Belle and Sebastian, The Delines, Glass Museum, Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band, Soft Cell
If You Listen To One Thing This Week, Listen To.....
If They're Shooting At You by Belle and Sebastian
This is classic Belle and Sebastian with a melody that hooks you in even as it stretches tantalisingly out of reach. It's lovely.
It may have been a lighter listening week than usual, but it's also a first as I'm happy to highly recommend everything I listened to. Here goes.
A Bit Of Previous : Belle and Sebastian
Belle and Sebastian have produced a scintillating pop album that ranks with their very best work.
I’ve claimed to like Belle and Sebastian since hearing ‘Sleep The Clock Around ‘ in Reading’s Virgin Megastore in 1998, but, if truth be told, many of their most critically rated albums contain quite a few songs that drag. I saw them live at the Albert Hall a few years ago and, despite watching Stuart Murdoch being passed above the heads of the crowd like a new Messiah, some doubts still remained.
This album lays those doubts to rest. There are no weak tracks. The arrangements are gorgeous and melancholy yet soaring. They are tight and unimprovable. More than ever before they are a unit, not a Stuart Murdoch solo vehicle, and their strengths shine brighter.
In no sense is this a sixties album, but there are traces and echoes of the sixties in all these songs like a childhood accent that’s not completely thrown off. It’s the sound of the Summer of Love as it changes to the Autumn of mellow, changing relationships.
Some of those echoes are of the likes of Nancy Sinatra or the Zombies. More recent reference points include early Prefab Sprout, and even founder member Isobel Campbell’s solo work.
The sixties influence feels deliberate. ‘Do It for Your Country’ echoes Kennedy’s inauguration speech. ‘Come On Home’ doesn’t hide its sixties lounge influences. It all feels very natural, not a set of musical clothes put on for the occasion before being packed away never to be heard again. It’s in the woodwind of ‘Young and Stupid’ and in the chorus melody of ‘If They’re Shooting At You’ which stretches away, just out of reach, like an elusive memory.
This is an album that takes all of Belle and Sebastian’s strengths and assembles them into something fresh, accessible and memorable.
Taster Track : If They’re Shooting At You
The Sea Drift - The Delines
Four albums in, and The Delines are close to perfecting their heartfelt and heartbreaking country soul. It’s their most consistent and best album yet.
Harrowing films, misery memoirs and witnessing illness and decline can be hard to take. Nevertheless, they can be compelling and possess a kind of strength and strange, redemptive quality that you can’t find anywhere else. You could bracket The Delines with that group.
This is the sound of trailer park suburbs recalled by a woman who’s lost her youth, hopes and dreams. She’s seen and experienced a cruel life, full of thwarted plans and bitter disappointments. It’s full of debilitating unhappiness, the sound of people skirting despair. It may not be your life, but it’s full of heartbreaking humanity, capturing moments of greatest vulnerability which teeter on the brink of collapse.
Like the best soap operas, this tells character’s stories. ‘Kid Codeine’ tells of punch drunk and beaten boxers, near alcoholism and short fuses. You sense that the greatest achievement of Amy Boone’s characters is to find a man with hope of a future. It’s become their greatest burden too. There’s a desperation for love and, especially, comfort.
It’s almost too successful. The overwhelming unhappiness could be hard to take, but a more optimistic note would ring false. It’s as if the child’s suicide note in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude The Obscure, contained words of love as well as the bleak “ Done because we are too menny.” The closest this album comes to optimism is in ‘Saved From The Sea’. It doesn’t necessarily offer hope, but it halts the drift to despair.
So far, so bleak. What redeems this album is the warmth and beauty of the music and Amy Boone’s experienced, choked up vocals. They’re slow and swelling, seeping into the fabric of the stories and rendering them compelling rather than alienating. The brass adds texture and emotion, like a black and white film slowly coming to life with colour. It’s a deeply soulful form of country, drawing out thoughts and emotions buried deep within.
This is addictive, late night music, although at times you worry that a new dawn may not arrive. For all its unhappiness it’s a perfectly executed album that turns devastating stories into something beautiful.
Taster Track : Little Earl
Reflet : Glass Museum
This is a form of Belgian jazz but, like a lot of music from the near continent, it’s quite beguiling.
I’m pretty certain that many more people could name a Belgian beer than a Belgian band. Glass Museum offer an album that is reassuringly listenable and reassuringly jazz. It’s reassuringly expansive too, unlike a well known brand of Belgian lager that’s reassuringly expensive.
It’s definitely jazz at heart. ‘Shiitake’ and ‘Opal Sequences’ are free and loose, separate parts wandering where they will. Elsewhere though you have musical connections to the progressive end of electronic rock. It’s prog’s near cousin, if not a close sibling.
Opening track ‘Caillebotis’ anchors jazz piano to a steady propulsive beat. ‘Ellipse’ ebbs, flows and fades beautifully. There’s an eastern feel to ‘Auburn’ and ‘Reflet’ has the kind of electronic backing that nods successfully to chilled club music.
Occasionally it sounds like incidental music to a stylish documentary, but it’s rewarding at the same time.
It’s a soothing listen to accompany warm summer evenings.
Taster Track : Reflet
Dear Scott : Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band
‘Dear Scott’ confirms Michael Head as an excellent musician and songwriter, if one who has been mysteriously under rated across the decades.
Michael Head has not enjoyed the best of luck over a forty year career as far back as The Pale Fountains. He’s probably best known for his time with Shack. (It’s worth checking out their greatest hits, called ‘Time Machine’ if you’re unfamiliar with them.)
Somehow, Head has transitioned from being a problem child with heroin and alcohol addictions to an elder statesman of British rock. He’s, above all, a survivor and that comes out in his songwriting and musicianship.
I have a theory about the best way to describe this. He’s the road not taken by the Beatles. If the Beatles hadn’t broken up in 1970; if the shock had been John Lennon quitting to go solo leaving the band to be led jointly by Harrison and McCartney, this is what they might have sounded like. And before you say that sounds like an Alan Partridge comment (“Who’s Wings? They’re only the band the Beatles could have been.”) consider this. ‘Dear Scott’ is full of multi-part songs with ‘Penny Lane’ type observations, melody, orchestration and an ability to connect with the audience.
‘Broken Beauty’ shows a mastery of quiet and loud, light and shade. Melodies flow gently on ‘The Next Day’ as he favours playing over power. ‘Gino and Rico’ benefits from the horns and strings that course through the album, ‘Pretty Child’ incorporates jangly guitar into a much bigger picture and ‘Sherls Ghost’ shows just how pretty this music can sound, when shorn of lyrics.
Sometimes it’s more than enough to sit back and listen to an album from someone who understands songwriting and is a master of the art. You don’t need to analyse or criticise this record. Just enjoy it.
Taster Track : Gino and Rico
Happiness Not Included : Soft Cell
With their first album for twenty years, Soft Cell show that their take on tuneful electronic pop is as valid and enjoyable as ever.
Soft Cell were never the cheeriest of performers. They always seemed slightly sick, feverishly performing as if they should have left the nightclub hours ago and now they’re playing as they succumb to a temperature. Their 1980s sex dwarf has aged and it’s the memory of his sleaze that entertains us here, not the description of current depravity.
This is an album that is as close to electronica as it is to synth pop, counting Yazoo’s album tracks and early Human League as neighbours on one side, and The Pet Shop Boys and mid career OMD on the other.
(Talking loud and clear about this - ‘Purple Zone’, their Pet Shop Boys collaboration on this album, is a classic song. The only glitch is that it’s a classic Pet Shop Boys song with Marc Almond guesting rather than a Soft Cell one. The band may acknowledge this as, on Spotify, it doesn’t download with the rest of the album.)
After twenty years, the big question is whether or not they’ve preserved what makes them special or whether they’ve become their own tribute act. There are no fears on this score. From the onset of ‘Happy Happy Happy’ it’s clear that standards haven’t slipped. I don’t know if the synths they use are analogue, modular or some other specification, but they manage to sound retro and bang up to date at the same time. What starts as a pop album with the bouncy melodies of ‘Happy Happy Happy’, ‘Purple Zone’ and ‘Bruises On All My Illusions’ amongst others, mutates to an electronic album made for 12” inch remixes, in the same way that they reworked ‘Tainted Love’
Always a tight synth band, it was Marc Almond’s voice that lifted them apart. It was Scott Walker in a pop band, not too rich and appealingly strained as if barely able to contain its lust and relish for sleazy encounters. It’s older now, still recognisably Almond but with more depth, and well suited to the notes of nostalgic reflection that provide the album’s hallmark.
This is a very good return to the scene of the rhyme. It’s an album that more than holds its own with their past catalogue and with the new breed of synth poppers.
I’ll say no more. Soft Cell need no hard sell.
Taster Track : Bruises On All My Illusions
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