Taking the Riff with the Smooth

Starring :


AC/DC, A J Rosales, Black Country New Road, Brijean, Burning For Buddy (Compilation), Lucy Spraggan, The Milk and Honey Band, The Undercover Dream Lovers, Vega


This Week's Music


I have it all for you this week - chilled disco beats, sensitive singer songwriting, hardcore jazz, chart friendly pop, classic hard rock and the absolute mayhem that is the Black Country New Road's debut


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


In a week when THAT interview took place, this week's category heading are drawn from royalty.


Sovereign


Nothing here this week. It's time to form a line of succession!


Heir To The Throne


Choices : Lucy Spraggan


Disclosure time. I wouldn’t have listened to this without the recommendation to do so from a Pop In the Real World member, and without acknowledging that another member was responsible for helping it into the charts - straight in at No 5.


I wouldn’t have listened to it because of the preconceptions I have about one letter and one word - X Factor. Lucy was a competitor in X Factor 2012. She withdrew, ill, mid way through. I think she had a lucky escape because this album is devoid of the histrionics and over emoting that spoil the latter stages of the competition. It was also the case that before X Factor she was already making a fair stab at a pop career, and it must feel good to break through without the corporate pigeon holing that comes with success through that route


The album is a pleasant surprise. I’d call it entry level pop, by which I mean it’s high quality and radio friendly with good catchy songs. There's enough lived experience there to soften any saccharine moments. She’s more K T Tunstall than any anonymous, synthetic diva. If there’s a criticism it’s that this is occasionally clearly aimed at the American market. The sound, the motel shown on the cover and references to “You’d better get your gun” on ‘Wild’ all point to that. And why not? No one expects performers to close off markets for the sake of sackcloth authenticity, as long as it's not corporate pigeon holing placing a foot in the door.


This is an album of singles waiting to happen. It avoids sounding as if it’s been made to fit generic playlists. The first three tracks ‘Flowers’, ‘Roots’ and ‘Sober’ are all great singles and in ‘Heartbreak Suites’ she’s produced a song that could become the song of the Spring.


This may not be be authentically Derbyshire or authentically American but it is certainly authentically classic pop.


Taster Track : Heartbreak Suites


Royal Family


It's All In Your Head : The Undercover Dream Lovers


This record is for the days that are so bad that as they come to an end you need more than a means to relax and unwind. You crave oblivion. This album delivers. It’s the sound for the moment you can finally drift away, letting go in the day’s struggles.


Let me be clear. That’s no bad thing. This is comfort blanket music. It’s the musical equivalent of a warm bath. On first hearing ‘You Don’t Have To Be Lonely’ I was convinced that they were singing ‘Bath Tub’ in the refrain. It fitted perfectly. The actual words are ‘Wrapped up.’ That’s a pretty good fit too.


The tracks blur and dissolve into one another, so it’s not easy to differentiate between them, but it’s an appealing and even therapeutic effect.


Musically the album is a bit retro. There are definitely disco touches in there and more than a smattering of 70s smooth rock, particularly in the vocals and lyrics. What it lacks is a top gear. It chugs along in third with little sense of urgency. Sometimes that’s exactly what you need.


It’s a record to be taken as a whole so identifying highlights is kind of missing the point. For what it’s worth, ‘A Way Out’, ‘Prisoner of Love’, ‘Tightrope (Climbing To The Top) and ‘Everything’s Confused’ all qualify.


Taster Track : Everything's Confused


Songs From Truleigh Hill : The Milk and Honey Band


Sometimes a band comes across the speakers, fully formed and wondering why you haven't picked up on them before. The Milk and Honey Band have only been around for 25 years or so. It's not as if I'm late to the party or anything like that!


This is proper songwriting - thoughtful, poetic, free of glitches, beats and other studio distractions. Well, you could argue that the squeak of the guitar strings during ‘Change’ is an effect of sorts, but it’s a good one that adds to the tone and atmosphere of the record. This means you focus on the song, and they are songs worth focusing on.


It’s a quiet record for early morning wake ups, but for a big day. There’s a sense of expectation, or preparing yourself for something important, that underpins several of the songs, including ‘Breathe’.


It’s a slow record, one that occasionally suggests that a double espresso might be helpful. Once you adjust to the tempo though, there’s much to reward you. ‘Stillwater’ builds on a platform of rapid, repeated guitar picking. It’s lovely downbeat sound with sombre piano to the fore. The vocals are smooth and comforting, reassuringly controlled. ‘Breathe’ speeds up suddenly mid way through, and clicking hand claps kick in. It’s a reminder that there’s life in these songs for all their chilled and subdued air. ‘Roses’ in fact becomes quietly epic by its conclusion.


I enjoyed this as a record to savour. It’s musical Pilates where small movements and variations can have a big impact.


Taster Track : Breathe


Manifestations : A J Rosales

A J Rosales’ album is a well made, nicely constructed and arranged collection of songs. That’s fitting, as his day job is an architect!


You can see his architect’s brain at work across the album. Take ‘Solero’. It’s a lego set of a tune with solid foundations providing a base for more creative flourishes. It’s based around a persistent and propulsive strum over which more melodic touches are laid. As architecture goes the songs are a well made tower block rather than, say the Pompidou Centre (below) but there is an appeal and beauty in both.

The songs and tunes - there are four instrumentals here - are primarily acoustic.


Again, like a good architect, he’s playing with ideas. ‘Anthym’ is 39 second version of the Star Spangled Banner. He plays with words too. ‘Disengage’ punches home the title and sets a rhythm that anchors the song, allowing more free association lyrics to to tumble around it. There’s more at work here than found in your basic singer songwriter guitarist. ‘On The Cusp’ fleshes out the basics with cello, synth and strings. Care is taken with the arrangements and it’s the finishing touches that elevate the songs and allow them to linger. It helps too that his vocals are sincere and unforced. He sounds like a natural singer and ‘Heaven’ showcases this well.


I’ve seen reviews that liken him to Pete Townshend. I can see that if the parallel is with Townshend’s solo work. There are similarities in his phrasing of both the music and the lyrics. He’s not The Who though. I can also see similarities with Radiohead’s basic songwriting. ‘Peak Nothing’ sounds like a Radiohead demo before it’s overwhelmed by effects and distortions.


All told, this is a strong, worthwhile addition to the singer songwriter canon.


Taster Track : Peak Nothing


Power Up : AC/DC


Back in 1979, in the limbo period between finishing A Levels and heading for university, I listened to three albums a lot. The first was Nick Lowe’s ‘Labour of Lust’, quickly followed by Dave Edmunds’ ‘Repeat When Necessary. The third album was AC/DC’s ‘Highway To Hell’.


To commemorate my A Level results I went to see The Who headlining Wembley Stadium with a friend. I knew I’d love The Who. At the other end of the bill was Nils Lofgren who rather passed me by, although I’m more of a fan now. He did a very neat standing back flip. I’d expected to enjoy The Stranglers more than I did as they were the chart singles band on the bill. With hindsight, the reason for that was because they had the misfortune to follow AC/DC, who simply blew them off stage.


At that time, AC/DC were just what I needed. Loud and confident where I was apprehensive and tentative, they were perfect for boosting the adrenaline levels I needed to act. It felt as if I had enough subtlety and complexity in my teenage life at that time, so their simple clear certainty in musical form was exactly what I needed. They’ve always had a comic book backstory. The schoolboy image and antics on stage, the death of Bon Scott, their implosion as a band in 2016 and their miraculous resurrection from the rubble of that last year. They’re one of the few bands that are shorthand for a musical style.


Why am I sharing this? It’s because sometimes you have a connection with bands that goes way beyond their musical qualities, and renders objective consideration of albums difficult. Don’t get me wrong. ‘Highway To Hell’ is a great album, dodgy, menacing sexism that makes it a more uncomfortable listen nowadays notwithstanding. The earlier ‘Let There Be Rock’ is one of the all time Top 10, no Top 5, rock and roll songs.


All of that brings me, finally, to ‘Power Up’. It’s pure, unadulterated AC/DC. Every song sounds as if it should be coming to you as a live onslaught, not filtered and softened through headphones and speakers. It can’t be faulted on its terms. It operates in a sphere and time of its own making. The riffs roll as large as ever. The drums are beaten to within an inch of their lives. Brian Johnson shrieks and growls like a dog caught up in a cat fight.


This is the AC/DC sound, even though it lacks the thrilling magic of their classic period. They haven’t changed, so it must be me.


Taster Track : Code Red


For The First Time : Black Country New Road

I’m not sure that anything can prepare you for listening to Black Country New Road for the first time. This is the first time I’ve come across something that may be properly described as a horror album.


The spoken vocals are more than a little weird. They contain the desperation of madness, of barely holding it together. They’re the sound of Bruce Banner on the cusp of turning into the Hulk.


Musically, it’s orchestral in its swirling instrumentation and galloping rhythms, jazz in its movement and rock in its sound. It’s not afraid to sew discordance into the mix because it’s also not afraid to switch away abruptly, as in ‘Science Fair’. With one bound it leaps free of its self inflicted chains. Consistently songs build to a frazzled climax, stop and build again.


The opening ‘Instrumental’ has something of the European gipsy about it, or the leering clowns of the circus. The only calm note on the album is struck by the shortest track ‘Track X’. It’s a pause for breath, a hope that the bad guy is finally vanquished before returning for one final confrontation. ‘Sunglasses’ is the stand out track, a portrait of domestic detail filtered through visions of Hell and a symbol of self esteem that’s locked into soulless consumerism. I'll confess though to preferring the original version which can be found on Rough Trade’s Counter Culture 2019 compilation. It contains a little more of the human and a little less of the horror; more Gordon Brittas (remember him?) than Mr Hyde.


I said I wasn't sure that anything can prepare you for listening to Black Country New Road for the first time. As I listened to this, I came to realise that isn’t quite true. A few years ago I was in Chertsey and came across a highly distressed, stubbled transvestite frantically scurrying around the charity shops. No one said a thing. It was both unsettling and unbearably sad. This record is his soundtrack.


It’s bold, it’s in your face and it’s different.


Taster Track : Sunglasses


Feelings : Brijean


I have a theory to explain the sudden proliferation of disco infused chill out music. It’s opiate, not so much for the masses, as for Generation Z. (In fact it may be wider than that. Generations Z are colloquially known as ‘Zoomers’. We’ve all been ‘Zoomers’ to some extent over the last 12 months.) ‘They’ want to subdue us all with stultifying tunes. Spotify is the new Big Brother, and you heard it here first!


Brijean offer more of the same - gentle beats, bass lines and synth trills to accompany woozy poolside reveries in which half heard, unseen conversations accompany your sunbathing. Listen to the short track ‘ Pepe’ to hear what I mean. It’s the music that greets you as you arrive early at the club, well before the DJ is on stage to whip up the crowd. It’s pleasant, inoffensive wallpaper music to help you settle down. It also sounds like the most programmed form of music, with not a lot of humanity in the languid vocals to off-set this. A short burst of a quietly insistent pulse on ‘Hey Boy’ is the closest we experience to a break out.


On the plus side, its focus on what we haven’t been able to enjoy for the last 12 months or so lends this music a surprising wistful air. Try ‘Paradise’ for this.


I’m not wanting to mark this down simply because it’s fallen into a period where I’ve listened to quite a lot of similar music. It does what it sets out to do, and it does it well. It’s unfortunate that in the last couple of weeks, the Pop In The Real World record selector has come up with a number of similar sounding records. Pomplamoose. Poolside. The Undercover Dream Lovers. And now Brijean. There’s a danger that my appreciation of the chilled, disco infused Ibezan vibe is now dulled by over familiarity. Time to get back to work.


Taster Track : Hey Boy


Grit Your Teeth : Vega


Well, if ever an antidote is needed for the welter of poolside, disco influenced synth music this is it. This is the kind of heavy rock that would have charted in days gone by, particularly in the 80s. As the cover suggests, it's gnarled, powerful and dinosaur like but there’s still a lot of interest to be had from dinosaurs. Ask any six year old.


All the classic elements are there. ‘Blind’ highlights the ability to make the word ‘style’ a double syllable "styull" and ‘why’ becomes "whyayayay' a 4 part word. The drums are hit hard. The guitars are crunched and set free to solo in all the right places. The vocals screech and soar. And there are big, big choruses everywhere. ‘(I Don’t Need) Perfection’ and ‘Don’t Fool Yourself’ are just two examples of what they're doing very well. Some of the 80s style comes from unexpected sources. ‘Consequence Of Having A Heart’ cribs part of the melody from Tears For Fears’ ‘Mad World’.


This album stands out for a few reasons. They sound as if they mean it. They’re not simply posing. They may be as over the top as many heavy rock bands can be but, crucially, ‘Man On A Mission’ shows that they’ve kept and built on a connection to a simpler, purer form of rock and roll. Above all, they perform as a band not as a collection of individuals seeking the limelight.


Vega aren’t wannabe rock stars. They’re the real deal.


Taster Track : Consequences Of Having A Heart


Burning For Buddy : Various


Drummers have an unfortunate reputation in music. They’re the butt of jokes (What do you call a musician who can’t sing or play an instrument? The drummer.) and if Spinal; Tap is anything to go by they have a tendency to meet unfortunate ends.


Now, I'm not daft. Even before I began my struggles with jazz appreciation, I’d heard of Buddy Rich as a powerhouse jazz drummer. I understood that jazz drumming was about freeing the beat. Google told me that. But I also had experience of a rock parallel to help me appreciate this.


There’s a film clip of The Who at Woodstock or the Isle of Wight festivals. From memory I think they’re playing one of their extended blues jams. Keith Moon's drumming for England. He’s all over a massive drum kit pounding out a blur of drum beats, too fast and varied for the eye and even the ear to follow. In mid flow, everything stops to focus on one instrument or perhaps Roger Daltrey’s voice. Keith Moon stops dead. The power, energy and genius of the drumming is emphasised by the absolute control of that stop. It’s one of my favourite moments in rock, blurred memory though it is. I can hear that same power and control in Buddy Rich.


That said, this album of Buddy Rich covers poses a couple of problems. It’s quite hardcore jazz and that’s still something I haven’t attuned myself too. If the secret of listening to jazz is simply to accept the accept the tumult as a whole, it is difficult to focus on one instrument. These pieces are, first and foremost for a band. There are virtuoso performances aplenty, but equally the drums have to play second fiddle to the lead instruments sometimes. In ‘Milestones’ the drums even disappear altogether for the last minute or so. There are two short pieces of solo drumming ‘ The Drum Also Waltzes Pts 1 and 2’.


The second problem is that this is a tribute to Buddy Rich featuring, unsurprisingly, a variety of jazz drummers. They’re not mentioned in the credits, surprisingly. I had to glean that fact form one of the reviews on line. I’m not sure if they are attempting to drum like Buddy Rich, or to use Buddy Rich songs to showcase their own style. For all I know Buddy Rich was a sensitive, restrained drummer. More seriously, we don’t know if this is an act of homage to Buddy Rich or a collection of individual drumming styles.


The most recognisable tune is the cover of the Average White Band’s ‘Pick Up The Pieces’ It showcases both sides to this record. The drumming is excellent but it takes second place to the horns. When it comes down to it, who’d be a drummer?


Taster Track : Pick Up The Pieces


Non Working Royal


All records were too busy getting on with the rest of their lives, lowering their profile through interviews with Oprah.


Pretender To The Throne


All records earmarked for this category are now in exile across the seas.

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