Aksak Mahboul, Co-Pilot, Nation of Language, The Rolling Stones, Sven Wunder, Teenage Fanclub, Westerman
The Front Runners
Rotate : Co-Pilot
There’s something addictively different about Co-Pilot’s collection of sunshine infused, lightly psychedelic synthpop. It’s a free spirit seeking to squirm its way into your heart.
Sometimes it helps to describe an album in as few words as possible. Here are six to describe this record.
Charming. Giddy. Enchanting. Swirling. Warm. Beguiling.
It’s as if you were to stumble across fairies at the bottom of the garden playing music they’d learned from the big house across the lawn, music half heard in the gentle breeze with no knowledge of composition rules. (And no, I haven’t been drinking.)
This music feels like a living thing, each part intuitively bringing out the best in all that’s around. It’s music that fills an auditorium long after the audience has left, infectious music that gets inside you like a friendly cult’s promises of eternal happiness.
The bass lines thread their way through songs, knitting them together. The vocals are laid on top as if drawn from the random rhythms of life. Amongst the gurgling, burbling synths of ‘Swim To Sweden’ and ‘Move To It’ emerge the melodies of ultra catchy pop. There’s a 60s feel to ‘Cornerhouse’ that serves to illustrate how the past is indeed a different country.
This is an album that should carry a health warning. Once you give in to it, there’s no heading back.
Taster Track : Cornerhouse
Strange Disciple : Nation of Language
I firmly believe that you won’t hear a better band playing synth pop anywhere in the world at the moment than Nation of Language.
What first hits you about their sound is how perfectly it captures the electronic sound of the 80s. I started to pick up the influences - OMD, early Ultravox, New Order, Depeche Mode, China Crisis. I stopped. It was becoming a list of every great 80s synth pop band I could remember, and Nation of Language were comfortably at home with all of them. They even echo Pete Townshend’s work with synths on ‘Empty Glass’.
They’re no tribute act to a generation though. What they have is shiny, not dulled by age and familiarity. It’s modern and contemporary, music for now that reminds you of how you felt then.
The 80s were an intense time. On the one hand its music was bleak and introspective, full of inner turmoil and suffering. On the other it was a brash, hyped up ode to hedonism and ridiculous fashion. Nation of Language avoid the glacial slowness that spelled doom and gloom and encouraged you to wallow alone in your room. You won’t listen to this and feel dragged down. You’ll feel uplifted.
The lyrics may be desperate and struggling but that’s not the sound of the album. Somehow, they conjure warmth into the mix. Perhaps it's in the wonderful synth riffs, such as the one that opens this set, ‘Weak In Your Light’. Maybe it’s in the sparing but excellent use of backing vocals on tracks such as ‘A New Goodbye’ or the plump sound of the synths throughout or the tones struck by Ian Devaney’s vocals. Whatever it is, it works perfectly.
At heart, Nation of Language are an excellent pop band, playing with easy confidence at the top of their game. Enjoy their moment. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Taster Track : Weak In Your Light
Hackney Diamonds : The Rolling Stones
Give in to the hype, and you’ll find a Rolling Stones album where they rediscover their sense of fun and enjoyment.
This is their equivalent of a testimonial football match - The Rolling Stones v The Corporates. There’s not a lot at stake. Guest appearances are arranged and guests are invited to showboat. Entertainment is the order of the day and there’s lots of money to be made. It could be the most successful marketing ploy in music. “Just do what you like Keef. It’s showtime Mick. Let’s give the people what they want.”
And I, for one, am grateful.
It’s a well rehearsed line that the opening track ‘Angry’ is a ‘Start Me Up’ moment. The riff sells the whole record but, more than that, it’s a moment of smiling relief that you don’t have to pretend to like a new Rolling Stones song. The boys have returned to town after too long away. It’s tempting to think it’s the album that Charlie Watts would have wanted them to make, and they’ve made it for him. He appears on ‘Live By The Sword’ and ‘Mess It Up’.
Is this the best Rolling Stones album for forty years? Quite possibly, but that says more about what they have been releasing for forty years - occasionally strong songs nestling in much weaker albums. This is an album that hangs together.
Does it overtake their best work? Of course not, but it’s on the same pitch. It’s Ollie Watkins rather than Harry Kane. Its forerunners are the lesser played songs from ‘Exile On Main Street’ and the lighter, almost new wave sound of the rockers on ‘Emotional Rescue’.
Jagger’s vocals used to be what drew you in and pulled the song along. Now it’s the powerhouse of Richards and Wood that dictate where the song should go. Jagger has become the Hackney Diamond geezer, Richards and Wood are simply off the leash fizzing to the stars and back again. This is the band playing without restraint and it is so good to hear that once again.
One rocker follows another. ‘Dreamy Skies’ is where they pause momentarily for breath. ‘Sweet Sounds of Heaven’ rather than ‘Angry’ is the key song on the album. A slow build to a crescendo before a restart that acts almost as an encore within the song. It’s as good as anything they’ve ever done, a joyous mix of blues, gospel, soul and rock and roll.
The Guardian and Pitchfork have been a little lukewarm and sniffy in their reviews. The rest of us should find an album that celebrates the band and takes no effort to like.
Taster Track : Sweet Sounds of Heaven
Nothing Lasts Forever : Teenage Fanclub
The latest album from Teenage Fanclub is as close to perfect as it is possible to get, distilling their strengths to their essence. It’s one of the loveliest albums I’ve heard for a long time.
How lovely? Well, even when you’re retired, Monday mornings can still be difficult especially when it’s dark outside for another hour or so. As I listened to the opening track ‘Foreign Land’ though, an unbidden smile crossed my face. I felt as I hope my grand daughter feels when I swoop her down from a high step - happy, excited, safe and cared for.
This is an unhurried album, perfectly paced like having your travel arrangements in the hands of someone who can judge effortlessly the time needed to make each and every connection.
Their music has matured, to become like a painting where every square inch of canvas has a colour or interesting detail, but nothing is overdone, nothing is too rich.
The addition of Euros Childs may be a key factor. Formerly of the wonderfully named Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, perhaps he’s responsible for the unexpected lighter touches such as the strings that adorn ‘I Left A Light On’, the horns that are a subdued presence on ‘See The Light’ or the ridiculously good fade out to ‘Tired of Being Alone’. That’s like a lingering view that you just can’t leave behind.
Think back to the early days of ‘Sparky’s Dream’ and hear how the band have grown old with grace, softening their sound and ripening their melodies and harmonies. It’s melancholy in places, but peaceful and imbued with hope and optimism. It’s an album for tough times successfully overcome and contented arrivals at a place of refuge. It’s an album of light, as the song titles make clear.
They say ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’. That’s true, but some things endure for a long time. This album is one of them.
Taster Track : Tired of Being Alone
The Chasing Pack
Une Aventure de VV (Songspiel) : Aksak Maboul
This is one of the strangest albums I’ve ever heard. It’s one continuous piece of experimental music, divided into 15 sections, detailing VV’s walk through the woods and the conversations she has with herself (I think) and the animals, birds, trees and rocks she encounters there.
I’m not going to attempt to classify it. Other sources have dropped labels into their reviews but for me that would only set expectations that were doomed to be thwarted. Falling for such musical bait is how I was lured in. I will say that if you dip a toe into the waters of this album, you may quickly find yourself out of your depth. Stick with it though and you may find it sticks with you for a long time. I certainly found it a stimulating, if not always enjoyable listen.
Years ago I visited the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Amongst the paintings and artefacts there was a large white cubicle with a screen at one end. In black and white, and under harsh lighting, it showed a semi dressed man running across an uncarpeted floor and throwing himself at a bare wall. I didn’t understand its power then. I don’t understand it now. But the memory has stayed long after the effect of more accessible items has waned. I suspect it will be the same with this album.
My overwhelming sensation is that of a fairytale horror story written by Kafka. For the most part it’s unsettling and extreme, the sound of madness incompletely understood. It carries a threat in the harsh female voices and the jarring piano.
There are some points to cling on to. Latch on to the rhythm of ‘L’Ombre Double’ as you would a lifeboat if you had been tossed into a tempestuous sea. ‘La Mur’ picks up the marching rhythm of the earlier ‘I Walk and I Walk’. You’ll be grateful for any sense of familiarity by the time you get there. A random, unrepeated laugh will catch your attention in ‘Dans Les Airs’. Towards the end, ‘La Parole de la Peau’ and ‘Brown Dwarfs offer more accessible flavours, the equivalent of crossing a sun dappled glade in the midst of the forest.
Whether or not you listen to this may depend on how adventurous you feel about music. A couple of tracks in, and I expected to dismiss it as strange and unlikeable. It’s not. It’s unnerving but stimulating.
It will certainly play havoc with my Spotify algorithms!
Taster Track : L’Ombre Double
Late Again : Sven Wunder
Natura Morta : Sven Wunder
Two for the price of one for Sven Wunder’s brand of chilled, drift away music. On “Late Again’ he styles it ‘Pop-Jazz’ and that’s as good a description of both albums as you’ll find anywhere.
Of the two albums, ‘Late Again’ came out this year; ‘Natura Morta’ came out in 2021. Not a lot has changed in the meantime, although the passing of time has perhaps made his music even more chilled. With both albums you have a collection of short easy listening pieces, gentle on the ear and geared to helping you to settle down at the end of the day.
If you venture into any charity shop at the moment, the chances are that their CD section will include a number of chill out compilations filled with acts who had their place and moment twenty years ago. I should know because I’ve been listening to quite a few recently with the occasionally fulfilled expectation of finding a hidden gem
These acts were the staple of chill. They never quite broke through to mainstream success. Often they were made by producers and engineers who had ideas of their own and fancied a shot at the big time before fading back into the background of a dimly lit studio.
This is extremely gentle and laidback. It’s never going to stir up your work ethic, but if you played it in busy A&E waiting areas, or as hold music for every under-resourced and disorganised customer call centre, you might have fewer problems to deal with. It’s almost medically calming and could be made available on prescription.
Thankfully, they stop short of anonymous library music, rescued from that sniffy accusation by a gift for relaxed melody. The flute on ‘Stars Align’, and the faintest of backing vocals, give the song a 60s Summer of Love appeal. ‘Take A Break’ is perfect interlude music. In a playlist it will help you to transition seamlessly from one style of music to another.
On ‘Natura Morta’ the feel is of a record just a shade less filled with jazz influences. (and by jazz I mean the merest breath of jazz grooves) ‘Prussian Blue’ has a kind of Russian /
Cowboy Western feel. ‘Barocca, Ma Non Troppo’ trips along merrily and the brass on ‘Memento Mori’ brings a light 70s cinematic feel.
Are they memorable? Not really. Do they need to be? Not at all.
Taster Track : Take A Break
An Inbuilt Fault : Westerman
Challenging but commanding attention, Westerman’s new album of introspective, softly spoken rock deserves attention.
Inevitably you come to albums with some expectations. In Westerman’s case, two gorgeous songs on his debut - ‘Confirmation’ and ‘Think I’ll Stay’ - set up the hope for more of the same. This album takes a different route to the listener.
The touchstone to bear in mind is Talk Talk. They began as a band chasing commercial success before abruptly swerving towards something that was much more artistically and critically satisfying but much less accessible.
Westerman has taken a step down that path. It’s strange. His voice is as velvet as before. The music sounds great and that in itself is reason to listen. The lyrics are by no means as straightforward. I read that ‘Idol : RE-run’ is inspired by the Capitol riots. I only learned that after hearing the song, so Ididn’t get that from lyrics such as :
Looking at the idol
He looked bored
And he looked drunk
They make sense when you know.
And that’s the appealing thing about this album. For 45 minutes it gives you a space to exercise the brain cells. When you listen to a song like ‘Give’ with its references to Molotov and Iscariot, when you’re given an image like Pilot dancing or when you see a title like ‘I, Catullus’, it’s music as a particularly enjoyable Open University module. That last track seems to be more than pop. It’s almost prog rock with its classical and biblical references, its loose structures and its stream of consciousness lyrics.
This is a record fuelled by anxiety rather than hope, a recognition contained in the song ‘Help Didn’t Help At All’. At one point he sings
“Are you as afraid as I am?”
As you listen to it more carefully, you notice that the unobtrusive beats anchor the songs and bring consistency across the album. The melodies of the debut are still there but they have magically melted into the mix. There are traces and echoes throughout, they’re just not on the surface.
‘An Inbuilt Fault’ rewards the listener by taking you and the music seriously. It’s a rich mix, like a fine wine that has unexpected flavours in your first taste but reveals layers and a complexity to savour the more that you listen to it.
Taster Track : Help Didn’t Help At All
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