Baba Ali, Chloe Foy, Gnac, The Helicopter of the Holy Ghost, Nils Frahm, Rodrigo Amarante, Spencer, Texas, Wavves, Yola
This Week's Music
The broad spectrum of pop music is exemplified by this week's reviews, which cover everything from classic radio pop to power pop. It showcases invention and creativity and one of the loveliest, most perfect passages of unaccompanied singing I've heard in a long time.
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
Where Shall We Begin : Chloe Foy
Chloe Foy has produced a collection of quietly magical songs that are easy on the ear and good for the soul.
Most of us can sing unremarkably given the chance, a bit of practice, singing lessons or Autotune support. Some people are singers despite their voice and they march under the banners of people such as Bob Dylan, Bjork and Tom Waits. But a small number of people have voices that make it inevitable they will become singers. Their voices are the perfect fit for their material, and turn good songs into great ones. Chloe Foy is in that category.
Her voice is sweet and clear. It’s tremulous where it needs to be, and has a range that enables her to convey a multitude of emotions without straining. Two minutes and twenty seconds into ‘Square Face’ there’s a 32 second spell of unaccompanied singing, bookended by silence, that enchants and delights causing stern countenances to crumble and resistance to her songs to fade away.
There’s something magical in the sound of this record and her voice is only a part of that. At one level I had a strong sense from the opening track ‘Where Shall I Begin’ of Christmas, with all of the anticipation and wonder that it contains. At a deeper level it’s music that can transform your world, or at least inspire the kind of reflections that might make a difference. It’s hard to explain but I know people who have been affected similarly by ‘Hallelujah’. Its ‘tingle quotient’ is off the scale.
I shouldn’t forget that this is a review, so I should let you know what kind of music it is. It’s hardcore gangsta rap to a death metal backing. Only kidding. For the most part it’s gently strummed guitar, and some hushed reverb that’s both soothing and conducive to reflection. It’s folk, but it doesn’t sound like it.
Chloe Foy has her own voice in more ways than one and this is a lovely record that can be enjoyed for its own sake.
Taster Track : Square Face
Afternoon Frost : Gnac
This instrumental collection is undemanding but always engaging , offering simplicity and warmth in its gentle melodies.
The name of this act is pronounced like the last four letters of cognac, and like cognac its effect is comforting.
The music perhaps takes its cue from Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’. Simple melodies are the starting point before being overlaid with dashes of pop colour. It’s lovingly small scale, neither portentous nor pretentious. It never pretends to be more than it is, content to provide enjoyable tunes that lighten the day. This is music that is tucked away in the corner, never seeking centre stage. It triggers contentment and warm smiles.
These tunes are the work of creative imagination rather than a representation of deep feeling. It’s less of a musical Proust and more of a gentle down to earth Elizabeth Gaskell, less concerned with deep reveries and considerations of madeleine cakes (although what’s wrong with that?) and more the quiet bustle of the Cranford farmers’ market.
To a layman it sounds as if it's underpinned by musical scales, but what’s wrong with that? What it means in practice is that everything sounds just right and in its place.
What appeals most about this collection is that for every record that’s hyped to the nth degree, there’s a bargain filled with little gems waiting to be discovered at the back of the store. This record is it.
Taster Track : Cinematografica
Afters : The Helicopter of the Holy Ghost
This moving collection of songs is melancholy and thought provoking. It comes with an interesting back story too.
What would you do if someone handed you some demo tapes that you’d never heard before? What would you do if you were told you had written them? That was the situation faced by Billy Reeves, a member of a couple of bands around the turn of the millennium. He achieved minor success as the man behind theaudience (sic) who had a great song at their peak (‘A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed’) and that introduced Sophie Ellis-Bextor to the world.
Billy was the victim of a horrific hit and run accident that left him in a coma for two weeks, and a year in and out of hospital. He recovered and retrained as a successful journalist. Years later his brother gave him two minidiscs of demos, found at the accident. Billy had no memory of them or the inspiration for them but they became the basis of this album.
I suppose we should be wary of imposing the back story onto our understanding of this album but that’s not going to stop me. There’s an absence at the heart of these songs. Perhaps it’s closure, perhaps it’s an absence of certainty. It’s in the album title. Is it suggesting that the main events are behind you, as a dessert follows the main meal? Or is it suggesting that there are consequences to what happened that can’t be ignored, in the sense of a pitch battle at the end of a football match littered with dirty fouls.’The End Of Loneliness’ could suggest that you will be lonely no more, or it might say that you cannot be lonelier than you are at the moment. ‘You Too’ searches for responsibility and accountability for past actions.
We can be clear on one thing, any absence isn’t a weakness. These are fully rounded songs, dramas built around an emotional core.
Billy Reeves has formed a band from people around at the time, playing in bands such as Engineers, Lost horizons and, crucially, The Bluetones. I say crucially because Mark Morriss of The Bluetones takes the vocals. He has a voice that sweetens the melancholy and invites you to listen. It’s perfectly suited to the anxiety of ‘Difficult Song’ and to the regret of ‘I Didn’t’. Musically the songs are piano led, although with plenty of room for blazing guitar solos as required. They’re an easy, if haunting listen replete with echoes of the 00s and earlier, even the faintest traces of Gilbert O’Sullivan shorn of cheesy jolliness.
This is an excellent record. The final versions may not be what was envisaged when they were written, but they make for a powerful and moving collection shrouded in emotion, melody and no small dose of mystery.
Taster Track : Difficult Song
And The Rest
Memory Device : Baba Ali
It’s refreshing to hear an album that draws its influences and sounds so widely, and overturns expectations with such verve and aplomb.
Starting with the expectations, I was thinking there would be hip hop and rap (are they the same thing now?) perhaps a bit of RnB funk. They probably are there somewhere. Everything else is but talk about drawing lazy conclusions from stereotypes and typecasting.
As for influences, I can hear synth pop, dance, rock and glam just for starters. And in terms of who can be heard in the mix, at various points I can hear Prince, Goldfrapp, Hot Chip, Heaven 17, A Certain Ratio and even Tindersticks. There are probably all sorts of sub genres at play here too, but knowing what doesn’t add one iota to your enjoyment.
To take one song, ‘The Well’ could be straight out of any rock band reliant on crunching riffs with its initial guitar sound before it softens into something else entirely and culminates in something like an uprising.
There’s no doubt too that this is a package wrapped and ribboned at the connoisseur's end of pop recordings. He’d have been a staple of the John Peel show, and a must for Factory Records and the Hacienda. He’s one of the cool kids and deservedly so.
It’s magpie music, picking sounds from all over the place. If you deconstructed it into its constituent parts, it would be a 1000 piece jigsaw. It’s a performance caught in a glitterball, spinning and revolving in and out of centre stage and lit up by flashes of pop.
Each song is built on a strong and interesting beat, embedding a foundation that attracts all the frills to the party. It’s a record that simultaneously doesn't sound like any of its influences whilst reminding us of all of them.
Taster Track : The Well
Wintermusic : Nils Frahm
This recording is described as an EP but at 30 minutes it’s as long as some albums. It’s a minor Nils Frahm piece but an enjoyable foray into his world of pretty but subdued and melancholic keyboard improvisations.
Although this is not a Christmas album it was originally recorded for Frahm’s family and friends as a Christmas present in 2007. He released it to the wider public in 2009. Clearly someone had left their shopping late so that they missed the Amazon delivery deadlines for 25th December. It certainly beats going to the shops.
There are three pieces here, and each contains sufficient pretty melancholia to support hibernation during the Winter months. It’s a romanticised view, painting a picture in music of snow falling softly after dark, rather than a scene of iced up roads, raw winds and slush. It’s much more The Snowman than the Winter Soldier.
This is acoustic rather than digital, soothing rather than immersively hypnotic. ‘Ambre’ is a tinkly, pretty snow globe of a tune. ‘Nue’ begins the Frahm immersive process, setting us up nicely for the album’s centrepiece ‘Tristana’ which brings us into our calm and chilled zone beautifully.
It’s a lovely album, as all Nils Frahm material tends to be. I’d happily accept something like this as a Christmas gift, and I wouldn't be returning it after the sales.
Drama : Rodrigo Amarante
This classy set of songs doesn’t overplay ots Brazilian influences, but still creates a gentle, warm and summery vibe through its beautifully arranged pieces.
It’s a misnamed album. There’s no drama here no matter what the title hints. Gentle, lilting guitars and strings swing and sway through each song. It’s pretty, gentle and unobtrusive.
You could be mistaken for thinking this is an album that is out of time. ‘Tara’ is the sound of a swing band, fronted by a crooner background singing in a 40s club where boy meets girl for the first time. ‘Tango’ is not a tango. It’s a quietly cinematic, quietly effective soundtrack to a sunny 50s rom com film soundtrack such as Roman Holiday.
Listen more carefully though and you begin to discern a more up to date sound. ‘Tao’ sounds like one of those big band makeovers of a contemporary song. ‘Um Milhao’ suggests a new approach to dream pop. Throughout, the effect comes from the arrangements rather than the melody.
Sunday morning listening doesn’t come much better than this.
Taster Track : Tango
Are U Down? : Spencer
Thanks for asking Spencer. I wasn’t down until I listened to your record. And I wasn’t down because I was affected by your self pitying sense of entitlement, but because the music simply wasn’t repaying the effort required to listen to it.
Unfortunately a lot of my musical dislikes are wrapped up in this record. Too many tracks feel like snippets rather than fully formed songs. The songs are less personal, and more self absorbed : “It’s all about me” wrapped up in an RnB cloak, RnB being one of my least favourite musical genres. The record sounds weirdly disengaged from its audience, inviting us to watch without empathising.
One track hints at a more commercial and appealing sound. It’s the closing track ‘Drop’ which stands out as the single most likely to be played on drive time radio.
I gather a lot of records to listen to, usually without sampling the songs first. I take the reviews and recommendations I receive on trust. Most of the time that works well. Occasionally, I misread or misunderstand the recommendation and that’s what happened here. I picked up on this album from Mojo’s 37 word mini review in their September issue. The key phrase was “... whose chilled, down-home charms reminded me of Duckworth…” Duckworth to me means Sam Duckworth, the excellent indie singer songwriter behind Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly. Apparently though it may refer to the song ‘Duckworth’ by American rapper Kendrick Lamar.
Who’d have thought it? In the interests of balance, here's a link to the 4* Are U Down NME Review in case you’d like a second opinion.
Taster Track : Drop
Hi : Texas
Texas’ new record is a collection of pristine pop full of killer singles and sunshine.
Back in the day when Texas first arrived on the scene, I always felt they wanted to be regarded as serious musicians and to be more than a pop band. Here they revel in and embrace 100% proof pop in all its glory. They show a feel for pop from a multi coloured spectrum of sources - 60s pop, indie pop, country and western, disco and Dusty Springfield to name but a few. It takes just as long as you need to recognise the sample of ‘Love’s Unkind’ that opens the album to know that you can sit back, relax and turn your enjoyment dial to max.
It’s a record that makes me envious because it sounds, and feels, like the perfect night out with the kind of social group that values companionship, good times and each other. That’s probably a rose tinted view, but it’s a good thing. This record provides a soundtrack that harks back to those golden moments when you were having the carefree time of your life.
I hadn’t realised that Texas was formed by Sharleen Spiteri and Johnny McElhone, who was a member of Altered Images and Hipsway. That’s where the pop DNA comes from then. When I look at the samples on this record, the collaborators they’ve worked with, and the prominence given to Sharleen on the record cover, I wonder if they’ve lost their band identity. I hope not because musically this is excellent, as tight and rhythmic as you could hope for.
2021 has been a good year for out and out pop records, and Texas’ ‘Hi’ is one reason for why that is the case.
Taster Track : Mr Haze
Hideaway : Wavves
This is a short, sharp blast of energetic and tuneful power pop punk. What’s not to like?
Wavves set out a stall in the opening three tracks. It’s a relentless, exuberant and committed punch of adolescent attitude. I know they’re older than that but their appeal will be for those in their late teens and the older Peter Pan, nostalgic for those times when they felt like the centre of the universe. It’s an undemanding burst of energy and fun, music for the mosh pit. It’s not subtle, and it neither demands or withstands much analysis.
The rest of the album takes things down a notch. ‘Sinking Feeling’ provides a less scuzzy sound. It’s even acoustic in places. ‘The Blame’ shows that they're simply showmen at heart, working their guitars and wanting a good time. ‘Honeycomb’ shows how traditional they really are. They’re not dirtbag rebels at all, but part of a line that heads back through power pop, rockabilly punk to the 60s beat groups with melodies and harmonies flowing in the air. In the end they’re as much Fountains Of Wayne as they are 1976 punk, and that’s a good thing.
Wavves are the musical equivalent of McDonalds or Nandos. They won’t nourish and sustain you on a daily basis, but once in a while they are a fun treat.
Taster Track : The Blame
Stand For Myself : Yola
Yola’s album is tailor made for easy listening, likely to be beloved of Radio 2 mid morning and afternoon schedule listeners. And why not?
Oh the influences on this sound are many and calculated. A little bit of Stax soul, some 70s disco, a little bit of Doobie Brothers AOR and some good old country music. It’s the perfect soundtrack to the 40s and 50s singles disco
It is a very pleasant sound. There’s not a jarring or surprising note to be heard. The trouble is, it’s a little bit Jools Holland bland, the perfect fit for his midsummer year end Hootenanny. And I write that as a member of a family that swears blind that Jools is the best thing on TV around midnight on NYE. (I swear I wrote that on listening to this for the first time but having made that assertion I thought I’d better check it out. And yes, Yola featured on the 2018/2019 show.)
This is so perfectly tailored to its market that it feels calculated. The trouble is, it fades away a long time before the end. Despite my best wishes I caught myself glancing at emails, quickly texting friends and making a supreme effort not to switch to something else before the end.
I’ve written before about the perils of moving to a playlist based musical culture, but my advice would be to download ‘Barely Alive’, Dancing Away In Tears’, Starlight’ and ‘Like A Photograph to capture the best pop moments on the album and forget the rest.
Taster Track : Dancing Away In Tears