Updated: Feb 13
The Byson Family, The Elms Estate, Field Music, Inhaler, Jelly Crystal, Pinegrove, Treetop Flyers, Yard Act
Album Cover of the Week
Given the less than warm reception I gave their record, it's likely to come as only a small consolation that Pinegrove are this week's winners of the Album Cover of the Week.
It's an eye catching piece of art. The fractured depth speaks of something broken. It's not a bad entry to the record as it happens.
And in a week when several of the contenders were in black and white or subtued tones, its very greenness spoke in its favour.
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
This Week's Music
Rock in its various guises takes centre stage this week, with everything from the classic 70s late night version to the latest wannabe stadium rock Gods and dissenting rockers who don't give a flying poo who they hack off. There's some quirky in between acts as well.
Settle down with the blog, and turn the playlist up to 11. Here they come!
Electric Theatre : The Elms Estate
This appealing and authentic collection of songs crafts 60s and Britpop influences into a mix that is both familiar and fresh.
Full disclosure - the Elms Estate are friends of a friend, and it was through a Facebook share that I stumbled across them. Luckily the album is good. It’s more than able to stand on its own two feet, without the allowances that might be made for, say, your boss’ daughter or the gorgeous date you’d hope to see again.
It’s easy to acknowledge 60s influences on ‘Electric Theatre’ but it’s an alternative 60s around the time that the Summer of Love mutated into something a little more real, not darker exactly but certainly full of shadows encroaching on the sunshine. There’s something undeniably 60s and Hollies like in the vocals. The songs are lovingly created and with care. They’re taken seriously without lapsing into seriousness.
Another way of looking at this is to acknowledge that it’s also influenced by 60s influenced bands. It echoes the sound of bands that slightly preceded or followed hot on the heels of Britpop, such as The Las, The Cosmic Rough Riders and The Clientele. Musically, there’s a lot to be said for poring over the past, deconstructing what you hear and reassembling it into something fresh for new generations to enjoy. That’s the Elms Estate for you, crate digging archivists of alternative pop scenes.
One of the attractions of these songs is that they take the time to breathe. Both the 60s and the 90s had their fair share of bands competing to be the noisiest neighbours. But on every such album there’s a track which acts as a pause for breath, a welcome respite from the pace and clutter of its surroundings. This is an album full of those songs, encouraging you to listen rather than bounce off the walls.
Sadly this is the kind of music that may never become huge, but it’s entirely possible that it will become a long term quiet favourite.
Taster Track : Living Underwater
Old Habits : Treetop Flyers
This is a surprisingly nostalgic return to the rock of the early 70s. It’s a successful bout of time travelling.
Everything is in its place. The guitar slides and solosare perfectly pitched, the piano and sax have popped by from the local bar, the rhythm section is an unobtrusive driving force and the vocals are suitably worn and smokey. It’s a return to the time of denim and beards before big hair, power chords, stadiums beckoned, and rock splintered like ice in a puddle into many different genres.
This is classic rock with a gift for melody and tinged by country, soul and gospel. It’s both loose and controlled. The music is lovingly created, a genuine dose of nostalgia to trigger, not memories as much as feelings and emotions from the past. It’s not fashionable - there’s even a touch of ‘Billy Don’t Be A Hero’ drumming to fade out ‘Sometimes’ - but it’s night time rock for when the bar begins to empty.
Listening to this is a bittersweet experience, like meeting someone you used to be close to but haven’t seen for many years. Although you’ve moved on, they’ve stayed the same. They may have missed out on new experiences, but perhaps you’ve lost something too.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Treetop Flyers are an English bandI. They sound a lot more American, calling to mind paddle boat steamers on wide rivers - the Mississippi, not the Thames. You can hear Bob Seger at his most reflective and Ray LaMontagne as a more recent influence. You can also hear the playing of The Faces at their least laddish.
This could have sounded tired and unoriginal but it’s not. It’s an album that’s warm and comforting, a direct line to a simpler musical past.
Taster Track : Golden Hour
The Overload : Yard Act
One of the most anticipated records of recent times, Yard Act live up to the hype. It’s probably not for Granny though!
This is a 90mph barrage of scabrous rant rock. It’s a force of nature that doesn’t so much demand attention as stands just inches away from your face and screams at it. It’s a torrent of punk poetry backed by rhythmic grooves, a Pompeii sized eruption of rage, disbelief, disgust and life - quite suited to our times, as it happens!
James Smith, the singer (if that can come close to the experience of hearing him for the first time), is a gobby provocateur with a desperate core that seems barely held together, a cardiac arrest in waiting. Scratch the surface though and there’s a sad humanity to be found. You hear it in the centrepiece track ‘Tall Poppies’ and the closer ‘100% Endurance’. He’s following in the footsteps of John Cooper Clark, Ian Dury and Jarvis Cocker as the chronicler of a generation - in his case the Bojo generation.
The poetry comes in the furious spoken rhythms and punch perfect rhymes. It needs to be listened to rather than written about but try this from ‘Pour Another’ for size.
“I said we can’t have that
Pour another for my brother,
Sister or whichever other you’d prefer we call ya.”
This is an album full of chancers, instinctive one liners and images of knobheads morris dancing to Sham ‘69. They flash by and you’ll find your finger poised above the rewind button, ready to check that you heard what you thought you heard. It’s shot through with wit and humour, not always where you expect to find it. ‘Witness (Can I Get A)’ loses any gospel flavour in its tale of a car insurance incident. And the six and a half minute ‘Tall Poppies’ includes the reflection on an acquaintance’s death that he wasn’t too fond of long songs with lots of words.
Make no mistake, the band play their part even though they’re there to support James Smith in the way that the Blockheads supported Ian Dury. They’re an excellent outfit, releasing Smith to his musings, while ensuring that the outfit will, rightly, be taken seriously. They can be regarded as more The Fall and less Chumbawumba, less novelty act and more… Yard Act.
This is, undeniably, strong stuff but it captures the rage and frustration that millions feel but can’t articulate. It’s a safety valve for life, a cathartic experience and should be listened to at least once.
Taster Track : The Overload.
.... And The Rest
Kick The Traces : The Byson Family
Here’s what happens when the innocent, small scale sound of 70s rock grows up and heads for the arenas.
It’s a glossier, less authentic, more calculated but still enjoyable version of classic rock. It’s an M&S meal deal compared to a home made packed lunch. The M&S sandwich may taste good, but the home made one feels better. There’s a time and a place for both.
The Byson Family know what they’ve given up. They present themselves as a family to form the impression of a bond and closeness that strengthens their playing. They have the harmonies and musicality to bolster that impression. You can hear it in the good time brass of ‘Angel Of the Reckless’.
As the record unfolds, you gain a better feel for them as musicians, and they're good. You can hear early Kings of Leon and current The War On Drugs in the mix, together with a healthy mix of traditional rock and an occasional pop sensibility. The one thing you can’t hear is anything of their Glaswegian background. They could be from anywhere, as long as it’s linked to America.
Ultimately this is an album about rock music rather than an album about life.
Taster Track : I Wish You No Ill
Flat White Moon : Field Music
Field Music’s latest is recognisably angular, but with some occasional softening into a mellower form of pop.
I’ve often been frustrated by Field Music. I’ve read the reviews, liked the reference points, and engaged with each album believing that this is it, this is the one where it all comes together in a glorious tribute to off kilter pop. It never has, but they come closer to achieving it on ‘Flat White Moon’ than they have before.
Their music is an incorrectly completed jigsaw, needing just a little reassembly to make the perfect picture. As it is, Field Music sometimes remind me of 70s furniture - looking good but not a comfortable experience.
‘Out Of The Frame’ is the sound of Field Music of old. The lyrics and the music don’t quite fit together. They take the same old song and try too hard to make it different and more than it is.
Their touchstones are many. Early Talking Heads and Sparks spring to mind, and they are excellent sources of inspiration. They have ideas, imagination and Beatlesque touches aplenty. but they lack the memorable, natural melody, the lightness of touch and instinctive sense of poppiness.
The good news is that there are more moments when they get it right on this album than before. The tinkling piano on ‘Orion From The Street’ lightens their sound. The descending guitar riff of ‘In This City’ is the kind of hook needed throughout the album. ‘Invisible Days’, ‘The Curtained Room’ and, particularly, ‘Do Me A Favour’ find them relaxed enough to make excellent pop and to free themselves from the obligation to be arty.
In places Field Music still fall into the unforgivable weakness of being dull. But there are increasing signs that the transformation into a more accessible but still musically credible band may be underway.
Taster Track : Do Me A Favour
It Won’t Always Be Like This : Inhaler
This is an album full of stadium filling Festival anthems. That’s not bad for a debut album, but it has a few unsettling undertones too.
This is Elijah Hawson’s (Bono’s son), band. They’ve kept that quiet to be able to stand on their own two feet, but the media haven’t been quite so discreet about it. Inevitably you wonder how much that helped and how much that hindered their growth and development.
You see, this doesn’t sound like a debut. It’s a big, big sound, the sound of a band that wants to be the biggest band in the world, and sooner rather than later. It has burst on the scene like a fully formed mid career album, full of songs that have crashing guitars, busy drums and overlaid synths. I’m guessing that doesn’t come cheap. It means too, that the songs are polished and mature but not particularly raw and fresh.
It’s the sound of a band that has grown up too fast. There’s no sense of who they really are, no hook to make you want to follow them from record to record. They already sound jaded rather than sparky.
Inevitably, you listen for sounds of Bono’s influence. There are shadows of U2’s influence as you’d expect if it’s the music you grew up with. But the influence is not their peak period of the early records or The Joshua Tree, but their later songs. This is more ‘Vertigo’ than ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ It’s enjoyable enough but neither heartfelt nor essential and, unfortunately, not that memorable.
There are other influences too, best summed up as when the Killers met Keane. And like both those bands, this album has a mix of crackers and duds. I’d say that the ratio is 7:4 in favour of the crackers but it’s closer than that suggests. Like tanks gathering at a contested border, it’s hard to tell where one side ends and the other begins.
There are a couple of points later in the album, for example the short, ‘Strange Time To Be Alive’ and the coda to ‘Who’s Your Money On? (Plastic House) which are quieter and more reflective pointing the way to something less corporate and more interesting in the future.
I feel that the band may have been under a ridiculous amount of pressure to deliver something that lives up to their pedigree. Inhaler are in need of an inhaler themselves - something to help them to relax and their music to breathe. Then we might hear songs that are more interesting.
Taster Track : My Honest Face
Freak Show : Jelly Crystal
This album is a strange confection, recognisably pop music but not quite as you’ve heard it before. It’s a hit and miss affair, but the hits are well worth a few minutes of your time.
There’s something of a restless dream about these songs. They’re more vivid and boldly set out than in the real world. They don’t operate at quite the same speed either, whether slightly slowed down for the title track, or flitting between different fragments of ideas within the same song.
It’s appealing where there’s a Mika or Scissor Sisters sense of melody, as on ‘Someone’s Dog’ or ‘I Don’t Like Dancing’ but it sometimes feels like the songs have emerged from a melting pot of ingredients. Some are undercooked and some are overdone. All are leaving behind a curious aroma or unusual aftertaste that isn’t necessarily unpleasant but leaves you unsure if you like it.
He’s trying something different in every song, and that continual inventiveness deserves applause. But occasionally it feels like a snooker player whose opening break is to smash the balls to all four corners, just to see what opportunities open up. It doesn’t always work.
Everything is bolder and bigger than it needs to be. The songs are laden with effects and rhythms that come together as the soundtrack to a vivid but weird dream, or as the album title signposts, to a freak show.
There are things here to like but, overall, I’m filing this under the label ‘The Jury’s Out’
Taster Track : I Don’t Like Dancing
11:11 : Pinegrove
Pinegrove’s brand of rock sails perilously close to emo but, listen carefully, and there’s a prettier, more melodic sound lurking just below the surface.
Being optimistic, we’re on the brink of looking and listening to the post Covid period. It seems to me that it can take music two ways. The first is signposted “Wowee! That was tough but let's’ get on with life and make up for lost time.” The second is the route marked “That was tough. Let me tell you how tough that was” I think that, whichever camp we’re in, we shouldn’t lose sight of the other route, and the experiences that steered us that way.
And that little reflection brings us to Pinegrove. It may be a case of first impressions, but what a mood hoover they’ve turned out to be! Take ‘Swimming’, a song about a near death experience or the fear of a near death experience, I’m not sure. Or ‘Cyclone’ which asks “If it’s better, then why am I crying?”. This is a collection of songs that, by and large, fails to soar. They’re beaten down and flattened by their emotions rather than using them to launch a song. What doesn’t kill them leaves them wallowing in despair.
It’s not helped that the vocals, which hit you first, are strained by their experiences and calling out for help or an intervention to make things better.
Take time to form a second impression and there are some green shoots of hope and optimism. If you search for them there are genuinely pretty moments beneath the surface, such as the backing harmonies on ‘Iodine’. ‘Alaska’ has a more upbeat and tuneful feel, showing the power of more basic rock and roll to lift your spirits. The lyrics too are full of sharp and strong images such as “scream like a kettle” from ‘Habitat’ and “the birds sing dissident tunes” from ‘Flora’.
I want to show empathy for their experiences, but it’s like trying to communicate with a screaming toddler. They need to calm down before you can help. It’s the same here. Keep the music simpler and the message is stronger. Lay the emotional intensity too thickly and I can’t find a way through.
There you have it. For me this album was too weighty, too intense, too much. Hotpress Review shares some of my reservations but with less of a rant. Under The Radar Review has a more balanced perspective.
Taster Track : Iodine