Whisper Turn – Bruno Merz (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

Bruno_Merz_-_Whisper_Turn_(cover)It’s difficult to write about Bruno Merz’s sparse and elegant music without making the obvious comparisons to Nick Drake. I’m not the first to point it out and I won’t be the last. But there is something in the minimalism, the delivery, the restraint and the understatement that he adopts that make it hard not to drop the D word. The lyrics have the same compressed style and purposeful simplicity nature, almost like folkloric haikus or chilled nursery rhymes and he also uses similar elemental imagery that coloured Nick’s songs.

But whereas Drake revelled in hippy meadows and the green fields of an older England, Merz instead offers a warning, one which suggests the gentlest of wake up calls, to open our eyes to the effect that we, as the human race, have on the world. He predicts rising seas, broken fields and burning skies but knows that it isn’t to late to stop the relentless march towards oblivion, if we just open our eyes to our destructive ways.

The real charm of the song is that it is rebellious in the quietest of ways, it is happy to point out and suggest rather than lead and rabble-rouse, which is perfect for the modern age and our belligerent attitudes. In a world where people seem ever more frequently turning their back on expert or academic advice, dismissive of science and show open hostility towards people who hold opposing views, maybe we need a quiet revolution, one guided by gentle reflection and subtle suggestion, one inspired by beauty rather than browbeaten by dystopian visions and chilling rhetoric.

Maybe Bruno Merz is more than just a writer of eloquent and beautiful songs, maybe he, and musicians like him, can be the inspiration we need to change our ways. Even a snowball can become an avalanche, maybe this song represents the first flakes of snow we need to build it.

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Mis+ress – Mis+ress (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

Mis+Ress_(album_cover)Being someone who finds words, wordplay and interesting turns of phrase…well interesting, I feel that there are few greater pleasures than looking at the list of song titles on an album and being greeted by strange names and intriguing subject matter. What after all is a Nested Infinity? Who is Mr. Bikinis? What is so exciting about The History of Fishes that you would be driven to write a song, or at least a tune about it?

But that is the world that Brian Wenckebach welcomes us into, a world where such strange titles have already conjured scenes and scenarios  in your head, where you have created a unique other-land, a parallel world for his songs to exist in before even encountering the music.

And when you do you find his instrumental compositions to be equally as strange and brilliantly singular as the titles he gives them. These minimalist shards of music shimmer and shine like broken glass catching the sun, there is a feeling of space sometimes bordering on desolation but also optimism and quiet joy. The music is fantastical without pandering to the cliches of fantasy, it paints new landscapes but reminds me more of the strange acid-laced, left field artistic juxtapositions which adorned the covers of Michael Moorcock’s mercurial tales back in the day rather than anything more predictable or recent.

At its most drifting and transient, on tracks such as Eligible Receiver, sonic comparisons to Pink Floyd interludes abound, fragile, distant and largely unresolved; at the other end, bearing in mind dynamically the other end isn’t that far removed, The Great Dying or No More Parties feel slightly more structured though it is all relative and the album never moves far from territory which would keep the likes of Philip Glass on side.

Essentially it is an album of atmospheres rather than songs, of mood as opposed to music in the conventional sense, and even when there seems to be more space than creativity you are surrounded by sounds which hypnotise, intrigue, soothe and silence.

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You Are My Home –  Alan Osborne (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

You_Are_My_Home_1Music is made for many reasons, some of them creative, driven by integrity, other times…well, not so much. For everyone who is trying to express a personal view of the world there is someone looking for a quick buck, for every outside the box thinker there is a plagiarist, happy to follow a trend or jump on a band wagon. And then you come across songs such as Alan Osborne’s You Are My Home, a song built around the most honest and heartfelt of emotions and nothing less than a declaration of love, writ large and publicly via song and video.

Although he seems to have a wonderfully scatter gun approach towards musical genres, happy to create muscular alt-rock one minute and delicate balladic pop the next, revel in the possibilities afforded through the crafting of original musical statements as well as reworking iconic song, this is probably his most widely accessible song to date. Universally relatable and commercially relevant, perhaps the perfect collision of worlds and a song delivering something which at once seems totally personal and yet also something which we have all felt at sometime in our life,  hopefully.

And it is perhaps the simplicity of the song which is the most compelling; low end strings form a bassline, a platform for a minimalist acoustic guitar but it is essentially the words which drive the song. It isn’t just their actual meaning but also their deeper intent and the fact that this declaration is one which comes from a place of pure honesty and intense vulnerability. Even when the beat picks up in the second half of the song, it is still the wonderful separation and use of space which helps move things along from a musical point of view until it all spirals up into a beautiful crescendo before bowing out. Vocally the delivery is restrained, a soft, gentle whisper in the ear to the intended which matches the emotive musical vehicle which delivers it.

The music business is often a cold and cynical place, one which can seem devoid of real emotion in its frenzied headlong rush towards the fickle and short-lived treasures on offer. But what if there were no monetary gains to be had, no quick buck, no parting with the creative soul for the trappings of materialism. Well, songs like this would still exist for one thing, songs which are all about having something important to say rather than something transient to sell and maybe we have forgotten the real role music used to play before men in suits pulled puppet strings from ivory towers. We should all be thanking Alan Osborne for reminding us of the true power of songwriting.

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Voodoo Smile –  Ragged Union (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

14203255_1184189898270421_532741306454354670_nIt says something about the quality of Andy Milsom’s songwriting and indeed the band as a whole’s ability to authentically delivery what I guess we will have to call British Americana, that it is difficult to spot the original tracks from the covers on this album. The fact that they chose to cover The Stones and Tom Petty (twice) gives you a good idea of the musical world they inhabit…though their inclusion of Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus rendered into a grooving gospel-rocker also shows just how broadly their minds work.

But great as the pre-loved music is, it is the originals that we came here to check out and that they sound like forgotten tracks from the Great American Songbook is what they were probably aiming for. Well, bullseye gentlemen. Dave Preston’s one inclusion, Lovers, is a deftly crafted piece, emotive and full of regret and Andy Milsom seems to be able to knock out songs with ease  which seem to exist at that point where the Mason Dixon line joins the M4 corridor.

This is a band which references rather than repeats, picks at rather than plunders, tips a hat to the music it loves rather than tries to copy wholesale and the result is a rather wonderful and fully formed British take on Southern music. Because of this deference they avoid the cliche that many of their contemporaries fall in to and instead fashion an album whose original inclusions are as good as the classics they punctuated them with. Somewhere down the line these British boys will pen their own American Girl and who knows where that will take them!

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Shake, Rattle and Roll – Dynamos (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

22491504_1508577579239180_3499550489234882829_nWell, that’s a bit of a relief, this latest release from Dynamos isn’t a cover of the Big Joe Turner rock’n’roll classic. Not that I have anything against the Kansas City blues shouter, it is just that I think in this day and age, all right minded music scribblers need to be spending more time helping promote, support and give space to rising, original acts before the world is taken over by TV show chancers, marketing department dictated wannabes and a wave of rose tinted nostalgia. Think of us music writers as the environmental activists of the arts and culture scene.

But a cover this isn’t, instead it is a slinky pop-rock amalgam, built of iconic, low slung and sleazy guitar lines, instantly accessible hook lines and a vocal delivery forged of sass and confidence. I say “pop”-rock, as even though almost every thread, every musical passage and certainly the guitar wig-out which pushes the song over the line uses building blocks from the school of rock, it is also clean, tight and accessible, indeed palatable enough for the mainstream audience yet edgy enough to pick up the young stadium rock following. Sounds like the best of both worlds to me.

This isn’t the band you find firing off garage blues salvos in some seedy backroom bar where you stick to the carpet and are scared to use the restroom, this is a band on an altogether steeper trajectory, and why not think big? After all, their music does.

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Co-Morbid – Faerground Accidents (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

20476565_1497510440311696_6954441444806042810_nFor a band who wilfully describe themselves as “psychotic pop, psychedelic punk  and androgynous rock n’ roll,” Co-Morbid is a surprisingly together album. Together in the sense that whilst it is wild and raw, challenging and visceral, often intense, always surprising, the songs hold together because of an accessibility and even a brilliant pop sensibility at times. Sure it is often buried under a garage rock growl, glam excesses, paisley visions and prowling punk postures songs like My Former Baby reveals them to be brilliant purveyors of Kinks-esque kitchen sink dramas with a New Wave make over.

In fact She Makes Me Want to Die goes even further and makes you realise that if Noel Gallagher had listened to more of Small Faces and The Move rather than T-Rex and The Fab Four, this might have been what the much maligned Brit-pop era might have sounded like. If only! But it didn’t and that makes Faerground Accidents slightly lost musical souls in the scheme of things, which is a shame.

It’s a mercurial blend musically speaking, punky and muscular when it wants to be but able to play the psychedelic pop role too, exhibiting the experimentation of post-punk but also tugging more retrospective heartstrings, sometimes sound like a 60’s hippies throwing a hand grenade into the summer of love cultural happening and sometimes sounding like Pink Floyd if Syd had remained at the helm.

I love bands who I just can’t put my finger on, it becomes an itch I can’t scratch and sends me back for repeated listens until I work it all out, though in the case of these Sheffield musical miscreants I don’t think I will.But that is also the joy of music I guess, what would the world be like if we all followed the rules? Tunbridge Wells I suppose!

Posted in alt-pop, art-punk, garage rock, pop-rock, power-pop, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Summertime Blues / December (Again) –  The Raft (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

a0924105766_10Cosmic folk-pop. Is that a thing? Well, if not, let’s make it a thing, after all we need a suitable category to put The Raft in, so why not that? As Phil Wilson and his associates go about their business of making this fantastic and somehow quintessentially English music, you wonder why The Raft aren’t a bigger deal. After all in an entertainment scene which includes Robin Thicke and Storage Hunters there must be room for music this gorgeous.

And gorgeous is indeed the word, Claire O’Neil’s vocals alone would be enough to warrant it’s use but the sumptuous, shimmering music which carries it along has me thinking that there might even be a better word…it’ll come to me.

Musically this pairing of songs, (didn’t we use to call that a single?) is built on hazy indie-folk which toys with words like fey and twee but deftly avoids such undermining connotations by virtue of being anchored to more robust pop structures, and ends up closer to such iconic bands as The Sundays and even Talk Talk. It is pop painted in watercolour rather than the heavy handed, over applied oils of the big industry way of working. There is something wonderfully parochial about the lyrics, a real English, tea drinking, breezy, over the garden fence chat sort of vibe, rather than the usual self-aggrandising, cooler than thou rubbish that has become the norm.

There may be a lot going on here which reminds me of some of the glory days of my formative musical years but everything is cyclical and as a way forward for alternative pop music, I’m all in.

Transcendent, that’s the word I was looking for.

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Rainbow Girls – American Dream (reviewed by Ian O’Regan)

W204Let’s get one thing straight before we go any further. Singing close harmony is not easy. In fact it’s damn difficult, and demands the highest level of every skill that a singer possesses to get it anywhere close to being right.

I’m not talking about adding the minor 3rd above the melody and hoping that most of the notes fit. And I’m DEFINITELY not talking about the guy (usually the bass player – why is it always the bloody bass player??) who brings his cheap microphone along when his rock cover band plays out, and “does BVs”.

Hint: if he calls backing vocals “BVs”, he hasn’t got the skills, period!! Let him gurn and pose and throw whatever grunts and howls he wants to at the mic, just for the love of God, don’t turn his volume up!

No, what I’m talking about here is proper Everly Brothers, Beverly Sisters, Crosby Stills Nash & Young close harmonies, where there’s not an atom of space between the different voices, where there is literally one single voice delivering depth and texture and full orchestral harmonic structure with zero apparent effort.

And it’s bloody difficult. And when it’s done right, it is profoundly and endlessly impressive!

And, by the way, if you think that harmony singing is tricky, don’t even get me started on singing in unison! Unison singing is the holy grail of group vocals, and Rainbow Girls have it sorted. Three quite different voices, with quite different qualities, singing a single melody line in such a way that it is impossible to determine how many voices are involved!

And if all the skill, all the technical prowess and wizzardry is put to the task of delivering good songs, be they beautiful plaintive ballads, thought-provoking, subtle-but-effective protest songs, or up-beat mood enhancers, the technical stuff is impressive for about 30 seconds. And then it simply steps aside.

And for the rest of the Rainbow Girls new album, American Dream, or if you’re lucky enough to be present for a performance, the rest of the live show, you’re free to enjoy the songs and the performances for what they should be – music that inspires, evokes, challenges, enthrals and delights.

Previously a full band, but currently recording and touring as a more minimalist trio, Rainbow Girls make close harmony roots/country/americana sound so completely effortless that it’s all but impossible even to imagine them doing something so mechanical or tedious as practicing.

And similarly, the songs on American Dream require no conscious effort whatsoever on the part of the listener. The quality of the songwriting, the natural lyric writing that is easily in the same league as the very best, and the simple beauty of the three voices combine to overwhelm any resistance, and cannot but transport the listener to exactly where the song and the singers wants to take him.

This is a beautiful album, apparently simple, but at the same time rich, subtle, honest and fun – an album that demands lots of repetition, and that should not – must not – be consigned to the chaos and clamour of a background noise rotation playlist on your mp3 player.

On the contrary, this album deserves, and richly rewards, time, consideration and attention.

If you must stack it with other music, mix it with Daylight Again by Crosby Still & Nash, Bridge Over Troubled Waters by Simon & Garfunkle, and Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars. They will be perfect bedfellows.

 

American Dream is out November 2017

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New Feeling – The Favourites (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

a0073201169_10The late seventies was always a tricky time for music genre labels in the chaotic swirl of the recent upheavals and ripping up of rule books. Even now balding gentlemen or a certain age hold very strong opinions over just what was pub rock, what was punk and what was new wave. If pub rock was the bluesy muscle that fuelled the sound of punk, new wave was the twitchy, agitated and tighter sounding music which stepped through the door as the last clatter of punk faded out on the chill wind. That’s my thoughts on the subject, not that it matters…just don’t ask me quite where Power Pop fits in!

New Feeling is the long lost debut album from Nottingham’s stalwarts, The Favourites, being a collection of singles, their b-sides and ten other never released tracks and if you want to know just what the close of that decade sounded like as punks year zero was becoming a distant memory having opened doors and kicked down barriers for a whole raft of new sounds and attitudes, then this sums things up nicely. The songs here have the drive of the previous revolutionary onslaught but things are honed down and popped up, finely tuned and deftly woven. Taught and concise is the order of the day here. It is still the sound of the underground but also of things heading towards more commercial climes and their two singles aside (ABBA’s SOS and The Wasp’s Angelica) the rest of this album easily suggests that with a fairer wind and a couple more years together, we could now be talking about The Favourites in the same way we do the likes of Squeeze, Costello or The Only Ones.

But it wasn’t to be and the dream didn’t last but as a group of musicians they made more than a few of their own footnotes in the annals of musical history. Darryl Hunt went on the replace Cait O’Riordan in The Pogues, Tony Berrington and Kevin Green formed the Deadbeats and Duncan Kerr served time in Darts before joining psych punks The Brainiac 5 and Americana advocates Proudfoot.

Musical history is full of “what ifs” and New Feeling is a wonderful slice of speculation but it is also a document of the times and a fantastic collection of songs, one which has easily stood the test of time. A week may be a long time in politics but forty years in music seems no time at all.

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Scene and Heard  – CCXX: Just Fall  –  They Called Him Zone

20108304_1949297638681202_2631001033577887921_nRecently signed to Manchester’s Eromeda Records, They Called Him Zone continues its mission of building beguiling electronic landscapes. If the previous encounter with Crow Swan Wolf had something of dystopia about it, suggesting decaying urban vistas and shattered industrial wastelands, Just Fall conjures a whole different scene. This time out there is something of a less desolate about its vision for the future, something more complete, shiny and sleek but perhaps no less visceral.

Hypnotic electronica and clinical beats construct a platform for the vocals to rest on, alien and weary, human, yet somehow not quite human as well, gently building and almost  disarmingly soothing before razor sharp guitars cut through to gloriously unnerving effect. It is the sound of the future yet you can hear the past there too, the experimentalion of a whole load of Sheffield punks and musically disenfranchised Bowie devotees rewiring keyboards, playing with tape effects and ushering in New Romanticism and that brief, glorious window of opportunity before cash and commerciality seduced its great and good.

This is perhaps the sound of that movement had it stayed the course, cold, hard, hypnotic, unforgiving and wonderful.

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