Flock Of Dimes, Jeff Tobias, JW Francis, Maston (with L'Eclair), Matthew E White, Moonlight Parade, Snail Mail
Album Cover of the Week
It's a cool cover, alright? 'Nuff said.
This Week's Music
This week's title is from Jeff Tobias' album, 'Recurring Dream'. It wasn't a great week for imaginative song titles or striking lyrics, (although it was a pretty good week for great melodies and heartfelt emotion!) I felt that this song title might add a veneer of depth to the blog and might help readers to take it and me seriously. Alright, I ws desperate, but it is a good title.
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
Souvenir : Maston (with L’Eclair)
Maston is an American composer / producer. L’Eclair are a Swiss band who share the same liking for lounge and library music. Together they make addictive and incredibly smooth chilled music.
I liked this a lot, but a little goes a long way. 24 minutes is enough before you cross the border from chilled to comatose. This is great, light music to start the day and if you need a reference point try Air, the French electronic duo who soundtracked dinner parties at the turn of the millennium.
It’s tricky describing their music in terms that won’t be off putting to some. I’m reminded of test card music- unobtrusive, background yet curiously likeable. It’s like trying to catch bubbles in the air before they burst. The beauty comes from the colours reflected in them before they’re gone.
On the one hand these songs are distant, unengaging and detached. On the other hand they wrap you in a warm comfort blanket of sound. This is yacht rock for a mill pond, a vodka martini that is neither shaken nor stirred. The soundtrack to James Bond relaxing by the pool on a day off from saving the world.
Everything about this is gentle, from the vocals that sound like James Warren of The Korgis to the soft caution of ‘Do You Feel It Working?’ It’s knowing music played with a smile on its face. There’s a lot to be said for indulging yourself with this once in a while.
Taster Track : Do You Feel It Working?
What If? : Moonlight Parade
Once upon a time we thought all guitar based indie pop would sound this good. ‘What If?’ is a sublime collection of pristine pop, providing musical balm in a troubled, wintery world.
The news is filled with daily announcements of investigations into things that should never have been allowed to happen. Here’s another urgent one. What conspiracy has prevented me from learning of Moonlight Parade until the tenth release of their career?
To say this pushes all the right indie pop buttons doesn’t begin to do the band justice. Their back story provides one explanation for why they are so good. Three friends reunited by a chance meeting after nearly 15 years got together to make the most glorious music they knew how. The warmth of that friendship and their instinctive connection shines through in every track.
This is uncomplicated and memorably melodic songwriting at its finest. They keep it light and it’s a joy. It’s not insubstantial though. This is the equivalent of comedy in Jane Austen, or the humanity of Ian Rankin’s ‘Rebus’. It’s genuine feel good music that’s as restorative as unexpected warmth from the sun in the midst of winter.
Some might say the songs are repetitive. What’s the problem with that if the choruses are as catchy as this, or the guitars glide as beautifully as they do here?
I have written before about my most missed favourite band, Obi. I’ve given up on hearing anything new from them, but Moonlight Parade match them note for note.
Play this, then play it again. Now, excuse me, I’ve some catching up to do.
Taster Track : Impossible to choose, but ‘Amsterdam’ was my first hearing of them and may have the same effect on you.
...And The Rest
Head Of Roses : Flock Of Dimes
The songs on this album tell of anguish, uncertainty and unhappiness. They sound like it too, but are sweetened by simple melodies.
Flock Of Dimes is Jenn Wasner, who was part of a duo called Wye Oak. If I’d known that before listening to this album, I’d have been better prepared for it. Wye Oak are were an intense folk pop outfit. Their destination is Flock Of Dimes starting point, in the way that base camp is a necessary foundation for climbing Mount Everest.
‘2 Heads’, which opens the album, has heavily treated, distorted and stretched vocals that sound as if the words are being dragged out from the depths. It’s a bold opening for the uninitiated, uncompromising but unpromising. Fortunately it’s the most extreme point of the album. The vocal distortion carries over into the following track ‘Price Of Blue’, a rockier song with a clearer melody that allows us to stop fidgeting uncomfortably and settle down to the record.
Having set out the statement songs early, the album continues to travel a path to more conventional sounds. It’s inescapably a sad album, full of broken spirit and questioning the possibility of certain happiness. She may be demonstrating that everyone is unhappy in their own way. Tolstoy would be satisfied that this holds true more than 100 years after his death!
There’s a sense of journeying through this album as it progresses from the opening tracks, through the kookier but less anguished ‘Two’, through the simpler, more minimalist but still electronically treated ‘Hard Way’ to the simpler folk melodies of ‘Walking’, ‘One More Hour’ and ‘Awake For The Sunrise’.
By the end there’s a more natural sound as if making the album has enabled her to say how she feels in her own voice.
At its heart, this is a quite traditional set of songs but it takes some digging through the effects and interference to discover that. On that basis it should work for both those who cherish simply expressed emotions and those that like something a little edgier and challenging.
Taster Track : Awake For The Sunrise
Recurring Dream : Jeff Tobias
This is a slightly different, genuinely interesting and, in the end, highly enjoyable collection of songs that don’t fit neatly into any known musical genre.
Jeff Tobias is an American multi-instrumentalist who has contributed to, toured with and played in a number of independent bands with a critical reputation that probably outstrips their commercial success. That’s a crying shame!
On this record it’s the bass, woodwind and, particularly, saxophone that stand out. I'll quote his own view of this from his website, as it describes his playing better than I can and captures some of his personality too.
My saxophone playing has been described as “authentically fearsome … just the sort of thing that fries microphones and never pays the rent.” (Bill Meyer, The Wire, March 2018) I have fact-checked this and it is accurate.
On the opening track, ‘Our Very Recent Past’ it sounds as if all the instruments of the orchestra are vying for the spotlight at once. It’s chaotic in a good way, full of interesting rhythms and a love of playing that makes for an exuberant noise. It speaks for the majority of the album, particularly the two instrumental tracks ‘Holiday Music Part 1’ and ‘Holiday Music Part 2’. The carnival, holiday air makes it easy to like, even if it’s not completely clear what’s going on at the time.
He’s created something different here with machines and crafts working in tandem. It’s as if the giants and little people of Gulliver's Travels have found a way to work together.
The music grabs more attention than the vocals. It’s as if we’re witnessing the performance from backstage, with the background pushed into the spotlight. The lack of straightforward melodies means you have to pay attention, but that’s not a great hardship. The songs have the headlong rush of a dream, filled with non sequiturs, leaps of imagination and their own internal logic.
It all comes together in the end with the lovely ‘Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror’, the most conventional song on the album and one that accessibly highlights the skill and versatility he brings to every song.
Taster Track : Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror
Wanderkid : JW Francis
This collection feels indulgent, a mess of ideas that are not given space to breath and develop. There are hints that JW has a great album within him but sadly, this isn’t it.
As an album, this is a massive lucky dip tool box. Some tools are broken, some aren’t really what you want or need but the lucky few will find something that is absolutely spot on. The collection feels like a collection of jams, trying out lots of ideas without ever finding a killer tune. Like a child trying to make a new colour by mixing all the paints in their paint box, JW has created a muddy sludge of a sound.
‘John, Take Me With You’ with its squeaky, jangly guitars contains momentum, if not progression. ‘I Love You’ makes its point emphatically, insistently, irritatingly. The vocals are scuzzy and fuzzy.
This review may sound harsh, but really it’s a howl of frustration that so many good ideas can produce so little end product. In the mix you can hear echoes of Jonathan Richman and Eels at his most distorted. In occasional places I can hear what Velvet Underground might have sounded like if they’d gone disco. The calmest track is the closing ‘Cars’. It gives an idea of how they could sound and what they have to build on.
If JW can harness the chaos, there might be an album to come that’s a revelation. Maybe next time.
Taster Track : John, Take Me With You
K Bay : Matthew E White
Matthew E White knows his music, and he crams that knowledge into a set of densely packed songs that sound good and should reward countless replays.
Bear with me on this one. If someone makes you a jam and cream filled Victoria Sponge, it’s easy to help yourself to a large slice and return for seconds. If you’re at a wedding when the cake is cut, you’ll receive a small slice of cake to taste and savour and it will be enough. Matthew E White has made a wedding cake of a record.
This album is like Dr Who’s Tardis. There’s more crammed into it than you would think possible for the running time - and it’s a generous running time at over an hour. Take ‘Nested’. It’s nearly three minutes before the backing “Oohs” make their appearance, and they disappear before the end. They’re great, a lovely pop touch but they fall into a song that already overflows with such flourishes. ‘Let’s Ball’ sounds like a 12” extended version, yet it’s not even four minutes long.
He milks every drop from his sophisticated pop and, element by element, it’s all good. It’s a producer’s record where the sound is more important than the songs. Every instrument, beat and rhythm is ripe for sampling. It’s a black hole of a record, sucking in every trick and technique and unable to let any go. It sometimes feels though like an overly extravagant present and you’re more overwhelmed by what’s on offer than appreciative of its delights.
Despite, or because of, that something’s missing and it’s a lightness of touch. It’s full of dense wedding cake flavours, but is missing the airy sweetness of the Victoria Sponge. In the end, it’s quite exhausting.
Regular listeners to Matthew E White will be prepared for this. They’ll have nibbled away at each track to appreciate its richness and textures. Newcomers can be reassured that there is much to explore and like in these songs, once you’re past your stunned initial reaction.
Taster Track : Nested.
Valentine : Snail Mail
Snail Mail returns, with a softer, more tuneful collection that improves on her debut. It’s still intensely bitter and angry though.
Her 2018 debut was one of the most feted albums of the year. I hated it. It felt like an unvarying attack on the likes of me and the music I love. Whilst I could understand the emotion in the songs, it irritated rather than angered me and, bottom line, put me in a bad mood. Fighting against the prejudices raised by her first album, it was with some trepidation that I decided to give her follow up a listen, sucked in by reviews that this was more accessible and tuneful. It is, but that raises another issue I’ll come to later.
On the cover she’s dressed in pink and frills. She looks uncomfortably at odds with the identity of her debut. Fans of that need not worry. The attitude she strikes on the cover reflects that she hasn’t changed one jot inside.
Previously her songs have seemed like birds flying fast into windows. They provided a sickening slap, bouncing away stunned rather than lingering. This time around though there’s more light and shade in the songs, less noise and more tune. She trusts her biting and bitter lyrics to make her point for her and is less reliant on the guitars to echo the anger she feels. ‘Headlock’ features softer piano and bass. ‘Light Blue’ finds her in a happier state, if still intense. ‘Mia’ include strings and acoustic guitars in a heartfelt reflection on loss and betrayal. There are even backing vocals on ‘Forever (Sailing).
And therein lies the difficulty presented by this record. Whilst I disliked the debut, it presented a compelling and, above all, individual perspective. Elements of those remain here, but the softer songs also move her towards the mainstream sound of kd lang - lower case - and others. I’m torn between wanting something that’s easier to hear whilst applauding a defiantly ‘in your face’ attitude. I can’t have it both ways.
I liked ‘Valentine’ a lot more than ‘Lush’, whilst recognising that the toning down may disappoint some. Album number three may find her at a crossroads with a decision to make. It won’t be an easy one.
Taster Track : It’s a cop out but Forever (Sailing)