Alex Bleeker, Blood Red Shoes, Clementine March, Kings of Leon, Nothing But Thieves, Steve Lukather, Ted Barnes
This Week's Music
It's been around 4 months now since this blog started, and I found that I had to issue myself with a stern reminder this week about the core purpose of this blog. It is to consider records as they are listened to in the real world.
The reason for this is that I had a wobble about the time it takes to get to some of the bigger releases around. There were quite long delays between the release date and my review date for Paul McCartney, AC/DC and, this week, Nothing But Thieves. But having argued with myself I remembered that the delay is part of the point. It's easy to be caught up in the hype and promotion that builds before release day and allow that to influence what we think for good or ill. In the real world, there's so much good stuff to listen to that albums need to take their turn and that allows for a more sober judgement. That's the theory anyway.
So, if you're wondering if releases from the likes of Four Tet, Idles, Kelly Jones, Lana Del Ray and Tindersticks are likely to receive a mention, be patient. They're coming!
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
The weather has been mixed this week and that means meteorological matters provide the category headings this week.
No scorchers this week.
Warm Summer Evenings
Heaven On The Faultline : Alex Bleeker
This collection of almost flawless pop is a welcome blast of sunshine, packed with charm, bounce and a deep rooted love of the musical past.
It’s confession time. A lot of my listening over the last couple of weeks has been serious stuff, majoring on loss, reflection and vulnerability. You’ve done well to stick with me. Thank you, it’s just the way the selections go sometimes. This record is the perfect antidote. It has a confident lightness that is both refreshing and restorative.
From the off, chirpy opener ‘AB Ripoff’ bounces along like a puppy that’s glad to welcome you home. It’s sharply followed by ‘D Plus’, an ‘A’ grade slice of jangly guitar and “sweet familiar melody” as it’s characterised elsewhere on the album. There’s a breezy briskness to both tracks that sets the tone for what follows. There’s a momentum to songs such as ‘Felty Feel’ that calls to mind that moment when you lose control of your legs while running down hill. ‘La La La’ is the song from which the “sweet familiar melody” quote is taken. It’s a song to which the only valid response is a nodding head and tapping foot. ‘Reach For My Brain’ has an ear catching chorus crammed with sugary harmonies.
What makes this sweet confection more substantial is its feeling for music of the past. The prevailing influence is a Californian Summer of Love jangle guitar vibe with just a dash of psychedelia. There’s a sweet Jonathan Richman naivety to several of the tracks including ‘Parking Lot’ and ‘Tamalpais’ is the kind of song the Velvet Underground deliver in their gentler moments. It’s in the guitar playing.
It’s hard to dislike any element of this record. It’s harder still not to feel boosted by its sunny appeal.
Taster Track : D Plus
Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers
17 Postcards : Ted Barnes
This is a collection of songs that is measured, melodic and quite deliberate in what it sets out to achieve. It’s a thought provoking work that draws fully on Ted Barnes’ experiences writing music for films.
No one writes a novel on postcards. Postcards are for one off snapshots and a collection can cover a timespan in a way that individual songs will not. They're uniquely personal and direct, speaking from one person to another. It’s folk music because it deals with folk in communities and their concerns. At the risk of coming across as a literary nerd, it’s the sound of Thomas Hardy’s minor characters going about their lives while the drama unfolds elsewhere. It’s the sound of the ordinary person addressed in these lines from WH Auden’s poem ‘Musee Des Beaux Arts’.
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
And if you think I’m simply showing off and still proving to my parents that three years of English Literature weren’t completely wasted at university, it’s the sound of Farmer Hoggett in ‘Babe’.
But enough of the essay, what is the sound? Well, each song is subtly different. Whilst all songs are based around thoughtful, unhurried melodies on piano and cello, the range of female vocalists, the banjo on ‘Absence’, the tuba on ‘Over The Fence’, the skittish percussion on ‘Line Them Up, Knock Them Down’ and the trumpet on ‘Metal Man’ all add a different tone. There’s room for jauntiness in ‘Bath Time’ and jocularity in ‘The Winking Eye of Jesus’. The final track, ‘In The Aftermath’ is inconclusive, just like real life. We don’t know what comes next.
This may be a generally quiet album but it has moments of understated epic, as shown on the slow build of ‘Absence’. The percussive elements of ‘Fountain Falls’ work very well with the lovely melodies.
The strength of this quietly moving album also comes from the instrumental tracks that draw on Ted’s experiences of writing music for films and circuses. Yes, circuses. How cool is that?
Taster Track : Fountain Falls
Box Of Secrets : Blood Red Shoes
Industrial strength drumming and force of nature guitars propel this 2008 debut album through your headphones or speakers. It is not a gentle wake up call at 05:50 as I discovered, but it is a refreshing blast of energy.
The ingredients provided by this rock duo are simple : Guitar. Drums. Vocals. That’s it, but their presence blows away a number of larger outfits. They start as they mean to go on with ‘Doesn’t Matter Much’, all loud and forceful, and a template for nearly all that follows. All songs have the requisite powerful riffs and sledgehammer drums. A song like ‘I Wish I Was Someone Better’ has furious energy. It’s an onslaught but bracing, like a raw wind in the face. ‘ADHD’ looks back to the glory days of post punk, doging expectations without selling out the whole. The separate parts bolt together successfully.
These are not songs that use their strength to tell of Norse Gods traversing the seas wielding steel hammers. Thankfully they’re much more down to earth than that. The vocals shout - a lot - not just to be heard above the music but because there’s quite a bit of normal life that’s pissing them off and they’re insistent in letting you know about it. It comes through on ‘This Is Not For You’ which, along with many of the tracks here, has the strong feel of being intended as a song to get the crowds going.
All this is well and good, but to have a lasting impact there needs to be some musicality that lightens the power. Otherwise you might as well start hanging around construction sites without ear protection. It comes from a slightly unexpected source - the backing vocals. The ‘whoo whoos’ and alternating vocals soften the songs just enough to provide something specific to latch on to. ‘It’s Getting Boring By The Sea’ and ‘You Bring Me Down’ highlight this and show the album to be a faster, louder descendent of Britpop rather than continuing a line from hard rock. And there are just enough pauses and stripped back moments to provide the space that allows for momentary respite.
Blood Red Shoes are still going strong. I dipped into their most recent album - 2019’s ‘Get Tragic’ - to see if they had changed. They’ve added to their sound with a minimum of bass guitar and they’ve reined it in a bit too. It’s less compelling but a little easier on the ears. But of the two, I’d go for the plutonium strength force of this debut. It’s the undiluted essence of Blood Red Shoes and I liked it.
Taster Track : You Bring Me down
Moral Panic : Nothing But Thieves
Nothing But Thieves mix rock, electro and some decent melodies to good effect in a surprising (for me) departure from their early stuff.
I last listened to Nothing But Thieves on their self titled debut. I remember it as a pleasant enough, if slightly underwhelming, collection of songs to be grouped together with Coldplay and Snow Patrol. It had one standout track ‘Graveyard Whistling’. I skipped their next two albums but was tempted to ‘Moral Panic’ by a couple of the early reviews.
Now, it may be my faulty recollection, but these guys are a little different now. They’ve muscled up to good effect. ‘Unperson’ tries to fit an awful lot into its three and a half minutes. There are rock riffs, electro explosions and some quiet reflection. ‘Is Everyone Going Crazy?’ combines one of the best glam rock riffs for some time with the kind rockier crossover tunes popularised by Prince in the 90s. They stray into a more bombastic sound with ‘This Feels Like The End’, but the song is rescued by a rather sweet chorus. On ‘Can You Afford To Be An Individual?’ they paint a more dystopian soundtrack from a 1984 future. (I’ve tried to stop the asides in these reviews but we really need a shorthand vision of the future that isn’t 36 years in the past!)
What Nothing But Thieves have added to their sound is presence. It’s a harder sound even on a ballad such as ‘Real Love Song’. A slight downside is that more seems to rest on the production. They’ve wandered up to the line where production robs music of personality. Thankfully they’ve not crossed over yet and there are reminders in tracks such as ‘Free If We Want It’ and ‘Impossible’ that the core songs are good, if a throwback to their slightly wetter past.
I have a good feeling from this album. It’s a consistently listenable collection and better than I was expecting.
Taster Track : Is Everyone Going Crazy?
I Found The Sun Again : Steve Lukather
This collection of soft blues classic rock is enjoyably familiar, without thrilling the listener or demanding their attention.
Disclosure time - I do have a soft spot for classic radio friendly rock. I bow to no one in my liking for AC/DC’s ‘Let There Be Rock, Motorhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’ or ZZ Top’s ‘Sharp Dressed Man’. It’s familiar but thrilling, semi- ridiculous but fun.
There’s much here to enjoy. You’d expect that from Steve Lukather, the founder and only permanent member of Toto, who had their own bona fide soft rock success with ‘Hold The Line back in the 70s. The only trouble is that this record sounds like part of an ongoing quest to repeat that track. It’s well intentioned and expertly delivered, and there’s a certain nobility from a 40 year commitment to a sound that has been growing increasingly unfashionable during that time. And, in truth, there are a few too many moments where, if this was a gig, you’d feel able to slip away to the loo knowing that you wouldn’t miss much and it would still be playing when you returned. You probably wouldn’t miss the last train for it either.
Does that matter? Probably not. It’s not the aim of a record like this to take risks, win hearts or change minds. It’s aim is to replenish the repertoire of legions of air guitarists.
On that score, ‘Along For The Ride’ ticks all the right boxes with its strong riff, keyboards borrowed from the Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and ending with a freak out guitar solo. ‘Serpent Soul’ and ‘I Found The Sun Again’ emphasise the blues part of the original RnB and are played well. Despite its Bowie-esque title ‘The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys’, ‘Journey Through’ (the one instrumental) and the heavy blues of ‘Bridge of Sighs’ simply feel too long, too indulgent. It’s left to the two poppier tracks, a cover of Joe Walsh’s ‘Welcome To The Club’ and ‘Run To Me’ featuring Ringo Starr on unexceptional drums to lift the album’s interest.
This album is safe and comfortable, an undemanding and unthreatening listen. I enjoyed it because of, not despite, its limitations.
Taster Track : Along For The Ride
Mist and Fog
When You See Yourself : Kings of Leon
There’s nothing wrong with any of the songs on this album but they simply don’t set the world alight.
Take opening track’’When you See Yourself, Are You Far Away?’. It sounds good but feels empty. It’s pleasant enough if that’s what the Kings of Leon want, but it also sounds like the centrepiece of an album from the 90s shortly before the band members split and go their own ways. Track 2 ‘The Bandit’ has a little more energy but still sounds lukewarm and safe. In the past a song with a title like ‘Stormy Weather’ would have been a cast iron stomper. Instead it’s most interesting feature is a nicely poppy bass line. ‘100,000 People’ gives you something to cling on to, but it’s comfortable, too comfortable.
What’s happened? Tellingly, the band say that this is the first album they’ve made without breaking into fist fights. This album sounds as if it arose from a business decision rather than a desire to make new music. It doesn’t feel in the slightest bit necessary. It doesn’t feel as if they mean any of it. There are a couple of tracks replete with hooks and ascending guitars that provide a nudge towards past glories. ‘Golden Restless Age’ and ‘Echoing’ are cases in point.
Sometimes you can deduce much from an album cover. Here, it’s clear that Kings of Leon are currently shadows of their former selves.
Taster Track : Stormy Weather
Songs of Resilience : Clementine March
This stripped down collection, shorn of studio refinements feels unrefined and unpolished. It’s starting again as Ground Zero music. In that sense it’s a record for the times.
Imagine you’re holidaying in a remote French location. On your first evening, filled with anticipation, you find a rustic tavern serving authentic French country food. It’s the only eating place for kilometres. You love it. On the second evening it’s lost its novelty appeal and by the third evening you’re noticing its shortcomings and wondering if the reality is that the food isn’t very good. Clementine is the travelling troubadour who moves from table to table playing her guitar for recognition and appreciation. Quite quickly you find yourself avoiding eye contact. That’s what this record feels and sounds like.
The songs rely on simple, guitar melodies. There’s nothing wrong with that, but ‘The Fire In The Night’ shows its weakness. It’s plodding and strained until the rhythm picks up half way through. The approach is a product of the times when access to sophisticated recording techniques is limited. But that doesn’t excuse a very wobbly theremin on tracks such as ‘Last Chorus’ or the half hearted harmonisation and secondary instrumentation. Neither does it excuse her voice which is au naturel in the extreme - flaws and all. The big problem is that there is no colour in her voice or the tunes. There are only flickers of insight to how this approach might work, for example on ‘La Citadelle’.
This record aims to tread a fine line between charming and undercooked. Unfortunately it does not fall on the right side.
Taster Track : La Citadelle