Updated: Nov 20
(This week's title was brought to you by AI!)
Alex Lahey, Anthony Naples, Belbury Poly, Bright and Findlay, Chartreuse, Gena Rose Bright, Grails
The Front Runners
The Path : Belbury Poly
This album is a joy, a box of electronic treats coated with charm and delight.
First things first. There are elements of new age prog hippy here. ‘The Path’ is a metaphor for a journey of self discovery and a symbol for how we’ve messed up our towns and the world. The highly enjoyable flute of ‘Going Gone’ and ‘Sunrise At The Crossroads’ and the faint whiff of bearded prog you get from ‘Last Orders, may stir the same warning bells for you as traditional folk. Do not be alarmed. These elements have their place in the bigger scheme of things and it all makes a kind of sense in the end.
You’ll need to adjust to the spoken word content too. It can, occasionally, feel like a new age contribution but it tells a story. ‘Between Sea and Sky’ is typical. The spoken reflections are a gentle musing reflecting on people, the land and our use of it. It’s a little uncomfortable towards the end of the album as the tone turns from concerned warmth to distraught bitterness. It’s as if the gentlest, most likeable teacher at school is suddenly angry and upset.
Don’t be too distracted from the music. It’s behind the voices, but it’s too good, to remain in the background. To give one example,‘The Path’ wanders dreamily free following a bouncy bass line like a child trying out everything in a new adventure playground before settling on their favourite feature.(Thoughtfully the band allow you to bypass the spoken word on four tracks by including instrumental versions of ‘Highways and Byways’, ‘Between Sea and Sky’, ‘Going Gone’ and ‘The Wrong Spot’.)
This is supremely melodic electronica, that sounds and plays like a full band. It reaches out and invites you into the world it has created, in the same way that Lemon Jelly did on their ‘Elements’ album, and It’s Immaterial did with their tales of driving away from home and the people they met along the way. I’m going to be humming parts of this for weeks now while, annoyingly, finding it hard to place where those extracts come from.
Connecting electronica and pastoral, natural elements may seem like a recipe for an odd couple but, trust me, it makes for a marriage made in Heaven.
Taster Track : Highways and Byways (Instrumental Version)
Deep Is The Way : Gena Rose Bruce
Gena Rose Bruce’s album of quietly understated indie pop is a delight to listen to, and pulls off a difficult trick.
There are many albums by 30 something women that detail the difficulties in forming relationships that might last, in Disney terms ‘finding the one’. There are few that balance the turmoil of feeling with such a light and welcome pop touch. Latter day Taylor Swift is the best known, and Gena Rose Bruce is ready to stand beside her and match her song for song.
This is a record of ‘what ifs’, dreams and daydreams, and cautionary realisations. It’s summed up in a couplet from ‘Deep Is The Way’
“Don’t get lost in a world that favours fast living
‘Cause you’ve got a mind for drifting and dreaming”
The songs here are torn between the temptations of both. You could cast them as the follies of youth being left behind as you confront your needs and fears for the future.
It would be easy for the issues that concern Bruce, for ‘Deep Is The Way’ to be a kind of singing therapy, striking a chord and impressing her audience with its conflicted sincerity and intense tunes. It’s harder to craft something that balances the heartfelt emotions with songs that you want to hear on the radio. That's the trick that Bruce pulls off here.
Take ‘Foolishly In Love’ which is disconcertingly reminiscent of Billy Joel’s ‘It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me’ while dealing with a desperate longing to be just a little reckless in affairs of the heart. Reflect on how ‘Morning Stars’ comes on like a big 70s ballad but is saved from mawkish divadom by the indie reverb that comes in at the end. Or listen to the opening track ‘Future’ with its haunting and literally whispered vocals. It’s brought to life by the little pop flurries in the background, quietly swirling their way around to fleshing out the song.
Let me stress that the pop touches don’t undermine the emotion, they show it in high relief. The record is stronger for them. ‘Deep Is The Way ', jointly written and duetted with Bill Callahan, is the most accessible song I’ve heard him in.
Bruce has made an album that is personal, honest and revealing while remaining fully accessible to all.
Taster Track : Future
The Chasing Pack
The Answer Is Always Yes : Alex Lahey
Alex Lahey’s take on rock may not be as alternative as she suggests on her website, but it is an enjoyable and upbeat listen.
Let’s be honest. If you want alternative rock, head for Radiohead or Alt-J. This is about as alternative as Suzi Quatro. I type those words knowing that, back in 1973, SQ was the first statement artist to show that chart success could come from black leather clad screamers, not just from the sweet girls next door called Olivia, Cilla or Dana. In its way it was one of the most alternative breakthroughs in pop. Thankfully it doesn’t feel alternative now.
This takes you back to 70s guitar pop in one particular way. Do you remember in those early days of falling for pop, the power of a new single. Hear the intro - “This is new” Hear the first verse “ Hmm I’m not sure … still not sure. What does everyone else think?” Get to the chorus “ZING!! Love it!” That’s what Alex Lahey does and I, for one, don’t want or need her to do anything else.
In addition to Suzi, this reminded me of early Fountains of Wayne, hugely enjoyable slices of power pop that bring a quick smile of recognition as soon as they burst from the speakers. In the first two tracks alone she covers such pop standbys as the need for good times (‘Good Time’) and standing in the church as your true love marries someone else (‘Congratulations’).
I’d describe this as one of the most daytime radio friendly albums of the year if it wasn’t for the insertion into every song bar ‘The Answer Is Always Yes’ of a swear word. It’s as if she’s marking her territory as one of the boys. She really doesn’t need to do that. She’s not Amyl from the Sniffers, she’s the up and coming kid at the lighter end of Australian rock. That’s not a bad place to be. (And if she wants a play on Pop In The Real World on the Radio, that hotbed of star making and music influencing, she needs to drop the F Word or show me how to bleep it out discreetly!)
I enjoyed this album as it is, full of breezy crowd pleasers such as ‘Shit Talkin’’ and ‘On The Way down’. She’s having a great time and you will too.
Taster Track : On The Way Down
Orbs : Anthony Naples
Bass heavy, chilled dub. To borrow a title from Spiritualized, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space.” This is the music you hear there.
More prosaically, this is the music you might hear coming from the basement of your apartment block at 02:00 on a Sunday morning. There’s no escaping either that by the time you get to ‘Silas’ this is how you might hear music when you’re very happily drunk or otherwise under the influence. This is music so chilled that it comes to you directly from the deep freeze
In normal times, none of the above may sound like much of a recommendation. Stay with me though, because what emerges from this chilled collection is quite special. It’s something that might alter your perception of what music can be.
‘Orb 2’ may sound like a repetitive dub refrain with a few effects thrown on top but it works. This is zero gravity music that can lift the weight from your life and leave you feeling lighter. Far from being anonymous, programmed background music, this is chill out you want to listen to for its details.
There’s an isolated beat in ‘Unknow’ that’s loud and to the front of the tune, but it doesn’t sound like any beat you’ve heard before. ‘Gem’ meanders through a lovely piece of ambience, freeing the record temporarily from its dub anchors. ’Ackee’ tiptoes its way around like someone up early to prepare a birthday surprise. ‘Strobe’ picks up the pace so sweetly, you’re carried along with it as if safely in the tide of a crowd.
If heavy dub isn’t your cup of tea you may feel that this is music with something missing. If you’re curious about how we hear music and how cleverly it can be constructed, this is for you.
Taster Track : Strobe
Everything Is Slow : Bright & Findlay
Soulful electronica, as concocted by Groove Armada’s Tom Findlay and producer / songwriter James Alexander Bright - doesn’t come much slower or more intense than it does here.
That’s not a bad thing. It’s important to have time to fully appreciate the grooves and melodies that carry these songs across the deep, still waters of the music. It’s a smooth passage, but one that carries the threat of exploring in an uncharted depth.
The music is founded on a mix of bluesy electronic soul and RnB. Weirdly, Bright’s vocals reminded me most of Michael McDonald’s. (For younger readers he was in the Doobie Brothers many years ago, before electronica was a thing. You may think that’s ridiculous but it’s my belief and I’m sticking to it. What a fool believes eh?)
Everything about this album is slow to the point midway through where it’s positively glacial. To get a little technical, the title track, ‘Everything Is Slow’ runs at 104 beats per minute (bpm). Groove Armada’s languid ‘At The River’ comes in at 136 bpm. And when you press play to start the album it’s eight seconds before ‘Hello In The Dark (Standing)’ kicks in. They’re taking their time.
Sometimes, as in ‘Everything Is Slow’ or ‘It’s Only Rain’ the music is so deep and soulful you wonder how they can ever come back to connect with the world at normal speed. It’s a cumulative effect, not an issue with these particular songs except when the melody drifts away from them and the feel becomes a little oppressive. It’s in a song such as ‘When I Look Into The World’ that the importance of melody to the overall effect is most apparent.
This is music that takes a long, hard, introspective look into the soul rather than baring its feelings for all to hear. It has an intimacy that compels attention. It’s like watching the sun slowly disappear below the horizon and welcoming the onset of darkness and the respite from uncomfortable heat.
I liked it. This is music that makes you wait for its pleasures. The good news is that they are worth waiting for.
Taster Track : When I Look Into The World
Morning Ritual : Chartreuse
Welcome to dark pop, a mix of alternative, indie, pop, electronics, math rock and Goth with, allegedly, jazz and soul influences. Forget the genre shenanigans. It’s actually rather good whatever it is.
This is music made by pop’s elder brother, the brother pop looks up to. He was at uni before pop started secondary school, married before pop discovered girls and experienced in the ways of the world before pop had even been allowed to stay up past the TV watershed.
They’re still related though, and that’s what makes this album accessible and enjoyable. The music is chock full of ideas that can only come after drawing from a range of inspirations. The vocals, and particularly the rhythm with which they are delivered, are the hooks that remind you of pop's past. That means you might come for the vocal lines but stay for the intriguing display of ideas in, say, ‘Backstroke’.
Chartreuse are a band who have always been close, bound by friendship before music formalised their relationship.. They’ve experienced things going wrong and drawn support from each other to bounce back. That unspoken sense that tough times can be overcome means that the songs are never overwhelmed by feelings of alienation and isolation. Songs such as ‘Morning Ritual’ may sound downbeat and disappointed but there’s no wallowing allowed on this album. It’s more a sense that they can sing openly of such things without allowing themselves to be defined by them.
Yes, there’s a worn and weary tone that holds this album together. It’s captured well in ‘Agitated’. But the lilt of ‘Shield From Bedlam’ is a glimmer of light, the breaking of dawn after a night spent under heavy clouds. And the quality of its songwriting and musicianship is consistently impressive and that’s more than enough reason to give it a listen.
This is pop shorn of its Peter Pan qualities. It’s as likely to appeal to fans of Radiohead as it is to fans of Coldplay. It’s time now to give it a go.
Taster Track : Backstroke
Anches En Maat : Grails
Grails offer a collection of experimental (but not inaccessible) rock instrumentals of the kind that flourished when everyone had some Hipgnosis cover art on their wall.
You don’t hear much like this nowadays. It’s firmly in the underground, or possibly the afterlife. The title ‘Anches en Maat’ could refer to that, or it could be a reference to the Egyptian goddess of harmony. If it’s the latter, it’s the only light touch associated with this album.
The band have been together for nearly 25 years. Look for them on Google Images today though and you won’t find a smile amongst them. It’s a little intimidating. You sense that they’ve put a lot of serious stuff into their music and they expect you to take it seriously. Pay attention at the back. Sit up straight and put away your phone.
This is above all a rock album, in all its dimensions. ‘Sad & Illegal’ is dramatic and epic with its crashing drums and nemesis bass but ‘Evening Song’ picks its way carefully down a gentler path, providing a respite from any hint of bombast. ‘Viktor’s Night Map’ is a good example of the album’s strengths. It’s layered and heaven knows how many instruments come into play over the course of its five minute running time.
It’s by no means heavy rock, but it is a heavy sound. It’s dense. It needs you to concentrate when listening to it to pick up its numerous nuances. Think back to school days and that teacher who no one wanted to be on the wrong side of, the teacher whose stern demeanour belied a lesson filled with interest and inspiration if only you’d immerse yourself in it. That teacher’s descendants are probably playing in bands like Grails.
This is one for the entranced headphones brigade. There’s lots to be impressed by, quite a bit to like and a wealth of detail to explore further.
Taster Track : Viktor’s Night Map
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