Arlo Parks, Band of Holy Joy, Clairo, Johnny Butler, Max Bloom, Orla Gartland, Sonny Ism, Tracey Thorn.
This Week's Music
It's been a really strong week for female performers. All four of them can lay claim to being a spokesperson or ambassador for their generation, and all four deliver the reasons in support of that claim this week. It's a kind of hustings, and if you want to cast your vote for the winner let me know or comment on the Member's page.
On to the music...
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
Collapsed in Sunbeams : Arlo Parks
This record, from the 2021 Hyundai Mercury Prize shortlist, completely overturned my expectations. It’s an excellent and accessible collection of urban pop.
This is a lighter, much less grim record than I had told myself to expect. I only gave it a listen because it was a Mercury prize nomination. I wonder how many great albums are dismissed out of hand and lost in this way.
Arlo Parks was twenty when she released this album back in January. She sounds as if she is carrying much more than twenty years worth of experience and compassion. These songs are drawn from real life experiences and relationships. School features, not in an “I’m ground down by a system that doesn’t understand me or give me my due”, but as a way of exploring how she has come to be the person she is now. I’ve rarely, if ever, heard an album so brimful of empathy, understanding and kindness whilst avoiding sanctimoniousness and patronising preaching.
She’s described as a musician poet. The opening title track is a short piece of spoken poetry. It’s a nice image suggesting something broken while all looks good with the world around. Her poetic instincts aren’t flowery or obscure, but add rhythm, precision and clarity to her lyrics.
Excellent songs just keep coming. Melody, music and voice are in perfect harmony. This is a solo album that sounds like a band performance. It doesn’t need a genre tag because it’s simply accessible and very good music. Arlo has absorbed influences from all around her. The strongest is from someone like Beyonce’s sister, Solange but ‘Hope’ brings out her inner Nina Simone and ‘Eugene’ has a guitar line that could have come from one of the more commercial tracks on Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’.
It’s a practically flawless debut that exceeds the hype.
Taster Track : Hope
A Distant Shore : Tracey Thorn
Tracey Thorn’s solo debut from 1982 is a mature, personal and heartfelt album that stands the test of time.
You can glean much of what you need to know about this album from the cover drawing of Thorn by Jane Fox, a colleague in her group the Marine Girls at the time. It’s a simple line drawing on an otherwise blank canvas, lightly coloured in. If you look a little more closely you pick out nicely observed details such as the fall of her hair and the crease in her jeans. It's a perfect equivalent to the music within, in the way for example that ‘Seascape’ hints at the ebb and flow of the waves.
Direct simplicity is her calling card. It’s hard to imagine from this album that a few years later she was on the verge of supporting U2 in stadium arenas as part of Everything But The Girl. Musically this is just guitar and voice with occasional touches of reverb. They sound like demos today, but any fuller treatment would shatter their honest fragility. There’s not much happening but it’s happening beautifully.
Let’s not forget that Thorn was a student at the time having escaped the restrictions of suburban living. Her maturity of thought and expression is astonishing. She’s openly stated that these songs were about her burgeoning relationship with Ben Watt. The songs often sound as if they were written in the aftermath of a disagreement. They are full of empathy and understanding and thoughts such as “I’ve never believed that you could be too happy.” There’s something about that line in particular that captures both the vulnerability of the moment and the weakness implicit in denying that things can be perfect. She’s described this album as a passionate one. It is, but it’s a thoughtful and reflective passion.
Her maturity is in her voice too, which is deeper and huskier than expected. She could have been a jazz chanteuse. Maybe she still can be.
Later, as part of Everything But The Girl, she showed that she was not afraid to add her stamp to unexpected cover versions. Here she tackles the Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’ - the only track to feature her as both lead and backing vocalist. And with ‘Small Town Girl’ she may have nailed her defining song as the opening track on her debut solo album.
Every track on this lovely, affecting album is unimprovable. It’s a delight.
In 2013, she contributed her own thoughts on this album to The Guardian. It’s a short read that you can find at Tracey Thorn on 'A Distant Shore'.
Taster Track : Simply Couldn’t Care
And The Rest
Dreams That Take Flight : Band of Holy Joy
Band of Holy Joy’s album of performance art in song form turns into something quite personal and even moving by the end.
There’s a long tradition of artists who are as concerned with performance as with making good music. The two are certainly not incompatible, and a quick trawl down memory lane brings up Arthur Brown and his crazy world, Leo Sayer in his early days, Kevin Rowland’s spoken monologues and even Shaun Ryder's contribution to baggy Madchester.
Band Of Holy Joy are in good company then.This is pop as art - pop art without a Campbell’s soup can in sight. They set out their stall from the opening track ‘This Is The Festival Scene’. It’s the story of a terrorist attack on a festival. Liking this depends heavily on how you feel about the lead performer or, as they’re called in less performance art focused acts, the singer. He’s at his most effective in this extrovert role - the pop prophet telling odd stories. At first I thought his limitations may be transparent when he fell back on singing, as on ‘When Love Is Not Enough’. As the album progresses though, a vulnerability comes through at odds with the earlier persona.
The album moves up a gear with the last two tracks. Closing track ‘A New Clear Vision’, pinching a pun from the Vapors debut album maybe, is explicit about this. And in ‘Rhythm Of Life’ he sings “This is why we do it. These are the things we believe in.” Together they are a manifesto that explains the rest of the album. It’s a brave and satisfying end to the album.
Of course, even in performance art the music is important. The music here is very good - tight, free flowing and melodic. I’d like to hear these songs as an instrumental collection.
Taster Track : A Leap Into The Great Unknown.
Sling : Clairo
Clairo’s album of intimate and gentle songs will appeal to anyone who yearns for the female singer songwriter of the 70s. Actually it will appeal to anyone who yearns.
She’s described as an ambassador for Generation Z. It's as if the whole gang of Generation Z representatives has chosen to release albums at the same time! It’s a restrained, gentle affair that’s never going to frighten the horses. There’s a prettiness at play too. It wouldn’t be out of place on a yacht rock or lounge compilation. It sounds like a middle class album, resolving middle class champagne problems.
The album weaves a subtle understated spell, one that works in the background. The songs meander gently with the lyrics adapting to the structures of the songs and their pace, Clairo requests that you listen, rather than demanding that you do.
Her voice is attractive and inviting. The melodies aren’t always obvious in the same way that Belle and Sebastian’s melodies aren’t always obvious. Some reviews reference Elliott Smith as an influence. I can hear that in the minimalism of ‘Just For Today’ but a stronger comparison is with acts like Janis Ian, Carol King or Mary Chapin Carpenter. The best comparison of all might be with Karen Carpenter if she had been allowed to break away from radio friendly MOR to record something more personal, more troubled.
This is an album of quiet pleasures, an album to appreciate and savour.
Taster Track : Zinnias
Thirteen Dances : Johnny Butler
This is a challenging album on several levels. Nominally jazz,in many places it’s close to uncategorisable. Nevertheless, listening to it is an experience worth having, like looking closely at a new breed of dangerous animal.
My thoughts are all over the place with this album. Starting with the cover, it suggests a mutant steampunk concoction of disconnected eyes, claw like fingers and sharp teeth. It reflects the initial sounds within well.
The first few tracks are a harshly electronic soundscape that’s formless and squalling. Other reviews mention that all the noises are that of Butler’s sax, twisted and distorted into an unrecognisable shape. If that’s the case it’s a remarkable technological achievement, although the resulting sounds approach white noise in places. Each of the early tracks clocks in at around two and a half minutes, but the lack of musical form blends them into one noisy mass.
‘Baroque’ introduces a calmer, untreated sax and the challenge shifts from wondering what on earth is going on to trying to appreciate a freer but purer jazz sound. It’s this calmer note that defines much of the remaining album.
A bigger challenge is to relate what you’re hearing to the 13 dances of the title. Now you can dance, or move at least, to anything if you put your mind to it. Some people, on hearing this, will move straight out of the door. If you want to listen to music to dance to though, it helps to have a beat, rhythm or melody to anchor the experience. Without visuals, you have only half the story, half the picture and it’s only half as good. It’s the equivalent to a graphic novel with no speech bubbles. You need to work a lot harder to understand what’s going on and you may easily grasp the wrong end of the stick.
Despite all these challenges and reservations, I was drawn to this but as an experience rather than as music. Listening to it was like watching a beast stirring, fascinating in itself but I can feel myself getting ready to run. Although a completely different style of music, it’s an effect similar to one generated by Nick Cave’s Grinderman project, the brutally pounding impact of Enter Shikari and the half track I’ve managed to to survive from Slipknot. So if you like this album, you may want to dip into those too.
I do believe that if you are interested in discovering new music you have to be prepared to be challenged sometimes. It’s a work of technical excellence, a fearless album, unafraid of unsettling the listener. Ultimately it’s a satisfying album but not always an enjoyable one.
Taster Track : No Ice Cream
Pedestrian : Max Bloom
This album is the sound of a hundred different soft rock influences combining in an enjoyable whole.
Max Bloom was a member of the recently split band ‘Yuck’. I imagine that most people haven’t heard of them, let alone anything by them. Suffice to say that whatever prompted the split, Max has set off determinedly in the opposite musical direction, leaving behind Yuck’s scuzzy style and opting for something more melodic, more comfortable and smoother. It ticks a lot of boxes for me, both from the past and for what I enjoy now.
The album is a veritable smoothie of different ‘tip of the tongue’ influences. It’s not Elton John, Wings, Billy Joel or Hall & Oates but something of all their flavours finds its way into the final sound. The best I can come up with is that it’s the sound of 10CC in their later successful period, after the clever clogs had left.
It’s unfashionable, maybe, but it’s also a perfect distillation of pure pop. To give one example - ‘Palindrome’ is built around a steady beat and rolling riff. Before it reaches the song’s midway point the riff stops leaving just the bass. It’s an old trick performed well. The album is full of such touches. ‘Pedestrian’ is built around a simple and repeated piano motif that forms a platform to allow a few musical fireworks to soar. It takes you on a firmly tethered musical journey that will return you safely to where you started.
The impact fades slightly towards the end, or maybe it simply becomes more familiar. It’s a very normal sounding record, so normal in fact that it comes as a bit of a surprise.
Taster Track : Palindrome
Woman On The Internet : Orla Gartland
Orla Gartland has a refreshingly different sound that occasionally seems to be trying too hard. That doesn’t stop it being a successful off kilter take on the classic pop sound.
There’s an encouraging development in the sound of articulate female singer songwriters that moves a long way from the corporate X factor template. Orla Gartland can join the list of these that includes Girl In Red and Arlo Parks amongst others. If Arlo Parks (see above) hadn’t already bagged the title of ‘Voice Of Her Generation’, Gartland might be in with a shout at it.
The road is littered with female singer songwriters who seemed to be offering something new before disappearing (Sandi Thom with ‘I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair)) or gradually losing what makes them different ( KT Tunstall with ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree)). But Orla cites different influences on her work including Regina Spektor and Imogen Heap. And if your reaction to those names in “Who?” that merely confirms the difficulty that articulate, literary and quirky performers have in establishing themselves in the popular consciousness.
These songs are good and there’s no need for them to break into noisy and rockier thrashes. It’s as if she feels the need to turn up the volume to be heard. She needn’t worry. Her lyrics speak powerfully for themselves and you listen to her. The strongest songs here are those such as ‘Things That I’ve Learned’, You’re Not Special, Babe’, ‘Zombie’ and ‘Bloodline / Difficult Things’ where the rockier thrashes are interspersed with a flood of self aware lyrics that tumble over each other in a waterfall of insight and emotion. The less successful moments, of which there are only a few, occur when they cross the line that divides ‘nicely different’ from ordinary and dull.
I hope she has the strength of her convictions to remain true to her approach.
Taster Track : Bloodline / Difficult Things
Island Impressions : Sonny Ism
This pleasant enough collection of Balearic chill out music is ultimately unsatisfying as it’s too generic.
First impressions of this collection were that it was effortless listening, a pleasant confection of rhythm, light jazz, electronica and chilled beats. It incorporates a faint air of mysticism and even spirituality. It’s not new age music but it comes close and may well be aimed at the same audience. Inevitably, bird song features.
It flows by unobtrusively, harmlessly and meaninglessly to the extent that it’s simply bland. It could have been programmed into any school’s keyboard programme as a generic rhythm. In this day and age, it’s the kind of thing a dastardly employer might employ as a distraction muffler, and pipe it over their IT systems in a bid to boost the productivity of their employees working at home.
Sonny plays the sex card on ‘Archipelago Balearico’ to ratchet up the heat to something beyond lukewarm. It stands out, but not necessarily for the right reason. It’s the musical equivalent of catching a shaman taking a more physical interest in his followers in addition to an interest in their spiritual development and wellbeing. I’ve chosen it as the taster track for this album simply because
it is the only track on the album to have made any kind of impression.
Taster Track : Archipelago Balearico