Alex Izenberg, Bear's Den, League Of Lights, Maridalen, Nightmares On Wax, Rolling Blackout Coastal Fever, Various (Ocean Child - The Songs of Yoko Ono), Vicky Farewell
If You Listen To One Thing This Week....
Listen to 'Wonder' by Nightmares on Wax with Haile Supreme and Shabaka Hutchings
Why? Because it's everything that Nightmares On Wax do well with the added attraction of the golden voice, mindbending effects and shamanac showmanship of Haile Supreme - his words, not mine - and the smooth and gorgeous sax of Shabaka Hutchings - my words not his!
Bortenfor : Maridalen
Maridalen’s second helping of Norwegian jazz strikes a lighter, happier tone than its predecessor and is most welcome.
Maridalen seems to have the knack of providing chameleon music that fits itself to your personal circumstances. Their self titled debut set the perfect tone for watching the sun come up over Whitby Harbour. This follow up has a cheery, slightly sassy and friendly vibe that soundtracks the anticipation of a fun day ahead. It captures the anticipation of a child promised a trip to the seaside but enduring the grown ups faffing around loading the car, locking up the house and taking an eternity to get themselves ready.
The core trio of trumpet, sax and double bass are supplemented occasionally by guitar and piano. They keep it simple and that’s where its pleasure comes from. There’s something about it that harks back to earlier, more innocent times when there appeared to be no war, no pandemics and no lying toe rags governing our every move.
It has the warm feel of a buddy movie. The double bass is the solid reliable one, not always valued for what it brings. The sax is the grown up one that sometimes needs to let its hair down and have fun. The breathy trumpet? Well that’s the slightly ditzy one that might let you down but usually ends up saving the day.
In the sax and the trumpet, Maridalen have two of the most expressive instruments around. They’re allowed the space to speak for themselves, and they do so fluidly and smoothly. It’s the double bass, though, that seems to drive the tone, most effectively on ‘Sandermosin’. Here it’s played with a bow to create a sense of brewing trouble and then plucked to provide some more urgent momentum.
For the most part this chatters and sways. ‘Danse du Soir’ trips merrily along. Every track has a melody upfront. There’s no need to search for it, which makes it the perfect accompaniment to daily routines. If that sounds like a back handed compliment it’s not. It reflects that most people don’t have lives that allow for fully attentive listening all the time, but that doesn’t diminish the power of music to entertain or sustain us.
The album closes with ‘I Hawn’ with its soft, wordless backing vocals that bring you gently back to base.
Wasn’t that fun?
Taster track : Sandermosen
Shout Out! To Freedom… : Nightmares On Wax
This exotic collection is an eclectic mix of influences stirred into a satisfying whole. It goes beyond the club into the big wide world.
It’s an album featuring an army of collaborators. I’m going to single out a couple to give you a flavour of what you can expect. According to his Facebook page the modestly named Haile Supreme is:
a conduit of ancient vocal techniques. Equipped with a golden voice, mindbending effects, and a cool command of shamanic showmanship, Supreme has the ability to transport listeners to a different world with each passing note.
He fits right in.
According to Papermag.com, OSHUN’s name is derived from
the name of a West African mythological deity of fresh water, pleasure, sexuality, fertility, beauty and love derived from the Yoruba religion.
With collaborators like that, it’s certainly not an album to soundtrack a wet Wednesday afternoon in Stoke.
Nightmares On Wax have been around for nearly 35 years. That’s long enough to pass the point of being a slave to fashion. This album is part DJ, part chill, part jazz, part world, part hip hop and part soul. It’s sonic adventuring of the best kind.
This album works as something you can have on in the background to set the mood for the evening, and as something with enough musical byways to give you something interesting to explore. Nightmares In Wax has become a curator of off the beaten track musical styles, a showcaser for different musical talent.
Listening to this album from start to finish is as relaxing as a warm summer evening and as interesting as a newly discovered part of your holiday town.
Some parts remain recognisably the same. Persistent bass lines of the kind found in ‘Imagineering’ still provide a solid foundation to the songs. Small variations still make a big difference, for example the wash of strings in ‘Creator SOS’.
This is music to savour and enjoy, for relaxing with a glass of chilled wine and the sound of gently breaking waves coming out of your speakers.
Taster Track : Wonder
Sweet Company : Vicky Farewell
Vicky Farewell’s take on the lite soul pop of the 70s and 80s is an accurate, respectful and wholly delightful re-creation of the times.
The tone is set by the cover. It’s straight from the girl’s magazine shelf of ‘Jackie’ or ‘Diane’ (as far as I can tell from the comics my sisters used to read and leave littered around the lounge.) It’s in the stage name too - they don’t make them like that any more!
When the vocals entered on ‘Sweet Company’ I mentally exclaimed “Karen Carpenter’s gone disco!” On the more soulful numbers such as ‘Believe Me’ the sound is of Minnie Riperton minus the falsetto.
This is the music of Radio 1 Sunday mornings from 50 years ago, and it’s an uncanny act of time travel. It’s not a parody or a simple pastiche because it also sounds very 21st century. The relaxed, highly seductive groove is exactly the sound of future guilty pleasures.
The songs come in two different sizes. There's the chilled soul contingent, and the addictive pop brigade. She crams a lot into what is a short album at just 26 minutes. Not a second is wasted, Songs can’t come much simpler than the addictive ‘Forever’ which recasts ‘together’ and ‘forever’ in various formulations.
This is music for teenagers to smooch to, and music to fuel the memories of the rest of us.
Taster Track : Forever
... And The Rest
I’m Not Here : Alex Izenberg
Here’s a record of loosely styled chamber pop that puzzles and confounds in equal measure.
I felt a little cheated in the build up to this record, having latched on to comparisons with Nilsson, Randy Newman, John Lennon and Lou Reed from the full paged back cover adverts that accompanied its release. These are four of my favourites from the late 60s and 70s, and another like minded act would be welcome. Sadly my hopes were not fulfilled. The influences I picked up were probably the likes of the Velvet Underground - at least some connection to Lou Reed there - Captain Beefheart and Robert Wyatt. I say ‘probably’ because I’ve never found it possible to enjoy their albums all the way through.
These are songs that sound flattened, pop up songs before they’ve unsquashed themselves, and songs that haven’t been fully coloured in. The music sounds thin, even though there’s a lot to hear. His voice is muted, draining the songs of life. It’s a record operating to a different standard from pop, a record that has its roots in a counter culture. It’s difficult to distinguish between tracks on your first listen.
That’s a shame, because it does create its own, thoughtful musical world and doesn’t need to break free from it. There are delicate touches to discover if you listen hard. The sudden breathy flute that emerges at the very end of ‘Ivory’, the added bounce to ‘Egyptian Cadillac’ and the chamber pop delicacy that infuses ‘Breathless Darkness’ all work well. It stretches within itself too with the slightly laboured nod to country on ‘Ladies Of Rodeo’.
This is a different album, and you have to listen hard to discover its winning touches. Like Beauty’s beast, its beauty is hidden but it’s there if you want to work for it.
Taster Track : Breathless Darkness
Blue Notes: Bear’s Den
This is an honest and sincere collection of well written love songs that sounds a little flat on first listen, but grows on you as the album progresses.
There used to be two kinds of love songs - the euphoric ‘I’m in love’ pop song and the devastated broken hearts of the breakup song. Bear’s Den deal in a third category, the tormented songs that just won’t let it go and the songs that go over and over the possible reasons for relationship failure. Bear’s Den are either serially unlucky in love or obsessive over one particular break up.
As you’d imagine, this isn’t music to lift your spirits. The songs are melancholy, even mournful but thoughtful too. Bear’s Den are genuinely sensitive souls who are strong enough to be confessional about their feelings and emotions. They sing to a generation that hasn’t fully grown up emotionally, and has yet to experience emotional security and happiness.
The songs are all grounded in the real world. They’re about relationships that have ended despite efforts to make it work and from which it’s not easy to walk away. They have a real knack for drilling down to the otherwise unspoken feelings that underpin a breakup.
This may be enough to have you diving for Relate’s contact details before moving on to something less full of broken despair. But this album is by no means a difficult listen. The secret lies in their gentle rhythms, Andrew Davie’s everyman vocals and the understated melody hooks that nevertheless worm their way under your skin.
They offer a brave veneer over deep emotions like thin ice above a deep, cold lake. You feel it could crack at any time. Until then, the songs offer the broken hearted, the deserted and the newly alone bittersweet and vulnerable compassion.
Taster Track : All That You Are
Dreamers Don’t Come Down : League Of Lights
After shaky beginnings this turns into a decent album of synth pop.
If it’s true that the first fifteen seconds of a three minute single sell the record, the same can be said for the opening track of an album. The signs here weren’t good. The synths were heavy and bloated, reminiscent of Simple Minds hurtling downhill from their commercial peak, or Ultravox around the time they were raging in Eden.
Bit by bit, the album moves to more secure ground. It’s all very well creating an atmosphere, but it needs to include a human tone. ‘2021’ balances the two, and offers a more encouraging prospect. Melody helps too, and it’s provided by ‘Ghosts’.
That opening track has set the expectations low, just as the early tweets in a thread set the tone for what follows. Early on I’m feeling that the album lacks personality, that it sounds self important. I’m even, unfairly, coining a new genre of ‘diva synth’
Wait a minute though because I have to admit that, first, ‘ I Still Remember’ gets it right. ‘Persephone’ turns out to be infernally catchy. And ‘Echoes Of a Dream’ is a clever way to end the album both reminding us what’s good about it and wrappin it up nicely.
The album still skirts close to the edge, but on the whole it stays the right side of pomp and prog. It’s pulled itself up by its bootstraps and, by the end, stands tall amongst recent synth pop albums.
In the end I can say I like the album a lot but, with different sequencing, I could be loving it.
Taster Track : Echoes Of A Dream
Endless Rooms : Rolling Blackout Coastal Fever
It’s time for a Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever masterclass in Aussie rock. This disappointing collection isn’t it.
Think about Aussie rock for a minute. AC/DC, Amyl and the Sniffers, INXS, A Swayze and the Ghosts, Civic, Ayer’s. (Forget that last one, a flippancy I should have avoided.) Like it or not you can’t fault AC/DC for holding back, or Amyl and the Sniffers for moderating their views, or INXS for reining in their excess. It’s wholehearted stuff and it thrills or repels with equal force.
RBCF aren’t like that. There’s something important missing. We’re in the foothills of something very good, but we’re missing the peaks. We know they can write a classic song. ‘Talking Straight’, from their debut is that song. Nothing here comes close.
It’s not the music. ‘Tidal River’ releases their inner U2 set against a background that’s similar to Creedence Clearwater Revival. ‘Open Up Your Window’ has a gentler, stoned almost cosmic vibe that’s quite appealing. There are mild echoes of Fontaines DC in ‘See You At The Eastern Beach’. And the opening instrumental ‘Pearl Like You’ is sweet enough.
The problem lies with the vocals. While the guitars propel the songs forward, the voice holds them back. It’s as if they’re driving with the brakes on. To be blunt, they sound as if they’re singing someone else’s words without complete conviction. It drags down nearly every song.
The vocals sound like Paul Kelly, the Australian legend who’s criminally underappreciated outside his homeland. What they lack though is Kelly’s ability to make a personal and emotional connection. Kelly sings directly to you. RBCF sometimes sound as if they’re having trouble singing even to themselves.
When you’re a rock band you should have a dream to change the world or lift your audience out of themselves if only for a short while. RCBF don’t do that.
They settle for OK, and that’s not good enough.
Taster Track : Bounce Off The Bottom
Ocean Child - Songs Of Yoko Ono : Various
This collection of Yoko Ono covers features an impressive group of artists. It’s an interesting idea but one that lacks an obvious purpose.
Yoko Ono is a bit of an enigma. She’s been, in part an oddball figure of fun, a major influence on American dance music in particular and, of course, a scapegoat for the Beatles’ demise. She’s the one who turned John Lennon weird, but also the one who collaborated with him to produce ‘Double Fantasy’, one of his most accessible albums. She comes across as unknowable, except as a maker of mysterious pronouncements in a wilfully mystic kind of way.
My starting point is simply that I don’t know what to make of her, musically or as someone who has played a key part in pop music. Despite the fact that none of the titles on this compilation were known to me, I’d hoped that they would offer a way into understanding her better. They haven’t.
Some of the tracks are as experimental as my preconceptions told me they might be. Thao’s version of ‘Yellow Girl (Stand By For Life)’ and ‘No No No’ , covered by Deerhoof, are off puttingly strange. Others are much more accessible. Death Cab For Cutie’s take on ‘Waiting For The Sunrise’ is a sweet, slightly fey, slice of old fashioned pop. David Byrne’s collaboration with Yo La Tengo is almost hymnal, made for community singing in church. US Girls perhaps capture Yoko’s influence on Lennon with ‘Born In A Prison’ which sounds as if it would fit neatly into the John Lennon solo songbook. Stephen Merrit, on the other hand, commandeers ‘Listen, The Snow Is Falling’ to make it a thoroughly Magnetic Fields song. And Yo La Tengo’s solo contribution - ‘There’s No Goodbye Between Us’ - is genuinely lovely.
It’s an interesting collection, and had me reaching for Wikipedia to find out more about her and her collaborators. It’s not a moving or inspirational collection though. The songs are too close to Yoko as an individual to reach out to the listener. It’s the difference between standing in a gallery to look at a painting, or feeling completely immersed in the art because it’s made some kind of connection with you.
So, I’m none the wiser about Yoko Ono. She remains unknowable. Perhaps that’s a sign she’s wearing the Emperor’s new clothes, or perhaps it’s a sign of artistic genius.
Taster Track : There’s No Goodbye Between Us - Yo La Tengo
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