Cecile McLorin Salvant, Efterklang, Fatherson, Gilbert O'Sullivan, Madison Cunningham, Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, Shabason and Krgovich
If You Listen To One Thing This Week, Listen To.....
Too Much For One (Not Enough For Two) - Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott
One thing you can say about Paul Heaton is that with The Housemartins and The Beautiful South, he contributed to some of the purest pop moments of their times. He's not lost that knack, and in Jacqui Abbott he's found his musical bookend. This album is full of perfect pop with a social conscience. Their single 'Too Much For One (Not Enough For Two)' is a marriage made in pop Heaven.
N.K - POP : Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott
It’s time to pay homage to the last King of Pop and his Queen Consort. This album provides the perfect place to start.
Paul Heaton has emerged as one of the least likely of our national treasures. From the chirpy sound of the Housemartins, to the more acidic notes of the Beautiful South, through personal darkness into a solo career that I’ve heard him admit was not very good at the start, he’s become a songwriter laureate for the 21st Century. He’s like John Betjeman in his attention to ordinary concerns and lives. It’s genuine too. On turning sixty, he put £1000 behind the bar of sixty hand picked pubs to buy the locals a drink.
Jacqui Abbott is his perfect foil, musically and personally. She sings with a timing that punctures platitudes and adds tender vulnerability to counter his northern man’s soul. Together they make joyous pop for bickering couples.
They make songs that I want to listen to, full of skewering lines and sitcom humour. Their songs make clear narrative sense and reward proper listening. On ‘The Good Times’, they pile up the detail of the little things that matter. The brutal word ‘Cancer’ shatters the warm, homely atmosphere like a dentist’s drill touching a nerve. In their review of life in Covid isolation they call “I Ain’t Going Nowhere” who can’t smile ruefully at
“We’re in that tiny back garden with a bloody Great Dane.”
And they twist the Christmas classic ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ into a dissection of sex pests in ‘Baby It’s Cold Inside’
All these songs benefit from Heaton’s appreciation and understanding of what makes great pop. They’re drenched in melodies and flourishes that make and keep them memorable. Borrowing the key melody of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ to feature briefly in ‘Baby It’s Cold Inside’ is audacious and confident. Everywhere there are reminders of tin pan alley’s finest moments, and Northern Soul’s uplifting trills transplanted to the M62.
Heaton and Abbott have been making music together for nearly thirty years. They deserve to be celebrated with rainy, storm swept jubilee street parties punctuated by warm sunshine and glowing rainbows. They’ll provide the music.
Taster Track :Baby It’s Cold Inside
.... And The Rest
Ghost Song : Cecile McLorin Salvant
This is a startling and undiluted masterclass in jazz vocals. Whether it appeals or not, it’s an album that could only have been made by an artist at the top of her game.
I realised while listening to this that I still pick my way carefully through jazz’s by ways and cul de sacs. I tend to favour jazz that is a near relation of electronica and rock. I’ll be honest, I was ambushed by this in the same way as I have occasionally been by an unseen aggressive charity worker immediately after turning a corner or by stepping on a loose puddle supported paving slab during heavy rain. Vocally and musically this is 100% proof jazz with no concessions in earshot.
It’s a record that is overflowing with confidence and a determination to take risks. The album opens with an unaccompanied vocal version of ‘Wuthering Heights’. I suspect it will polarise opinion as much as the original did nearly 45 years ago. This album is all about Salvant’s voice and it’s laid starkly before you in all its strangeness, purity and beauty. IAt the other end of the album is the entirely unaccompanied ‘Unquiet Grave’, a statement song that leaves the strongest imprint of her voice on your memory.
Cecile McLorin is not afraid to take risks. Rather, she relishes them, eager to hear how far she can stretch her voice to create atmosphere and tone. It’s the kind of performance that can only be delivered by an artist who knows she’s at her peak and still wishes to challenge herself. It’s the equivalent of Steve Redgrave going for one more Gold medal or David Blaine seeking the ultimate, extreme illusion.
She seems to enjoy making an upfront impact that she allows to soften as the song develops. ‘Ghost Song’ is a case in point. From a typically challenging opening, she allows it to mellow into a song carried by its string melody, freed from vocal pyrotechnics which can be something of a distraction.
She has a surprisingly cultured voice. ‘Obligation’ highlights this aspect. If that is her foundation she stretches it into very different shapes and sounds to keep her songs interesting.
Her supporting musicians know their jazz too. They play in a style from, maybe, forty or fifty years ago. It’s the kind of music I used to think of when I thought of jazz. It’s music that some people still run away from, but it is extremely well played.
The vocals and musicianship could be enough to push this album to the uppermost branches of the jazz tree. Salvant wants more, and she delivers it through her songwriting and arrangements. She realises it in the automaton tones of ‘I Lost My Mind’, the Steven Sondheim musical tones of ‘The World Is Mean’ and in the way she cedes centre stage to a haunting youth chorus in ‘Ghost Song’.
This is a strong album both in performance and taste. It’s possibly too rich for pop palates to consume in a single sitting, but tasting it piece by piece will still bring rewards.
Taster Track : Ghost Song
Windflowers : Efterklang
Efterklang’s album from last year is a collection of what they do best, mature and subdued songwriting enclosing songs of immense beauty. And this time most of it is in English.
One of Pop In The Real World’s guiding principles is to review how records stand up when detached from the hype of their launch, listened to on music systems or headphones which fall short of the highest specification and subject to the distractions of real life. It’s to Efterklang’s great credit that this album withstands all that and more. Its beauty even cuts through the coughs, sniffles and sneezes of a heavy cold.
Eight of these nine tracks are sung in English. If we’ve lost the mythical magic of the Danish language, we’ve gained a direct simplicity, and an intense, even desperate, intimacy with the music. These are songs you want to understand and let into your heart.
There’s no one quite like Efterklang. Their music has soaked up Danish culture drawn from centuries of myths and fairy tales and applies it to modern life.. There’s an undercurrent of darkened forests and the unseen fear of menacing trolls. It’s a jolt when the everyday world intrudes, as with the mention of school in ‘Dragonfly‘. Their music values quiet stillness where the loudest sound is that of your heart beating or your fingers sliding across the fretboard of the guitar.
Although they stand alone they occupy a similar space to Talk Talk, The Blue Nile, Sigur Ros and It’s Immaterial. That’s a space to one side of the crowd where the songs are detached from the popular mainstream but possess a singular, timeless beauty.
This isn’t a flawless album, but the flaws serve to intensify its strengths. The tapping beat of ‘Alien Arms’ like the tapping of rain on an upturned bucket doesn’t fit the song, but the unadorned and unhurried melody seems stronger for overcoming the distraction. The distorted vocals on part of ‘House On A Feather’ to convey the sense of calling from outer space is obvious and unnecessary. I’d love to hear a version of this song without that effect. The energy of closing track ‘Abent Sar’ is at odds with the tone of the rest of the album. But these are details, and other details such as the accordion and whistle on ‘Living Other Lives’ add more than is taken away elsewhere.
This is a quietly beautiful album to savour. Is it too quiet to be noticed? Maybe, but that makes it all the more special to come across it.
Taster Track : Living Other Lives
Normal Fears : Fatherson
This pop rock collection from Fatherson is absolutely fine as far as it goes. It doesn’t go far enough though to break out of the mass of similar bands wallowing along in the same furrow..
It’s with a sense of dread that I type these words because I know they will sound grudging and even mean. So let me start, by acknowledging that there are thousands and thousands of bands around the world that dedicate their waking hours to making the best music they can. They tour, they record and they sacrifice and, unlike Fatherson, they will never come close to supporting the likes of Biffy Clyro, Enter Shikari or Twin Atlantic. Fatherson are better than all of them. To get that far they must be in the top fraction of one percent of bands in the world. And yet, they’re still in the chasing pack unable to break through to be one of the leading acts. To be brutal and blunt Fatherson are big in Scotland, but not in the UK.
Fatherson do the commonplace very well. In each song they do nearly everything right but they lack the undefinable magic ingredient for everything to click into place. The closest they come to bucking that is on ‘All The Time’. It’s a stripped back track, just piano and vocals. It’s personal and it’s effective. Elsewhere ‘End Of The World’ is more typical. It’s a perfectly serviceable and straightforward pop rock song that tries to sound different to squeeze in too many words. In that, if not in other ways they are like the Barenaked Ladies.
Let me stress again, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with this album but the words that come to mind to describe it are words like ‘competent’, ‘workmanlike’ and ‘generic’.
In a world where anything not of Premiership quality is overlooked and quickly forgotten, Fatherson are a Championship team playing attractive football and aiming for the playoffs. Their fans will be forever loyal. The rest of us will take note only occasionally.
As ever, if I don’t like an album I like to balance it with a more positive review.Here’s one from Narc Magazine. Narc Magazine Normal Fears Review.
Taster Track ; End Of The World.
Driven : Gilbert O’Sullivan
Gilbert O’ Sullivan has been making the case for his brand of sentimental, homespun, domestic songwriting wisdom for over 50 years. That case is only strengthened by his new album.
He’s parkly eyed, inoffensive and kindness personified so I’m sure Gilbert won’t mind if I call him GOS throughout this review. If ever an album was misnamed, it’s ‘Driven’. GOS observes the world passing by without ever suggesting he’s likely to leave his cafe table to give it a push or launch a crusade. If he’s driven, he’s driven by bus!
It’s a broad musical church that accommodates both GOS and a band like The Comet Is Coming. We should celebrate that. Leave cutting the edge to others, GOS has always been about looking back to happier, golden times. Even in the 70s, at his commercial peak, he was singing with misty eyes and rose tinted spectacles. Occasionally his songs were pierced by overwhelming, genuine sadness.
He wrote, and still writes, for your grandparents even though, for most of us, they’re no longer around. His songs are riddled with nostalgia for lifestyles that are rapidly fading away. ‘Don’t Get Under Each Other's Skin’ is made for a pub singalong, in the kind of pub that barely exists now. (Each one of you owes me a debt of gratitude for not making it the taster track. It has an ear worm that, once heard, cannot ever be forgotten!).
Part of the attraction, for people like me, is that it’s also a look back to the time that I first fell in love with pop. 1973, TOTP and GOS is pre-empting disco by urging us to get down until it becomes apparent that he’s singing to his puppy, or singing sweet love songs to his three year old giggling niece. It resurrects a happier, sentimental and more innocent time.
His voice has aged o maybe mellowed is a better description. Its range is narrower, its tone is slightly gruffer. He’s lost the wide eyed naive school boy look and the sound of someone singing in absolute wonder but it settles quickly into a comfortable delivery.
Opening track ‘Love Casualty’ is a troubling start. It’s a slice of journeyman rock and roll, competently performed but not lighting any fires. It’s as if it was meant for someone else. Our nervousness that we may have stumbled into an underwhelming pub singer set is soon settled. ‘Blue Anchor Bay’ is classic GOS, with lines like
My weather may not always be the best
Which is fine if you don’t mind taking a vest
I found myself tapping my toes to ‘Take Love’, his duet with KT Tunstall. The album is full of GOS standards, ‘Back And Forth’, ‘If Only Love Had Ears’ and the gentle chiding of ‘Hey Man’ being just three examples.
It won’t be long before this kind of songwriting is as endangered as morris dancing or traditional English folk music. Enjoy it while it lasts and don’t feel guilty about it.
Taster Track : Blue Anchor Bay
Revealer : Madison Cunningham
This collection of nicely played Americana is in the vein of Joni Mitchell but, for now, 25 year old Madison Cunningham remains a promising work in progress.
Cunningham has seemingly never had a musical youth.
Revealer is impressively mature for a 25 year old singer songwriter. For Heaven’s sake, even Talor Swift was approaching 30 when she broke through into a more mature sound.
Cunningham’s maturity is seen in her guitar playing. She sounds as if she has been taught by a master in the craft, and practised under their stern gaze. The guitar is picked rather than strummed and the style adds credibility to her desire to be taken seriously. Her lyrics are literary and her wordplay is clever. Try this from ‘Anywhere’”
“ Pay no mind to me and my Vonnegut hair.” (I've looked his hair up on Google. It's not that descriptive!)
Or try this from ‘Sunshine Over The Counter’
“I'm the middle child
Of fear and democracy”
Or this - my favourite - from ‘In From Japan’
“Trying to be the next original
In a tribute band”
I get the feeling that, for now, she’s more a musician and lyricist than a fully fledged singer songwriter. I like the way she uses strings to make drama rather than add saccharine. That said, she lacks the melodic touches that sweeten a song, except on the album’s standout track, ‘Life According To Raechel’, which has a strong chorus melody and an awkward and idiosyncratic spelling of the subject’s name .
The obvious, even lazy parallel, is with someone like Joni Mitchell. She’ll earn a loyal and enduring fan base, but you’ll need to find the key to unlock what makes her special to you. I haven’t found it yet.
Taster Track : Life According To Raechel
At Scaramouche : Shabason + Krgovich
This is a strange album but by no means unpleasant. It seems to fight against leaving a lasting impression.
I can say that it’s leisurely and calming, attractively clean in its sound but barely providing a structure to give shape to its tunes and lyrics. It seems to be giving musical expression to their thoughts and feelings but, at the same time, obscuring them as if witnessed while dazzled by headlights.
The lyrics, especially on ‘Soli’ are disconnected but densely packed. It feels as if they’ve emptied their minds before letting random thoughts in for setting down in song. Perhaps an undergraduate class could unpick them for hidden meanings, but I’m not sure it really matters.
In places this is a record that moves beyond chilled and into sedated, It seems hardly able to stir itself into making it easy listening for you - not that they should necessarily. It’s an album that creeps up on you and before you know it, you’re immersed in its tone and mood. It’s like lying on a beach while the tide comes in. Even as the water begins to lap around your legs, it’s not cold enough to stir you into moving.
Musically, there are no strong melodies to help the songs stick. There are elements borrowed from jazz but it is not a jazz record, any more than it’s a record of Japanese music because of the inscrutable Japanese flavours appearing on ‘Soli’ and ‘I’m Dancing’. It manages to be mesmerising without relying on hypnotic beats. Krgovich’s vocals help. They’re sad but strangely comforting. The waves that provide a backdrop to ‘Drinks At Scaramouche’ feel like the appropriate backdrop to the record as a whole.
Usually I don’t listen to a record more than once before listening to it, but I played this again as I typed. Its strengths became more apparent as the tunes drifted across the currents of the airwaves without demanding too much attention. Maybe that’s the best way to listen to it.
Taster Track : I Am So Happy With My Little Dog
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