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Pirouetting Around Swan Lake All The Way To The Pub and Club

Starring


Austra, Free Love, Gramercy Arms, Khora, The Staves, X-Press 2


The Front Runners


The Making Of The Making Of : Gramercy Arms


Age and guile beat youth, innocence and a bad haircut. That’s what American satirist P J O’Rourke said once and he could have been thinking about this album.


The thing about age is that you’re a little unsteadier on your feet, your movements are stiffer and it takes longer to recover from workouts. You’ve still got what you once had, but it takes a little longer to find it. That’s the feeling as this album opens. ‘After The After Party’ sounds like timeless pop but it also seems to skirt around the melodies, hooks and harmonies that make for a memorable and enduring listen. The second track in,‘Pilot Light’ is a step in the right direction and by ‘The Making Of The Making Of’ the album is slipping into a familiar, welcome groove making it seem effortless and inevitable.


It’s a thin line that separates timeless, retro and old fashioned. Gramercy Arms navigates it successfully, with only an occasional wobble to disconcert along the way. For a few tracks it's frustrating and endearing at the same time. It’s flavoured with the sound of a stripped back Teenage Fanclub, or the New Mendicants on ¾ power. It’s a good album that is tantalisingly close to being a great one. 


‘Never Say Anything’ is a case in point. It’s a good tune, the kind you hear in a coffee house that momentarily grabs your attention before returning to the background. It’s as if power pop has grown into AOR, losing some of its sparkle along the way but carrying more substance.


Don’t worry though, because it’s worth sifting the OK to find the special songs, and when they arrive they transform your sense of the album, sending you scurrying back to revisit the earlier tracks where you will find what you missed the first time around.


With ‘Lux’ you sense that the band are loosening up and letting go rediscovering their magic of past years. It’s the brass segments that elevate this out of the ordinary and into the wonderful. ‘Susan’ nails it. The melody slots into place. The descending guitar lines give you a hook and the choir of backing vocals that close out the song give you something classic.


Finally, the album reveals itself as a polished gem to treasure and enjoy.


Taster Track : Susan




All Now : The Staves


I’ve kept The Staves at arm’s length for some time, put off by the folk tag. This album shows me what I’ve been missing.


The folk tag, like jazz, is a double edged sword. Like jazz it raises expectations that will attract the faithful but deter the casual follower. Pay attention instead to the harmonising and melodies and you’ll find connections to the music you already love. This insight came to me with ‘I’ll Never Leave You Alone’ which brought me echoes of The Leisure Society, a band that I feel can do no wrong.

It helps when you’re showcasing your harmonising skills to be able to write and arrange songs that show these to good effect. The Staves have that covered. They show too that harmonising can remain delicate and subtle even when all around them starts to rage.  ‘All Now’ ‘Great Wave’ and ‘You Held It All’ demonstrate that.


This is their first album as a duo, following the withdrawal of sister Emily. There’s a sense of loss under the surface and of bonding together. They have a knack of writing about personal feelings directly and in a way that is not diluted by fancy phrases. That makes ‘The Important One’ a devastating indictment of a partner. I loved the pictures of domestic sisterliness that crop up from time to time too, especially this line from ‘I’ll Never Leave You Alone’:


“Daddy’s little princess, mummy’s little nightmare.’


Forget tags. This is a very good pop album with loveliness at its core.


Taster Track : I’ll Never Leave You Alone




The Chasing Pack


Swan Song (Original Score) : Austra


Fourteen bursts of attractive but necessarily ambient synth music may not leave a lasting mark, but it’s a harmless and pleasant way to spend 30 minutes of your time.


Austra has been making slightly offbeat electronic music for some time. This is more conventional, recognising that an effective soundtrack won’t usually draw attention to itself and distract you from what is on screen. In this case that’s a documentary following a production of Swan Lake from bringing the company together to reflections on the experience.


It captures the excited bustle of early preparations, with perky synths, the darker understanding required as you delve into the story and the quiet reflection of how things went. There’s added poignancy too as it’s ballet icon Karen Kain’s own swansong working for the company.


Some of the fun with music like this is trying to tell the story from the music when you’re not watching the film. It has the same satisfaction as completing a crossword grid with words that fit, but bear no relation to the clues. Perhaps then, it’s an album for when you have time on your hands.

It faces the usual issue of being only part of the experience when separated from the pictures on screen. I liked it for its overall ambience and tones, but as pop music it’s slight and forgettable. 


Taster Track : Credits (Dance Class)




Inside : Free Love


What starts as electropop takes on a clubbier feel that challenges and entertains in equal measure.


Free Love are a Mr and Mrs duo from Scotland, though they have a strong Gallic core. It’s not just in the couple of songs in French they’ve included - ‘Le Mirage’ and ‘Dans Le Noir’ - but in the feel that they’re what Stereolab might sound like if they were trapped in Glasgow.


They have one foot on the dancefloor and one in a world far, far away. You sense that they like nothing better than seeing what their fans will make of their latest constructed sounds. I suspect there will be a modicum of uncertainty before they find their feet and body swings.


This is the kind of electronica that sounds a little sedated, or at least slowed down. It’s by no means unpleasant, more that it feels as if it has travelled a long way without sleep to get here. A song such as ‘Golden Goose’ sounds twisted and distorted out of shape, creating a sense of a different universe.


‘Le Mirage’ is excellent - the definition of a sinuous, slinky groove that parades an ear worm melody. It’s the kind of hook that doesn’t reappear on the album. To be fair it’s the kind of hook that doesn’t appear in any music very often! This is an album that feels like a starting point to a journey from high end electro pop to ambient electronica over forty minutes.


And, it turns out, that it’s a journey well worth taking!


Taster Track : Le Mirage


( Post Script : I realised when including ‘Le Mirage’ in the schedule for a future ‘On The Radio’ programme that I had reviewed this before in April 2023. I thought it sounded familiar! I don’t think there’s harm in revisiting the occasional album. )





Gestures Of Perception : Khora


Bloody hell! I listen to some strange stuff sometimes. Khora is a Canadian experimental artist whose collection of electronic and other sounds is more interesting than enjoyable.


I want to be clear from the outset. There’s a world of difference between an album I don’t enjoy because it simply does not work for me and an album that is simply bad and lazily made for the wrong motives. ‘Gestures of Perception’ is firmly in the first category.


I can acknowledge the care and vision invested in the pieces here without growing to like them. There are sounds here, right from the start with ‘Golden Femur’ that I haven’t heard before and find difficult to describe. Each track refuses to be hurried. It takes up space and time to deliver. There’s a strong commitment to its uncompromising vision throughout. No concession is made to soften it for airplay.


The issue I found is that, with no context, this felt like an installation project. It was intriguing enough for me to wonder “why”? It’s too heavy to be truly ambient so it’s hard to keep in the background. There were times that I felt like swatting the music away like a buzzing fly.


There were places early on when I felt drawn to the idea of an Eastern city in the early morning bustle of setting up markets and being drawn to prayer. The sounds are constantly evolving. Take ‘Golden Femur’. There are Oriental and Indian tones bursting through and distracting you from the building drone that creeps up behind you like an unseen vehicle.


Nothing is allowed to be itself. There’s one lovely moment in ‘Rigpa’ when there’s a passage that sounds like pealing bells but without a bell in sight or earshot. It’s odd.


This is an album for the senses. I found it interesting rather than truly enjoyable.


Here’s Boomkat’s academic sounding review for balance. Gestures of Perception


Taster Track : Rigpa




Thee : X-Press 2


X-Press 2 are best known these days for their 2002 song ‘Lazy’, featuring David Byrne on guest vocals. They’ve re-emerged for the first time in eleven years with a collection of deep house tracks that show the come down flame still burning bright.


This is nothing if not hypnotic. It’s as if they drill home one component of what makes a decent dance song, adding a few fripperies on top and around it. As Odyssey once sang, they use it up and wear it out. It’s strangely impersonal. The feel is that they communicate through the beats and rhythms rather than as performers. They remain hidden and anonymous.


The thing is though, it works. Its impact grows cumulatively to become highly enjoyable. Maybe it’s intended for the come down room but it works equally well in the early morning light as the neighbourhood begins to stir.


There’s a welcome shift midway through as if they’ve relaxed. ‘Muse’ sounds more… musical. It’s a chilled tune with no lead vocals but a nicely judged backing croon that shows why good backing vocals can carry a tune on their own. ‘I Can See The Love’ has the same effect whereas ‘You Know (Everybody)’ is the sound of the carnival procession passing through, driven by the sound of the big bass drum.


Chill out had its moment in the spotlight around the time Gareth Gates kept  X-Press 2 from the Number 1 spot. This record shows why it deserves an encore.


Taster Track : Muse




Playlists


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.




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