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Almost A Bella Union Special

Featuring :

Cornshed Sisters, L'Epee, Heavenly, Landshapes, Laura Groves, Lespectre, My Life Story, Various (The Quietened Dream Palace),

But First...

It's that time of year when words such as bleak, grim and "OMG it's cold" are applied to our weather. Funny that, it's as if everyone's forgotten what Winter is, and how it comes around every year at the same time. One of our favourite pastimes at this time of year is letting Canadian relatives know how bad our Winter is. "It's nearly freezing here!" we say. "It's -12 here." they reply. We say "The snow's so deep you can't see the grass." They reply "Anyone remember where we left the car?" We shiver and dress up in multi-layers to put the bins out . They go for long walks to visit eskimos. Probably.

It's also the time of year when the sky looks grey and blank, as if someone forgot to colour it in. Colourless is one complaint that can't be levelled at this week's albums. The albums are full of life and unexpected twists and turns. Not all of them worked for me, which is why there are more choices than usual in the lower categories. As I've said before, that doesn't make them bad records. Your taste is different from mine and you will find things in these selections to enjoy. I've tried to emphasise positive elements in all of them.

As ever this playlist can be accessed at or via the Spotify link on the Home Page. The link to the Youtube playlist is (It has fewer tracks than the Spotify version for the first month!)

This week, The Jam provide the section headings.


All music is precious to somebody. Just not, this week, to Pop In the Real World.

Set The House Ablaze

Honey and Tar - The Cornshed Sisters

This was an unexpected joy, recommended to me by Pop In the Real World member, Chris Ford. Chris and I have swapped music recommendations almost weekly for years. I've lost count of the number of female fronted folk albums he's put my way in that time, some good and some with the warning "This one is VERY folky." On this occasion though, folk is only a small part of the picture. 'Honey and Tar' is a gem mixing the best of indie, pop, folk and close harmony singing to make something fresh and appealing.

Opening track 'The Message' is indie through and through, building to a rousing finale. 'Cuddling' is first and foremost a typically homely title and incorporates some spoken words of the kind Kevin Rowland used effectively with Dexys Midnight Runners. 'Jobs For the Boys' is the great lost song that the Beautiful South never wrote, and 'Variety' summons up the ghost of Victoria Wood to end the album on a music hall note.

What strikes most about this album is that it sounds so down to earth and grounded in the real world. 'Show Me', with its sharp beats in unexpected places, could fit within a diva's catalogue and be ruined by over emoting. The Cornshed Sisters keep it firmly within the boundaries of the kitchen, utility room or kid's bedroom. This is music that is less Housewife's Choice and more Housewife's Voice.

This is simply a very good pop album, more Radio 2 than Radio 6. 'Listenable' and 'appealing' are two attributes in music that we don't, perhaps, value as highly as we should. They're the attributes offered by this album in spades.

Taster Track : Cuddling

A Bout de Heavenly - Heavenly

It wasn't that I'd forgotten about Heavenly, indie pop darlings from the 1990s. I'd never heard of them. That's a massive shame as I now think they are one of the great 'lost bands' from that time.

They'd formed out of the ashes of Talulah Gosh, who I had heard of, but I hadn't overly taken to their punky, riot grrrl sound. Heavenly are a big step up from that. They've retained the energy but added a jangly and appealing naivety to all the songs. At the time the songs would have spoken to and for their generation.

There are no dud tracks here, if you like the style, but my favourites were 'I Fell In Love Last Night', 'She Says' and 'Atta Girl'. This is music that is slightly raw but with a honey filled core.

There's an interesting postscript to this band, well for any civil servants reading this anyway. Heavenly retired their name following the death of their drummer. His sister, Amelia Fletcher, sang in the band and continued in a number of minor bands as a side project to her main career. That was as an economist and she rose to senior positions in the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition and Markets Authority, being honoured for her contribution to the British economy. (Wake up at the back please!) I'd never heard of her in these roles either but it just goes to show that unsung heroes can sometimes produce the very best work.

Taster Track : I Fell In Love Last Night

That's Entertainment

A Private Road : Laura Groves

Laura Groves is a new artist with bags of potential. This record is a little other worldly. It's atmospheric, late night listening, a lonely record. I suspect that she is still working through the right balance between traditional singer songwriter material and something that suggests a more adventurous free spirit gearing up to burst forth like a butterfly from a chrysalis. It's nicely sung in a voice that's warm and vulnerable at the same time.

'Faking It' plays up the electronica side of the songs to good effect. 'Sunset' has an appealing groove that helps it to stand out, but quietly. These are highlights but there's really nothing to dislike on the whole record.

Based on this EP, she's a work in progress but the songs are more interesting the more you hear them. I'm looking forward to the first full LP.

Taster Track : Sunset

Contact : Landshapes

OK. You might want to prepare for listening to this by shutting yourself in a metal box and asking friends to hit the side with either a sledgehammer or a feather duster. Put simply you won't know what to expect from one moment to the next.

Opening track 'Rosemary' is a case in point. It sounds distorted and fractured, but not all the time. There are abrupt stops and shape-shifting throughout its three and a quarter minutes. 'Just A Plug' is in a similar vein with its wordless vocals - not a mistype - crashing cymbals and squally guitar all combining to generate what is almost white noise. It's seen to gentler effect too in 'Dizzee' which ends with a few seconds of unexpected disco, and in the appearance of a vocoder on 'I'm Mortal'.

The vocals have a sound that is almost unnatural, as if a marauding Goth has stumbled into the studio.

It's not all a bewildering, disorientating onslaught. It gets a little easier with 'Drama'. The bass line anchors the song nicely, but it still wanders about like a puppy off the leash. Lead single 'The Ring', if the concept of a single can apply here, is undeniably catchy.

For all its challenging nature, this is music that is brimful of ideas. It takes enough risks for it to be refused insurance. It's a bold and adventurous record but not a calm and comfortable one.

Taster Track : The Ring

A Stray, A Dream, Forgiveness : Lespectre

This debut album is a little frustrating. It nails the languid, bored atmosphere of the intellectual struggling out of bed to face the philosophical challenges of the day. What it doesn't consistently nail are the tunes. Nor does it have much of the energy needed to engage a listener.

'Sleep, While I' and 'Obliquely Serenely' are illustrations of this while 'Such A Simple Thing' feels way too slow, although a tune emerges as the song speeds up very slightly before the end.

They need to decide if they want to be a leading light in their field or aim for a more appealing sound like Keane on a bad day, at their most intensely suffering and emotionally dramatic. ('Thirty Fathoms Deep' - I actually quite like Keane on a bad day, but I suspect Lespectre may not be flattered by the comparison!)

And yet, there are signs of promise and potential. 'Impossible' is quirky and quite catchy and has a bit more life about it. The duetting voices of Tom Hackwell (presumably, hopefully) and Becky Leach are well matched and add something new to 'If On A Winter's Night.' They have a broader musical range at their disposal if they were to stop being too clever for their own good and use it.

I feel I'm being harsh in this assessment as it is pleasant enough. It just sounds as if they are capable of much greater things. Maybe next time.

Taster Track : If On A Winter's Night

The Planner's Dream Goes Wrong

A Bag of Eyes : Seamus Fogarty

If you're called Seamus Fogarty, it's almost a law that you have to play folk music in some form or other. This is a record that screams that fact loud and clear, but with an electronica twist that takes the edge off.

Now, that makes it 'folktronica' which is best if it softens the pure folk, while allowing it to add warmth and humanity to the electronica. 'Old Suit' goes some way towards this. 'Bus Shelter Blues' highlights the problem I have with some folk music. It seems to demand a keening, twisted style of singing that sounds a little too unnatural. Maybe it's the phrasing, maybe it's in the enunciation. Or maybe it's the fact that the content requires a certain persona to carry it off. What folk is good at, and it comes through strongly in places, is storytelling.

Tracks such as 'Horse' could be described simply as weird, but there is melody there if you search for it. 'Nun' is a mixed bag of spoken word, ruminative singing and a cacophony of musical noise suggesting that everything around us is collapsing. 'Ghosts' highlights that the album does appear carefully put together creating chaotic order, like an upside down house.

Away from the folk sound there are a couple of short tracks, weighted towards electronica. ('Wake Up Felix' and ' Interlude'). They don't add anything for me.

The strongest tracks are 'Jimmy Stuart' which is the closest to a regular pop song with its harmonica and recognisable pop rhythms in the mix. The single Johnny Kay is also accessible. I've chosen it as the taster track because it combines pop with some of the more 'interesting' elements that feature across the record. 'My Boy Willie' is the most traditional folk song here. It tells the story of Willie, who is mourned for dying at sea. It's not a happy ending for either Willie or the listener.

All in all, while this is by no means an easy listen, as a sonic experience rather than a purely musical one it has some attractions.

Taster Track : Johnny Kay

Diabolique - L'Epee

The problem with the Velvet Underground in my book is that they have a massive and influential reputation, but the great majority of songs are hard to listen to and, quite possibly, not very good. There I've said it.

The problem with L'Epee is that they want to be the Velvet Underground at their most repetitive and droning. I completely get that constant repetition is one way of burrowing a tune into your brain. And I'm not ungrateful that, eventually, songs such as 'Lou', which introduces melody through the vocals and 'Dreams' , which drones in quite and rock and roll way, do lodge there. I know though that were I start unthinkingly humming these drones, my wife would ask me to stop on the grounds that it was coming over as a mindless dirge. Whilst she wouldn't be right, neither would she be far wrong.

My other problem is that they're mainly French. Hold fire, please while I remind regular readers that I am a big fan of French pop which is melodic, stylish and fun. This isn't. It's the sound of a much grubbier France. If this is part of the sound of the Left Bank, it's not the part that smells sweetest.

Credit where it's due. This is a strong coherent sound, with lots of reverb and a bit of feedback and it's delivered with total commitment. It's just that it pushes you away rather than welcoming you in. You feel like an observer from the back of the auditorium rather than a participant in the mosh pit.

Taster Track : Lou

World Citizen - My Life Story

I wasn't over familiar with My Life Story in the Britpop glory days, but I'd liked what I'd heard and was interested to hear how they had developed in the intervening 25 years.

Well, here's the thing. This is the thing. Not only do they not sound older, more world weary, or more experienced, they've managed the remarkable feat of sounding younger now than they did then.

Vocally they sound as McFly or Busted did. 'Taking On the world' and 'The One' could have been lifted from a reunited Take That album. I'm up for the Magic 80s sound as much as anyone but after a bit the sound starts to cloy.

There are some decent lyrics here, My favourite is from 'Broken'.

"I'm looking at the bright side.

I'm only broken on the inside."

Their selling point is that they incorporate a reasonably sized pop orchestra. It works well on the standout track '# No Filter' but feels less necessary on a track such as 'Sent From Heaven'. (Oh dear. I never wanted to become the kind of man who turned into a grouch at the sound of innocent, idealised song titles but 'The One'? 'Sent From Heaven'? Really? Do we need this overt sentimentality?)

To be fair, I can hear what there is to like here but it doesn't thrill me. In places it has me squirming in my seat calling for a healthy dose of Pulp or Sleaford Mods to add a bit of real life grit.

Taster Track : # No Filter

The Bitterest Pill

The Quietened Dream Palace : Various

I was quite excited about listening to this because it was based on a beautiful idea. The intention is to pay tribute to the memories, sounds and style of the pre-multiplex cinema era. You know, those small local cinemas where the film would be quietly interrupted by dogs barking backstage, or your enjoyment of the latest horror film would be enhanced by a cat leaping onto your lap from nowhere. (Maybe that was just the Globe Cinema and Chapter Arts Centre, both in Cardiff during 1979 - 1982.)

Sadly it doesn't succeed. It's mainly creating an electronic and ambient idea of what the cinemas that remain are like now, not as they were in their heyday. It doesn't transport you to the past. It's It's the sound of the equipment, not the crowds or the films. It's empty, melancholic and drones throughout. The human element, the excitement and the fun experienced as a child / teenager are absent. There's an emotional power, but it's not music in my book.

'Meet You Outside the New Metropolis', 'Only the Clock Remain' and 'Saturday Matinee' come closest to realising the intention, but that's a relative term.

The titles are the most evocative element of the whole album. If you stripped those away I doubt anyone would be transported back in time to the golden age of old cinemas.

Taster Track : Only The Clock Remains - Vic Mars

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