Brinsley Schwartz, Chorusing, Coldharbourstores, Elder Island, Stephen Duffy, Steve Gunn, Toyah
This Week's Music
After last week's domination of the reviews by women, this week sees the boys (including Chorusing, a one man band performing under a group name) bounce back.
On to the music...
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
Dearly Devoted : Coldharbourstores
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”
A few months ago I attended a talk about blog writing. One of their golden rules was never to start a piece with a quote. The thinking was that if you want people to read your blogs, don’t get someone else to do your work for you, even Shakespeare. The thing is though, that this quote perfectly captures the effect of this album in sound and content. So to earn my keep, I’d better explain why.
This isn’t an album to set the pulse racing. It soothes rather than agitates. It’s a rare thing, a respite from troubles or an eye of the 21st century storm. It called to mind a lovely dream that offers safety, security, friendship and a sense of supportive community, perhaps to or from the dearly devoted of the title. When waking you know it’s all been a dream, but you still feel filled with a sense of wellbeing and a warm positive outlook for the day ahead. It’s felt most strongly on ‘Amy’, an ethereal sound resting on a melodic drone.
It’s a seductive sound. I may be guilty of painting a picture that’s akin to the enticements to join a cult, but it’s more like music heard through a Valium haze where worries can be suppressed. It’s a form of shoegaze, but a kinder, wiser sibling full of chiming guitars rather than jangling melodies or crashing chords. It is, undeniably, lovely.
There’s another reason that quoting Shakespeare is appropriate here. In the past, Coldharbourstores have displayed a literary bent, musically interpreting the poetry of James Joyce. Poetry can be a challenge, resting on allusion and imagery rather than the structure and story of fiction. ‘Dearly Devoted’ bears a similar relation to indie rock and pop.
There’s definitely a place for this gorgeous and calming music in troubled times. And if, on waking from its spell, you feel that the world is a less harsh, more welcoming place, so much the better.
Taster Track : Amber
The Ups And Downs : Stephen Duffy
Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy isn’t the first name that springs to mind when recalling the stars of the 80s. His debut album though is so full of perfect pop music that it should be mandatory Monday morning listening.
Duffy is a man who has generally kept beneath the radar throughout his career. He was a founding member of Duran Duran, but left before they broke through. This is his debut solo album, Since turning solo he has formed Dr Calculus and the more pastoral, folky The Lilac Time. His 6833 fans are relatively few if the number of Lilac Time Twitter followers is any guide - Olly Murs, to pick a name at random, has 6.9m followers - but they are intensely loyal, gasping for new music from his various incarnations all the time. It all started with this album, and what a place to start. It’s a mystery how I’ve let this record pass me by until now.
This album turns back the clock with rejuvenating force to a world of optimism, promise and new love. It’s a world of office work, petrol station forecourts and commuting but it still finds brightness amidst the grey. It’s a different sound, but it draws on the same well of Englishness that fuelled The Kinks, Madness and The Jam.
This album sounds so good even 35 years or more after its release. It’s certainly not Tin Tin tinny. There’s much more to this album than the standard mid 80s synth pop performance. He wasn’t, and isn’t, an artist to follow the crowd. Songs such as ‘A Masterpiece’ show him making his own stamp on the synth music scene. Just listen to ‘Wednesday Jones’ or ‘The World At Large Alone’ for evidence that he never relied on the synthesiser to do his work for him.
In no shape or form is this an album with 8 tracks of filler in support of the two lead singles. The quality is exceptional throughout. But in my mind it’s a fact that ‘Kiss Me’ is the perfect song for the office party - the implication of inappropriate behaviour notwithstanding - and ‘Icing On The Cake’ is simply and absolutely perfect, an addictive sugar rush of pop that never wears out its welcome. It peaked at number 14 in the charts. I’m baffled that it didn’t rule the pop world for weeks.
His gift for melody has never faded but it reached a pinnacle on this album. I’m shocked to read on Wikipedia that Duffy didn’t like ‘The Ups And Downs’, calling it a mess. It’s not. It’s a lost treasure.
Taster Track : Icing On The Cake
And The Rest
Tangled : Brinsley Schwartz
Brinsley Schwartz’s new solo album is an unassuming gem of strong and melodic countrified rock and roll.
In my mind Brinsley Schwartz (the man, not the band) has assumed mythical status. In part it’s because lending his name to the band, foregrounds his contribution to pub rock and all that followed. But it’s also because of the influence he’s had on, and shared with, Nick Lowe - probably my favourite musician ever. I feel I owe him a debt of immense gratitude even before I’ve heard a note he’s played.
Schwartz has never sought the limelight and this record won’t change that. He’s comfortable under the radar, playing music with evident enjoyment but allowing others to take centre stage. After Brinsley Schwartz (the band) folded in the 1970s, he became a member of The Rumour (as in Graham Parker and the Rumour), playing the right kind of music in the right kind of way.
It’s easy to imagine him playing this collection in the corner of a pub, playing to a crowd that is as interested in its pint as it is in the music. The opening 90 seconds to ‘All Day’ even suggest that he could be outside the pub busking to passers by.
He’s an unshowy performer with strong, unfussy songs that have a simplicity and sweetness to them. ‘Storm In The Hills’ is a chugging 12 bar blues song topped off with some boogie woogie piano. His songs are filled with the kind of melodies that sound as if they could become extended jams at any moment, soaring cosmically without knowing how to stop.
He doesn’t have a rock star’s voice. It’s sincere, experienced and a touch defeated. It doesn’t sound as if it’s been taken care of, husky rather than gravelly, and that’s a big part of its appeal.
Occasionally I find myself wondering why I am so attracted to pop music. One reason is its infinite quality and diversity, the fact that it will never become stale because if you scratch the surface you’ll uncover a quiet, understated gem such as this.
Taster Track : You Drive Me To Drink
Mirror : Chorusing
Chorusing offer a melancholic and challenging collection of music that won’t be to everyone’s taste but is nonetheless beautifully done.
I’ve learned something through writing this blog over the last few months. It’s this. If I’m more concerned with what I’m going to write about a record than I am about listening to it, it’s not working for me no matter how good it is. I thought hard about what to write about ‘Half Mirror’.
As I’ve said before, you can take a lot about the music on an album from the cover. I’m grateful to Beats Per Minute for the information that “Fittingly Half Mirror‘s cover art is actually a visual translation of its songs’ waveforms.” I’m not surprised. This record feels scientifically drawn together. It’s full of electronic or electronically treated sounds. Repetitive loops are overlaid with conventional sounds slightly bent and twisted out of shape. It’s music for the perfect hifi or headphones. It reflects one man’s passion for what he can achieve with a synth and guitar. And even though it’s not appealing to me, it’s a definite achievement.
The music is beatless. (The second ‘s’ is important for managing expectations.) This isn’t pop music. It’s music to be taken seriously and with gravitas, played by a serious musician for serious listeners. It struck me as cold and unwelcoming, the sound of being lost in, and meandering through, a frozen wasteland. It’s an atmospheric record full of musings and meditations rather than songs.
This album is an admirable expression of one man’s musical vision, consistently delivered. If you can buy into that you’ll be hooked. Unfortunately it was not for me.
Taster Track : Watching The Beams
Swimming Static : Elder Island
This collection of electronic pop is hard to define, but surprisingly good given the influences that appear to have formed it.
I need to be careful here because I’m about to give you an analogy that could turn you off this record forever, and before you read or listen any further. Here goes. The world’s most expensive coffee is supposed to be Kopi Luwak coffee. This is made from coffee beans that are partially digested and then pooped out by the civet, a catlike creature. Turning poo into coffee may be smaller scale than turning base metal into gold, but it’s a work of alchemy nonetheless. It’s also the trick that Elder Island pull off with this record.
Let me explain. Opening track ‘Embers’ is a cello led piece with chanted background vocals that come straight out of Enya. The vocals remind me of Jess Glynne singing with Clean Bandit. I’ve never been a big fan of either of these acts. This album seems to stand to one side of today’s music in the way that Moloko did in the 90s. Aside from the majestic ‘The Time Is Now’ they’ve never really worked for me. The whole album harks back to an unfashionable mid 90s period. And yet, out of these unpromising beginnings, Elder Island have fashioned an album that is a positive statement piece rather than the sound of the crowd.
To be fair there are good influences too. The shadow of Massive Attack, Pet Shop Boys and the lighter songs of New Order also plays a part in forming the sound of this record.
What nails this record is the solid electronic backing that ties everything together, pinning down what would otherwise be an elusive listen. It propels tracks such as ‘Purely Educational’ forward, helps tracks such as ‘Here Am I’ to swirl around you and turns a track such as ‘Sacred’ into a fully immersive tune. It makes sense of the random influences that, individually, could have you exiting stage left
The title of the album is interesting, perhaps even misleading. Static swimming is a form of water exercise where the swimmer is tethered to the shore or poolside so that they can exercise without going anywhere - the aquatic equivalent of the exercise bike. This album though is all about movement. The songs march forward and spiral all around. It’s on the occasional track where this doesn’t happen, such as ‘Late At Night’, that the album sags just a little. And, if the static in the title refers to the sound of distortion and interference in the songs, that doesn’t apply either. It’s a beautifully clean sound allowing each element of the song to come through clearly.
Taster Track : Purely Educational
Other You : Steve Gunn
Steve Gunn returns with a fuller sounding album that, if a little less intimate than before, is still a connoisseur’s treat.
Steve Gunn is an out and out musician rather than a rock star distracted by the trappings of celebrity. His last album, ‘The Unseen Inbetween’, contained a gorgeous song called ‘Luciano’ about his pet. He may not be able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but he can certainly beat Andrew Lloyd Weber at being musical about cats.
This time around there's more going on than one man and his guitar. He used to sound like a man with a welcoming and reassuring voice, sitting on his porch coaxing magic from his guitar. This time around you can tell he’s been in the studio and the magic flows more from the production than directly from the songs.
He’s added layers of character and texture to his songs and they are a little less personal as a result. There’s lots of attention to detail so that the songs are exactly right - the closing flourish of the cymbals on ‘Good Wind’ for example. It’s all good stuff but it means that you notice what he is doing rather than immersing and losing yourself in the music. There’s only one track where you sense he’s oblivious to his surroundings and anyone listening. It’s the instrumental ‘Sugar Kiss’ which is tinkly, drifting music for its own sake, all atmosphere and nothing more or less.
They’re still beautiful, gentle, and relaxed songs though, a splash of balm and a breath of evening breeze for the soul.
Taster Track : Protection
Posh Pop : Toyah
Toyah’s new album is bound to appeal to those who yearn for a return to the heyday of epic 80s synth pop. For the rest of us it may sometimes sound a bit much.
Toyah is nothing if not loyal to her initial fanbase. In those early album covers and publicity shots, she’s a feral, warrior, faerie queen and that reflected her music pretty well. On the cover of Posh Pop the hair remains carefully, and maybe expensively, untamed, but the image is of a society hostess complete with a set of pearls. The music has changed little though.
There’s a sense here of giving her public what they want, despite, or maybe because of, all the changes in the world and her audience. It has the feel of the world of steampunks, Gothic horror, and catastrophe beyond the Thunderdome and of the steampunk community. The default mode provides a sense of time running out and a heightened drama I’d not seen since our grandson forgot where he had left the Percy engine from his Thomas The Tank Engine set just as the latest episode was about to begin.
That sounds harsh. The music is much better than that but over the top. Its epic and squalling synths and screeching guitar, provided by Robert Fripp Mr Toyah contain an undeniable energy. In what it seeks to achieve, it’s scoring 10 out of 10. These are large scale songs with excellent production values that will work brilliantly on the festival stage. It’s just that too often they sound a little overblown.
A couple of tracks, ‘Barefoot On Mars’ and ‘Take Me Home’ show what could have been. They successfully blend the musical drama of her early sound, with the softening of mature experience and calmer vocals. They are her equivalent of Star Wars’ Princess Leia returning in ‘The Force Awakens’, maintaining her reputation and not to be messed with, whilst allowing her hard earned experience and maturity their place.
Taster Track : Take Me Home