Starring : Bell Orchestre, Briston Maroney, Late Night Tales : Jordan Rakei (Compilation), Major Murphy, Middle Kids, Neil Cowley, Noga Erez, Whatitdo Archive Group
This Week's Music
Music is starting to reopen and welcome visitors, as part of the road map for leaving COVID-19 in the rear view mirror. It's a well known fact that you don't know what you have until you lose it. It will be some time before I take gigs and record shop browsing for granted.
Hopefully this week's selection will have something to whet your appetite for future relaxations in the musical world.
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
As we approach May, gardens are beginning to bloom and provide the inspiration for category headings this week.
Nothing qualified as a rose this time around - buyt if you disagree it will smell as sweet under any other category heading.
Kids : Noga Erez
Noga Erez provides an addictive melting pop of hip hop, pop and Israeli flourishes but it’s a mix that masks some disturbing lyrics.
Let’s start with the disturbing lyrics. They struck me on ‘Fire Kites’. Searching the lyrics revealed some aspects very much at odds with the musical tone of the record. The trouble is there’s so much energy going on in the songs - beats, rhythms, multi vocalists, and little touches that snag the attention - that it’s easy to be distracted from the torrent of what’s being said. They’re not songs for the playground, let’s put it that way!
It’s only an issue because musically there is an awful lot to like in this record. It has an energy, an accessibility and a sassy attitude. It incorporates one off touches that snag the attention and twists inventively throughout.
At the ripe old age of 31, Noga is able to comment on ‘KTD’ - Kids These Days - through, less idealised eyes. You can hear the rolling eyes and shoulder shrugs in the music. Take the following from ‘Kids’
“Gut feeling is there’s no f***ing plan
Got any plan?
Got any strategy?
Got a budget?
It’s the silent pause after this that reflects both on the unrealistic nature of dreams, and the brutal way that they can be crushed. She uses the pause to good effect elsewhere too, as on ‘You So Done.’ She’s also happy to include a number of Israeli touches - the accent in ‘Bark Loud’, the opening chants in ‘Cipi’ and the kosher references in ‘Fire Kite’ - and this all adds to a mix of emotions drawn from real life .
It’s the beats and rhythms that drive this record, and that includes the vocal rhythms. But it’s the out and out pop touches that provide the colour. ‘End of the Road’, with its impressive word management and musical shifts is a case in point. ‘Cipi’s key changes as it bounces into its chorus are pure pop. ‘NO News on TV’ is a bit of a lockdown reflection, and more a song than a rap. It’s also very catchy.
There’s an unexpected parallel that stuck me as the record progressed. The hip hop in ‘Kids’ reminded me of the use of hip hop in the musical ‘Hamilton’, as a device to command attention. And if they ever update and rewrite ‘Fiddler On The Roof’, ‘Story’ would be the type of song it featured.
Taken as a whole, this album feels like an immersion into Israeli Hip Hop culture, starting gently and becoming more intense, but never losing its listenability.
Taster Track : Cipi
Late Night Tales (Jordan Rakei) : Various
This latest addition to the Late Night Tales series is a generally downbeat yet soothing collection introducing predominantly new artists to a wider audience.
The Late Night Tales series has been running for 20 years now. If you’re not familiar with it, the concept is simple. A couple of times a year a DJ or a band that is making a name for itself is invited to curate a collection of music suitable for listening to in the dead of night. That’s ‘make a mixtape’ to the likes of me. At its best the series has linked an audience with tracks and sounds it may nor ordinarily find for itself, and provided insights about the influences acting on the curator. The less successful editions can be a little too ambient, too focused on a single tone and seem to be more about showcasing the curator than promoting the music.
Jordan Rakei’s selection falls somewhere in the middle. There’s a definite sombre feel, certainly to the first few tracks. That may not be to everyone’s taste. I’m not sure it’s to mine to be honest. I prefer the tracks with the stronger melodies but there’s no question that this collection succeeds in its aims. The sound is a mixture of, subdued electronica, melancholy vocals, soulful demeanours, light jazz overtones and atmosphere - lots and lots of atmosphere.
Highlights for me are ‘Virtual U’ by Oso Leone; the jazzier ‘Idiom’ from Joe Armon-Jones, Maxwell Owin and Oscar Jerome; Honey Schmitz’s ‘Speak Up’ (but not too loudly, you’ll spoil the mood) and ‘Counterpoint’ from Cubicolor.
It’s worth a listen if you’re in need of calming during the dark hours of the soul, or if you simply need some comedown music after Line of Duty!
Taster Track : Virtual U - Oso Leone
House Music : Bell Orchestre
This album provides a rush of musical noise that is difficult to grasp whilst always remaining listenable.
Whatever expectations I had of a six piece outfit primarily drawn from the Canadian indie rock scene of Arcade Fire and others, this album swung a wrecking ball right through them. It’s not jazz. It’s not classical. It’s certainly not rock or pop. It’s a musical ‘big bang’, as if all the music in the world suddenly blew up and hurtled towards you in musical fragments. In its own way it’s highly impressive, with power and hooks that last just a few seconds, never to be repeated.
‘III : Dark Steel’ is a chaotic mess of a track with drumming that seems to come from a different tune, droning strings and discordant out of tune brass. Weirdly, it reminded me of The Portsmouth Sinfonia who exulted in their brand as the worst orchestra in the world at the tail end of the 70s. What was important, and what they share with the Bell Orchestre, was commitment, energy and sound. It helps that Bell Orchestre can add supreme musical ability into that mix too.
Each track transitions seamlessly into the next. ‘VI : All The Time’ signals this through an increasingly heavy percussion. ‘V: Movement’ calms down a little but that's a relative concept here. Ths bass provides a firmer foundation, and Pearl and Dean backing vocals place it within the realm of conventional listening. Lead single (!!) ‘IX : Nature That’s It That’s All’ sounds as if it should be the aftermath of the record as the chaos dies away leaving just a memory echoing in your head.
This is 43 minutes of extreme avant garde improvisation. But, as I said earlier, it’s not unlistenable. The album tracks each attract between 5 and 10 thousand viewers and listeners. Perhaps the only appropriate response is “Gosh.” And maybe “Wow!”
Taster Track : V: Movement
Sunflower : Briston Maroney
There’s bags of promise in this debut album of indie pop, and if it doesn’t quite hit the target throughout, there’s still plenty of interest and appeal.
It’s unusual to find a track that acts as a guide to a new artist. ‘Cinnamon’ though has a nice line in pop references that signpost to some of Briston’s influences. In the chorus he references songs by Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, The Grateful Dead and The Cure in their poppier phase. That’s quite a mix of stellar acts to follow and escape. In addition to the above I’d say that Bruce Springsteen and Elliott Smith are influencers too. The problem is that I’m not sure Maroney has decided which of these paths he wants to follow, or is even best at.
The album opens strongly with ‘Sinkin’, a misnamed track if ever there was one. Far from sinking, it swaggers along on the crest of a wave. It’s a strong example of an indie guitar sound that keeps it simple with its structure. It’s one of the best tracks on the album and destined for quite a bit of radio airplay. He spends quite a bit of the album trying to recreate the whoosh of this song on tracks such as ‘Bottle Rocket’ and ‘Freeway’ with mixed results. ‘Freeway’ is actually quite dull although it contains a nicely judged fade.
But, and it’s a redeeming but, the softer tracks work well. ‘It’s Cool If you Don’t’ is a transition between the two styles with the verse pointing towards something interesting before the chorus takes us back to a rockier, humdrum style. It also introduces the conversational style that marks Maroney out as a more sensitive soul possessing an attractive mix of confusion and self awareness. It defines the record as one that captures the need for answers and understanding. Understated synths and the faintest of country influences soften ‘Deep Sea Diver’. ‘The Kids’, ‘Cinnamon’ and ‘Say My Name’ all indicate a knack for indie folk songwriting which bode well for the future.
All told, it’s a coming of age album and, as with any rite of passage, it’s a little confused and a little unsure of what it wants to be. It has fun working it out though.
Taster Track : Deep Sea Diver
The Black Stone Affair : Whatitdo Archive Group
This collection of film music is sensationally cool, simultaneously hot and, above all, a complete hoax. It’s also the most intriguing record I‘ve heard for some time.
The back story is that it’s a recently discovered soundtrack to a lost 70’s film masterpiece. The truth is that it’s three Americans with a passion for recreating music that sounds as if it should have been the soundtrack to a blaxploitation film or to a heist movie featuring a charismatic jewel thief who probably knew Roger Moore. There’s not a lot more to be gleaned from Google.
You can virtually see the opening titles sequence as you listen to the opening track ‘The Black Stone Affair - Main Theme’. You just know that the jazz funk of ‘Ethiopian Airlines’ is gearing up to introduce the sassy comrade in arms.The feel of exotic locations is only strengthened by the bossa nova underpinning ‘Italian Love Triangle’. Is the plot of this forgotten, unmade film taking shape in your mind yet? By the time you reach the stylish spoken word French of ‘L’Amour Au Centre De La Terre’ you’re searching Google to see where you can catch this film.
The sounds, the style and the detail are lovingly and nostalgically recreated. ‘The Return Of Beaumont Jenkins’ is all spaghetti western whistling and guitars.
Yes, it’s background music, but in a very good way. It’s the perfect accompaniment to chores that you daydream your way through and, in its way, it’s one of the cleverest records of the year.
Taster Track : The Return Of Beaumont Jenkinms
Today We're The Greatest : Middle Kids
Middle Kids provide earnest optimism, sweetened by strong melodies and restrained indie rock anthems.
The name of the band says it all. As a middle kid you have to work harder to carve out your place in the family and then the world. You’re neither the first born trailblazer nor the cute baby of the family. Middle Kids sound more serious than their name suggests, although there are lapses seen in the hugely enjoyable teenage tantrum of ‘I Don’t Care’ and even in the text speak title to ‘R U 4 Me? That title jars because it comes across as a lame attempt to connect, like parents using last year’s slang. Chillax guys. Chillax.
Middle Kids are better than that, although there is a sense that they are still uncertain of their place in the world, as if playing musical chairs when the music stops without a vacant chair nearby. It’s captured in the vocals too which switch between high pitched, unbroken singing and a lower, warmer, reassuring and more mature register.
Musically there is much to like here. There’s the slow build anthem of ‘Cellophane (Brain)’. It’s most definitely a guitar led record but little touches such as the unexpected blast of horns on ‘Questions’ successfully lighten the tone. ‘Golden Star’ is a lovely song ending with a multi-tracked chorale fading into the sound of running water and birdsong.
The melodies, the playing style and the clean production all contribute to an enjoyable listen, while the more reflective lyrics provide the songs with substance.
The album sags a little in the second half, but what I love about this collection is it’s heartfelt but realistic optimism. It’s hard to hear anything at the moment without the context of 15 ongoing months of lockdown. This album provides a cautious recognition that we’re emerging from that period. It’s a reminder from the first line (“ Hope is an underrated word”) to the last (“Today we’re the greatest”) that things will get better.
It’s an uplifting, credible indie rock record, accessible without ever feeling trite.
Taster Track : Golden Star
Hall of Mirrors : Neil Cowley
Neil Cowley moves away from jazz with this album of piano led electronica that has a muted but lasting beauty.
This record was like rediscovering an old friend after a few years and realising that they were doing OK. I’d dipped into the Neil Cowley jazz trio over the years, and discovered through Wikipedia that he had formed half of Fragile State at the turn of the century - a not quite mainstream chilled electronica outfit. He brings together both sides of his career in this record.
The jazz influences are still there, but it’s jazz of a gentle kind, without too many notes! As present and as important to the overall tone of the record are the electronic elements. Washing synths, glitchy rhythms, and ambient extracts from field recordings emphasise beauty.
It’s a record for night time, a restorative and replenishing dream like sound. The record is summed up in the title ‘Stand Amid The Roar’. It opens with ‘Prayer’, a simple piano refrain with an underlay of quiet eletronica touches. It’s haunting and beautiful. ‘Berlin Night’ is similar in tone but more abstract, an impressionistic soundscape painting pictures through music. ‘Circulation’ introduces a more forceful drum beat that only serves to emphasise the piano’s gentleness and simplicity. The beat comes in and fades away on ‘Just Above It All’ and it becomes the heartbeat pulse that the tune revolves around.
It’s a calming, other worldly record - an antidote to a stressful world.
Taster Track : Just Above It All
Access : Major Murphy
This collection of slightly grungy, guitar driven songs is pleasant enough but sounds unfashionably out of time. They’re the kind of songs that would have suited American college radio in the late 90s. I’m not sure that’s an era we’re quite ready to revisit.
First the good points. There’s a chugging appeal and some nice harmonies to songs such as ‘Access’ It may nor be particularly groundbreaking but it’s good playlist filler. Similarly, the vocoder treatment in ‘Attention’ offers nothing new but it’s a familiar and likeable sound. ‘Tear It Apart’ has a slightly more clunky appeal.
The trouble is, the songs are slight in content but aim for a bigger sound than they can carry. They’re off the pace and struggle like an overloaded trailer being pulled up a steep hill. ‘Unfazed’ sounds bloated, and devoid of the lightness that features in the better songs. In the quest to be taken seriously they’ve ended up sounding dull.
There’s promise here, but more work to do. They don’t have a lot to say, and take a long time to say it. Cumulatively it’s all a bit wearing, the musical equivalent of recovering from a heavy cold or jet lag.
Taster Track : Access
No weeds this week. If there were, they'd simply be flowers in the wrong place.