Half Moon Run, Ironsides, Madder Rose, Salamanda, Sunborn, Weyes Blood
The Front Runners
Salt : Half Moon Run
This excellent album of polished but substantial pop paints the picture of modern music for good and ill.
Half Moon Run have been around for twelve years or so. Each record has felt like an upgrade on the one before. It can be claimed that they have perfected their sound. And yet they still haven’t broken through. They haven’t escaped the chasing pack of deserving bands. That’s a shame because, once, we might have hoped that there would be a place at the centre of our musical worlds for bands like Half Moon Run.
This is a gleaming, accessible pop record that doesn’t sound or feel that it’s been subjected to approval by a corporate A&R committee. They’ve emerged from a long apprenticeship to become master craftsmen. They’re in a line you can trace back to early Crowded House or A-Ha. They’ve carved out their individual sound and found a way to balance immediate pop classics with something that is also artistically satisfying.
‘You Can Let Go’ may sound initially like they’ve fallen back onto a number of pick and mix pop tricks, but it works well and is memorable - no mean feat these days! The stuttering dance friendly rhythm ‘Hotel In Memphis’ and the conjuring of a fresh sound in ‘9Beat’ show them trying something new to keep themselves fresh. They’ve also worked with a string arranger for the first time on this album. It works a treat.
Beneath the pop sheen there are songs here that deal in an achingly restrained way with serious themes of loss and loneliness. Take ‘Everyone’s Moving Out East’ as a prime example or ‘Goodbye Cali’.
This is music that should be ruling the airwaves at Radio 2, alongside Taylor Swift and her followers. It’s high quality comfort listening, the perfect accompaniment to working from home - smooth, non-disruptive and highly likeable.
Taster Track : You Can Let Go
In Parallel : Salamanda
Salamanda are a South Korean ambient electronica duo who believe every sound has beauty. On this album they demonstrate just how true that belief is.
If ever the title of a single track speaks for the whole album it’s ‘Sun Tickles’. It sounds like a guilty pleasure, but it’s not. It’s a beguiling, almost childlike, blend of sound and music. The sounds are musical, drawn as much from memory as their surroundings. Taken as a whole, this is some of the most chilled out comedown music you’ll experience this year.
Tracks enter gently and depart slowly. In between they stretch out like a cat owning the last remaining spot of warm sun in the garden. And for the winter months, this is music that wraps itself around you with the warmth of central heating. You’ll welcome it into every gap and space in your home.
Ambient electronica it may be, but it’s not formless. Repetition plays a part as pulse, rhythm and gentle beats intertwine inseparably. ‘Homemade Jam’ has a chanted, recurring childlike refrain in perfect harmony with the sounds and music that surround it. It’s the sound of a child engrossed in their play, completely unaware of the happiness they bring.
‘Nostalgia’ is gently absorbing and very pretty. Little touches complete the songs. The bell in ‘Purple Punch’ is introduced with the skill of an expert interior designer. It’s the right touch in the right place at the right time. ‘Full Of Mushrooms’ helps time to stand still.
This is music that loves you. It’s time to love it back.
Taster Track : Nostalgia
Sunborn - Sunborn
Danish jazz funk that entertains with warmth and the promise of good times.
Every image that comes to mind during this hugely enjoyable album is sunny and smiling. This is music for an early Summer’s evening after a good day at work with the promise of a great night out to come. It’s music for that moment when the one you crush on acknowledges your presence with a smile.
It’s brimful of positive energy. Each track contains the joyful feel of South America whilst remaining fully European. This is music that captures the business and the busy-ness of a city at its best. ‘Metropolis’ is as tight as the last parking space in the carpark.
There’s no ego at play here, no tall poppies screaming “look at me” Ida Nielsen’s guest bass solo on ‘Mankind?’ is a solo that shows total commitment to the song and to the band.
‘Under The Same Sky’ spirals and spins like carnival streamers thrown into the air. ‘Night Sweat’ has a stammering, broken rhythm before it heals itself. ‘Echoes’ is a perfectly positioned gentle pause for breath. In ‘Dancing In The Dusk’, hook hands over to hook, and your feet will follow.
In their Sunborn Inspiration playlist on Spotify you can hear their influences. Their magic touch is to take the purer jazz of, say, Gil Evans and soften it with a sense of pop rhythm and melody. It’s smooth and friendly, accessible and satisfying.
Above all, ‘Sunborn’ is a collection that inspires gratitude for such music. It’s born of the sun indeed and happy with it.
Taster Track : Dancing In The Dusk
The Chasing Pack
Changing Light : Ironsides
Here’s an album of retro instrumentals that captures the glory of stylish 70s film soundtracks.
Ironsides have three people at their core - Max Ramey, Joe Ramey and Jamie Payne - but they create the sound of an orchestra to make themselves heard. They build epic soundtracks to lost, imagined 1970s films. Take ‘A Return From Ashes’ which is drenched in string arrangements that sweep out of the speakers, soar into space and swamp the senses. Or listen to ‘Changing Light’ which is a three hour film locked in a 4’46” slab of music.
What kind of film are you in? It’s a film full of sunbaked streets and panoramic overhead shots. It’s a trip back to an age of class and style, a world populated by immaculately groomed, good looking 30 somethings in an urban setting. Initially, the 60s drums and 70s fat bass lent the atmosphere of blaxploitation films. Others have heard the sound of Italian art cinema in the music. Either way it is the easy listening choice of influencers and the cultural intelligentsia.
Because it adopts the clothes of a film soundtrack so successfully, it’s not supposed to be noticed. It’s incidental to what you would be watching on screen. That may explain why it feels like a musician’s record, a calling card for the arranger’s art. It could also explain why it’s filled with light classical melodies rather than the immediate melodies of pop.
Listen to this if you’re seeking a romantic escape into the daydream of your choice.
Taster Track : A Return From Ashes
No One Gets Hurt Ever - Madder Rose
Billed as an alternative rock band, what makes Madder Rose alternative is the gentle attractiveness of their music.
The album title captures part of their essence. It’s the hopefulness that the state it anticipates is attainable. It may be some way off, but Madder Rose already has the music in place to accompany you on the journey.
This is the musical equivalent of the restful in limbo feel of watching scenery roll by through the window of a fast moving train. As on ‘Mystery Date’ and ‘What Do You Know About My Lover?’ it can seem to float away into a world of its own. It doesn’t want to make a fuss of its presence. It’s simply there if you want it. And in a slightly downbeat kind of way it’s absolutely lovely.
It’s a style that captivates, drawing you into engrossed attention. ‘Tangerine’ doesn’t actually go anywhere, but it runs pleasantly on the spot, with its quiet harmonies adding considerable prettiness. The music coaxed out of shoegazing guitars is a pristine guitar sound that is quietly hypnotic.
Think of The Cranberries at their prettiest but stood at the edge of grunge and crunching rock. It’s a trick that Madder Rose pulls off on ‘Mystery Date’. On the lighter ‘I Want A New Me (Ghostgirlghostboy)’ it’s as if they’ve suddenly come to, and are stretching themselves back into a condition ready to face the world.
They’re currently in their second incarnation. Back in the 90s when they first hit the airwaves, they featured a couple of times in John Peel’s Festive Fifty. They’re the unexpected gift that you didn’t know you needed or wanted.
Taster Track : MLMR
And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow : Weyes Blood
Released a year ago in a blizzard of hype, Weyes Blood’s mature singer songwriting deserves many of the plaudits it received.
This album was shown in some of last year’s End of Year lists even before it was released. From the hype I was fearing something overblown and bombastic, but this is a mature and thoughtful collection. You shouldn’t expect many jukebox songs here. Songs such as ‘Heart Aglow’ take their time to grow into something lavish and, it must be said, deluxe. Weyes Blood may not always be giving the listener what they want, but she is giving herself.
Here you’ll find understated emotion, lovely arrangements, good singing, subtle vocals and melodies. The arrangements in particular are what makes the songs special. It’s a record where the more you listen the more you discover. That’s true from the opening track ‘It’s Not just Me, It’s Everybody’ and, with the exception of the atmosphere setting instrumentals ‘And In The Darkness’ and ‘In Holy Flux’, it’s the hallmark of this album.
There’s a sense throughout that she is at a point of transition. Her songs are like a raindrop that’s about to burst, a moment of irreversible transformation. It’s a feeling that is strong in ‘The Worst Is Done’, a song about the cautious re-emergence into the world following Covid. It’s one of the best songs here with a memorable chorus melody and relatable to all. ‘God Turn Me Into A Flower’ captures a moment of stillness in the midst of chaos all around
If there’s a caveat there it may be that you find more achievements to admire than songs to love. A couple of times I found myself wondering how an effect was achieved rather than giving myself over to the music.
This is a strong album for the times. We can’t hold the fact that the times are anxious and fearful against her.
Taster Tracks : It’s Not Just Me. It’s Everybody.
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