Datarock, Dinner Party, Junkboy, Plaid, Riders of the Canyon, Wonderful Beasts.
The Front Runners
Enigmatic Society : Dinner Party
I neither saw nor heard this coming - one of the year’s loveliest surprises, a record of melodic warmth and filled with love.
This is billed as a mix of hip hop, jazz and rap from a hip hop supergroup made up of multi award winning hip hop / rap and jazz producers and musicians. Momentarily I quailed. This may be a hip hop supergroup. That doesn’t make it a super hip hop group.
My fears proved completely groundless. It may require a leap of faith to get into this record. It’s like falling backwards off a table, expecting to be caught by strong arms and finding, instead, that you are supported and made comfortable by warm air currents or puffed up loud pillows.
There are similarities between hip hop and jazz. The interplay between hip hop vocalists mirrors the interplay between good jazz musicians. In truth though, I wouldn’t call this a hip hop record. It’s more of a jazz infused RnB record. It’s semantics, In the past I’d have run far from that description too.
It’s the tone that wins me over - warm, gentle and full of love. ‘Breathe’ is a lovely, supportive embodiment of that tone, and it’s full of good advice too. ‘Answered Prayer’, which opens the album leaves you open-mouthed in surprise. It’s a mastercraftman’s lesson in soft piano with jazz embellishments. ‘Insane’ is like slowly submerging yourself into a bubbling, cleansing pool. Only ‘The Lower East Side’ allows atmosphere to trump the guardian angel feel of the album. ‘Love Love’ is a song for making every night Valentine’s night.
This is an album that invites and offers you the chance to relax into its mellow vocals, piano and sax. It’s as if Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder have joined forces with Hall and Oates - quite directly on ‘Can’t Go’ which samples the Hall and Oates song ‘I Can’t Go for That’.
It’s an album as pure, simple, and welcome as saying “I love you” and meaning it.
Taster Track : Breathe
Magic and Myth : Wonderful Beasts
This is different. It’s a collection of experimental electronic soundscapes that are almost, but not quite, musical.
The reason I listen to music I’ve never heard before, and know nothing about, is because occasionally, rarely, it can produce experiences such as this. It’s not musical as such. There are no melodies, a few cascading rhythms and only computer beats but taken together they add up to an exciting demonstration of what can be produced through electronica.
There are moments of beauty. ‘Dreamers’ reminds you of nothing more than the pealing of church bells, with a few primaeval animal sounds and distortions thrown in before the end. It’s strange but enchanting. ‘We Are Dancing With Infinity" continues the effect, an electronic soundscape that begs you to drift away with it.
Wonderful Beasts conjure wonderful sounds. Some of those sounds are almost physical, particularly on ‘Spiritual Bruv // Oisac’ and ‘In Love’. ‘In Love’ opens with a mix of thunder and grating machinery, surely something that will be sampled by others. It’s a sound that grabs you by the shoulders and tugs you into the heart of the track. A clicky rhythm will eventually pull you through to the other side. There’s room to nod to the acoustic world. ‘Hazy Days’ contains treated, plucked strings.
The band, a duo formed by boycalledcrow and Xqui, remain in the shadows as they perform their alchemy, converting sound into passages of music with imagination and a splash of mystery.
In my experience, only the Durutti Column comes close to the effect of this record. If you extend your references to the classical world, you can pick up something like Stravinsky from ‘Squidgy Face’.
Listen to the album, loud and on headphones or through some modern equivalent of Surroundsound. It’s overwhelming, but in a good way.
Taster Track : In Love
The Chasing Pack
Media Consumption Pyramid : Datarock
Welcome to Datarock’s digital universe of electronic music. It sounds a little sleazy and surprisingly old fashioned.
Meet Rocksteady Freddie, Ketel One, Ketel Two, Stig the Mysterious Casio Operator, T-Man, LA Gear and Ike Andy. (I’m guessing they weren’t given those names at birth!) They’re dressed in matching red jogging suits. They’re trying too hard.
That’s a shame, because they have ideas aplenty and decent tunes. They may lack memorable melodies but there’s enough there to snag and hold the attention.
The issue is that it all sounds a bit forced, as if they’re committing to an image and sound they don’t believe in. When they sing in ‘Metaverse’ that “He’s a friend of dementia” it sounds like a deliberate attempt to shock and provoke and sound edgy. As they sing in ‘Aeon Flux’ about a post apocalyptic world it sounds as if they’re celebrating it and its ‘Digital Life’. When they sing in ‘Armadillo Pt ll’ about, well, armadillos and armageddon you might feel that the connection comes too easily as wordplay rather than with some profound meaning.
It’s listenable, even enjoyable, but it sounds old fashioned, a remnant of new millennium Radio 1 pitched in the twilight zone between daytime and John Peel. There’s some Kraftwerk in there, but a Kraftwerk fronted by Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror fame. They’re the Scissors Sisters without the cutting edge but with the feel for sleaze, the Electric Six in their retro anonymity. To be fair, there are also echoes of Bowie and Ultravox in their pomp too.
Datarock - even their name sounds very 90s - make music for a wild night out that might leave you with a bad taste in your mouth in the morning.
Taster Track : Armadillo Pt 11
Littoral States : Junkboy
You might think that with a name like Junkboy, this would be a collection of urban music and songs, perhaps with a rap overlay. You’d be wrong. This is a sincere and serious attempt at a kind of folk that is both timeless and different.
The word ‘littoral’ means anything to do with the coast or the shore. That fits, because this is music for the open air and not just because of the birdsong and sea sounds that bookend and support tracks such as ‘Tidemills Twilight’ and ‘Landlocked’. In its guitar work it’s a direct descendent of the minstrel wandering through village and hamlet.
Given that tone it feels a little odd to have the strings introduced. They arrive with ‘Witch of the Watery Depths’ and shatter the illusion of bygone authenticity. Allan -a- Dale was never seen in the company of a string ensemble accompanying him on the lute. Despite that, the string arrangements are sweeping and lush, bringing a sense of majestic scale to the songs.
Folk musicians can be a serious bunch. They don’t form a closed shop, but neither do they make many concessions to a wider audience. There’s an archivist’s feel to this. Whilst it keeps alive the folk sounds of the 70s, the 21st century expert practitioner in this solitary widescreen approach is William Tyler. Junkboy calls him to mind in their guitar work.
This feels almost academic in its execution, music from and for the head rather than the heart. It’s a performance that’s deliberately paced and it clunks occasionally like a tractor struggling down a rutted path. For some, it may lack passion and a sense of enjoyment. For others its unfiltered and unprocessed treatment, allied to the natural sounds of birds and the seashore conjure up a delicate beauty that will transport and soothe in equal measure.
This is a flawed, but worthy and commendable collection to continue the golden thread of British folk.
Taster track : Tidemills Twilight
Feorm Falorx : Plaid
Records released on the Warp record label aren’t usually as engaging, interesting and enjoyable as this collection of electronic and heavily rhythmic pieces.
This is another example of Intelligent Dance Music or, as Plaid have endearingly described it in the past, Home Listening Techno. If your clubbing days are behind you, do not be put off by that word ‘Techno’. This is as melodic as it comes and any beats fail to thunder from your speakers.
From the opening notes of ‘Perspex’, this is music that presents itself like water slowly spreading over a glass table top before tumbling over the edge. This is music as a free spirit. It doesn’t always follow expected paths but wanders through new areas of a song without looping back.
Along the way there are some surprising and unexpected flavours. In ‘Return To Return’ there are echoes of Ryuichi Sakomoto’s Japanese notes, but it’s the Japan of modern day Tokyo rather than the Samurai warriors of old. Who could have expected ‘Tomason’ to begin with a treated form of church organ? ‘Tomason’ also highlights their creative time signatures, something that keeps your ears firmly on their toes. ‘Nightcrawler’ pumps up the pace whilst ‘Bowl’ builds into some of the lusher chill of say, Groove Armada.
True, you can enjoy this upbeat selection of tunes as background music but its cumulative effect makes this a record that grows into something very likeable indeed.
Taster Track : Nightcrawler
Riders of the Canyon : Riders of the Canyon
Highly regarded in reviews - ‘Uncut’ magazine awarded them 9/10 - Riders of the Canyon make folk rock while playing folk rock.
This is at the rock end of that spectrum. In its way, it’s like the blues or reggae. For purists it loses something the further you move from its essence. Riders of the Canyon don’t stray far. This is folk rock, not folk rock influenced. In fairness, they pick up some country twang along the way, and there are faint signs of a nodding relationship with the jangle pop that plays across the canyon.
‘Master of My Lonely Time’ is a buzzing start. It showcases, at speed, their way with winning harmonies. It’s made to be a live highlight, as is ‘Downtown’ with its opportunity to chant the title back to the band.
There are times, for example on the appropriately named ‘Sorrow Song’, when they seem to be men and a woman, of constant sorrow. They’re a close fit to the work of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.
For my tastes, I prefer the dreamier songs like ‘Everything Blooms In The Spring’ and ‘Here In My Dreams’ that sound like they are drifting up from the canyon floor.
They may be new, but they’re the real deal and not above a little bit of self-referencing in their songs. Take this from ‘Riders of the Canyon’:
“Listen to the sorrows
Of the Riders of the Canyon”.
They know their worth and provide it with confidence. It will be close to the top of its genre come the year end round ups.
Taster Track : Master of My Lonely Time
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