Charlie Hunter and Lucy Woodward, Glok, Magdalena Bay, Martha Gunn, Martha Marlow Roxanne De Bastion, Saint Etienne, Self Esteem,
Album Cover of the Week
No album cover truly stood out for me this week, but Magdalena Bay's cover for ;Mercurial World' has a soft and curvy lave lamp kind of appeal which is quite restful on the eye. Their publicity shots, including the one included alongside the review below are nicely colourful and cheery too.
This Week's Music
Unusually this week featured a couple of albums that I did not like at all. I always feel bad if I can't extract something positive from the effort that goes into making an album. On the other hand it's also reassuring when it happens because you can't like everything. you have to be able to recognise that not everything is your cup of tea and be prepared to explain why. That's the tricky part.
I off-set my guilty awkwardness when this happens by linking to a review that shows the album in a more positive light.
Fortunately there were also three albums I liked a lot, and a few more that were also very enjoyable.
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
I'm A Stranger Here : Charlie Hunter and Lucy Woodward
I’m not the biggest blues fan in the world, but Charlie Hunter and Lucy Woodward may just have won me over with their transformed covers from pop, rock, soul and jazz.
Sometimes my heart sinks when I see what I’ll be listening to that morning. But just as you’re eating a Kit Kat and you bite into a stick of solid chocolate, life is always capable of springing a pleasant surprise. That’s what happened here.
According to Wikipedia, Charlie Hunter plays custom-made seven- and eight-string guitars on which he simultaneously plays bass lines, chords, and melodies. That’s a little overwhelming to think about, but it sounds amazing. Lucy Woodward is a jazz singer who has sung with a number of bands at the funk and rock end of the jazz spectrum.
They’ve made a covers album. And we all know that a covers album is the last, desperate refuge of bands and musicians that have run out of ideas.
These songs are drawn from unlikely sources and transformed into something completely different. Giving these songs to bluesmen, is like giving the Internet to cavemen and receiving the response “Interesting! We can do something with that.”
It’s a tribute to their success that it took a few tracks for me to realise that these were covers. ‘You're The One That I Want’ was the first song I recognised and it came as a surprise that another song I know, and had already heard (The Cars ‘You Might Think’) is unrecognisable and very good indeed. Anita Ward’s ‘Ring My Bell’ is another 70s classic (sort of) that benefits from their makeover talents. ‘Gloomy Sunday’ is performed with crystal clarity so that there can be no doubt why it was banned across the globe
The guitar playing is wonderful, the kind you can listen to for large portions of the day without ever tiring of the sound. The vocals are spot on, sufficiently bluesy and rasping to sound authentic. One of the key qualities of this record is its restraint. They know when to leave you wanting more and they avoid the histrionic wig outs that are simply too, too much.
Inventive, creative and expertly performed. This record is an object lesson in the benefits of keeping an open mind.
Taster Track : You’re The One That I Want
I've Been Trying To Tell You : Saint Etienne
It’s rare for a band to carry out so many interviews before the launch of their album to manage expectations. Saint Etienne were keen to stress before release that this album was different. It’s different for them and it’s different from anything else I’ve heard recently. It’s also unusual for an album to puzzle and underwhelm some listeners quite as much. A friend who I’d describe as the biggest Saint Etienne fan I know summed up his response as “Hmm. I’m not sure.”
I absolutely loved this record.
It’s the most unified record I’ve heard from them. It’s textured, immersive and absolutely absorbing, best heard in its entirety through headphones. Sarah Cracknell plays a different role here, embedded in the music rather than leading it with her vocals. The music emerges from the speakers like honey spilt from a jar.
It’s not an album of club classics like early Saint Etienne, nor is it a set of suburban pop vignettes in the vein of their more recent work. It’s a development of both to make something fresh. It’s ambient music, with the emphasis firmly on music.
I read on an American website ( Brooklyn Vegan - nothing to do with dietary requirements.) that the album was the result of sampling and slowing down mostly forgotten UK pop hits from 1997 - 2001 (Natalie Imbruglia, The Lighthouse Family, Samantha Mumba, and more). I must admit I didn’t pick up on this while listening to it which is a testimony to how the sound has been transformed. It also explains why the music continues to sound so accessible even while it is very different. It’s nothing to be frightened of.
There’s an undercurrent of sadness running through this album. It’s the sound of carrying on regardless in the wake of losing something special and that makes it a record for our times as well as an elegy for past memories. It’s th pure, distilled essence of nostalgia.
This gorgeous collection is unlike anything Saint Etienne have released before. To be honest, it’s unlike anything anyone has released for some time.This is an album to wash over you, to give in to. It’s a work of beauty and a career high for a band with a fair few of these to their name.
Taster Track : Penlop
Prioritise Pleasure : Self Esteem
This is a bold, RnB influenced statement album, with great tunes.
Self Esteem is angry with men. No, that’s not quite true. She’s angry about some men, their attitudes, and how they impact on how she and other women feel. Fortunately she’s able to draw attention to this through her songs which are bitter but humorous, distorted but accessible, euphoric but sad. Sometimes, what needs to be said cannot be said subtly. It’s the gospel according to Self Esteem, and it’s worth listening to.
She’s thrown a lot into the mix here. There are big pounding beats, and choruses that build euphorically and, strangely, could come straight out of a public uprising. That may be what she wants to achieve. There are interesting effects scattered across the record - the clicking in ‘Fucking Wizardry’ and the plucked, almost Easter sounding, guitar string of ‘It’s Been A While’.
There are out and out pop songs too - ‘You Forever’ for one - but there are also elements that are distorted, as if incredulous at the reality she sings about. And undercutting the protective armour of bitterness there’s sadness too that, despite her best intentions, she’s been brought low.
Towering above the whole record is the almighty ‘I Do It All The Time’. In its personal world weary and bitingly funny take on Baz Luhrman’s ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’ it’s a contender not just for Song of the Year, but for Song of the Decade.
This is one of the great, defiant response records of recent years. It’s a response to misogyny, sexism and those who would undervalue you. It’s also an exhilarating blast of a record.
Taster Track : I Do It All The Time
And The Rest
Pattern Recognition : Glok
This epic of electronica defeated me. I’m not proud of that.
My daughter once explained to me that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy. It’s the absence of any feeling about a person. The same rule applies to records too.
I had high expectations for this record. I like Andy Bell's revitalised Ride group a lot.
This is a mammoth production running to 80 minutes, and opening with ‘Dirty Hugs’, a 19 minute and 57 second introduction. It’s too much. Some music poses as big a challenge to the listener as it does to the performer. Wrapping my ears around this is like attempting to carry a huge inflatable zorbing ball. It can’t be done. A gentler introduction to the album, a more gradual immersion in its sounds and concept would help.
I thought back to records that have been similarly challenging but that finally made their mark. I attempted to force myself into a trance-like state and let the music wash over me. I was as successful at that as I am when I scream inwardly at myself to go to sleep. I spoke sternly to myself not to be distracted by books on the shelf, the early morning sun or the siren call of Facebook. I adjusted my position on the settee to make myself more comfortable. And then I did it again. And again.
The really annoying thing is that there was nothing here to dislike. It’s perfectly listenable but it doesn’t transport me to a better place as the best electronic music does. It’s listenable but it doesn’t get off the ground; it shifts shape but it doesn’t build. Quite simply it doesn’t engage.
It did leave one impression. It sounds like a lonely man in a deserted studio playing competently with the equipment. And I think it’s that feeling I took, rightly or wrongly, that made listening to this a lonely experience. It’s the same feeling that comes from opting to see the latest art house film when everyone else has opted for the latest Bond film.
There are moments that broke through the apathy. ‘That Time Of Night’ has a rhythmical focus that worked well. ‘Kintsugi’ has some drama in it. Ultimately though, with 30 minutes of the album remaining I gave in to the cat’s insistent demands for her morning feed and didn’t return.
As I have said before, if I am unable to find anything positive about an album, it’s probably me. I like to offer a balancing view from other reviewers. Glok’s explanation of what he sought to achieve is on Bandcamp at Bandcamp Commentary. Clash magazine’s review is more positive, although it also acknowledges some of the aspects I felt too. It’s at Clash Music.
Taster Track : That Time Of Night
Mercurial World : Magdalena Bay
As synth pop albums go, this is an undemanding and pleasant listen that’s unlikely to trigger a disco inferno.
There’s a title towards the end of this album, ‘ Dreamcatching’, that could stand as a description of the whole. The title captures the idea of chasing something temporary and insubstantial and converting them into songs that are super shiny and brighter and more vivid than real life could ever be.
It sounds as if it comes from a different world, a bubble kept afloat on an updraft of helium. It’s a fairground ride on a merry go round, avoiding the thrills of the roller coaster. It’s as light and frothy as candy floss, and ultimately about as satisfying. All that’s captured in the quavery, wavery vocals.
Tracks run together and it’s sometimes hard to tell where one ends and the next one begins. ‘Lite’ is the right expression - dance lite, melody lite and ultimately substance lite. There are little fragments that stick - the 70s MOR fade out to ‘Hysterial Us’, the bass of ‘Prophecy’ and the opening line melody to ‘Mercurial World - but they don’t require your full attention.
There’s the odd blast of something scuzzier as when something from another dream abruptly intrudes on the one you’re currently enjoying. Musically it’s a bit cluttered in places. Content falls in on itself or overlaps other parts of the tune that are in full swing.
It’s an appealing and pleasant enough sound and I don’t mean to damn with faint praise in saying that. There’s an audience that will lap this up, just as there are coffee shop customers who swear by a decaf cappuccino. But, as with the decaf cappuccino, there’s something missing in the mix.
Taster Track : Mercurial World
Something Good Will Happen : Martha Gunn
This is a collection of big songs about personal crises. It’s going to sound mean, but who cares?
Something about this album irritates me. It’s not just that it’s overwrought in places and that too much in the songs is made of too little. Neither is it just that it sounds too calculated, too lacking in genuine feeling as if the silver lining to every upset is that the band may be able to make a song out of it. It’s not even because I’m worried I may be missing something that everyone else spots. At heart it’s because it sounds outdated while purporting to be something fresh and new, the comeback of the turn of the millennium diva in a band setting.
Martha Gunn, and they’re a band not a solo performer, have a very competent, professional sound. They’re good enough to take a few risks but they don’t, to be more adventurous but they stay safe, and to be more memorable but I can’t remember if they are or not.. Everything seems tightly planned, as carefully posed as the band appear on the cover.
The band do their best to reflect the torments affecting Abi Woodman, the singer, providing an urgent musical maelstrom to back her up. There’s a lot going on perhaps in the belief that a big and busy sound is a substitute for real substance. They’re wrong.
It’s an album that sounds made for headlining stadiums and festivals or, more likely, the kind of sound that true headlining acts want to support them, setting the tone with no danger of blowing them away.
There’s a tantalising glimpse of a much better album in the track ‘See You Again’. It’s a simpler, more natural song that is given space to breathe and suffused with genuine sentiment and feeling.
I said upfront that this review might seem mean. Perhaps it’s only me that silently screams “Get a grip!” as the songs pour through the headphones. For the second time this week I’m offering an alternative view and review, this time from the good people at The Indie Squid Indie Squid Martha Gunn Review.
Taster Track : See You Again
Medicine Man : Martha Marlow
Martha Marlow is in a long line of singer songwriters stretching back to the 60s, but she enhances her one woman, one guitar sound with gorgeous string arrangements that give her music something special.
Martha is an Australian artist (painting and musical) bedevilled by poor health. She’s known down under for singing a Randy Newman cover on an advert for Qantas. Don’t scoff, it sounds as if it’s a big deal along the lines of the John Lewis Christmas song here.
One of the things about this album is that her influences go way back, providing a continuity with pop’s past that keeps it strong. She has 70s singer songwriter in her DNA, leavened by pinches of folk, jazz singing and chamber pop. She’s absorbed so much it’s hard to pick apart.
This reminded me of Sunday morning Radio 1 in the 70s, easy to dismiss as soft, album oriented music for grown ups. It’s a time when Rickie Lee Jones and Joan Armatrading were names to conjure with. It’s a long way from the glossy TOTP programme glam, punk, new wave and disco that would have kept your average young teenager such as me entertained at the time. Fortunately what goes around, comes around. Her blend of personal experience, understanding and songwriting ability is a whole different world and one suited to more mature ears.
This isn’t a corporate album by any means, but an honest and revealing one that doesn’t have one eye on airplay stats and chart position. She’s allowed to be herself.
Martha has hurt in her eyes and sincerity in her clear, pure and natural voice. It’s allowed to take centre stage in songs such as ‘Glow’ before the gorgeous string arrangements come in to lift the performance out of the intimate 50 seater venue into the concert hall. The strings are as essential to the overall sound as the shape of petals is to the essence of a rose.
As a genre this may not be to everyone’s taste. It takes time to appreciate and savour properly and it doesn’t provide the instant hit of the 3 minute single. But it’s an impeccably performed set of songs with weight and substance, and you can’t ask for more than that.
Taster Track : Don’t Think Too Hard
You And Me, We Are The Same : Roxanne De Bastion
Roxanne De Bastion’s songs are an addition to the tradition of sincere and heartfelt songwriting, with a sprinkling of unexpected indie pop fairy dust. It’s as stylish as her name.
There’s a split personality at play in this record, and both halves are producing good songs. On the one hand she has a scientific eye. If the songs aren’t explicitly about science and technology, they suggest that Artificial Intelligence has inspired the images in the songs. ‘Molecules’, ‘I Remember Everything’, ‘Delete, Forget, Repeat’ and ‘Erase’ - it’s as if HAL, the rogue computer in 2001 ‘A Space Odyssey’ has been rebooted with an understanding of human emotion and empathy.
On the other hand, as the album proceeds she retreats more into her own world and a more Celtic influence comes into play. That’s a Celtic influence that suggests a world of skewed magic. In ‘London I Miss You’ a simple ballad of heartfelt longing ends with the sounds of a busy city heard through a foggy dreamscape. If anyone has felt detached from the vibrancy of a city during the pandemic, this song is for you.
She doesn’t sound Celtic, mind, but I was constantly reminded of the Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan at her most restrained, and sounding her prettiest.
She’s not afraid to try something different. There is no Roxanne De Bastion template at work here. She picks the sound that is right for each song. ‘Molecules’ starts with a nice slice of indie pop to grow into an out and out thrash rocker. ‘The Weight’ adopts more restraint and offers a slow build to its climax. ‘I Remember Everything’ and ‘Ordinary Love’ are slices of euphoric pop. The common thread is that each song is insistent in its own way.
This is an album that, with its range of styles, will appeal across the generations and to anyone who values singers who write good songs without falling into a restrictive mould.
Taste track : I Remember Everything