Updated: Mar 15
Bob Marley and the Wailers, Indigo, James Taylor Quartet, Leon Bridges, Nala Sinephro, Portico Quartet, Sea Power, Strawberry Guy
Album Cover of the Week
I'm starting to realise through selecting an Album Cover of the Week what draws me to a work of art. It's a strong pattern. If there's a picture graphologist who can interpret that for me, please get in touch!
Indigo's cover for 'Part 1' combines a rigid pattern with a sense of flow and movement. I also like the dash of colour running through the middle.
This Week's Music
This week's reviews include a healthy helping of jazz or jazz influenced instrumentals. It's some of the liveliest and loveliest music around. If that doesn't help you to relax, try some reggae from Bob Marley - thanks for the recommendation John Marshall over in the USA - or some music guaranteed to boost your wellbeing if you give it a fair chance. There's also some RnB soul and the best rock record for quite a while.
Here are the reviews.
Babylon By Bus : Bob Marley and the Wailers
This live album was recommended as a good introduction to Bob Marley. Indeed it is, and it changed my perspective on reggae a little too.
I expected to hear Marley the rabble rouser throughout this album. I thought that his live performances would be how he stirred up the audience. And there are revolutionary moments, but on this form if the revolution is not televised, it might start with a mass party!
It’s not the vibe I was expecting. As the album opens at the Pavillon de Paris in front of 10,000 people, Bob Marley works the crowd well before launching into ‘Positive Vibration’. It’s a nice opener but I remember thinking it’s not a track to pump the crowd up. The next song ‘Punky Reggae Party’ sparks a mass singalong but it still sounds languid and more than a little, what’s the word I’m looking for….. stoned.
Something odd started to happen with the third track, ‘Exodus’. To paint the picture, I’m listening to this very early on a stormy February Sunday morning. It’s still dark and I’m tackling the week’s ironing. And it suddenly strikes me that I’ve started to sway to the music. That’s not happened before but I like it!
The record is working on a number of levels. Some of it, such as the sporadic but nimble and electrifying guitar work is aimed squarely at the ears. The message songs such as ‘War / No More Trouble’ or Rat Race play to your head but the bass works on your hips and feet. And it’s the bass that is a golden thread through all the songs at this concert. The effect is like a haze of magic coming through the speakers and, like an itch, once you’ve noticed it you can’t ignore it.
Another aspect puzzled me. The crowd are quick to sing along to ‘Punky Reggae Party’ at the beginning of the show but they’re silent during ‘Is This Love’ which is just calling out for audience participation. I concluded that at the start the audience are enjoying a gig. By the end they’re simply consumed by and lost in music.
I wrote earlier that listening to this changed my perception of reggae. I hadn’t considered it as a force for peace and contentment, but I do now. For that alone, this is a remarkable album and I loved it.
Taster Track : Is This Love
Part 1 : Indigo
A bass guitar. A tenor saxophone. And you. This is an intimate listening experience, full of peace and beauty.
Indigo is the creation of Nick Roder, a composer, arranger and performer with a passion for beautiful and moving music according to his website, and his website doesn’t lie. He plays bass guitar on this album. Jon Dinapoli appears to be a creative designer who plays tenor sax. He plays it wonderfully. Together they’ve created something special.
Listening to this album is like eavesdropping on music making that absorbs the players to the exclusion of all else. It’s serious music focusing on mood and tone. It’s tranquil and melancholic, intense and distilled to its essence like a concentrate used in cooking.
Simplicity is its great strength, both in the use of just two instruments and in the playing. They allow each other space. Nothing’s crowded out. The playing is quietly and selflessly equal, weaving around each other. The music must have been written and scored but it feels and sounds much more natural than that. It called to mind Sting’s song ‘Fragile’ from ‘...Nothing Like The Sun’, but without vocals and somehow created in Ultra HD.
The spell cast by this album is captured in ‘Climber’s Lament’. The bass and sax play seamlessly together and, as the sax stops the guitar carries on unruffled, until the sax comes in again. That passage without the sax is a passage that floats confidently alone whilst always prepared to rejoin the duet. It’s a technique repeated throughout the album but most startling here.
It may not sound much to be excited about because its impact is hard to put into words. You don’t listen to this album, you feel it. And afterwards you feel restored.
Taster Track : Climber’s Lament
Baker’s Walk : James Taylor Quartet
This snappy collection of jazz rhythm and blues is retro and as cool as an ice cube. It’s also a lot of fun.
It has never struck me before just how much some of the best 80s music owed to jazz, and particularly the tentacle of jazz known as jazz funk. It’s there in the music of the Blockheads supporting Ian Dury. It was a big enough influence for Paul Weller to kill off the Jam and build it into the Style Council. Tracey Thorn brought jazz stylings to Everything But The Girl’s vocals, Working Week were shamelessly and convincingly jazz and the explosion of energy that was Pigbag owes it all to jazz.
So my point is that if you liked any of the above, the chances are you’d enjoy the James Taylor Quartet a lot. John Peel did, championing them on his show. Their debut release made it into his 1987 Festive Fifty.
The James Taylor Quartet grew out of the ashes of a band called The Prisoners who folded in the storm of Stiff Records’ bankruptcy. This is rhythm and blues based jazz, the type beloved by mods and the swinging sixties. It can’t help but be retro when its lead instrument is the Hammond organ. If it has a weakness it’s that the sound of the Hammond organ pins it so firmly to a bygone age that you can fail to listen to it as something fresh.
This is music for the feet. It’s not complicated. In addition to the Hammond organ we have straight forward instruments - guitar, bass and drums with guest appearances on saxophone by Martin Williams. Most of the tunes offer rhythm, beat and melody upfront before wandering down a relaxed path that highlights different instruments at different points.
It’s bright, happy music for enjoying with friends whether chatting over a coffee in a pavement cafe on Carnaby Street - a Cappuccino would work nicely - or freeing yourself to dance without care. Yes, it’s about image too, but it’s a great image.
This is music built for joy, to melt away the troubles of the world and to bring a lasting smile to the face. Enjoy it while you can.
Taster Track : Who Put That There
Everything Was Forever : Sea Power
This is one of the best rock albums for some time. There are no flashy solos, prima donna vocals or self-indulgent passages, just powerful and intelligent songs.
Until recently Sea Power were known as British Sea Power. They took the decision to drop the British part to avoid involuntary attachments to a certain kind of nationalism. Say what you will about that decision, it shows a kind of integrity and a willingness to take risks that you don’t often see. That’s part and parcel of what has always made this band a bit special.
There’s always been an awareness of the environment running through Sea Power songs, a concern too for the land and the communities who live there. Never think of them as tree huggers though. They’re more Shakespearean than that, more likely to be Macbeth’s forest coming to life in a quest for vengeance. That thread runs through this album too on tracks such as ‘Folly’.
Sea Power are a boat anchored in the middle of a rolling sea. The music is not stormy, but its power is undeniable even as, in a song such as ‘Fire Escape In The Sea’, it is simultaneously soothing and gentle. Similarly ‘Scaring At The Sky’ - great title - has a rolling power like the sea’s swell. It’s a massive song, but not a loud one.
Sea Power can certainly do loud and punchy. They show that on ‘Doppelganger’. There’s a panoramic, unfettered feel to the songs too that’s sometimes gorgeous and sometimes threatening.
The band plays as a unit, tightly fitting together. They’re the equivalent of the floating monolith in the film ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey’ - perfectly formed with the potential for immense power. There’s a dreamier tunefulness too that’s new, melodic touches to soften the songs and keep them in balance.
I was impressed by this album as I’m impressed by the band and what they stand for.
... And The Rest
Gold-Diggers Sound : Leon Bridges
I ventured into soulful RnB this week and found an album riddled with complaints and ego, and lacking good tunes. It’s an album that almost redeemed itself with the last three tracks but, ultimately, it was too little too late.
Soul music doesn’t sound as good as it used to. Its cohabitation with RnB is in trouble. Somewhere along the way it lost the political awareness of Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder, the deeply felt, honest emotion of Roberta Flack or the unbridled joy of Stax. It committed the cardinal sin that damages any relationship and became dull.
One consequence is that this album, and others limping down the same musical path to be fair, strikes as self absorbed and obsessed, unhealthily for the #MeToo generation, with sex.
Now, that obsession may be a widely shared experience. Research summarised in How Often Do Men and Women Think About Sex has suggested that men think about sex 19 times a day and women think about it 10 times a day. (Men also think a lot more about food and sleep too.) The thing is we don’t all make the mistake of thinking that others will find our thoughts interesting, and release an album full of them.
On ‘Why Don’t You Touch Me?’ - and we’re not talking touched emotionally or by the hand of God here - Leon sings “I’ve been feeling way too undesired.”. Try changing the conversation then.
Musically, the majority of this album is a blend of soft jazz infused with gentle, repetitive beats. It’s hard to tell one complaining track from the next. It’s ego set to music, and that seems to trump the need for a good tune.
It’s only in the last three tracks that Leon offers something better musically, with more awareness of the wider world and different perspectives. ‘Sweeter’ edges towards something more universal. ‘Blue Mesas’ changes the musical tone, being driven by heavy strings.
The standout track is ‘Don’t Worry’. It’s a more than decent song in terms of melody and construction. Ink, real name Atia Boggs, duets on this track and it’s like seeping out of a soap opera into real life. It’s too little, too late but it’s a flavour of what might have been.
I admit this isn’t a genre for me and I’m not the target audience. On its terms it will please the fans, and that’s reason enough to release a record. I gave it 36 minutes of my time but, if you’ll excuse me, now I’ve some thinking to do.
Taster Track : Don’t Worry (featuring Ink)
Space 1.8 : Nala Sinephro
Nala Sinephro’s debut album is described as experimental and ambient jazz featuring pedal harp, modular synthesiser, keyboards and piano. There’s some decent sax in the mix too.
Let’s start with my reservations. Whatever type of music you listen to, it has to have an impact. On first listening much of this album passed me by. It wasn’t unpleasant at all. Quite the opposite in fact, it was so soothing it faded into the background. There was no real melody, just a relaxed musical experience. ‘Space 3’ bucked the trend only in that it was what I’d describe as ‘noodly’. By‘noodly’ I mean ‘mildly irritating’.
Now let’s move on to the good points. The pedal harp is a nice addition and gives the album a standout characteristic. It’s particularly effective on ‘Space 5’.
And whilst most of the tracks sounded like under-explored fragments and ideas that could be explored further, one track made sense of the whole album. That track is the closing 17 minute track ‘Space 8’. It's a gorgeous slice of gently hypnotic minimalism that winds its way around you, lulling you into a state of sublime relaxation. It's the kind of thing you’d expect from Nils Frahm at his very best. It’s head and shoulders above everything else here.
If you call something ‘experimental’ it suggests something ambitious. The problem with this album is not that it’s overly ambitious but that it isn’t ambitious enough. But by pulling the rabbit out of the hat with the final track Sinephro tees up the possibility that her second chance album could be a masterpiece. Let’s hope so.
Taster Track : Space 5 (because the 17 minutes of ‘Space 8’ is too long for the Taster Tracks playlist.)
Monument : Portico Quartet
With this album Portico Quartet have delivered their strongest and most accessible collection of jazz, drawing on electronica and rock in equal measure.
Portico Quartet has an alter ego, simply called Portico, that majors in a more electronic sound. The alter ego can sound a little dull and abstract but as a quartet they release music that is full to the brim with life and emotion.
Monument is a terrific entry point both to the Portico Quartet and to jazz more generally. That’s because it’s full of musical themes to latch onto. Take one and follow where it leads. You’ll soon realise that you’re wandering to a pattern, breaking away and returning to the same point. You’ll learn how the players and instruments relate to each other. True, there are elements that sound out of place, such as the piano at the centre of ‘Warm Data’ but that just opens your ears to new possibilities stretching your enjoyment of what is possible.
Take ‘Ultraviolet’ as an example. It’s like one of those speeded up films of a flower coming into bloom. There’s a core part to concentrate on that’s oblivious to everything else going on around it. ‘Ever Present’ shows that, more than most, Portico Quartet have mastered the balances between loud and quiet, light and shade.
Under Portico Quartet’s stewardship, music that comes together as a hotchpotch of ideas settles down and evolves into order, with considerable beauty discernible in the mix.
Always interesting and never intimidating, the Portico Quartet deserve your attention, your praise and your enduring support. Try them.
Taster Track : Ultraviolet
Sun Outside My Window : Strawberry Guy
This sweet collection of vintage pop sounds delicious and aims to bring calm sunshine back into your life.
It’s rare to hear an album that wears wellbeing so evidently on its sleeve. It offers a world of musical balm, gentle lullabies and warm reassurance. Everything will be fine. You can relax now. Here’s a sonic world to escape to. It’s more than enough to break your resistance and make you weep with gratitude at the respite it offers against daily troubles.
You may object to the soothing lyrics laying comfort and wellbeing on with a trowel, but the music undeniably works. With titles such as ‘Stay In This Moment’, ‘I’ll Be There’, ‘As We Bloom’ and ‘Sun Outside My Window’ you can’t say you weren’t warned
Everything about this album is soft focused and round edged. It’s piano led, strings supported and gently sung. There’s lounge piano, pastoral flute and percussion so mild you forget it’s there. The lyrics are simple, and the unhurried and extended instrumental sections in some songs work their magic well. They’re not songs to sing along to, but to wash over you like a warm Camay soaked bath - other soaps are available - or a musical massage.
If you can submit to its overwhelming and positive compassion, you’ll find a lovely album that’s charming and gushing with wellbeing. I could, and I’m glad I did.
Taster Track : When Morning Comes
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