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The Story and the Glory of Pop


Courtesy, James Clarke Five, Marc Jonson and Ramirez Exposure, Pye Corner Audio, Still Corners, T Bone Burnett Ward White

The Front Runners

Zoom and the Gadflies : James Clarke Five.

Welcome back the James Clarke Five, king of the guilty pop pleasure and someone who deserves national treasure status.

I loved this record on first hearing. I’m not ashamed to confess that in my heart there’s a large space reserved for 70s / 80s pop gold, a space that accommodates Adam and the Ants, the Rubettes, Hello, the Glitter Band, 10CC and ELO. The James Clarke Five are all that and more. We call them guilty pleasures, but there’s nothing wrong with tasting pure happiness.

There’s something of pop's purest DNA running through this album. Take ‘Gadfly Groove’. You’ve not heard it before but it’s instantly both fresh and familiar. You’re at home here, a home free from anxiety and troubles, filled with all the comforts and joy that it should be. ‘Hot Chicory Bop’ is a serving straight from an all you can eat musical buffet filled with your favourite foods.

This retains an innocence, rarely heard these days. It’s a boys adventure story in song, straight from a technicolour comic strip. I was smiling from the first notes of ‘(Who’s Been On The) Big Rock Candy?’; I was laughing aloud with joy at the throw all caution to the wind, brilliant cover of George McRae’s ‘It’s Been So Long’ -  a version that has you believing that this might just be the soundtrack you’d want to YOUR moment in the sun.

‘Zoom and the Gadflies’ is a clever record but never knowing. There are continental traces to be found that could come straight from Baz Luhrman’s version of ‘Moulin Rouge’, or from a sun soaked Parisian cafe as a whirling pierrot troupe waltzes by. James Clarke can draw influences from the circus, the hotel lounge and test card transmissions because he sees the potential for happy, joyful music everywhere.

If I ever get to Heaven, the James Clarke Five will be featuring on its soundtrack.

Taster Track : (Who’s Been On The) Big Rock Candy (but ‘It’s Been So Long’ is the one that will fill your day with complete joy.)

Turning On The Century Vol 2 : Marc Jonson and Ramirez Exposure

This. Is. Wonderful. On one level it’s a collection of unashamedly 60s drenched pop, but actually it’s much, much more.

Here’s a collection of songs without a shred of bitterness, cynicism, selfishness or ego. It’s made out of a pure love for music and the happiness that comes from that. It taps into the Summer of Love (1968 version) as we've idealised it in our collective memories.

It takes itself seriously. There’s care and attention overflowing from every detail. Just one example is the single quiet party whoop that decorates ‘Valentino Nightingale’. It’s the perfect touch, lasting a split second but adding volumes to the song.

This is an album to wrap you in a sense of warm wellbeing, perfectly pitched and not overdone. From the opening notes of ‘Happy Sparrow (In The Rain)’ something that has been tantalisingly out of reach is suddenly right in front of you. 

There’s a sweet alchemy at play, transforming all your standard pop elements - melody and harmony to the front row - into a hit on pop’s bullseye. Of its kind, it’s absolutely perfect, a Mary Poppins of a record popping up at the right time and in the right place.

Thinking of parallel influences, I’d already come up with The Mamas and the Papas, The Monkees, The Turtles and even the Cosmic Rough Riders. I could have saved myself the trouble. ‘Streetlight Boys’ is a litany of all that was good about pop in the 60s. Everything that is good about the 60s is in this album together with everything that is good about clean 2020s production.

Records like this come along rarely. They’re not about to change the world but they could be the most addictive and innocent collection of songs you hear this year.

Taster Track : Happy Sparrow (In The Rain) (preferably running straight into ‘In The Rain - Reprise’)

Dream Talk : Still Corners

This is dream pop drifting by so pleasantly, you won’t be in a hurry to wake.

There’s a Brief Encounter slant to the band. Greg Hughes and Tessa Murray met by chance at a train stop after the train had been diverted to a different station. And this album drips with the cinematic aching romance.

If English woman Tessa Murray brings train disruption to the partnership, Texan Greg Hughes brings the flavour of the desert plains to the songs, his slowly twanging guitar is a feature throughout the album. I was going to say that there was a strong Khruangbin influence at play, but actually Still Corners got there first so the chances are that it was the other way round and Khruangbin added their distinctive wooziness to the Still Corners template.

Of course, Murray brings much, much more to the mix than traindisruption. Her voice is as integral to their sound as Hughes’ guitar. It’s welcome and alluring, an idealised presence just out of reach in their dream pop but one that stays with you long after waking.

I loved this album, though some may find it a little one paced for their liking. There’s an eruption midway through ‘Lose More Slowly’ that sounds like an alarm clock going off in the middle of a lovely  dream before you hit the snooze button. There are times too, for example in ‘Faded Pop’ when the songs nudge the boundary between dream pop and easy listening, but it's a lovely place to be in their company.

Opening track ‘Today Is The Day’ sets out their stall. It’s perfect - unhurried, smooth and cool and a massive tick for Greg Hughes’ arranging and producing skills. Everywhere there’s a catchy, melodic hook to latch on to as you drift along with the songs. Songs such as ‘Let’s Make Up’ - and I’m mixing verbs here - sound as if they are glimpsed from the window of a yacht as you watch idly in a nicely drowsy state.

This is dream music, marinaded in memorable melodies. It’s so easy to like but substantial enough to linger for hours.

Taster Track : This Is the Day

The Chasing Pack

Fra Eufori : Courtesy

Courtesy has made an electronic album for the sisterhood that has depth and understanding.

I needed some context to fully appreciate these songs. Courtesy - real name Najaaraq Vestbirk - is a Danish techno DJ. Her live sets are a banging collection of euphoric trance moments. This album is a surprise not just for its divergence from the style of her night job but for a debut. It’s a collection of sparse, stripped back covers.

There weren’t many songs I recognised but, as it happens, the two that were known to me - Chicane’s ambient ‘Saltwater’ and Enya’s Celtic mysticism of ‘Orinoco Flow’ are a very good indication of what the album is about.

The treatments are simple but effective, haunting but sincere, almost religious in tone. The approach to ‘Saltwater’, with vocals from Lyra Pramuk sound as if they have drifted on the breeze to the top of a hill from a nearby monastery. They’re part Gregorian chant, part opera but the electronica backing supports them discreetly, keeping them grounded and restrained from wandering into the realm of fantasy mumbo jumbo. The two sides are kept in careful balance. For every foray that approaches Celtic or Scandinavian mysticism, there’s another that ushers you into a consideration of 21st Century concerns (‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’)

I’m wary of speaking or writing on feminist issues. It’s the case though that, by working with a number of female collaborators, there’s an honesty and personal tone that gives the songs their power and strength. It’s as if the album provides a space for voices to be heard.

Don’t come to this if you’re looking for a release of feel good hormones. It’s not intended to be that kind of record. Atmosphere trumps melody. This is an understated and thoughtful collection and that’s the root of its strength.

Taster Track : You’re Not Alone

The Endless Echo : Pye Corner Audio

Sombre, deep electronica, big on atmosphere but with a musical core. That’s what you get here from Pye Corner Audio, and it’s worth having.

I’m not going to pretend that this is a world you want to live in.  Pye Corner Audio may be quick to say that you already do. It may not be threatening, but it is unsettling. This is the kind of soundtrack music that you don’t notice while you’re absorbed in a film, but it’s fundamental to the atmosphere. 

Do you remember how it felt to be the new boy or girl in an unfamiliar atmosphere? No one has time to spend with you. No one is there to provide reassurance or help. It’s how James Bond must feel as he slips into the villain's laboratory unobserved but hasn’t yet worked out what’s going on. There’s foreboding and drama in the mix but not, as yet, an immediate threat.

This is a shadowy, not dark, musical environment one that you will need to pick your way through carefully. For example, you’ll need to acknowledge how ‘Decision Point’ stretches out its notes and passages beyond their natural life, like a poem with a couple of unexpected syllables tagged on at the end.

Emphatically this is not an electronic album of beeps and glitches. There’s a strong, human, musical imagination at work here and it’s one to savour. You hear it in ‘Written In Water’ Trickling water, tolling bells, drones that fill you with trepidation and out of sync pulses all blend together into something that has an unexpected beauty. 

There are no lyrics. The closest you come is via the heavily vocodered voice of ‘Counting The Hours’. You’re thrown onto your own resources to work out how you feel.

The sound is excellent, balance and clear with room left for the pieces to breathe

Pye Corner Audio have supported Mogwai in the past. At first sight that might seem to be a clash between two completely different styles but actually there is a sympathy between what you hear here and the more melodic end of Mogwai’s work.

Venture in the shadows concealed in Pye Corner Audio’s corner of music. It’s not as scary as you might suppose.

Taster Track : Decision Point 

The Other Side : T Bone Burnett

T Bone Burnett’s album is a collection of stripped back country songs. Of course, it’s really much more than that and here’s why.

Back in the 50s and 60s, rock and roll ws the first music for a teenage generation. It was all about youth and, as The Who sang, they hoped to die before they got old. The issue was that rock and roll was so popular and bands were so good at what they did that the performers forgot to fade away. Before you knew it, someone like T Bone was 76 years old and life’s issues and concerns have caught up on him.

Like Johnny Cash, Nick Lowe and many others before him T Bone is now confronting his own mortality through song. He’s ageing with dignity and anticipating loss. He’s reviewing life’s ledger and holding it - and himself - to account. 

This is a collection of short and concise songs where not a word or note is wasted. There’s not enough time left to afford that luxury. The songs are slow, moving and mournful. ‘Sometimes I Wonder’ is as stripped back as it comes - two guitars, vocals and a rhythmic handclap. Uncharitably, the album may feel a little heavy going in places but he’s one of the few legends of pop who has earned the right to settle up.

The decision to collaborate with Lucius who provide backing vocals on five tracks is inspired. They add little to the surface but this is an album where a little actually provides a lot. ‘Waiting For You’ showcases their delicate, heavenly backing vocals. They soften T Bone’s gravelly tones and capture the sense of someone sitting quietly 

and lost in reflection. That helps when there’s a sense of waiting to meet his maker in a song such as ‘He Came Down’

T. Bone Burnett is, indeed, getting ready to cross to the other side. Let’s thank him and wish him well.

Taster Track : (I’m Gonna Get Over This) Some Day

Here Come The Dowsers : Ward White

Ward White delivers an album of high class, glossy art pop that explores Hollywood’s underbelly and calls to mind the quality hallmarks of yesteryear.

His record company calls what he does ‘art rock’. If you’re someone who’d cross the road and hide in a decent coffee shop to avoid an art gallery, don’t worry. I don’t know if this is art but it’s very likeable.

This is sophisticated pop, put together with care and an ear to how the album as a whole will sound. It’s a sound that has survived the changes in style that have occurred since ELO brought their spaceship to Earth, 10CC delivered their own original soundtrack and Bowie’s Young Americans came to play. There are times too, when he sounds like Divine Comedy’s American cousin.

Essentially though this is an album that borrows from its excellent influences and invests them with a wit, charm and personality that is all his own. Fifteen releases into his career, he has honed his craft to perfection. This is a lost 70s west coast pop classic that revels in its ability to soar.

White can put on a show, like a forties Hollywood film but with better choruses. The music hall bounce of ‘Johnny Fontana, is just one aspect of this. His voice is special, gliding across power pop backings like a skateboarder spinning along the boardwalk. There’s molten chocolate in his voice and sunshine escaping from his music.

One thing is clear. Ward White is too big and too polished to be confined to the margins of pop. It’s time to take centre stage.

Taster Track : Cliffhanger


As ever this week's Taster Track playlists can be accessed at or via the Spotify link on the Home Page.

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