It’s clear from the outset that this album is going to be something special, the cover artwork alone tells you that there has been a lot of thought and work gone into the making of this album. It’s always a good idea to make your cover stand out because fans of this style of music will be dipping into this cd regularly and, lets face it, no one likes a boring album cover.
It’s often interesting to read the press release for albums that fall into my paws, sometimes the description that has been put forward is at odds with the finished product that finds itself booming out of my speakers. Descriptions like ‘life-affirming’, ‘game changing’, ‘powerhouse’ and ‘the next great act’ accompany these albums so it’s sometimes wise to ignore the blurb and just judge for yourself.
That Niki Kennedy is no stranger to musical theatre and stage productions is evident in her voice right from the start. That combination of delicacy and power, control and confidence which is a requirement for such a career means that vocally she can explore sounds that your average pop wannabe would fear to tread. It also means that whilst The Weather Up Here is unashamedly a pop record, albeit one infused with soul and jazz touches, it bristles with a maturity not often found by her would be pop peers.
It must be difficult selling a foreign-language album into the already saturated market of English-speaking releases, sure we all like an occasional ‘Gangnam Style’ or ‘Despasito’ to shake it up, but on the whole English-speaking music fans like English speaking bands. So, to combat this, the music has to be good. Duke Ellington once said, “there are two kinds of music, the good and the other kind”, this is true, and it’s also true that good music will always find an audience, so if you feel your record collection is lacking a Sicillian singer-songwriter who produces music that is tricky to categorise, then look no further than Alessio Bondi.
I didn’t realise that people made records like this any more. But I’m certainly glad that they do. Joining dots on a line that runs back through artists such as Tori Amos, They Might Be Giants and Liz Phair and on to the likes of Randy Newman and earlier pre-pop vaudeville traditions, Fuller’s theatrical, groovy, jazz piano style is wonderfully at odds with most music being made today. Yet, Get Down is as fun and funky as anything that comes out of the pop laboratories of the mainstream music industry. It also has something that the vast majority of those production line artists don’t, a sense of humour. For whilst there is an interesting message at the heart of the song, it is delivered in a frivolous and whimsical way, part piano pop, part musical score, part satire.
They say that in life – and in music – timing is everything, and within ‘The Darkness Between the Leaves’ comes the feeling that we’re leaving summer and entering into the changing season of autumn, which, as I write this, we are.
The album opens with the words “the nights are getting colder, the summer birds are gone, the days are getting shorter…” and this feeling of the passing of time runs throughout this wonderful album.
Alba Griot Ensemble (Alba being the Gaelic name for Scotland and Griot roughly meaning a storyteller, musician or poet) is a clever hybrid of Celtic folk and blues played with traditional instruments of the West African country of Mali and is difficult to categorise. Fans of World Music will no doubt have in their collection more difficult styles of music to pigeon hole but those who follow more commercial styles will struggle to pin it down.
This isn’t the heavy rhythmic music that Paul Simon or David Byrne used in the 80’s, these are finely layered pieces which take on both genres without sounding like either is unwelcome at the table. We have acoustic guitar and double bass from typical folk music sitting side by side with a stringed lute-like instrument called a Ngoni, African percussion and subtle vocals.
The ngoni has a reputation for being able to be played fast, it features heavily especially on the instrumental ‘Horonia’ and shows its speed on ‘Shadow Queen’, it sounds lovely here and bridges the gap between African and Celtic music and sounds at home when the band move into blues and jazz territory.
There is a variation in the music that is welcomed and shows the ability of the band to stretch its legs into other styles of music, this keeps the listener interested because each song delivers a new flavour. ‘Long Way Home’ is one of three songs I keep returning to, it’s possibly the most straight forward track on the album yet it has a percussion and rhythm that remains enjoyable and accessible, ‘Blurred Visions’ with a melody similar to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ flies by at 5mins long before we end the album with ‘North Wind’. A mighty nine minutes in length, it gives the band, in particular the rhythm section, the chance to jam and groove until the album comes to an end. This song closes the album like the sunset closes the day. Great stuff.
There is a fine but very important line between being predictable and middle of the road and being smooth and cool. It’s the difference between playing old standards to uptown, supper club gigs and using phrases such as “don’t go changing” when thanking the audience and making music that weaves soulful grooves, jazz sophistication, gentle funk smarts and even touches of reggae, classical and homespun vibes together. Thankfully Ed Motta knows the difference, he knows where the line is, he knows which side he is on and he is so far removed from those music by numbers sets that he can’t see that line or even clubs lights in the rear view mirror.
It’s the difference between compromise and accessibility, for whilst this latest album is certainly full of music which engages easily with the listener, the depths and textures it is built from are beguiling and inspiring. It never panders to expectations or merely gives the listener what they expect or feel they want, it would rather give you what you didn’t realise you wanted.
Whilst there is a touch of Al Jarreau or George Benson about the music, lyrically Motta out paces even those big names, I don’t remember either of them using the word Kafka-esque in a song and having it wash through so smoothly! Lyrically inspired by everything from sci-fi, abstract poetry, 80’s fashion…in a wonderfully humorous way and even Hamlet, these songs are stories in their own right, little vignettes and fleeting scenarios set to the coolest music.
The result is an album that will appeal to the jazz and soul purist and the fan of chilled pop alike, those who want a smooth sound track and particularly those who will revel in the elegance of the music and the eloquence of the lyrics. All things to all people…that isn’t a bad label to have.
Is there such a thing as holistic music? Is all music holistic? Is it something that the creator decides or is it up to the listener to designate it as such? Is it just another meaningless journalistic handle used by broken down scribblers looking for a neat way to get into a review? Okay, I’m going to take a stand and say that Bob Gaulke makes holistic music and Transportation is the perfect calling card for this probably made up genre.
Musically it wanders from understated rock to jazz infusions, soulful grooves to slick R&B, it mixes heart with humour, the profound with the profane, the dark with the light and there is hardly a subject that it doesn’t explore from Turkmenistan porn to the finer points of grammar, from creative angst to marxist revenge scenarios. Holistic enough for you?
The ever changing nature of the record is pushed even further with a couple of female guest vocal turns from Peri Mason and Vivian Benford on Another Rat and Rich respectively which add a element of uptown jazz bar sophistication to the proceedings. Irony is bluesy and breezy, On Foot seems to echo the dark urban vibes of Lou Reed and album opener Bad Writer is a textured and layered personal take on the very art of creativity.
It’s a great album, one with the ability to switch and change, to be musically fluid but which never leaves the listener behind. Some artists like to show how clever they are by confusing the audience and demanding that they play catch up as the music subverts expectation and heads down unexpected pathways just for the hell of it. Some artists just write great songs and leave it at that. Bob Gaulke is definitely the latter.
I love music that refuses to sit in neat generic demarcations. I love music that is happy to exist in a multi-cultural sonic world. I love music that looks to the future rather than back at past glories. To find that all in one place is a rare and wonderfully satisfying thing but that is exactly what I found when giving Songs With Venissa a spin. I might not know exactly what Afro-Futurism, the description that producer Paul Edwards uses to indicate the nature of the music that he makes is, but when you come out the other side of this 6 track e.p. you realise that it is the perfect name for what him and Cuban-American jazz vocalist Venissa Santi create here.
And for all the dark, sultry beats and spacious electronica that the name implies, there is so much more going on here. My Schwinn blends the sound of that continent with more exotic India traditions and Lucky mixes heavy dub grooves and infectious pop with warped western classical outbursts. Heartbeat takes a turn into lazy late night jazz-hop and If I Could Write A Letter is so ahead of its time, so unlike anything you have heard so far that it might truly be the sound of the future.
The world is an ever shrinking place, certainly culturally speaking. Tools and traditions, sounds and styles which may never have crossed paths in the past are now creative bed fellows. As people mix so do their sounds and stories, their attitudes and ideas and the more that happens the more interesting and original those new blends of music become. Genres are dead, long live music.
There are many reasons for making records that are purely covers. They range from thoughts of paying homage to the iconic songs that have featured heavily in your life to more cynical ideas of a mere cash-in. Sarah Sharp is very much in the former camp on that axis. The art of course is to be able to bring just enough that is new to the songs but still retain the qualities that made the songs iconic in the first place and again that is exactly what she gets so right on this 6 track release.
The most obvious thing that she brings is a voice that can only be described as breathtaking, that perfect blend of timeless cool jazz vibes and a crystalline contemporary feel, a voice that at once matches the material perfectly but also feels like it opens an interesting new chapter too. Oh What A Beautiful Morning is deft and delicate and You Were Always on My Mind is rendered into a gorgeous late night ballad.
The only song I didn’t recognise immediately was Your Girlfriend Hate’s Me and a little delving reveals that it is in fact an original co-written with Hannah Johnson who as a member of UK country-swing aficionados The Toy Hearts, my own scuffed suede Chelsea boots have grooved around to live on more than one occasion. It is indeed a small world.
I’m not always the biggest fan of covers, standards, pre-owned…call them what you will, songs but here Sarah Sharp gets it all just right and the songs are treated in such a way that they justify this new outing with ease. Her voice alone would be enough to clinch the deal but add in the deft new arrangements which adds groove where there was balladry, ambience where there was swagger, hushed tones where there was bravado and every switch and change in between and you have the perfect tribute blended with the perfect calling card for her own, not insignificant talents.
I’m struggling to start this review, I’ve written a bunch of opening sentences, but nothing really allows me to get into it the way I would like so I’m going to go for the blunt approach; Will Lawton and Weasel Howlett are a piano and drums duo from Malmesbury and they’ve released an album called Fossils of the Mind and it’s bloody good!
The album fearlessly dips its foot pedals into folk, jazz, drum and bass and a smattering of indie, all served up with intelligent piano playing, intricate drum patterns and a husky voice that suits the words perfectly.
Don’t be daunted by the limited instruments on display here, it’s all a ruse, there are no empty spaces or lack of imagination. The album is in no rush, the songs are good enough to keep you interested and it knows that although it takes its time it will get under your skin eventually. You’re immediately challenged by the theory of comedian and radio presenter Robin Ince that when humans die we not only leave behind our physical remains but also our ponderings in the form of diaries, notes, stories and written words that could be described as the fossils of the mind that gives the album its name.
It’s an interesting concept and the music is beautifully arranged around it, actually the music is beautiful throughout, it’s a very neat, tight and full album taking influences from World Music, which is unsurprising given that the album was recorded at Real World Studios near Bath which is something of a mecca for world music given its connections to Peter Gabriel and the Womad festival.
Percussion and the intricate little extra details play a huge part in this albums success, the blackbird’s song on ‘Dharma’, the curious pitch playing slightly under the radar on ‘Panacea’ and the subtle voices on ‘Golden Ratio’ successfully take the listener to another level.
At times the duo reminds me of Manchester jazz trio Go-Go Penguin, the music is just as dramatic, calm, powerful, quiet and all manner of things in between. The music switches from the drum and strings driven ‘Release’ to the folk flavoured ‘Peace’ without missing a beat and the final song ‘Sleep’ feels like a welcome return home after a walk along a desolate beach. Maybe that is the character of the album, it feels like a journey where you can be alone with your thoughts, where you can make sense of nature, society, who you are and what you leave behind when you go, pretty big things to have in your head but this is a pretty good soundtrack to have while you’re doing it.
The album is available online from Supermarine Music or, locally, from Sound Knowledge in Marlborough.
Smooth is the word, although cool, slick and sassy would do just as well. Walking on Air is a wonderfully laid back jazz-rock cross over, one driven by the saxophone sophistication of the former genre and the verve and energy of the latter. It’s the sort of instrumental that has multiple uses, from late night, up town, blues bar to relaxing mood music for the home, sultry enough to make the perfect night time groover and energised enough to be the sort of song to start your day to. You could also imagine it as a sound score to any number of film or TV productions.
The charm of the track is that it balances the hypnotic with the exploratory in that it follows a steady and predictable groove but the saxophone lines seem to almost be a free form jam. It is this balance of the expected and the improvised, the beat driven and the almost ambient attitudes that hang on top of the song’s core structure that make it such an intriguing and interesting prospect.
We are witnessing a burgeoning jazz scene in London, a resurgence that looks set to give us a return of the jazz filled 20s once again. One of the driving forces at the heart of this tidal wave of compelling, new music, is British-Bahraini composer and trumpet player, Yazz Ahmed, who has been cited as ‘redefining what jazz means in the 21st century’. La Saboteuse Remixed is her latest offering, released on Naim Records this summer.
Following the 2017 release of La Saboteuse, her highly acclaimed psychedelic Arabic jazz album, this remix EP brings together three of Europe’s eminent electronic DJs. This confluence of individual artistic visions creates music of deeply saturating polyrhythms, placing the listener into a curious state of relaxed tension. The sense of a personal narrative runs through all of Ahmed’s work and here is no exception. La Saboteuse as a whole is a journey of self-examination and with this remix EP, the reflection continues in both linear and abstract directions.
Music obviously has a fluidity to it, a quality that means that the same piece can evoke a different set of reactions in different people depending on their own experiences and world outlook. Similarly lyrics can be used just as deftly to have more than one meaning, possibly even as many meanings as there are listeners, each able to unravel their depth, subtleties and analogous nature in a different way. These are themes which are cleverly threaded through De Ver’s second single from the enigmatically titled Surface Tension (A Tincture for Integrating Shadow) album.
On one level The Climb is about just that and recalls a visit to Peru’s Machu Picchu and a long, challenging and meditative journey to its summit. This in turn gave De Ver the time and space to begin to explore some difficult aspects of his life, the death of his father and fall to and rise out of alcoholism by his mother. Everyone has a climb to make, obstacles to overcome and problems to process and choosing to do them creatively is both brave, connective and rewarding.
Musically he fuses jaunty jazz with shimmering pop, the beat reflecting the trudge of the boots up the hill, and the more metaphorical journey through difficult terrain; the vocals are intimate and at times backed by sumptuous harmonies before descending into musical chaos and confusion.
Music is a mirror to be held up to the world around it, to reflect one issue or another, to point at things, to raise questions. Television Personalities does just this, and okay it may not pose a direct question but it certainly points out the bizarre relationship we, as a modern society, has with celebrity status. And it is bizarre, we know it isn’t real, that theres is a fabricated world, one designed to make us feel better about ourselves, distract us from the grim realities of life and sell products, all of which is implied and examined through some wonderfully tongue in cheek lyrical rhetoric.
Coming from the EP No 5uch Th1ng, this is a track which hovers rather than drives, built of lilting hazy electronica and lazy beats, soft emotive vocals and washes of sound. It just floats its ideas out there and lets you draw your own conclusion via its deliberately obtuse narrative and unobtrusive sounds. Here the Bud Collins Trio is happy just to put the idea out there, have fun with it, smile wryly at the idea and leave the rest up to the listener.
There is a wonderful visual metaphor running through the video for Indira May’s debut single, or is it a simile, I should know the difference really. Anyway, the point is that visually the video paints a suitably strange picture, one of a world that mixes the past and present, the slick and the sleazy, a place where fashion, conformity, expectation and even the very notion of gender is a very fluid concept. And that is totally in keeping with a record which does the same with its sonic make up.
It is easy to hear classic jazz and blues hints in both the vocal delivery and the lazy, sultry groove that the song runs on. But equally it plays with a post-modern take on the same, a contemporary splicing of the past and the present, the classic and the cutting edge, old-school elegance and modern sass. Genres are almost a thing of the past, pop is where you find it and even if this isn’t pop music, in the strictest sense, it is damn sure to give pop music a run for its money.
There is some music which transcends genres. I’m not saying that in a sensationalist way or to invoke the modern trend for hyperbole, it is just that some music is built along such classic lines that it predates the contemporary need for generic labels and neat pigeon holes. Okay, there is a touch of jazz eclecticism to be found, soulful vibes abound and the balance between the neo-classic piano which forms the foundation of the e.p. and the deft designs and clever musical motifs built from rock, pop and indie that adds the sonic detail hint at the familiar. But for the most part it seems to create a genre of its own, partially because it is happy to hop generic boundaries at will but mainly because it doesn’t conform enough to any one. Eclecticism is the name of the game.
The more driven end of the music, songs such as Lethe with its sultry dance groove and Xtralarge, which rounds things off, have something of Kate Bush about them, an overused reference point I know but there is something in the singular vision, the same willingness to ignore trend and fashion and make music which conforms only the artists own musical rule book.
Higher is built on a wonderful play off of soulful lead vocals and sumptuous banks of harmonies, exquisitely show-casing Em’s sweet and sensual voice, able to whisper gently in the listeners ear to create intimacy but also able to push upwards to create dynamic and drama. La Belle Etoile is perhaps the most intriguing of songs, the natural beauty of the sound of its French lyrics blending with dreamy textures and arabesque vibes to create a wonderful blend of eastern exoticism and western pastoral chill.
It’s a stunning collection of songs, seeming not tied to culture, clime, genre or generation, a timeless, restless musical soundscape that captures all the beauty of the past and all the potential of the present. I guess that is how you build the sound of the future.
Picture courtesy of Clair Price
As a country we have a funny relationship with our redheads. It borders on racism, rubbish racism, but racism none the less. The sort of racism that is limited to someone shouting GINGERRRRRRR! across the street at the russet bonced unfortunate. Thankfully Ben Kelly can see the funny side to it all and to show it he leads his fellow Amber Bugs through a strange bluesy-soul odyssey, one that feels like a groovesome Tom Waits number, well, minus the gargled razor blade vocal and all the banging on about hookers and cheap motels.
But Waitsian it is more than anything else that I can think of, in its shifting dynamics, unexpected changes of pace, its strange meandering nature and mad Mariachi accompaniments and to be honest even the subject matter seems like something few others would chose to sing about. It is diverse and kaleidoscopic, and it deconstructs jazz, blues, soul, fuzz guitar and a few things which don’t have real names only to put them back together in new and confusing ways. It may at first seem like a piece of musical rough but a few listens in and you realise that it is a real diamond…or in this case perhaps a ruby.
The fact that I have been saying the same thing more and more in music reviews lately means that there must be something going on. Some music is all about having fun, about letting off steam, about just enjoying the moment and moving on, and that’s fine, but I am finding more and more music crossing the review desk that has something more to say, a deeper rooted agenda, a message. A lot of musical movements have their birth in action and reaction. Rock and roll, hip-hop and punk were all borne out of boredom, dissatisfaction, intolerance and unrest and there seems to be an upswell of artists who wish to address those issues once more. And whilst the likes of Idles do it with and iron fist, The Judex rabble-rouse and Ignacio Pena uses articulate rock, Nine Beats Collective have subtler but no less poignant musical weapons to hand.
They blend soul, hip-hop, funk, jazz, rock…anything that comes to hand really but lyrically they rely on much older ideals. They take ancient writings, wisdom taken from The Biblical Beatitudes and weave it through their music. The songs become a call for tolerance and understanding, taking their lead from archaic communication and hearing in them the whispers of another world and the invitation to a path of recovery and hoping that the empty hand is a mightier weapon than the sword.
The music often takes the form of spoken word over soothing and groovesome musical vehicles, from short jazz backed sound bites such as Purgatory to the gang vocal driven Call ‘Em Out (chants would be a fine thing) but it also evolves via evocative instrumentals such as Song For The Earth and funky and joyous workouts like Wild World.
It is a new approach to music, a new form, a new genre and it isn’t everyday that I get to say that. But this is a totally new approach one that blends wonderful new musical fusions with the fundamentals of what it means, and what has largely been forgotten, to be human.
Some of the most interesting music comes out of nowhere, bowls you over, is gracious enough to help you back on your feet and then races off in random directions whilst you are still flicking the dust off of your jeans. The RPM Orchestra is just such a band. Its difficult to describe what they do easily, again another tick against their name, imagine a silent movie score mixed with Balkan folk or lo-fi klezmer film scores crashing into experimental post-punk doing a spot of avant gardening or cutting edge, minimalist classical music performing a piece based around a marching band tuning up. Then through in old-time jazz and Americana undertones. I don’t know, it’s sheer madness, but you know what they say about the fine line between insanity and genius!
But it is good madness, amusing madness, challenging and exploratory madness, like Syd Barrett becoming the conductor of The London Philharmonic Orchestra. It is pointless trying to convey anything specific about what they do, beyond those strange analogies I have struggled with so far. Best you just dip your toes into their strange and exotic waters. You will either love it or hate it, but I bet if you are someone who reads this site regularly, who has a broad musical mind, who understands that music is art and vice versa, then it is more than likely to be the former.
As a musician it sometimes pays to stop and look back at the reason you became a musician in the first place, to acknowledge those who came before you, whose music inspired you to try to follow in their footsteps. That is exactly what Tony Marino has done with his latest album, Thank You For The Music. Seven original compositions which honour and are dedicated in turn to Astor Piazzolla, Joao Donato, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, & James Moody, each in turn capturing something of each of these jazz greats spirit.
It would be easy to just cover their music but this is a much more worthy approach, Tony Marino’s personal touch but also channelling the artistic traits and musical trappings of the musicians which helped shape him in the first place. The result is a wonderful blend of originality and hall mark sounds, exploring the musical character of those icons but also presenting something which musically stands on its own two feet. And that is the great thing about jazz, it is all about re-invention, re-interpretation, about honouring the past and in doing so moving things into the future and this wonderful musical tribute does just that.
Aliens walk among us. It is known.
For the most part, they keep their heads down, hiding in plain sight, disguised as ordinary citizens, never drawing attention to themselves, never giving the indigenous human population cause to be concerned, going about their daily lives much as we go about ours.
But occasionally, some of the more reckless among their numbers can’t help themselves. They break ranks and start to show off the extraordinary, utterly inhuman talents of which these advanced beings are capable. Which is all very well and good as long as they do it in the privacy of their own pods, lairs, dens, or whatever other enclosed spaces serve as their homes.
The problems really start when these reckless youths, these ridiculously talented pan-dimensional travellers from beyond the limits of our universe, go into recording studios, and record themselves, resulting in albums that are , among other things, flagrant demonstrations of the limitations of human endeavour!
That’s when the whole balance of human-alien coexistence is put at risk, when the human race can no longer bury its head in the sands of deliberate ignorance, when we must confront the reality that, yes, Carl Sagan and Arthur C Clarke were right: Aliens Walk Among Us.
Mind you, when the results of these demonstrations of alien capability are as magnificent, as extraordinary, and as thoroughly delightful as the new album from Tommy Emmanuel (so talented, so gifted that even his fellow aliens are jealous!), it’s hard to do anything other than sit and gaze in wonder at the stars, making utterly futile attempts to imagine the kind of universe where such feats of musical brilliance are possible.
An extraordinary thing happens when truly gifted musicians get together. As magnificent as the individual components might be, where the musicians are as humble as they are brilliant, where each one regards the others as their inspiration, the results are far greater than the sum of the parts.
This album is a collection of duets, some with singers, some instrumentals with other musicians, mostly covers, along with a small number of original tracks.
Featuring collaborations with Jason Isbel, Mark Knopfler, Ricky Skaggs, David Grisman, among others, many styles are on display, from straighforward country to boogie blues, to one of the most deft and beautiful versions of a Django Reinhart classic that I have ever heard, this album is quite simply a Must-Have in any collection.
This is not just for the guitar aficionado, as some recordings by impresarios can be. This is so much more than a demonstration of what the guitar can technically do in the right (non-human, obvs) hands. This is a celebration of the art of music, the joy of music, the sheer beauty-for-the-sake-of-it that music can be.
There are one or two slight dips in the overall level; Amanda Shires features on violin and vocals on a version of Madonna’s Borderline, and I’m not sure that it’s really up to the standard of the rest of the album.
But shortly after that, Jerry Douglas (if the Tommy Emmanuel being doesn’t convince you of the existence of aliens, surely not even the most determinedly myopic of you can argue that Jerry Douglas is human???) pops up on a rendition of Purple Haze that, on its own, makes up for any earlier lapses on the album.
Previously, some scientists have claimed that the human race is safe because these pan-dimensional beings know that they cannot co-exist in the same place at the same time without creating rifts in the fabric of the universe, and so they remain solitary, avoiding each other for the sake of reality itself.
It turns out that this theory is rubbish. Aliens walk among us. Together. This album is proof!
And now that we know this, there will be no apocalypse, no Armageddon. The worst that will happen is that eBay will be flooded with guitars, previously owned by actual humans, causing the second hand guitar market to crash. But that’s such a small price to pay for this gem of an album.
Released January 19th via Players Club / Mascot Label Group
Music is driven by many factors and we often find that the biggest inspirations, the best creative flows are the result of being presented with the biggest hurdles. When faced with two life changing diagnoses, instead of pulling away and feeling sorry for himself, Alphonso Archer was driven to be more creative, more pro-active, more focused and the result is a fantastic collection of songs which goes by the name of Formula For Life.
It is an album woven from a wide range of subtle and soulful threads, jazz infused blissfulness, groovesome R&B and perfect pop forms blended together to create infectiousness and accessibility. And yet despite all the generic juggling and stylistic mixing it is an album with a very cohesive sound, one which brims with sophistication and modernity yet one that is aware of its place in the musical scheme of things, one which understands exactly where it is coming from and because of that knows where it is going. And where it is going is into a bright new musical dawn.
On songs such as Omens it revels in a chilled R&B vibe, one which will appeal to both the commercial minded pop punter and the more discerning movers, shakers, and underground tastemakers and the title track is built on jazz-soul sweetness and brims with positivity. But there is also room for more off-beat ideas, Where Have All The Flowers Gone? sees Alphonso Archer go green and over a mesh of minimal beats, classical guitar and brooding strings a spoken word narrative discusses the plight of the humble bee. Also included is a re-mixed rap version but for me the almost Shakespearean delivery of the original is the one that does it for me.
Bring You Back Again explores some reggae vibes and Let’s Keep Things Simple is a brilliant pop-soul cross over which given a fair wind and the right promotion could easily be a chart bothering contender. And despite the familiarity of the building blocks used to create this album, the end result is wonderfully original, deftly wrought and chock full of personality. Where soul has often become a catch all for impressive feats of sultry lyrical dexterity that all too often forget to invest in any genuine emotion, this is a record built on the heartfelt and honest, which after all were the hallmarks of the genre in the first place.
And whereas many artists working in this soul-jazz-pop axis have a tendency to be lyrically light and bereft of depth, Formula For Life has some wonderfully poignant moments, it tugs heartstrings, explores relationships and generally has much to say about life and it is that combination of musical exploration, poeticism and lyrical honesty that means that it might just propel Archer into the market he deserves. We can only hope.
The spirit of Peter Sarstedt is alive and well in Richard Stone, the Leicestershire based solo artist who released his third album on September 25th.
Opening with a gentle jazzy feel, moving through hoppy and skippy, and making a stop along the way in the vicinity of the sort of acoustic pop that used to grace the soundtracks of 70’s art house movies, as well as the vinyl collections of every post-grad college student in the universe, it’s clear throughout that Stone is a songwriter who is concerned first and last with lyrics, instinctively finding the right style and arrangement to carry those lyrics to the listener in the most effective way.
It’s a perfectly engaging collection of songs, albeit without an obvious narrative to bind the album together into something that provides significant insight into the writer’s character or his struggles.
When presented with this kind of writing, I like to get to feel as though I’m building a picture of who the person behind the stories actually is. Whether or not that picture is anywhere close to being accurate is neither here nor there, but it’s good to reach the end of an album and to feel that you know the artist a little bit better, and that you feel empathy, or at least have a certain recognition, for his struggle and strife.
Although on second thought, perhaps I’m being unrealistic in my expectations, and slightly unfair. Having been brought up on the vast library of Self-Exposition-Singer-Songwriter agonies, perhaps I’ve set the bar not just too high, but in the wrong arena altogether.
Having been reminded of the likes of the aforementioned Peter Sarstedt in the first 30 seconds of this album, I must also remind myself that until the spread of the singer-songwriter in all his/her autobiographical glory in the 70’s, culminating (some might say disgracefully) with Phil Collins’ Face Value in the 80’s, pop music of this kind was mostly a radio-friendly, engaging, brief distraction to which you could tap your foot or gently sway your head or (if you were really lucky, or really handsome, or owned a car) provide a shoulder for your slightly self-consciously bohemian girlfriend to lay her head upon.
Whether in these days of constant, inescapable self-exposure from every corner and on every platform known to mankind, the rather charmingly old-school light footed approach on display on this album from A Blue Flame can gain much traction remains to be seen. I hope so – it’s good to be reminded of simpler times. In the end, what good is music for, if not to remind us that there’s always another way?
When Your Whole World Turns To Dust is now available
Even on paper, The NJE, standing for Near Jazz Experience, is a fascinating concept. Horn led, jazz infused, pop/rock instrumentals, largely unrehearsed and improvised but built on some solid yet supple underlying grooves. But jazz for the purist this isn’t, unless that particular purist also has a hankering for strange proto-Krautrock meets Motown grooves, skittering back beats and rock music on Avant gardening leave.
The album wanders between some big-beat, groovy floor fillers, albeit best-suited to a strange dance club where anything goes and minds are broad when it comes to the generic what is and what isn’t, and music which just seems to pull the floor away from under you. It inhabits the world of the freeform jam but just as easily snaps into a more focused, more song driven mind set and it’s highlights are just as likely to be found in long form rambles as they are in concise hook laden jazz-pop blasts.
This isn’t an album to approach like the usual collection of songs, although undoubtedly each song is a separate train of musical thought. It is at once a holistic album following a singular musical idea and a scattergun deliver of songs within songs, musical tangents and boundless experimentation. It is also one that whilst based in a loose jazz setting spills over into any number of other genres, re-appropriating the best ideas, forms and sounds and bending those into the Near Jazz Experience.
In short approach with caution, an open mind and willingness to have your generic preconceptions shattered…and then some.
What happens when a hip New York jazz rhythm section share their musical visions with a West Coast musical shaman? Well, one possible outcome can be found by listening to Labyrinth Lounge’s debut album. Never far from a chilled jazz root this fascinating collection blends soulful vocals, contemporary urban pop grooves, funky rhythms and musical theatre narratives within its often seemingly unstructured songs.
Storytime in particular is a wonderful band back-story put to skittering, echoing electronica and jazzy, distant piano, delivered more like a teasing whisper in the ear than a song in the traditional sense. It’s Just Water is a bang up to date alt-pop-funk groove and We Be Rocking is a short, sharp futuristic tribal blast but it is perhaps the opening salvo of Trouble Won’t Last which is the best calling card for the band. Smooth and sassy uptown cocktail bar vibes meets urban soul and shot through with De La Soul style jazz rap, it provides the perfect introduction to what Labyrinth Lounge is all about.
And what they are all about is taking those well thumbed pages from the slicker and more groovesome end of the great American songbook and using them to play musical origami, folding one sound around on another, having one edge run at right angles to another, creating something new out of something old. And that is the art of it really, we can see what they have used to make their sonic origami songbird and we marvel at the deftness of the finished result. It’s just that we don’t really have much of a clue how they got from one to the other. We are just happy that they did.
I reviewed Paul Brady’s new album “Unfinished Business” a couple of weeks ago, and spent a very enjoyable hour or so being reminded of when I was young and only mildly cynical, and when the likes of Brady, and Van Morrison and Davy Spillane used to encourage me to think about folk music, and particularly Celtic folk music in new and exciting ways.
How delightful, then, to have a new album drop into my cd player today that took all of 30 seconds to transport this ageing, moderate-to-profoundly cynical reviewer back to the days when new music really was new, when I became a proper fan of a statistically significant proportion of the new music I heard, and when I could close my eyes and not only enjoy the sounds of a beautifully crafted folk album, but also enjoy being immersed in an almost tangible, textural experience created by someone with an obvious, genuine love of his craft.
Blue Rose Code, actually a solo project by acclaimed Scottish singer songwriter Ross Wilson, “The Water Of Leith” is grounded in folk, but mixes in jazz, rock and soul in ways so deft and effortless that I am immediately reminded of the aforementioned Brady, Spillane and Van Morrison. And in the best way possible – I am already a fan! (Which is a bit disconcerting. It hardly ever happens these days and it’s all a bit unfamiliar.)
And if you’re too young to know who any of those redoubtable stars are, think Ray Lamontagne after a long and relaxing holiday (his, not yours) in the Scottish Highlands, and you’ll be pretty close to the mark.
Collaborating with a host of award-winning and celebrated musicians, Wilson’s voice and story-telling remain the stars of the show here. But the arrangements, with occasional flourishes of ethereal backing vocals, or low whistles and soprano sax, constantly evoke a sense of space and time too often forgotten in the melee of modern life.
Still, arrangements aside, the songs stand for themselves, and I’m certain that any live show with Wilson delivering them alone, on piano or guitar, would be just as enjoyable and evocative.
With a couple of exceptions (what album doesn’t have a couple of exceptions?), such as the overly simplistic (to my tastes anyway – many will argue) “Love Is…”, or the somewhat unstructured “The Water”, these are songs with strong narratives and melodies, beautifully delivered.
All in all, a perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon or evening, escaping the stress and pace of daily life, mentally wandering far-off hills and farther-off times… And breathe……
Water of Leith is out on October 27th via Navigator Records
I have to confess that harmonica led jazz is not my normal area of expertise, but that’s fine, it just means that I get to drop my bag of well-worn indie clichés and pop puns and approach the music like the wide-eyed music lover that I have always been. And there is a lot to love here.
The album is nothing if not musically exploratory and a wonderful reminder that music is just as expressive in telling stories as lyrics are. The slow build and percussive drama of Cold War, the sweeping grace of Nirvana, the skittering, the fractured beauty of Danilissmo and the more traditional beats of Prepared Prayer all evoking images and setting scenes far better than any words could.
But music is a transaction between the composer and the listener and without the limitation of words, the music paints pictures and conjures ideas and scenarios that are limited only by the listener’s imagination, irrespective of the composer’s intentions, you are the interpreter here, this is your dream. In just one listen I saw galaxies dying and being reborn, nighttime city streets, I viewed the world from the top of mountains and I swam in its deepest oceans. All that and I hadn’t even had breakfast yet.
And the idea of music as a film score or even an acoustic story in its own right is further reinforced by the tantalizing use of found sounds, street conversations, running water, random noise and other sonic minutiae from everyday life. Maybe this album is a film waiting to be made, a role reversal that sees the music dictating the story rather than following its lead. I’m not sure what those would look like but I know I would be at the front of the queue for tickets.
Musically, Hidden Landscapes draws lines connecting South American landscapes with sophisticated European jazz clubs, others which link chilled soundscapes with ambient film scores and then it connects places and thoughts, emotions and stories that have no business being connected. Stare at the pattern of those lines for a long time, and then shut your eyes. The stars dancing behind your eyelids is the music of this outstanding musician.
Music has many varied functions, some is designed to fire you up ready for a night on the town, some is a chilled wave to relax to, some inspires you to change the world, some gives you an escape from it. This is more like the music of the isolation tank, music which requires your complete emersion, demands that you just exist within it, become one with it, heavy meditation, a solitary experience. Some music is aimed at the brain, is intelligent and intricate, some at the heart, emotive and alluring, Hidden Landscapes does nothing less than aim for your very soul.
Tell someone that you are a piano led, instrumental, jazz fusion outfit these days, particularly around Hayley Lam’s New York base of operations and I’m sure you have to then spend the next ten minutes explaining that you are not another bunch of “out there” bunch of avant-gardeners. Even in the world of jazz music, itself prone to structural complexity and dynamic intricacy, originality doesn’t have to be complex and that is the place where we find Hayley and here band operating.
Given the use of synths as much as more traditional keyboard sounds, the over all effect seems to wander slightly into prog-rock territory, always a sonic brother of jazz anyway, but the fluid structures and skittering beats are very much the modern and forward thinking edge of jazz. And if the genre seems to have an unhealthy attachment to its own stalwarts and standards, this is a breath of fresh air, a forward thinking reaction to an often overly nostalgic attitude.
I’m not sure what the purists might make of this, it will probably have them muttering about the sanctity of American musical traditions as they drink their Belgian lager out of a French made glass, but then again that’s the whole point I guess.
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of exploring the music too closely, right from the off the two things that scream out at me as I dip my toe in its sonic waters are the sheer eclecticism and the texturing of sounds. It’s the same feeling I get when I listen to Steely Dan’s Aja and there are more than a few similarities – the innate soulfulness, the progressive landscapes containing wonderfully accessible ideas, the execution of the musicians that somehow combines precision with a loose and often louche style. And simply the sheer scope of the territory being explored.
But this isn’t the seventies nor is it the West Coast. This is the 21st century and this is the West Midlands, which probably has a lot to do with the record’s often darker, more overcast and psychedelic vibe. Whereas with the aforementioned Aja you need to put on sun block just to listen to it, this has a more primal, edgy and ancient feel, even when grooving out on a sonorous jazz vibe or a funky shuffling beat.
This used to be called fusion music which normally meant either a rock band with ideas above its station or a bunch of jazz-hands dumbing down to find more lucrative markets. Thankfully this feels a million miles away from either but much more natural, just a collection of musicians conducting interesting genre-splicing experiments in hidden basements.
Pagan jazz? Psych-soul? Primal-funk? It doesn’t really matter what you call it as I doubt there will be enough bands who ever come close enough to these brilliant and mind bending sounds that we are going to need to think of a collective label. A genre of one? Why indeed not?