Big Red Machine, Bukky Leo and Black Egypt, Gary Louris, Idles, Michael League, Molly Burch, Nicholas Krgovich
This Week's Music
There's a lot in the mix this week from collaborations to covers and from pop to punk.
Here we go...
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
Ultra Mono : Idles
This thrilling album from 2020 is a rock and roll record at heart, but a wonderful rock and roll record with a maximum dose of attitude.
It’s easy, even lazy, to describe this as a punk record. It has the same energy as punk, the same sound as punk and if singer Joe Talbot shouts, you listen. The fact that it’s an easy comparison doesn’t make it wrong. But Idles have been quite vocal that they don’t see themselves as a punk band.
Harking back to the first generation of punk is useful. Back in 1976 I was 15 years old, and punk was a generational message that the world needed to change. Well, look around and see how well that worked. ‘Ultra Mono’ serves both as a reminder of that charge and an accusation of failure. 45 years later, far from righting wrongs, I’m slightly quailing at the thought of starting my day with Idles’ sonic assault but I’m telling myself that no one’s ever changed the world one flat white coffee at a time.
Idles are a band that hark back to the time when punk began to brush against the mainstream, but before it was adopted by the daytime Radio 1 crowd, before it softened into new wave, before it splintered into a more thuggish street punk and before it began to be liked by the likes of me. Idles are a furious, supercharged equivalent to early Clash, or the Malcolm Owen led Ruts.
It’s hard to imagine Joe Talbot singing in a different genre to be honest. His voice is raw, mocking and confrontational. It’s brilliant. This is a thrilling sound, propelled by threatening drums, angry guitars and direct vocals. It’s a pneumatic drill of a record but, crucially, one with tunes and rock and roll at its heart and in its blood.
There isn’t a weak track on the album. As in 1976, if there’s a weakness it lies with the audience enjoying the music too much to respond to the rallying call within.
Taster Track : Model Village
And The Rest
How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last ? Big Red Machine
Who are Big Red Machine? Why are there so many collaborations featured here? What do some of the lyrics mean? Why are so many questions asked but not answered in these songs?
I was puzzled by the fuss surrounding Big Red Machine. I’d heard of them. I’d even heard their previous album which was a pleasant enough album of radio friendly AOR that reached the giddy heights of no 96 on the UK album charts. A little research on your behalf shows that Big Red Machine are constructed around Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, and Aaron Dressner of The National. Vernon is a critical darling of the electronic folk scene. Dressner is the man who has transformed Taylor Swift from the pop goddess of ‘Shake It Up’ to the reflective and mature singer songwriter of the albums ‘Folklore’ and ‘Evermore’. No wonder expectations were high.
And deservedly so, because this collection of electronica washed folk is a subtle and nuanced mix of the natural and the digital, that oozes quality from every track. There’s the occasional rough edge in the sound, for example in ‘Easy To Sabotage’, but for the most part this is a subdued but highly musical set of songs.
There are several collaborations here with the likes of Taylor Swift (almost inaudible on ‘Birch’ and much more upfront on ‘Renegade’), and Fleet Foxes. They all work, but as the tracks that are Big Red Machine alone make clear they make excellent songs without help too. ‘Reese’ has a warmth in it that is less evident elsewhere on the album.
If I were to be hyper critical, I’d say that the album is a little too consistent in tone and could hold the attention better if it lost a couple of tracks. Don’t ask me to pick which ones though! And sometimes the lyrics are a little impenetrable. Try these from ‘Brycie’
If I'm the trouble, you're the stone
If I'm the sound, you're the song
If I'm the thunder, you're the long
If I'm the dust, you're the wall
I can get the second and fourth lines, but the first and third leave me bemused.
This is an album that offers questioning uncertainty and subdued survival. It’s also a masterclass in how to make music for these times.
Taster Track : Renegade
Afrobeat Visions : Bukky Leo & Black Egypt
This collection of Afrobeat pieces is full of warmth, energy and life. It’s an easy and uplifting listen.
Afrobeat melds the rhythms of West Africa with the soul and funk of early 70s America and the loose expression of jazz funk. I picked up on this album from 2005 simply because I’d seen and really enjoyed them at Ronnie Scott’s a few weeks ago. I wanted to compare the recorded experience with the live event.
The version of ‘Afrobeat Visions’ that I listened to on Spotify had a glitch which meant that the song performances fell out of sync with the written track listing. Strangely, that helped me listen to the music in the right way. Shorn of titles and the expectations, assumptions and prejudices that can accompany those, I simply had to let the music speak for itself.
I say music, but Afrobeat is all about its pulse and rhythm. This is so strong that they almost combine to make the melody. I’m not humming the tunes afterwards but the rhythm and the beat are coursing through my mind. I can’t help but feel that the pulse is a kind of life force, an almost spiritual expression of the people and their land and their culture. And then I think that maybe I’ve been reading too many National Geographic articles and I should simply enjoy the music for what it is.
It’s easy to do that. There are no edgy sounds here. There’s no anger or harsh words, only hope and optimism. One of the features of Afrobeat is the emphasis given to chanting the words rather than singing them. Chanting helps to create a community. In our society, think about football terraces, or reciting happy birthday en masse and how we feel, temporarily at least, part of something bigger.
It’s not a criticism to prefer the live experience to the recorded one. It’s like entering a debate about whether the book or film is better. They work for different people in different ways at different times. For me, it’s hard to (afro)beat the direct contact from the live performance, but this recording makes a fine stab at capturing its joy, its pride and its humanity.
Taster Track : Ake Bo Je
Jump For Joy : Gary Louris
Classic pop with a light touch characterises these songs from Gary Louris. It’s quite a way from his main band, the worthy and serious Jayhawks.
It’s received wisdom that in the heyday of the three minute single, the first 15 seconds sold or condemned the record. On that basis, this album is brimful of successful three minute singles.
It’s infectious stuff, less substantial and serious than The Jayhawks but also lighter and a lot more fun. It’s a jaunty country rock affair that’s reminiscent of the Travelling Wilburys - the supergroup formed for fun by Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. It’s a carefully strummed affair that takes an insistent approach to each song, drilling home the melody or earworm. The only exception is the eight minute closer ‘Dead Man’s Burden’. It’s enjoyable but lacks the bright sparks that elevate the shorter tracks.
Think for a moment about classic pop through the ages - Tamla Motown, 60s girl groups Bananarama, the Housemartins, even the manufactured sounds of the Partridge Family, Hearsay and All Saints. They all know the exuberant power of the backing vocal. Gary Louris does too and it’s one of the joyous strengths of this record on tracks such as ‘Mr Updike’ and ‘Almost Home’.
‘Jump For Joy’ is an album that celebrates the exuberance, sunshine and glee of our pop heritage.
Taster Track : Almost Home
So Many Me : Michael League
Michael League has delivered an album that takes its musical influences from a variety of sources to create something all of its own.
Imagine you’re in a blind tasting. In front of you are a pot of tomato ketchup, a pot of mayonnaise, and a pot of Marie Rose sauce. Even blind, it would be easy to tell them apart, recognising their distinct and different flavours. It would be less easy to conjure up the separate flavours of tomato ketchup and mayonnaise from the Marie Rose source. Although it’s only made of the first two, it’s become something new. In a nutshell that describes ‘So Many Me’.
There are elements of the rhythms and beats that underpin his jazz funk work with Snarky Puppy. The overall feel owes a further debt to electronic dance and world music. Vocally, there are flashes of George Benson in his 70s and 80s commercial pomp, and particularly Green Gartside from alternative 80s outfit Scritti Politti. And musically there are shifts, changes and sounds straight out of Radiohead’s catalogue around the time of ‘In Rainbows’.
And it works in an unforced way. There are no self conscious and obvious references thrown into the mix in a “Think it’s time to press the ‘funk’ button” kind of way. It’s much more natural and organic than that. Rhythms flow naturally between sections. Beats solidly anchor the songs. Electronic treatments of voice and instruments enhance the music rather than disguising it.
It’s a genuinely interesting mix with lots going on and plenty to be discovered on subsequent listens.
Taster Track : Fireside
Romantic Images : Molly Burch
This album of light, radio friendly retro pop is enjoyably pleasant and may be cleverer than it first seems.
Molly has a track record of songs about loss, heartbreak, rejection and an inability to escape unhappy love. A quick scan of her first two albums (and it was just a quick scan) shows an intent to capture the pain of love and romance. On ‘Romantic Images’ she takes us to a different place - the place of a girl who’s grown up with a photo strip comic book view of first dates and young love. If her albums were characters in ‘Grease’, the first two would be Rizzo but this one is full blown Sandy.
I’m hesitating in this because it’s a tricky line to tread and I’m not sure it’s a completely conscious approach. And I’m considering it because otherwise this is simply a collection of inconsequential, lightweight songs nicely done.
The songs here are untouchable. They’re untouchable in the sense that they don’t put a foot wrong but also in the sense that they’re not real. They’re a glossed up version of life, an untrue fiction, the romantic image of the title rather than something with real, gritty substance. But they do show a knowing awareness that this is the case which is appealing. ‘Took A Minute’ sings of the travails of trying to write a love song. The world of the romantic songwriter is not our world, but the world of the romcom where all ends well by the time the credits roll.
It sounds as if she has changed her singing style to reinforce this too, expanding her range beyond a default husky depth to include a fluffier, fluttering and trilling key. It’s easy on the ear, as is the retro dance pop sound which, on ‘Emotion’ comes complete with ‘boop boop’ synthetic drums.
Perish the thought that I’m overthinking all this. I enjoyed it as an album, and it amused me to think that there’s something going on beneath the glossy surface.
Taster Track : Emotion (but any one track would capture the flavour of the album as a whole.)
This Spring : Nicholas Krgovich
This is a pretty and understated collection of songs that highlights the work of both Krgovich and Veda Hille, the muse for this album.
It’s an album that adds an alternative meaning to the phrase ‘friends with benefits’. In this alternative meaning it means offering your back catalogue to someone to record. It results in an album by someone few have heard of, of songs by an artist even fewer have heard of. It’s a covers album with higher status.
Veda Hille has a long established solo track record going back more than 20 years. Krgovich and Hille were band members together in a number of Canadian indie pop bands that have remained under the radar hereFriendship is an important concept to Krgovich. His last solo album detailed the painful breakup of a relationship, and he was clear that without the support of friends he would not have survived the break up intact and the album would not have been made.. He seems a very likeable guy
My overwhelming reaction to this album is to marvel how civilised it all sounds. It’s a polite and restrained record, full of buttoned up and lightly expressed emotions. It’s more EM Forster than the Bronte sisters, and more German lieder songs (voice and piano, that’s all) than blue collar driving rock.
Despite the sense of restraint there are a number of touches that reward careful listening. There’s what sounds like muted dub on ‘Born Lucky’, subdued lounge rhythms on ‘15 Years’ and some jazz lounge vibes scattered around here and there. ‘Lucklucky’ is a killer show tune in waiting, and there’s a Japanese version that I’ve added to the Shadowplay playlist just for fun. Songs such as ‘Bad Heart’ are aiming to join the canon of standards. They have class, civilised class.
This album may be a little too ‘nice’ for some, but they’ve encouraged me to explore both Krgovich’s and Hille’s back catalogues in more detail. Job done!
Taster Track : Bedlam