Andrew Gabbard, Bo Burnham, Civic, Clinic, Hand Habits, Leo Abrahams, Veryan, The War On Drugs
Album Cover of the Week
There was a three way tie for Album Cover of the Week this week. The first was Veryan's 'Here' but it's a key part of this section to be able to show a good image, and I was unable to find one on line. The second was Civic's 'Future Forecast' but I've written quite a bit about the cover in the review. So that leaves Leo Abraham's 'Scene Memory 2. 'It's clean and stylish, and not a little cool. What more could you want?
This Week's Music
I don't know about you, but the weeks after Christmas and New Year seem to include finishing off a lot of treats and leftovers. It's the same with music. You can relax to an album you've been waiting to hear, and you can listen to albums that you can't quite remember downloading, or why.
This week's list includes some of both, and reveals some unexpected delights too.
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
Here : Veryan
This is an intriguing album of electronic music, simultaneously warm and accessible while creating a sense of foreboding as it goes.
Veryan is a female, Scottish electronica artist on the roster of a German record label called Cue. More than that is a mystery, and in some ways that sense of mystery feeds into the album. It creates a sense of an unfamiliar but anonymous world that we’re a little nervous of gazing on. Eventually, I realised that it was the same feeling generated by walking around the City of London at weekends. Everything is as it should be, but it’s different. Shorn of the bustle of a working day, the heartbeat of the district rather than its people is to the fore. The album has a slow, quiet, inexorability and inevitability about it, like the movement of a glacier, or the well oiled workings of complex machinery.
I’m a sucker for one word titles that suggest the track will convey the essence of something. This album only has one word titles. They don’t sound pretentious, more like clues.
Trying to describe it is tricky. Just as I think it’s a clinical form of Krautrock, along comes a much warmer track such as ‘Embrace’. Just as I’m beginning to describe it as a quiet album, along comes the urgent insistence of ‘Belonging’. Just as I think I’ve nailed the sound, along comes the closing track ‘Here’ which has a much stronger dance feel.
Unlike some electronica which is too much of an ambient soundscape for its own good, this is definitely music. It’s not an album of bleeps and squelches. There’s a nice sound to the electronica. It’s rarely harsh or angular, more soft and rounded, although the skittering, stuttering beats verge on unsettling. It’s the kind of music you can bump against without causing any damage.
This is an album that invites you to think as you listen, but it’s also an album that it’s a pleasure to listen to.
Taster Track : Embrace
..... And The Rest
Homemade : Andrew Gabbard
This is an album that proves that within every hard rocking, psychedelic garage band guitarist, such as Andrew Gabbard, there’s an inner Beatle trying to get out.
This is a homage to the Beatles, with nods of respect to the likes of Nilsson and the Beach Boys. It’s a sweet and light album that draws its influences from album tracks such as ‘Martha My Dear’, ‘Here, There And Everywhere’ and ‘Nowhere Man’. They’re all great songs that have perhaps been underappreciated as they lay crushed beneath the weight of the favourite classics. These are songs the way the Beatles might have written them if Harrison rather than Lennon had teamed up with McCartney.
It’s a curious album. As it perfects its sound, it highlights its limitations, sounding like an exercise in creating the unimprovable tribute. It makes its point over and over again, like Travis Bickle’s “You talkin’ to me?” speech in Taxi Driver but without the homicidal intent, thankfully.
The album begins to feel like the work of a one trick pony, a chef with a menu comprising entirely of an excellent signature dish with small variations. Although it’s not a lengthy album your interest wanders before the end.
All told it’s an album best heard by simply giving in to it. Don’t play spot the influences. Don’t think about it too much. Just enjoy it for what it is.
Taster Track : Grin Song
Inside (The Songs) : Bo Burnham
This is a record of songs by American comedian Bo Burnham, extracted from a one man show he performed from his home during America’s lockdown. It’s not a joke and it’s not funny. It’s more of a despairing howl on the state of the world and the toll it takes on mental health.
Any comedian crossing the boundary into song is asking for trouble. It can work. The Flight Of The Conchords, Tim Minchin, even Victoria Wood have all succeeded in making decent comic songs because they know that to success the material has to be funny and sound good
The songs run for 57 minutes. They’re culled from a show lasting for 87 minutes, so there’s 30 minutes of additional material not on the record that might help to link the songs together. The show has certainly been critically successful winning acclaim and awards in a number of areas, and is available on Netflix if you’d like to see it.
The first thing to say is that, with this album, Bo Burnham hasn’t pulled off the trick of turning his comedy into song. To adapt the old Bob Monkhouse joke, (“They laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian. They’re not laughing now!”) some of these songs are so downbeat they’re laughable, but they’re not funny so no one’s laughing. I suspect though that making people laugh may not have been Burnham’s intention here.
Any humour suffers from losing the audience reaction. The songs sound like random fragments lacking a build up, the punchline to a set up that isn’t explained. Too often it sounds like a wasted evening saying naughty words, a sour, bored and seedy experience that simply isn’t funny.
There are signs though that this is less musical stand up and more an appalled state of the nation address. ‘Welcome To The Internet’ is a high powered rant about the way the Internet has taken over our lives but not for the better in just 20 years. ‘That Funny Feeling’ could be The Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’ for the 21st Century. It doesn’t feel like progress. Towards the end ‘All Eyes On Me’ makes some kind of sense of the album as a whole, showing poor mental health to be the byproduct of all that's happened in the last couple of years.
If humour is a matter of personal taste, maybe I just didn’t get the joke. It’s still possible for the album to be redeemed by its music. Sadly, not on this occasion. It sounds as if it's been composed on a school’s music lesson keyboard, sounding thin and unvarnished. ‘How The World Works’ sounds like a skit to music rather than a song.
The most irritating aspect though is the way that songs end very abruptly or go completely silent during their running time. It’s so prevalent that I checked to see if the download from Spotify had failed or been corrupted. It hadn’t, so I’m left with a feeling that without the connecting pieces it’s a bit of a mess.
As ever, there’s another view on this that you can read at Spectrum Culture Bo Burnham Inside (The Songs) For what it’s worth, my advice would be to hear the songs in context on Netflix, or try out the Flight Of the Conchords for humour that works in songs.
Taster Track : All Eyes On Me
Future Forecast : Civic
Civic offer a blast of Australian punk with energy and tunes in abundance.
If I have one thought about my listening in 2021, it’s that it tended towards gentler sounds. My resolution for 2022 was to wake up my listening. Four days in, and welcome Civic.
This is authentic rock and roll punk made for pogoing in mosh pits. The songs are fast and furious, a sonic assault of jabbing, stuttering guitars, machine gunning drums and, thankfully, good tunes. For punk to be more than noise and anger, it needs good riffs. There’s one here for every song.
The cover holds a double secret. First, the immense, curved wall sums up the grey and intimidating constraints that punk kicks against. Secondly, you can’t look at this wall without acknowledging the technical expertise needed to make it. Clinic pay attention to both these elements in their songs.
Punk’s influence ultimately led down three different paths. First was the path marked poppy new wave, travelled by the likes of The Jam, The Undertones and Generation X. Then there was the critically fashionable road to post punk taken by Joy Division, Buzzcocks (via Magazine) and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Clinic are on the cusp of the third way marked Speed Metal, the way that leads to Motorhead, the way that allows the thrilling enjoyment of making a noise to trump all other considerations.
The one thing that the first wave of punk never entertained was nostalgia. This record benefits from coming later, provoking nostalgia for a world where anything was possible and, briefly, music controlled the agenda. This will appeal equally to people who refer to agendas in reviews and to a new breed of listener listening out for guitar driven energy and good times.
Taster Track : As Seen On TV
Fantasy Island : Clinic
This isn’t quite what I was expecting. 29 years into their career, Clinic have retreated to the world of early 80s synth pop. It’s a curious, but successful, transformation.
Clinic have always been a band that are happy to be at odds with prevailing trends. They’re not quite experimental but they like to stand alone.
Here it sounds as if they have found some old synthesisers and have enjoyed playing them while, quite deliberately, not updating the sound. The thing is, it doesn’t sound deliberately retro but appealingly dated. It doesn’t just call to mind the sounds of the earliest synth pop that would have featured on John Peel, it is those sounds.
The music is a little scuzzy and seedy but always melodic. It's end of the pier synth. There’s something sleazy about the sound that’s reminiscent of early Soft Cell.
Domino, their record company, describe this as Clinic’s funky disco album. It’s too deliberately paced for that, like Tom Jones dancing. You can judge for yourself in the cover of Eruption’s disco pop hit ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’. It’s a treatment that’s more Dad dance shuffle, than full blown Saturday Night Fever. It’s a consciously knowing treatment not giving in to expectations and adding its own dose of hallucinatory psychedelia to the mix.
A little part of me thinks they may be having a musical joke at our expense but if so, it’s a joke I’m happy to go along with because deep down it’s an album of good, different sounding songs that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Taster Track : The Lamplighter
Fun House : Hand Habits
Hand Habits come out of the blocks strongly, but are unable to sustain the heights for a full album.
For a few years now, Hand Habits have been a slowly growing, little known secret. They’ve written gentle, generally acoustic gems that escape the speakers and wrap themselves around you.
This album could have been the one that breaks through. ‘More Than Love’ is simply dripping, oozing, seeping and leaking honey drenched melody from every bar. ’Aquamarine’ is hardly an organic record relying on its effects to create its mood and atmosphere, but that’s OK. It’s still a good song. The duet with Perfume Genius, ‘Just To Hear You’, is excellent, particularly the barely audible whispers. Even when the initial hard work is complete, you’re still drawn into the intensely personal of ‘Graves’. The melody may be less immediate, but it’s there and it's good. These are songs that are simultaneously subdued and buoyed up by their loveliness.
The album loses its way around ‘Concrete And Feathers’ which wanders into a more generic territory. It’s the territory occupied by the early albums of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Snail Mail. It’s good, but Hand Habits once had a kingdom of their own. It’s as if the connection is broken by a poor wifi signal. There are points where it reappears momentarily, on ‘Control’ and ‘Gold / Rust’ (despite its overturned and mixed up sound!) but it’s not enough.
On ‘Control’, Meg Duffy sings “I can change” over and over again. To be honest, she doesn’t need to. She simply needs to stick at what she does best.
Taster Track : More Than Love
Scene Memory 2 : Leo Abrahams
There’s a lot to admire in the technical quality of this album by a regular collaborator with Brian Eno and Jon Hopkins. There’s less to latch onto by way of songs and tunes.
My initial impression of this record, from ‘Harm Organ’, the opening track is that it’s not a comfortable place to be. It’s the soundtrack to a damaged spaceship on the verge of losing contact with Mission Control for good. It’s a science fiction piece, a work with the potential to unlock deep truths about the universe and our place within it.
The thing is though that I’m less of a 2001 Space Odyssey disciple and more of a Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’ kind of guy. I answer to Arthur Dent more than Arthur C Clarke. Abrahams is inviting me to expand my consciousness but I’m listening while ironing in my pyjamas. I sense it’s not going to work.
What we have are tracks that are not so much tunes as repeated, fragmentary pulses and phrases. They don’t build into something solid and fully formed so they’re unsatisfying. I like the technical achievement, the creation of new sounds but it’s hard to respond to it as music.
I’ve chosen ‘Alternations’ as the taster track because it's a clever title with a myriad of possible meanings - a lot like this record. Here’s an alternative review from The Slow Music Movement blog, showing that he divides opinion elsewhere too, Leo Abrahams Review by The Slow Music Blog
Taster Track : Alternations
I Don't Live Here Any More : The War On Drugs
Everything is in place on this album of wide screen rock to create one of the more memorable albums of 22021 / 2022, and yet it’s a slightly underwhelming affair.
When I was a commuter, travelling at some ungodly hour the carriage often seemed to be split between those who were using music to pump themselves up for the day and those who used music as a comfort blanket to deny what was happening to them. The War On Drugs sound as if they should help the former. In practice they’re whispering to the deniers “10 more minutes. Go back to sleep.”
Don’t get me wrong. I liked this album quite a lot. It’s easy on the ear, full of good tunes and crammed with well constructed songs. They’ve become an event band. Their albums are eagerly anticipated, always delivering but strangely unsatisfying.
Recently, I’ve seen favourable comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and, although I get those, particularly in detailing personal struggles in a big, open country, they sound like they’re compared to the wrong Bruce. They suggest to me Bruce Hornsby if he fronted a rock band rather than sitting alone at his piano.
Musically, their blend of music combining traditional rock with muted synth lines sounds out of time, a throwback to the 90s and 00s when rock was suffering a bit of an identity crisis. I wanted to hear them let rip a little. One of their strengths is restraint, but I think it’s a tad overdone. As it stands this is a rock album that lulls me back to sleep. In the war on drugs they’re pushing musical opiates and dulling the senses. It’s not unpleasant but that’s part of the problem.
That restraint works well on the opening track ‘Living Proof’, building to and holding back the release nicely. Title track ‘I Don’t Live Here Any More’ sounds great coming off the radio, and the duetting with Lucius is a nice touch. Vocally Adam Granduciel is curiously reminiscent of Ricky Ross, the lead singer of Deacon Blue and that is by no means a bad thing. The lyrics have strong rhythms, perhaps so strong that they lock down the other elements. The words tumble forth attractively, somehow landing in their perfect place.
Despite my reservations, this is an album of strong songs, gentle juggernauts that are easy to listen to but lacking the impact that would lift them into the realms of something truly special. On this form, they’ll appeal to many but are destined to be everyone’s second favourite band.
Taster Track : I Don’t Live Here Any More