The Amazons, Erland Cooper, Hollie Cook, Hush, Lambchop, Leon, The Proclaimers
If You Listen To One Thing This Week, Listen To.....
Soaked by Leon
She has a strong following on YouTube and made her breakthrough on Soundcloud, but she hasn't had chart success in the UK and, when her album has songs as good as thiss, that's surprising. This is melodic pop of the highest quality.
Circles : Leon
Swedish singer songwriter, Leon, has produced an album of radio friendly emotional pop songs, filled with easy melodies. It’s an undemanding but very enjoyable listen.
I've never claimed to be able to talent spot new acts. That’s just as well because my first impression on listening to this was “So that’s what good chart pop is sounding like these days.”. It came as a surprise then to find out that Leon’s UK chart history is non-existent. She’s never troubled the charts and yet, on this album, I heard at least 8 or 9 strong singles.
I’m definitely not saying that chart success is a definition of pop worth, but Leon has a gift for the kind of songs that should be earning constant rotation on Radio 2 and the quieter slots of Radio 1. Her songs are undemanding, that’s true, and part of their appeal is that the sound is familiar to anyone who’s absorbed quality pop over the last 30-40 years. But there’s always been a space for songs that serve as comfort blankets for when life becomes a little too much.
Her songs are personal, although she writes with others. That may explain why, at 29, she’s singing of growing old. There are many more insights to come on that score, trust me. It contributes, though, to the tone of regret that colours the album.
Spotting influences in new songs is quite a personal exercise. Often, the influences you hear are of songs and acts that made you feel the same way, even if the sounds are different. On that basis, Leon reminds me of Avalon era Roxy Music, the softer parts of Fleetwood Mac and a whole host of 90s chart ballads. She stands out by refusing to add a dance pop beat to her songs, allowing them to float and breathe their way into you.
Her voice is soft, intimate and conversational. Her arrangements are spot on. The little touches such as the whispered backing vocals on ‘Lift You Up’ or the faint sax on ‘Wildest Dreams’ are touchstones for a past that we remember fondly and don’t want to lose.
This isn’t an album that will change your life, but it is an album that will remind you of the pleasures of mainstream pop.
Taster Track : Soaked
....And The Rest
How Will I Know When Heaven Will Find Me? : The Amazons
Reading rockers, The Amazons, continue to travel their chosen path with energy and flair.
The Amazons are torch bearers for a timeless kind of rock that is exactly what their fans want to hear. They were born to play Reading Festival, and could have slotted in at any time over the last 30 years. Third album in, and they’ve become a tight unit with abundant energy.
They don’t hang around. There’s no build up to opener ‘How Will I Know’. From the off guitar and drums hammer out a pulse that lifts you out of your seat and drops you in the centre of that festival crowd. Turn up the volume and you’ll be moshing like dried peas dropped on a taut cling film surface from a great height.
This is rock for rock’s sake, and it offers no apologies for that. It’s refreshing to hear a rock set that’s not setting out to be blues resurrectionists. Leave that to your Jeff Becks, Jimmy Pages and Joe Bonamassas - anyone whose first name begins with a ‘J’! This is for a younger set, who want the memory of the songs ringing in their ears afterwards, a younger set who want to have a good time, who want to have fun.
It’s also refreshing that this is essentially a love album, dealing with endless distance, longing and a desire to be reunited with your lover after enforced separation.
That’s what the Amazons deliver. They offer quick fire drums, laser guitars, bombing bass runs, vocals that punch out every syllable and just enough acoustic moments to show they have a sensitive side. It’s rock music that harks back to, say, the chart sounds of Rainbow or the Britpop rock of Feeder. It comes from pop, not metal or the blues and it’s all the more enjoyable for that.
What you hear on the opening track is a good guide to what you’ll hear on the rest of the album. There are no weak tracks, but no tracks that will reveal a different side to the band either.
What they do, they do very well and that’s enough.
Taster Track : Bloodrush
Music For Growing Flowers : Erland Cooper
This is an album of one off ambient music that, in its own quiet way, breaks the rules about what music is for.
Last Summer the Tower of London did something special with its moat. Some readers may recall that to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the end of WW1 in 2018, they filled the moat with thousands and thousands of ceramic poppies. This year they wild seeded the moat with over 20 million seeds and let them grow. With the added attraction of a huge slide, they invited the public to meander around the moat experiencing meadow life in the centre of London. They also commissioned Erland Cooper to compose a piece of music to play continuously as people walked the moat.
Initially I thought that ‘Music For Growing Flowers’ was an innovative aid to helping flowers flourish, an update on King Charles’ talking to them. Then it occurred to me that ‘growing’ may be an adjective rather than a verb’ in the way that growing children need more food, more sleep and more nagging to keep their room tidy. For one week onlyI half thought of changing the name of this blog to Poppy In The Real World.
This is a 30 minute continuous piece of music helpfully split into seven shorter sections but intended to be listened to as a whole. It’s a lovely piece that’s calm and serious. It rises and falls in perhaps the same way that flowers open and close during the day.
‘Pt 1’ sets the tone. It’s built around four slow piano chords that vary across the section. These are backed at various times by harmonious drones, mournful cello, flutters, quiet natural sounds and the odd tinkly strings. It conjures up lightly falling rain or the drips from newly watered leaves. This is ambient loveliness that is as good as it can get.
Occasionally the tracks fade unnoticeably into the background. It has sometimes struck me as a convenient get out clause, but that’s part of the purpose of ambient music. It’s simply there to drift in and out of consciousness, working magic at a subconscious level.
This works well as a piece of self contained music, but it struck me that listening to this at home rather than on location only gives you part of the picture. On location the music would be heard against a background of chatter, traffic noises, sirens and children playing excitedly on the slide. It’s too late to revisit that now but I’m intrigued as to how that might change the experience.
I enjoyed this partly because it’s lovely and partly because it had me thinking about how music works and how it can be used.
Taster Track : Pt 1
Happy Hour : Hollie Cook
Here’s a reggae album with a pop top coat. What it gains in a pop sheen doesn’t quite offset what it loses in other ways.
Hollie Cook grew up surrounded by musical influences. Her dad is Paul Cook, Sex Pistols drummer. Her mum sang with Culture Club and Boy George is her godfather. With such iconic musicians in her background it’s easy to forget that before they were famous, one of the triggers for picking up drumsticks or becoming a Karma Chameleon is that they would have been music lovers first. That’s what they’ve given Hollie and that’s what shines through this album.
This is first and foremost a proper reggae album. Its selling point is that over the reggae rhythms the vocals and lyrics are from the pop world of a hundred singers of broken relationships. It’s a clash of styles, but a generally enjoyable one. The strings on ‘Moving On’ add drama to the song. ‘Gold Girl’ is a Bond song in waiting.
She fits the style. It’s not a music grab in a “Hey! Let’s make a reggae album” kind of way. The weakness in the fit only becomes slowly apparent. On ‘Kush Kween’ she duets with the Jamaican singer Jah 9. It’s a track that reveals its teeth and everything else on the album seems pale and lightweight in comparison.
All the elements are there musically - the deep dub bass, the reverb and echoing guitar, the reggae rhythms and the piping organ on top. It’s what is missing in the tone that defines this album. There’s no Caribbean joy. There’s no outrage at centuries of oppression. There’s none of the sadness at the loss of a culture. And there are no carefree, memorable melodies in the songs. The result is an album that over the course of its nine tracks starts to sound dull.
This is a reggae album that stands on its own two feet musically but loses its way in the attempt to be part of the wider pop world.
Taster Track : Kush Kween
Sand : Hush
This mainstream collection of Scandinavian Nashville has appeal and charm, and is filled with examples of good songwriting.
Sometimes you find good songs in unexpected places. Look at Google and you’ll find Hush nestling between Deep Purple and a party covers band. Peer into their past and you’ll find that this pure Nashville sound is the product of two Danes - a busker and a former speed metal guitarist.
These songs combine the pop country sounds of Nashville with the Scandinavian tendency to explore the dark sadness of the soul. ‘Home’ is the sound of middle aged, faded small town melodies set to a music box melody. If they catch you unawares at a tipsy, vulnerable moment the sentiments in these songs will move you to tears. They’ll be the messy sniffling and therapeutic tears of a good cry, not the tears that speak of long endured suffering barely contained.
This is as mainstream as it comes, Radio 2 to its core. The songs are conventional and gentle, with just enough concealed touches to keep it interesting. There’s a whirring gurgle beneath ‘Blue, Blue Water’ that is allowed to become more prominent as the songs builds. That’s a nice, unexpected and semi-hidden touch that gives the song character.
Dorthe Gerlach’s vocals are a reminder of 70s country singers such as Billie Jo Spears, whilst retaining a 21st Century attitude like The Delines. Michael Hartmann’s guitar playing is a million miles from his speed metal days. It’s delicate, calm and simple.
I enjoyed this more than I expected. Good, unshowy songwriting has that effect.
Taster Track : Home
The Bible : Lambchop
Listening to Lambchop has often been an intense experience. This album is no exception but it also marks a surprising development. Lambchop seem to have discovered some shafts of light and optimism.
There are lines in these songs that could describe Lambchop’s career over the last couple of decades. Lines such as:
“And it’s cloudy forever” (‘So There’), or
“The light in there was barely there.” (‘His Song Is Sung’)
These songs are composed, constructed and considered. Every note, every sound, every gap has its purpose. They tell stories to a muted musical backing and are a form of performance art as much as songwriting. Individual disconnected chords are typical. Kurt Wagner aka Lambchop isn’t a man who thinks in melody. He is a man who has mastered tone. This is Lambchop’s world. Getting to know it is a challenge.
It wasn’t always that way. 2000’s ‘Nixon’ was their supposed breakthrough, filled with sweet soul melodies in songs like ‘Grumpus’ and ‘Up With People’. Since then the path marked out by his songs has been increasingly downbeat, broken and fractured. The long term listener who’s invested hours and hours in following Wagner and the band needs to know how the story develops. The long term listener can’t leave him lingering in despair.
There are echoes of his past songs on this album. ‘Dylan At The Mousetrap’ harks back to his alt country, slide guitar beginnings. ‘Daisy’ is typical of the post ‘Nixon’ period. ‘Every Child Begins The World Again’ transcends the constraints of tone and is genuinely beautiful, as is ‘So There’. They’re tracks where the piano is allowed to take centre stage and the simplicity of that works wonders.
But there’s more, and it’s a big surprise. Life breaks through the songs like the first rays of sun through fog. The introverted, introspective Lambchop has ventured out into the club. ‘Little Black Boxes’, ‘Police Dog Blues’, ‘Whatever Mortal’ are danceable. The first sounds as if he’s been listening to Prince. The soulful women’s chorus in ‘Police Dog Blues’ and the shafts of funk elsewhere inject rare hope, light, optimism and life into the songs.
This remains a challenging album, but it’s also Lambchop’s most accessible work for some time.
Taster Track : Every Child Begins The World Again
Dentures Out : The Proclaimers
On their 12th album in 36 years, The Proclaimers take aim at modern ills through the rifle sights of tuneful and brisk rock and roll.
There’s a case for The Proclaimers to be regarded as the last flag bearers of punk. Their disgust at the world, and their approach to songwriting hark back to music created before they were formed. The songs are simple and the words are unpolished but devastating.
If they are the last of the true punks, they’re disguised as court jesters. They’re music hall comedians commenting on the world and how it has changed them; King Lear’s fool speaking truth to power and, hopefully, getting away with it.
Their weapon of choice is satire. The last couple of years may have overwhelmed them with source material that defies belief. They give one example in ‘The World That Was’
“Thank you NHS is painted on a Spitfire”
They’ve become a bit shouty now, declaiming their view of the world throughout the songs. Let’s call it punk passion, rallying cries against the stupidity of the crowd. They choose to mock with sincerity.
Personally I’d have preferred more tenderness of the kind used in ‘Sunshine On Leith’ or ‘Beautiful Truth’. It features here in ‘Sundays By John Calvin’,which melancholically chronicles the effects of religion on growing up.
The Proclaimers have detailed memories which they access to provide memorable details. This is when they hit hardest, their punches wrapped in bubble wrap but no less effective for that. In ‘Sundays By John Calvin’ they recall swings tied up in the playground, denying fun to children. It’s the kind of detail that holds a deeper insight, helping us to understand how we became who we are.
Musically they’ve moved from folk and Scottish country to indie rock and roll, becoming musical neighbours of the likes of Paul Heaton in the process. They’re songs are always entertaining but they are also a little one paced spread over the course of an album.
This is an enjoyable album that scratches the itch of our modern lives and media.
Taster Track : Sundays By John Calvin
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