BADBADNOTGOOD, Daniel Lanois, Ed Cosens, Elvis Costello, Fickle Friends, Francoise & The Atlas Mountains, Matt Maltese, Pete Aves, Shannon Lay, The Stranglers, Tim Finn & Phil Manzanera
Album Cover of the Week
This week's album cover of the week is for The Stranglers on the basis that it is rare to see a cover that so perfectly matches the nature of the band over 40+ years. Unbending, granite hard and in perfect alignment with each other.
This Week's Music
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that deciding on a heading for the blog each week can be a bit of a headache. I thought, what would a rock star do faced with the same problem.
With thanks to the early album titles of Peter Gabriel, this is number 54. With thanks to Shannon Lay for the idea of just not giving a name. this is untitled. And with thanks to the Beatles 'White' album, the title also tells us exactly what you see.
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
Good Morning. It's Now Tomorrow : Matt Maltese
Matt Maltese returns with his third album of delightful indie pop with a soft 70s feel.
Since his debut, each record has built on and improved the one before. His debut ‘Bad Contestant’ was a gloriously cynical affair that didn’t quite have the tunes to match. The follow up, ‘Krystal’, had more of a lounge feel but could have benefited from a little more oomph. Third album in, and he’s nailed it. It’s not the first time that he’s released an album that doesn’t feature his name on the cover, but this time his confidence in the music within is fully justified.
This is perkier and sweeter sounding than his previous knowing or languid albums, musically at least. Lyrically, the bubbly tunes cover tales of driving out demons and struggles to avoid break ups.
This doesn’t sound like a dark album though. Rather it’s the aural equivalent of a pop bubble, carried along on a warm thermal current, capturing all the colours of the pop spectrum and yet to burst.
Matt Maltese gives the impression of being confidently comfortable in his voice and sound. It fits him like a tailor made jacket, sharp, but loose where it needs to be. He’s singing in a higher pitch which contributes to the light, upbeat feel of this album. It’s a softer sound that benefits from excellent arrangements. He’s rediscovered and mastered the art of effortless melodies.
It’s a great way to be wished good morning
Taster Track : Shoes
And The Rest
Talk Memory : BADBADNOTGOOD
BADBADNOTGOOD’s take on jazz sounds quite hardcore, with melody often taking second place to frenetic technical proficiency.
Some may recall that over the last 12 months or so I’ve been determined to find a way to understand, appreciate and even like jazz in many of its forms. I like to think I’ve made progress. I consider myself to have left the rubber ring and armbands behind, moving out of the baby pool into the growns ups section but staying well within my depth and close to the lifeguards. BADBADNOTGOOD - the capitals are their idea - are the equivalent of wild swimming off the coast of Cornwall amongst the big breakers.
Opening track ‘Signal From The Noise’ captures much that is good and not so good about jazz. A clear melody introduces the track heard, intriguingly, through static. Around three minutes in it switches abruptly to ‘freak out’ guitar. It’s a harsh and distorted sound playing over percussion that’s breaking down. Five minutes in, it reverts to its origins. It’s disruptive. I’m all at sea, but it’s inducing panic more than exhilaration.
BADBADNOTGOOD release singles. To someone brought up at a time when the three and a half minute single was king, that’s bewildering. ‘Signal From The Noise’ and ‘Beside April’ are the singles from this album, but to imagine Tony Blackburn introducing them on Top Of The Pops, or Pans People dressing up in costume to dance to them is beyond me. This is not, by any stretch, accessible and immediate pop.
One of the reasons for listening to the band is that they are recognised for having strong links to the hip hop community. That makes sense. The music here is full of sections that are ripe for sampling. That fragmentation into disconnected parts also describes the listening experience.
There are certainly glimmers of hope and calm amidst the storm. ‘Love Proceeding’ and ‘Unfolding (Momentum 73)’ are gentler, with more obvious and sustained melodies. They offer some musical driftwood to cling on to as the waves of jazz soloing break over you.
This has had good reviews from the usual sources. It’s not a reflection on the music that I’ve struggled to find a way in. But equally, if, like me, you’re still a beginner in the jazz pool, this album isn’t the best place to start or continue your education.
Taster Track : Love Proceeding
Heavy Sun : Daniel Lanois
Daniel Lanois has the blues, and a lot of other musical influences too. He also has a positive attitude which makes for an intriguing mix.
Just to recap quickly, Daniel Lanois made a name for himself as a producer in the 80s. He worked with Brian Eno to produce the classic run of U2 albums from The Unforgettable Fire through to Achtung Baby. His is the sound of bent guitars in wide open spaces.
What does a man with the blues do when he’s feeling cheerful? Lanois provides one answer to that question. He’s a gruff, bluesy, soulful singer with a feel for gospel, an element of dub and when he woke up this morning he decided to be positive. His mission on this album is to bring us out of the everlasting and solitary darkness of lockdown
Welcome to the Daniel Lanois layman’s hymn book. His singing is as much a series of exhortations as it is of lyrics. That keeps things simple and memorable. You can hear echoes of Marvin Gaye’s social conscience and Aretha Franklin’s ecstatic gospel in these songs. He’s a preacher without a church, a protest singer without a specific cause, a motivator to help you get up and get on.
Musically the elements that hit you strongest are the organ which is sometimes unaccompanied and creates that sense of important messages from a higher being, and the bass which slinks along doing the devil’s own musical work very pleasingly.
It’s a record for our times pulled together out of the musical sounds of bygone ages. I liked it.
Taster Track : Power
Fortunes Favour : Ed Cosens
Ed Cosens sets out his stall early with some generic indie rock. Over the course of this album though he gradually displays a softer, more musical side that elevates the album to something that merits repeat listening.
Ed Cosens was part of Reverend and the Makers, a Sheffield band when Sheffield was the location of the latest music scene. It’s no coincidence then that he reminds me most strongly of Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys and Richard Hawley. It’s ironic that according to Wikipedia Reverend and the Makers fought against record company pressure to ape (pun intended) the sound of the Arctic Monkeys.
‘Running On Empty’ opens the album. It’s a lumbering beast of a track, all heightened drama and epic production. The trouble is, the beast it represents is a mule, a mule that struggles to carry the burden of the song. If a picture paints a thousand words, the opening half of this album is the expression of disbelieving distress on Ronaldo’s face when a decision goes against him.
There’s hope yet though because underneath the bombast of the early tracks are some good songs waiting to burst out. They emerge as the album progresses, revealing an attractive cinematic, 60’s influence and lighter sound. He still sounds like Alex Turner in his Last Shadow Puppets guise. ‘Lovers Blues’ is the highlight.
Taster Track : Lovers Blues
Spanish Model : Elvis Costello
El Vis Costello’s reworking of his second album ‘This Year’s Model’ to accommodate Spanish collaborators raises a few questions, one of which is “Why?”
First, a confession. I've been a big EC fan for nearly 40 years but I’m not familiar with the original album so I’m not in a position to hear if these versions improve on the originals. From the tracks such as (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea, ‘Pump It Up’ and ‘Radio Radio’, I suspect they do not. To my ears this sounds like the original tracks have been remixed to remove El Vis’ vocals and replace them with Spanish versions.
There have been some odd ball ideas arising out of 2020, aka the year that never was, but this is one of the stranger ones. It’s intriguing though and has potential but it’s an odd choice for a man who made his reputation from his acerbic and sharp wordplay. If English is the universal language of pop, why do we need Spanish versions of these songs? (I’m reminded of the tale of Bob Hope entertaining the troops overseas with the aid of an interpreter. He went down very well. Congratulating the interpreter afterwards on keeping up with a fast paced routine he was told that this had not proved possible so the interpreter had simply started telling his own jokes.) And if we need Spanish versions, why not turn them fully into Spanish songs and introduce a Spanish feel to the music too?
I did say it raised a few questions.
The trouble is, in not changing the music, what we have is a form of karaoke not a reinvention of the songs. The Spanish vocals rasp and sneer their way through the lyrics in spikey, semi punk style. It’s admirable in its way but any pleasure quickly wears thin.
I’d written this album off about two thirds of the way through, but there’s a run of songs at the end, from ‘Llorar’ to ‘Se Esta Perdiendo La Inocencia’, and the duet remix of ‘Pump It Up’ that realises the concept better. They no longer feel like two separate beasts stitched together and they work in much closer harmony. Ironically they’re mostly not songs that feature in the original running order of ‘This Year’s Model’
If you’re tempted by the idea, I’d recommend tasting the added tracks first and then, perhaps, letting your memories of the original album rest undisturbed.
Taster Track : Crawling To The USA
Alone : Fickle Friends
This EP of oven ready, radio friendly dance pop is hard to dislike and a promising taster for a full album due out next January.
This is appealing, teenage dance pop tailor made for Radio 1. Well, the Radio 1 that plays in the barbers when you’re having a haircut towards the end of the afternoon anyway!
It’s the sound of a hundred photo love stories from a 21st Century ‘Just 17’ magazine. It’s an outlet for the generation that craves independence, fears isolation and loneliness and has yet to wrest control of their lives from parents. It’s a record born of lockdown and a plea for face to face human contact. There’s a raging frustration underneath the songs that’s sugar coated in sweet beats and melodies.
‘Pretty Great’ is an apt title for a song with such an addictive hook. It’s not a bad tag for the EP as a whole, either.
Taster Track : Pretty Great
Banane Bleue : Francois & The Atlas Mountains
This collection of French pop is a stylish and chilled meeting of musical minds, - an ‘entente cordiale’ in its mix of French and English.
Years ago, on holiday in Brittany, we visited Auray. It’s a modern town quite packed in with narrow streets and the usual mix of necessary but uninspiring little shops. As you approach the perimeter of the town you come across some steps leading downwards that open out into a glorious sun bathed vista over the harbour. It’s a sudden and glorious surprise, magically beguiling while being quite ordinary at the same time. This record is the musical equivalent of that surprise.
Pop is a broad church. For every tattooed Axl Rose or gobby Liam Gallagher, there’s a bespectacled Roy Orbison or nerdy Buddy Holly. Francoise and his band are in the latter camp, sensitive souls yearning for love and protection.
The mix of French and English, sometimes in the same song, is unfailingly stylish. It’s not unprecedented - Phoenix and Tahiti 80 are just two bands who have pulled off this trick - but it is close to irresistible.
It’s a warm, friendly sound, calm and relaxed that’s aided and abetted by not knowing what they’re singing about. It’s addictive indie pop at its gentlest, fuelled by little musical phrases that keep you hooked. And that accent, dropping dewy eyed sincerity by the spoonful!
When you’ve been excited and battered into submission by your A Grade rock stars, this is where you come for some musical TLC.
Taster Track : Revu
Sweet Are The Uses : Pete Aves
This record of classic singer songwriting sounds excellent. It also sounds as if there is something satirical and subversive going on, and with a straight face too.
Listening to this album is a disconcerting experience. I’m confused and it’s all Pete Aves’ fault. It’s as if you’re in the middle of a party where everyone else is in on a joke except you. Musically it sounds sublime, but I wonder if Aves is luring you in with the tunes before hitting you with something different. It all adds up to an Alice In Wonderland experience, or at the very least a Monty Python experience that isn’t played for laughs.
The weirdest thing is that it sounds like easy listening lounge music or yacht rock that you register at a surface level without listening to what’s being said underneath. ‘Bandstand’ is good old boys southern rock musically but not lyrically. I had a sense of two worlds colliding and it’s always pretty but not always easy to untangle. These are conventional sounding songs that are anything but conventional when you dig into them.
‘One Hit Wonder Why’ is probably the clearest example of what’s going on across the album. First, it’s a clever title that nevertheless sounds like two titles in one. Once the song is under way, it combines conversational, rambling and arty music with an addictive glam chorus. Elsewhere, as on ‘Merle Haggard’s Blues’, the songs don’t seem to bear any relation to the title.
Notwithstanding all this, I enjoyed the album. Such commitment to defying expectations is laudable. It makes a game of listening and the playfulness that is part and parcel of that is attractive.
Taster Track : One Hit Wonder Why
Geist : Shannon Lay
Shannon Lay’s album is a pretty collection of singer songwriter folk music, a collection that is defiantly personal.
It’s a serious album, not simply in the sense that it sounds substantial and reverential, but in the sense that it demands respect. This isn’t going to be a review that makes jokes or cracks puns at the artist’s expense.
‘Geist’, the title of this album, is the German word for ghost. It won’t be soundtracking any Halloween parties though. The music sounds haunting in places but the ghosts here are memories and contemplations, not ghouls and spooks. There’s a strong feeling that she is trying to explain and make sense of the past in her songs.
Lay’s background is in US garage punk and Americana. This collection could not sound more different. She takes a quiet approach, not quite as hushed as the masters of this style such as Vashti Bunyan or Kings Of Convenience but certainly quiet enough to command attention in a noisy world. ‘Awaken And Allow’ is unaccompanied until a cello joins midway through.
That gives a flavour of its sound which is prettily sparse and freighted with significance.
Any album based on these elements stands or falls on the quality of the playing and singing. There are no fancy production tricks to recover blemishes in the performance, at most a little multi tracking of the vocals and reverb to add depth. Fortunately nothing more is needed. Lay’s unadorned voice is more than capable of sustaining these songs, and her guitar picking and simple song writing provide traditional melodies that showcase her voice beautifully.
Listening to this is neither depressing or uplifting. It’s more of a gateway to reflection and contemplation, a soundtrack that allows you to disappear into your own thoughts for understanding.
Taster Track : A Thread To Find
Dark Measures : The Stranglers
47 years into a career that originally looked as if it might implode at any moment, The Stranglers have produced what is, by any standards, a strong rock album. It’s even better when it addresses more personal matters.
Only one of the original Stranglers is left now. Jean-Jacques Burnel remains on bass, and his bass remains as effective and driving as ever. Jet Black has retired, Well, he’s 83 and in poor health. His presence remains in the shifting drum rhythms that populate this album. Hugh Cornwall split acrimoniously in 1990. Dave Greenfield sadly died last year of Covid contracted
Dave Greenfield . following heart surgery. His keyboard sound is crucial to The Stranglers. It’s heard here because, thankfully, some of the tracks were recorded with him.
The point of this ‘Where are They Now’ session is that, despite all the changes The Stranglers’ DNA survives. They’ve shapeshifted their sound over the years and dug in as required. They have a clear sense of band identity. The cover does them justice. Four Easter Island statues, presumably in the band members’ image. It captures their dark, unbending, rock hard outlook and that is reflected through out this album. This album is, above all, the sound of survivors counting up their losses acknowledging success but wondering at what cost it has been achieved.
A little surprisingly they’ve often positioned themselves as rock intellectuals. They’ve not always worn this lightly. On ‘Dark Matters’ it’s there in tracks like ‘Payday’ which is full of classical references wrapped around a catchy chorus. To be honest it sounds like two separate songs stitched together. It’s enjoyable but it jars and is the only misstep here. Elsewhere there’s an operatic feel to the album. It’s there in ‘White Stallion’ but also in the big themes of loss and regret.
What takes this album to another level is its sadness. ‘Down’ is elegiac. ‘This Song’ is bitter, as of old, but is ultimately about broken hearts. ‘Lines’ is a personal reflection on time passing, how their character has been formed not by being rock stars but by worrying about times “When the kids stayed out too late in their first car.” It’s the Stranglers feeling vulnerable. I’ll repeat that. They’re feeling vulnerable and human, a long way from the swaggering misogynists of their punk days.
Overshadowing the whole album is the loss of Dave Greenfield. ‘And If You Should See Dave…” is a heartfelt and heartbreaking tribute to the man as a friend, capturing the sudden finality of loss. There will be a lump in your throat as the song draws to a close with a line addressed directly to Dave. “This is where your solo would go.”
Taster Track : And If You Should See Dave...
Caught By The Heart : Tim Finn and Phil Manzanera
This is an ultimately winning mixed bag of latin influenced songs and solid songwriting. It’s brought to you by a graduate of Split Enz and Crowded House (Tim), and a leading light in the early version of Roxy Music (Phil).
The record opens with ‘Mambo! Salsa!’. It’s a great track, delivering what it says in the title, but it’s a misleading introduction to an album that is latin influenced rather than out and out latin music. It’s an enjoyable all hands to the carnival invitation and a gift to any Strictly contestants.
Elsewhere this is an labour of love from two veterans of popular music who enjoy making good songs and have messages to deliver. Initially it feels worthy and earnest rather than inspiring. ‘The Cry Of The Earth’ concerns climate change. ‘All That’s Human’ is a post apocalypse soundtrack a million miles from the celebratory opening. It’s a tad confusing in working out who the album is for.
There’s a massive body of work out there that reflects the views of its performers. They’ve earned the right to do this, even where it doesn’t call to mind the glory years of their past. The embers of that work can still keep you warm. A mine may be exhausted, but there are still diamonds to be found amongst the dust.
That’s the case here, and the trigger that draws you in is Phil’s guitar work. He’s worked a lot with David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and his sound is not a million miles from that. At it’s best, as in ‘A Galleon Of Stars’ it’s a drifting, completely absorbing sound. The melodic nous that Tim brings to the party is the icing on the cake and heard to great effect on the title track.
This is ultimately a warm and comforting, pleasantly enjoyable use of 45 minutes of your time.
Taster Track : A Galleon Of Stars