5 Billion In Diamonds, Bent, Gary Brunton, Joe Strummer, Liza Anne, Merk, Mika, Raf Rundell, Tina
This Week's Music
It's been quite a chilled week this week, sometimes unintentionally so. Chilled is good - think air conditioning on a scorching day or a long cold drink as the sun sets. Try not to think of broken central heating or watching school sport in February.
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
Elvis Costello provides the inspiration for category headings this week.
The Greatest Thing
O.M. Days : Raf Rundell
This is a delightful mix of chilled, relaxed and immensely likeable songs. It’s the sound of early summer and reconnecting friendships.
Raf Rundell is a DJ who mixes the man made and the natural to glorious effect. There’s a range of different styles from the R n B of ‘Always Fly’ to the gentle dancefloor repetition and rhythms of ‘More U Know’ to the more acoustic companionship of ‘Butter Gold’.
Melodies spread through the songs like melted chocolate. The retro disco of ‘Monsterpiece’ harks back to friendlier, more sociable times aided by the sounds of flute. ‘More U Know’ oozes warmth and charm - feel good music at its finest. ‘Butter Gold is a strong, lovely and fitting closer based around a simple guitar and relaxed vocal interplay. The album’s centrepiece is ‘Ample Change’. It’s based around a jungle bass rhythm - the environmental jungle, not the close relative to techno and drum n bass. On top of this are layers of melodies and bright musical memories. It sounds like a friendly force of nature awaking from a deep sleep.
In truth, every track has something good going for it. Sometimes it’s better not to destroy the magic by analysing it too much, and this is one of those times. It’s enough to say that this is the kind of album I want to shout about to as many people as possible.
Taster Track : Ample Change
Up In The Air : Bent
Bent turn back time to deliver an album full of poignant chill out - the kind that connects emotionally as well as soothing troubled minds.
It’s 15 years since Bent last released new material. In the meantime chill out has become a maligned genre standing for flat dullness and pan pipes. Bent show how it can sound at its best. It’s as if the last 15 years haven’t happened. Think what that means. No global financial crisis. No austerity programmes. No Brexit. No Covid 19. It’s little wonder that this sound triggers memories of, and nostalgia for, happier times. The tunes are purposeful, taking you on a carefully planned trip and not just drifting by. They take you to a world of their own making and it’s lovely there.
‘Take 15’ opens the album - familiar sounding with its looped and sampled hooks. ‘Come On Home’ contains bass and saxophone lines that you’ll be humming for weeks. And if there’s any instrument that can take you back in time as perfectly as the saxophone I’ve yet to hear it. Two tracks ‘ When You Come By’ and ‘Friends’ carry a moving emotional punch drawn out of wistful regret. ‘A Girl Like You’ and ‘Eagle and Swan’ both manage to sound as if they’re rooted in olde merrie England while using 21st century technology to achieve that impact.
At its best chill out was an antidote to stress and troubled minds. This album fits the bill perfectly.
Taster Track : Come On Home
My Name Is Michael Holbrook : Mika
Mika is back, with an album full of pop confections that are hard to resist.
I tried hard to not let this album seduce me. It was recommended, apologetically, by a friend. I believe I groaned, inwardly I hope. At my age I have no place listening to cheesy, addictive music that would have been at home in a pop TV serial such as The Monkees, The Partridge Family, or The S Club 7 back in the days. I’ve had my fill of sugar rush bubbles that leave you both unsatisfied after a couple of listens and slightly queasy at having over indulged.
I was, of course, completely won over.
There’s the slightest sense that Mika is dropping his character to offer something more personal, more him. There are still enjoyably silly tracks such as ‘Ice Cream’ where he comes across as a cartoon, kiddy friendly version of Prince. There’s still the overblown opera of ‘Tiny Love’ bursting with more parts, melodies and hooks than you’ll find on many an album. A more refined version also features. ‘Tiny Love (Reprise)’ It’s a better song, but a less glorious, over the top sweet box of delights.
It’s guilty pleasure pop writ large. ‘Sanremo’ has the lines:
If I could, I know where I would be.
In a little town in Italy
There aren’t many people who would consider, let alone get away with, lyrics such as those. The Pet Shop Boys might deliver the lines with arch and ironic knowingness. Mika does so with complete sincerity. There’s a touch of homespun philosophy in the mix. “There’s a little bit of God in everything” he sings in ‘I Went To Hell Last Night’. It’s the reassuring optimism of an innocent, not someone who’s kept their eyes focused on the world over the last year or so. It’s nevertheless a sweet and positive message. His simpler melodies soften everything, even “Who gives a shit about tomorrow?” I can imagine little children singing this and wondering why the grown ups don’t seem too impressed. The answer is that they haven’t spent 40 minutes or so wrapped in the candy floss warmth of Mika’s world.
There’s no real depth to any of these songs. It’’s froth, like the froth on a good cappuccino. And there’s always a place for good coffee!
Taster Track : Sanremo
Infinite Youth : Merk
Merk’s collection of unadorned electronica is a winning concoction with oodles of kooky charm.
This is the sound of one man with basic electronic kit and a headful of melodies successfully making a little go a long way. It’s quite minimal but in a ‘let’s focus on the essentials and lose the rest’ kind of way. The result is something different and it’s good.
It doesn’t always work. ‘Canoe Song’ is a bit of a throwaway. Time and again throughout this album though, there’s a pleasant surprise lurking. ‘But She Loves You’ breaks into a disco interlude - not a floorfiller as that would be a bit presumptuous, but a nudge towards the floor, a temptation. ‘GOD’ - the song, not the all knowing deity - moves in mysterious ways. It’s like a dog, tethered to a post on a long leash, free to roam but always circling the post and returning to the same point. ‘Happiness’ is touchingly vulnerable focusing on the loss of happiness and the worry of never finding it again. ‘Something New’ is filled with sweet optimism. The stand out track is ‘Laps Around The Sun’ with “its awkward cycle that keeps repeating” until it worms its way into your heart.
It’s an album that doesn’t need big studio effects to captivate listeners. It offers hope to any creative bedsit musician with limited resources. It’s a joy.
Taster Track : Laps Around The Sun
Assembly : Joe Strummer
These songs tell us what Joe strummer did next, and how. They’re not the Clash but they still deserve attention.
The problem for anyone leaving behind an iconic band is to work out how you follow that. Everything you do is seen in the light of your earlier career. Your songs are scrutinised to work out what you contributed to the band, and to see if you were freeloading, or the genius behind the scenes. Joe Strummer’s reputation emerges from that process intact.
First things first. The Clash had long since ceased to be the punk band of their early years when they wound up in 1986. There’s no escaping that this collection doesn’t grip or contain the angry energy of those early records. For that reason I’m not sure it was a good idea to include a live cover of ‘Rudi Can’t Fail’ or to cover The Clash’s cover of ‘I Fought The Law’, good though these versions are.
‘Assembly’ is a more reflective collection, although the simmering sense of injustice remains. If we’re considering Strummer in the light of his previous career it feels that the comparison should be with the mid period Clash of ‘Sandinista’.
‘Johnny Appleseed’ is a good starting point. It’s a song full of social conscience but with the hint of a recognition that talking rather than direct action may be better at bringing about change. ‘Coma Girl’ which opens the collection suggests that he may have aimed at being the new Springsteen, with storytelling to the fore. It’s a good if not quite great rock song. ‘Tony Adams’ is a less streamlined take on the Clash’s reggae rock but one that allows his ideas to play out fully. It also marks him out as a closet Arsenal supporter but we don’t want to go there! ‘Sleepwalk’ is an interesting departure from expectations. It’s a more tender song than anything the Clash created and suggests that Strummer had more in his songwriting briefcase than he is given credit for.
Moving on, ‘Mondo Bongo’, ‘At The Border, Guy’ and ‘Yalla Yalla’ are all examples of a more chilled approach. They’re leisurely and, perhaps, feel as if he is an outsider passing through. His appropriation of the trippier sounds of the rave generation are incorporated into songs that have depth and feeling. I wanted sleeve notes though to see how much he had influenced, and how much he had been influenced by, this era.
If I were able to pull the necessary strings, I’d ask Strummer’s Clash partner, Mick Jones, to remix these songs. He could keep the musical and social ideas, but streamline and sharpen the sound. That would be a record with queuing to hear! Even without that production there is more than enough here to suggest that Strummer had a late period classic album in him which never came to be written.
Taster Track : Johnny Appleseed
Divine Accidents : 5 Billion In Diamonds
This pleasant, undemanding collection of indie prog songs lacks the magic ingredient that will allow it to lodge in your brain, heart or soul.
Pete Townshend thrashing his guitar on stage. The KLF machine gunning the crowd at The Brits, with blanks, obviously. Queen’s pyrotechnics and operatic drama. The Pet Shop Boys’ showmanship. The raw emotion, contempt and disgust of the Fall, The Sex Pistols or even Pulp. You’ll find nothing like that on this album. If you listen very carefully you may hear the echoes of a thousand conversations ending in “OK. You can listen to music while you’re revising but it must be 5 Billion In Diamonds.” The most exciting thing about this act is their name.
It’s a very safe collection, appealing in its niceness and its ordinariness. There’s nothing here that’s jagged, nothing that’s rough around the edge, nothing that’s going to jar. The vocals are neutral and unemotional. The sound is not too loud and the melodies are not too addictive. There’s nothing to dislike, nothing particular to latch onto.
What we have is a gentle form of synth based rock. In racing terms it’s like a horse cantering down the practice track rather than a horse racing in the Grand National. The early tracks stand out a little more as if the record hasn’t quite settled down into its comfortable groove. ‘I Colour You In’ tips its hat to latter day Dubstar. ‘Let It Get Away From You’ features an unexpected development about 90 seconds in - a once and once only variation from the template. ‘Witches’ with its multi part singing is inoffensively complex although it feels more like an academic exercise than an act of conviction.
The album as a whole shows the impact of being developed around two producers and a DJ, rather than musicians. The sound is more important than the content; the style trumps the substance. Don’t get me wrong. It is a pleasant and comfortable listen and there are moments in the day when that’s exactly what you need. I liked it on that level but there’s no need to rush back to it.
This is music that might have been designed not to distract you from more important things.
Taster Track : Let It Get Away From You
Night Bus : Gary Brunton
This is ‘proper’ jazz rather than entry level jazz, built around bass, piano and percussion. It’s OK. Read on for an expansion of that.
As you may recall, I have an ongoing struggle to understand how to appreciate jazz. I sometimes feel I need to put in some pre-listening homework. To call any one jazz record ‘jazz’ and hope that means something to a wider audience is a bit like saying Take That are pop, or orange is a colour. It’s absolutely correct but of very little value at all if you want to understand what lies in wait.
So, here goes. The reviews I’ve read tell me that this is ‘post bop’. Wikipedia tells me that :
Does this help you to understand the music? It didn’t help me either.
What I did learn from this record is that jazz, whatever that means, is a generous form of music. Gary Brunton plays electric bass. It’s an instrument that is fitted for a supporting role, and on most of these tracks that’s what it is. It’s the piano that takes the lead, for example on ‘Hasta La Victoria Siempre’. Even the drummer gets an extended solo on ‘Nobody’s Perfect.’
The part I’m struggling with most with this record is that it seems to prioritise technical proficiency at the expense of emotional connection. ‘Next Up’ was simply too fast to follow. ‘Ballad for Mickey Graille’, who was a French jazz pianist slows things down and gets to within touching distance of triggering a connection and that’s about it.
Having said all that, by the time I reached ‘Dastardly’ I’d given up fretting about what to write and was able to let the music wash over me in an enjoyable way.
This review isn’t helpful. I know that. It’s not a criticism of the record which is fine and seems to succeed on its chosen terms. Dip into it and you’ll hopefully hear what I mean. To make amends I’ve chosen ‘CRW’ as the taster track, as it’s the only track to place Brunton in the spotlight ,on his own. He deserves that, as he deserves a more understanding and appreciative audience.
Taster Track : CRW
Bad Vacation : Liza Anne
This is a bright, colourful set of short, songs that remembers the value of fun in pop.
It’s the closing track ‘Too Soon’ that sums up this album best. She sings “ I wanna lose my mind a little. I wanna love.” Ironically it’s one of the calmer tracks on the album but it perfectly captures her translation of slightly manic and desperate thoughts into song. These songs have an occasional pop punky flavour but it’s not an anger fuelled rage at the world. It’s more a vent at how it feels inside, unencumbered by rational thought and reappraisal. In other words she’s a firework about to explode and shower everyone in colourful sparks.
If that all sounds a little serious, don’t worry. The album clocks in at just over 30 minutes. Any more could prove exhausting! She brings an abundant sense of fun to the party both in the music, which is 80s with more attitude, and the lyrics. ‘Terrible Discovery’, ‘Bad Vacation’, Devotion’ and Bummer Days’ all have an inventive charm. ‘I Shouldn’t Ghost My Therapist’ is a musical gymnastics display taking many different positions, showcasing all her best musical moves and avoiding repetition.
Liza Anne comes across as a force of nature. She’s in your face and taking one step beyond. 30 minutes in her company is enjoyable. A longer term relationship might be something to avoid though!
Taster Track : Terrible Discovery
Fish 'N' Chip Paper
Positive Mental Health Music : Tina
This album deals with difficult issues in an underground 60s psychedelia / garage rock style. They aim high, but fall short.
After listening to this album, I wondered if it’s a lot cleverer than I gave it credit for at first.The fact is that the difficulties I have with this album are the same difficulties faced when considering poor mental health, which is what this record is about. I can’t put my finger on what’s wrong very easily. And when I look for positives, they’re hard to find too.
It’s not a harrowing record but it’s delivered firmly on the singer’s terms with few concessions to the listener. You can’t fault it for that. Mark E Smith and The Fall based their career on the same approach but had the charisma that makes the approach work. Here, you have a strong sense of personality but that’s not enough.
From opening track ‘Buddha’, it’s clear that the strained vocals are going to be a barrier, an insurmountable barrier for some including me. By the second track, ‘Rosalina’ a second barrier becomes clear. The music itself is grindingly repetitive, like one of those Bob Dylan or Velvet Underground songs that keep going way past the point where the listener cares about the song. Thankfully the songs here are shorter, but they still sound over egged and laboured. The songs also sound thin, not under produced but thin.
There are a few positives. Each musical line in isolation sounds promising. It’s a bold approach, confident in its own way. Loosely structuring some songs such as ‘Dip’ allows for surprising developments. ‘I Feel Fine’ has more energy to it, and that definitely works in its favour. ‘New Boi’ brings a bouncy bass line that adds a little lightness to the mix, and that’s good too.
This is the unpolished sound of a man working honestly through his mental health in song. It’s substance at the expense of style. That’s the right priority but a better balance would make for a more enjoyable listen. At the moment the whole does not equal the sum of its parts.
Taster Track : I Feel Fine
Now, now Elvis. All music has some worth.