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Music To Help 2022 Beat 2021. And 2020. And 1346.


Avishai Cohen, Billy Bragg, Brian Molley, Dry Cleaning, The Jazz Butcher, Lindsey Buckingham, Marina Allen, Mark Lanaghan, Nils Frahm, Pet Shop Boys, Piroshka, Rhye, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Robin Miller, Tones and I

Album Cover of the Week

Any one who's familiar with the Pet Shop Boy's early album covers will guess why I've chosen this as my Album Cover of the Week. It made me smile in the way it harks back to 'Actually' or 'Please'. We could do with more album covers that provide a little joke within them too.

This Week's Music

It's a bumper round up this week, owing to the fact that eating and drinking my way through the Christmas period trumped writing a blog. That's professionalism for you!

To make amends you can access 2021's highlights can be revisited at

As ever this week's Taster Track playlists can be accessed at or via the Spotify link on the Home Page. The link to the Youtube playlist is

Highly Recommended

Modern Traditions : Brian Molley

This is jazz, not jazz influenced or jazz undertones or full of jazz interludes. It is what it is and, surprise, surprise it’s an enjoyable, gentle form of music. It actually features The Brian Molley Quartet with saxophone / clarinet, double bass, piano and drums.

To an expert, this is a mix of bop and post bop jazz. ‘Bop’ is trad and swing jazz played faster and intended to be listened to rather than danced to. Post bop is bop freed from constraints. To me this is simply traditional jazz. It’s what I thought of as jazz, and ran away from when I was growing up musically. I’m no longer sure what I was worried about.

It’s an odd form of music that prides itself on being more complicated than what came before. It’s counter-intuitive. We’re attuned to simplification, to distilling things down to their essence to appreciate them fully. (Pete Townsend and The Who covered this thought in ‘Pure and Easy’)

The music on this record is like the cover that surrounds it. It looks / sounds appealing. You half grasp the picture, work out what it’s saying and fill in the gaps. I still have no idea how they write this music, but it sounds like controlled improvisation around a single theme. You’re encouraged to follow each musical line in turn until something snags your attention and draws you in.

This is, for all its freedom, a gentle record. It’s melodic and clean without necessarily being hummable. The music washes over you like a hot shower after a cold day working the garden. In ‘Magic Ten’ everyone gets their turn. It sounds as if they’re having fun, in perfect sync and that communicates itself to the listener in a feel good haze.

I don’t often mention the production but here it’s so clean it adds significantly to the overall effect. It’s a fifth instrument and as on the button as any of the others.

A year ago I’d have been intimidated by the thought of listening to this. Thanks to many artists and reviewers during 2021 I’m now building a store of good musical jazz memories. Brian Molley is part of that store.

Taster Track : Magic Ten

Dr Cholmondley Repents : A-Sides, B-Side and Seasides : The Jazz Butcher

This comprehensive 58 song compilation of The Jazz Butcher’s past is timely following the death of band leader Pat Fish earlier this year (or last year if you’re reading this in 2022, or a decade ago if this lasts as long as 2031.) It shows a band that should be much better known and appreciated.

I didn’t know the band at their peak between 1982 and 2000. Their name suggested a more extreme version of, say, Pigbag or a scything version of James ‘Blood’ Ulmer who I had heard on an NME compilation while a student. Well, they may suggest they butcher jazz but they serve up prime cuts of 80s and 90s indie pop, and it’s very enjoyable.

This is the kind of music that used to precede John Peel on evening Radio 1. It’s stylish and radio friendly, and I can't think of a reason why they didn’t trouble the charts a lot more. It’s a classic alternative 80s sound, that’s made for the 12” extended mix.

Their songs pick you up, take you for a sunny ride and drop you off. They’re the musical equivalent of a hop on, hop off London bus, or a wind up toy that you set on its way and listen to where it takes you.

There’s a lot of fun in these songs. It sounds as if they were having a great time in the studio, and they were more than capable of building on that when playing live. Their songs are made for joining in with handclaps.

In the early tracks on the compilation you can hear rockabilly, the B52s and Jonathan Richman. They cover , and even improve, his ‘Roadrunner’. What comes through as the collection unfolds, is their Englishness. You can hear it in the vocals and phrasing, heavily and poshly accented in ‘Partytime’. ‘Water’ is full on Vivian Stanshall / Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. ‘Grooving In The Bus Lane’ works if you know your UK road planning features. It’s less likely to be familiar to you in New York, Paris, Moscow or Tokyo. They cover The Rolling Stones’ ‘We Love You’ with a 90s dance vibe that’s at home with Mancunian baggy sounds.

They’re not a novelty band. These are excellent songs. The 12” versions are ones that are the product of the band, and replicable live, not the results of the producer and studio engineer manipulating the tracks long after the band have left the studio. And there are songs such as ‘New Invention’ and ‘Sweetwater’ that are a match for Lloyd Cole at his most commercially successful.

If you love the sound of the 12”, you’ll love this record. I was initially daunted by the thought of 58 remixes and B sides. I decided to listen only to the first CD’s worth of 14 tracks, but I couldn’t switch it off. 27 songs in and I still haven’t heard a duff track.

The Jazz Butcher - my new ‘should've been my favourite band for years and years’!

Taster Track : Spooky 12” Extended Mix

Candlepower : Marina Allen

There’s an awful lot to like in this short album of classic songwriting. It’s not perfect, but it is encouragingly different.

According to her record company, Marina Allen is the stuff of legends which is a big claim on the basis of a 19 minute debut. A legend is usually something passed down through generations, or someone who defies the limits restricting mere mortals. Expecting Marina to qualify as a legend at this stage is optimistic, like winning the Formula 1 Championship the season after passing your driving test.

So if she falls short of ‘legend’ she certainly qualifies as an exciting prospect. The seven songs here have all the right touchstones from the golden age of female singer songwriting - Joan Baez, Karen Carpenter, Vashti Bunyan and Rickie Lee Jones to name just a few.The influences are not allowed to swamp the song though. Her musical personality and individual creativity are able to shine through.

Take opening track ‘Oh Louise’. In just over three minutes it gives us three distinct passages, all of them likeable. It opens with a passage firmly focused on the voice before leaping into a slice of out and out pop leading to a slower, jazzier passage out of the song.

Elsewhere, she recaptures the deep folk sound of Simon and Garfunkel on the virtually unaccompanied ‘Original Goodness’, incorporates an interesting bass and drum line on ‘Belong Here’ and successfully warbles her way across the higher register of ‘Sleeper Train’.

She keeps it short and sweet, constantly engaging and never afraid to try something different. Very occasionally as on ‘Ophelia’ the songs sound a little forced as if they’ve been tapped into place rather than fitting like a hand in glove. But even here, the closing clarinet adds something that’s worth returning to time and again.

She may not be a legend yet but she’s serving an apprenticeship that could take some way along that path.

Taster Track : Oh Louise

My Beautiful Laundrette : Pet Shop Boys

This is an EP of songs and music for a stage production of My Beautiful Laundrette. Its fusion of wit, dance beats and Asian influences make it a more than decent Pet Shop Boys record.

It must be an added constraint to write good songs to order, to make music that by its very nature is subservient to the stage production. Somehow the Pet Shop Boys deliver what is required without losing their musical identity.

It’s a while since I saw the film but it helps that its themes of gay relationships, entrepreneurial quirks and of being out of place are made for Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. This commission must have felt like manna from Heaven allowing them to display their pop nous (‘Angelic Thug’), dance beats (‘Omar’s Theme’) and the underrated, mature songwriting of their later years (‘No Boundaries’). They effortlessly incorporate the Asian elements demanded by the play to create something that sounds new for them. They’ve been going for nearly 40 years for Heaven’s sake, so that’s no mean feat.

It’s the nature of commissions for stage or screen that the music has to be recycled throughout the performance. PSB keep it fresh so that only one track - ‘Beautiful Laundrette’ - sounds a little bit of a makeweight.

I’ve been a fan of the group since the beginning. They’ve not let anyone down with this EP which comfortably holds its own as a true Pet Shop Boys record.

Taster Track : No Boundaries

... And The Rest

Two Roses : Avishai Cohen

Avishai Cohen is a jazz bassist, but that does not begin to do justice to the ambition and variety of this album with his trio and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (GSO).

It’s an album that reworks some of his best songs for an orchestral treatment, without losing the jazz finesse that made them his best songs in the first place. Unexpectedly the reworks are lightened by a dusting of pop, most often through some Mike Sammes like backing vocals. (Think ‘Up, Up and Away’)

It’s also a celebration of his Israeli heritage. Take the two elements together and this feels like an album that was important to him personally.

Coming out of the gates, it’s the classical side to the fore. The GSO aren’t here to make up the numbers with a lush but unnecessary backing. They add a cinematic depth to the numbers written for a trio, taking the small scale and building sweeping orchestral melodies that serve as a kind of overture.

The real trick though is to switch effortlessly between genres. ‘Song For My Brother’ is an example, but it’s a trick that plays out across the album. The inclusion of Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ shows that Cohen can also shift styles within genres, the silken jazz of Nat King Cole work being a considerable distance from the jazz of the Avishai Cohen Trio. The trio have plenty of chances to shine too, creating space in the record. The Israeli vocals add a touch of exoticism too.

Some people value purity in music. Others are happy to mix and match. To some, this album will sound like a musical pot pourri, offering different flavours in unexpected combinations that are difficult to separate and so feel new. To others it may be the equivalent of a ‘help yourself from the fridge’ supper with not quite enough of any one component to satisfy you.

I’m in the former camp. This is an interesting and enjoyable record.

Taster Track : Arab Medley

The Million Things That Never Happened : Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg, angry young man of punk folk, has grown old and weary on this collection.

There’s a line in ‘Should Have Seen It Coming’ that neatly encapsulates this album.

“To see if it’s a fog that’s dimmed my senses

Or the fading of the light.”

Besides showing Bragg to be a strong lyricist still, this album covers both the confused and inexplicable nature of world events, and the hazards of growing old.

It’s the growing old that strikes most strongly on this album and, to be honest, makes for better songs too. He no longer spits out his views from the centre of the battlefield, but observes and offers perspectives from one side. When he returns to homespun folk and country in ‘Freedom Doesn’t Come For Free’, or lapses into the poetic geezer persona of ‘Good Days And Bad Days’ or bounces into the radio friendly sound of ‘Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained’, it’s as if he’s pulling on a cloak to become someone he used to be.

When he forgets to protest and reflects on personal concerns, he’s treading the same path as Nick Lowe in his Brentford Trilogy, or Roddy Frame when he dropped the jangly Aztec Camera persona. A song such as ‘Mid-Century Modern’ sounds honest, rueful and grounded in real life. It’s as if he’s been away for a long time and is catching up with where life has taken him. He sings for those that age is withering rather than uttering a call to the arms of his youth. It makes, at times, for a gloomy, downbeat and defeated tone.

His love of words is undimmed. His ability to write a good song remains strong. It’s a difficult trick to balance the need for a melody to make the song palatable with the need to avoid undermining any message with an unrealistic dose of saccharin. More often than not Bragg strikes the right note.

This is an album that may disappoint older Bragg fans, although to be fair I’d lost touch with his songs since the mid 80s, and he may have been offering this style for some time. As a study in growing older though it’s an honest and dignified record.

Taster Track :Mid-Century Modern

New Long Leg : Dry Cleaning

Dry Cleaning bring spoken word vocals to a backing reminiscent of New Order in their early days. They’re in the vanguard of a newish musical trend and they handle that well.

The band formed in London in 2018. Florence Shaw, the ‘singer’ was reluctant to join the band until they invited her simply to read out lyrics to their music. From such a willingness to be accommodating, the Dry Cleaning sound was born.

Spoken word lyrics are trending with bands that are highly rated and up and coming for 202, if they haven’t already arrived. It doesn’t take long to list Self Esteem, Wet Leg, Black Country New Road and Yard Act as following a similar path.

The thing is, spoken word in a band playing songs disturbs the usual dynamic. I’m not saying it’s right but it pushes the band to the background because we’re attuned to paying attention to what people are saying. It’s like a quiet public announcement in a theatre bar that cuts through the bacground music that you were enjoying to remind you to take your seat as the show begins in five minutes.

Musically I loved this. The band play massive post punk anthems that, at heart, are cracking tunes. Vocally it’s all wrapped up in an unfiltered stream of consciousness. Phrases leap out at you and impress, but then you are carried on a flow of words wondering what she’s going on about.

Shaw sings, just a little, on ‘More Big Birds’ and it’s immediately clear she’s a good, complimentary fit for the band. They click.

I’m nearly, but not completely, convinced by this album. There is talent here in abundance, and the second album promises to seal their reputation as a bold band, unafraid of carving their own path.

Taster Track : More Big Birds

Lindsey Buckingham : Lindsey Buckingham

Lindsey Buckingham, edgy mainstay of Fleetwood Mac for decades, has released this highly listenable collection of smooth, straightforward melodic pop that will melt straight out of the speakers before dissolving into the ether.

There’s not much more to say really.

On the evidence of this album, Buckingham may well be responsible for some of Fleetwood Mac’s more enduring melodies. The songs don’t force themselves on you. They wrap themselves around you.

There are some hints at darkness on ‘Scream’ and ‘Dancing’ particularly but they are buried beneath layers of duvet quality comfort. ‘Blind Love’ sounds sweet - not a quality commonly associated with his reputation for prickly difficulty with and within Fleetwood Mac. ‘Time’ sounds like a song Roy Orbison never had the chance to sing. ‘On The Wrong Side’, ‘Blue Light’, the radio friendly songs just keep coming. Refreshingly, they’re not over produced but are allowed to come as they are.

There’s no overt score settling. They sound like the songs of a man who has returned to writing music for the sheer enjoyment of doing so.

The last couple of years have allowed people to open their eyes to the beauty of the commonplace they have, perhaps, taken for granted. That’s what this album achieves in its rejection of the overcomplicated, in its contented lack of ambition, and its refusal to try too hard.

Lindsey Buckingham by Lindsey Buckingham. So good they named it twice? Not quite, but it succeeds in reminding us of how good pure pop songwriting can be.

Taster Track : Blue Light

Imitations : Mark Lanegan

This collection from 2013 digs deep into the middle of the road to uncover the regret and sadness at the heart of seemingly innocent songs.

Mark Lanegan’s musical background is split between grunge, rock and, in his solo work, Americana. He regularly features in critics end of year lists. I thought it was about time I gave him a listen.

He’s not a man you’d immediately call to mind when looking for someone to cover the likes of Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin. His background as a wild man, suffering from alcohol addictions and drug abuse is a million miles away from the cardigan clad Andy Williams introducing The Osmonds on his prime time TV slot. But Lanegan understands what makes a great song, and draws out the universal sadness from songs that originally had no other ambition than to reach the top of the charts.

He’s drawn heavily on the songs his parents played at home while he was growing up - easy listening, comforting, mass consumption songs. It’s as if he’s returned to a safe, comforting place but without losing his troubles. It’s a place where he can lick his wounds through music.

The songs are interpreted with sincerity and grace and are lent poignancy through the weight of his experiences. His voice is weary, husky with exhaustion and that adds a different dimension to each of these songs. It’s the soundtrack to the evening of the worst day ever that’s finally over, and you’ve survived.

‘Solitaire’ loses Andy Williams’ niceness and replaces it with a tense desperation. Nancy Sinatra’s James Bond theme ‘’You Only Live Twice’ loses its big screen bombast to become a tentative encouragement for clinging to and not giving up on your dreams.

It’s a strong, if downbeat collection that only falters on his cover of John Cale’s ‘I’m Not The Loving Kind’. The reason for this may be linked to the fact that it was the lead single for the album. It’s given the full ‘aim for the top of the charts’ treatment, full of added surging strings and George Harrison type sliding guitar. It’s the trap that he’s carefully negotiated with the other songs in this collection but he trips over it here.

I enjoyed this album. I’m listening to some of these songs anew and appreciating the emotion at their heart. An album that prompts that is an album that works.

Taster Track : Solitaire

Old Friends, New friends : Nils Frahm

Here’s another collection of sombre, solemn and, above all intimate music. It’s just Nils Frahm, his piano and you.

The most powerful element of this record is silence. It hangs across the tracks as an almost physical and threatening presence between the notes. It’s like an intruder finding his way around your house in the dark. I turned up the volume. If you’re offered silence, you want to hear it properly or at least as a contrast to the notes.

Frahm works magic with silence in the opening track ‘4:33 (A Tribute To John Cage)’. That was the puzzling / notorious track of silence and nothing but silence. I’m proud to say that I do an excellent cover of it on the piano, guitar, bongos, any instrument you care to mention. Frahm is less flippant than I am, preparing a tribute that is clever, beautiful and sympathetic to the original. Of course it's not silent from start to finish, but the way that notes slip and fade towards silence before recovering and climbing away is remarkable.

This is a collection of unused pieces from 2009 to 2021. There’s a sense of decluttering the archive, but the pieces have all the hallmarks of classic Nils. Perhaps they simply didn’t fit on earlier releases. They’re certainly too good to be discarded.

23 tracks is a lot of Nils Frahm to consume in one sitting. His work, while beautiful, is also intense. As well as calming it can sound, if not sad, then empty, drained and oppressive. You can, it seems, have too much of a good thing. This is Frahm at his most serious, his electronica side not in evidence.

It comes as a relief to find midway through the collection, the lighter bounce of ‘The Patterns’ and ‘Corn’.

If this were a book, it would be one to dip into rather than read from cover to cover. If it were a restaurant I’d treat it as a tapas bar, small servings until you had your fill. It is a form of medicine for the soul, working its magic in small regular doses over time.

Taster Track : 4:33 (A Tribute To John Cage)

Love Drips and Gathers : Piroshka

A band that was formed from two bands on the 4AD record label, Lush and Modern English, is a worthy successor to both whilst sounding slightly out of our time.

It’s a literal marriage of Britpop and Shoegaze, with both elements compromising in the interests of creating something new. Their baby, as it were, is dramatic in a slightly distorted way, like watching the clowns from a ringside seat at the circus. Although they sound completely different there’s something of Kate Bush’s attitude in this.

It’s a curious record that occupies a space they can call their own. They sound insulated from their surroundings, engaging with each other rather than with an audience. Whilst nicely played, songs bleed into each other like icing applied to a cake before it has cooled. There’s a shortage of hummable tunes, hooks and ear worms to fully snag the listener.

You can’t fault the ambition here, but Piroshka summarise the weakness in the record as a whole in the lyrics of ‘Wanderlust’. They sing of a stray spark searching for a firework. That’s what’s missing here, something to ignite the record and help it to truly take off.

I’m not sure the production helps. It creates a sound that somehow manages to be thin and muddy at the same time. ‘Echo Loco’ fares best, and it’s probably no coincidence that it’s the poppiest sounding track on the album.

I’m left with the impression that, for all its musical pedigree and the thought that went into making it, this is a record that falls a bit flat. Better luck next time.

Taster Track : Echo Loco

Home : Rhye

Rhye’s collection of chilled Ibizan tunes is mellow to the point of background. There’s nothing to dislike, but little to remember too.

This is inoffensively pleasant listening. Its chilled prettines is consistently appealing, and you could call it the gazpacho dinner party record, posh wallpaper for the sound lounge. Even the beat and pulse of ‘Come In Closer’ is restrained and designed to avoid setting the heart racing.

Strings, soft electronica, languid tunes, plaintive and sensitive vocals and gently emerging climaxes. It’s a template that is well established by the fourth track, ‘Safeword’. This is a genre that can be emotional if there is the right key change, or a well timed pause or a broken vocal. They're not here. It’s summed up by the track ‘Fire’ - it’s less a furnace and more the embers.

It’s quite hard to listen to this because it’s geared to letting your mind wander. It seduces you into life’s sleep mode. It’s music that pushes you away, the breathes “Nothing to hear here, go and focus on something more important” into your ears.

It’s worth stressing though that this is an enjoyably pleasant record. It’s not stirring or earth shattering, but sometimes that’s all you need.

Taster Track : Come In Closer

Raise The Roof : Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

Plant and Krauss return with a second collection of deep American folk and blues. It’s impeccably done.

It’s rare that an album can transport you to an alien landscape and lifestyle so completely, purely through the sound of the songs. I’ve never been to those parts of America where there are levees, and wide open plains, windy dust swept homesteads and a frontier spirit of independence that throws you back onto your own resources. But these songs give me a flavour of what it would be like as well as any monochrome arthouse film.

The songs, about regretted relationships or break ups, can happen anywhere in the world but the music makes it clear that these particular tales happen in a small town in the middle of nowhere. The impact comes from the blues and the folk that people sang and played to weather hardship. And we’re not talking about an inability to find your favourite organic flour either.

It makes for an intense, serious and occasionally downbeat listen that can be a bit much en masse. It sounds like this musical second date has led to an album they’ve made for themselves, not for an audience. There is an audience out there though that will lap this up.

It’s a quieter record than you might expect. It wouldn’t raise the roof of a tent, no matter what the album title suggests. It’s blues to the front, but a blues that has been dialled down to 6 or 7 on the volume control. And while the focus is rightly on Plant and Krauss, the band playing is excellent throughout, capturing and reinforcing the desired effect.

Their voices entwine, harmonise and compliment each other. Plant’s voice, for those who can only think of him as Led Zeppelin’s singer, is a surprise. It’s softer, more vulnerable than you’d expect. Krauss’ voice was made for songs like these, and she does not disappoint.

This is an album that is impeccably done, pitch perfect in tone. It’s a labour of love for Plant and Krauss and a record that it is easy for the rest of us to admire.

Taster Track : Can’t Let Go

Beelines : Robin Miller

This is a collection of solo, acoustic guitar playing that draws on the experiences, traditions and soul of living in the Outer Hebrides.

Robin Miller grew up in Uist. This record is full of tunes that reference his neighbourhood and a different approach to life. When he spread his wings moving to Glasgow, he chose to busk at night when the buildings and streets were emptier, not when city footfall was at its greatest. That sense of being apart and valuing space comes through strongly. It’s also, perhaps, indebted to a lack of reliable broadband meaning that you’re more likely to gain your musical experiences from live shows set in your traditional communities.

These tunes are all based around solo acoustic guitar. It’s as traditional as it comes and the proficiency is impressive. ‘Spells’ goes full pelt, working his fingers like a sewing machine in full flow. ‘The Long Road To Gortantaoid’ contains a faint echo of The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’. The album is best encapsulated in ‘Focussed Hedgehog’, the guitar capturing the scurrying movements and abrupt stops of a hedgehog crossing the garden, afraid to be caught out in the light. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the music too. It’s happy to remain out of sight and hearing, known by just the few for whom it is written.

I enjoy folk influenced music. I’m less keen on out and out traditional folk. That’s a preference, not a judgement. I can appreciate the love and skill invested in these tunes, even though I cannot imagine listening to it again. I do feel it’s important community music that deserves much more than soundtracking listless browsing in a Uist craft shop.

Taster Track : Spells

Welcome To The Madhouse : Tones and I

From the performer whose ‘Dance Monkey’ has ratcheted up 1.7 billion views comes a collection of pop dance that is an addictive sugar rush of a record, but too much of a sugar rush can lead to you feeling a little queasy.

Quirky and catchy rhythms and beats, allied to lyrics that deal with the darker side of life. There's a quite scary tension between the two. On the one hand you have the fun loving dance monkey, a Peter Pan of pop refusing to grow up. On the other hand, the lyrics tell of loss, break up, poor mental health and a desire to escape - heavy subjects.

She has a distinctive voice. 1.7 billion of us have already heard it so I’ll add only that it’s at the start of a trail that, in the distance, ends in Bjork.

If you switch off from the lyrics you’ll enjoy some good time dance music. If you listen carefully you’ll catch, in a song such as ‘Dark Waters’ some interesting images and conceits. The songs where she stands up, unapologetic for who she is work better for me, prompting exultant cheers of support. ‘Westside Lobby’ and ‘Cloudy Day’ are examples of that.

Listen to this with your feet if you want to be entertained., Listen to it with your heart and brain if you want to be angered and moved. Play it to your young children if you want to be driven mad by their singalong support.

Taster Track : Cloudy Day

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