Carwyn Ellis & Rio 18, Jane Weaver, Loney Dear, Michael Marra & The Hazey Janes, Mush, Nils Frahm, The Undertones, Wendy James
This Week's Music
Spring is upon us and that can only mean the season of chocolate eggs is fast approaching. And just as the best chocolate sometimes comes in the plainest packaging, here's this week's musical selection box for your delight and temptation.
As ever this week's playlist 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
Easter provide the category headings this week.
Faberge (Jewel Encrusted)
Hypnotised : The Undertones
It’s taken me 40 years to realise that I’d never listened to the Undertones’ second album. I knew some of the songs - the singles, the songs that featured on anthologies and compilations, but I’d never heard it sequenced as it was meant to be heard. Time to put that right, but risk disappointment if doing so damaged the band in my ears.
It hasn’t. This is a wonderful album, building on the raw boyish charm of their debut, full of cracking songs and sharp, witty lyrics. It sounds a little cleaner and sophisticated and the better for it. My wife is still a little shocked that I chose to see the Undertones live the night before our first year exams at university. This album reinforces that it was the right decision, and one I’d make again.
The cover sums up all that is good about this album. Slightly blurry, because the band and the music just won’t keep still. The expression on Micky Bradley’s face captures the youthful exuberance, the sheer joy of living the dream and that’s reflected in the sound of the album.
There are only strong tracks on this album. They set out their stall with ‘More Songs About Chocolate and Girls’ - nothing much has changed yet about the important things in their life. It’s a boy’s album, not in a posing macho sense but in concerns, attitudes and point of view. ‘There Goes Norman’, ‘Hypnotised’, ‘Hard Luck’, ‘Tearproof’, ‘What’s With Terry’ - classic songs that never saw the light of day as singles. The guitars are more confident, the riffs sharper, the drums grabbing attention like iron filings to a magnet.
Lines jump out at you like one-liners and soundbites. Two examples suffice. First there’s perhaps their most famous lines.
“He always beat me at Subbuteo
‘Cause he flicked the kick and I didn’t know.”
But how about this opening line from ‘Tearproof’?
“She’s a girl in a million, who does what a million girls do.”
There’s more of a sixties feel in this album but it works. The cover of ‘Under The Boardwalk’ fits comfortably into the album, an Undertones song in its treatment .
There were only two singles released from the album. ‘My Perfect Cousin’ which remains perfect in its glorious, petty, petulance. I’m smiling just recalling it as I type. The second single was ‘Wednesday Week’. It’s a great song but with hindsight it marks the point at which their moment passed. It feels more like a ballad. It was a statement to release it as the second single when so many excellent Undertones singles that never happened are on the album. It points to a different future, one that is no longer as simple or direct. As it happens these were their biggest strengths.
Listening to this 40 years after the event, I think it’s better than their debut. It’s a nostalgic force for fun, happiness and good times. And like the best kind of nostalgia, there’s a tiny bit of sadness that this was as good as it got.
Taster Track : Hard Luck
Harrods Easter Gift Box
Sorry, sold out.
Cadburys Dairy Milk (Large)
Queen High Straight : Wendy James
Think of this album from Transvision Vamp’s Wendy James as a long road trip. It starts with excitement and it has its high points during the journey. But it also has a fair number of longueurs and by the end you’re simply happy to have arrived.
Twenty tracks running over nearly 80 minutes. It’s inevitable that the pace will flag and the quality turn a little uneven in that time. It’s an easy criticism to say that at least half a dozen tracks could be trimmed from the running order. It’s not clear why such an epic collection of frothy, attitude filled songs needed to be this long. As it is, it promises more than it delivers with tracks such as ‘Bliss Hotel’, ‘Stomp Down, Snuck Up’ and ‘Cancel It… I’ll See Him On Monday’ sounding like good ideas rather fully thought through songs.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that scattered around this collection are some really good songs. The Transvision Vamp attitude can still be heard on tracks such as ‘Perilous Beauty.’ Unexpectedly, it’s the horn and keyboards that help the better tracks to stand out. Opening track ‘Queen High Straight’ is a well worked 80s does the 60s ballad beloved by the likes of Kirsty MaColl and Tracey Ullman. ‘Chicken Street’ is a glorious, headlong sugar rush of a record. And if there’s an element of painting by number to tracks such as the waltz song ‘Free Man Walk’ and the French song ‘Marlene and Fleur’, at least it’s painting by numbers that is well done.
Yes, it may be better to travel than arrive but sometimes you’re grateful for a shorter route.
Taster Track : Chicken Street
Mas : Carwyn Ellis & Rio 18
This second collaboration between Welsh musician Carwyn Ellis and Brazilian collective Rio 18 is a beguiling and welcoming example of world music in action.
It’s a lazy, relaxing sound prompting musings such as “I wonder if you could learn Welsh just by listening to records.” The sun bursts through in the music, aided by the sound of lapping waves on ‘Dwyn’ and titles that convey the summer feeling such as ‘Cwmwl Pluog’ which translates as ‘A Feathery Cloud’. That’s one of the joys of this album. The Brazilian rhythms and Welsh lyrics elevate the everyday to something exotic. ‘Cwcan’ is Welsh for cuckoo, but your imagination is free to make of the sounds what you will. That’s reinforced by more Mediterranean sounds such as the play out to ‘Y Cariadon’. You can almost hear the sound of traditional dances and smashed crockery.
There’s a gentle 60s vibe at play, befitting the emergence of the bossa nova style in the 50s and 60s. The percussion shuffles. The bass line leads the melodies on tracks such as ‘Ar Ol Y Glaw’. The backing vocals on ‘Cestyll Papur’ are reminiscent of backing vocalists on 60s light entertainment shows. There’s a light psychedelic feel to ‘Cwmwl Pluog’. And ‘Hedyn Ar Y Gwnt’ could come from any arty film noir of the period.
It’s not a niche sound though. If it's a little safe sounding, the combination of two musical cultures creates something accessible and fresh. And there’s something about Welsh singing that is always accessible. The songs are inclusive. It’s not hard to imagine a crowd singing along to ‘Cwcan’ for example.
If there’s a criticism it’s that some of the tracks such as ‘Y Caridon’ and ‘Cynara’ are slower than expected. It would be nice to have a song that lets rip occasionally fuelling samba party time.
As we enter Spring, this is the right album for anticipating Summer. It’s an album of togetherness, world music for the world.
Taster Track : Ar Ol Y Glaw
Flock : Jane Weaver
Are we allowed to dislike Jane Weaver at the moment? She seems to be feted as the darling of the serious papers, music magazines and critics.
To be fair she’s paid her dues over a period spanning nearly 30 years. Her recent albums have been well regarded, often featuring in Year End ‘Best of…’ lists. There’s been a momentum building behind her for some time. ‘Flock’ has already been her most successful album in terms of the charts, entering at No 24 - the first of her albums to break the Top 40. It seems as if her time has come.
‘Flock’ shows steps being taken towards something that is increasingly friendly on the ear without suggesting identity wrecking compromises were needed to achieve this. ‘Heartflow’ is a propulsive, rhythmic mix based around a repetitive two note pattern. I kept waiting for it to explode into a freer melody. It doesn’t. She sets up that expectation without ever providing the release. Thwarting our expectations is what she does and she’s very good at it.
Elsewhere, there are concessions to ear worms and hooks.’The Revolution of Super Visions’ and ‘Pyramid Schemes’ use a choppy funk guitar of the kind popularised by Prince. ‘Stages of Phases’ is a glam classic in waiting. In ‘Sunset Lines’ it’s the vocal line that you latch onto.
She doesn’t want to give us too much pop, too soon. The bass line on ‘Flock’ provides instant appeal, but it’s overlaid with the more proggy sound of musical free expression. It’s as if she’s taking steps towards the mainstream, but one musical element at a time.
It’s also quite an other worldly sounding album, particularly where the synths dominate. You can lose yourself easily in a track such as ‘Solarised’. ‘Modern Reputation’ tosses and buffets, twists and turns like water tumbling over a village weir. ‘All The things You Do’ with its random bleeps and electronic surges is how the 50s might have imagined travelling through space would sound at the dawn of the 21st century. In other words it’s simultaneously retro and futuristic. It’s a tricky balance to pull off, but it’s done well.
Perhaps the question to ask of this record is less “Are we allowed to dislike it?” and more “Why would we want to?”
Taster Track : The Revolution Of Super Visions
Lines Redacted : Mush
This is a passionate, energetic record with one major flaw.
Mush are a Leeds band, rightly proud and committed to their Socialist principles. They have something to say that’s worth hearing. Why then, are the lyrics and vocals on this record some of the hardest to follow since The Skids first performed ‘Into The Valley’? Younger readers may need to be told that this song became a byword for incomprehensible lyrics to the extent that they underpinned a humorous TV advert for Maxell blank audio cassettes. Even younger readers who need to know what a blank audio cassette was should speak to their parents or grandparents.
I wondered if the clarity of the lyrics was just a problem for me. I looked up the lyrics to the title track on Genius. They’re riddled with blanks and question marks. Now, if you’re trying to get a message across you need to communicate clearly. Just saying. A distinctive voice is not enough, no matter how right it sounds for the songs.
Once you get past that, if you can get past that, this album transports you back to the sound of Rough Trade 1978. John Peel would have loved these guys, as would anyone who enjoyed Magazine of XTC’s early albums. There’s energy and passion in this album. The music is choppy, jagged and angular. I’ve always felt that the different elements in this style of music don’t always seem to fit together. In a good way that makes for an unsettling and disrupted listening experience. I liked it, and the more I heard the more I found of interest.
‘Drink The Bleach’, Blunt Instrument’ and ‘Positivity’ set out their stall early on and don’t diverge from it. They sound as if they’ve thought about what they’re doing a lot, perhaps over-thought it. I wanted them to loosen up a tad and play more from the heart as well as from the brain, letting rip to reflect their passion and anger more obviously. The album evens out a little as it progresses. ‘Seven Trumpets’ takes a step in this direction and thereafter the balance is better, with ‘B2BCDA’ and closer ‘Lines Discontinued’ featuring amongst the strongest tracks. It’s telling that two of the strongest tracks are the near instrumental ‘Morf’ and the total instrumental ‘Bots’.
Mush are still in their early stages. Their record label bio Mush records that they’ve changed their approach with this, their second release. Just like a new football manager, I suspect they’re not yet settled on their best way forward. They’re getting there though and have huge potential to breakthrough sooner rather than later.
Taster Track : Morf
Tripping With... : Nils Frahm
Nils Frahm is such an immersive, personal listening experience, I was interested to see how that translated into a live concert. What, if anything, would be added or taken away by catering for a larger venue surrounded by others?
Regular readers may recall that in January, when reviewing the War On Drugs, I listed 5 elements that marked out a good live show. They simply don’t apply to Nils Frahm. I suggested that the artist should play familiar pieces with a twist. As far as I can tell there are no twists here. I said that there should be a good crowd atmosphere and that hushed respect is for the living room. There’s a whoop or three during ‘All Melody’ but that's all. They feel like interference rather than atmosphere. I asked for rapport between the artist and the audience. There is zero contact between the two. I wanted there to be an authentic live feel. I believe that the audience noises are carefully edited. For example, there is no applause in the transition from ‘My Friend The Forest’ to ‘The Dane’ which simply continues after a brief pause where ‘My Friend The Forest ‘ left off. And, finally, I hoped that there would be an introduction to the wider group of musicians. Not a chance. This is a concert, not a gig.
And, as it happens, none of this matters when considering Nils Frahm live. Opening number ‘Enters’ is a prolonged, subtly changing string based drone slowly fluctuating over its length in pitch and volume. It’s his equivalent of a tuning fork.
I’m aware of how that may sound to the uninitiated and uncommitted listeners. Bear with it.
‘Sunson’ introduces his trademark hypnotic electronica, earning the first audience cheer as the electronica creeps in. The thing about Nils Frahm is that his effect is cumulative. There may not be much to latch onto initially. The music drifts by slowly and requires patience. But it’s the lure of the siren song, the enfolding of the audience in a musical web that strengthens so that it cannot be easily broken.
‘Fundamental Values’ is where the immersive magic truly starts to work. Opening with 10 notes that are to be repeated throughout the 13 minute running time, its hypnotic effect becomes more apparent as these notes are pushed into the background by piano, synths and vocal sounds. The flapping helicopter sound by the end only emphasises the quiet, hypnotic quality of the track. If you want to understand the power of Nils Frahm, this is the track for you.
‘My Friend The Forest’ moves closer towards a tune than a composition. The pause before the final note captures the essence of Nils Frahm. I’m not sure that any musical performer places a greater emphasis on the quality of silence in their work. ‘The Dane’ continues with the shortest, most conventional tune in the show.
‘All Melody’ is as close to a signature tune that Nils Frahm has produced. It’s the sound of the stars and the universe and seems intended to bring the audience out of their reveries. It’s by no means a dancefloor banger, but the transition between this and the following track ‘#2’ with enthusiastic applause is more reminiscent of a typical live show.
Let’s pause now to consider the title of the album. It’s ‘Tripping By…’. Note the failure to drop the final ‘g’. That’s high culture for you. I looked up the meaning of of ‘tripping’ in an on line urban dictionary. It defines the word as ‘freaking out’ and ‘ ‘going crazy’. Nils Frahm? The closest he comes to that, presumably ironic, title is on ‘#2’. This picks up the pace to the extent that it could almost be Kraftwerk without the robotic vocals.. Its energy feels put of place, an unnecessary concession to the live experience. It’s popular with the crowd though.
The album ends oddly, reverting to quiet with ‘Ode - Our Own Roof’. It’s odd, because as the concert ends there is no applause, no acknowledgement that it has ended, no recognition of what has passed. This is where I feel that the audience response may have been manipulated in the recording process. I’ve never attended a gig, show or concert that ends so anticlimactically. It’s as if we are returned, silently, to the real world from the sealed experience of the preceding 75 minutes.
Does it work as a live experience? Yes. It doesn’t dilute the Nils Frahm effect. And it’s a compelling performance that holds the audience together and entranced. If only we could lose the whooping!
Taster Track : My Friend The Forest (But listen to ‘Fundamental Values’ for the full effect.)
Housebound : Michael Marra & The Hazey Janes
This collection of modern Scottish folk songs has a warmth that transcends the genre, making for an inviting and appealing listen.
The late Michael Marra was a singer songwriter proclaimed as the Bard of Dundee. Two of his children are members of The Hazey Janes who should be better known for their jangly chamber pop. The combination of the two brings us the best of both worlds, making for interesting story telling to an accessible pop backing.
Marra doesn’t sing as such, but growls with a twinkle in his voice and eye. His Scottishness drives this EP, even when he’s singing in French on ‘Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe’. It shines through the incongruous reggae lilt to ‘Mrs Corrie’ and the music hall feel of ‘Underwood Lane’.
The folk roots are not allowed to swamp this album. Only one track feels out and out folk. That’s the closing track ‘Heaven’s Hound’. The strongest track, ‘Houseroom’, opens the collection. It’s a self aware piece of musical advice that is an open and engaging introduction to the record.
Michael Marra died of throat cancer in 2012. This feels like a loving tribute to his legacy. It’s a record of rough edged, slightly worn charm.
Taster Track : Housebound
A Lantern And A Bell : Loney Dear
For anyone familiar with the Scandinavian pop rush of Loney Dear’s previous albums, this album may come as a disappointing surprise. ABBA it’s not.
This is a dark record that sounds more like a classical song cycle than a classic pop album. ‘Habibi (A Clear Black Line)’ for example sounds like the accompaniment to a black and white Ingmar Bergman film. The combination of faltering falsetto and sombre piano music on ‘Mute / All Things Pass’ hints at something broken or on the point of breaking ,and devastatingly so.
His falsetto is to the fore throughout, and that won’t be to everyone’s taste. The slow arrival of ghostly backing on tracks such as ‘Darling’ and ‘A House And A Fire’ adds interest but also intensifies the sense of ominous foreboding.
There is a sparse, tantalising beauty to to these songs, but it’s not enough to overcome the ennui created from simple piano melodies that simply don’t grow into anything more substantial. They demand hushed reverence rather than offering a shared, empathic connection. Each song has the potential to move you to tears, but it doesn’t deliver.
With a running time of under 28 minutes, this is a short album. It’s long enough though. It’s more than enough.
Taster Track : Mute / All Things Pass
Taster Track : Mute / All Things Pass
Mini Egg (Singular)