Out of the Ashes EP –  Phoenix O’Neill (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

21731005_1925260231094974_3282336291917671465_nPop has been getting up to some very interesting things of late. Yes, there is still the obvious, high gloss, production line, pop by numbers that feeds the needs of the music industry and the chart system, but there is also a growing alternative scene, one that mixes the best of the underground with the potential of the mainstream. Phoenix O’Neill fits very much into this new movement. For whilst the music she makes falls easily into the genre, it is what she blends it with that makes it a refreshing change.

As always the song that is possibly the least obvious of the four included here is the one that intrigues me the most and Alien is a deft blend of chilled late night vibes, shimmering electronic beats and orchestral sweeps, hazy sonic backdrops and gorgeous vocals. I’ve long been an advocate of modern pop becoming influenced by older and more alternative dream-pop forces. Keep the production values and infectiousness of the modern sound but soften its edges and haze things out a bit with some dreaming musical spires and ethereality that the likes of Kate Bush and a whole host of more underground eighties acts worked with so well. Do that and you have a sound which has the ability to be both commercial and cultish, cool enough for the discerning pop fan and addictive enough to pick up the commercial pop dollar. Do that and you have a great track but one that doesn’t play by the rules.

Cruel World is probably the more natural heart of the EP, a slow burning reflection on some previous tough times that the artist experienced, a masterful example of restraint and understatement, of how to build a song out of only what is really necessary, the voice and the heart, the memory and an intimate connection with the listener, revelling in space and atmosphere as much as sound and beat. I Need You and I Feel It are more obvious approaches to the task at hand, though they seem to exist at the opposite ends of the dance floor dynamic, one the party starter, the other the wind down to chill out mode.

Phoenix O’Neill hasn’t come to save pop music, she has come to destroy it and build something new from the rubble, or at least leave a musical diagram for others to follow. Out of The Ashes is a totally infectious collection, simple, beguiling, effortlessly cool but generally sitting in the shadowed corner of clubland rather than posing under the neon lights of the dance floor. It is a vision of what might come to pass, a thorn in the side of those still trying to force pop down the same pathways and it does all of this probably without even knowing that it is doing so. You can only be this cool when you aren’t even trying to be cool. How cool is that?

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Scene and Heard  –  CCLXXXVIII  Honey Dear  –  Daniel Alejandro (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

Honey_Dear2.pngThe worlds of pop and the strains of the classical world may seem worlds apart but on Honey Dear, Daniel Alejandro proves that the two can, not only co-exist, but do so to great effect. The focal point of the song is immediately Alejandro’s voice, one which seems more usually found in the world of stage, opera and musical theatre than the more cliched world of pop. But it is his sleek and heady tones which straight away sign post this as more than just another pop wannabe. No, this is something far cleverer than just a pop song. But it is also everything you expect a pop song to be, how clever is that?

It is built on orchestral sweeps, brooding cellos and confident back beats, reminiscent of the way songs were made before pop music became the thing it is today, and as such is full of drama and dynamic, from minimal plaintive piano interludes to spiralling crescendos.  Pop music is normally full of tricks and gimmickry, of short cuts and sugar rushes, Honey Dear is however a much more honest affair. Rather than resorting to such easy options, it is driven by the power of the vocal delivery, the quality of the song writing and more than anything else the romantic heart which beats at its very core.

This is a song about lost love, of loss and longing, of regret for the past and of how things should have turned out differently and it is this which is the connection more than anything else. It may come from a private and personal place but the song carries a message which we can all relate to, which will strike a chord with anyone who has let that one special person slip through their fingers. There are few people out there with whom it won’t resonate.

It is the deft weave of classical grace, classic pop and romance that really jumps out at you, the oft cited less is more qualities, the pauses between, the notes, the unresolved tensions in the music and the inherent melancholy or at least reflection. It may be out of step with most pop music being made today but that is its strength rather than a failing. The fact that it follows its own path, one of sleeker musical lines, of timeless majesty and of a more heart-felt intent is exactly what new music should be brave enough to do. Let the production-line, pop-dross, identikit chart wannabes fight for space in their insular world, this is pop music designed for a much more discerning market and for that you have to applaud it.

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Scene and Heard  –  CCLXXXVII  Day After Day –  Lord Conrad (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

Day_After_Day_Lord_ConradPop music may be a young persons scene but that doesn’t mean that the market will put up with a lower standard product than any other genre. Far from it, if you want to keep the pop dollar on side as the teen fan grows into a more discerning music fan then you need to deliver songs which offer both immediacy and sparkle but are well wrought and sophisticated. Throw away songs may be great for the quick buck but even the most cynical record label marketing department knows that there is no future in that route. The clue is after all in the name…throw away.

Following hot on the heels of his critically and commercially well-received single Touch The Sky, this second outing follows a more chilled route. Rather than the anthemic vibes he worked with before, Day After Day wanders through more hazy sonic ground, plays with dynamic highs and lows, subtle drop downs and shimmering crescendos, but the overall sound is more reserved and largely understated. It is slickly done and stands head and shoulders above most of the pop fare coming from the same quarter.

These two songs make for a wonderful statement of musical intent and show that he is at home with both the dance floor groove and the more smoke like sounds of the early hours chill out session, a versatility which bodes well for the future.

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Scene and Heard  –  CCLXXXVI Final Warning “Bye Bich” – So Unique (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

hqdefaultFinal Warning is the perfect sound creation for the modern music fan, just the right blend of old school familiarity and new ideas and the result is a slick urban groove-laden, R&B infused track, one perfect for the clubland dance floor and pop picker alike. It speaks to the cutting edge rap scene, although it is individual enough to stand enough apart from that as well, but it also echoes with the slow sensuality of blues divas, jazz singers and soul acts of the past.  This isn’t about re-inventing those past times but it is certainly the successor to much of it.

There was a time when R&B sat on one side of a certain musical divide and music deemed cooler or more cultish sat on the other. One of the aspects of our non-tribal, post-genre musical world, is that as the various barriers have been kicked down, as rules and traditions have been abandoned, the more commercial has been allowed to merge with the underground, or more importantly a whole generation of musician has grown up not even knowing that those restrictions even existed. This is the sound of someone not playing by the rules, of a woman in what used to be a man’s world, of crossing boundaries both musically and culturally and of breaking moulds.

The perfectly named So Unique, therefore, represents this balance of old and new, traditional sounds and modern exploration perfectly blended as she merges skittering, electro-R&B beats with more cultish underground vibes, deft rap flow and pop infectiousness. Throw in a soulful vibe and some darker and sensual moves balanced with an edgy and confrontational stance and you have something rather special. The result is music that will both connect with the commercial crowd but also has mass appeal to the more discerning, underground markets, music which is at once inventive and clever but without being anything other than a cool and accessible pop record, one that feels like chart positioning and mainstream radio play is just around the corner.

It hooks, it zings, it pops and it certainly grooves, it is infectious and accessible but it is also cleverly put together, sassy, soulful and groovesome, and it adds an unexpected lyrical astuteness to this often misunderstood genre, so much so that the end result is nothing less than deep and meaningful pop. Yes, pop! In the bigger scheme of things everything is pop and in this post-genre world where artists are happy to mix and match their influences, maybe it is the only generic term we really need, In short it is pop from the streets, pop with an eye on the long game, pop reaching its full potential, pop that you really don’t want to mess with. Maybe it is just another throwaway pop song, but one that you will want to keep forever! Whatever will they think of next?

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Television Personalities –  Bud Collins Trio (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

Bud Collins Trio coverMusic 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.

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Scene and Heard  –  CCLXXXV : Hourglass – Daarien feat. DJ Tallah (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

artworks-000310810638-hr2t2c-t500x500Hourglass is a song which says so much about the musical world we find ourselves in today. With the abandonment of the old tribal allegiances, the hard and fast rules which created rigid styles, musicians are freer to make music which wilfully fuses genres, cross-pollinates sounds and gene-splices musical DNA. Less and less are we presented with music which conforms strictly to one form or another, but which is instead free to pick and chose the sonic building blocks it uses from a wide and ever changing source.

What Daarien has created takes that idea to its logical conclusion and what we find is that classical grandeur sits comfortably alongside trip-hop cool, chilled electronica with hazy dream-pop landscapes, the urban with the urbane. The real charm is this seamless blend of an ambient  vibe with seeping electronica, of majestic but distant atmospherics, of intrigue and anticipation, of restraint and understatement. Even when the textures and sonic layers are writ large they are done so in a water-colour style application rather seeking to make their point through vibrant, thick oils. (Not the best of analogies but I’m sure you understand the point I’m making.) The result is a series of windswept and gossamer like sounds hanging around the lead lines rather than anything more intrusive or bombastic.

Neo-classical charm is threaded through futuristic beats, plaintive electronica washes through vocal delicacy, dance floor culture is turned into smoke and anagrams and dream-pop vibes soak into a wholly new sensual and understated EDM sound. This understated and majestic grace runs through the video as well, as it leads us through a narrative filled with sumptuous backdrops and rich colours and upmarket locations.

But more than anything this song is all about the vocals which hang somewhere between classical choral, almost religious tones and the sort of dramatic world-pop that came so easily to the likes of Lisa Gerrard and Dead Can Dance. It contains the same music as an instrument qualities which make it occasionally merge into the music to become another beguiling and exotic layer in the songs make up rather than merely the narrative device.

Timeless is a word that is much over used when applied to music, but here Daarien does indeed fashion something timeless, something that references the past but looks to the future but also something without genre, location or direction. Why road sign your music for the listener, far better surely, to have them follow you off the beaten track with eyes full of wonder, open to adventure and ready to go with the flow?

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We Are Fucked –  Flesh Eating Foundation (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

155120There are times on We Are Fucked, gotta love an album title that honest, that it sounds as if someone has built a machine and programmed it with just the vaguest outline of how to make music and let it just work out the rest for itself. Whilst it follows the basic laws of melody and rhythm, of songwriting and musicality, the sounds it choses to work with owe more to the car plant than the music studio.  Ever since that famous thought experiment where a violin was tied to a length of string and dragged down a gravel path, the argument about what music is, and more importantly what it can be, has been a heated place. Flesh Eating Foundation seem to prove that as long as you adhere to some of the most basic tenets, you can fill in the spaces between with anything you like. And if they chose to fill that space with fuzzed out guitars and glitchy electronica, crunching industrial noise and programmed beats, well, so much the better.

Following on from the uncompromising title, they run through a series of diatribes, observations and rants about the seedier and broken side of life. Punch Drunk is a sonic onslaught of searing psycho-synth and warped out interludes and the insightfully named Stand Up And Be Discounted sounds almost like Shakespearean textspeak put to dystopian pop music, possibly recorded using road repair tools rather than regular instruments. The End is a diabolic Vangelisian soundscape and the title track and opening salvo seems closer to synth-pop normality…but not much.

The album comes with some remixes of We Are Fucked and Having Fun which range from pushing the songs closer to the mainstream in the case of XSRY’s take on the former to speed fuelled industrial raves in the case of the Paresis lulz re-working of the latter. Bear in mind that here mainstream is a relative term and given the tricky and challenging ground that these songs start out in, mainstream here still might not be that close to the rest of the musical pack.

It’s a collection of songs which sit on the periphery and hold a mirror up to pop music. But, to be honest, it is a mirror that they have previously shattered, glued back together, sprayed with blotches of black paint and then shot with a Kalashnikov. But a mirror none the less.

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Scene and Heard  –  CCLXXXIV : Anaweza  – Lady Jaydee ft. Luciano (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

Anaweza-Art-work-1Music should cross boundaries, whether they are geographic, generic, cultural or whatever other restrictions we impose on our own creativity. And that is exactly what Anaweza does. Lady Jaydee is an artist from Tanzania, Luciano Messenjah hails from Jamaica, the song is sung both in Swahili and English and it exists in a place where past musical traditions merge with musics future potential, where African voices merge with Western pop. If that isn’t the sort of creativity we need in this day and age, then I don’t know what is.

With only part of the song being in my own language, I can only talk about it from the musical, rather than lyrical, point of view. But that isn’t a problem because the voice isn’t just a point of communication, it is an instrument, a rhythmic component, in its own right. Lady Jaydee’s  has the sort of voice that you could listen to all day, a wonderful blend of sultry and sassy, emotive and vibrant and Luciano’s vocal counterpoint is the perfect balance both counselling and consoling.  Add to that the sheer joy and energy being emitted from the song, from its beats and harmonies, addictive melody and infectious rhythms and you can help but love it.

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She Can Flow  – Rob Larkin and The Wayward Ones (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

Rob Larkin Lights Are Burning coverAs someone who has visited the country mainly through its music and media, She Can Flow sounds like nothing less than America’s beating heart. And to be fair it is probably an America that never existed outside its road movies, TV adverts, beat legacy, literature and other rose tinted nostalgia, but in my mind it is what America should sound like. There is something in the songs musical soul which makes it quintessentially of that place but when and where is something that is harder to but your finger on.

It mixes lilting country rhythms, folky deliveries, a ragged bluesy beat, a funky, soulful  groove and even after fitting all of those traits together manages to retain an immediacy and infectiousness that is normally only found in classic pop writing. It draws a line between 60’s coffee shops and modern country-pop crossovers, timeless porch jam sessions and 70’s Austin cosmic cowboy gigs, European folk and New World acoustic blues. In fact there isn’t much  in the discerning musical world that it doesn’t touch upon and if there are genres that it doesn’t concern itself with, then you shouldn’t worry about them either.

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Play That Funky Music  –  Gonzo (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

PlaythatfunkymusicCovering iconic songs is a tricky thing especially songs as ingrained in the public consciousness as Wild Cherry’s Play That Funky Music (White Boy). Many have tired, Euro-poppers Roxette made it sound predictably…well, Europop, Tim Campbell delivered an over-produced, over-polished version, Extreme rocked it out, Prince made it sound like it was his own song and a host of TV music show wannabes have sucked the very soul out of it. The problem with attempting to cover a well-known song is that you have one of  two options. Either you bring something new to the song which implies that you think that you can do better than the person who wrote it in the first place or you stay faithfully to it which begs the question why bother covering it at all? The answer, it would seem lies somewhere between the two approaches.

Thankfully that is exactly what is going on in the latest foray into this funky hallowed ground. The original is a blend of groovesome and soulful guitar licks, stomping bass lines and funky, energetic drumming. All good so far. The thing that most people generally get wrong is over filling the space between the backbeat and the vocals, not here, here there is just the right amount of space and anticipation. Brass attacks punctuate the air and backing vocals do no more than underline with raps and shout outs. And the reason for this space is to create a dynamic restraint, which is blown wide open when the white hot, jagged guitar gets its turn in the spotlight.

True to the spirit of the original with just the right amount of originality and freshness to justify revisiting this classic, exactly the fine line you need to walk to make such a cover work. Perfect.

 

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