Updated: Mar 15
Basia Bulat, Elizabeth & the Catapult, Isaac Gracie, The Jazz Butcher, Nick Goss (with Jim Wallis), Pip Blom, Smile, Veda Hille
Album Cover of the Week
It was another strong field for Album Cover of the Week this week. I could have gone with the charm of Elizabeth & the Catapult's 'Taller Children' or the personal image captured by the Jazz Butcher's 'The Highest In The Land'. I very nearly went with then sense of flowing water on the cover of Nick Goss' 'Pool' except that it definitely was not related to the music or concept on the record.
Instead I could hardly resist the four for the price of one offer afforded by Pip Blom's 'Welcome Break'. Each of the four images might have won the accolade on their own.
This Week's Music
It's been interesting listening this week, with artists trying different thing with varying levels of success. I'd rather commend performers for trying something new but falling short, than applaud a band for following the latest trend and working well within their comfort zone.
So I guess that makes me more Radiohead than U2, more Alt-J than Coldplay and more Miles Davis than Michael Buble. (Umm...... actually I'm not sure about that last one!)
Here are the reviews.
The Highest In The Land : The Jazz Butcher
The Jazz Butcher’s first new album for 10 years, and sadly posthumous, is full of top quality songs and a fitting tribute to his career.
Pat Fish died unexpectedly of a heart attack last year. Ever since Bowie died there’s a temptation to comb over posthumous albums to search for clues, messages and meanings that only come to the fore in the knowledge of what happened. Here, we can point to ‘Running On Fumes’ as evidence that Fish was conscious of time running out. His recitation of those no longer with us - “Lemmy, Bowie, Prince”, and many more - makes that clear. Equally in your face is the deduction you can draw from the final track ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’. The final sung words are four times “Goodnight sweetheart” ending in a chilling with hindsight, spoken ‘Goodnight’.
It’s the feel of the album that has the bigger impact though. ‘Amalfi Coast May 1963’ may not give any personal information but it’s an achingly nostalgic, sentimental and sweet instrumental that perfectly captures not just fond memories but the sadness at what has been lost.
One of the biggest compliments I can pay The Jazz butcher is that he is an essayist set to music. And like any good essayist, every word and the flow of every line is carefully considered. He’s a musical commentator who picks up on the telling details and conveys them with barely contained anger and disgust.
He’s adept at different musical styles, borrowing from lounge pop swing , the blues and straightforward indie pop and creating a marriage with his words that makes the styles all his own.
Vocally, he sounds like an early Lloyd Cole. Lyrically he’s in the same ballpark as The Divine Comedy, although that should be the other way round as The Jazz Butcher came first.
Under normal circumstances this would have been a very good album. It’s turned into something special by his untimely death at 63, which coats everything with an elegiac sheen, mixed with our regret that there’s no more to come and, perhaps, that we didn’t celebrate him more while he was alive.
Taster Track : Melanie Hargreave’s Father’s Jaguar.
... And The Rest
Garden : Basia Bulat
Canadian pop folk singer, Basia Bulat, revisits her back catalogue in this collection reimagining it for an orchestral backing. It’s a brave idea but, sadly, brave ideas don’t always work.
On the one hand we have a singer who has a nice line in intimate pop folk. On the other, we have a full blown string orchestra more than capable of filling big concert halls. Something has to give, and it’s the intimate pop.
This is like a bowl of school semolina pudding with a dollop of jam on top. It might taste good when it’s mixed together, but until then there’s a lot of semolina to be consumed. It’s a clash of tastes that doesn’t quite work. We know Basia can produce good songs, and the instrumental ‘Windflowers’ shows that the orchestra can own a good tune, whatever its source. It’s when they come together that something goes awry, like two pieces of a jigsaw that don’t quite fit each other.
Maybe it’s the production. The orchestra sounds too busy and too trebly, tending towards a sound that is shrill, not rich. Basia’s voice, which once was sweet, now sounds forced. Strangely, its folkiness is emphasised. There’s nothing wrong with that but it highlights the uncomfortable clash of styles.
There’s something very 1960s about this, the over dramatic 60s where the ambition to be taken seriously trumped the simple pleasures of pop. The introduction of a simple guitar to some tracks comes as a relief, something to hold onto like an old acquaintance met at a party where you know no one else.
It’s by no means a total dud. The backing emphasises the vocal melodies which are as sweet and down to earth as you could wish for. ‘Already Forgiven’ and ‘Are You In Love?’ strike a better balance. Overall it’s a collaboration that could work well live in a concert hall.
I’ll give it 8/10 for the idea and its ambition but two or three marks less for its execution.
Taster Track : Are You In Love?
Taller Children : Elizabeth & The Catapult
This debut album from 2009, is a mix of the quirky and the big ballad. It’s an appealing if not entirely successful listen.
Think of this album as her calling card. She’s using it to showcase both her creativity and her voice, which is an attractive one. The trouble is, they don’t quite fit together. If you met her, you’d never be quite sure which Elizabeth you’d get. In a weird way the songs conjure up a picture of tomboy Elizabeth with her catapult as she changes into adult Elizabeth with grown up concerns and feelings.
If she were a TV performer, she’d have had one of those Saturday evening variety shows that mix quirky songs, ballads to show her serious side and goofy humour. There are plenty of ideas fizzing around on this album and whilst she has a strong strike rate, they don’t all work.
It’s breezy, bright and a little off centre. It’s also reflective and uncertain in places. The upbeat songs give the album its character. The quieter songs are always pleasant, but less distinctive.
She covers a Leonard Cohen song ‘Everybody Knows’. She starts it with a backing limited to a single, pounded beat and sings over it. The beat is like someone knocking at the studio door to interrupt the session. It switches with the first chorus to a busier sound led by slightly manic strings before swinging back to a plucked guitar and that pounding beat. While all this is going on it’s easy to lose sight of the song’s humour and wit. ‘Taller Children’ is a more successful attempt. It captures the sense of busy working lives in the city through the way it's played, while the image of taller children pulls the song together.
If it’s a slightly flawed debut, it’s an appealingly enthusiastic and well meaning one with much to like.
Taster Tracker : Taller Children.
Isaac Gracie : Isaac Gracie
Isaac Gracie introduces himself as a fine songwriter, with a collection that is both radio friendly and possessing enough depth to endure.
I’m always a little concerned when someone is hailed as the new Nick Drake. That always brings the risk of a set of songs that are too delicate and fragile to thrive, like an exotic flower transplanted out of its natural environment.
Gracie is much more robust than that. He carries off the screamed and angry chorus of ‘Since The Death Of You And I’ like a fire and brimstone preacher. He shows all the prime requirements for a classic singer songwriter - good melodies, check; realistic and relatable lyrics, check; appealing voice, most definitely.
His strength is that in a couple of ways he’s a betwixt and between performer. The face staring out from his album cover could be male or female. He’ll appeal to both.
It’s a double-edged strength to describe him as pitched midway between Tom Mcrae and James Blunt. Mcrae was lauded for his debut, which earned him a Brit Award for Best Newcomer and a Mercury Music Prize nomination. It’s easy to forget that Blunt’s debut ‘Back To Bedlam’ was well received critically when it came out. The military experiences reflected in his songs were welcomed as something brave and different. It wasn’t until ‘You’re Beautiful’ smothered the airwaves in warm cotton wool and candy floss that the tide turned against him, never to turn back. The issue for Gracie is that he can face either the Radio 6 crowd or the Radio 2 audience, and may find that he’s a favourite for neither.
His next step will be the clue as to where he sees his future. I hope he avoids the temptation of mass radio play and neutered songs because he has a lot more to offer than that.
Taster Track : Terrified
Pool : Nick Goss (with Jim Wallis)
This collection of deep and dark ambient music is a work of ‘Art’, and like any work of ‘Art’ it can be difficult to absorb.
Nick Goss is an Anglo / Dutch painter and guitarist. Jim Wallis is a multi-instrumentalist with the band Modern Nature who make music that rewards attentive and repeat listening but is not always accessible. This record is inspired by Goss’ artist residency on a trawler in the Adriatic, and you can read more on its background on Rough Trade’s website. Pool Nick Goss Jim Wallis
Just as we can be fairly sure that no one will, on their last day, moan that they didn’t spend enough time at work, we can be pretty certain that no one will say that they wish they’d chosen ‘Pool’ as their Saturday night listening record.
It’s a sombre affair, ambient in the way that music and dialogue half heard as you fall asleep is ambient. As a soundscape it neatly captures the feeling of life on a tanker, particularly the throb of the engines.. Doomladen piano, quiet conversations and stuttering electronica all play their part in setting the mood, tone and atmosphere. Strings join in during ‘Seventh Man’. They’re neither soaring nor sweet but more guarded and menacing.
This feels like heavy music that’s not easy to shrug off. If you strip out the vocals, melody, beats and most of the rhythm from music, this might be what you’re left with. In places it’s unsettlingly slow, just like the tanker that provided the inspiration as it tries to turn to avoid the rocks.
It’s only on the closing track ‘Coral’ that there’s anything gentler and lighter with fewer of the industrial pulses that characterise the rest of the album.
It’s not that I disliked this album. It’s more that I don't feel equipped to understand or appreciate it.
Taster Track : Coral
Welcome Break : Pip Blom
This energetic blast of indie rock recalls the glory days of Britpop, with a few added subtleties.
Pip Blom may have positioned themselves on the brink of becoming the biggest act to come out of the Netherlands ever. They’re that good. Mind you, the list includes only a small handful I’ve ever heard of and most of those are one hit wonders such as Golden Earring, Pussycat and Gruppo Sportivo. I suppose shouldn’t forget the musical legends that were Stars On 45 but you can appreciate that the bar isn’t a particularly high one.
That’s a shame because Pip Blom are capable of seeing off much stiffer competition. They are a band riding the crest of a critical wave and it’s filled them with the confidence that could allow them to become very big indeed.
They have instant appeal and much of it comes from their mastery of proper choruses. It was Roxette who said “Don’t Bore Us, Get To The Chorus” and Pip Blom have taken that advice to heart. ‘You Don’t Want This’ builds several times to a rousing whoop of release. It’s a shoo in for the indie disco. Their intros aren’t bad either. If it’s still true that the first 15 seconds sell a record, ‘It Should Have Been Fun’ is going to go a long way.
They’ve set out their signature sound so well, that it’s easy to overlook the more subtle touches such as the retreat into acoustic guitar and the gently jagged post punk rhythms that propel ‘I Love The City’. There are no gimmicks thrown into the mix to lure in the casual listener. These are songs that set out their stall with an attitude that says “take it or leave it”. I have a slight question mark over whether they sustain the quality over a whole album but that may be a sequencing issue. The closing track ‘Trouble In Paradise’ strikes me as the weakest on the album.
It’s easy to make comparisons with Britpop, particularly to other female fronted bands such as Elastica, Sleeper and Garbage but that doesn’t make them wrong. The songs are also filled with Britpop’s swagger and it’s good to hear.
It’s a strong and likeable album. They’re a bit of a tease though, calling one track ‘I Know I’m Not Easy To Like’. Oh yes you are.
Taster Track : You Don’t Want This
Phantom Island : Smile
This collection from a member of Peter, Bjorn and John (famous for the whistling classic ‘Young Folk’) is an odd but likeable bag of treats.
The clue to the music is in the cover which shows an isolated rock populated by sea birds. It’s a scene that could have been lifted from Charles Darwin’s journals as he travelled the world constructing his theory of evolution. ‘Phantom Island ‘ is the music that results if it evolves free from outside influences, except for a couple of synthesisers washed up on the rocks.
In the mix we have prog rock, synth pop and even disco. To our ears today it sounds a little basic and unrefined, like an uncovered objet d’art that needs polishing to reveal its full beauty. It’s music we recognise but which also hints at a strange imagination at play, and that’s not just a result of the whistling that crops up from time to time.
It’s no surprise that the two strongest tracks are those with the vocals that add a glossy sheen to the raw product. ‘Eon’, featuring Peter, Bjorn and John collaborator Freja The Dragon sounds fully formed and works well. ‘Call My Name’ featuring global superstar Robyn is as bright a piece of dance pop synth as you could wish for. It’s simple, catchy and innocent, the sound of Abba’s grown up grandchildren.
These two songs highlight that without vocals, what’s left in the rest of the album can sometimes sound like a collection of backing tracks in search of a singer. They chug along nicely, rather than flowing or soaring and you grab fragments to remember and cling to as they go past.
Listen to this if you want a glimpse of an appealing parallel musical land that 4/4 time forgot.
Taster Track : Call My Name
Little Volcano : Veda Hille
A lockdown record with a difference, this highly stylised and personal collection of songs may be an acquired taste and makes a challenging album.
I’d never heard of Veda Hille until I listened to an album last year dedicated to her songs. She’s a Canadian singer songwriter, based in Vancouver, who’s clearly able to inspire devotion to her music. I haven’t quite worked out how that might be so.
If any student of music is looking for an idea for a thesis, here’s one you can have for free. How did Covid restrictions change the sound of music? I don’t mean in terms of content and how that became more reflective, but in terms of the changes and compromises artists made just in order to be released. Veda headed for the local theatre where there was a grand piano, grand acoustics and had a grand old time.
These songs sound like songs from an unseen, unwritten musical. With one exception they’re performed with just a piano accompaniment. Her playing looks towards classical rather than pop. Her words are more poetry than lyrics. Her inspiration is more Bach than Bacharach.
Another image that came to mind is that moment in a costume drama when the debutante is encouraged to take to the piano and sing. A group gathers to appreciate the music and look interested. The trouble is, it’s only a distraction. The real action is happening elsewhere, out of sight or in whispered conversations around the room.
That’s what I felt about these songs. They don’t feel like the complete picture. Compared to what we’re used to hearing they’re a work in progress, a set of highly stylised demos.
And yet, there’s still a surprise in store. On the final track, ‘Titanic’, drums pound in and a fully formed song bursts into life. It’s as if a single bud has blossomed on a rose when all around has been lost to the frost. It’s so unexpected it comes as a shock.
Lyrically, they’re impressive if a little obscure. That's the poetry elbowing its way to the front. I liked that, as in ‘Miracles’, some of these are list songs. It’s an approach that builds a picture, even if you’re not sure what it is yet.
As a collection this wasn’t for me. ‘Titanic’ shows what might have been if it weren’t for the restrictive circumstances. Damn that Covid!
Taster Track : Titanic
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