure up the same warm feeling that comes from classic pop.
There are quieter moments here -’Broken’, ‘Not Alone’ and ‘Miss The Bliss’ amongst them. The lyrics may sometimes be dark and melancholy, but the music is always positive and uplifting. And if you needed more, there’s humour too, in the timing of the ending to ‘Time’ and in the smart lyrics. These, from ‘Guilty’ are a good example.
“When you see a finish line
Does it end up your nose?”
This is one of the best dance pop records of 2022. No, it’s one of the best records of 2022. Full stop.
Taster Track : Down
....And The Rest
City Reading : Air (with Alessandro Baricco)
This is the sound of Italian novelist, Baricco, reading extracts from his fiction over a musical / ambient backing by French electronic duo, Air. I’d hoped it was the great lost Air album. Having dug it up on Spotify, I think it needs to be buried once more.
This album is a strange beast that probably seemed like a good idea back in 2003. Sophisticated pop meets stylish Italian fiction - potentially a renaissance marriage made in art Heaven but in truth a meeting of unmatched minds. This is like visiting a newly married close friend only to find that their new spouse prevents you from enjoying the easy familiarity you knew before.
It’s not just that Baricco’s voice is too gruff to be musical, even with the advantage of the Italian tongue. It’s more that the voice is a barrier to enjoying the music. It becomes an irritation like someone watching YouTube clips on their phone while you’re trying to concentrate on a TV programme.
In an audio book, Baricco would be fine. Here though, the lack of sympathetic feeling between the voice and the music is a problem.
If you can force your attention to concentrate on the music, you’ll find some attractive but incidental tunes. I was pleasantly surprised that the guitar features more to the fore. It sounds quite lovely on ‘Affanculo’. It’s like trying to pick out the tune through static though. It may sound cruel, but the moments when Baricco pauses for breath are the easiest to like.
That said, anyone looking for a lost Air classic underneath the reading will also be in for a disappointment. It has its moments, but unlike the Air beloved of a thousand dinner parties, melody and rhythm is often sacrificed to ambience and tone.
This view feels harsh, but it’s simply a case that two good ideas don’t fit together. The result is something unintelligible to non Italian speakers, and disappointing for fans of Air. It’s a narrow niche of an album and it's hard to fit an audience into it.
Usually, when I don’t like an album, I try to find an alternative, positive review online. That proved tricky. The Guardian awarded the album two out of five. Pitchfork awarded it 4.4 out of 10 - maybe not the lowest rating in their history, but certainly the lowest I’ve seen. Perhaps that’s all you need to know.
Taster Track : Affanculo
Heartmind : Cass McCombs
There’s a lot of intelligence at play in ‘Heartmind’ but that’s not enough to make for songs you’d want to return to time and time again.
Although McCombs has his own sound, you can also hear the literary lyrics of Dylan, the storytelling prowess of Tom Waits and the free flowing, expansive almost jazz style of Captain Beefheart. He also shares the unwavering and uncompromising conviction that his way is the right way and he’s not about to deviate from it.
There’s one more thing that links these influences, and that’s the fact that I don’t like any of them very much. Of course they inspire loyalty from fans and have exceptional moments. So does McCombs both throughout his career and on this album. ‘Karaoke’ is built around a clever conceit. ‘Krakatau’ has a jaunty appeal that lifts it above the rest of the album.
But the opening track, ‘Music Is Blue’, is like a cat walking all over you and unable to settle. It’s jagged in a way that is reminiscent of both the breakdown of the 60s and the emergence of a fractured and edgy post punk at the end of the 70s. At a time when life feels as if it is dragged back five decades, this album may provide the soundtrack to that change. ‘New Earth’ is an unfiltered stream of consciousness. Elsewhere, tracks have a scuffed up feel with a looseness that doesn’t always stay the right side of falling apart.
Returning to those three influences I mentioned earlier. Their listeners are probably split between those who think the acts are geniuses and those that think they are simply weird. On that basis alone McCombs fits in well. I’m not convinced he’s a genius.
I mention elsewhere in this blog the Pitchfork scoring system. They gave this album a whopping 8.1 out of 10. Their thoughts are in Pitchfork Heartmind Review.
Taster Track : Krakatau
Skinty Fia : Fontaines DC
Fontaines DC’s third album is a dark and downbeat collection of post punk. It’s performed well but it’s when they let their passion break through that this album comes alive and hints at greater depths.
The trouble with releasing an exceptional debut (‘Dogrel’) is that it sets both standards and expectations for what follows. Bluntly, they didn’t meet these on the follow up (‘A Hero’s Death’) so there’s a lot resting on the latest release.
The literal translation of ‘Skinty Fia’ is the extinction of the Irish deer. That accounts for the cover then. It’s colloquial translation is “For fuck’s sake.” That’s the attitude we’ve missed but it takes a while to emerge.
The opener ‘In Ar gCroithe Go Deo’ is a bit of a curve ball, a bass driven, building throb with Celtic backing vocals. It’s a surprising and encouraging opening. Unfortunately, by the fifth track the album is wallowing in Joy Division post punk rather than The Clash’s desire to make a difference. It’s well done if that’s your bag, but it sets a tone that’s dark and devoid of hope like an empty Guinness bottle rolling around in a windswept street.
‘Bloomsday’ sums up this part of the album with its gloomy chant of the title and the line
There’s always fucking rain and it’s always dark.”
(Home county gardeners may be thinking “You should be so lucky” - not the intended effect!)
There are strong and intense emotions at play everywhere on this record. And there’s an Irish thread which is affecting. It's in the language of the lyrics, the accent of the vocals and the simple accordion backing to ‘The Couple Across The Way’.
The reason all this is important is that the anger of earlier songs brought in passion and energised the songs. All is not lost however. Two tracks towards the end hit the bullseye. ‘Skinty Fia’ has all the suppressed rage of those bitter Faithless monologues, such as ‘Bring My Family Back. ‘I Love You’ may be the most innocent title on the album but it’s a song where every line is a zinger. It’s poetry, and good poetry too. It has a passion that seeps through to the surface. These tracks are the highlights of the album (along with ‘In Ar gCroithe Go Deo’) They make sense of the rest, providing an outlet for passion that seeps through.
Fontaines DC arrived on the scene with Dogrel, like an Olympic swimmer launching themselves into the pool. After treading water, ‘Skinty Fia’ may be the moment that they enter the race properly.
Taster Track : I Love You
Estrela Acesa : Sessa
Sessa is a Mexican guitarist singing in Portuguese. It’s a lovely blend of modern chill and sixties Latin American vibes.
This is music for endings. The title translates as ‘Burning Star’. It’s well matched to the fading of Summer, when the evenings are still warm but the light dims earlier. It’s the equivalent of walking through a deserted Festival of Lights, with strange shapes created by shadows catching you off guard. The songs move at a walking pace that allows you to drift away.
It’s a lovely sound, taking us back to the light bossa nova and samba rhythms of the sixties. I didn’t want it to end. The hushed and delicate guitar backing, the night time flavoured backing vocals, the slightly eerie atmospheres and the chilled vibe - it’s an intoxicating mix, like an exotic perfumed flower..
The backing vocals are key to the effect. They’re the kind that accompany travelogues from a time when not many people travelled. They add a scene setting sophistication, a vodka martini that’s neither shaken nor stirred but slips down easily.
Sessa’s vocals are gentle and inviting. He likens himself to Leonard Cohen, but there’s no sense of flat, world weariness in these songs. I prefer to compare him to Jose Gonzalez, a friendlier companion altogether.
These songs are structured like the best kind of chill. ‘Helena’ is a typical example, lulling you into a relaxed state while introducing a flute towards the end to keep you interested. This is chilled music to absorb and truly listen to, not music that passes by unnoticed.
The passing of seasons is a time for reflection, taking stock and organising memories of good and happy times. This is its soundtrack.
Taster Track : Gostar do Mondo
It’s Hard To Be A God - Whitney K
This short, EP length recording of deep cut Americana makes a virtue of what some might regard as its weaknesses.
It’s an oft told tale that the Velvet Underground’s reputation rests not on the quality of their songs, but on the inspiration they gave to others. It sounds as if Whitney K took that inspiration and ran with it deep into the woods, coupling it to the experiences and tales of the wild mountain man.
You can hear elements of the Velvet Underground in the lo fi insistence of what they play. Across these five tracks, there’s a little too much of that for my taste. It’s a quietly relentless album and, equally, it’s a little underwhelming too.
The strongest songs bookend the EP. The opening track - ‘While Digging Through The Snow - is poetry set to music and it’s lovely music too, all strummed busker’s guitar, piecemeal piano and sweetener strings. It’s genuinely lovely.
Whitney K could not be accused of being a singer. He makes a virtue of this, adopting a conversational style that calls to mind someone like Bill Callahan.
It’s the sound of a hundred free Americana tinged magazine CDs. Some people love those, but it’s not for me.
An alternative take is It's Hard To Be A God - with thanks to Stylus magazine.
Taster Track : While Digging Through The Snow
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