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.
With her previous album being well received amongst critics and buyers alike and the double single of Hurtin’ /Dreamer already hinting at the delicate folk goodness that her second full album was going to deliver, Arrow’s promotional work had largely already been done for it. Definitely a case of a product being able to sell itself. Ciara O’Neill trades in timeless, noirish and understated folk sounds and vocals with just enough of a Celtic echo to place her geographically but working in the shifting and slightly genre-less musical waters that eschews tradition and rules in favour of exploration and emotion.
Using striking and brooding cellos, and haunting violins to punctuate the core sound of rhythmic guitars and her outstanding vocals, it is an album which is less about solid structures and standard progressions and more about music which floats and moves about on the breeze. Storms Comin’ takes this idea into more minimalist country territory with its twanging guitar, dark vibes and lilting drive, Equal and Opposite is built on the same transience and emptiness as the music of fellow Irish artist Damien Rice and Everything is almost a pop ballad in its accessibility and commercial potential.
She follows in the traditions of hosts of names who have combined elusive and compelling music with the ability to penetrate the mainstream, The Civil Wars, Lisa Hannigan, Glen Hansard and the dear departed Eliot Smith and there is no reason not to think that Arrow will easily find a chink in the armour of the narrow minded record executives and media money men who profess to know exactly what the punters want. Arrow is exactly what the more discerning punters want, it is just that they may not yet know it is what they want. Believe me it is.
We have probably all got accustomed to the current wave of singer-songwriters who revel in fashion fixations and dreams of celebrity, production line pop pose and style over substance, as the accepted norm. But that’s what makes Ben McNeil a breath of fresh air and as Flying High kicks the album off you get to hear an echo of the drive and passion that made the post-punk New Wave and deft New Pop which followed so vibrant and edgy. That in itself would be reason enough to take this album to heart but throughout the following collection of songs McNeil wanders the back roads of acoustic pop, exploring roads less travelled, roads with the most interesting views, roads which those on the fast track to fame and fortune couldn’t even find on the map.
I’m not saying that this album couldn’t result in glittering accolades, I’m just saying its nice to see him not just playing the obvious card. Always employs the understatement of a David Gray classic and the following track No One goes a step further and runs right up against Damien Rice’s spacious workplace. Everything To Me combines the fine pop ingredients that Crowded House took to their heart and rock is even on the menu with the bigger stadium sounds of Prove To Me.
It wanders wonderfully between its acoustica, pop-rock and singer-songwriter boundaries, straying far enough to keep things interesting but not too far that it falls into inconsistency. Ben McNeil knows his own heart and the path he wants to follow, but then look at the references I have pulled out of the albums musical weave, all successful and all revered by the masses, but on their own terms. And that is a path Ben could easily find himself heading down.
Cutting Teeth hinted at Ben Noble’s ability to craft emotive and gently sweeping folkscapes but it didn’t prepare the listener for the fact that he is able to fill a whole album with the sort of songs which could have just as easily taken its place as the teaser, the calling card and the lead single. By this point many fellow journalists have probably already mentioned Nick Drake or Bon Ivor, but for me the best comparison is actually the sparse and spacious, floating and flowing creations of Damien Rice. Here you find the same use of atmosphere and anticipation, the same understanding that sometimes subtle shading is more powerful than vibrant brushstrokes.
Little One is a classic example of just such an approach, all strings and sentiment as much as lyric and song and around this central gem he scatters his exotic wares. Worldspin feels like a new take on Simon and Garfunkel and there are hints of David Gray around the place but for every reference I throw at you there is ten times the amount of originality going on here. The form may be familiar but Whiskey Priest is pure Ben Noble.
The lyrics have a compressed style and revel in getting straight to the point with minimal but perfect wordplay, almost like folkloric haikus or personal notes to the listener and it is this blend of intimacy and universality, poignancy and poeticism which is so effective. Most singer-song writers, folkies and acoustic poppers would have been happy enough to have written Cutting Teeth, the song which first brought this slice of Minneapolis gold, or more properly gold leaf, such is the delicacy of the album, but to then surround it with eleven more brilliant songs is really making it hard on the competition. Benchmarks have just been raised.
I love the air of detachment that exudes from the heart of Henry Bateman’s music. For whilst Ready or Not is lyrically all about trying to form a specific emotional tie, musically it sits in its own space, slightly away from the usual music conventions. It acknowledges pop but does so in a languid and sonorous fashion, it plays with a hazy, indie folk vibe but pushes it more towards a dreamlike dimension, a distant guitar is used to add some psychedelic, west coast detail but not enough to pin it too closely to the genre.
Mother revels in Damien Rice style acoustic atmospheres, shimmering guitar cascades through the empty space and the ethereal boy/girl vocal duelling just underlines the idea. But then if artists take inspiration from his drifting and minimalist style then I for one am not going to argue. Nope. Not one bit.
It’s easy to forget when a whole music genre seems to have developed trying it’s damnedest to be Frank Turner, or failing that Oxygen Thief, that one man with a guitar does not have to result in bullish angst or political and social calls to arms. Neither does it have to follow the Damien Rice/Jake Morley model of minimalist melancholy, wistful, fragile thoughts put to music. Between the two extremes there is a whole industry built on pop aware, chart smart, accessible acoustic music and Ben Montague fits right in the heart of it.
Emotionally charged and honest but delivered in a fairly commercial package, Montague gently plucks heartstrings whilst laying out songs that have a romantic yet broad appeal. Whilst ragged-trousered rabble-rousers want to change the political landscape and late night troubadours want to break your heart, Back To Paradise is happy to chronicle the trials and tribulations of modern life, love and relationships. And that’s something we all can relate too.