Ben Watt, Bicep, Firestations, Jon Hopkins, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Paul Weller, Ryan Downey, Tim Foljahn, Ward Thomas
This Week's Music
It's been a week of welcome surprises. Old hands reinvent themselves and their songs and share their experiences in musical form, new and lesser known acts explode on the scene with excellent albums and one album converts me to the pleasures of mid-morning Radio 2.
As ever this week's playlist 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
Recommended Sharing Platters
Isles : Bicep
Bicep’s take on electronic dance music is a beautiful one, and one that opens ears to hearing dance music differently.
This was not what I expected. Partly due to its categorisation as dance / electronic music on Spotify, and partly from the muscular connotations of their name, I anticipated big beats, frenetic rhythms and crashing crescendos. I expected something geared to keeping the club moving in the early hours of Sunday morning. What I heard was completely different.
‘Atlas’ flickers attractively into life. ‘Cazenove’ seems lost within itself. It’s not shouting out “Everyone to the floor!” it’s more dreamlike and fluid than that. ‘Apricots’ provides a good test for your headphones, with the sounds moving between speakers and different elements fading in and out while a jittery chant occupies the foreground. It’s a lovely and calming effect. ‘X’ is a chilled number full of digital earworms. In places the music sounds Oriental or descended from the Gregorian chant. Bicep are adept at shifts in tone. ‘Saku’ is imbued with melodies and melancholy from the vocals, ‘Sundial’ takes us somewhere deeper and darker with its heavier bass line but by the end it’s brought us back to sunshine and light.
Is it dance music? Not if your view of that is based on crowded club floors or Dad shuffle dancing with one eye on the bar. This is much more contemporary. It’s dance music for individuals more than for couples or crowds. I’d love to see someone dancing expressively to this. It would show the beauty of movement just as the music captures it in sound.
There are few records that can sound great while encouraging you to reassess your thoughts of a genre. This is one of them.
Taster Track : Apricots
Melted Medium : Firestations
There’s a lot of pleasure to be taken from this EP of alt pop songs that swirl around the speakers and offer harmony and melody in equal measure.
We all know that musicians from all fields produce great works of art. Firestations suggest that some of their beauty can come from maths and science. Look around you and see the precision of a glistening spider’s web, or the dripping sweetness of honeycomb. Find beauty in buildings and it will be the result of geometry and ratios. Hear the deep, satisfying roar of a Formula 1 car engine and thrill to the engineering that has rendered perfectly tuned. It’s the same kind of thing that makes this EP special.
Firestations’ music is described as alt pop and that’s a fair assessment. They have all the familiar elements of pop - jangly guitars, sweet harmonies, perfect control - but they’ve treated them with a mathematical precision to create something that sounds a little different. There are no big choruses here. They’re not needed. The music flows, swirls, and revolves around itself suggesting a never ending sequence. There’s no chaos theory at play here! The music is mesmerising, like a continuously shifting screen saver or a lava lamp. They sing about ratios and linear equations making them sound engagingly attractive. The rhythms at play tick over like a well oiled and calibrated machine.
The EP is generally guitar led, but its repeated cycles sound and are structured like electronica. There are loops and drones that support the songs, adding depth without overwhelming the music. The link is made explicit in the remixed track that closes the album - ‘New Device’. The true trick though is that out of such calculated building blocks they’ve created something that is full of warmth and human feeling.
I liked this a lot. It’s one of the few records I’ve heard over the last year or so that I’ve wanted to play on repeat immediately after first hearing it. And that’s a good sine! (sic.)
Taster Track : Outpost Index
Fat Pop : Paul Weller
Paul Weller’s new album draws onl his deep understanding of pop music through the ages to make a truly great album.
Paul Weller’s recent albums have earned many, many plaudits. It feels as if they have all been leading to Fat Pop. From the opening electronic notes of ‘Cosmic Fringes’ this sounds like Weller’s pop manifesto. The quality is top notch but it’s the breadth that’s most impressive. The first four tracks showcase four different styles. Following ‘Cosmic Fringes’, ‘True’ strikes a rockier note. In ‘Fat Pop’ he sounds as if he’s channelling his inner Ian Dury, and in ‘Shades Of Blue’ he gives us a more jaunty sound. He's coming across as his very own radio station, and it’s clear that for all his past Mr Angry and Mr Grumpy personas he loves his pop music.
If you want a ballad, string laden with soul touches, try ‘Glad Times’. If you’re nostalgic for Stanley Road era Weller, ‘Moving Canvas’ is the track for you. 60s and 70s influences abound but this is no homage to the past. ‘Testify’ has the Summer of Love / Jethro Tull flute but he takes this unfashionable instrument and makes it current. He’s becoming the Charles Darwin of pop, helping the fittest elements of the past survive.
I’ll be honest. For me this album is the biggest surprise from Paul Weller since he split The Jam and formed the Style Council. It’s a faultless album and one that will be right up there in the Album of the Year stakes come December.
Taster Track : Shades Of Blue
And The Best of the Rest
Storm Shelter : Ben Watt
Ben Watt has reworked some of his recent songs for piano and voice only, with a couple of covers thrown in. It’s a mesmerising performance. The EP is released in aid of homelessness charity Shelter.
Ben Watt started out very simply, back in his student days at Hull University and with his early steps on Cherry Red Records. Over time he stepped away into the dance feel of later Everything But The Girl and his own record label Buzzin’ Fly. More recently his solo work has been more expansive, using a full band on record and on tour. It’s good to hear him return to the pared back sound of old - just him and a piano. On the evidence here it is what he does best.
These versions focus on the lyrics and the passion behind them. His voice is not that of a smooth crooner. It’s too buried in real life for that. His voice is worn and a little husky. It provides sincerity, humanity, vulnerability and a quiet desperation.
The songs in this form are more clearly personal and you ask, with the enlightenment of hindsight, why the originals needed so much embellishment and fleshing out. The treatment of ‘Balanced On A Wire’ from last year’s Storm Damage album is perfect. It’s as if I’d heard it for the first time. The two covers ‘That’s The Way Love Is’ and Comeback Kid’ are properly owned here and fit right in.
It’s a lovely EP that leaves you flooded with empathy and wanting more.
Taster Track : Bird On A Wire
Piano Versions : Jon Hopkins
This EP offers a radically different take on songs by the likes of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Scottish folk artist James Thorkston. It’s an interesting concept that works well.
Jon Hopkins is known for his ambient beats, best heard in a Club comedown room. Here, he operates with virtually unadorned piano, embellished by ghostly electronic flourishes for atmosphere. Despite the piano, this is more of an ambient album than a melodic one, one concerned with mood rather than tunes. You need imagination to appreciate this, but if you can lose yourself in it there are rewards to be found.
I have quite a literal way of absorbing information. If there’s any symbolism in these tracks and titles I probably missed it. For example, ‘Heron’ features what sounds like birdsong. However, I can confirm through extensive research of a birdsong compilation that it’s not the sound of a heron. What it succeeds in doing well is to capture the idea of a heron, seen from a hide on misty marshes at dawn. And that’s quite a nice sense and image to be left with.
These pieces offer the sound of serious reflection. It’s not a downbeat or chilled collection but seems to connect with a secular but spiritual space deep within.
Taster Track : Heron
The Dirt and the Stars : Mary Chapin Carpenter
Mary Chapin Carpenter’s 16th album is a collection that reaches out to the listener, sharing experience and all set in a jewel of songwriting.
There’s something unique about this album. Perhaps it’s the way that she can create a strong, immediate and personal rapport with the listener. Perhaps it’s in the way that her voice reaches out to embrace the listener in times of sadness. Maybe it’s her crafted way with words that offers confidences. It’s probably a mix of all these things.
Her voice is filled with wisdom, offering an acknowledgement of sad, difficult times together with empathy and comforting words. She’s never self absorbed. This is always about more than her feelings. On the cover she doesn’t want to show her face. Instead she reveals it through her songs.
The songs are unhurried, but not drawn out. They take the time they need to share their lessons. They’re full of subdued but lovely, delicate melodies. The opening song ‘Farther Along And Further In’ sets a tone that’s matched throughout the album. In ‘Asking For A friend’ the lyrics are so perfectly paced and constructed that they read as poetry while sounding unimprovable as lyrics.
Also rare is the quality of the band. They are excellent, supporting and strengthening the songs but never competing or intruding on the vocals which remain central to the songs throughout. They’re given their moments. ‘American Stooge’ is much more of a band piece. It’s tightly balanced and if it’s less personal and intimate, it’s still a very good line in musical storytelling. They’re also allowed full rein on the closing number ‘Between The Dirt and the Stars’
This is an album to treasure in sad times. It will leave you feeling comforted, supported and stronger.
Taster Track : Asking For A Friend
A Ton Of Colours : Ryan Downey
Ryan Downey’s approach to music is to hold nothing back. That invests these nicely produced rock songs with a stylised passion that you don’t often hear.
First though, my grumpy rant for the day. Why, why, why is track 7 called ‘Edge Of U’? Nothing about this album suggests that Downey is aiming for the texting generation. Nothing about it suggests that he’s aiming to get down with the kids. In fact, the only reason that he should call a song ‘Edge Of U’ is if it’s about letter design, or the side of a female sheep. It isn’t, so it strikes a jarring, false note in the context of the album as a whole. Let’s call it ‘Edge Of You’ and be done with it.
Elsewhere, the album is a model of stylised drama as if Brian Ferry in his early Roxy Music days were to sing the works of Nick Cave with a little help from David Bowie. He sounds as if he could invest a shopping list with declamatory passion. It’s a slightly odd mix that works better in the quieter passages and songs, such as the brooding ‘Sors De Ma Tete’, ‘Patterns, ‘Edge of Ewe (sorry ‘U’), and ‘Never The Same’.
There’s a pleasing sense drawn from the spacey guitar and the overall production on songs such as ‘Patterns’ that he is looking down on a scene rather than participating in it. He’s surveying his world and he’s in control - inside his head, anyway. He juggles the need for light and shade nicely to create a world view that is layered with texture.
In our heads, we’re all masters of our universe. This is the soundtrack to what’s going on in there.
Taster Track : Patterns
I Dreamed A Dream : Tim Foljahn
Tim Foljahn provides classic, mature singer songwriting of a kind that’s all too uncommon now.
It’s not a criticism to describe Tim Foljahn as a musician’s musician. It’s more recognition that he has a deep understanding of how to use music for effect. You can’t classify his style because he looks across the complete musical spectrum and selects the tools and material needed to create a specific effect with each song.
‘Once’ introduces chamber pop in a song that grows melodically and layer by layer from simple beginnings. ‘Ghost Ripper’ has a darker bluesy sound. ‘Remember Me’ is a song driven by it’s electronic pulse. It’s sparse when it needs to be, but lush when it can be, as on ‘Day Is Done’. It’s not always a cheerful album, teling of and anticipating death in a couple of songs, but ‘I Can’t Decide’ bounces along nicely.
This album is full of top quality songwriting, of a kind that doesn’t attract the attention it deserves. It’s in the line of the likes of Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley - part of rock’s scared canon of songwriters. The trouble is that they’re often shunned as hard work by the lovers of hi energy, raw punk, ‘Tiger Feet’ and the like.
This is an album to savour and appreciate. It’s also an album with elements to love.
Taster Track : Once
Invitation : Ward Thomas
In its field of radio friendly country pop, this album is difficult to beat.
I gained a valuable insight when I listened to this record. When I started this blog, I hoped that listening to music more attentively, and having time to explore different kinds of music would open my ears to more demanding and stretching genres and sounds. I forgot though, that there were styles and sounds that sounded safer than my typical listening and I had dismissed as being of limited interest and value. Really, I had to revisit some of these and reassess their qualities.
This doesn’t mean that I am now addicted to Ken Bruce’s mid morning Radio 2 programme. But I have to say that, even if it isn’t to my personal taste, it’s hard to see how Ward Thomas could improve their performance and sound. It’s a template for any y student of the musical performing arts. It’s also unobtrusive enough to be good music to listen to while working from home.
For those unfamiliar with Ward Thomas, and let’s face it there may be some of you who are not numbered in the 5m YouTube viewers of their earlier song ‘Carry You Home’, they’re twin sisters with a lovely line in country styled harmonising. It drifts by in an inoffensively nice way.
What makes this a lot more palatable is that there’s a friendly sincerity throughout. Try ‘Painted Legacy’ for that. There’s a catchiness to ‘Don’t Be A Stranger’ that is perfect for long car journeys. Its title highlights their homely and friendly style. It’s the kind of phrase my parents’ generation would use. They’re confident enough in their voices to risk an acapella song, ‘Dear Me’, and they carry it off beautifully.
I’ve described them as country pop because that’s how they’re described on Wikipedia. In fact they’re clearly moving further into the mainstream. ‘My Favourite Poison’ is a slower number with cinematic strings. They could be contenders for the next James Bond soundtrack that aims to bring out his sensitive side. They collaborate with James Blunt on ‘Halfway’, a move that works well for both of them.
Of its type, it’s as good as it could be - and that’s very good. I won’t pretend that this is the type of music I’ll be returning to regularly. But I’d rather listen to this than to some Svengali driven puppet act that’s sold its soul for a lick of fame and success.
Taster Track : Painted Legacy