Becca Mancari, Enji, GNAC, maya ongaku, Simon Rowe, Skeleten, Wave Temples
The Front Runners
The Echoes On Departure : GNAC
Gnac’s way with gentle, beguiling, gorgeous keyboard instrumentals continues to shine brightly with no sign of dimming.
Between 2008 and 2021, GNAC was silent on the recording front. Since then he’s had an explosion of creativity, releasing five albums in three years. It may be more of the same, but there’s absolutely no evidence of diminishing returns setting in with the quality.
At heart, GNAC’s music is all about finding new chord progressions and overlaying them with a wash of gentle electronic effects. Pieces may be short fragments of a tune, half remembered (‘Bees’). Or they may be longer pieces that build quietly, exploring the detail of a tune with little flourishes. Unusually for him, this album includes vocals from Kathleen Stosch on ‘Betweenness’ and ‘Until The Heart Stops’. She adds something special.
Think back to when you first discovered a perfectly formed spider’s web, covered in frost. If you’re not arachnophobic, did you marvel at it? This is music to accompany that feeling. GNAC captures the feeling of wonder in the beauty of the ordinary. He finds it in ‘Bees’, ‘A Simple Flower’ and throughout this album.
This is music that avoids melancholy, allowing you to drift away on a bobbing sea with no chance of coming to harm. It is music that feels like the gently restraining hand on a child's arm at a busy crossing.
It’s by no means lullaby music but it is supremely relaxing, music to lie down to and relish.
GNAC is always a familiar and welcome pleasure, a gem of a musician and one to quietly treasure.
Taster Track : Betweenness
Approach To Anima : maya ongaku
maya ongaku (of the lower case) have stumbled into a space where music is allowed to be. It’s an unremittingly gorgeous album.
They’re a musical collective based on an island off Japan. Currently they’re a trio but the music they make is far bigger than that suggests. It’s not loud. On the contrary it’s quiet and sedately paced. This is the music that plays as you unhurriedly enter a brave new world, allowing your eyes and ears to take in everything around you.
This is luxurious and lavish music, full of detail and wonder. It’s as if you have been transported to a magical instrument shop. Your ears pick out guitar, bass, woodwind and all kinds of percussion and keyboard notes. It’s music that lets you gasp with pleasure at its intricacy and perfection.
There’s no pressure to rush through this unhurried procession of delights. You’re carried along as if borne by a river through unexplored regions. With every song they take as long as they need from 42 seconds for ‘Rakushi’ to 11 minutes for ‘Water Dreams’.
This is music that occupies a special place, a place where genre is fluid and unrestrictive, a place as far away from the mainstream as you can get but still remaining highly accessible. maya ongaku are at home there. Their music contains whispers of ambient, jazz, lounge, world music and pop. Their neighbours in this magical space include Jose Gonzalez, the Kings of Convenience, Talk Talk and Tindersticks. While maya ongaku sound nothing like their neighbours, they are at home alongside them.
The saxophone may connect these songs to pop; the ambient textures will connect you to the world.
Relax and be restored by these gorgeous songs.
Taster Track : Melting
Everybody’s Thinking : Simon Rowe
This is an album you need to listen to if you want understanding and reassurance wrapped up in good, highly listenable songs.
There’s a small set of musicians who made their name in bands during the 90s, and are now building solo careers as mildly psychedelic singer songwriters. They include Tim Burgess (The Charlatans), Andy Bell (Ride) and Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals). Simon Rowe is part of that group. He has been around a while. He was a guitarist with Mojave 3 in the 90s and 00s. That’s important because it gives him a mellow maturity that flavours every track on the album.
It’s not what he’s singing that gives you that sense of all being well with the world, but how he sings it. Rowe’s voice is smooth, serious and reassuring. He’s the guide you want to help you address and bypass difficulties. It’s interesting that when his voice is absent in ‘Monkey Brain’ there’s a faint, underlying feeling of threat and anxiety. It’s as if your guide has left you waiting in an unfamiliar place and is taking a little longer to return than you expected.
This is a record for early Autumn. It’s beyond the scorching heat of the sun and away from the disappointments of persistent Summer rain.‘Croxted Crows’ is the perfect opening, birdsong growing into a sweet, brief instrumental and a gentle awakening. It’s clear from this, and the following song ‘Saturn Saw Us’, that these are songs that welcome you. He sings in ‘Talk Too’ that “You’d better not lose yourself” but his songs are an invitation to do just that.
If his vocals are the reason for entering and staying with the songs, it’s the strings that are the oil in the machine helping the songs to glide effortlessly and smoothly. Discreet but sweet melodies wrap themselves around you as on ‘Everybody’s Thinking’.
In ‘Oh Lordy Me’ he sings “Tell the world how good it can be.” Do more than that. Tell the world how good it feels to listen to this record.
Taster Track : Everybody’s Thinking
The Chasing Pack
Left Hand : Becca Mancari
Becca Mancari has taken a big step forward from her previous album, ‘The Greatest Part ‘ released in 2020. She gained but lost something in the process.
If it’s true that you’re only as good as your last album, one of the implications is that you’ll be judged by the standards of what you’ve produced before. There’s a track on Mancari’s 2020 album ‘The Greatest Part’ called ‘The First Time’. It opens with a line of almost unbearable heartbreak: “I remember the first time my dad didn’t hug me back.” It’s a shock. You hear it in her voice and see it etched into her face. It hurts and you feel it.
I’m dwelling on that only because there’s no moment on ‘Left Hand’ that comes close. Mancari has grown up for this album, perhaps as a shield against her suffering and experiences in the meantime.
Whereas before she sang as if clothed in T K Maxx tee shirt and jeans, now she sounds clad in designer labels. She’s continued to experience hard times and heartache but she’s coated herself with a protective veneer to prevent them showing. That means her feelings and emotions are bubbling away internally, building an intensity that is both uncomfortable and discouraging empathy and connection.
Another aspect is the difficulty in fitting in. That applies to some of the songwriting too. Lines tumble over and into each other or break unexpectedly. Backing vocals compete to find space to be heard. ‘Mexican Queen’ demonstrates how her vocals have matured. She’s lost the vulnerable girl.
Musically this is a much more ambitious album, and successfully so. There’s a dramatic orchestral backing from the outset in ‘Don’t Even Worry’. She’s moved away from any country and western influences to embrace a more experimental and even soulful dimension. In a very good way, that creates tension in a song like ‘Over and Over.’
There’s a song towards the end - ‘I Needed You’ - where she lets her guard down and empathy in. It feels more honest. It’s one of the more conventional songs here, with its swooping strings, strong rhythm and haunting vocals. It captures again the effect of her previous album and helps to make greater sense of what’s around it.
You could say that pop is the key to unlocking the album. I’ll certainly be giving the album a second chance, searching for the person aching to be loved.
Taster Track : I Needed You
Ulaan : Enji
They say fortune favours the brave. Let’s put that to the test with an album of Mongolian jazz. The reward is to experience a collection of unusual pieces of uncanny beauty.
Mongolian jazz? Let me answer the question you’re bursting to ask, with tremors of fear in your voice.
There is no throat singing on this album.
It’s true that on a track such as ‘Libelle’ Enji conjures up new and wordless sounds that may trigger a WTF moment for you, but they're essentially tongue clicks and smacking lips, more akin to the scat of jazz than anything else.
Her vocals are clear and Western even when singing in her native tongue. It’s weird, but that becomes most apparent in the traditional song ‘Temeen Derees Naran Oirhon’. It’s a sudden step back in time and perhaps a step too far.
This is music that may be jazz influenced, but the vocals are closer to folk singing with their warmth. The melodies would be recognisable across the world. In ‘Ulaan’ the drums and woodwind concoct a complex interwoven path but her vocals pick a melody that carries you safely through.
This is quiet and sparse music, made familiar by the guitar and woodwind but made strange in the same way that Sigur Ros’ made up language sounds exotic. In another field, it’s like Ballet Rambert in taking something familiar (music or movement) and stretching boundaries.
‘Zuud’ is a gentle opener. Highly subdued to begin with, it highlights her voice and provides reassurance that, if we don’t know exactly what’s coming, it’s likely to be manageable. ‘Taivshral’ makes a feature of muffled drums that recur through the album. In ‘Vogl’ the music presses gently back and forth like the first steps in the elaborate dance of a ritual courtship. That sense of a ceremony is a good analogy for that album as a whole.
To repeat my opening line. Fortune favours the brave and, in this unusual album, the rewards are worth having.
Taster Track : Taivshral
Under Utopia : Skeleten
Skeleten offers chilled electronica from Australia that’s a fair way from sunny beaches and cascading waves, but is a satisfying listen nonetheless.
Listening to this album is like entering a deep plunge pool that is warm near the surface but colder as you sink further down. It’s music that asks you to surrender to it. You’ll be willing to do so while acknowledging the risk of ceding control to a charismatic performer who may not have your best interests at heart.
Skeleten is persuasive. The pulse of ‘Generator’, the beats of ‘Territory Day’ and the rhythms underpinning the music and lyrics are like a deceptively still whirlpool drawing you in with invisible currents.
It’s chilled without euphoria, straddling the border between downtempo and something lighter, more infectious. To return to that dark deep plunge pool, it’s the sequence of three songs -’Under Utopia’, ‘Colour Room’ and ‘Right Here It’s Only Love’ - that takes you furthest from the surface. They feel a little heavy, weighed down by the lack of pulse, rhythm and melody.
The rhythm of ‘Sharing The Fire’ starts the ascent. ‘Everything We Need In The World’ avoids simplicity and cynicism to bring you back to a level that feels born again.
For an act aimed at the club, even if it’s the chill down room rather than the dance floor, Skeleten likes his words. It’s the lyrics that provide much of the rhythm through their fractured phrasing and intense and obsessive repetition. They also add an edge to the songs with their imagery. In ‘Territory Day’ he admits:
“ I wanna use your love
Max it out
Choke me with it.”
Note by note, these songs may feel too subdued but stick with them. Songs such as ‘Mirrored’, ‘No Drones In The Afterlife’ and ‘Everything We Need In The World’ slow burn into something quite addictive.
This is a record that sounds good and is never less than absorbing.
Taster Track : Mirrored
Panama Shift : Wave Temples
Here are twenty bursts of bright electronica from an act that keeps a low profile and an air of mystery about it. You may not dislike this record, but you may also find it hard to know how to recommend it to others!
This is weird and strange indeed. It has few beats and rhythms, only the occasional pulse, seemingly random notes and motifs, a lot of effects and a continuous thread of animal noises, birdsong and water trickling through it. It’s not hypnotic or soothing. Neither does it transport you inwardly or externally to a happier place, It’s noodly - bright and full of sunshine, but noodly.
Imagine a world where an island has remained out of touch with the rest of the world, but has somehow discovered all the things necessary to make electronica. Their concept of music is different from ours and what they produce is untainted by Western and Eastern influences. If you’re a musical anthropologist, this is for you.
For the rest of us, it’s like modern art. We can sense that there is more behind it than appears on the surface. We can appreciate that it must be difficult to create such sounds but it could remind us of a child let loose in a synth filled studio and invited to play around. Listening to this though is like visiting a food festival where you can sniff the produce but not taste it. Something vital is missing.
‘Key of Youth’ and ‘Emerald Nights’ are ambient pieces that play with effects and motifs but generate no more than polite interest. ‘The Fountain of Living’ throbs and vibes its way through three minutes without giving anything of substance to hang on to.
Despite all that, a track such as ‘Splendid Macaw and the Rotan Initiate’ shows that these pieces can be curiously pleasing, if only in small doses.
Wave Pictures - they’re either a genius or a musical charlatan.
Taster Track : Splendid Macaw and the Rotan Initiate
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