Arborist, Attawalpa, Blur, Body Type, Current Affairs, Django Django, Hardwicke Circus, Kosaya Gora, Pomplamoose
The Front Runners
The Ballad of Darren : Blur
Blur’s first album in eight years (and only their second in twenty!) is a quiet, melodic success.
It’s always a risk when a band reunites for a new album. For the listener, the risk is that they may have drifted too far apart, no longer sharing the bonds that brought them together in the first place, four individuals rather than a single group. For the performer, the risk is not just for current reputation, but for their legacy too. With ‘The Ballad of Darren’ Blur have looked these risks in the eye and stared them down.
Damon Albarn may have written the songs, but this is an album that feels as if it has welcomed the contributions of each member. It’s a record that adds to their legacy without diminishing it. It’s a collection that sounds like a mature work that flows naturally out of their shared past.
It also sounds like a pop record. That’s due to an abundance of the melodies that are sometimes missing from their solo works. ‘St Charles Square’ provides a rush of Blur familiarity, a cross between the creepiness of ‘Beetlebum’ and the brash relish of, say, ‘Country House’. It’s a line that stretches back to their quieter moments such as ‘The Universal’, ‘To The End’ and ‘Tender’ that sets the tone though. That’s welcome
They sound more relaxed and as if they’re enjoying making music again, less a vehicle for Damon Albarn and more of a genuine band. A song such as ‘The Narcissist’ is less tangled up in trying to be clever. Songs such as ‘The Ballad’ and ‘Russian Strings’ may be pared back, but they still include great sonic embellishments with their attractively stretched and warped guitars.
Above all, this is an album that avoids ego, arrogance and triumphalism. It’s full of songs that were worth making and are a joy to hear.
Taster Track : The Narcissist
Expired Candy : Body Type
Exhilarating and sassy, this blast of Aussie girl band rock is as refreshing and revitalising as a surfer’s wave.
Body Type don’t want the boys to make all the noise. The immediate reference point for them is a band such as Elastica or the riot grrrl movement. It has the same riotous sense of self empowerment.
Riffs, melodies, energy, machine gun drumming, exultant choruses and the heat of an Australian summer in full flow spill out of the speakers. It’s a tight but appealingly messy sound that aims to shake it up and succeeds. They’re as sweet tasting as banoffee pie but as sour as fresh squeezed lemon juice.
What helps the band to make their impact is that their sound, for all the squalling guitars and shrieked vocals, remains rooted in the DNA of classic pop. In ‘Tread Overhead’ they even borrow the ‘Shalalala’ and ‘Whoaohoh’ of the Carpenters ‘Yesterday Once More.’
Another factor is the supreme self confidence - never arrogance - that they possess. In ‘Miss the World’ they make this clear
“Miss the world, but mostly I miss B O D Y T Y P E”
That’s full of exhilarated possibility”
Every song possesses something memorable. It makes for a glorious, raucous sound, a soundtrack to brief moments when it seems that youth has managed to seize control. Their barely suppressed glee at being part of a riot is infectious.
Above all, this is a record that reminds us that rock can and should be fun. Move over Bruce. The Sheila’s are taking over!
Tater Track : Miss The World
Off The Tongue : Current Affairs
Glorious, That’s the word for this album of authentic post punk rock.
It’s quite possible that I liked this album for all the wrong reasons. For a new generation, this will be the sound of an emerging cutting edge. For me it’s an authentic reminder of my student days. Current Affairs will want you to engage with the music because it’s excellent. I love that it pushes me away without requiring me to join in. They want you to listen. I want to be overwhelmed by the music and lose myself in the sound and the noise.
Listening to this, I’m back in a grubby student bedsit, listening to John Peel and pretending to translate The Canterbury Tales into comprehensible English. I’m in a hot, sweaty student union bar where the music is too loud. And I'm having a great time.
This is a reminder of the bands that soundtracked the years of your first steps into independence, even if they were as small as playing music your parents wouldn’t like as loud as you can. This is the sound of Joy Division, Wasted Youth, The Scars and countless other bands you can barely find on Spotify.
What’s in it for today’s audience? Well, despite what they might hope, it’s not original, but it is exciting and energising and that’s more important than ever in an era of corporate, playlist pop. The album doesn’t deviate from the tone set by the opening track, ‘No Fuss’. This is music that gets in your face like a persistent buzzing fly. It doesn’t demand to be listened to, but it won’t be ignored.
‘Right Time’ encapsulates all that’s good about Current Affairs - the anchoring bass, the unsweet vocals, the steady, intricate drumming and the visceral squawks of guitar.
The sound of Current Affairs will be coming to a Freshers Week near you soon and, you never know, they may hang around for life.
Taster Track : Right Time
The Chasing Pack
An Endless Sequence of Dead Zeros : Arborist
This album is as Irish as it comes with its rugged romanticism drawn from everyday life and feelings.
I’d better back that statement up. Arborist deals with similar concerns to fellow Irish acts Villagers, Bell X1 or Fontanes DC without, and this is important, sounding anything like them. It’s a likeness that goes beyond music. It’s the voice of someone who doesn’t quite belong, struggling against a difficult life where threats to existence are never too far away.
There’s something too of the epic romanticism of the film ‘Ryans Daughter’. It’s compelling, full of terrible beauty and pot boiling emotion that you know is destined to end badly. The tone of ‘Unkind’ is simple, brutal and effective, a kind of prequel to the concerns in Hardy’s ‘Jude The Obscure’ that led to the death of the children because they was too menny. (Hardy’s grammar and spelling, not mine!)
It has articulate lyrics and conceits, although with a darker tone. ‘Dreaming In Another Language’ has a nightmarish quality. It triggers a response, not through melody but through a dangerous form of alternative psychedelia.
Such an album could sound bleak, hopeless even. Arborist avoids that trap. He finds occasional shafts of wonder in everyday life and activity. In ‘Matisse’ he marvels at the gift of songwriting while laughing delightedly that :
“If you think this sounds good
You should hear it in my head.”
The album’s strength comes from feeling unpolished, hewn from rough and raw emotions. Musically it’s full of unfashionable echoes of 70s folk rock, but it’s as if they have been newly discovered and renovated - like a lost mechanical treasure that is, miraculously, found in the attic and in good working order.
It’s a compelling listen throughout and one that grows on you with every listen.
Taster Track : Unkind
Presence : Attawalpa
This is a pleasant album with nothing to dislike. The problem is there’s nothing very much at all.
I’m not talking about the record’s duration here. It’s a standard length. Rather, I’m talking about its impact. The opening track (‘SPRLNG’) is simple, builds nicely and is quite effective. The second track (Too Much’) is simple, builds nicely and is quite effective. Tracks 3-10 follow down the same route in procession.
It all sounds fine, but lacks the spark that makes a song memorable. Nothing lingers beyond the moment.
Lyrically it’s undercooked. “I’ve got to be somewhere” he sings in ‘Get Down’. He doesn’t know who he is, where he is or where he wants to be. He needs to find out. He needs a better, stronger motivation than access to a recording studio and equipment and a desire to make a hot record. He needs, above all, a muse.
There’s an interview with him online with Yuck magazine. In it, once you’re past the lengthy digression into the Peruvian history that lies beneath his name, he says all the right things, all the things he thinks you want to hear. Sadly though, what he reveals most clearly is that he’s a salesman with nothing to sell.
This is an album to file under ‘filler’. It’s unnecessary and inconsequential. It’s an album that makes you feel guilty for turning it away. I feel as bad about this as I would about a present that someone has put a lot of thought into providing but which you simply don’t need.
Attawalpa has called his album ‘Presence’. Sadly that’s the one thing it lacks.
Taster Track : Estamos Vivas
Off Planet : Django Django
The kings of dancefloor rhythm return with a long (79 minutes) procession of songs. It’s too much of a good thing in places but starts and ends well.
Ambition is a good thing. Django Django’s ambition is to make a concept planet about four unspecified planets. The album was originally released as three EPs, plus an EP’s worth of songs added to the final album. Like a tightrope crossing the Cheddar Gorge, it sags in the middle.
It’s a melting pot of styles, each performed with style and accomplishment. Pop, dance, disco, African beats and occasionally jazz intertwine, often to very pleasing effect.
The rhythms throughout gnaw away at your resistance. Just as you begin to switch off from, say ‘Hands High (featuring Refound*)’ you realise that the rhythm has lodged in your brain and completely hooked your attention. The amusement arcade pulses added to ‘Complete Me (featuring Self Esteem)’ help to make it one of the strongest songs here.
If you think of this as four EPs, it's EPs 2 and 3 where any problems lie. There’s something empty at its core, as if the humanity of its songs has been rinsed away or the colour has been bleached from it. The songs in the middle section are more clinical and sterile. They’re by no means unlistenable but they lack the buoyant bounce of the songs that bookend the album and emerged from their earlier work as their greatest strength.
It’s as if in going off planet they’ve become untethered from their driving force. The exceptions are ‘No Time’ which sounds sinister and ‘Lunar Vibrations (featuring Isabelle Woodhouse)’ which is compellingly eerie.
But let's be clear - there is much to like in this album. The first four or five songs lure you in nicely. ‘The Oh Zone’ introduces a nice touch of lighter humour that is also captured in the melody of the tune. ‘Fluxus’, ‘Slipstream’ and ‘Gazelle’ are the Django Django of old and the feel is that the best songs have been treated as a crowd pleasing encore.
Django Django - living proof that you can have too much of a good thing. As a 45 minute album, this would have been a contender for album of the year.
Taster Track : Fluxus
Fly The Flag : Hardwicke Circus
This hugely enjoyable blast of sonic fun burns brightly and wears its influences lightly. Whether or not it has staying power remains to be seen.
The Hardwicke Circus are a five piece from Carlisle - not a sentence that has been typed many times before. They’re building a hype that could yet be an understatement.
Each of the band members wants a piece of this. They’re full of the rhythm of life and awash with chirpy personality. They place fun and enjoyment centre stage, embodying the spirit of Two Tone but without the reliance on ska.
They know their pop touches, how a nicely judged sax moment or a perfectly placed piano run or a punchy drum break can transform a song. They use a big sound to boost what are, nevertheless, still small songs. The album has the feel of live favourites that have been digitally preserved. There’s an immediate pop appeal here. It may prove to be a flavour of the month but equally it could be the launch pad for something big
They liken themselves to the E Street Band. Whilst they have the same high levels of energy, they don’t have the guiding drive and determination of a Bruce Springsteen amongst them. They also liken themselves to The Doors. Whilst they have the same sense of reckless devil may care attitude, they’re much lighter and all the better for it.
It’s a sad fact of musical history that its byways are littered with bands who burned brightly, and promised much, only to fall by the wayside. It’s for that reason that the best comparator for the Hardwicke Circus is the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. They delivered one middling hit (‘The Impression That I Get’) before settling into a mainstay of ‘Whatever Happened To….’ features.
Hardwicke Circus are good enough to avoid that fate if they make the right choices and have the right support and luck at the right time.
This was an album that flew by in an enjoyable blur. Whatever the future holds, they can legitimately claim to be the best band that has ever come out of Carlisle!
Taster Track : Bang My head (To The Rhythm Of Life)
Kosagor : Kosaya Gora
This could be called dream pop. It’s not the feeling of sweet dreams though but imminent nightmares.
Kosaya Gora is a collaboration between Kedr Livansky, an electronic producer / singer, and Flaty, an experimental producer ‘ visual artist. They’ve made an album that manages to recreate the sense of dreaming in all its forms, from sweet and restful experiences to dreams that unsettle and discomfort and leave you feeling more tired when you awake.
This is the soundtrack to the chemically induced sleep of a general anaesthetic. There’s a feeling of being trapped in the dream, unable to escape an unseen threat and of dreams that bring barely understood warnings.
Unsurprisingly, how the songs sound is as important as the songs themselves. There are striking touches throughout - the switch from the gentle vocals of ‘Empty Realm’ to the hoarse vocals of ‘Te Slova’ and the reconfiguring the flute as a drone in ’Flute Skit’ are just two of many examples.
You may be lulled into expecting something soothing and restful from the opening track ‘Kajdoe Novoe’. It sounds and feels like an escape into the loveliest sleep. Don’t be fooled. In the main this is a much more unsettling affair, though one that has attractive passages. It’s a mix of off beat rhythms, haunting vocals and distorted instruments. I’m unsure if it’s the tuning or the reverb that makes ‘Lesnoi Tsar’ less of our world.
Like a dream, it’s difficult to pin down the particulars that disturb you. Nothing is changed too greatly from the waking world, just enough to destabilise your senses and reactions. ‘Te Slova’ is darkly hypnotic. ‘Motorcyclists Die’ carries a threat.
This is an album that has more than a few moments to enjoy but, equally, there were moments when I would have been happy to wake up and leave the dreams behind.
Taster Track : Kajdoe Novoe
Daft Pomp : Pomplamoose
Pomplamoose create knowing and addictive synth pop songs that are a lot of fun.
They’re a husband / wife musical partnership. From the sudden wig out breaks inserted into some of the songs I’m pretty sure that Jack Conte would like to put aside his stylish baldness to be in a big hair heavy metal band. I’m equally certain that, in another life, Nataly Dawn is a seductive French chanteuse. Together they make flirtatious, loved up pop.
Randomly, considering they’re an American duo, they often sing in French. There’s no denying that it’s ‘tres romantique’ nor that on ‘Make Love’, flirty doesn’t come close. Any tension in their songs comes from not knowing how far they’ll take it or where they’ll draw the line.
This is pop that treads a fine line between frothy and instantly disposable synth pop (‘Digital Love’, ‘Something About Us’) and something a lot cleverer. It’s as if they’re exposing the workings behind addictive pop, in the way that, say, Penn and Teller show you how magic tricks work. The knowing artifice they bring to a song such as ‘Doin’ It Right’ means that they have no shame in using a vocoder.
Too much Pomplamoose could be like having a main meal made up of Pot Noodle, with Pick ‘n’ Mix for dessert. The occasional binge though is just like a much needed sugar boost. ‘Something About You’ is very retro, and very well done. ‘Instant Crush’ has the kind of cheesy and moreish melody that is impossible to shake off. ‘Prime Time of Your Life’ is the song for that moment when everyone is on the floor not caring how they look, just that they’re having the best time.
This is an album where they are having a lot of fun. You will too.
Taster Track : Instant Crush
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