If at one end of the wide pop spectrum you have brash identikit, dance routine driven, short shelf-life throw-aways, Box comes from the furthest point in the opposite direction. Here Alisa Chirco has created an elegant ballad that fuses pop with more classically minded sounds. The result is a song which has enough modernity to appeal to the current wave of pop fans but which has enough poise and grace that it will also appeal to an older and more discerning audience.
Perfection is by and large over-rated. Let me qualify that with a question. Is it better to capture the most perfect version of a song with little merit or to commit to prosperity a deft and delicious set of songs recorded on a minimal budget and with fairly basic facilities? I guess it comes down to which you value more beauty or brains. Not that the music that Blue House frontman James Howard makes under the moniker of Thomas Nation isn’t beautiful in its own hazy, rustic way, but it is natural beauty, an honest beauty and for me that is the only real beauty.
It’s a mercurial sound that Nation captures here, drifting and wistful, it often oozes rather than drives, blending washes of church organs and spoken word with dark baroque pop, hints of 60’s nostalgia and twisted folk styles. It is such an approach which flavours the lyrics too and tales of a forgotten London, and indeed a forgotten world slips by mixing the frivolous and fun with the serious, the macabre and the melancholic.
It echoes with the sound of The Kinks had they focused less on the obvious pop melody and take a more windswept and soundscaping approach but it is largely its own person, musically speaking, and that is what it is of ultimately important. Originlity is paramount and Battle of The Grumbles is wonderfully original. It is proof that beyond the ability to get the basics sorted when recording it is really about capturing ideas and creativity and that is exactly what is going on here.
One of the restrictions of working with music that is so textured, intricate and dynamically fluid as Richard’s usual musical vehicle, Karda Estra, is that when it comes to live shows, the logistics surrounding the amount of players and gear that would be required to do the music justice is generally too prohibitive. Veil, therefore, feels like his pulling together a body of work, some new songs and instrumentals and some reworked pieces from the Karda Estra canon, that can form the basis of small, intimate live shows. Shows that can range from solo performances to slightly enhanced versions of the same as space and musician availability dictates.
What is great is that you get the best of both worlds, new, stripped back sonic journeys but ones which are built on the same creative pulse, musical references and progressive world view as Karda Estra. (Progressive here is used in the broader, genre hopping, rulebook ignoring sense, rather than any connotations of people dressed as wizards, singing about epic quests…possible performed on ice!)
Last Grains has a wonderful 60’s chamber pop feel, cascading vocals and jaunty guitar work really putting a Chelsea booted spring in the song’s step and at the other extreme Unmarked on Any Map is a haunting piece of pop noir. And alongside these more song based approaches, the more fluid form classical explorations are also given room. Andromeda Variations for Guitar being, as the name would suggest, a wonderfully dexterous, short acoustic guitar piece, hints of Iberia hanging between the darker passages and Amy Fry’s spotlight moment, Chaos Theme For Clarinet, hanging between the sound of a Midtown Manhattan jazz lounge and a slightly whimsical dystopian soundtrack.
It is a collection of songs that shows that even without the usual wide array of musical trappings, the heart of Karda Estra, and Richard Wileman’s music in general, is just as wonderfully mercurial and beguiling even when stripped down to its core. It shows too that the intricacies and originality are central to the way he writes and not merely the result of hanging strange textures and off kilter layers on more conventional structures. And more than anything, if this album marks Richard as a more regular fixture on the gigging circuit, for that alone it is an important step.
Even in this day where cover versions, sampling and reworking of classic songs is the norm, there are some artists, to me anyway, whose music you plunder at your peril. Do not touch the Leonard Cohen collection unless you are going to find something new to bring out of his dark, sensual visions. Open up the back catalogue of Tom Waits for no man (geddit?) unable to match his wacky majesty. And don’t go near The Beach Boys, after all, who in their right mind is arrogant enough to think that they could improve on their masterful musical creations? But then again I have been wrong so many times before. That’s the problem with creativity, what might seem like a disaster on paper can turn out to be genius in actuality.
So who is up for a warped, electro-drone version of the Brian Wilson penned classic Wouldn’t It Be Nice complete with tribal Glitter Band drums, 80’s synth washes and crazy Kosmische overtones? No, well, I now what you mean but you should try it some time. YYY’s vision is ambitious to say the least and is so wonderfully avant-garde that you forget that Austin Carson has just put a beloved musical icon through the blender. Separate this version from the original and you have a bone fide piece of exploratory futuristic retro music. If you are unable to separate this from the original then you might see it more as a plundering of the crown jewels, broken down to make a strange musical montage. And if that’s the way you see things then you probably want to have the man behind it tarred and feathered and run out of town. It just depends on how rose-tinted your glasses are and just how sacred your musical cows. Music is like that, its a funny old game.
Just when you think the art of sumptuous, widescreen harmonies have been consigned to the past, along come The Heavy Blinkers to put it back on the musical menu. Well, let me qualify that, this is a reissue, but even 13 years ago when this first saw the light of day, that statement still held true. Given the state of the music industry today, the one grooving to the cash till ring of commercial success up in their ivory towers not the cool one I get to rub shoulders with at least, its re-emergence couldn’t have been better timed.
The Heavy Blinkers sound very much doffs its hat to classic harmony pop artisans such as Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach but is also a sonic sibling to the likes of Mercury Rev, though without the strange mythology and lyrical mysticism. If their brand of chamber pop exudes a 60’s feel it is only because it’s a style that has rarely been bettered since that decade, or so we thought, as this is proof that at least in some quarters it never really went out of fashion.
The music is supple and sophisticated, wonderfully textured and poignantly orchestrated. The instruments dovetail seamlessly providing a smooth and intricate backdrop full of fleeting motifs, half heard details and clever weaves of sound, a far cry from todays “is it my turn in the spotlight yet” approach to arranging tracks. Even when smooth brass or swelling organ takes the lead role it does as part of a team effort rather than over-dominant showboating wig-out.
The Night…feels simultaneously wonderfully disconnected from modern times and brilliantly ahead of the curve. It honours a style of music many of us thought lost and reminds us that times move on but great song writing is still great song writing.
It was pretty much a year ago that Moleville presented us with a wonderful collection of emotive and dream-like songs under the name Relics, so it was great to find some new activity in the form of a video pop up on the musical radar. Some music is about impact and immediacy, the quick hit that fires you up for a Friday night out on the town, some is good time, throw-away music, a fast fix used to fire you up and then be thrown away and forgotten. Moleville in general and this new single in particular is the antithesis of all of that. Amongst its dreaming sonic spires and graceful song line you find subtler, deeper attachments, music that seeps into the soul via osmosis rather than any conscious ingestion.
It takes plaintive piano and Steve Skinley’s doleful yet striking vocals, underpins them with just enough of a beat and musical detail to flesh out the scene and creates a masterful baroque-pop piece. The video gives us a tantalising look into the emotive Moleville world, delivering a fairy tale set in the decaying forests around Chernobyl but ultimately a story of hope and regrowth.
And that has always been the balancing act that Moleville performs so well, the ability to be melancholic but not miserable, shaded but heading for the light, honest yet optimistic and any song which sounds like a long lost track by arch fantasists and dream weavers Mercury Rev is always going to get my vote.
An album is more than just a collection of songs; it is a window into where an artist is, mentally, physically and often more telling, logistically, at the point of recording. 2014’s compact and bijou five track The Ghost of Corelli found our hero leading a three piece band and wielding a sound very much dominated by big guitars, dynamic and punchy bass lines and driving back beats. It was effective, dramatic and to the point. And whilst such a rock and roll pulse has always beaten at the heart of his music, as it beats at the heart of almost every classic record irrespective of genre, in some ways it felt like a departure from the sound I associate with David Marx.
But A Thousand Mandolins is all about texture rather than testosterone, subtlety and suppleness rather than shock and awe, layered hues coloured by more instruments doing less work rather than fewer vivid and vibrant musical colours being painted boldly and to more dramatic effect. Not that there isn’t drama to be found here, it is just of a richer, more effective and better conceived nature, a Robert Altman to the previous release’s Martin Scorsese perhaps.
And even before you delve into the music, the Marxian cultural reference machine is fine tuned and offering tantalising hints, dropping names such as Caravaggio, Candide and the Venus de Milo, balancing tears and murder, beckoning silence and disavowing miracles. Even the title of the album speaks of points of reference that go beyond most modern artists and invokes Leonard Cohen’s poeticism or a more global Tom Waits vision.
If two songs define the limits of the album it is the back-to-back tracks Merry-Go-Round and Halfway Between Tears and Murder. The former built of a jaunty swagger, buoyant banjos and a light groove, the latter a dark, slow-building brooding song forged more of atmosphere and anticipation than the music that defines its structure.
But obviously this isn’t just a collection of musical stops along an arbitrary line drawn between the light and shade of those two songs; it takes some interesting and intriguing detours as well. She’s Just Not That Kind of Girl is an alternative take on that musical period when The Beatles were still a straight (-ish) pop band but where wandering, drugs in hand, towards more psychedelic landscapes and Face Down Like The Huddled Suicides is Elvis Costello getting all philosophical. Short, snappy and…well, deep! Country vibes ooze from Let The Silence Prevail, drums shuffle, organs swell (steady!) and guitars groove, in an underground, East Nashville, outlaw bar band sort of way with not a rhinestone in sight, thankfully.
So what has changed to make this album so different to the last? Well, The Ghost of Corelli was made against a backdrop of the logistical pitfalls of keeping a regular band on the road and possibly delivering sets that pandered, whether consciously or not, to the denizens of the gigging circuit. David’s recent live hiatus has relieved him of such considerations and he has returned to a state of freedom where instead of him making an album in search of an audience he has instead made the album that comes from a more natural place. Now the audience can come to him. Or not, but that isn’t the point. Not so much a creative rebirth, just an artist remembering that the ball was always in his court.
Echo Park Orchestra have a gift that is rarely found in contemporary music, to be able to take extremes and weave them together into a middle ground experience that ticks more boxes than you were even expecting to be presented with. I’m not talking about extremes in mere musical terms, more in concept, as they match deft, deep and devilishly clever word play with accessible, pop aware, yet progressively fluid music.
They offer a range of subjects from the grand and existential to the comparatively small and contemporary, and manage to work with those contrasts so sublimely that rather than sound like jarring juxtapositions they instead take on a wonderfully holistic nature. And it is the exploration of the idea that whatever the lyrical subject matter, whatever the musical reference point, making music is the weaving of universal threads, no matter how disparate and seemingly detached, everything connects somewhere.
And so it is that, aided by a very revealing set of sleeve notes to help unravel these colourful wefts, you find songs which conjure images of the galaxy set to classical Indian groove, dirges to the demise of the modern song form evoking an ancient Sumerian hymn and flamenco flourishes documenting the humble realities of love and much, much more. But if the idea of trying to find common musical ground between such a wide-ranging set of ideas and influences seems a spinning gyre that the centre cannot hold, then think again. The very essence of Echo Park Orchestra is the glue which holds these wonderfully diverse elements in place and which provides a cohesive a recognisable sound.
To build a sound which is as pop-aware as it is experimental, which explores world music but still sounds from its very own self-contained culture, that can pun as well as it probes, can offer lyrical sagacity as easily as offers musical sass and for which the term eclecticism is an understatement, is something all creative pioneers strive for. Many take a lifetime to realise such a concept, some never do. Echo Park Orchestra manage to do it in one album and still find that they have something just as conceptually mind-blowing to offer next time around. How great is that?
Sometimes music is difficult to review because you have heard it all before and find it hard to add anything new and constructive to that conversation. What is there to say about a band still trying to squeeze any remaining creative juice out of a template set down by Arctic Monkeys, The Libertines or Oasis? Then bands like Echo Park Orchestra come along and they present a different problem, they offer a musical embarrassment of riches and the problem isn’t so much in finding something interesting to say but knowing where to start.
In The Sylvan Glades is a wonderful mass of musical conflict and contradiction and meanders down similar progressive pathways as The Moody Blues did when they stopped aiming for the chart recognition and melded baroque pop with some wonderful ambient soundscaping. Intelligent lyricism and dark metaphor are balanced by pop aware melody; long, smooth and lilting grooves are underpinned by brass structures, floating flutes and a violin which tugs at some wonderfully arabesque, oriental and exotic musical threads.
The title track is a great summation of the forces at work here, as a primal narrative of ancient imagery and biblical references are delivered via 60’s inspired lounge chanson. And from that central piece ideas and musical themes spread out in all directions through the music; chilled, progressive musical templates are layered with dark gypsy jazz noodling, psyched-out pop themes taken to extreme lengths…not least in duration, summer of love vibes and a whole raft of avant-gardening takes place before your ears. Imagine if Aldous Huxley had picked up the guitar and not the pen…
Seven albums in and Echo Park Orchestra has only just blipped on my radar, still that just means that there is a whole expanse of back catalogue that I need to get acquainted with. Stand well back, I’m going in….
When Melanie Garside first unleashed her new musical vehicle, Maple Bee, it possibly confused a whole swath of people who knew her from stints with Queenadreena and Mediæval Bæbes. But creativity is an evolutionary process and some of the dark sensuality of the former and the rich vocals of the latter, not to mention her pre-Maple Bee solo work does inform her current output. Inform but not dictate, as Little Victories certainly shows that there is no resting on laurels or relying on past glories being settled for and by taking strands of lilting folk, rootsy country strains and predominantly an ambient, late-night pop sensibility she has created a wonderful album.
There are some obvious parallels, namely the Bush-esque Nobody Knows and occasional forays into Tori Amos territory -thought without relying on the vulnerability that she employs, Maple Bee is a wholly more confident prospect, even when pouring her heart out. But if those references serve any purpose it is to highlight the quality of the craftsmanship on show here. Being compared to the two leading lights of the dream pop genre isn’t just an easy journalistic reference, it also points to the fine line between uniqueness and accessibility Maple Bee also walks.
But for all this talk of dream-pop and ambience, although chilled and lush in nature, this album is no fey musical will-o the wisp, the songs are robust without being muscular, often delicate without being insubstantial, a masterstroke by anyone’s standards.
At a time when most bands referencing past musical glories seem to do so in a very obvious way, reworking Beatles licks or Joni Mitchel song lines, baroque-popster, Jacco Gardner takes a much more subtle and sublime approach. Hypnophobia comes across as a paisley dreamtime score, weaving gentle 60’s psychedelia, acid folk and flower power pop into luscious soundscapes that seem to reference a time and place, or at least a vibe, rather than anything more blatant. In the same way that he has travelled the world collecting vintage instruments, he seems to have absorbed the music that his musical arsenal is seeped in. But the result isn’t some sort of hippy take on Cecil Sharp’s archiving, far from it.
Rather than just document the past, Gardner prefers to create an alternate timeline, weaving vintage instruments with modern technology and building a portal to a might have been Summer of Love or chasing a future echo of its unrealised potential. These dreamy musical creations belie the depth and detail found at their root, rich textures layered carefully over each other so that new musical colours are created by the contrasts, something that is only possible with the capability of the modern studio. The phrase that stands out on the albums press release is “future-vintage” and I can’t think of a phrase that sums up the music more aptly.