Black Star Raiders, Cosmic Crooner, Dot Dash, Enumclaw, James Taylor Quartet, La Feline, Liela Moss, Roger Joseph Manning Jr
The Front Runners
Wrong Side of Paradise : Black Star Riders
This is faultless, melodic hard rock. I doubt there’s a band around at the moment who play it better.
If you think that you’ve heard this brand of swaggering, outsider hard rock before, you’d be right. If you think that lyrics such as “Another empty ‘I love you’, with a heartfelt ‘screw you’ too’ cover familiar territory that’s not surprising. And if you feel that all it needs is Phil Lynott for it to be ‘Thin Lizzy’, you’d have hit the bullseye.
After Phil Lynott died, Thin Lizzy continued on and off as a touring group. There came a time though, following a number of band changes, when the remaining members wanted to write and record some new songs. No one felt they wanted to hijack the Thin Lizzy name so, for recording new songs, they renamed themselves Black Star Riders. And apart from that, nothing has changed since the glory days of Thin Lizzy. As Black Star Riders the boys are, indeed, back in town.
It helps that, vocally, Ricky Warwick is a dead ringer for Phil Lynott. The dual, and duelling, guitars are the same. The drums still pound like a heart in the middle of a jailbreak. At the core of each song there’s a strong melodic lifeline that leads to exhilarating choruses and provides a platform for instrumental pyrotechnics. It’s music to fuel a thousand fantasies of escape and becoming the alpha male. It’s quite safe too. These ‘outlaws’ may create mayhem and riots but they’re not going to end up in prison for anything serious. They’re permanently on their final warning and they don’t care.
This is lighter than hard rock and heavy metal. If anything it’s hard rock and roll capturing the power of the former and the lighter fun of the latter. Their cover of The Osmonds’ ‘Crazy Horses’ fits right in. The cartoon hard man menace of the spoken interlude in ‘Pay Dirt’ is as serious and entertaining as a Marvel universe showdown.
There are some differences and refinements. Irish folklore is toned down. There’s a hint of it in the Big Country bagpipe tones to the guitars in ‘Green And Troubled Land’. What’s missing is Thin Lizzy’s sensitive side. There’s nothing here to remind you of ‘Sarah’ or ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’. It’s a distillation of Thin Lizzy to their essence.
This is a stirring and immensely enjoyable hard rock album. Phil Lynott would approve.
Taster Track : Hustle
The Perks of Being a Hypocrite : Cosmic Crooner
This debut from Cosmic Crooner is a delight, full of winning charm and excellent pop. It’s out on 17th March.
Cosmic Crooner is Amsterdam based Joep Meyer. Crooner is a good description of his voice. It’s warm and comforting, made for big songss and for giving single stem roses to women in the audience. It’s a luxurious sound made for seated arenas. It’s a voice that conjures up romance in its dreams, hopes and aspirations.
That’s the voice, but the tone is different. The tone is one of an after the show, melancholy loneliness. You come to realise that the crooner act is a pose. He’s singing these songs to himself, not to an audience. It’s not quite the tears of a clown, but it is the more reflective moments of the performer with his mask down. You hear it in ‘Bolero’. There’s a dreaminess about it, especially as the bolero rhythms and Roy Orbison vocals fade away to a few bars of tinkling piano before the Shadows guitar and Mantovani strings come back in.
Beyond the voice and persona, you’ll love the musical accompaniment. There’s the catchiness of ‘Goosebumps On A Tuesday Night’ that comes from the bassline driving it along, the quietly disco guitars behind ‘Girlfriend’, and the piano and strings throughout. This is an artist’s record, composed with everyone and everything in the right place and coming at the right time, as if for a group portrait.
I can throw you a list of the influences I heard - Paul McCartney, Roy Orbison, Rufus Wainwright, Badfinger, Matt Maltese and Max Jury amongst others - but in fact they all blend into someone unique. That’s as it should be.
It’s a record for the ages too. Today’s pop crowds will identify with it. Their parents and grandparents will feel it harks back to their own golden ages of pop.
This is a wonderful and entertaining record. It’s ready to make a grand entrance into your personal pop world.
Taster Track : Girlfriend
Madman In The Rain : Dot Dash
You can call this post punk indie pop but it’s more than that. It’s a reminder of everything positive that helped you fall in love with music.
That’s a big claim, but think back to when you started to discover the music you liked for yourself rather than through TOTP, talent shows, hyped up hype machines or from mainstream media. Remember the first band you thought you had discovered for yourself and the barely contained excitement that came from knowing about a band before everyone else. Reflect on the time when your answer to the question “Who’s your favourite band?” brought the response “Who?” and a quiet, confident smile lit up your face.
Dot Dash are that kind of band. They’re the opposite of ‘flash’. They’ve opened for bands like the Trashcan Sinatras, so you know they’re good but you haven’t heard of them. This is pop as a realisable dream. After all, Dot Dash are a band who recorded their debut album over three afternoons. How non rock and roll is that, filling in the time between the all night recording sessions and the overslept arrivals for the next sitting?
Their songs are highly catchy and endearingly homemade. The basic guitar, drum, bass and reedy keyboard on ‘Space Junk, Satellites’, is typical. They capture the best of Sarah Records’ late 80s and early 90s sound, even though they’re from America. Lyrically they’re memorable. “You gotta have a heart attack to have a heart” from ‘Tense and Nervous’ sticks in my mind. And they’re infernally catchy. ‘Forever, Far Out’ snags your attention from first note to last. ‘Dead Gone’ reminded me of the Housemartins arriving from nowhere with ‘Happy Hour’.
I’m realistic. Dot Dash are a starting point or a stepping stone on the way to discovering more complex but equally sincere and authentic bands. It’s probably their destiny to be unheard by many but loved by a few. It’s the few that are the lucky ones here.
This is an album of bright, memorable pop. Keep it in the part of your heart that treasures special things.
Taste Track : Forever Far Out
Tarbes : La Feline
Returning to her roots following a period of personal turmoil, La Feline has produced an album of rare songwriting that will appeal to head, heart and feet.
If, on holiday, you make a beeline for the hotel swimming pool and search out the nearest Irish pub serving a full cooked breakfast this album may not be for you. Sung in French, it conjures up a place away from the beaten tourist track and cherished by locals. Its delights don’t reveal themselves in the sugar rush of an umbrella stacked cocktail but in a quieter, slightly exotic way.
Initially, listening to this is like hitting a radio frequency at random and not knowing how to listen to it. It’s disorienting like travelling through a crowded market and losing sight of the path you need to take.
It’s a personal album, the music of someone lost in and working her way through thoughts and memories, making sense of them. If you don’t speak French the language is another layer to penetrate before you understand the album, but persevere. Give it time and the rewards are worth it.
La Feline is your guide through this world. The quiet bounce of ‘Une Ville Moyenne’ awakens the senses, triggering recognition and familiarity but in a surprising form. Reassuringly you discover that this form is pop. ‘Je Dansais Allongee’ may not be understood but its chilled vibe can be universally felt.
For every pop element like the heady rush of ‘Dancing’ or the backing responses to ‘Jeanne d'Albret' there's something stranger alongside it. There’s the accordion that introduces the unaccompanied choir in ‘Fum’, the dark groove to ‘Place de Verdun’ or the extended brooding presence of ‘La Panthere des Pyranees’.
Immerse yourself in the sounds and this album is like a guide through unexpected pleasures in unexpected places. It’s a place you will want to return to.
Taster Track : Une Ville Moyenne
The Chasing Pack
Save The Baby : Enumclaw
This collection of American indie rock has much in common with emo and grunge. The very definition of a fun time? I think not.
Now, the obvious point should be made upfront. The fact that I did not like this does not make it a bad album. I can recognise its strengths. They include raw honesty and a surprising amount of melody in the vocal lines. If you like your indie rock at the grunge and emo end of the spectrum, the chances are that you’ll find something you like here.
The problem that I, and I suspect others, will be unable to shake off is that it’s so damn depressing. There’s nothing light about this. It’s tortured, unhappy and strained. At first glance, for goodness sake, the cover looks like a picture of a drowned baby trapped inside a head. The second and third glances don’t really change that image either!
In ‘Park Lodge’ they sing
“Cause in my life I’ve prayed for change about a thousand times.”
They don’t want to be stuck in their lives and neither, to be honest, do I. It’s easy to be weighed down by their intensity. It comes from the discordant feedback of, say, ‘Jimmy Neutron’, the tired and desperate whine of the vocals, the grunge patterns in the music and the emo feeling on display. This is music that identifies the need for therapy and screams out for it too. It’s music from a life of pain, suffering and alienation. Like the sufferers, there were many times I wanted it to stop.
Its lack of any warmth, gentleness, hope and harmony made it the musical equivalent of a misery memoir with added guilt from not offering empathy.That’s a strong reaction, and the ability to provoke that is another factor that makes this a success on its own terms.
For an alternative view, there’s a four star review (out of five) on The Line of Best Fit Enumclaw Save The Baby Review.
Taster Track : Park Lodge
Man In The Hot Seat : James Taylor Quartet
The James Taylor Quartet are back, doing what they do best very well.
What they do best is time travel. There’s no other contemporary band I can think of that can so reliably take you back to a particular sector of the sixties. It’s back to an aspirational time, their music soundtracking the lifestyle that a mid sixties, twenty something would have wanted. It’s a riverboat trip of a record with crowds in turtle neck shirts, clashing colours, sharp suits and giddy patterns drinking Double Diamond, with a Babycham for your girl. It’s strongly evocative and irretrievably dated. There’s the feeling of hope and optimism too between the hard days of WW2 and rationing and the white hot promise of the technological revolution before you.
All of this is captured in the music.
It’s rare for a band to have such a strong identity linked to one particular style of music. Nevertheless the JTQ do differ from record to record. This album feels more cinematic. ‘Man In the Hot Seat’ is the sound of the opening credits to an action thriller following hard on the heels of Pearl and Dean adverts. The film might even be in black and white and it's likely that Michael Caine will make an appearance at some stage.
At 36 minutes, this is about the right length. There’s little need for the band to diversify musically and the album does not outstay its welcome. Little touches such as the tom tom on ‘Te Danzig Connection’ and the flute in place of the saxophone on ‘Night Garden’ are delicious extras.
This is an enjoyable album, a bright addition to your music library.
Taster Track : Night Garden
Who The Power : Liela Moss
Liela Moss strikes a balance between introspective mood songs and appealing synth led pop in this collection that looks back to the 80s while fitting right in with the 2020s.
I liked this album. It’s reassuringly serious and self possessed without alienating the listener. She’s walking a tightrope between artistic credibility andchart ready pop and she treads it well. You’re drawn into her songs and they linger because they have hooks and melodies that will catch you unawares during the day.
Occasionally she wobbles. The early pop promise of the irresistible riffs and melodies of ‘Turn Your Back Around’ and ‘Atoms At Me’ dims as the album progresses. They’re still there, if a little submerged, in later tracks such as ‘Nummah’. It’s in songs such as ‘The Individual’ and ‘Battlefield’ where the songs wander off to the shadowed corner of the studio marked dreariness.
You’ll hear echoes of the 80s all over this record. At times she sounds as if she’s stepping away from being a pop act to something more serious. It’s an evolution that Depeche Mode have handled well, moving from the chirpiness of their first hits, to the more measured sounds of ‘Master and Servant’, ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ and ‘Everything Counts’. (It’s a perilous path. Ultravox slept walk out of Vienna as a different, overblown pomp band -to my mind one of the great tragedies of pop history, along with Spandau Ballet’s descent into mushy ballads.)
I liked her vocals, which were softer than I expected, an engaging blend pitched midway between thoughtful youthfulness and more jaded, mature experience.
‘Who The Power’ isn’t her latest album and it’s a little flawed but there’s more than enough here to tempt me back to her recent release.
Taster Track : Atoms At Me
Catnip Dynamite : Roger Joseph Manning Jr.
Roger Joseph Manning Jr has made a sugary pop album that is so sweetly addictive it must be bad for your health.
You’ll realise as soon as the first chorus of the opening track ‘The Quickening’ that you’ve woken up in a candy floss fairground where everything is painted in bright cartoon colours. It’s music that’s as sweet as pastilles but with no pastels in sight. It’s music with a fixed grin on its face.
The cumulative effect is that of a merry go round that’s going too fast. By the end you’ll be feeling slightly queasy and ready to get off. You’ll forgive Manning Jr for that though as this is also a work of dedication and commitment, a work of love and, in the end, a work of art.
This album sounds as if Manning Jr was in the musical influences shop when the pick ‘n’ mix section only had prog and bubble gum left. It’s equal parts beguiling and bizarre. Like ELO at their peak, or Tears for Fears around the time of ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ or The Beatles realisation that all you needed was love, absolutely everything has been thrown into the mix.
Strangely though, the influences that bubble to the surface are not the obvious ones. The 70s are his go to decade but it’s as if he’s made a conscious decision to go for Gilbert O’Sullivan rather than Elton John, the Partridge Family rather than the Osmonds. He’s bumping with Kenny rather than shang a langing with the Bay City Rollers. Wherever his influences from, he’s not holding back. He probably thinks that First Class were models of restraint on ‘Beach Baby’.
His approach is to take what others would regard as a three minute burst of sunshine and stretch it to more than five minutes. The extra time invested takes these songs to another level, potentially one you don’t need, like a plateful of mints after a five course meal, but one that you can’t help but enjoy.
It’s a relentlessly sunny album that covers some serious issues under the sugar coating.
This isn’t an album for every moment of every day, but when you’re in need of a burst of warmth or a sugar rush, it’s one to turn to.
Taster Track : Down In Front
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