Battery Operated Orchestra, Benjamin Biolay, Gina Birch, HC McEntire, Marxist Love Disco Ensemble, Rural Tapes, Tuk Smith and the Restless Hearts
If You Listen To One Thing This Week, Listen To.....
I Play My Bass Loud by Gina Birch
I'd love to meet Gina Birch. I don't think we'd see eye to eye on everything, but it would be a joy to hear her passion, her powers of persuasion and her love of the bass guitar at first hand.
Her album has all these qualities and more. This track opens the album and is a statement of intent for all that follows. It is, of course, about more than playing the bass. It's an attitude and a challenge and it's a wonderful display of certainty and confidence in music.
I Play My Bass Loud : Gina Birch
In 1977 Gina Birch was a founding member of post punk band The Raincoats. 46 years later the guiding force that served her then is alive and kicking, wrapped up in great songs.
Above all, this is a celebratory record. It celebrates the power of music as a force for change, it celebrates everything Gina is and has been - feminist, force for good, human - and it celebrates the bass guitar. Her original spark still burns strong. The flag is still carried.
Her songs are defiant, angrily clear and unapologetic. She brings a voice from the past into the present, sharing lessons bitterly fought for and lelarned. It works musically too. For a moment in ‘I Play My Bass Loud’ I was a student again, listening to John Peel while trying to make sense of critical theory for an essay due in the next day.
Control is important. Even the song ‘I Am Rage’ presents rage as a weapon to be used sparingly and appropriately. It’s all the more powerful for that. She uses it in ‘I Will Never Wear Stilettos’. Stilettos become much more than high heeled shoes in her telling. That makes for a glorious song, a song that sounds as if she has finally got something important off her chest.
She keeps the songs accessible. This is an excellent, musical album that will appeal across the board not just to those who share her causes. ‘Pussy Riot’ sounds as if the idea emerged fully formed out of a jam. That makes for a sound that is fresh and urgent. The transition from ‘And Then It Happened’ into ‘Wish I Was You’ is perfect, breaking free from the depths of silence and her thoughts as if emerging from the darkness of the underground into bright, noisy, blustery daylight.
This is an album that satisfies on many levels, not least of which is her celebration of the bass guitar. It’s highlighted in the opening tracks. ‘I Play My Bass Loud’ and ‘And Then It Happened’ play the bass loud in the quietest of songs. There’s a dub feel to many of the songs. Dub’s made for the bass after all. The bass booms, throbs and builds throughout, becoming an insistent and ever present force. It makes this album as thrilling as the dubbier parts of The Clash. Yes, it’s that good.
Gina Birch plays her bass loud, but this album shows there’s a lot more to her than that. It will be an Album of the Year for many.
Taster Track : Feminist Song (Very hard to choose between that and the title track.)
Ballad of a Misspent Youth : Tuk Smith and the Restless Hearts
Come on! You know what this sounds like, and it delivers fully on the promise contained in the album cover, the name of the band and the title of the record. That’s right. Timeless, classic rock and roll.
This is a record that will wake you up from the depths of Winter as surely as dislodged snow falling down the back of your collar. Tuk Smith - the Restless Hearts are nowhere to be seen - is the kind of man who dreams of being the biggest rock star in the universe and makes a fair stab here at taking the first few steps. In a more down to earth way he and the band have opened for a double bill of Motley Crew and Def Leppard. That’s a match made in denim cladHeaven.
Of course it’s derivative. They’re a tribute band to a whole genre, playing classic rock by numbers and painting the ultimate good time. On ‘Ballad of a Misspent Youth’ they unleash their inner Rolling Stones. ‘Lovesick City’ is Guns n Roses while ‘Ain’t for The Faint’ is turbo charged AC/DC. ‘Girls On the East Side of Town’ opens with seven seconds of Suzi Quatro glam drumming before turning into a version of Thin Lizzy that’s only missing Phil Lynott’s growl.
It’s safe to say that Tuk Smith and the Restless Hearts don’t do album tracks, just immediate three minute singles. 8 tracks. 27 minutes.No let ups and an irresistible headlong rush to the finish.
This will leave you with a smile on your face that’s as wide and cheesy as the melted mozzarella on a Margherita pizza.
Taster Track : Girls On the East Side of Town
The Chasing Pack
We Are Ghosts : Battery Operated Orchestra
Here’s a very acceptable synth pop collection that just misses being a Premier League addition to the synth pop catalogue.
Battery Operated Orchestra are Brigitte Rose and Chris Black. They’ve been around for a decade or so, without losing their principles. Their Spotify page includes a notice setting out why Spotify is a bad thing for music, listeners and musicians. That’s a tricky one. If they weren’t there I wouldn’t have listened to them. Their position is to release only their singles on Spotify which makes this retrospective something approaching a Greatest Hits package. They may have shaken hands with the devil but they’re not snuggling up in bed with him.
This is good stuff, but something’s missing and it’s difficult to pinpoint what it is. It could be that as a compilation it lacks the consistency of a dedicated album. The opener ‘Nightclub Mishap’ is perky and flirty like Clare Grogan (Altered Images) or Lene Lovich fronting early Depeche Mode. It’s a standout track that is a people pleaser playing to the crowd and it’s a style that’s not replicated elsewhere on the album. Good, listenable songs keep coming - ‘Bella’, ‘Wish List’, ‘Backburning’ amongst them.
‘Service Economy’ shows a quirkier, artier side, again, not replicated elsewhere. It also shows what may be their slight imperfection, the hairline crack in the china tea set of their sound. Sometimes the songs sound just a little forced, lacking in bubbling spontaneity. Something like ‘Tin Can Telephone’ sounded like it had been assembled from a synth pop manual rather than coming from a warm, human space. Songs rely on momentum for their impact rather than any built in musicality. Their heart is in the right place, but the bones are just a little too evident.
There are a couple of songs here that you can love, several you will like and a few that ultimately leave no impression.
If you like what you hear you can find more about them on their Bandcamp page at https://booelectric.bandcamp.com/
Taster Track : Backburning
Saint-Clair : Benjamin Biolay
This is French pop, dangerously tempting and filled with Gallic allure.
There is something about French that is endlessly listenable, and Benjamin Biolay has a Charles de Gaulle level of commitment to singing in his native tongue. American / English may be the language of rock and roll but there are just three English words on the whole album - ‘rock’, ‘beat’ and ‘forever’.
If you were to take six words to describe Biolay, they are in his song ‘Numeros Magiques’.
“Sexe, drogue (dope) rock, beat, transe electronique”
His last album ‘Grand Prix’ was all about Formula 1. And it’s easy to see and hear Biolay as the James Hunt of French pop, filled with a self belief bordering on arrogance and incomplete without an entourage of musicians, songwriters and hangers on around him. The songs are full of the promise of potential misdeeds, public seductions and taboo transgressions. It will have taken a long time to perfect this persona and i bet he had a lot of fun doing so.
The songs on this album are what you might expect if the good time fun of Plastic Bertrand got it together with the sophisticated electro pop of Air. These songs wash over you like a cascade of warm honey under South of France sunshine. They’re songs sung in the French of lovers.
In the generous 17 songs on this album we cover pell mell French rock and roll on tracks such as ‘Les Jeuxs Roses’ to mock classical ballads on the quieter ‘(Un) Ravel’. The album feels a little long, as if he didn’t want to waste any of his efforts but the good news is that it contains nothing that could be fairly described as filler.
It may be a little rich for everyday tastes but, once in a while, just wallow in it as a guilt free pleasure.
Taster Track : Les Joues Roses
Every Acre : HC McEntire
HC McEntire’s album of country painted songs is a thing of hard and melancholy beauty.
I’ve visited America just once - three cities, all in the north east. I’ve struggled a little with this because it feels like a country album firmly rooted in parts of America that I know only from historic TV. It’s the America of The Waltons, The Virginian or Little House on the Prairie. This is a very American album full of references to boundary lines, hounds and great-tailed grackle or greater roadrunner. So how I hear this album is filtered through those images and memories.There’s a classic image from these programmes of a woman taken from an easier life, toughening up but still clinging to her femininity. This album is her soundtrack.
There aren’t many lighter moments here. It’s a serious and slow collection of songs. They don’t create heroes but accept that life is what it is, with disappointments and unresolved matters to the fore. They’re weary songs of a relentlessly hard life. The album cover shows a picture that could overwhelm a person with its scale, like being asked to paint a large ceiling with a mascara brush.
This life is captured in deft one liners. ‘Gospel of a Certain Kind’ spells out the choices “A vice, a wife, alone, you choose.”. When this life takes its toll, ‘Rows of Clover’ tells us that recovery, well, “It ain’t the easy kind of healing.”. Most vividly ‘Big Love’ describes how these lives and their cares are like “tossing sands to the winds”.
‘Every Acre’ is filled with atmosphere, but it’s saved from being no more than an artefact of a certain type of American living by the music. You could describe McEntire’s voice as country, and it is, but in a muted way. It’s authentic, not hypercharged with twang and yee haws. The fuzzy guitar breaks on ‘Turpentine’ are at once out of place and exactly right, like combining two clashing colours to make something that works very well.
There’s a kind of timeless feel to the quality that’s rooted in the CSNY country folk of the 60s and 70s but updated to now. It’s suffused with melancholy melodies, and it’s these that make it an album to return to more than once.
It’s a record that doesn’t wear hope on its sleeve, but delivers it through the quality and beauty of the music.
Taster Track : Shadows
MLDE : Marxist Love Disco Ensemble (MLDE)
It’s safe to say that this is the best collection of Marxist slogans, dogma and catechism set to a 70s disco beat you’ll hear all year.
The idea for this album came about when MLDE heard Patrick Juvet’s disco classic ‘I Love America’ and wondered how a music that emerged from the American working class could be commandeered by a Swiss model as the soundtrack to out and out capitalism. This is their bid to reclaim disco for the working man. At least that’s the origin story they have on their website.
Its cleverness makes it hard to review. What might be weaknesses on any other album could be strengths here. The lyrics are rendered meaningless by the relentless 70s disco experience. Once you’re past the pleasure of hearing a sound from your past recreated so effectively, it begins to sound bland, less of a floor filler and more something that chains you to your seat in a state of soporific ennui. As for the lyrics, they’re less Marx and Lenin and more Citizen Smith.
These are just a couple of sample lines from ‘Hide and Seek’
“Praxis of the conscious masses tears it : all the way down.”
“Fetishise the spectacle and you’ll breed : abjection.”
It has to be a tongue in cheek comment on meaningless political dogma. Doesn’t it? I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt and saying that, in its way, it’s as subversive as anything by the KLF.
I heard one track on the radio and loved it. Spread across ten tracks though, the joke wears a little thin. Like many political statements and promises it disappoints in the end.
Taster Track : Hues of Red
Inner Space Music : Rural Tapes
There are interesting things to look out in Rural Tapes’ ‘Inner Space Music’ but there’s also something vital missing at its heart.
Rural Tapes is Arne Kjelsrud Mathisen, a Norwegian multi instrumentalist and composer. He makes the most of his skills, incorporating pastoral sounds, electronica and little jazz flourishes into these pieces. The intention seems to be to take you on a journey through inner space. The album opens with ‘Inner Space’ and closes with ‘Leaving Inner Space’. In between there’s a variety of formal and experimental styles that pass by pleasantly but leave no real trace.
But that's not the problem. It’s not just that a couple of the pieces feel a bit throwaway, ‘Candystore’ and ‘Five A Side’ in particular. Neither is it that the collection feels like incidental music, hard to dislike but never exceeding ‘OK’. It’s not even that he falls foul of the maxim that the longer the title, the shorter a track will be on quality. ‘Bossa Nova for the Contrails of My Tears’ is one where the voiceover detracts and distracts from the music. ‘Arkestra Piece for Hard-Working Ants’ sounds disjointed as if a carnival of insects had degenerated into chaos.
No, the difficulty with this album is more fundamental than that. It lacks warmth. The music may move you through inner space but it’s unlikely to move you emotionally. It’s like seeing an antique clock as a collection of parts and missing its overall beauty. The focus is on the skill needed to bring the pieces together, not on taking the listener to another world. You can admire his proficiency but are left thinking there should be more.
I became interested in Rural Tapes through his self titled debut. Maybe ‘Inner Space Music’ is suffering from second album syndrome but it feels as if he has lost direction a little.
So, it’s not bad but not good either. It’s just OK.
Taster Track : Listen
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