Cosmic Neighbourhood, Don Letts, Dudu Tassa and Jonny Greenword, Joanna Sternberg, Logan Ledger, Nathan Micay, Roisin Murphy, Syd dePalma, Tamino, Todd Sickafoose
The Front Runners
Bear Proof : Todd Sickafoose
This is an adventure in jazz, one that wends its way down interesting and surprisingly enjoyable paths.
Let’s start by acknowledging that with a name like Todd Sickafoose, he could only be a jazz musician. And if you’re in any doubt about that, the second track ‘Bent Into Shape’ is proper jazz, the kind of music people think of when they claim not to like jazz. It presses the improvisation button. It might press your reactionary buttons too
Elsewhere it’s a different story. The tracks average around seven minutes and that gives lots of time to explore by ways and left turns that take you away from where you started. These are multi-part pieces that hold out the possibility that, if you’re not enjoying it, something more to your taste will be along in a minute. In that respect it’s the aural equivalent of a medieval banquet. If pickled boar doesn’t appeal then the roast swan may be more to your liking.
It’s an education to hear how songs start from a solid jazz base but meander into other genres for a quick look around. ‘Prospects’ takes a peek at classical piano. ‘Magnetic North’ opts for a bluesy detour and ‘Boom Bust Startup Ruin’ takes us back in time to the sounds of New Orleans. The bass groove on ‘Flush’ adds a perkiness that is quickly picked up by the other instruments.
The highlight though is ‘Switched On’, mainly because of the switch off midway through and its impact. It’s the bass groove that has been the propulsive force of the song that suddenly disappears, sparking an exercise in musical levitation as the remaining instruments mesh together to carry the song through. It’s a reminder of the Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice moment in Strictly when they dance in silence.
By any standards, this is music with a big personality. It’s good to know.
Taster Track : Switched On
The Chasing Pack
Gatherings : Cosmic Neighbourhood
This is a bizarre oddity - a set of fourteen short electronic tracks that sound like incidental music for a CBeebies TV series. It’s not an album that’s easy to assess by normal reviewing standards.
If you look at the titles - ‘Scarecrow Says’, ‘Elf Trip’, ‘Green Folk’ and ‘Flutterby’ among them - you’ll get a feel for the mind that has developed this, and the audience it’s aimed at.
You can’t shake the feeling that a normal eleven year old has been locked in a studio with an old synth and told to stay there until they’ve produced an album. That’s an eleven year old who has binge watched The Clangers, Teletubbies and the musical interludes of Vision On. The good news is that they’ve managed to pull off something that you can encourage.
It’s an album that creates and populates its own sonic world. It weaves its way around with warmth and, eventually, charm. Just listen to the bubbles and blurbs of ‘Owl Eyes’.‘Critterpillar’ is an example of how, against your better judgement, this playful noodling can become addictive.
There seems to be no irony or mickey take here. It has a serious role as library music, an ambient soundscape that could run on a loop and reveal more oddities with each circuit. The woodwind that wanders into ‘Antennae’ is a surprise, like finding a dalek parked in your local multi-storey.
It’s fair to say that, whilst you won’t be in a rush to switch it off, you may find yourself wondering how long it has left to run. And since children probably feel that way about grown up programmes, perhaps that’s only fair!
Taste Track : Critterpillar
Outta Sync : Don Letts
Describing this album as an enjoyable set of dub pop songs doesn’t prepare you for the disconnect between the songs and the performer. They are truly ‘Outta Sync’.
To understand this, you need to know a bit about Don Letts’ reputation. Look at the album cover. He’s a gnarled mystic weighed down by unkempt dreadlocks. Think back to his past, He hung with the Clash and formed the innovative, eclectic Big Audio Dynamite with Mick Jones. He led trends in fashions and music, and was a pioneer of videography in pop. He operated in an environment that he called “the wild west…. and we weren’t the cowboys.”
‘Outta Sync’ allows you to peek behind the curtain of his reputation and see the man that he’s become. What you find is surprising. He sounds ridiculously ordinary for a former musical disruptor. He’s an older, experienced, suburban neighbour with a twinkle in his eye who’s settled for what he once fought against and relishes it. He talks now about pensions and not being around to see how the mess he helped to create develops. In ‘The Universe Knows What You’ve Done’ he sets out the scene like a salesman, backed by actor John Cusack.
It also sounds outta sync with its creator by being curiously light sounding. It’s enjoyable but not substantial. He’s absorbed lots of influences along his career but it’s only now that he’s letting them out to play. The emphasis is on dub, ska and reggae but ultimately this is a pop album through and through.
Every song is likeable, shot through with sounds and effects that seem to have travelled through time from an 80s jukebox or video arcade. Everything is tuneful, like the lighter side of Two Tone. At the very least it sounds as if Letts has had fun working with collaborators to make this album and that communicates itself to the listener.
It’s an album that you may well like a lot, but it’s not an album that many will return to time and time again.
Taster Track : Outta Sync
Jarak Qaribak : Dudu Tassa and Jonny Greenwood
Where were you the last time you came across something strange and alien but completely absorbing? I was at home listening to this record.
I’m not the most adventurous traveller. If I was, perhaps I would have visited the Middle East and had exposure to Israeli / Arabic music before. From the first notes of ‘Djil Nishrab’ this immediately conjures up a foreign place and culture. You’re hit with a sense of sun drenched bazaars brought about by exotic strings, wailing vocals and unaccustomed tuning. This is no entry point. Straight away you’re immersed in something that is giddy and unsettling but also vibrant and in high definition. It’s a bit of a ‘Wow’ moment.
As it stands, it could be dismissed as a piece of interesting exotica. However, Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead’s guitarist and keyboard player) and Nigel Godrich (Radiohead’s go to producer) create an Eastern / Western hybrid that shows how the two cultures can be connected - musically at least.
Greenwood’s on record as saying that with his use of guitars mixed in with the vocals of the Middle East, he wanted to confuse the listener. He’s succeeded, but the confusion is both intriguing and enjoyable. Godrich’s production is great in fusing the two halves together. ‘Ahibak’ and ‘Ashufak Shay’ shift and swirl to give glimmers of Western music, but they’re glimpses only.
Interestingly it’s a two way ticket. In listening to this, it’s possible to work back to the sound of Radiohead. The impact of hearing Jarak Qaribak is akin to hearing Radiohead post ‘OK Computer’ for the first time.
This is an album that sweeps you away on a wave of difference, You’ll lose your bearings but you could enjoy the ride.
It’s a rare and exciting taste that may be too strong for some. For the rest of us, this is musical travel that undoubtedly broadens the mind.
Taster Track : Ashufak Shay
I’ve Got Me : Joanna Sternberg
Joanna’s album of homespun philosophies and insights makes the most of her biggest asset. It’s identified in the album title “I’ve Got Me”.
The ‘me’ in this case is someone who is optimistic, sweet and making the best of things. They’re earnest and eager, the kind of person drafted into church services by a trendy vicar to make services more attractive to anyone under 40.
Call it natural and unadorned, but their untreated folksy voice is so at odds with what we expect to hear today that it’s startling. You may start by finding it quirky. Some of you may move quickly to find it a little tiresome.
They have a way with lyrics that are the kind you might hear sung by your grandmother as you sit at their knees as a child. On ‘Drifting On A Cloud’ and elsewhere the lyrics sound spontaneous and improvised. Drums add some purpose to ‘The Human Magnet Song’ even as it sounds like an unfinished demo.
In this day and age they sound unique.but as you reflect how something this untreated can become recorded without losing its naive sincerity, you can hear precedents. There’s something of Carole Bayer Sager’s ‘You’re Moving Out Today’ song in the mix. If the Muppets had taken their songs into human adulthood, they might sound like this. Joanna Sternberg is the artist that Phoebe from ‘Friends’ aspired to be.
In a busy life, their reassuring songs could be exactly what you need, or the very last thing that you need. You want them to do well but, in truth, an EP rather than an album would be enough.
Taster Track : I Will Be With You
Golden State : Logan Ledger
This is as country as it comes, and that’s really all you need to know.
I guess the clue was in the artist’s name. It’s difficult to imagine any other kind of music produced by someone christened Logan Ledger.
Now, if country twang is your musical thang, you’re in for a treat. Ledger has all the attributes you would hope for in the next big star in country music. He has the manly croon, the wistful sensitivity of the modern day denim clad cowboy wandering through the countryside all alone. He can rock out and hoe down as required. On ‘All The Wine In California’ his love is lost at the bottom of the bottle. He’ll have plenty of fans to help him find it. He has the kind of voice that sings its star quality to you directly from his poster on the wall.
This is safe, predictable, pleasant music of the kind that would bring the Waltons in from the fields and workshops to gather round the family radio on a Sunday afternoon, after church. It’s unlikely to cause offence. It’s generic, and that’s exactly what the fans want.
If however, genre is less important to you it’s possible that you’ll be hoping for more. It feels very corporate.. There’s the obligatory collaboration with someone just a little higher up the ladder, in this case Erin Rae. In practice it's hard to imagine Ledger as appearing anywhere but towards the top of the bill of one of those mammoth country festivals featuring lots of people you’ve never heard of who are, nevertheless, huge on Spotify. This is an album that appears quietly pleased with itself because the masterplan is bang on track. The nonchalant humming at the end of ‘Midnight In LA’ is a giveaway there.
This is Logan Ledger’s record, but he’s aided and abetted by the session musicians who form his backing band. They’ve heard it all before. They’re there to do a job. From the drum shuffle that pretends to have lost its place before it falls into step on the intro to ‘There Goes My Mind’ to the perfectly played, and they know it, slide guitar that decorates the album, they don’t put a foot wrong. And it all sounds a little too polished to be truly sincere.
Ledger sounds, and would love to be, a Glen Campbell for the 21st century. He’s well on the way with this album of easy listening at its most sumptuous.
To offset my, perhaps, sour review, here’s one from Logan Ledger Golden State Review They’re fans.
Taster Track : Golden State
To The God Named Dream : Nathan Micay
With this rush of dance based electronica, Nathan Micay conjures up a busy world of frantic, fiddly soundscapes, but there’s still something missing.
There are two key things to appreciate about this record. First, Mike Brearley - the former England test captain, and later successful psychotherapist - tells us that if something doesn’t hold your attention it’s not necessarily your fault. It may be that what is on offer simply doesn’t contain much interest, or is presented in an uninteresting way.
Secondly, Nathan Micay’s previous work includes the soundtrack to the TV series ‘Industry’. This told the tale of the pressurised lifestyles of graduate recruits to a toxic investment bank, in all its ultra busy, hedonistic glory.
And therein lies the rub, because this is music as it might be heard across an excessively loud club, or when your head is full of distractions competing pell-mell for your consideration.
There’s something missing. It’s like a duplex apartment that takes your breath away, but is built on shaky foundations. This is a dance album with all of the drums but too little of the bass to ground it. It aims to create a compelling electro soundscape and memorable melodies. It succeeds in the former but doesn’t often hit the target with the latter.
The opening track, ‘My Sweat Dries With The Heat’, sounds like a drawn out and overblown introduction to the album as a whole. It builds and builds, but rather than generating a release into the following track, it simply stops. We go again, with ‘You Can’t Win, But You Can Lose.’ It seems to be coming together better, but there’s still an overwhelming sense that there is an emptiness at its heart.
There are moments that you could come to treasure. ‘It’s Recess Forever’ has an old school flavour that might trigger memories of great nights out. ‘Hexagon of Death’ is more interesting, less busy than much that has come before, so easier to access. ‘The Death of FOMO’ is also gentler, a respite in the face of the clatter across the record.
It’s an album where, ultimately, less would be more and would prove to be more memorable too.
Taster Track : The Death of FOMO
Hit Parade : Roisin Murphy
Roisin Murphy’s latest album is full of slow beats and twisted songs but I can’t hear it featuring in the ‘Hit Parade’ of the title any time soon.
Full disclosure time - when I sat down to listen to this I was hoping for something euphoric and celebratory. To be fair I’d been lulled into that expectation by some of the reviews I’d read. From Murphy’s perspective she’s fallen foul of the ‘Pop In The Real World’ phenomenon. She can control how the record sounds, what it looks like and how it's promoted, but if it lands with the wrong person at the wrong time on a dark, damp Thursday morning there’s nothing she can do to prevent it falling flat.
I suspect that in her world, that’s the least of her problems. She works and lives in a nightmare world, full of malfunctioning and threatening technology. The songs are brimful of a lethargy that she shakes off only occasionally.
The cover, as it often does, provides a clue to what is within. It’s a portrait that is recognisably of our world but has been stretched and distorted into something that is not all that attractive. It has the appeal of a freak show.
That’s a shame. Songs may seem to stir themselves reluctantly and with effort into something that at least senses what the ‘Hit Parade’ might require, but when they do the songs are good. ‘Free Will’ builds momentum, breaking free of the fractured rhythms and techno effects elsewhere. Both ‘CooCool’ and ‘Fader’ shimmy in the direction of the Philadelphia sound although in both cases it remains infuriatingly out of reach.
My response to this album is one of disappointment, compounded by a sense that this is not Murphy’s fault. In her world she’ll be used to complaints that “It’s not you it’s me” She’ll have her response ready and waiting “Too effing right it’s you mate!”
In fairness and balance, The Guardian gave ‘Hit Parade’ a five star review. You can find it at Roisin Murphy Hit Parade Review.
Taster Track : Free Will
El Lugar de Arder : Syd dePalma
Syd dePalma mixes electronic and acoustic music to weird and unsettling effect on ‘El Lugar de Arder’.
The title of the album translates from Spanish as ‘The Place To Burn’, a title that has something strange and a little threatening - something of the occult. It sounds nothing like flamenco music but has the same sense of costumed ritual. It’s music that might be heard in a lost Incan civilisation under the influence of a natural hallucinogenic drug.
This is electro prog, that holds the promise of breaking into something special. That promise may not quite materialise but there is a lot here of interest and intrigue. It’s music with complex sounds and structures, somehow creating memorable hooks without breaking into fully fledged melodies.
The short ‘Diurna’ is the music of fragmentary, uncompleted thoughts. In some ways it’s the most typical track here, full of ideas but ultimately lacking the momentum to embed itself. It’s interesting without being fully engaging.
The skittering clapped beats in ‘El Patio’ are like tiny bats released into your skull. ‘De la Isla’ is almost hymnal in its vocals, Gregorian chants untethered and allowed to run with more momentum
This is music best experienced over headphones and therefore to solitary listening. It can take you into your deepest, most private thoughts.
This is timely music for the spirit of Halloween, even if you don’t believe in the trick or treat nonsense.
Taster Track : de la Isla
Sahar : Tamino
Tamino is a brooding, romantic poet of a singer songwriter, specialising in intense but prettily arranged and predominantly acoustic songs.
He’s a 26 year old Belgian Egyptian. His songs are more European than African, but there are occasional moments such as on ‘A Drop of Blood’ when his unaccompanied guitar conjures up thoughts of night time around a desert campfire.
What’s striking is that he has an earnest, serious demeanour that suggests unresolved experiences beyond his years. He’s a descendant of romantic poets who seek to convey and understand their innermost thoughts and feelings. In different circumstances he could have been a War Poet. There’s a tension in the songs between the world as it is and the world as it should be. In ‘You Don’t Own Me’ he comes across as an exile, quietly but passionately plotting his revenge. It’s a slightly scary episode, as if revealing someone with a darker personality than you suspected. The following song ‘Fascination’ is a welcome step back from that impression. ‘Cinnamon’ achieves a similar trick, highlighting that this is a slightly unnerving collection that constantly threatens to subvert your expectations of him.
The songs aren’t loose. They’re carefully plotted and structured and that’s a big part of their appeal. There are no improvised detours to be found here. Everything is low key, bar a few seconds of higher pitched emotion in the closing track ‘My Dearest Friend and Enemy.’
Such an intensely drawn collection makes it difficult to draw comparisons. He’s his own man. However, if you were searching for him on Spotify, you might find him included with the likes of a less bitter Tom McRae or a more restrained Rufus Wainwright. On the centrepoint of the album, ‘The First Disciple’, it’s as if Jose Gonzalez has joined Radiohead at their quietest.
‘Sahar’ does not claim to be a joyous sound, but it is a melodic, deeply felt collection of romantic feelings. Tamino may remain unknowable, but he has an allure that could capture your heart.
Taster Track : Cinnamon
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