Baio, Carlos Nina and Friends, The Chicks, Damien Jurado, Flyte, Holly Mcvae, Rural Tapes, Sweet Baboo
This Week's Music
I don't know how many people remember the post punk, jazz funk band Pigbag. I've been listening to their 1981 album Dr Heckle and Mr Jive while writing this week's blog. I'd forgotten how dissonant and non commercial they were, but it's still an exhilarating noise. It's hard to believe it's 40 years old.
I mention in the review of Flyte below that there is so much good music around that doesn't receive the critical acclaim or commercial success it deserves simply because it isn't the current fashion. I'd like to think that in 2061 I'll be marking my centenary by revisiting some of the music I've reviewed this week.
That's enough pretending to see the future.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
This Is Going To Hurt : Flyte
Flyte deliver a consistently strong selection of folk rock pop songs- with good tunes, thoughtful lyrics and more than enough interest to help them stand out. What’s not to like?
Once upon a time, nothing about this album would have seemed remarkable. Flyte would have followed in a long line of acts - The Box Tops, Pilot, Alan Parsons Project, Del Amitri, Noah and the Whale [Insert acts of your choice] - that were just below the top over hyped bracket but who, nevertheless, produced work that brought critical and some commercial success and whose albums were eagerly anticipated. Sadly, that’s not the case today. Bands such as Flyte need to be sought out and cherished for what they offer.
By any measure, they’re mainstream. They’re early evening Radio 2 rather than Radio 1 or 6. They tap into pop’s traditions without ever becoming a nostalgic heritage tribute act. Listen to ‘Trying To Break Your Heart’, look me in the eye and tell me that the strings don’t take you back to the glory days of ELO.
‘Easy Tiger’ sets the tone. It’s gentle, smooth and melodic. The vocals are easy on the ear, but possessing a voice of their own. ‘Under The Skin’ achieves what it says on the bottle. It’s steady, persistent beat has just enough happening on top to keep it distinctive and interesting. ‘Love Is An Accident’ is in the same mould. Their obvious influence comes from folk rock and is most clearly heard on ‘Mistress America’ and ‘Never Get To Heaven.’
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing dull, bland or safe about this album. The crime is that music of this quality cannot break through the monopoly of hip hop, club sounds or sensitive singer songwriter balladeers to attract widespread attention.
It’s perhaps not the most inviting album title of all time but, if it were true, the music provides the balm to make it better. It’s just what the doctor ordered.
Taster Track : Never Get To Heaven
And The Rest.....
Dead Hand Control : Baio
Baio’s latest album is full of left turns and unexpected shifts. It’s a consistently strong and surprising set of electro pop that is nicely put together. It’s pop and club music for the brain.
The general approach is to start with a conventional song and see where it leads. It’s a journey, and Baio is our chauffeur. At the outset the album sounds more straightforward than his previous work. ‘Dead Hand Control’ is a catchy piece of indie pop. At around one minute 45 it morphs into something completely different featuring African chants and rock guitar. Its unexpected left turns make for something that’s different and good. In his day job, Baio is bassist with Vampire Weekend, and he shares with them a nothing off limits sense of creativity.
It has the unexpected benefit on the longer tracks such as ‘O.M.W.’ that if you don’t like where it’s arrived at any point, don’t worry. The musical scenery will be different in just a short while. ‘O.M.W.’ seems to be plodding along at the midpoint but is soon rescued by the introduction of some tinkling keyboards, and vocals that shift and fade in and out of prominence. Perhaps the most unexpected left turn is ‘Take It From Me’ which is the only track to start as it means to go on and doesn’t diverge at all from that path.
There’s one key element that defines this album and that’s Baio’s voice. It doesn’t fit naturally in the songs. The mismatch sounds deliberate as it’s such a strong part of the style. It’s a strong, authoritative voice, the sound of a firm executive handshake. It’s not off putting in itself. It’s just not the kind of voice you’d expect to hear in an electropop song. However, if it jars you may struggle with this album. As he sings on ‘What Do You Say When I’m Not There?’
“How can I solve the problem when the problem is me?”
The voice is less prominent is ‘Caisse Noire and that makes for a more conventional, if still highly enjoyable song. There’s a nicely judged and self-aware wit in all the lyrics, and a knowing tone that suggests chess playing in song rather than sincerity. That reminds me of the Pet Shop Boys around the time they released ‘Introspective’.
I enjoyed this record a lot. It’s surprising, clever, constantly listenable and fun.
Taster Track : Dead Hand Control
More Energy Fields, Current : Carlos Nina and Friends
Improvised ambient jazz electronica such as this demands attentive listening to reveal its pleasures.
Years ago I listened to a band called Wednesday while still under the influence of a general anaesthetic. They sounded amazing. I listened again a couple of days later and they sounded colourless and bland. I’m not suggesting that you should listen to this record with the help of prescribed medication, but you need something to unlock its promise. I very nearly gave up on this, or at least deferred it until I could give it my full and undivided attention.
Improvisation is a laudable and particular kind of creative impulse. Try things out. Make a noise. See what works. The trouble is, it seems to work more for the creator than the listener. Sometimes I guess you had to be there in the recording studio to appreciate it. For the listener, it is whatever it is and that makes it hard to evaluate.
This is abstract, ambient and pretty formless. Carlos Nino is a percussionist by trade and a track such as ‘Salon Winds’ is very percussive. It occurs to me that the nature of any track is determined initially by the percussion - fast or slow; loud or quiet; what kind of rhythm to use. Maybe improvisation works better for percussionists, allowing them a measure of control in setting out the chosen path.
In practice this album felt as awkward as some of the titles. ‘The World Stage 4321 Degnon Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 9008’ is essentially formless. The title is the address of a performance arts centre. Carlos Nino and friends seem to be its abstract house band. ‘Now The Background Is The Foreground’ collects together a number of seemingly disconnected snippets and fragments within a single track. ‘Ripples Reflection Loop’ is a more chilled experience, but ultimately equally as shapeless.
Apologies for such a puzzled and negative sounding review. It’s something that you experience as much as listen to. My problem is that, whilst appreciating its intent and the commitment to seeing it through, I simply did not understand it.
Taster Track : Ripples Reflection Loop
Gaslighter : The Chicks
The Chicks wrap their familiar country pop sound around an angrier, bitter and anguished set of songs.
Don’t be fooled by the start to this album. In quick succession ‘Gaslighter’, ‘Sleep At Night’ and ‘Texas Man’ bounce out of the headphones in a headlong rush for radio airplay and chart position. It’s familiar stuff, hard to dislike but difficult to love.
But this is a ‘get your own back’ collection of songs built on the pain and loss that accompanies infidelity, betrayal and divorce. “Everybody Loves You’ and ‘For Her’ take an emotional left turn and the album never returns to the confection of the early tracks.
That’s both a bad and a good thing.
It’s a bad thing because there’s a fine line between being painfully honest and confessional and overdoing the overwrought. The Chicks don’t always get the balance right. The problem behind this lies in Natalie Maines’ vocals. It’s her divorce and suffering we’re hearing about and it comes out in her voice which is anguished to breaking point.
It’s a good thing for a couple of reasons. Musically it means they are not afraid to try something new. Whilst exploring the album’s themes therapeutically, ‘March March’ takes familiar elements - fiddle, military beat and setting, to create something that sounds different and new. It calls to mind the American Civil War and through that the sense of conflict in the broken relationship.
The broader benefit is its focus on strength through solidarity with the legions of wronged women. ‘Julianna Calm Down’ is handling advice to a sisterhood of betrayed women. It’s almost a response piece to Paul Simon’s ‘50 Ways To Leave A Lover’ waving feelings back in the face of callous pragmatism ‘Tights On My Boat’ has an angry confidence drawn from female strength. It’s evident too on a track such as ‘My Best Friend’s Weddings’. This could be a Natalie Maines solo album given the personal material, but the power of this track is as much in the backing vocals. It’s an aural demonstration of solidarity from the rest of the band.
This is a very female record sung by and for women. I hope it’s enough to witness the pain and suffering in the songs and respect a brave attempt to make sense of strong emotions in a different sounding way.
Taster Track : Julianna Calm Down
The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania : Damien Jurado
Damien Jurado has been releasing albums of high quality singer songwriter material for years. This collection stays true to his winning formula.
What is that winning formula?
It’s a mix of simple, repetitive melodies embedded in songs with a dusting of fairy magic in the accessible arrangements. He would have fitted in well with Cherry Red’s early rosters - independent, unfussy, acoustic and slightly earnest but drawing you back to his material time and time again. It’s timeless because, as a track like ‘Minnesota’ demonstrates it’s the kind of pure music you could make if all you had was an acoustic guitar and no access to sophisticated production tricks. Several of the songs here are to, or about, named individuals and such personal directness is one of his greatest strengths.
It’s only when he diverges from this formula that the songs make a false step. ‘Johnny Caravella’ with its rising emotive turmoil is a case in point.
Throughout the album, Jurado sounds a bit older, a little more weary. His voice, whilst ageing, still sounds appealing and inviting.
So, this may be the same old, same old Damien Jurado but it’s all the more welcome for that and an excellent introduction to his work if you’re not familiar with it.
Taster Track : Tom
Not The Girl : Holly Mcvae
‘Not The Girl’ is a Country and Western influenced record chronicling big emotions in a sound that does them justice.
There’s a lot to take from the photo on the cover. It’s a wild, passionate and defiant portrait on the brink of tears and it prepares you for the music within.
Holly Macve sings in a distinctive voice, close to emotional breakdown but stayingj ust the right side of uncontrollable wailing. One of the strengths of this album is that the voice is perfectly embedded in its music. I’m not a massive fan of the country and western musical drawl, but here it is softened by the music’s richness. It’s most successful on ‘Eye Of The Storm’ where the heavenly backing vocals enhance her voice and elevate the song to something special. There’s a lot of non country and western stuff going on here, including strings and even what sounds like bagpipes down in the mix of ‘Sweet Marie’. I’m not a big bagpipes fan either but they work here if, indeed, that’s what they are.
Country and Western is an acquired taste for some, an off putting one for others. Although it sounds like neither, this is in the line of albums such as Elvis Costello’s ‘Almost Blue’ and The Deline’s ‘The Imperial’. It’s in that line because country and western is simply the best vehicle to express some of our stronger, desperate emotions. They’re grounded in real life. It’s also firmly in the same camp as Honey Harper’s ‘Universal Country’ EP - a distinctive voice set to gorgeous and emotional music.
It becomes quite an intense album by the end. Upping the pace in ‘Daddy’s Gone’ comes as a welcome respite. I’ve often found in writing this blog that I say “The music feels as if….” when I mean “The music sounds as if….” Here though it’s right to talk of feeling the music. By ‘Little Lonely Heart’ you really feel she’s about to burst under the weight and pressure of all her emotions.
This is an album with emotional impact, soaring to great heights in places.
Taster Track : Eye Of The Storm
Rural Tapes : Rural Tapes
This collection of synth based tunes plays like a mixtape of different styles, all of which add up to an enjoyable way to pass a half hour.
First things first. You may see reviews mentioning that this ensemble features a former member of REM. That’s true. Scott McCaughey was a member of the expanded REM line up in their later days. He does a good job here too, but as the music sounds nothing like REM the comparison is a bit meaningless - another attempt, it seems, to hook in the undecided listener. Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip features too, and that’s a slightly better indication of how this record sounds.
At heart, this record is a highly enjoyable collection of fairly lightweight tunes. It sounds slight, but the melodies linger. It’s electronic but full of natural and human touches. There’s a tuneful brass band created in ‘By Dusk’. The title track ‘Rural Tapes’ squelches its way into being. It’s a satisfying sound rooted in an earthy, real world. ‘Pardon My French’ includes a squalling, squawking saxophone that is one of several examples of electronic instrumentals being given warmth and life.
I may be reading too much into the rural element of this band and album but ‘Reddal’ sounds like everyone in the digital farmyard getting ready for the working day. It beeps and bounces its way through an ear worm melody until reaching the contrasting conclusion which suggests the cacophony and chaos of a commuter city. It flies by. ‘The Observer’ is the sound of cafe society sipping a cappuccino watching the world go by.
Wind the clock back 10 years or so, to the chilled beats of the dance / electronica crowd, and there was always one track that you could hear as a single, making a bid for airplay or to be used as accompaniment for a sporting highlights or travel programme. This is an album full of those tracks. It’s an undemanding but uplifting listen.
Taster Track : Reddal
The Vending Machine Project : Sweet Baboo
The Vending Machine Project is an album of quirky sweetness and charm across it’s mix of songs and instrumentals.
The term Sweet Baboo originates from the Peanuts cartoon. This album and the Peanuts cartoon share a childlike perspective on the world, a sense of uncomprehending wonder and a certain cutesy philosophy. It’s a synth pop album straight from the nursery, even when it's dealing with more grown up themes.
There are moments here that can be best described as noodly - trying out what works, as on ‘The Shipping Forecast’. Unusually though, the noodly bits are so at one with the record that they add rather than take away from the enjoyment. ‘Early Riser’ has what sounds like an electronic kazoo. Bands that want to change the world, or that see themselves as saviours of rock don’t use a kazoo. Throughout the album, for example on ‘TV Theme’, there are touches of gameshow organ from the fairground at the end of the pier. ‘Pannage / Panic’ is simply an odd mix of catchy music and ambient vocals but it captures the essence of Sweet Baboo well.
These are tunes that wash over you, bubbling along like a trickling stream. Until the darker closing track of ‘Down The Afan Gwendraeth’ which fulfils the childhood role of the monster under the bed in its more menacing, industrial sound, there are no harsh moments on this record. Even the sad tale of abandonment in ‘Lost Out On The Floor’ Is more about acceptance that that is how life will be sometimes. It’s a soft classic by the way - the feeling of a hundred tentative cruelties at a hundred school discos.
‘The Shipping Forecast’ fits in well. For those of us at home the shipping forecast is both a recognition that there are uncomfortably dangerous experiences out there in Gale Force 8 territory and a reassurance that we are safe in out homes, securely tucked up in bed. That’s the sense that comes from this album.
It’s a loose listening experience.The lyrics and vocals often sound as if they are made up on the spot. The music, for example on ‘Lost Out On The Floor’ is drawn out and coiling - a friendly boa constrictor of a cuddle in musical form.
This is not an essential album by any means, but it is a musical treat filled with sweet naivety, innocence and charm.
Taster Track : Lost Out On The Floor