The Anchoress, Another Michael, A Winged Victory For The Sullen, David Bowie In Jazz (Compilation), The Hold Steady, Lost Horizons, Madlib, Roy Montgomery, Suzi Quatro
This Week's Music
There's some evidence that more than a year of lockdown is starting to have an impact on the music that is available to us, whether it's content or sound. More reflective, and sparser arrangements are the order of the day if this week's music is anything to go by. It's left to the 70s generation to provide more of the rock and roll spirit, even if it's dressed up in different clothing.
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
Our Sunday evenings are structured around 'Line of Duty' at the moment so TV Police series, past and present, provide the category headings this week.
Line of Duty
Not much sucking diesel to be had this week!
Neither David Tennant nor Olivia Colman could uncover much for here.
David Bowie In Jazz : Various
There are two kinds of fans who will be drawn to this album - David Bowie fans and jazz aficionados. Does this album work equally well for both?
The answer is “Yes” for the most part. It’s an interesting concept, and it requires a bold approach to do justice to it. There was definitely a varied jazz element to Bowie’s work, particularly during his white soul period in the mid 70s and his last ‘Black Star’ album. The 18 tracks here - with some duplications - are from his Hunky Dory to Lodger heyday.
The first couple of tracks, ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘Lady Stardust’ are nothing you’d be worried about playing to your Mum. Mike Garson provides a more interesting version of ‘Let’s Dance’ further down track and this version of ‘Lady Stardust’ sounds as if it has been successfully claimed for jazz as a future standard.
It’s highly enjoyable, but Bojan Z’s version of ‘Ashes To Ashes’ is the starting point for something more interesting. It dispenses with the vocals although there is the faintest hint of some way down in the mix, so deep that I almost missed them. This version both retains and returns to many of the recognisable features in the original but inbetween it wanders freely. Pierrejean Gaucher delivers boldness in his take on ‘Aladdin Sane’. It’s a heavyweight version that gives it some and then some more.
Yelloworld brings a bluesy feel to his two contributions. On ‘Jean Genie’ he recovers the song, bringing out the creature from the swamp element that lurks just below the surface.
Grazzia Gru’s version of ‘Space Oddity’ isn’t quite as successful, losing its magic in the quest to bend it to the jazz sound. Again, there’s a more interesting 8 minute plus version from Franck Wolf later in the running order. ‘Heroes’ loses out too. The treatment by the Delta Saxophone Quartet loses its desperate and inspirational qualities in settling for something with a more gentle lounge feel.
My favourite track is Miriam Aida’s treatment of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. It’s a lovely version that applies a gentle South American jazz overtone to the pop melodies of the original.
There is a risk that this album could fall between two stools, failing to satisfy hardcore Bowie and jazz fans while not doing quite enough to bring on board the mass in the middle. In this form it’s mood music, the mood being unobtrusive and light, sophisticated in places but at the expense of soul. Where it works, it works well and encourages further exploration of artists such as Bojan Z, Pierrejean Gaucher and Miriam Aida.
It’s an enjoyable, Sunday afternoon listen.
Taster Track : The Man Who Sold The World - Miriam Aida
Open Door Policy : The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady’s latest collection consolidates their status as musical storytellers of small town America and of small cogs in big cities.
All the songs take their influences as much from the heyday of pulp fiction and seedy private eye stories as they do from music. Take these lines from ‘The Feelers’.
“She had the aura of an angel.
But she had a couple of problems.
I guess the big one is she’s someone else’s wife.”
Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler would be proud of them.
It’s an unrepentedly male album aimed at everyman rather than everybody. They tell of sleaze while aiming for glamour, and of small and small minded characters with petty attitudes and lusts. It’s all about seeing what you can get away with, making a quick buck - almost legally - and the consequences of that.
One consequence is that the stories shape the song. The choruses can’t break the frame to become something rousing for a crowd to sing along to. That’s a shame because all the elements, from chugging guitars, clear sighted piano, pounding drums and crashing cymbals and, above all, brass, offer potential for a set of stadium rocking anthems that isn’t quite realised.
Musically it’s an American rock album in the Springsteen mould. The guitars add tone, building songs with tension, suspense and a sense of personal trouble. ‘Heavy Covenant’ is a good example, as is ‘Hanover Camera’ although each song is built around this approach. The brass provides nice flourishes, especially on a track such as ‘Unpleasant Breakfast’.
This is an album that sounds good while engaging the listener through the power of storytelling. It’s musical literature for people who are too busy to read books. It doesn’t quite fulfil the rock requirement of punching the air responses.
Taster Track : Heavy Covenant
In Quiet Moments (Part 2) : Lost Horizons
This is a high quality continuation of their earlier release but with added soul.
I’m not quite sure of the reasoning that split this album into two. Perhaps it was as simple as not offering too much of a good thing too quickly. Because make no mistake, this complete album is a very good thing indeed.
The first thing you notice is a more soulful approach. Title track ‘In Quiet Moments’ recaptures the sound of 70s soul, complete with spoken outro, reminiscent of Gladys Knight’s intro to ‘TheWay We Were’. ‘Blue Soul’ is similarly laden with feeling. There’s a subtle shift as the album winds down to a blues jazz torch song conclusion in tracks such as ‘Flutter’. ‘This Is The Weather’, sung by Karen Peris, is brimful of pregnant emotion.
That’s the second thing you notice. These later songs have a more human emphasis, less reliant on electronic effects. The John Grant contribution to the first set of tracks has no place here.
The final thing you notice is the generosity in the mix afforded to the collaborators. They’re centre stage on every track, and the music revolves around them, not the band.
These new songs are to take time with, to be appreciated and savoured.
Taster Track : In Quiet Moments
Island of Lost Souls : Roy Montgomery
These four generally extended electronic instrumentals provide a suitable backing for reflecting on personal loss.
The running time of this album is nearly 45 minutes, half of which is taken up by the closing track ‘The Electric Children of Hildegard Von Bingen.’ Each track is dedicated to the memory of a musician or actor that Roy Montgomery knew. It’s a personal album then, and you’d need a degree in psycho-analysis to understand everything that Roy Montgomery is trying to convey about his own feelings.
But let's not switch off just yet, because there is much to take from this music on an individual basis. It may be dedicated to the memory of others but its unhurried progress is never mournful. The whole album may have gravitas and the atmosphere of a little understood religious ceremony, but it’s possible to be absorbed by the music even when you don’t understand it. The album is structured like a classical programme, using electronics rather than an orchestra and recognising that is the best way into this piece.
The music itself is electronic, ambient and a slowly unfolding and revealing drone. There’s a lot of reverb at work, and the different parts often sound slightly out of time with each other. ‘Cowboy Mouth’ features something like melodic feedback. It’s formless like drifting smoke. It builds, slowly, and fades into the distance. I felt something approaching sadness as it finished. ‘Soundcheck’ is a harmonious mess that I liked a lot. ‘Unhalfmuted’ speaks up for itself with a bolder sound. The climactic track ‘The Electric Children of Hildegard Von Bingen’ provides a blanket of sound to aid our own reflections on loss.
Because I’ve struggled to describe the music, I’m going to have to fall back on comparing it to acts that are, hopefully, better known. If you liked the work of Durutti Column or The Cocteau Twins at their most ethereal you’ll find something to like here.
Taster Track : Soundcheck
The Devil In Me : Suzi Quatro
With more than 50 years as a performer behind her, Suzy Quatro is still the wild one, but with an added reflective streak.
I’m not sure that a path from Top Of The Pops to Annie Get Your Gun via Happy Days would have prepared anyone for this. It’s by no means outlandish, but it evinces a credible and serious rocking and blues intent.
I guess she still challenges perceptions. When she came to attention as a Queen of Glam Rock there was a tendency to view her as the latest chart vehicle. As a 12 year old she was exciting, all leather and roaring motorbikes. My Gran took a different view, being forthright in her opinion that cavorting on stage like ‘that’ was no way for a lady to behave. It’s important because I suspect that most people will come to this record because they remember her from the 70s. Those fans need to be won over anew if there’s to be a progression from canning the can in Devil Gate Drive. She achieves a good balance with this record between songs reminiscent of her glory days (‘The Devil In Me’, more generic though pretty good pop material (‘Betty Who?’) and a more soulful demeanour on ‘Loves Gone Bad’ and ‘My Heart and Soul’.
There’s swagger and, more crucially blues, in abundance here. ‘The Devil In Me’ is all crashing riffs, honky tonk rock and roll piano and handclaps. ‘Get Outta Jail’ features a prisoners’ blues gospel chorus. Of the rockier numbers, the feel is of hurtling down the freeway on a motorbike. ‘You Can’t Dream It’ captures this best. ‘Isolation Blues’ is her most serious attempt to reach something deeper than radio friendly rock and pop. She allows tenderness through in places too, particularly on the sentimental ‘My Heart and Soul.’ This latter one is for the sisters - there’s not a male voice in earshot. ‘Do Ya Dance’ is fun - if I’d watched Strictly more attentively, I’d be able to tell you which dance rhythm it’s drawn from.
With this album, Suzy Quatro demonstrates that she is no heritage act unless it’s to raid more deep rooted musical traditions. There’s plenty to keep those who long the Daytona Demon to 48 Crash one more time happy too.
Taster Track : You Can't Dream It
The Art of Losing : The Anchoress
This is an uncomfortable, occasionally bleak and raw record. We can’t say we weren’t warned upfront. The first words sung are:
“Ouch. This is going to hurt.” (Let It Hurt)
I had a line prepared that the cover would show her to be eating her words. On hearing this though I think the direction of travel is moving the opposite way.. She’s spewing out words and emotions to set down at least a part of her story.
In ‘All Farewells Should Be Sudden’ she’s asking questions of herself and of others. ‘5AM’ is one of the most harrowing songs I’ve heard in some time - an account of a time she was raped. In ‘The Exchange’ she joins up with James Dean Bradfield from the Manic Street Preachers, no stranger to pain himself given the unsolved mystery of singer Richie Edwards' disappearance from the band in the 1990s. There’s certainly a MSP feel to the track.
The subject matter tends to obscure the fact that at heart this is a good rock record, with accessible music drawing you into the less palatable lyrical content. ‘Show Your Face’ is an example of this as is ‘The Heart Is A Lonesome Hunter’. It is a slightly ill fitting mix of styles in places though. The drumming expresses itself freely in ‘All Farewells Should Be Sudden’ adding a proggy feel to the sound. Her voice hints at being that of a diva trapped in a rock record on several tracks.
It’s also a mix of soft and loud, pain and reflection. The instrumental tracks such as ‘All Will Be Well’ offer welcome interludes with their simple piano, cello and spoken word ambience.
This feels like an important record, but not one I could bring myself to listen to frequently. It’s a brave but distressing record, shot through with anguish.
Taster Track : The Heart Is A Lonesome Hunter
Invisible Cities : A Winged Victory For the Sullen
This is beautiful music, majoring on mood and tone rather than melody. Its stately, slow moving ambience is best heard through headphones.
Each piece feels carefully constructed to achieve a specific effect although, to be honest, I’m not always sure what effect is sought. ‘Thirteenth Century Travelogue’ is simultaneously soothing and ominous. It’s the sound of something unseen scuttling under the floorboards but imbued by the reassurance a mother uses to comfort her child. ‘Total Perspective Vortex’ builds to a threatening crescendo, but it passes during the course of the piece.
‘The Celestial City’ is a haunting piece lightly battered by discordance as if it is a signal from far away. There's a consistent sound across the album. Whilst the separate tracks merge they can still be differentiated - by the use of guitar on ‘Nothing Of The City Touches The Earth’ for example.
Without wishing to sound too pretentious, this album is a message from afar, from a wiser civilisation. OK, I’ve failed with the pretentious point. It’s still a lovely, soothing collection of music.
Taster Track : Thirteenth Century Travelogue
New Music and Big Pop : Another Michael
They say “Write about what you know.” Another Michael certainly deliver on that score with this primarily acoustic collection of intimate reflections. Unfortunately they only deliver on half the album title. It’s new music, certainly, but much less of the big pop.
‘New Music’ starts things off encouragingly. It’s a fragile song imbued with fragile wonder at the ordinary things. The opening lines set the tone:
“We were up late on line, talking about new music.
And you sent me a link to a song to a song I never heard before.”
You certainly won’t catch me arguing with the sentiment generated by the thrill of those words. The album is the lightweight sound of doing nothing in particular. ‘My Day’ is exactly that. “I’m thinking of my day as I go.” And if I were being harsh I’d reply “Yes - and making up songs about nothing along the way.” ‘Big Pop’ and ‘What The Hell Is Going On?” are a little less enervating and include better melodies.
I can live with all of that, although it would never make for my album of the year. It’s the familiar 70s singer songwriter vibe. It’s all about him and his feelings but after a while it begins to feel uninteresting.
There’s a bigger problem though. It’s the voice. A wavering falsetto, it’s a little too shrill and it’s coupled with phrasing that sounds just a little too forced. ‘I’m Not Home’ reins in the falsetto just enough and the song is better for it. In fairness I should report that Pitchfork, a leading and influential review site, describes it as outstanding.
Ultimately I’m disappointed by this album and that puzzles me.Objectively I can hear that it ticks a lot of the right boxes but in a way that renders me immune to any of its charm.
Taster Track : New Music
Hill Street Blues
Sound Ancestors : Madlib
Madlib’s collection of sample heavy, hip hop with jazz flourishes is a challenge that demands a different way of listening to, let’s call it, music.
This is the kind of album that demands footnotes. What’s that sample from? Why was it chosen? What’s he trying to achieve? I struggled to find a way to listen to this. It’s not club music. They’re neither songs nor instrumentals in the conventional sense. If anything they are soundscapes for an urban outdoors. In my imagination it’s an outdoors represented on film as American, impoverished and using a dialect I’m unable to crack. It’s music to be watched as much as listened to and it’s a little bewildering. ‘Latino Negro’ provides a clue. There is musicality here based around sampl;es of spanish guitar, but it’s presented unfiltered and untreated as if overheard on a street corner. Generally this album calls for listening that responds to the tone of tracks rather than their musicality which feels incidental.
The 16 tracks are spread across just 41 minutes so they average fewer than 3 minutes each. They’re fragmentary and unsatisfying for that reason. At one extreme, tracks such as ‘Loose Goose’ and ‘Dirtknock’ simply did not make sense.’The New Normal’ - a timely title if ever one was needed - has a relentless beat and riff but that’s it. Where a vocal sample such as that used on ‘Hang Out (Phone Off)’ snags attention it comes as a relief. ’Riddim Chant’ sums up the problem. It sounds like a throwaway idea extended too far even though it doesn’t quite reach the two minute mark. I know there must be more to it than that, but I’m unable to grasp what it is.
There are a few more accessible tracks here. The samples used in ‘Road Of the Lonely Ones’ are melodic and allowed to take centre stage. The Spanish guitar sampled in ‘Latino Negro’ is a hook to draw you in, and there’s more musical sampling on ‘China’. There are obvious jazz influences on ‘Sound Ancestors’ in the interplay between double bass and flute. ‘Hopprock’ is interesting, in a good way. It uses samples from answerphone messages and a guitar sample much more to my liking.
Music aspires to many things - entertainment, emotional connection, dance energy and even education. I’m not sure it aspires to create a sense of bewilderment, but that’s what I was left with here.
Taster Track : Hopprock