Alvvays, Bennett Wilson Poole, Caterina Barbieri, Fred Und Luna, The Hanging Stars, James Holden, Khotin, Someone, Thandii, Ulrich Schnauss and Mark Peters,
The Front Runners
Im Funfminutentakt : Fred und Luna
As far as electronic music is concerned, Germany is where many pioneers were found. This is a fitting tribute to their creativity and the risks they took. It’s an excellent album of melodic electropop.
Fred and Luna are named after two mannequins living in a fashion boutique in Karlsruhe, Germany. That’s good, because it means you can describe this album as a masterclass in electropop for dummies.
It’s all here, but with added warmth. It may still sound like the music of machines, with their motorik beats, metronomic rhythms and clinically sterile sound. It’s music for laboratories. Yes, it's passionless, unemotional, detached and restrained. But it’s also quite brilliant in the way that it transcends the gap between humans and robots. You could even say that it captures the mid-ground that is music for mannequins.
The track that best captures the album’s essence is ‘Eins Null Eins Eins Null’ (‘One Zero One One Zero’) It makes a catchy song out of a binary chant that broadens out into something more. It starts with binary code but it ends with advice for being human.
“Be one with yourself
Be one with yourself
Be one with yourself
Be one with yourself
It’s a track that merges ‘Da Da Da’ by Trio with the melodic gifts of Kraftwerk’s single ‘Autobahn’.
Other highlights include the broken rhythm to ‘Vision 58’ and the different world explored in ‘Aventure 1’. They’re in the special nature of ‘Wir Atmen Digital’ with music that walks you purposefully through a maze of corridors. It’s in the double warmth of ‘Morgen’ - the warmth from outside on a sunny day and the life affirming warmth inside that comes from a job well done. Above all it’s in the multilingual acceptance of ‘Es Ist So Schon”. You may never have considered German to be a romantic language but this track may just change your mind.
This is a top of the range BMW / Mercedes of record, quiet perfection in musical form.
Taster Track : Es Ist So Schon
Hollow Heart : The Hanging Stars
Call it cosmic country or country rock, this album from The Hanging Stars is a very good album indeed.
The single most difficult thing about writing a weekly review blog is keeping on top of the masses of good music released each week. I currently have around 140 albums to listen to, some going back to last year. Of course, I have to filter some of them out unheard just to give me some hope, and that gives me a very bad case of FOMO.
The Hanging Stars very nearly didn’t make the cut. This album was released on 25th March 2022. It’s taken me nearly 14 months to reach it. I owe them and you an apology. ‘Hollow Heart’ is an absolute joy.
It’s almost as if they know they’ve been waiting a long time because they get down to business with no messing around. ‘Ava’ sets out their stall. It’s a floaty form of country rock that knows all the tricks of melody, slide guitar, harmonies and how to use them. The production is absolutely perfect. Every element is clear, nothing is submerged or struggling to be heard. Take one very small example - the lingering bass thrum at the end of ‘Radio On’. It triggers goosebumps.
The band are from London, but this is a record that has a large dose of Americana at its core. Perhaps they decamped to Salisbury Plain because this is an album for taking in the wide open spaces that fill you with awe. It’s like being deep in unlit countryside on a warm night lying flat on your back gazing at innumerable stars. And then, like a shimmering shooting star it’s gone.
This is a true band, every part supports and reinforces another like an engine tuned to perfection. In fact, by ‘Black Light Night’ they’re cruising effortlessly, like a high performance car.
The guitars make the album. They hint at containing mystical truths. More than that, they contain ethereal magic, like the magic contained in Roy Orbison’s voice.
This is an album that runs at a continuous high. Don’t leave it as long as I did to give it a listen.
Taster Track : Black Light Night
Imagine This Is A High Dimensional Space Of All Possibilities : James Holden
James Holden’s album will launch you into a wonderful sonic universe. It’s what we always hoped pure electronic music would sound like and it’s exciting and new.
It’s a long title for a long album but it captures its essence nicely. This is an album that explores the possibilities of electronic music. You will latch on to particular snippets without always feeling able to make sense of the whole but it will slowly slip into focus. Once you’ve allowed yourself to be overwhelmed by all that is there, you’ll feel invigorated and happy.
This is what we felt music could become once synthesisers became accessible. It’s music both for the future we’ve arrived in and the one we’ve yet to reach. One day hyperactive AI avatars will bop to this all night long. In the here and now it’s a musical health kick, shaking up a jaded palate, full of realised potential and future possibilities. ‘Four Ways Down The Valley’ is the sound of a new age dawning.
You’ll discover more, the more you listen but some immediate impressions are:
You’ll sometimes be seduced by sounds, not beats or even tunes although tracks such as ‘You Are In A Clearing’ are both musical and percussive.
Its scattergun effects are free flowing although ‘Contains Multitudes’ will give you a rhythm to dance to like a jerky string puppet. It’s also inventive in its shifts and the way it evolves. It’s a mix of 21st century shapeshifting blended with, weirdly but enjoyably, 1930s South American piano. ‘Worlds Collide, Mountains Form’ merges enjoyable clunky beats with synthetic hillbilly strings. I know. It will never work, except that it does.
It’s a bubbling, stuttering cocktail of sound, mutant but friendly. The throbbing synths of ‘Common Land’ are not threatening and allow for a dash of stretched soft rock saxophone.
In the way that energy came together out of the Big Bang to form life and planets, the energy here gradually fuses into something hypnotic and trance inducing (‘Trust Your Feet’) or more recognisably club friendly (‘Continuous Revolution’). It will even shake pedantic geophysicists who care to dispute that summary like the Polaroid camera that was once the future.
This is electronic music that is cheery not gloomy, light on its feet, not blundering around.
In its way it’s an astonishing collection of tunes, seeking to expand what’s possible in music while keeping it accessible. It’s music to experience as much as it is music to be listened and danced to.
It’s a call to wake up and start enjoying all the fun.
Taster Track : Four Ways Down The Valley
Release Spirit : Khotin
Khotin is Dylan Khotin-Foote, a Canadian musician with a nice line in downtempo electronica.
Khotin has carved out a niche for music that helps you to take a moment to absorb your previous few hours. Its inspiration is comedown music after a night clubbing as energy and adrenaline drain away, but it could equally be music to help you switch off from driving late into the night or as the tiredness kicks in after the euphoria of spending the night in a maternity delivery suite watching the birth of your new child.
Downtempo it may be, but it’s not downbeat. It’s thoughtful and restorative music to help you return to your daily world. Close to ambient in places, you can imagine Dr Who having this on repeat as he / she recovers from their latest regeneration.
This is electronica that’s truly immersive. The half heard conversations at the end of ‘HV Road’ are one way that he achieves this. Another way is through Tess Roby’s vocals on ‘Fountain Growth’. They sound as if they're remembered rather than heard.
The album is the first step to rebuilding and recovery. The bird song in ‘Life Mask’ acts as the first glimmer of light and warmth. This is an album showing that music serves all moods, including those that appear when you’re feeling drained.
It’s not just the musical equivalent of an energy fuelling smoothie though. There are different textures and styles at play. ‘Lovely’ combines metallic notes with the sense of waves breaking over you. For all that ‘Sound Gathering Trip’ plants itself firmly in ambient territory, ‘Computer Break - Late Mix’ has an appealing and purposeful shuffle about it, and an uplifting melody. ‘Techno Creep’ achieves the same effect through its pulse.
When you need music to help you reboot in life, this is one of the albums to turn to.
Taster Track : Computer Break - Late Mix
Owls : Someone
Someone’s made an excellent example of an unfairly discredited and unfashionable genre - the dinner party album. Her name is Tessa Rose Jackson.
Cards on the table - I’m a big fan of turn of the century chilled albums such as Air’s ‘Moon Safari’, Zero 7’s ‘Simple Things’ and Dido’s ‘Life For Rent’. Because they were quiet and melodic they were ideal for playing unobtrusively in the background while you chatted away with friends. They became hallmarks for a certain kind of air quoted ‘taste’ and ‘discernment’ . In some quarters they came to be regarded as records for people who didn’t really like music but bought two or three records a year to show off their music systems.
What that disparagement failed to take into account was that the music was actually very good, wrapping a truly affecting sadness and melancholy in a coating of bittersweet, melodies that helped the songs glide smoothly into your heart. That’s the kind of album that Someone has made here.
It’s a clever name that she’s chosen for herself. Someone could be anyone and that makes the emotions in her songs universal.
Her voice emerges from backing tracks that clatter into shape while containing beguiling moments of unexpected calm. It’s captivating, sounding dreamlike and as if it’s moving air gently around the room.
Someone’s voice is comforting, reassuring and kind, the type that connects and confides. You want it to give you long hugs and permission to cry. Some of her songs suggest that she needs the same from you. You’d have to be hard hearted indeed to turn you back on her.
There are three brief, incidental and ambient tracks that break up the flow. (‘The Bar’, ‘The Radio’ and ‘The Beach’). Often that’s an irritation but here they work well, contributing to the overall feel of aloneness. (You read that word here first!)
This is easy to listen to in a blurred gentle electronic indie kind of way. If it does prove to be dinner party music, you’ll be back for a second helping soon.
Taster Track : In Your Arms
The Chasing Pack
Blue Rev : Alvvays
This is what you turn to if you want Canadian indie pop that’s bursting with energy.
Alvvays had to be spelled that way to distinguish them from another band called ‘Always’ who were already signed to their first record label. There’s a slight sense with this album that they continue to be a little late to their own party. It’s been done before, but it’s done well here and there’s a new generation that needs to hear it.
As with punk and rock and roll it’s the youth of the day that will claim it for their own. From the opening notes of ‘Pharmacist’ you’re hit with a heady, breathless rush of chaotic and buzzy pop. This is noisy adrenaline in sonic form. The music comes to you like a dust cloud after an explosion and it spills out of house parties, into the garden and onto the streets. It’s a soundtrack to leaving home and living your own life for the first time.
Alvvays are three minute heroes to the current uni generation. They’re beloved of NME and their browsers. They don’t have a clean sound. They offer the brevity and grubbiness of punk with little let up but without the anger and determination to change things. It’s not a relaxing record, but a supercharged, over excited, thrilling mess of one with occasional breathing spaces.
If you can break through the surface energy and noise you will find melodies and hooks aplenty. When they calm down for long enough to polish up the sound, as on ‘After The Earthquake’, ‘Tile By Tile’ and ‘Bored In Bristol’, the music jangles like a set of keys attached to a belt. There are hints of songs that could easily be made to shine prettily, like The Cardigans on steroids. That may not be what they want, and that is absolutely fine.
This is music for breaking free, for discovery and for stimulating and exciting the listener. Every generation needs a band like this.
Taster Track : Bored In Bristol
I Saw A Star Behind Your Eyes, Don’t Let It Go Out : Bennett Wilson Poole
This album is as close to the sound of 60s jangle folk as you’ll get until someone invents time travel. And it’s very well done indeed.
This is a love album. It’s a boy next door romance that for all the stumbles along the way is going to end up happily ever after. It’s also testimony to a musical time and place. The time is the first Summer of Love. The place is mid 60s America. The result is a heady rush of warm nostalgia. Not bad for an act that sounds more like a firm of solicitors or estate agents than your guides to a happier place!
BWP look westward with unapologetic longing. They've provided a memory box of jangling Byrd type guitars, gorgeous Beach Boy harmonising and a splash of Tom Petty to toughen things up before they get too syrupy. It should help those who can’t remember the 60s because they were there.
The most distinctive voice in this self-styled supergroup is Danny ‘Mary’s Prayer’ Wilson. His voice is as tremulous as ever but older and more worn too. It adds sadness to their sunshine pop in a way that maybe only Willie Nelson can pull off as well. The harmonies are sublime.
At first it felt a little odd for such an authentic tribute to come from a London based trio of collaborators. Listen to the references in ‘I Wanna Love You (But I Can’t Right Now)’. They include Andy Warhol, Martin Luther King, Bobbys Kennedy and Dylan. And then of course I realised that this was a song about America not any one American. I realised too, that this is a tribute to a music that spread across the world to affect millions. It started in the USA, but now it’s owned by the world.
For the most part this is simple, unaffected 60s sunshine pop, romantic and smoothly poetic. I’ve seen it described as Americana but you may feel, as I did, that something grittier is called to mind by that. The main touchstone for me was that it recreates a sound that marks the birth of jangle pop.
It would be simply wrong to dislike something that pays tribute to a music stream that’s meant a lot to me over the years. Perhaps you’ll feel the same way too.
Taster Track : Heart Songs
Spirit Exit : Caterina Barbieri
Die hard pop fans may take a bit of time to adapt to Caterina Barbieri. She’s an Italian composer who composes on synth, and practises in the modern classical line while nudging contemporary electronica. It took me a while to draw that conclusion from my initial, slightly bewildered response.
It’s one of those records where you might feel you need to put on your intelligent analyst hat. That will help a little. It had me thinking about the definitions of classical and electronic music, allowing me to appreciate both from a different perspective. I’m used to electronic music being for the future only being in the present moment as you’re bombarded by it in a club. I’m not used to electronic music sounding as if it is coming from the past. I don’t mean the 1970s and 1980s. This is electronic music as it might have been envisaged by the Brontes.
It’s the vocals that lead me down that path. Barbieri has added these to her compositions with this album. They’re vocals you can imagine coming from a witch, stranded on a gale battered rocky outcrop or from the spirit of one that did not meet a happy end.
Individual pieces triggered individual fragmentary reactions. While passing through ‘At Your Gamut’ you’ll find a passage that sounds like a slow trickle of water becoming a sudden gush before fading away. It’s by no means unpleasant. ‘Transfixed’ gamely forces through a dramatic tune, supported by those distinctive vocals. It certainly grabs the attention, but is intense and ponderous. ‘Canticle of Cryo’ is serious but deliberate as if it’s a chess move that has been overthought. For most of the album you can sense it’s big on tone and atmosphere but light on rhythm and melody.
Fortunately there are extended moments in these lengthy tracks that are more accessible. There’s an appealing tinkling that lightens ‘Life At Altitude’. ‘Terminal Clock’ sounds and feels almost like a heavy dance track. Around seven minutes into ‘Knot Of Spirit’ a hypnotic, trance inducing passage creeps in. It works well, and personally I could have used more of this.
Barbieri could be the new Hannah Peel. (Hannah who? Don’t worry, there will be more of her in a future blog.) She’s made a bold and, in part, genuinely interesting album that is gradually moving her music from the concert hall to the club, and from Radio 3 to Radio 6.
For now, Barbieri is one to watch and keep an ear open for. What she does next might be very different and very good.
Taster Track : Life At Altitude
A Beat to Make It Better : Thandii
There’s more style than substance in this collection of electro charged songs and, ultimately, they sound empty.
Thandii have had a good idea for a stylish sound But like a football team that's committed to the wrong tactics, with no plan B, they’re locked into a path that can’t last for the course of a whole album.
They aim for a cumulative effect from their songs. It’s an approach that has worked for others, after all. Here though it feels like a one trick pony. Take a fat bassline, as on ‘Not Just One’. Scatter some lighter synth effects across the mid ground, all appealing in isolation. Allow breathy vocals to paddle over the top with weary ennui. Repeat for the next nine tracks.
‘The End of the World’ has a cinematic quality, but it’s quickly apparent that it is the quality of Scandinavian cinema noir, not Hollywood blockbusters. Rather than going out with a bang, this end of the world subsides with a whimper. The record never fully engages. It remains stuck in second gear.
It’s a clinically stylish record, playing at night to an empty room. It’s lethargic and passionless, detached and unemotional. Despite that it’s not an awful record by any stretch, just an uninspiring and wearying one. What it needs is a more varied beat to make it better!
As always I may have missed the point. There’s a review by Loud Women, an organisation that support putting women on stage and turning up the volume. They call it a solid debut that sets them up for the future. There is a chance that will happen. You can read more at Loud Women Thandii Review
Post Script :
All Pop In The Real World reviews are essentially immediate first impressions. Once I’ve listened to them and drafted a review, I add the album to a playlist for the month which I listen to on shuffle. That way I stand a good chance of hearing most tracks at least twice.
On that basis I fear I have been too harsh on Thandii. Each time I’ve heard a track in isolation I’ve thought it’s not that bad. Maybe that’s the way to listen to it - in a playlist format rather than as an album.
Taster Track : Trust Issues
Destiny Waiving : Ulrich Schnauss & Mark Peters
With a background that includes electronic prog band Tangerine Dream and Engineers, a dream pop shoegaze band from the turn of the Millenium, I wasn’t expecting the route this took me through.
It seems that I have inadvertently wandered into something legitimately classed as New Age music. There’s not a pan pipe or wind chime in range. I’ve tried to rationalise this as chilled electronica, library music or music for a new stressed age rather than new age music but there’s no escaping the truth. The purpose of this album is to let you unwind and shed your stresses. It achieves that purpose very well.
Tracks seem to go nowhere but take their time, pleasantly meandering along without a care in the world. It’s music where nothing much happens, but stresses and troubles are kept at bay. This is the soundtrack to found time - when you’re expecting a difficult day but it doesn’t materialise or when someone else’s plans for you don’t come to pass. It’s downtime music for a lovely day spent doing nothing much at all.
What’s going on? This is the opposite of what music generally aims for. It feels like music for hypnosis, politely insistent and working its magic beneath the surface. It sounds innocuous but you could find it having a marked effect on your wellbeing. It’s not designed to trigger strong reactions but to melt them away. It holds you gently, serving as mindfulness music.
There’s not much to say about the actual music. Like a sleeping kiss, it’s designed to be felt, not physically noticed. There are moments such as in ‘Hindsight Is 20/20’ where you feel like a swift soaring and swooping over the field in warm sunshine or in carefree suspension between waking and sleeping.
You may not want to listen to this every day, but give it a go. There will be moments when nothing else will do.
Taster Track : Hindsight Is 20/20
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