Altered Images, Andrew Combs, Arcade Fire, Bart Davenport, Belief, Group Listening, Harry Styles, Held By Trees, Jockstrap, Oliver Sim, Royksopp, Tim Finn and Phil Manzanera, Tommy McClain,
If You Listen To One Thing This Week, Listen To.....
Hideous by Oliver Sim
This is the striking and hard hitting opening track from Oliver Sim's debut 'Hideous Bastard' and features Jimi Somerville of Bronski Beat and The Communards. It's a smack in your face expansion of the album title, and one of the bravest beginnings to one of the bravest albums I've heard. Whilst it might cause you to flinch, it's a beautiful and moving song.
Episodes : Bart Davenport
Bart Davenport makes almost perfect indie pop that is like an old friend you haven’t seen for ages but it feels and sounds just like yesterday
It came as a surprise to learn that Bart Davenport was the eponymous ‘Bart’ of Bart and the Bedazzled. They released a great album in 2018. I’ve been watching for a follow up without realising that Bart usually records as a solo artist. Even better, this album does not disappoint.
What’s its appeal? Well, Bart comes across as an immensely likeable person. There’s a wide eyed, innocent charm to his music. It’s a light touch, gossamer record but also welcoming and warm. It’s pop that caresses and soothes the soul, making everything OK.
He’s a man with a genuine pop feel. He takes influences from across the spectrum and adds them to his songs without letting them pin him down too tightly to a particular genre He’s, perhaps, a bit literal as in the easy listening vibe to ‘Easy Listeners’ and the strange psychedelia used in ‘Strange Animal’. Usually the pop touches are stirred fully into the mix, and listening to the songs is like becoming absorbed in a moving screensaver.
He’s both timeless and out of time, part of a long line stretching back through Stephen Duffy, Nick Heyward (Haircut 100), Aztec Camera and all the way back to Donovan in the 1960s. He’s out of time because music this good is deeply submerged beneath the overproduced, generic material that fills the charts and playlists.
I love this style of music, and Bart Davenport has only added to the pleasure I take from it with this album.
Taster Track : Billionaires
Belief : Belief
Belief’s take on techno attaches is a welcome ear opener for me. The combination of Boom Bip, a Techno producer with a cartoon name and a magic touch ,with Stella Mozgawa who drums in Warpaint makes for enjoyable listening.
I’ve always avoided Techno, having formed an unfounded view that it existed to put a loud bang into club banger. I’ve changed my view. On the basis of this Techno example it lives on a terrace with electropop and Krautrock as its near neighbours. As machine made music goes, this is up with the best.
This is the kind of music that fits straight into Mary Anne Hobbs’ scheduling on daytime Radio 6. You don’t focus on the playing (or programming) but on the production. This is clean, and perfect for radio. It’s at the point where music evolves into something different, something more like electronic sound. It’s never harsh. Where it bleeps it does so musically; where it distorts it never jars.
This is music to lose yourself in, music that you can allow to carry you away. The beats don’t overwhelm the music. There's power there but it’s the power of a high performance car on cruise control. You know it could move through the gears whenever it wants.
If there’s an engine room tune on this album, it’s ‘Anx’. It has the momentum and drive of a quieter Chemical Brothers performing their warm down exercises. ‘I Want To Be’ achieves the perfect combination of electropop melodies and light touch club beats. On ‘Bayo’ a fat bass is played as if it’s an overstretched, taut drum. ‘Dreams’ is motorik, and that’s a surprisingly suitable style for those slightly fevered moments while you dream. ‘Ulu’ pours over you, refreshing like the perfect shower and energising like a well made flat white. ‘Art Of Love’ introduces an oriental feel. It all goes to show that there’s more variety here than you might expect.
I’ve burbled on before about the joys you can discover by opening your ears and mind to different genres. Belief have added one more example to the evidence for that.
Taster Track : Ulu
Clarinet and Piano Selected Works Vol 1 : Group Listening
What a lovely instrumental record this turned out to be, full of sweetness, charm and kindness. It’s balm for the soul and ears.
Let’s spell out why that comes as a surprise upfront. It’s a collaboration between clarinettist Stephen Black (aka Sweet Baboo) and, wait for it, experimental jazz pianist Paul Jones. The title sounds like a Mastermind specialist subject or a selection of musical pieces to examine those progressing through the grades.
Nothing could be further from the truth or prepare you for the gentle joy that unfolds. There’s a sweet spot where pop, classical and gentle jazz meet and this album is resting there. It’s an early Sunday morning thing for listening to before there are many people around.
There's humour and empathy running through this album. If you’re expecting something too challenging, note that one track is an arrangement of the theme tune to the pre CeeBeebies TV show ‘Camberwick Green’. Consider that the clarinet in ‘Y Cwsg’ conjures up the image of someone gently shimmying around the kitchen without knowing they’re observed. Contemplate the use of voice mail messages to add something unsettling in ‘Five Hundred Miles’ and enjoy the fluttering awakening of the clarinet in ‘This Was Us’
The album is a delight from start to finish. It’s different but it’s not challenging or demanding.
It called to mind the work of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra - and not just because their odd headgear on the cover calls to mind the Cafe Orchestra’s penguin heads! (See left) It’s quirky and full of sweet charm. It’s music for randomly reflecting as you potter and, I suspect, it could become the soundtrack to moments of deep insights, unlocking feelings and bringing them into the light.
There are many albums I return to, but not many that I instantly repeat on loop. This is one of them.
Taster Track : Y Cwsg
Hideous Bastard : Oliver Sim
It takes a lot to combine personal bravery and musical risk taking while still making an excellent album.
Oliver Sim is one of the founding members of The XX. He’s 33 years old now and was diagnosed as HIV positive when just 17. This album explores this and other issues.
He provides an idea of his self image in ‘Run The Credits’.
“ Disney princes, my God I hate them
I’m Buffalo Bill , I’m Patrick Bateman” (‘Run The Credits’)
He goes on to describe himself as a
“Psycho killer in a romantic comedy” (‘Run The Credits’)
That’s a lot to work through in its 34 minute running time. Equally it’s a long time to listen to this level of pain, and self loathing. On the surface it’s an Elephant Man of a record. On the face of it, this is as dark and downbeat as a cold, rain soaked nightmare alleyway in a power cut.
But it isn’t a difficult listen and that’s where the magic of this album comes into play. This is clearly an important record for Sim to make, and it’s drenched in the kind of minimalist electronica that makes The XX special. It’s melodic minimalist electronica though and that helps enormously. And the rhythms provide the hooks to carry you along, on ‘Romance With A Memory’ and in the chants of ‘Sensitive Child’ and ‘Confident Man’.
Most of all though, it’s the way that it generates strength through community. Involving Jimi Somerville as co-vocalist on ‘Hideous’ is a stroke of genius. He’s been an advocate and spokesperson for the gay music community for decades. The backing vocalists act as a chorus of like sufferers lending their support to his experiences. And that brings in defiance, and even optimism on ‘GMT’. What’s the time? It’s time for a change.
In no sense is this a coming out record, but it is a brave development to speak openly about his life in an attempt to broaden understanding and make sense of it.
It’s a brilliantly authentic, and musically satisfying album.
Taster Track : Hideous
....And The Rest
Mascara Streakz : Altered Images
Clare Grogan regenerates Altered Images for their first album in 38 years. It’s a welcome and creditable return.
Some pop stars are made to be known by one name only - Prince, Bono, Dylan, Springsteen, the list goes on. Others strike that rare note of being someone who almost encourages first name terms. Clare Grogan is one of those. Accessible friendliness oozes from every note she sings. Clare’s sixty now, which is hard to believe as she still has that girly charm that marked her out back in the 80s.
It’s a personality that helps you warm to her new songs. It’s a more comfortable listen than the giggly, even squeaky anger of forty years ago. There’s less of the cartoon bounce of say, ‘Happy Birthday’ or their cover of ‘Song Sung Blue’. Ignore the time that has passed though, and it’s a natural follow up to the relaxed electro pop dance beats of their last album ‘Bite’. It’s dance pop music for older people, with a regular rhythm and a manageable number of beats per minute.
There are links to the band Texas who are further advanced on the comeback trail. Some of the songs were written with Johnny McElhone, an original member of Altered Images and now a longstanding member of Texas.
This is an album of consistently strong, if undemanding songs. ‘Double Reflection’ is the closest to an eighties vibe. Elsewhere, Clare is still appealing, the effects are still nicely done and the songs are easy on the ear. They’re true to her peak years and legacy but also to their older selves. As comeback albums go, it’s a good one.
Altered Images finished before their magic dimmed and they’ve come back because they have good songs to share. It would be stretching it a little to say I was excited by their return but I’m happy that their comeback is an album worth listening to.
Taster Track : Red Startles The Sky
Sundays : Andrew Combs
Andrew Combs is an American singer songwriter. His restrained but easy melodies, and his unforced feel for how to write a classic song make for an enjoyable listen.
This album is full of good songwriting, stripped of unnecessary elements and free of flab. It doesn’t shout about its merits. It’s a restrained collection. Everything is held in check but it creates tensions as a dog does when it wants to break free but is kept close by its lead. In its own way it’s a masterclass in song.
It’s easy to take this kind of music for granted, and I’m not sure if its quality is fully appreciated. It’s said of some footballers that they do the basics well. They’re not flashy. There are no Ronaldo shimmies and stepovers, but they’ll win the ball, break up attacks, retain possession and run all through the match. Andrew Combs is the Ngolo Kante of songwriting. Just as Kante won’t win you many Fantasy Football points, Combs won’t be there in many Year End lists. But just as Chelsea are a lesser team when Kante doesn’t play, music is built on shakier foundations without the likes of Andrew Combs.
The album opens with a surprise. ‘(God)Less’ is a scuzzy chug of a song, performed with relish and not typical of Combs’ usual style. It’s echoed later in the repressed glam sax of ‘Down Among The Dead’. More usual is the easy melody of ‘Anna Please’ and ‘I See Me’, the woodwind touches that underpin the album throughout and the subdued sound of tracks such as ‘Still Water’.
His voice has a light vulnerability, reminiscent of someone like Conor O’Brien of Villagers. (If you like Combs, but he’s too restrained for you, you’ll definitely like Villagers.) His voice is particularly suited to a song such as ‘Truth and Love’ It’s a reminder to himself of what’s important and the sincerity in his voice gives it an impact.
Andrew Combs is worth listening to. You never know, he could yet become your man of the match.
Taster Track : Anna Please
WE : Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire’s latest album feels different from before. It’s just as listenable but less expansive. It’s an inward looking album for the big arenas. And it fails to address the fundamental problem I have with the band.
The band has been through difficult times. They’ve grappled with Covid like the rest of us, as well as the uncertainty bedevilling the world and its times. Founding member Will Butler features on this album, but left the band amicably at the end of last year. His brother Win Butler is the subject of four sexual misconduct allegations from different partners. His defence seems to be that they were consensual - an awkward admission when your wife is a fellow band member. This matters mainly because it affects how the album sounds and how it’s received by the fans.
How it sounds is tense, sad, even depressed. The songs are both dramatic and subdued. They only cut loose on one track -’The Lightning II’. The album could be a single unbroken piece, such is its unity of tone. They’re a Pink Floyd or Genesis for the current day - not singles oriented but usually accessible.
Despite all that, there’s something that doesn’t work well. It’s not to do with the back story affecting Win Butler. It’s as if they’re playing in the distance, too far away to connect fully, a spectacle not an experience. You can’t fault their ambition, but it takes them down an intense and unwavering path.
It’s too much. Note by note I can enjoy this and appreciate the skill that’s gone into it. As a whole though it falls flat.
Arcade Fire are one of a few bands that you know you should love. They tick all the right boxes, but somehow they fail to soar. This album doesn’t break that pattern.
Taster Track : Age Of Anxiety 1
Harry’s House : Harry Styles
It’s hard to imagine radio and playlist friendly pop coming much better than this. The question for Harry is that when you’ve attained perfection, what do you do next?
I’m used to record companies bigging up their artists and albums. It’s rare though for a record to be hyped by friends and family. Neil, a 50 something friend who plays keyboards with metal band Stormchild, begged forgiveness but described it to me as “Great - classy modern pop”. My student niece said she’d buy me a drink if I didn’t find a song on the album to like.
You’d have to be churlish not to be carried away on the sugar rush of this album. Just as those bad boys, Wham, enjoyed what they did in the 80s, so Harry Styles can do no wrong today. Somehow, he’s found the sweet spot that will appeal across the generations and, in all probability, be heard as the sound of summer 2022.
Quite rightly, Harry has a writing credit on every song. If nothing else his personality shines through each song which would not be the same sung by anyone else. We should note though, that he is supported by a Premier League of co-writers who have produced Top 10 hits for some of the biggest stars around. The devil at the back of your mind might whisper “Is this a genuine collaboration, or are the co-writers propping him up?” We’ll probably never know so he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Can a record become so perfect that it ceases to be the real deal? This is identikit pop of the highest quality. It’s polished and manufactured to a luxury spec, like Cartier jewellery or a top of the range Porsche. But like a Vogue cover model is it now so unimprovable, so unimaginably right, so untouchable that it ceases to be truly desirable?
Good though it is, there’s nothing here that I can hear people singing like ‘Sweet Caroline’, ‘Tragedy’, ‘Come On Eileen’, ‘I Will Always Love You’, ‘Crazy In Love’ or ‘Shake It Off’. Nothing, that is, that will endure across the decades.
Perhaps that’s unfair. These are songs for the moment, for now and on that score they couldn’t be better.
It’s all very smooth, with no real passion or attitude. Like a box of Celebrations, if a Bounty ‘ / ‘Cinema’ isn’t exactly to your taste, there will be a Snickers / ‘Keep Driving’’ to reach for next.
This is an album made for Harry the star, playing to the strengths of his vocals and perpetuating his charm and personality. At one point he even scats attractively, if meaninglessly, like Sinatra.
There will come a point when this isn’t enough, either for his audience or, more likely, for Harry himself. Like George Michael and Taylor Swift before him he’ll need to shed his perfect skin and become something more interesting.That may come with a few mis-steps or blemishes and his music will be all the more interesting for that.
Did the album provide a song that I liked? It did, and more than one. The best is my Taster Track below.
It’s a shame really. I could have used that drink!
Taster Track : As It Was
Solace : Held By Trees
It’s hard to define and categorise Held By Trees’ instrumentals. They work in mysterious ways to create a mood that seems to grow out of nature itself.
They’re as difficult to define as late period Talk Talk. That’s the period where they decided that if life is what you make then so is music, and they didn’t want to make anything easy, accessible or frivolous any more. Labels could only constrain what you performed. This album is full of the Talk Talk spirit.
There’s nothing lightweight here. You won’t find bridges or choruses, just slow musical evolutions at their best. That doesn’t make it bad or unlistenable. These are serious pieces, yes, but also with beauty. This album, more than anything, feels like an organic evolution from start to finish. In places you can hear folk, jazz, ambient, soundscapes and prog. The music is all of these things and none of them.
The natural world is to the fore, its music complementing the piano, woodwing strings and blasts of guitars. At various times pieces are introduced by birdsong (‘Next To Silence’), rainfall (‘Rain After Sun’) and waves (‘Wave After Wave’). It’s deep and relaxing music for listening to alone.
If there’s a criticism, it’s that it can seem a little too close to New Age mindfulness for the comfort of some. I don’t mind mindfulness. Others may find themselves clockwatching before they get back to their Taylor Swifts or Harry Styles. All styles have their place.
If you’re not a fan of mindfulness, you’ll find the early, heavy guitars of ‘The Tree Of Life’ and the rousing climax to ‘The New Earth’ a relief rather than the jolt they provided to me. And there’s much to appreciate in the wonderful musicianship that is heard throughout.
This is a quality album, maybe not to all tastes but definitely with flavours to savour,
Taster Track : In The Trees
I Love You Jennifer B : Jockstrap
Jockstrap seek to carve out a different niche with their debut album. They’ve certainly come up with something striking and brave, if a little too raw and hard hitting for some.
Jockstrap are the latest ‘next big thing’ from Rough Trade. I love Rough Trade, but they’ve often trod a fine line between something that’s uber cool and something that’s a bit messy. You can see that in the cover design, which echoes the original indie fanzine style - a style, let’s not forget, that promoted unfiltered perspectives made with amateur typesetting skills and tools.
You don’t have much time to adapt to this record. ‘Neon’ starts with lo-fi sparseness before erupting into clattering noise. The trouble is, it sounds uneven rather than dramatic. I’m not sure what the technical term is for this, but it sounds as if the recording levels were set at a level that kept the recording needle nudging red. Even in its quieter moments, say in ‘What’s It All About’ it just shies away from distortion.
It’s an album that’s a mosaic of electronic riffs and noodles. They don’t hang together well all the time, but they’re brimful of good ideas and snippets and ripe for sampling. While ‘Angst’ fuels the suspicion that it’s all a bit of nonsense, ‘Greatest Hits’ gets the balance right between songs that can stand out and songs that can be listened to.
And yet… In its own extreme way this is as distinctive a departure from the norm as Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’. It’s the sound of scabby squats and tenements though rather than the wild romance of the Yorkshire moors.
This is a different sound and that will always raise strong reactions. It’s a grubby smudge of a record, always on the verge of breaking down. Mind you I felt that about the Velvet Underground too and it never did them any harm.
It’s a different record and a brave one. You may enjoy it more than I did.
Taster Track : Greatest Hits
Profound Mysteries II : Royksopp
After a gap of eight years between records, Royksopp follow up with a second volume of Profound Mysteries after just four months. It invites you to consider how much of a good thing is too much?
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed this album. I like Royksopp's brand of electro chill. It’s a good way to wake up in the morning. But it’s like an extra large fish pie. The first night it provides an amazing meal. The second night, yeah, it’s good even if it’s not quite as fresh. The third night? I’ve had enough now. It’s time for something different. With Profound Mysteries II, Royksopp is edging down that path.
It’s hard to dislike the bouncy pop of ‘Denimclad Baboons’. The heavy breathing duet with Astrid S is their sultry seduction music at its best, and the downtempo apology song ‘Sorry’ , with Jamie Irrepressible is also an example of what they do well and ‘It Was A Good Thing’ offers something a little different, featuring the ear catching android like vocals of Pixx.
Elsewhere though, it feels as if Royksopp are capable of more than the generic EDM dance of ‘Unity’. The clubby ‘Control’ reminds you of Adamski’s ‘Killer’ and sends you scampering away to look for it, rather than engaging fully with the song here. With ‘Remembering The Departed’ they head for Olafur Arnalds territory, aiming for melancholy but settling for maudlin. It feels routine, insincere even.
This isn’t better or worse than ‘Profound Mysteries’. It’s indistinguishable from it. How you respond to this volume depends on your appetite for this kind of accessible chill.
And, by the way, Volume III is out the month after next.
Taster Track : It Was A Good Thing
The Ghost Of Santiago : Tim Finn and Phil Manzanera
Tim and Phil renew their partnership with a collection of solid pop songs with an exotic South American feel.
Sometimes the hardest albums to write about are not the good ones or the bad, but those that are OK. They deliver what they set out to do. They do it with some class and style but without truly setting pulses racing or lips humming. They’re the equivalent of a sideways pass in football. They don’t give the ball away but neither do they advance the cause.
Finn and Manzanera’s collaboration feels more comfortable than before as if they’ve lost the first flush excitement of something new but found the contentment of a well matched relationship.
This collection keeps that sense of something slightly strange, even as you are more familiar with how it works. ‘Llanto’ for example is not the usual material for a pop song. It’s about a man who married but was prevented from burying her once she died. It’s a burial song made for dancing. In fact, each song introduces patterns as regulated and as formal as a dance.
Throughout the album the feel is of an older man on his Chilean porch alone and overwhelmed by his memories towards the end of his life.
This is an album that centres on Tim’s vocals. The music is well matched to them, providing a feather bed of support that is nicely judged but avoids the foreground.
It’s a pleasant collection, quietly moving but easy to let slip by.
Taster Track : Llanto
I Ran Down Every Dream : Tommy McClain
This is swamp pop. And what that means is it’s a collection of heartfelt and personal country tinged songs that’s drawn attention from the likes of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Ed Harcourt. It’s an album that sits comfortably in that company.
I had reservations about this, but it was the company it kept that drew me in. My concern was that it would be grubby, scuzzy and a version of the creature from the black lagoon. I was wrong and would have been reassured if I had read the Wikipedia entry first. It says:
Swamp pop is a music genre indigenous to the Acadiana region of south Louisiana and an adjoining section of southeast Texas.
So it's location based music, like Merseybeat or Madchester (but not the Plymouth Sound whis is an inlet or creek!) It goes on to say:
Created in the 1950s by young Cajuns and Creoles, it combines New Orleans–style rhythm and blues, country and western, and traditional French Louisiana musical influences.The swamp pop sound is typified by highly emotional, lovelorn lyrics, tripleting honky-tonk pianos, undulating bass lines, bellowing horn sections, and a strong rhythm and blues backbeat.
All that is true of this record. It’s filled with the concerns of age - reflection, making good on the past, remembrance and regret. What makes it special is the resonance of Tommy McClain’s 82 year old voice. It has aged with dignity, a little cracked maybe, but never strained. It has the feel of late period Nick Lowe or country infused Elvis Costello but without the weary humour of the former or the bitter lyrics of the latter.
There’s a temptation to compare this to Johnny Cash and his late run of ‘American’ albums. That’s fair to a point, but McLain keeps it personal rather than seeking to bring out universal truths.
The album has the sincerity of the best country and western songs. The blend of melancholy and Mavericks type sprightliness is certainly appealing.
Surprisingly for what could be regarded as homespun songs, some of the orchestration is quite lush. At the other end of the spectrum though is the authentic presence of an accordion and what sounds like a quartet of fiddles. It all adds up to a lot of reasons to like this album.
There’s something quite affecting about producing this album more than 40 years after his last and with the helping hands of a number of artists. It feels, inevitably, like a last hurrah. It’s a record produced with loving care by people who love their music. You can’t ask for more than that.
Taster Track : No Tomorrows Now
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