Birdy, Cut Worms, Dexys, My Raining Stars, Pan Arcadia, So Sner, William The Conqueror
The Front Runners
The Feminine Divine : Dexys
Here’s an album to unsettle, confuse and intoxicate in equal measure.
It’s a fair claim that nothing in pop is more complex than Kevin Rowland baring his soul. He’s a man who treats music as a means of proclamation, throwing his views and opinions around. You could say he’s full of himself, that he’s wilfully provocative, that his support for your cause is as likely to damage it as it is to promote it. And you wouldn’t be wrong.
‘The Feminine Divine’ is a musical therapy session (literally on ‘It’s Alright, Kevin’) Perhaps the fly on the wall experience is part of the album’s appeal. Kevin has been thinking about his life, particularly his role towards women, and sharing his thoughts with us, warts and all.
The off putting elements of Kevin Rowland are fully on display. It’s not always clear who he’s addressing about what. His mannered and stylised vocals and his spoken word intros and interludes are devices that can irritate. Even in his remorse you can question if his desire to provoke is stronger than his desire to be sincere. Take ‘The Feminine Divine’ as a prime example.
And yet…. this is a glorious record. Rowland’s tics and traits make for a compelling listen as they always have done. It’s such a strong band effort from the Midnight Runners. There is a complete mastery of form on display here, whether it’s the Motown of ‘The One That Loves You’, the cheesy 80’ disco of ‘Coming Home’, the electropop of ‘Goddess Rules’ or the big, swooning ballad that is ‘My Submission’.
Kevin Rowland is all about the message. His band is about recreating the full glory of pop. The combination makes this one of the few unmissable albums of the year so far.
Taster Track : Coming Home
Pan Arcadia : Pan Arcadia
This adrenaline blast that mixes garage punk with jazz funk is a hurricane of fresh air.
It's almost a cliche that only around 100 people saw the Velvet Underground live, but they all went out and formed their own band. The problem is that many of them weren’t very good. If Pan Arcadia had been amongst their number they would be an exception to that.
This is not new, but it is refreshed. The buzz influences are obvious and include the Velvet Underground, the Ramones and The Strokes. It succeeds as a memory jogger for those with long memories and as a highly charged turn away from many current sounds for newer listeners.
It’s as if they’ve taken their influences and filleted out anything that doesn’t contribute to a thrashingly good tune. They’ve recaptured the thrill, power and excitement of the 3 minute song. A track like ‘Sorry I Was Late’ might sound like a missing song from the Strokes’ debut album but it doesn’t need the reliance on the fripperies of an accompanying style. It’s as rough and ready as they come. The short, sharp shocks of songs such as ‘In Vain’ show they can provide thrills on their own terms too.
Hearing the needle hit the record on these songs brings with it the satisfied anticipation of knowing that the evening has just taken a turn for the better. It’s pretty good wake up music too.
What helps it stand out is the sound of a punchy rock sax reminiscent of early Roxy Music, or the vanished punk sounds of Essential Logic. At home in a garage rock song, the sax also adds a dash of jazz, funk and soul to their juggernaut of garage rock and roll.
The songs may be short but they cram a lot in. The punky call and response of ‘Drag It Out’ - a reminder for British audiences of terrace anthem Sham 69 - is matched by the jazzy feel of ‘Prelude’ or the headlong rush of the brash noise and all out cacophony of the closer, ‘Leaving Paradise’.
Put simply, this is one of the most enjoyable records of the year so far.
Taster Track : Drag It Out
The Chasing Pack
Portraits : Birdy
Birdy has produced an album that marks her out as a songwriter of rare skills.
She was seventeen when she achieved multi platinum status with her cover of Bon Iver’s ‘Skinny’. Ten years later, this is her fifth album. That’s five albums in ten years, having made, in career terms, the brave decision in 2019 to take time out to experience proper life.
She’s back on the promotion treadmill now. I saw her a couple of weekends ago in Rough Trade East, not performing but chatting to fans and signing copies of her record that was playing in the store on repeat. What struck me while I was there was that the queue to speak to her was as full of middle aged men as it was of her peers. Something about her music speaks across generations. Perhaps it’s that the time out to experience life has opened her eyes to new experiences of vulnerability, failures and disappointments. It’s not exclusive to any one generation or gender that feels as she sings in ‘I Wish I Was A Shooting Star’:
“Is anybody home upstairs?
It’s been a shitty night.”
Her skill is that she can write about and deliver these feelings in a highly personal way that can still be felt universally. OK, so the upbeat 80s feel opener ‘Paradise Calling’ satisfied the need for a successful single, as does ‘Automatic’. They’re both built around the kind of hooks that have sustained more careers than you can name.
But in the stand out song ‘Your Arms’ she achieves something special. She’s written a song that cuts through the glossy paraphernalia of a standard hit to address you, and only you, directly. It’s a song with the magic that you always hope you’ll hear - quietly melodic, sincere and locking in to deep human feelings.
Elsewhere, the album is an intriguing mix of Kate Bush without the fluttering and swooping vocals and something more mainstream. There are moments, particularly in the backing vocals, the ‘oohs’ and ‘ohs’ that carry along ‘I Wish I Was A Shooting Star’, where Celine Dion and even Enya come to mind.
As a whole, the album has a more expansive sound than you might expect if you had lost touch with her songs after the all conquering ‘Skinny’. A very occasional tendency to wallow in her feelings - ‘Battlefield’ - is immediately forgivable.
Whether the style is to your taste or not, she’s become a very good songwriter and that’s a surprisingly rare skill.
Taster Track : Your Arms
Cut Worms : Cut Worms
This set of lovingly prepared sixties country rock and roll is, nevertheless, a little underwhelming.
It’s a scene that’s familiar from countless films set in small backwood towns. A band playing in a half empty bar creates a comfortable ambience that people murmur over. Conversations may stop momentarily, but you’re there for the company not for the band. Couples may occasionally move on to the dance floor for a couple of songs, but once duty is done they’re not inclined to return. They are there because a neighbour’s quiet, son has shown an unexpected talent that they want to support. Sadly though, he’s the wrong voice in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And it is sad, because this is well intentioned and sweet music requesting 35 minutes you’re willing to give as long as you don’t have to give it too often. It’s undeniably pleasant but it is also easy to ignore. At its heart it lacks passion and the undefinable magic to help it stand out.
There are attractive moments - the harmonies on ‘Is It Magic’, the smart fade out to ‘Don’t Fade Out’ and the momentum of ‘Ballad of the Texas King’. But ‘I’ll Never Make It’ marks this out as an album to sway to gently, rather than to immerse yourself fully in its sounds and, at over five and a half minutes, it’s simply too long for the format.
It’s a nice try, but no more than that.
Taster Track : Ballad of the Texas King
89 Memories : My Raining Stars
Harking back to the time of 90s indie pop, this album is generic but in a good way.
No one criticises Motown for being generic. Instead it’s a shorthand for quality, a benchmark for a standard of songwriting and production that, in the 60s and early 70s, was pretty much a guarantee that it wouldn’t let you down. So to call this generic 90s influenced indie pop is not being negative. It’s a recognition that you can expect chiming guitars, a dense mix and muffled vocals.
This is a record for looking back on days of student indolence when even daytime TV had lost its appeal. It’s for the radio slot that Steve Lamacq made his own, the time when music on the radio transitions from the mainstream to the alternative. And it’s filled with the potential to discover your latest musical obsession.
Thierry Haliniak, the man behind My Raining Stars acknowledges this. I don’t think it’s a happy accident that the cover looks as if it was designed by the doyens of that indie design scene, Belle and Sebastian. He claims the bands of Sarah Records and the bands of Creation Records as his major influences. His music avoids the fey and whimsical excesses of the former and the distorted noise of some of the latter. He charts a steady course with insistent pacing and tempo.
It may prove difficult to distinguish one track from another, but this is an album that works its effect cumulatively. Melodies creep through track by track so that by the time you reach ’From The Day She’s Gone’ and ‘Questions’ you’re already attuned and locked into them.
Listen carefully and you’ll hear the rough of Creation’s production mixed with the smooth and sincere earnestness of Sarah Records, for example in ‘Sit and Stare’.
This isn’t a record to change the world, but it is a record to remind you of those times that, with hindsight, were less demanding and complicated than today.
Taster Track : From The Day She’s Gone
Reime : So Sner
This is experimental music featuring a bass clarinet above a glitchy electronic backing. Some of you will already be moving on.
I can’t deny this is a challenging listen if you seek music that soothes and entertains. The bass clarinet is an uncommon instrument to feature in the lead. Susanna Gartmayer conjures unexpected sounds from her instrument over Stefan Schneider’s electronic soundscapes.
The thing with any form of experiment is that it helps if you know the starting hypothesis. Listening to this is like going to a quiz where you have to guess the question for the answer. It’s hard to find your place in the music, to sense some kind of flow and progress. It seemed a bit of a joke that I had this feeling most strongly in the piece ‘We Are Here’ - a title at once true and utterly unhelpful.
The only way to overcome my honest bewilderment is to fall back on my impressions.
So… my impression is that what you have here should perhaps be categorised as sound and noise rather than music. ‘Piraeus’ contains sounds distorted from what might be distressed birds. It’s unsettling rather than disturbing though, a temporary sensation like the discomfort of extreme tiredness.
For those of you seeking a point of access to this music, it's likely to come from the pulse and rhythms that carry along ‘Resistance’ and ‘We Are Here’. The rest of us may have given up by then to head for the nearest cafe.
There’s no doubt that So Sner are a niche act. They have just 30 odd listeners on Spotify. Online interviews and reviews are difficult to come by. There is one that reads like a press release on Boomkat which can be found at Boomkat So Sner.
Taster Track : Resistance.
Excuse Me While I Vanish : William The Conqueror
This collection of big rock songs sets a consistently high standard with its cinematic storytelling.
There’s a strong sense that this is Ruarri Joseph’s band - I’ll return to that later - and an even stronger sense that he takes the role of a swashbuckling buccaneer. He’s certainly no wandering minstrel, but a brave and dashing adventurer. He’s Errol Flynn’s pirate, Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood and Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones. There’s a line in ‘Shots Fired From Heaven’ (“shots fired from Heaven on bended knee”) that captures the battles and adventures at the centre of these songs.
Ruarri Joseph, with his half spoken, half sung delivery may be the band’s centrepiece but William The Conqueror pass the Rick Buckler test. In an interview with the Strange Brew podcast a while ago (The Strange Brew Rick Buckler)) Buckler said that in a trio, there’s no place for anyone to hide. Everyone has to deliver, every time. If Ruarri Joseph is Robin Hood, Naomi Holmes (bass and accompanying vocals) and Harry Harding (drums) are Will Scarlet and Little John companions.
These are big songs, classic rock with a 21st century twist. Less the Rolling Stones, they’re more in the space that contains The War In Drugs, but with a homespun Cornish feel reflecting where their roots can be found.
They’re also ‘swingball’ songs, tethered by a strong, melodic chorus so that the verses and tunes can wander where they will and we know they will return to base point sooner or later.
In a consistently strong album, it’s hard to pick a standout track. Anyone could do, but I’ve opted for…
Taster Track : Sheepskin Sleeve
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