Adrianne Lenker, Ben Lukas Boysen, David Gray, Do You Have The Force (Compilation), ESG, Pomplamoose, Poolside, Rosie Carney, Soft Power
This Week's Music
"Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” – Confucius
“Music is the moonlight in the gloomy night of life.” Jean Paul Friedrich Richter
"Can you turn that noise down?" My Dad c.1976
Three quotes prompted by the realisation that this week's listening included a lot of instrumentals - or maybe they're just songs waiting for the lyrics to happen!
As ever this week's playlist 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
I've turned to drink this week for the category headings.
The Bends : Rosie Carney
If you’ve ever listened to Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’, forget everything you heard before listening to Rosie Carney’s cover of the whole album. Her version couldn’t be more different, but is equally compelling.
If Radiohead’s original songs are the howls and screams of pain, anger and frustration, Rosie Carney’s treatments are introspective and sadly reflective. Radiohead wants you to feel their pain; she wants to tell you about it so that you can understand it better.
Stripping away Radiohead’s anger and visceral approach to the music focuses you on the songs and they are uniformly excellent. Softly strummed guitar and celestial backing vocals mean that this isn’t so much dreamlike as music in a dream. The songs become an interior monologue rather than a tirade at the world. They’re making sense of trauma. They’re reflective, with a sad beauty and resigned fragility.
The melodies in the songs had not registered strongly with me before. ‘Planet Telex’, ‘The Bends’, ‘(Nice Dream)’ and ‘Black Star’ - these are presented as songs for singing, transforming but not losing their power in these versions. ‘My Iron Lung’ is shortened and stripped of its lyrics. What ensues is a piano led melody that Randy Newman would be delighted to own. On the quieter songs such as ‘High and Dry’ the impact is a little less, simply because the contrast with the original is less. There’s a slight misstep in the lightly treated vocoder vocals on ‘Sulk’, but that's the only flaw to my ears. ‘Just’ submerges the vocals beneath industrial strings - cold and mechanical strings that are the stuff of Hitchcockian nightmares. She uses reverb cleverly. On “Fake Plastic Trees’ it’s the sound of an explosion’s immediate aftermath, played at normal speed while time has slowed down.
This clever, heartfelt album is a triumph. It transforms Radiohead’s songs to create something that stands as a completely new work, a mirror image of the original. It’s far more than a covers album, and shows Radiohead in a new light too. It's a tribute both to the orignal songs and the gorgeous reimaginings here.
Taster Track : Fake Plastic Trees
Brink Of Extinction : Soft Power
Sometimes we need to be prepared to overcome our preconceptions and prejudices. ‘Brink of Extinction’ is a concept album of Finnish, jazz prog rock fusion about bio diversity endorsed by Rough Trade.
I’ve highlighted 7 potential triggers to not liking this record and I recommend that you ignore all of them and enjoy this record. This collection of instrumentals is simply a collection of good music, regardless of the labels you attach to it.
In the best possible way this is a dinner party album. The real world doesn’t allow us to listen to everything intently, analysing it to within an inch of its life. A dinner party album needs to be unobtrusive but fill the gaps in conversation with good sounds. If it triggers the question “Who / What’s this?” it’s done its job and its done it well. This album will do that.
If we were to attach genres to everything we listen to, it would be fair to call this jazz as there are undeniably jazz flourishes throughout. But it’s also the case that the tunes can wash freely over you, because they are tethered to rhythms and melodies that are consistently interesting and good . If we were to call this a rock album we’d be praising it for the number of hooks contained in each song.
‘Awakening’ is true to its title. It’s a short, piano led prologue to the main event. ‘Brink of Extinction’ is a couple of tunes in one - a rock instrumental that grooves and, in the middle, a sombre spoken word reflection to a sparser sax / bass / synth backing. (OK, maybe this particular section won’t lift the mood of your dinner party, but the rest will!) ‘Window of Opportunity’ is the most jazz fuelled track here but over its 13 minute running time it builds, ebbs and flows nicely. ‘Orange, Red, Yellow’ is a distillation in 7 minutes of everything that works beautifully about this approach to music.
To sum up it’s a record that does full justice to both parts of the band name. It’s a Soft Power indeed.
Title Track : Orange, Red, Yellow
Mirage : Ben Lukas Boysen
Sneezing, as I did while listening to this record for about 5 minutes, is not regarded as a helpful aid to concentration. Ben Lukas Boysen’s immersive, hypnotic and beautiful electronic compositions are not immune to that universal rule.
That distraction aside, this album on the Erased Tapes record label is a source of deep calm. I find it difficult to explain how that effect is achieved. I could only do so in intellectual and technical terms which is a bit of a problem as I’m neither intellectual or technically equipped to comment. This is an album to be experienced and surrendered to, as it weaves its magic. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a de-stress session in a flotation tank.
The album cover reflects the music within. What is it? It’s not clear. I see it as one, maybe two faces distorted in sand. I’ve seen other reviews believing it to be a squid. Who knows? It’s an effective image though.
Each track shifts and twists, but subtly. Over the course of a few minutes they become something different, but you don’t notice the joins where the transition takes place. ‘Empyrean’ is electronica that is layered and shape-shifting, fading its patterns in and out. ‘Kenotaph’ introduces a simpler keyboard sound that becomes something fuller, underpinned by jazz percussion. ‘Medela’ follows the same route, but midway through takes an ominous turn, a warning before returning to something more reassuring.
The key track for me is ‘Love’ which closes the album. It has surging waves of, not music exactly, but musical sound and it triggers an almost overwhelming emotional response. It’s a hit of happiness hormone.
You can be certain of one thing about this album. It’ not to be sneezed at.
Taster Track : Love
Do You Feel The Force - Various
This is billed as an alternative history of electronica, starting with the moment that everyone was focused on punk. It’s fascinating, because it shows quite clearly how early synthesiser music faced two ways into the future, with opposing and incompatible views.
Way 1 is the hedonistic one signposted to Disco Central. It’s confident in the rightness of its path. Trans Volta’s ‘Disco Computer’ simply intones “I am the future.” The Droids ‘Do You Have The Force Part 1’ is bright, memorable, jelly tot music. (Let’s not forget that this was the age of Star Wars). There are several extended (maybe over extended) songs that provide an authentic taste of late 70s disco when DJs began to be seen as performers in their own right. Sylvia Love’s ‘Extraterrestrial Lover’, Harry Thurman’s ‘Underwater’ and SLICK’s ‘Space Bass -Special 12” Disco Mix are feel good examples of this. What’s telling is that if ‘Extraterrestrial Lover’ is anything to go by these pieces work as well as instrumentals as they do as fully fledged songs
Way 2 is the more sinister one signposted to Alienation City. This is the view that all humans would be reliant on machines, communicating via electronic messages and unable to have human relationships. (Honestly! As if!) Suicide’s ‘Mr Ray’, BGM’s ‘And’ and Monoton / Konrad Becker’s ‘Shortwavetransmission’ are fine examples of this. They’re not cheery, but they have taken the sharp safety pin of punk to prod and prick our sense of security and comfort.
If politics has taught us anything in the 21st century it’s that we should always strive for a third way. When it arrives in this album it’s compelling. The Sea of Wire’s ‘Seascape’ is 12 minutes and 9 seconds of hypnotic, electronic beauty. It’s a wonderful piece complete with crashing waves.
This collection succeeds both as a historical testament to a pivotal moment in pop music’s past, and as an enjoyable and listenable set of electronica for today.
Taster Tracks : Sea of Wires
Skellig : David Gray
I remember reading about David Gray around the time of his breakthrough album ‘White Ladder’. You know the one. It had ‘Babylon, ‘This Year’s Love’ and an excellent extended version of Soft Cell’s ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’. The point that stuck in my mind was that it had been a struggle to establish his career and shortly before releasing the album he was on the point of giving up. It’s an assumption, but I’m guessing that he had to make a few compromises to have the album released. With his album, ‘Skellig’ you sense that this is no longer the case. What you have here is the essence of David Gray as a singer songwriter.
Taking a cue from his name, it’s a grey album but the grey of early morning mists that have their own beauty. It’s a quiet album of one man and his guitar, gently accompanied by occasional piano, strings and carefully orchestrated backing vocals. It’s an album of restraint with small variations. The biggest variation comes with the opening track ‘Skellig’. He’s singing in a higher pitch than of old, not falsetto but not as growly either. On this song the vocal line is unchanging, as it is on several of the tracks, but interest is maintained by the slight variations underneath. ‘Dun Laoghaire’ is more recognisably David Gray, its repetitiveness is one of the clearest statements of musical purposefulness around. ‘Spiral Arms’ is David Gray playing to his strengths. It builds slowly and patiently from acoustic beginnings to incorporate a small choir of backing vocalists. ‘House With No Walls’ features humming. Humming!!
These are songs that apply their power individually. As a whole they are a little too much, too long, too unvarying. But individually, and in the moment, they have a quiet force.
Taster Track : Spiral Arms
Songs : Adrianne Lenker
Sometimes a record has an impact on you that might not be felt by others. That’s OK. We all have past experiences that shape how we respond to new music. That may have happened here for me.
Have you ever, perhaps in younger student days, found yourself at a gathering heading for the early hours of the morning? Conversation is dying down and someone magics up a guitar from somewhere and starts playing their own music. It’s an interesting development that gradually turns awkward as the intensity of the performance grows. It’s how the narrator in Coleridge’s ‘Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’ must have felt when he was stopped on his way to the wedding. You’re suddenly committed to more than you bargained for, and it would be rude to interrupt the flow.
I couldn’t shake that feeling listening to Adrianne Lenker. It’s a powerfully intimate record that sounds as if she’s singing to herself. We’re eavesdropping from the corner of the room. She’s completely absorbed in her music and, as she weaves her spell, it’s absorbing for the listener too. But there's a point where the listener starts to wonder, hoe much more is to come.
It’s difficult to describe her voice. It sounds upset, and a little desperate. It’s not a strong voice but it sounds determined. It feels as if this is music in the aftermath of a storm, actual or psychological, recovering what might have been damaged or lost. It’s a very natural album. ‘Come’ opens with the sound of rainfall and contains little else beyond acoustic guitar and voice. ‘Two Reverse’ features lovely folk guitar. ‘Half Return’ is an example of how indebted the sound is to deep rooted American folk, while the vocals and lyrics remain personal and contemporary. The one criticism I have is that it is determinedly low key and introspective and all together feels a touch oppressive in places.
Not one for every day then, but a heartfelt success on its own terms.
Taster Track : Anything
Invisible People : Pomplamoose
Do you have friends on Facebook who carry out their personal conversations online? Thought so. Well, Pomplamoose, comprising husband and wife Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn, are the band for them. This album is one side of that Facebook conversation.
Don’t worry though. This record doesn’t chronicle the breakdown of a marriage. Instead it covers the personal exasperations, gentle bickering and unfounded anxieties that underpin any relationship. ‘Be Better At Listening’ sounds like an intervention before things go too far. ‘Sleeping Without You’ tackles the thoughts that come when your partner is away for the night and, in a nice touch, they’re cast as his problems for going away rather than her problems being left at home. It’s done with tongue in cheek and ultimately ends on a forgiving, ‘only kidding’ note with the instrumental track ‘ I Love You, Always’. Perhaps that’s the key message here. It’s easier to put into words what you don’t like than it is to tell someone you love them.
Pomplamoose are renowned for their individual and distinctive covers and mash ups, but here they offer a collection of original material. It’s bright and breezy synth pop, heavily infused with French flavours and late period glitchy disco beats. And it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
‘Hot Tub’ sets the tone, an archly knowing one. ‘’All The Way’ continues that approach. Its chanted choruses fall just short of adding up to an enchanted slice of synthpop. ‘Stress Me Out’ is one of those songs that achieves in the listener what it’s singing about in the song! ‘Seven’ cracks the search for the perfect slice of pop with a tumbling chorus that lodges in your brain all day. ‘Invisible People’ has one of those fade outs that have you reaching for the Repeat button just to reach that point of release again.
It’s not the point of this album to provide songs of significance and depth. But each track holds out the promise of becoming your new favourite song. That’s not often realised, but it’s fun hearing them come close.
Taster Track : Seven
Heat : Poolside
If you call your band Poolside without any irony you’re sending a clear message of how your music might sound. You know before a note is played that this will sound warm and sunny. It will evoke carefree company and holiday romances. It will provide undemanding, languid escapism through 70s disco bass lines and synthesised strings. There’s not a cloud in the sky in the universe this soundtracks. Just look at the album cover. Who doesn’t need a dose of this coming out of a lockdown Winter?
In a genre that’s new to me, this is called daytime disco. I’d suggest an alternative - yacht disco. It’s smooth from end to end. If ever there was an album that should be listened to as one continuous mix, this is it. It’s hard to pick a favourite track. That would be like choosing your favourite part of a symphony. Nevertheless I’ll give it a go.
‘Hot In The Shade’ is the sound of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’ on its summer holiday. ‘We Can Work It Out’ might be where you zone back into the music from your sun soaked, pool side reverie. ‘Drifting’ hooks the attention for its slightly more urgent feel, more indebted to the sound of Kraftwerk than, say Liquid Gold (Who? No 2 in 1980 with ‘Dance Yourself Dizzy! No problem.)
But the standout track for a couple of reasons is ‘Strange Overtones’. This is a cover of a track by David Byrne and Brian Eno. It’s hard to imagine a couple of people less likely to be found wearing swim shorts in an Ibezan setting. In fact the image that conjures up makes me smile.
It’s a very good version too, full of gently choppy guitars, rambling bass, faintly swirling synths and the kind of sincere, sensitive smooth singing vocals beloved of disco Lotharios across the world. But it also nails the appeal of this record in the lines
“This groove is out of fashion
These beats are 20 years old.”
Who doesn’t want to be lazing in the sun, away from problems and twenty years younger?
No halves of mild or pints of best this week.
Keep On Moving : ESG
In a very literal way, ESG are a drum ‘n’ bass act. Or as the Blues Brothers would have it via this link - https://youtu.be/vS-zEH8YmiM - they play both kinds, but little else.
You have to admire their dedication and commitment to a fixed vision. This is minimalist to an extreme with bass, percussion and repetitive rhythm to the fore. ‘Purely Physical’ and ‘Keep On Moving’ are typical examples of this approach and, to be honest, by the end of ‘Keep On Moving’ I’d have traded the album in for the 5ive version, and keep the change!
The second side is better. As a standalone track, ‘Everything Goes; works, if only because as the rhythms go it’s more expansive and contains something other than the drums and the bass.
To be fair, they’ve been influential in terms of being raided for samples by other dance and hip hop acts. It almost sounds as if each track is prepared with one eye on the samples market.
It’s a very clean and precise dance sound, but to these ears it simply sounds dull.
Taster Track : Everything Goes