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Things Were Bad, But They're Better Now

Starring


Air Waves, Andrew Wasylyk, Office Culture, SRSQ, U-Ziq, Wild Pink, William Orbit


If You Listen To One Thing This Week, Listen To.....


Magic Pony Ride Part 3 by U-Ziq


I read recently that dance music is enjoying a revival, partly because we're prepared and able to return to them but also because the dance music that's being recorded at the moment is very good.


U-Ziq are a case in point. Their club music is at the gentler end and combines skittering beats and welcoming melodies. Tracks like this bring back the smiles and are just at good at setting you up fr the night ahead as they are for the morning after. Lovely.


Highly Recommended


The Dance : Air Waves


This short album is an intensely appealing set of songs, drawing on the best of accessible American indie.


Take the opening track, ‘The Roof’. It’s the kind of song that makes you want to whirl around an empty dance floor with arms outstretched beneath a shining glitter ball. Or take ‘The Dance’. It’s a guitar based song you can genuinely move to, a short song with a long fade that doesn’t want to let go. Or take ‘Black Metal Demon’ which, contrary to the expectations sparked by the title is a gentle singalong number that encourages small crowds to sway.


There’s something naturally friendly about Air Waves. They draw collaborators from America’s alternative rock scene to reconnect with the simplicity and back to basics appeal of pop. Collaborators include Cass McCombs and Art Feynham who can sometimes lose sight of these qualities in their own work..


There are echoes and influences from a dozen or more alternative college bands at the more melodic and gentler end of the 80s. Surprisingly, because they’re bedfellows from opposite ends of the spectrum, you can hear Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne in some of the vocals and Johnathan Richman in the DIY ethic underpinning all the songs.


That DIY ethic gives these songs the simplicity and appeal of demos. Rest assured though, these aren’t throwaway, underdeveloped songs at all. They’ve just retained their fresh naturalness having avoided the artificial enhancements of too much polish and gloss.


This album recaptures the feelings you had back in the day when you stumbled across a new band with friends. It brings the glee and excitement of a shared secret and that’s a rare thing these days.


Taster Track : The Roof


Hello : U-Ziq


U-Ziq’s latest set of reflective dance takes us a few steps further into club world, tempting us with skittering beats and welcoming melodies, without the need to pre book an osteopath appointment for the morning after.


This wasn’t quite what I was expecting given the more chilled beats of his previous album, but U-Ziq aka Mike Paradinas, is a reassuring host to guide you through an unfamiliar world. He’s going to look after you but give you the freedom to explore clubland as far as you wish.


This isn’t hardcore dance. The opening track ‘Hello’ is a determined and gently rousing opening to the album. Beats skitter around you and bump into one another, but still leave room for random, one off melodies. It sets the template for what follows.


U-Ziq constructs a sonic universe that takes the tunes closer to composition than songwriting. It’s a product of his musical vision rather than a sharing of his personal emotions, yet it left me with a warm feeling. It’s a happy sound with the confiding familiarity of good friends.


The bass holds the songs together without bludgeoning you into submission. The rhythms and melodies are gently hypnotic, freeing you from time and space if you allow yourself to sink into them.


It may be a little geeky. It comes across as a technician’s record, but a technician who understands people. The titles, for example ‘Pentagonal Antiprism’, ‘Pyramidal Mind Dispersion’ and ‘Metabidiminished Icosahedron’, suggest a very deep dive into his specialist area and yet the light touch of the music suggests a sly playfulness too. And, by the way, metabidiminished icosahedron is a real thing taken from geometry.


This is a modest record but with a lot to shout about. It’s quietly telling you to take it as you find it and notice it if you wish. In the club world my reference points probably sound as if they come from a different place and time, but this is an album that takes the next steps from the likes of Royksopp and Bibio, without approaching the full on sounds of Underworld or Chemical Brothers, nor their attention grabbing successes.


‘Hello’ is a friendly and inclusive set of electronic dance tunes. It set me up for the day, humming fragments of what I’d heard as I made an early morning coffee. I’m smiling as I type this. What more could you ask for?


Taster Track : Magic Pony Ride, Part 3


....And The Rest


Hearing The Water Before Seeing The Falls : Andrew Wasylyk


This is as close as music comes to setting out the life and mysteries of the universe. It’s an unhurried exposition that defies categorisation, but if if you’re looking for choruses, look elsewhere.


When I was 15, I was one of a large group of boys entered for their Maths ‘O’ level a year early. My reward for stunning my teachers and parents with a ‘B’ grade was to be allowed to take Additional Maths. It was a mystery I never fathomed, particularly calculus. However, I always felt that if I had cracked it, I would have been handed the key to unlock a lot of the mysteries of the world.


I feel the same way about this album, although it’s a lot more enjoyable, a lot less stressful and it doesn’t have Mr Savage rolling his eyes at me all morning long.


Like jumping into a freezing sea, there’s no time to acclimatise to what’s on offer. ‘DreamtIn The Current Of Leafless Winter’ is a 16 minute opus that sounds as if it is waking up around the 7’45” mark as a repeated five note piano sequence comes to the fore. It’s a constantly evolving, steady and purposeful piece that keeps its eyes on the end prize. The music is dense and opaque and has you snatching for sounds and phrases to cling to.


It begs the question: “What does it all mean?”


What, for example’ is a ‘yarrow moon’? I’m glad you asked because an anonymous self-styled hermit on Google - an anonymous self styled hermit with access to blog tools and the internet - tells me that ‘yarrow’ is a Venusian herb used in folk magic to foster happy and loyal relationships. And in a way that’s the key here. It’s music that draws unhurriedly on centuries of pastoral wisdom. That makes for music that is deep and even mystical rather than impenetrably clever.


Andrew Wasylyk’s work, featuring mournful saxophone atop keyboards, strings and limited percussion, has always offered a pause for reflection. It’s gently enforced time out from a busy world.


‘Hearing The Water Before Seeing The Falls’ is as loud as I’ve ever heard Wasylyk get, featuring proper drums that capture the roar of a small waterfall. ‘Confluence’ is as close to pop music as the album comes, calling to mind the mystical soul jazz of some of Van Morrison’s songs. ‘The Life Of Time’ is the best entry point, featuring warm and reassuring spoken word vocals that don’t hide from anxieties, but don’t provide the answers to them either.


There are no easy melodies to hook you in. This is craft music, full of patient details weaving an intricate tapestry of sound. You can hear this as something difficult or just lie back and accept it for what it is.


This is an album of mysterious music that works in mysterious ways. Make of it what you will.


Taster Track : The Life Of Time


Big Time Things : Office Culture


This is a quiet, moving and reflective gem that casts its spell through small gestures.


It's not what I expected, it’s the opposite. Accustomed to songs that look at modern life through cynical and sardonic eyes, I thought that Office Culture would be a sneering, even contemptuous look at how we live and scathing in its put downs and lyrics. No. This is a much more human record, appreciative of our failings and struggles. In a way, it’s a soulful record, the kind of true soul that comes from the ordinary white collar office worker


There’s a depth of emotion here about ordinary things and feelings. Songs are made out of small details, but they’re details that could become lines in the sand or cracks in our domestic fabric about to rip lives apart. You can hear doubt, nervousness and hopes that may not be fulfilled, but kindness and frail optimism too. The songs have a big emotional impact for such a low key sound.


This is an album that steers you towards its lyrics. Songs reveal their core with devastating simplicity in lyrics such as:


“Things were bad, but they’re better now.” (‘Things Were Bad’)


“Little reminders of our love” (‘Little Reminders’)


“There isn’t a word for that.” (‘A Word’)


The music is not the driving force behind these songs. It accompanies them, quietly respectful of their content. It’s string laden, setting mood and tone. It’s not catchy but it’s laid down like a fine, quality wine.


In other reviews I’ve seen Office Culture likened to the Blue Nile. I kind of get that. The songs are muted, but they’re not as sparse. I do feel that if you like the sound of Office Culture, you’ll also like Westerman and Nicholas Krgovich.


‘Big Time Things’ is an honest album with heart. That it’s a heart close to breaking at times makes it all the stronger.


Taster Track : Things Were Bad


Ever Crashing : SRSQ


SRSQ, pronounced ‘Seer Skew’ and otherwise known as Kennedy Ashlin, thinks bigger, grander and with the roar of musical cannons on her new album.


You need to prepare yourself for this because it doesn’t hang about before making its mark. It’s a force of nature. Like an avalanche it’s thunderous and overwhelming. These are big, big songs fitting for empire building armies. The songs are dressed in the full pomp of epic drama, turned up to 11.


She doesn’t do pocket sized. These songs are long, averaging six minutes a time. Imagine if Oasis had taken the same approach to ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory’. We’d have had ten tracks the length of ‘Champagne Supernova’. In small doses it’s wonderful, over the course of a whole album it’s too much.


Once you’ve adjusted, you can start to hear its strengths. Beneath the surface of ‘Dead Loss’ you can hear the chiming reverb of shoegaze. It gives you something down to earth to cling to and once you’re orientated you can pick up the melodies and choruses.


Her voice is both in keeping with the music and an antidote to it. She has the voice of an empress in her vulnerable moments. It has to soar above the beast she has created and, by and large, it succeeds. She’s a Celine Dion for the alternative genres. That’s the size of this album. It can reach to both Celine and Oasis, but be contained by neither.


At its heart, this is synth pomp. It will play well in arenas and wobble the foundations of more intimate settings. It’s impressive, with just enough about it to make it likeable too.


Taster Track : Dead Loss


ILYSM : Wild Pink


This intensely personal album is difficult to review, but lays bare the emotions and feelings at play in one man’s battle against cancer. It is, nonetheless, an accessible album with much to like.


John Ross, the singer, suffered a cancer diagnosis which led directly to this album. It’s a means of distracting himself from his treatment. He’s in his 30s, not a good time to be contemplating death and mortality, especially your own.

The album is an outpouring of fears, memories, uneasy loneliness and angry emotion. It’s tender in ‘Hold My Hand’, recognising the need for human contact in desperate times. Incidentally, the willingness of the band to participate in a deeply personal album, and the reaching out from Julien Baker are touching displays of support.


Unsurprisingly there’s not much warmth in the album. The urgent beat of ‘ILYSM’ communicates stress and panic. The grunge like ‘Sucking On The Birdshot’ is a howl of rage that bucks the overall tone by not being quiet. What warmth there is comes in the gentle defiance of ‘ICLYM’, and that’s a hopeful way to close the album


Generally Ross plays the part of a quiet American. The album starts as a conversational, hushed affair. It’s the sound of night thoughts when sleep is an impossibility. The lyrics are full of images that can only come from living with fear while, I assume, heavily medicated. They give the songs a bucketful of character even as you’re not sure how to respond. It’s personal in more ways than one - in the images, the memories and the suffering. It’s not an album of universal themes but it draws out compassion for its suffering.


Stepping away from the lyrics and the back story you have an album that washes over you like the tide over a shipwrecked sailor. Keyboard led melodies that belie the fears at its heart, insistent drumming like an accelerating heartbeat and chords that reverberate in the consciousness like the initial breaking of the news no one wants to hear, all flavour this album. It’s closest to dream pop, but the pop of bad dreams.


As a testimony and achievement of creative resilience in the face of personal crisis it’s hard to beat.


Taster Track : ILYSM


The Painter : William Orbit


William Orbit’s first album in twelve years is a polished, smooth and safe disappointment.


I knew as I downloaded it, that this album would let me down. I’m a sucker for chilled 90s flavoured electronica. It was the first time I’d experienced that sense of being able to lose and refresh yourself in music, and the restorative benefits of that were like a drug.


This is polite and pretty. It’s relaxed, yes, but rather than freeing the mind to float away from life’s concerns it numbs it. It’s saved from becoming the blandest kind of library music only by the presence of guest vocalists.


He’s relied heavily on guest vocalists for some time. In that respect only he’s wandered into Jools Holland territory in his need for collaborators to showcase his own talents. It’s unclear if he’s using his reputation to boost his partners, or they are lending relevance to him. Maybe that’s a bit harsh. Generally they work well together, and Beth Orton particularly adds something to her tracks.


If Orbit is the painter of the album’s title he’s revealed himself as a painter by numbers. He lacks spontaneity and passion like a painter who accepts commissions for artistic birthday cards. He smooths out the singing of his collaborators, toning down their colours into bleached pastels. This is probably the only place that you’ll find Katie Melua sounding pretty much the same as Polly Scattergood.


It’s pleasant enough if all you’re hoping for is background music but, whisper it quietly, it’s also bland and dull.


Taster Track : I Paint What I See (featuring Beth Orton)


Playlists


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








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