Aurora, Omar Apollo, Quinn Christopherson, The Reds Pinks and Purples, Romeo Poirier, Ron Trent, Slant, Stefanie Joosten
If You Listen To One Thing This Week, Listen To.....
Bubblegum by Quinn Christopherson
This is from Christopherson's bold and brave album 'Write Your Name In Pink'. It's an album that takes the feelings of a transgender man and relates them to feelings we all share. I loved it and, for a simple tune, it had a physically emotional impact on me.
The Gods We Can Touch : Aurora
This is a fresh, nicely strange and occasionally gorgeous slice of electropop.
Aurora is aptly named. She’s not quite of planet earth. Like the Northern Lights she’s a colourful and beautiful presence that can’t be quite understood. In part that may be due to an intense, complicated and perhaps odd relationship with friendship and death formed in her childhood and adolescence. All that feeds through into her music.
I’m trying to make fewer comparisons to other artists in reviews, preferring to let the record in question speak for itself. But I think it’s useful to say that Aurora is in a line of electropop that reaches back to the time of Toyah and Lene Lovich. There’s something wild and unrestrained about her, as if she has lived alone, deep in the forest, a close but friendly neighbour of the witch in Hansel and Gretel. Now she’s back in the modern world.
At times she’s a trilling bird, sitting on your shoulder and singing directly to you (‘Everything Matters’). At other times, -‘Blood In The Wine’ - her untimed wildness breaks through. And on ‘Exist For Love’ she lets her heart burst through in all its warm glory in a big dress, ballroom staired, 50s goddess orchestral number.
She’s a brilliant backing vocalist. That’s no backhanded compliment. Backing vocals are what made Tamla Motown special. It comes as no surprise to know that an early opportunity was to provide the backing vocals for the John Lewis Christmas version of Oasis’ ‘Half A World Away’. This album opens with a 40 second burst of gorgeous wordless vocals. It whets the appetite and what follows does not disappoint.
This album is a pristine production, showcasing her bright, shiny and infectious pop - try ‘Cure For Me’ - with the depth necessary to make a satisfying album. It’s full of small surprises too like the accordion on ‘Artemis’.
This is a record that hooks you from the opening seconds and shows that inventive, quirky pop is alive and kicking in 2023.
Taster Tracks : The Forbidden Fruits of Eden (for the gorgeous backing vocals) and ‘Cure For Me’ (for the shot of pure pop).
Ivory : Omar Apollo
Omar Apollo’s debut is a polished affair, full of colour, melody and attitude. It feels like a new turn of the pop wheel.
It may be because I’m more hip clicking than finger clicking these days, set in my musical tastes and no longer that concerned with what’s in and out of the charts but, for too long, it’s felt that mainstream pop has been characterised by Ed Sheeran go it alone acts and X Factor performers straight from the corporate mould. I’m not knocking it, but they haven’t set my pulse racing. They've been bromide to my musical soul.
It may be that Omar Apollo’s album is raising awareness of a new pop form, one that’s accessible, not too wrapped up in itself and, above all, wants to entertain. It takes elements from rap, soul and RnB and fashions a fizzing pop firework from them.
He’s not the only person pursuing this change. It’s hard to escape the fact that much of the new chart ready, radio friendly music comes from the LGBTQ community. Music has always thrived on outsiders. Teenagers revitalised the fifties, hippies expanded the sixties, opposing forces of punk and disco shook up the seventies. What it brings to this album is a community of ready collaborators
This album is fuelled by a turbo shot of self confidence and energy. Omar will succeed. You will like his music. He will have no self doubt. In that way he’s like Prince. He’s like Prince too in the way that he understands pop, what’s available on its palette and how the colours and flavours mix together to make a good album.
He packs a lot in, maybe too much too soon. It blazes like a firework for now, but will it continue to light up the sky in a couple of years time? No matter, we can enjoy it for now.
Omar is a fast talking, sassy performer. Much of his impact comes from the rhythm of his lyrics. This album is his calling card, setting out his wares and showcasing its strengths. The Spanish of ‘En El Olvido’ and ‘Tamagotchi’ is unexpected, but opens up new roads to travel.
This is an album full of good things, things that can make you optimistic about the current state of pop. And it’s frequently as catchy as hell.
Taster Track : Invincible.
Write Your Name In Pink : Quinn Christopherson
It's been a long time since I heard an album that manages to raise awareness of complicated emotions and challenge attitudes as well as this. It does so through good songs too.
Quinn Christopherson is a trans gender man. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’ve struggled with understanding transgender issues. I’ve never had to grapple with the kind of fundamental decisions Quinn has already faced. I’m never going to understand the pain of feeling trapped in the wrong body. But thanks to Christopherson’s album I can begin to develop empathy.
This is a moving and heartfelt album, written from a transgender perspective but dealing with universal themes. The gratitude recognised in ‘Thanks’ may be for small acts but they are important, bringing outsiders into a community. The hopes for children in ‘Kids’ are personal but shared by millions.
Coming of age triggers confusion whoever you are. Christopherson is confused in ‘Bubblegum’ singing
“I don’t know who I am.”
He’s even confused about that, because in ‘Uptown’ he sings
“I don’t like who I am.”
Despite this, one strength of the album is the way it brings everything he has experienced and thought about into focus. The constant refrains, and the insistent tone hammer home lessons and insights that are hard earned and all the more valuable for that. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been below par with long covid for a while, but in ‘Bubblegum’ I could feel emotion physically rising up inside me.
It’s easy to be blown away by the lyrics and forget that there’s music behind them. The music is subdued, sad on occasion, but thoughtful too. If you stripped away the lyrics you'd have something left that could stand tall on its own merit. On ‘Simple’, he uses recording techniques to intensify the songs, not anguished vocals at histrionic levels. It’s all the more effective for that.
This is an album that needed Christopherson to take a deep breath before delivering it. It’s the final track where the passion and release come to the fore, and the final exhaled ‘Whoo’ says more about the relief of disclosure and the effort required to make this album than a full length autobiography could convey in prose.
This is an accessible, emotional album from a voice with something to say.
Taster Track : Bubblegum
My Friends Are All Machines : Slant
Here’s a brand new band, whose debut EP marks them out as a band to look out for in 2023.
A few months ago I watched a Kate Bush tribute act perform her penultimate show. She was excellent but as she quietly explained to the audience afterwards, she was giving it up to concentrate on her band project. They were beginning to take off and required full time attention. That band is Slant, a five piece based in Brighton.
It’s an exciting feeling when you’ve latched onto a band right at the beginning, before they’ve built a big following and when their catalogue is a handful of songs that you can gleefully cherish and clutch to your heart.
Slant overflow with musical ideas and creativity and they’re aghast at what they see in the world around them. Their future difficulty might be deciding what to leave out. Of course, there’s some of Kate Bush’s drama in the vocals. That voice is an asset you’d not want to overlook.
In ‘Wallow City’ there are twists and turns like 10CC in their early days. Complex ideas are coated in a sugar sweet melody. ‘Eat The Moon’ is a thrilling slice of punky rock and roll which will lift the rafters live. ‘Nightcrawlers’ turns to the dark side with attractive guitar and bass lines taking a turn into indie rock funk. ‘75” TV Screen’ attacks consumer society, complete with a seductive tune that wouldn’t be out of place playing on the in store hifi of your favourite boutique store.
Slant help you to feel that the year ahead is filled with bright promise and potential, but they are more than that. They’re the fully formed, real thing.
Taster Track : Eat The Moon
.... And The Rest
They Only Wanted Your Soul : The Reds, Pinks and Purples
The latest collection from the prolific The Reds, Pinks and Purples, continues his penchant for tugging at the heartstrings as he entertains with his subdued jangle pop.
As the Reds, Pinks and Purples, Glenn Donaldson released three full albums in 2022. That’s impressive, but the great thing is that the quality of songs does not tail off.
This is music for beating yourself up to. It’s guilt, remorse, self disgust all wrapped up in jangle pop that nudges jaunty sweetness on occasions. These are songs filled with the benefits of hindsight, of times he could and should have acted differently. They sound as if he has allowed his feelings to build before they seep into being, like a single, pregnant teardrop rolling down your cheek.
He seeks and finds beauty in such unexpected places. It’s in the flowers blooming in the cracks of a run down building, and it’s in the sincerity of his downbeat emotions. Just occasionally the tune drifts away and the songs fumble their way to the end as if weighed down by the emotions they carry. But if these songs are autobiographical, Donaldson fears he is a flawed man and hearing flaws in the music is consistent with that.
This is music with the heavy reverb of shoegaze, although soul gaze would be a better description. His voice is the secret. It’s slightly husky, filled with repressed emotion and on the verge of cracking.
For all that though this is not a heavy album for listeners. Donaldson picks up his guitar, makes his point economically and leaves. When he hits the right notes and he frequently does, they strike right at the heart.
Taster Track : I Should Have Helped You
Living Room : Romeo Poirier
This is an unusual album of electronica that is more about pulses, bleeps and effects than tunes. It won’t appeal to everyone, but if you’re the patient, peaceful sort you may find something here that you like a lot.
This is all about immersing yourself in the sounds and tone of the tunes. Close off all your thoughts and senses as much as you can, except for hearing, obviously! You need to relax into it. It’s the sound of deep sleep, or a resting baby’s heartbeat. This is the musical equivalent of difficult poetry. You can find solace and beauty in the fragments even if you don’t understand the whole.
I’ll give you an example. I loved the bleeps in ‘Statuario’ and I’m not usually a bleeper. They sounded like supercharged fireflies flitting around lighting the sky. It had no African sounds but conjured up the verandah of a 1930s expat community during a drinks party that had not got out of hand.
It’s not quite ambient music. It’s more as if Poirier has been given a box of electronic samples and stitched them into something strange and wonderful. That’s certainly the feeling from ‘Rotation Seance’ and it comes out strongly in ‘Anna’ too. The breathy notes on the latter are both intimate and inviting.
What will appeal to some and irritate others in equal measure is that the tunes remain just out of reach. Poirier teases us with the bones of a strummed tune on ‘Le Case Degli Altri’ while submerging it beneath disconnected sound effects. Individual notes stretch, ebb and flow and yet there are repeated refrains as on ‘Porte Contre’ and the pulse on 'Les Grandes Lignes’ that give you a slippery hook to cling to.
The overall effect is of something soothing and gentle, murmuring its delights and leaving space to discover more on repeated listens. This is a lovely record despite, or because of, its unfamiliarity.
Taster Track : Anna
What Do The Stars Say To You? : Ron Trent
American House and Techno DJ, Ron Trent, has produced an album of chilled songs and music that treads an uneasy path between relaxing and bland.
‘Cool Water’ which opens the album indicates that it could go one of two ways. It wouldn’t be a surprise to hear the friendly growl of Barry White calling you “Baby” and encouraging you to move a little closer. Equally it would not be a surprise for the track to be interrupted by a civil voice telling you that you are 17th in the queue but your call is important to them.
Fortunately, ‘Cycle Of Many’ has more by way of drive, rhythm and texture. It needs it if the album is not to be condemned as music to complete the spreadsheets for your tax return. There is nothing here to offend or disturb. It oozes classy, bored sophistication with ne’er a speck of earthy grime in earshot.
It’s harsh, but not untrue, to say that this seems to be Penthouse music with no real sense of personality, just a sense of lifestyle. It used to be called dinner party music, used to cover silences but not to disturb the ebb and flow of gentle conversation. It’s incredibly smooth for a DJ versed in clubland techno, like a drinkable wine that is gone before you can properly taste it. There are no bangers here, just a few gentle sparklers.
Trent’s collaborators are unable, or not allowed, to buck the sound. You may remember Azymuth whose‘Jazz Carnival’ chilled us in the late 70s while angry young men and women created white noise and white riots all around. As collaborators, they fit in very well here. Khruangbin’s trademark woozy and bass heavy sound is cleaned up to fit the standardised tone. To hear them you’d think they were session musicians.
I’ve mentioned that they tread a fine line between relaxed and bland. On the relaxed side ‘Flowers’ works nicely as a collaboration with the spiritual soulfulness of Venecia. ‘Melt Into You’ benefits, obviously, from having a lovely tune. I enjoyed the marching rhythm of ‘WARM’ and, in featuring jazz violinist - yes, it’s a real thing - Jean-Luc Ponty, ‘Sphere’ brings something a bit different to the mix. Everything else topples into bland.
This is what it is, and what it is has been executed very well. It’s the abstract screensaver to your life.
Taster Track : Cycle Of Many
Singing To The Sky : Stefanie Joosten
Returning to the sound of 80s disco may not be a bad idea but here it’s a weak and forgettable experience.
Some of the greatest pop ever came out of the 80s. That tends to overshadow that it was also a time when music became product and second rate compilations were stacked high with filler. The lower reaches of the charts were filled with artists that time mercifully forgot. It’s in the midst of that bustling purgatory that we find Stefanie Joosten’s debut album.
To be fair, it has three things going for it. First, her voice is OK. It’s not irredeemable although it sticks well within its limits. Secondly, it nods back to the time where rock and disco consciously coupled, thereby avoiding the worst of the synth drum boops and blips. And thirdly, this album is endorsed by Giorgio Moroder. If we give him the credit for hearing something I’ve missed, he still has it on his conscience that he’s helped to bring this hoover resistant fluff into being.
Joosten is a Dutch model, who voiced a computer game character called ‘Quiet’ in ‘Metal Gear Solid V : The Phantom Pain’ and sang the theme tune to it. As far as I can tell that’s what has qualified her to be picked up by a record company to make this record.
It’s a calculated, cynical move into pop. There’s even a song called ‘Radio’ as if that’s enough to make an ego obsessed DJ give it airplay. Actually, it probably is. Elsewhere she asks us to ‘Party Me Tonight’. What? Is that a euphemism? Is it an attempt to evolve our language? Is it just bad grammar? ‘No Backseats’ is more typical with laboured vocals striving for a memorable hook but falling short. The “ooh ahs” of ‘She’s On Fire’ are a laughable low point among many.
Back in the 80s you might have said this was aimed at Year 6 girls taking their first tentative steps into pop culture. They’re much savvier than that now. I think this is at the level of a CBeebies cartoon soundtrack, hitting a fan base that’s too young to object.
Unsurprisingly, this album has not been widely reviewed online so I’ll leave you with the endorsement of Giorgio Moroder, the man who made a disco inferno out of Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’. He writes:
"Stefanie's debut album is a celebration of disco and pop from the 80s. She's an incredible singer with range, and we knew her voice could reinvent the past by bringing it into the future. When the masters came back we all sat back and couldn't believe what we were hearing. It's amazing. We haven't heard this sound in a long time, but this particular sound, we have heard, never!"
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing either.
Taster Track : Party Me Tonight
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