Adult Books, Andy Bell, Cleveland Watkiss, Hattie Cooke, Joe Bonamassa, KT Tunstall and Ilan Eshkeri, Mark Hollis, William The Conqueror
If You Listen To One Thing This Week....
Andy Bell's new album, 'Flicker', is reviewed below. 'Something Like Love' encapsulates its lovely understated melodies, and songwriting craft. It's a treat.
Grecian Urn : Adult Books
This collection of tuneful post punk was an enjoyable return to the sounds of the past when, for me, the music world began to move away from Top 30 pop to something dark and thrilling.
Nick Winfrey, the man behind Adult Books, has a background in US punk bands. He realised that he was starting to write gentler songs that didn’t fit the punk mould. The songs may have transitioned from the spit and rant of punk, but that doesn’t mean they’ve compromised on intensity.
They may sing of abuse, suffering and defeated misery but that doesn’t make them any less exciting. It doesn’t make them depressing either. There’s a whisper of hope and belief in the possibility of love for every line that demands you to “Tear off all my skin, drown me out” (‘Receiver’).
The songs are forceful in their own way, and can’t be dismissed easily. They’re as accurate a reminder of early post punk as you’ll find. The heavy bass drives the songs, the rhythm locks into place like a car finding cruise control and the guitars lift the songs from the depths of their despair. This is the path out of punk taken by The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees once they reached their ‘Happy House’ and Joy Division before love tore them apart.
These are, above all, traditional songs with verses building to choruses as they should. They are softened by Winfrey’s vocals which seem to have found their ideal home in these songs. Too gentle for punk and too unexpressive for mainstream pop, here they add conviction and sincerity to the songs.
This is an album to be enjoyed for its own sake, but also as an authentic return to the days of post punk.
Taster Track : Innocence
Flicker : Andy Bell
Andy Bell’s (the one behind Ride, not Erasure) second solo album is a rambling joy, striking a perfect balance between rock and electronica.
This is a long album at an hour and sixteen minutes but, here’s the surprise, it doesn’t feel overlong. In fact the longer you spend in its company the clearer its strengths become. The cumulative effect is like dreaming of being carried on the ocean’s swell, strangely comforting.
It’s a record that feels as if you are listening to it inside Bell’s head. Tunes and songs arrive unfiltered but fully formed. The album opens with ‘The Sky Without You’, almost ambient with its sonic fluttering, or flickering given the album’s title. It paves the way for what follows. It’s an industrious record with lots going on but it allows each element to have its turn at breaking through the mix into clarity. Every part is working hard for the whole, creating a sense of commitment to the songs and a desire that its worth investing in their value.
One of its strengths is that it treats each song like a newly planted courgette, allowing it to grow but not to pass its peak and become bloated and insipid. There’s no quest for a resounding climax to the songs. ‘She Calls The Tune’ at 5’46” grows to perfection, and it’s perfection because it doesn’t go over the top..
You could call it a beautiful freak of a record, unusual but accessible, melancholy but uplifting. ‘Sidewinder’ is a pleasing oddity but by no means a throwaway track. ‘When The Lights Go Down’ is a gorgeous instrumental, never obvious but always enjoyable. There are ambient bagpipes, or something like them, on ‘It Gets Easier’. In its quirkier moments it has good, solid anchors in the bass and guitars or, in the case of ‘Way Of The World’ a soft, chanted mantra.
From many highlights, I’d pick ‘Something Like Love’ as my favourite. It’s full of melancholy memories and the melancholy is concentrated to make it poignantly intense.
This is a record that is long but every moment is to be savoured. And that makes it a rare beast indeed.
Taster Track : Something Like Love
Post Script :
A few months ago I reviewed an album by Glok called ‘Pattern Recognition’. Andy Bell uses Glok for his purely electronic work. I didn’t like it, and the review made that clear in a somewhat unbalanced way.
Shortly afterwards, having publicised the review on Twitter, I received a message from Andy thanking me for taking the time to listen to the album and respecting my opinion. If I’m honest, I’m not sure it deserved such a gracious response. I hope I’ve provided a review of ‘Flicker’ that is more in tune with what he wanted to achieve. Either way, Andy Bell is a musician who’s a cut above the usual.
Maverick Thinker : William The Conqueror
This highly enjoyable collection of rock songs may attach itself to the unfashionable sound of blues rock, but it’s an album with fun and a pop sensibility at its heart.
William The Conqueror is the latest incarnation of Ruarri Joseph, a singer songwriter who first started generating ripples of critical approval in the mid- noughties. He’s a very good songwriter in the spirit of Richard Thompson, Robbie Robertson and, yes, Bob Dylan. His lyrics are inventive, his genre of choice - southern blues - a little unfashionable. His spark lies in the way he puts them together. The songs roll along with unstoppable momentum, tumbling forth like one of those extended Bob Dylan numbers.
‘Move On’ is a rock song that truly swings. It opens the album and paves the way for what follows. This is an album that sounds great and must be a storming live experience, full of swaggering musical confidence and wry, undercutting lyrics. Yes, it’s southern rock and boogie, but from Cornwall not the Mississippi Delta.
Joseph’s voice sounds at odds with the music, but it actually makes for a surprisingly good match. It’s a cultured one and suits the songs like mint sauce suits roast lamb.
More than anything though, William The Conqueror play like a band of brothers (and sister) and that comes out in the music. They’re a band with a single vision of how the songs sound best and it shows.
This was a recommendation from a chance meeting in the street with someone I hadn’t seen for roughly twenty years. That’s William The Conqueror for you. They’re a band you want to recommend to everyone you meet.
Taster Track : Move On
...And The Rest
The Great Jamaican Songbook Vol 1 : Cleveland Watkiss
Jazz, soul and rock vocalist, Cleveland Watkiss, turns his voice towards reggae to affectionate effect.
I suspect that Watkiss has reached that stage in his career where he can make choices based on what he wants to do, rather than what he needs or is expected to do. Here, he’s exploring the musical heritage of his Jamaican parents. The songs may not be part of his direct experience - he’s London born and bred - but the lesser known choices to cover are, and add a personal sheen to the album. It is nothing if not a labour of love.
This is in the same mould as UB40’s multiple albums covering classic reggae songs. It also reminded me of Ken Boothe who pulled the trick in reverse, covering ‘Everything I Own’ all the way to No 1 in 1974. The comparison there is in the lightness of his voice, smooth and easy on the ear.
Aside from a slight falter on ‘What Is Man’ where you can hear the join between his voice and the material, it’s a very pleasant listen. That sometimes sounds like damning with faint praise, but it’s not intended to say that. His diverse singing background adds sophistication to the songs. The jazz and soul inflexions make for an appealing mix. The motivation behind the collection adds charm. Musically the backing band and vocalists are right on the button.
Perhaps it’s a little too respectful to the songs, lacking the easy relaxation that comes from classic reggae and paying tribute to the songs rather than performing them from the heart. Perhaps his voice is just a little too cultured for the songs. If so, it’s an approach that works as a crossover, drawing new people to the mellifluous - I double checked the meaning and spelling of this before typing - sounds of his voice and the genre.
He’s comfortable enough with the songs to inject some personality. Updating Gregory Isaacs’ 1982 song ‘Night Nurse’ to include references to speed dial and email is a nice touch. The album closes with the greater urgency of ‘Red, Gold and Green’.
This isn’t an album that will blow your mind or change your life, but it will make it more pleasant. Volume 2, when it comes, will be well worth a listen.
Taster Track : Curly Locks
Bliss Land : Hattie Cooke
This album of electronic music, with the emphasis firmly on music, is a pleasure from start to finish.
It’s an unusual but appealing sound, on the cusp between warmth and effortless coolness. It’s fitting that the album cover shows her on the threshold of the home, caught between a warm interior and a chillier outside. It’s closer to The XX rather than Charlie XCX. It’s not Krautrock electronica, but the electronica of small town, suburban England.
Her voice is not iceberg cool such as Madonna managed on some of her songs. It’s more a burst of welcome, cooling drizzle on a hot, humid day.
She has a knack for a melody that sticks and gets under your skin like an itch. ‘Lovers Game’ is exhibit A in this regard. ‘One Foot Out The Door’ and ‘Don’t Wanna Talk’ are exhibits B and C.
Each track concentrates on the core of the song. They’re brisk and uncluttered with just the right amount of adornment. They’re over far too soon and leave us wanting more.
This is one of those minor gems that lies undisturbed beneath higher profile releases until you stumble across it. Once you've found it you won’t want to let it slip away.
Taster Track : Lovers Game
Time Clocks : Joe Bonamassa
It's been a few years since I last listened to Joe Bonamassa. His take on the blues remains just the same, and it's that familiarity more than anything that makes for an enjoyable listen.
Joe’s been releasing records for as long as the century. In that time he’s recorded 16 solo albums, 16 live albums and 14 albums in partnership with. or as a member of, other acts. That’s a colossal output to add to the time it takes to tour and make the live albums possible. In the light of that it’s not surprising that, for the casual and occasional listener, he hasn’t substantially changed his sound.
Epic extended blues? Check - songs regularly check in at six or seven minutes. Standard blues chug? Check - listen to ‘The Heart Never Waits’ if that’s what gets your mojo working. Extended and almost constant guitar soloing? Check - this is an air guitarist's fantasy lived out before your very ears.
The elephant in the room is that he’s not a tortured dustbowl blues guitarist struggling to get by. He’s Joe Bonamassa, profitably keeping the blues alive through climate destroying tours, stunning live gigs and accompanying merchandise.
You can’t fault his playing. He plays the blues exceptionally well, with a relentless, muscular confidence in what he's doing that he deploys relentlessly. His take on the blues is epic. It’s a massive sound, down to and including the soulful backing singers. It’s also a highly melodic album with melodies that melt away any resistance. ‘Curtain Call’ draws on marching dynasties to make its point. ‘Mind's Eye’ threatens a gentler sound but, inevitably, builds into a crescendo guitars. This album is a soundtrack ready and waiting for the next Mad Max superhero.
By any measure, he’s a Blues guitar legend. Drop the needle on one of his records and you’re swept away on a musical riptide. You can’t resist it so you might as well submit with a smile on your face.
I’m just happy to know he’s there, on standby, if ever I need him.
Taster Track : Mind’s Eye
The Chasing Wonders LP : KT Tunstall and Ilan Eshkeri
This soundtrack to the ‘Chasing Wonders’ film does what any good soundtrack should do. It provides a sense of the film and nudges you to explore further.
‘Chasing Wonders’ is a Spanish coming of age film about hope and possibility. Ilan Eshkeri is an English composer who has worked with pop people before and scored many films. KT Tunstall is KT Tunstall. This album is music from, and inspired by, the film.
At 20 minutes long, it’s a push to call this an LP, but what there is, is a pleasant listen full of sweet melody and nice touches. The thing about soundtrack music is that it fails if it draws attention away from the screen. KT is in subdued voice here, but it remains attractive while serving the film well. The music sounds as if it’s the sun breaking through the mist at the start of a new day.
The soaring strings and “Aahs” of ‘Little Hearts, Big Skies’ are the sound of wonder. The cymbals like crashing surf on the same track beckon you to wild horizons.The spanish of ‘Amor de Hermano’ adds an exotic flavour for British audiences. And there’s something about whistling that captures happy innocence like nothing else. As part of ‘The Road To School’, the opening track, it sets the tone perfectly. I’m not sure it’s even possible to whistle if you’re unhappy!
Soundtracks are odd beasts. It’s not just about what you deliver, but also about how it serves someone else’s vision. On the film review site Rotten Tomatoes, ‘Chasing Wonders’ scored a moderately adequate 64%. This album is better than that, a promising 75%.
Taster Track : The Road To School
Mark Hollis : Mark Hollis
This 1998 solo album from Talk Talk founder Mark Hollis is a remarkable piece of music. It’s barely pop, more a creative work of imagination drawing on deeply traditional music.
‘It’s My Life’ and ‘Life’s What You Make It’ - two synth pop Talk Talk classics with titles that capture the approach that Hollis has taken here. To be fair, this album is closer to Talk Talk’s later albums. Since Talk Talk’s demise, Hollis’s reputation has grown and grown to approach the outskirts of genius. This album, and a steadfast refusal over 25 years to release further material, has played a big part in that.
Arguably silence is the greatest contribution to the tone of this album. It opens with twenty seconds of silence to prepare you for what is to come. It closes with 1’45” of silence to reflect on what you’ve heard. And, inbetween, you’ll find songs that are barely sung, instruments that are played with deliberation and individual notes that are laden with import and meaning.
It’s a record that makes demands of the listener. It’s a sparse production that, nevertheless, needed 14 additional musicians to make it. It’s too sparse to immerse you - you’d fall through the gaps - and too wayward and meandering to dip into. If you like music that produces intense deep calm, this is for you. If you listen to music with hushed reverence, you’ll feel at home here.
It’s like watching something wonderful in nature unfold in real time - a bud coming to full blossom, a spider weaving its web or a caterpillar shedding its skin. It contains all the beauty that implies, in a form that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. Just listen to the bass and trumpet on ‘The Watershed’ for evidence of that.
This music is looking back in time to create something new. The centrepiece track, ‘A Life (1895-1915)’, is about Vera Brittan’s lost love in the first year of WW1. The music draws on organic and acoustic instruments and on folk, pastoral jazz, classical and poetry. It does not draw on mainstream pop. There’s a danger of thinking about this album too deeply because it sounds so different. It’s music to absorb, music that’s closer to poetry than anything else.
Is it a work of genius? Quite possibly, for some people at least. For the rest of us it’s an extraordinary work of art.
Taster Track : Mark Hollis
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