C Duncan, Frontperson, Abba, Barenaked Ladies, Christian Lee Hutson, Tomberlin, Walt Disco
If You Listen To One Thing This Week....
I've chosen a joyous slice of radio pop this week. It's a little silly, childish even, as is the video. It's guaranteed to stick in your brain all day though, so if you'd rather not be heard humming aloud to yourself in Sainsburys, or exclaiming "Flip" when you should be looking at spreadsheets, best skip this bit.
Detour de Force “ Barenaked Ladies
If I needed another reason to love the Barenaked Ladies’ brand of witty, literate and good time pop, this album would be it. It’s probably their most consistently strong collection yet.
The Barenaked Ladies’ feel for pop in all its guises is unparalleled. Just on this album they dip into pop rap, psychedelic rock, country, lounge, bossa nova as well as their default power pop setting. They’ve not simply mastered a wide range of styles, they match each style perfectly to the content.
Just as they trawl musical styles through the ages so, on this album, they spend a lot of time looking back. ‘Good Life’, ‘Big Back Yard’ and ‘Live Well’ aren’t the only examples on this record, but they stand out for the sad wistfulness that gives depth to their classic pop on the surface.
They love playing with words and phrases. There’s no other band that would or could sneak “prestidigitation” so perfectly into a song or bring out the truth that social media could be renamed “anti-social media” or take so much relish in a word like “epiphany” that you feel they’ve been able to create a whole song to allow them to use it. There’s the stand up comedy timing of the perfect putdown in “She should really quit while she’s behind”. There’s also the natural loveliness of ‘The National Park’ or ‘Man Made Lake’, both breathing like the ocean. Don’t be completely fooled though. Their music is knowing but gentle, but it’s still likely to have a skewer secreted in the back pocket!
The only secret I can find for their success is their focus on excellent songwriting, with equal attention given to the music and the lyrics. They’re as catchy as they are lovely. If Pop In The Real World had a house band, the Barenaked Ladies would be it.
Taster Track : Flip
I Don’t Know Who Needs To Hear This : Tomberlin
Intense. Pretty. These are two words that describe Tomberlin’s second album of stripped back and introspective songs.
This is an ‘almost’ album. There are strings behind ‘Tap’ that sound almost like a bell tolling, full of foreboding. The synths in the background of ‘Memory’ almost act like an accelerating heartbeat.
‘Easy’ is a startling opening to any album. For the most part it’s virtually unaccompanied - a steady, nagging almost whispered background beat and sparse, almost improvised piano that only fills out in the chorus allow Tomberlin’s voice to hold centre stage throughout. It’s an ear catching opening and it sets the tone for most of what follows.
This is the sound of a woman struggling with anxieties and uncertainties, on the cusp of being overwhelmed and launched into a full blown breakdown. The control needed to maintain that sense of restraint and holding back is a real strength. It’s reflected too in the unhurried treatment afforded to most of the songs.
Tomberlin has two lines that serve as a manifesto for her approach. In ‘Possessed’ she sings
“I have nothing but a head full of doubt.”
In ‘IDKWNTHT’ she tells us repeatedly
“Sometimes it’s good to sing your feelings.”
Like music at a funeral, or a sight you return to after many years that has remained the same despite the years passing, these are songs that touch the parts that cause you to well up on your drive to work. The woodwind in ‘Unsaid’ - I think it’s an oboe - triggers one such moment. It’s in the phrasing too, for example in ‘Born Again Runner’.
The album only falters towards the end in the jarring, scuzzier sounds of ‘Stoned’ and ‘Happy Accident’. For the most part, she’s in a sparse, quiet and introspective world that highlights the prettiness of the music. It’s hard to imagine a prettier downbeat record arriving this year.
To answer the unspoken question in the title, this album needs to be heard by anyone who wants to understand the power of great songwriting. As a collection of songs it’s almost perfect.
Taster Track : Born Again Runner
... And The Rest
Voyage : Abba
Abba’s first original album release for 40 years created a mass frenzy when it came out. Now that the fuss and hype have died down, it’s revealed as something that’s true to their legacy but in an unexpected way.
The big question is: which version of Abba has been recreated on this album? Is it the pristine pop of ‘Waterloo’, Money, Money, Money’ and ‘Dancing Queen’ or the more grown up pop that grew out of relationship difficulties and divorce? In the majority of tracks it’s the latter with an added layer of 40 years experience. I’m afraid it’s true. The dancing queen is now a grandmother.
Of course, just a couple of years after their last album, Benny and Bjorn had turned their attention to musicals, writing Chess. As with a musical there’s a particular theme running through this album. It’s an album that reflects on regret, recrimination and self-recrimination and being able to forgive but not forget. And as with musicals, the songs can be hyper dramatic, traits seen in ‘I Still Have Faith In You’, ‘I Can Be That Woman’ and ‘Ode To Freedom’
It feels calculated. Here’s the Irish folk one, there’s the ‘Little Things’ straight from a Christmas Eve film matinee and as sickly sweet as a tray full of chocolate liqueurs. They sing through the eyes of grandparents, and they sing of grandparent concerns.
There are strengths, of course there are. The arrangements are lush and orchestrated. Their ability to write a winning melody is undiminished. Many songs are a masterclass in sentimentality so you’re in luck if that’s your thing. And it is bold to acknowledge through your songs that you have aged. It’s bold, but the echoes of their former glories in ‘Don’t Shut Me down’ are more welcome.
It’s a sad fact that I found this return underwhelming. They've chosen which parts of their past to pick up and remember and that’s their right. But their Abba isn’t my Abba and it’s my right to be disappointed.
Taster Track : Don’t Shut Me Down
Alluvium : C Duncan
Here’s an album of seductive chamber pop that lulls and beguiles in equal measure, stopping just short of being too much of a good thing.
This is music as a drug, a drug that tempts you into closing your eyes for just a minute before reopening them an hour later. The songs caress you as they float by, billowing gently like a sheet on a washing line in a gentle breeze. It’s a comforting sonic world that could entrap you like being tucked up too tight in bed.
There are shadows in the songs such as ‘Bell Toll’ that prevent them from being too sickly sweet. It's the sleeping beauty effect, deep relaxation but with slightly sinister undercurrents.
Thanks to multi tracking, Duncan is a one man chorus of backing vocalists. He recalls the likes of the 5th Dimension. psychedelic Beach Boys and, in a good way, the sound of 70s Saturday evening light music entertainment shows.
It’s unrelentingly gorgeous. His voice is inviting and warm. The songs are intricate, with lush orchestrations and attractive arrangements. It’s as if you’re given a glimpse of another world where all is at ease as you drift along on a current of soaring strings, unthreatening synths and music box melodies.
You leave this record and venture back into the real world with the jolt of being disturbed from a lovely dream. There’s no harm in escaping the real world if you can return to it relaxed and refreshed. This album allows you to do so.
Taster Track : Air
Quitters : Christian Lee Hutson
This is an album drenched in sadness and softly calling out for your empathy. It helps that it is beautifully played, cleverly arranged and suffused throughout with quiet melodies.
Ghosts are a constant presence in this album. They’re the ghosts of memories, failed aspirations, fractured friendships and broken relationships. There’s a bigger ghost too, and it’s the ghost of Eliott Smith who either committed suicide or was murdered in 2003. Their voices and musical styles are uncannily similar. The content of Hutson’s lyrics mirrors key elements of Smith’s life, including his mental health. Someone should keep a close eye on, and look after, Christian Lee - just saying.
Whether through empathy or some other form of transference, this is an album that will affect you, leaving you wrapped in a blanket of sadness you can’t easily shake off. There’s no resolution or end to his troubles in sight. Whilst we can move on to the next track, he’s stuck in the middle of each crisis.
You may be familiar with the painting technique of pointillism which uses thousands of individual dots to build up a much bigger picture. That’s similar to how Hutson works with his songs. He provides almost a new, seemingly disconnected impression in every line that builds into songs filled with pain, regret and aching hearts and carries an undercurrent of grievous loss. It’s music that should carry a health warning.
What rescues it from becoming oppressive is the delicately played music that only occasionally breaks into something scuzzier to highlight the emotional build up. It’s mainly softly played guitar, with additional features including flutes making an appearance as required. ‘Creature Feature’ is based around a basic synth. Lyrically it’s no more upbeat, but the synth gives it a lighter touch. On this record you take relief where you can find it. It’s also helped by Hutson’s matter of fact singing and strong melodies that tumble you from one line to the next.
Good music stirs strong emotions. By that measure, and by the measure of good songwriting this is a very good album.
Taster Track : Strawberry Lemonade
Parade : Frontperson
The first impressions of this album are that there’s a lot to like, but it's a bit busy. Stick with it. Either the record calms down or you adjust to its style and find a record of sweet melodies in winning songs.
Frontperson are Mark Andrew Hamilton - the man behind a band called Woodpigeon and responsible for absolutely sublime songs such as ‘7th Fret Over The Andes’ and ‘Our Love Is As Tall As The Calgary Tower’ - and Kathryn Calder from American indie band The New Pornographers. (I read once that they took their name from a quote calling rock and roll the new pornography.) They are very well suited.
Their voices compliment each other. Her voice comes from a pretty kind of folk, his comes from a warm but vulnerable place. More than that though, Calder seems to rein in Hamilton’s tendency with Woodpigeon to experiment and go over the top. The opening track ‘Parade’ may be busy, but by the second track ‘Messy Roomz’ the melody has risen to the top of the mix and stays there for the rest of the album. ‘Reach Out’ burbles along very appealingly in a style that I’m going to christen ‘space folk’. And ‘Ostalgie (fur C Bischoff)’ is a song not so much for crowd surfing as cloud surfing on warm air currents.
This is a lovely record, the first Summer soundtrack of the year.
Taster Track : Ostalgie (fur C Bischoff)
Unlearning : Walt Disney
Armed with a clever name and a wealth of musical influences, Scottish band Walt Disney have made an album that is brave, full on and completely over the top.
This album is like a box of treasures that has fallen out of the loft, jumbling up the contents. These songs cram in so many influences. There’s Franz Ferdinand, the Associates, Baccara, Freddie Mercury, the Rocky Horror Picture Show - and that’s just in ‘Selfish Lover’.
Individually those elements and influences are admirable, but rather than use them as a starting point they’re a bit of a mess and sound more like a travelling music freak show. Like one of those drinking games where everyone adds a different drink to the pot, you hope for something cheerful and technicolour but you end up with something that’s more of an unappealing sludge. In the end this record is something that isn’t quite its own beast because you’re always on the lookout for the next influence.
Although they take the songs too far and don’t know when to stop there are moments within the songs of pure pop, shards of near perfection that lodge in your brain.
So that’s the music, it’s singer James Potter’s vocals that have the real marmite effect. He’s histrionic, and he’s decided to go for it with no half measures. You’ll either flinch at the sound or believe you’ve discovered a new screamin messiah. In current terms it reminded me of Black Country, New Road. It has the unexpected consequence of making any song that he doesn’t sing, such as ‘Hold Yourself As High As Her’ sound unfairly toned down and even insipid by comparison. I flinched.
There’s nothing else at the moment that comes close to this. It’s like watching an unstoppable car crash moment unfold before you. It’s compelling and, occasionally, horribly wonderful.
Taster Track : Selfish Lover
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