Aberdeen, James, Lovebreakers, Tobacco City, Watchhouse, Xan Tyler and Mad Professor,
This Week's Music
Apologies for the obscure heading this week, which has nothing to do with the quality of music reviewed below. It refers to a comment by the Victorian Prime Minister Disraeli at the expense of his great rival Gladstone. He said that if Gladstone fell in the Thames it would be a misfortune. If someone pulled him out it would be a calamity! Well, it made me laugh and I thought it bore repetition.
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
All The Colours Of You : James
This is the sound of James at their best, at ease in their musical skin and with the ideas and talent to produce something that sounds fresh even after nearly 40 years.
When a consistently good band produces consistently good albums over an extended period it can feel a little boring. “Oh, it’s James again.” we think. We should stop taking them for granted and celebrate the sheer quality, inventiveness and euphoria of their sound.
James first struck gold in the early 90s. Like Pulp and the Manic Street Preachers, they found themselves on Britpop compilations, but they were never a Britpop band. It's interesting that Pulp imploded under the weight of Jarvis Cocker’s ambitions, and the Manics became increasingly classic in their sound. James, however, have persevered with, and never lost, the elements that made them special. While listening to ‘Miss America’ on this album it struck me that the source of James’ sound is someone like Peter Gabriel at the time of his ‘Melt’ album, but with a lighter touch. The key track of their golden era is more ‘Sometimes’ than ‘Sit Down’.
James are masters of the slow build. ‘Zero’ adds layer after layer to the song, starting from a string base before adding guitars, electronic backing and even an approximation of African singing by the end. The song builds and recedes, ebbs and flows. It’s irresistible.
They’re always playing with words and, especially, with rhythms in their songs. They’ve been perfecting this for longer than I worked in my job and it shows. In ‘All The Colours Of You’ they include the line “He’s the Ku Klux Klan, the Ku Klux Klan, Ku Ku Kuku, Ku Ku Kuku.” It stands separate from the verses and choruses that surround it, only appearing again in the fade out. It’s a particular form of genius that allows a band to treat this almost as a throwaway rather than building the song around it.
‘Beautiful Beaches’ captures the euphoria and anticipation they can always generate. And in case you think that they’ve gone all sugar sweet on us, ‘Wherever It Takes Us’ is as full of edgy, paranoid angst as anything they’ve ever done.
James’ last album in 2018 was called ‘Living In Extraordinary Times.’ Given all that’s happened since, that title positions them as prophets for a disrupted age. We’re lucky to have them to provide the soundtrack.
Taster Track : All The Colours Of You
And The Rest
What Do I Wish For Now? : Aberdeen
Aberdeen may not be a household name in indie circles, but this collection of jangly, generally subdued indie pop hits the spot a lot more often than not.
Aberdeen were a duo from California, active between 1994 and the start of the 21st century. Not that you can tell. Their sound is fully rounded and a dead ringer for the slightly pastoral songs of bands such as The Field Mice or early St Etienne. That is high praise. ‘Emma’s House’ is a straight cover of a Field Mice song.
This is good Sunday morning music if you want more than MOR. It’s pleasantly soporific. There’s a track called ‘Fireworks’. Quite simply it doesn’t cause any. It’s good music though for getting your thoughts in order.
They knew what worked and they weren’t about to change something that wasn’t broke. The only problem with that as an album is that although the later tracks break out into a more fuzzy energy, overall the tracks may sound a little too unvarying.
Sometimes though, that’s all you need from an album and on that level this album delivers in spades.
Taster Track : Toy Tambourine
Primary Colours : Lovebreakers
Lovebreakers offer prime slices of power pop, played fast and loud but without leaving the tunes behind.
Here’s an unexpected place to start. Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a Spanish author who wrote a series of books under the collective title of ‘The Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ They’re an excellent read - exciting, fast paced and thrillingly addictive. Their tagline is that somewhere in Barcelona there is a library containing cherished and threatened texts that would otherwise be lost. It’s a sanctuary to keep books, reputations and ideas alive. (And as you can imagine, bad people don’t like this and that’s where the adventure and excitement come in.)
The main reason for raising this is that Lovebreakers may have tapped into the musical equivalent of that library, because this album is an excellent re-creation of late 90s, early 00s power pop that you rarely hear these days.
Crucially they pay as much attention to the pop part of that genre as they do to the power element. The title ‘Primary Colours’ is apt. The music sounds bold, and is stripped back to the prime elements of a rock and roll band. They give you guitars, bass, drums and vocals with masses of energy and multitudes of hooks.They even give you a totally redundant but gloriously welcome “2,3,4” mid way through ‘Horizons’.
The record sounds like a step back in time, the equivalent of stumbling across a country market town that hasn’t changed in years. It’s prevented from sounding retro and stale by being full of the confidence and swagger of youth. As they sing in ‘Horizons’ “ I want my twenties to last forever.” This is how all bands started when their dream was simply to be on tour enjoying good times rather than playing festivals with epic over produced songs.
Ultimately, this album won’t change the way you think or feel about important issues. But you may be caught up in their vibrant energy and enthusiasm. Track 5 is called ‘I Will Love Life’. That’s what they communicate in their songs.
Taster Track : Horizons
Tobacco City, USA : Tobacco City
Tobacco City may have been smoking more than tobacco when pulling together this slide guitar driven collection of cosmic country. Whatever, it makes for an appealing and seductive sound.
Cosmic Country grew out of the transition from straight country music to country rock in the late 60s and early 70s. More recently acts such as Rose City Band have offered something that’s a bit more chilled, blissed out and free flowing. Tobacco City is firmly in that camp.
It’s a warm and seductive sound. You know you shouldn’t succumb to it, but what harm can a quick listen do? Before you know it, you’re scouring the ‘What’s On’ columns for the nearest hoe down or barn dance wondering where the seductress temptress of a slide guitar has disappeared to.
And it’s the slide guitar that defines the sound of this record. It provides that psychedelic, cosmic feel and it seems to slow down time. Any flaws in the album, such as the nasal and thin vocals, are overlooked as the music sweeps you along. Rarely have I heard an album so dependent on the sound of one instrument for its effect, and rarely have I heard a single instrument carry an album so beautifully.
Ultimately this is a collection that soars above genre. This is blissful music that can appeal to anyone. It's an ‘altered state’ form of country, and that works for me.
Taster Track : Blue Raspberry
Watchhouse : Watchhouse
This collection of gentle, occasionally sad, folk influenced songs is music making of high quality.
Watchhouse have recently changed their name from Mandolin Orange, apparently because the new name better reflected what they offered in their music. I mention that not because I have a theory about what that says about their music now, or how easy it is to mishear the name of an unfamiliar fruit or how brave it is to acknowledge that mistake midway through your career. I mention it only because it gives me an opportunity to remember Spizzenergi (or Spizz 77, or Spizzoil, or Spizz, or Spizz and the Astronauties, or Athletico Spizz 80, or Spizzenergi 2 or even Spizzorwell) who changed his / their name every year for the sheer fun of it.)
Whatever their intention, Watchhouse offer dreamy folk influenced music that acts like a balm for troubled soul. Their songs are undeniably part of the folk family but at their best, as on ‘Better Way’, they have a chilled and blissed out impact.
These are songs that aren’t ashamed of simply being songs. It’s enough to be conventionally structured, melodic, and in harmony. They’re not trying to shout a message, create a work of seminal importance or change the world. It’s refreshing.
The songs are small scale, intimate and personal. The mood is that of the reflections that strike us during the night. There’s a sadness to songs such as ‘Lonely Love Affair’ but no bitterness. Their music is as important as the lyrics. That’s not always the case for some bands, but here instrumentals are as valued as full songs.
If they decide on a change of name in future, I’d suggest something like The Lovely Songwriters.
Taster Track : Better Way
Clarion Call : Xan Tyler and Mad Professor
This collaboration between female vocalist Xan Tyler and remix producer Mad Professor is a great selection of lovers rock reggae.
I’d heard of neither of these artists. That’s understandable maybe for Xan Taylor whose career seems to have focused on collaborating and guesting with others, often under one off names. But Mad Professor has front page credits on at least 75 albums and has a stellar reputation in his field of dub production.
Sometimes I’ve forgotten why I’ve downloaded an album by the time I come to listen to it. Coming to this in the cold light of day, I expected a rap album. As the first strains of lovers’ rock floated through the headphones I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled.
From the off this has a lovely vibe. Tyler has a lovely voice, reminiscent of Janet Kay in the 70s. It is a sweetly languid sound, so languid that at times it threatens to disappear into the background. There were moments where the music drifted pleasantly in and out, as if I were listening to it half asleep.
The effect is so all encompassing that it comes as a shock to realise that this is as concerned with calling for action as it is with lulling you into a state of comfort. ‘We Will Stand’ is a protest song wrapped in cotton wool, the gentlest call to arms I’ve heard.
This is an indulgent pleasure to listen to, a respite from everyday life.
Taster Track : We Will Stand