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Sticks & Stones Might Still Break Our Bones, But Now The Words Are Killing Us

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I’ll start by saying that I had no real affinity for Caroline Flack. I rarely watch Strictly Come Dancing, have never watched Love Island, and only discovered who she was due to the press and social media coverage about her forthcoming assault trial.

But, because of my firsthand battles with the black dog, her back story and suicide profoundly affected me. It’s a tragedy that highlights once again our failings at recognising and understanding mental illness. And sadly, the negative stigma still prevails.

Allegedly, Caroline Flack fucked up. I’ve fucked up. EVERYONE. FUCKS. UP! The difference is that “normal” people like you and I aren’t under constant press scrutiny whenever we make a mistake. I don’t mean the normal newsworthy press but the shitty, hate-mongering tabloid press. The same shitty, hate-mongering tabloid press who, now she’s dead, is awash with heartfelt tributes. Arseholes.

My feelings about mental health issues and the vile conduct of those “journalists” aside, I should have avoided Twitter on Saturday. It rapidly became a stroke inducing cesspit. I tried to ignore the sea of bile, but one particularly repugnant tweet from “Joe” about Ms Flack was the final straw. From then on, it would never end well for me.

As I write, I’m three days into a seven day Twitter ban for one particularly “creative” tirade. Apparently, calling “Joe” a pathetic maladjusted cunt isn’t acceptable on Twitter. But “Joe” (writer of vile words about a young lady who only hours before had taken her own life) has had no sanctions placed on his literary works of art. And this, Mr Twitter, is why you’re as guilty as the tabloids for spreading hatred and lies.

In hindsight, I temporarily became part of the problem. I lost my head. I know I shouldn’t have reacted as I did because it fuelled the trolls’ fire. For Caroline’s sake, let’s just try to be a little kinder. The hate has to stop and we should all talk and listen to each other more. REALLY listen. By doing this, rather than ruin someone’s life, we might help save it instead.

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2019 – The Acoustic Egg Box Top 30 Albums Of The Year

I know, I know, it’s nearly the end of January 2020 and I’m only just publishing my review of 2019. I could, of course, come up with all sorts of excuses for it being so late but the truth is that I’ve just been too drunk and too lazy. So, for the two of you who have been waiting eagerly for this nonsense, please accept my sincere apologies for the delay in posting this blog. For the rest of you, please accept my sincere apologies for posting this blog.

2019 was one of the best years for new music that I can remember in a long time but, as I say every year, I will only ever include albums in my chart that I’ve physically purchased. This means that as I only have a finite budget and there aren’t (sadly ) enough waking hours to do my day job, keep Mrs Egg Box happy AND physically listen to everything I want, it’s a sad inevitability that I miss out on lots of brilliant music. Thankfully, it means that I also miss out on some utter shite too. Every cloud and all that…

As an ageing mod and a long-standing soul/ r&b fan, one of the big plusses for me in 2019 was seeing something of a renaissance in the genre. Especially pleasing was the number of young acts embracing the scene and releasing new music throughout this vintage year. Apart from those acts in my Top 30, there were cracking new soul/ r&b albums released by Eli Paperboy Reed, Nick Waterhouse, The Dip (who were an excellent support act on the Durand Jones tour), French Boutik, Alexis Evans and old stagers Mavis Staples and The Brand New Heavies. And these are just the ones that I got round to buying.  Long may it continue!

My other favourite things in 2019 were:

Gig:  Durand Jones & The Indications – The Thekla, Bristol, 22nd October

Film:  Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

TV:  After Life

Book:  Dylan Jones – The Wichita Lineman: Searching In The Sun For The World’s Greatest Unfinished Song

Disappointments Of The Year:  The utterly shambolic state of British politics and politicians. Climate change deniers. The death of Scott Walker.  Morrissey

So there we have it. If you get to No.1 without falling asleep or wishing a plague of boils on me, I’d like to thank you for your time. If, however, you really can’t be arsed to read any more of this complete cobblers, there’s a Spotify playlist below.

30: KELLY FINNIGAN – The Tales People Tell (Colemine)
29: THE GRIEF BROTHERS – 35 Years On Woodfield Street (Country Mile)
28: ELBOW – Giants Of All Sizes (Polydor)
27: LEE FIELDS & THE EXPRESSIONS – It Rains Love (Big Crown)
26: BLACK PUMAS – Black Pumas (ATO)
25: ANGEL OLSEN – All Mirrors (Jagjaguwar)
24: FONTAINES DC – Dogrel (Partisan)
23: PAUL ORWELL – Smut (Heavy Soul!)
22: RW HEDGES – The Hills Are Old Songs (Wonderfulsound)
21: MERCURY REV – Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited (Bella Union)
20: JENNY LEWIS – On The Line (Warner Bros)

After four albums with her band, Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis launched her solo career in 2006 with the quirky alt.country album  “Rabbit Fur Coat”. Now, thirteen years later she’s released her best and most personal collection so far. Collaborators on the record include Ringo Starr, Don Was, Beck and Jim Keltner who have helped add a knowing edge to Lewis’s lyrically dextrous songs, not least “Little White Dove” about the reconciliation after twenty years with her heroin-addicted, terminally ill mother.

19: EDWYN COLLINS – Badbea (AED)

After suffering two near-fatal brain haemorrhages in 2005 it’s more than noteworthy that Edwyn Collins turned sixty in 2019. The fact that he’s still with us is great news; the fact that he’s still making fantastic records like “Badbea” (his ninth solo album) is a heroic achievement. From the opening Northern Soul style bars of “It’s All About You” via bittersweet ballads and post-punk rockers to the album’s titular, reflective closing track, Collins ruminates on a life well-lived. The story of his journey is none-more-evident than when he sings “Long ago back in Glasgow, Ambition drove my life, Now I note I must admit, I couldn’t give a fuck” over a driving electronic beat on “Glasgow To London”. It’s so good to still have you with us Edwyn.

18: YOLA – Walk Through Fire (Easy Eye Sound)

In early 2019 I watched Yola perform in the small Rough Trade venue of Bristol (her home city) to launch this, her debut album. Possessing one of the most powerful voices I’ve heard in a long time she really was jaw-droppingly good. Although she had previously sung with Massive Attack, it wasn’t until The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach offered to produce this production services after watching a video of her singing in Nashville, that her career started to flourish. “Walk Through Fire” has a foot in both soul and country camps with each song showcasing a different facet to Yola’s expressive and versatile vocals. Notable tracks are the soaring Dusty Springfield channelling  “Faraway Look”; the beautiful country-tinged ballad “Deep Blue Dream” complete with pedal steel and fiddles and “Love All Night (Work All Day)” that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mavis Staples LP. This young lady with a big personality and even bigger voice is certainly one to watch.

17: LLOYD COLE – Guesswork (earMUSIC) 

Along with his Commotions, in 1984 Lloyd Cole made one of the best albums of the decade in “Rattlesnakes”.  In 1991, as a solo artist, he made one of the best albums of that decade in “Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe”. Now, nineteen years and eleven studio albums later, this bookish intellectual-about-town golf-nut should be a household name. However, in a world in which Ed Sheeran is one of the biggest selling artists, Cole’s brand of intelligent, lyrically sharp and impeccably crafted music tends only to appeal to the astute music-lover who appreciates substance over, well, shite. With all his songwriting gifts still intact, Cole has employed synthesizers to great effect on Guesswork – often with unexpected, hugely enjoyable results. This is no more evident than when, sandwiched between the lush, melancholic beauty of album opener “The Over Under” and final track “The Loudness Wars” is “Violins” – an incongruous little ditty which could be a companion track to Abba’s “The Day Before You Came”. It’s great to have you back Lloyd!

16: JESSICA PRATT – Quiet Signs (Mexican Summer)

Jessica Pratt’s gorgeous third album, “Quiet Signs”, is a perfect antidote to the relentlessly dismal and damp days of a British winter.  With echoes of Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies”, the album drifts into existence with the beautiful piano-led instrumental “Opening Night”. With more than a nod to Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, Ms Pratt’s hypnotic vocal weaves its way through the course of the album’s eight tracks like a gentle Californian breeze. The whole lysergic experience (for that’s what “Quiet Signs” is – an experience) only lasts for around twenty-eight soothing minutes before gently floating away on the final notes of “Aeroplane”. Had a bad day? Put your feet up, your headphones on and let this delicate but enchanting record soothe your soul.

15: RICHARD HAWLEY – Further (BMG)

Back in 2001, Sheffield’s Richard Hawley released his first solo record (a self-titled seven-track “mini-album”) and over the course of the following eight studio albums (his last record, “Hollow Meadows” was my joint album of the year in 2015) he has become into one of the UK’s most consistently excellent performers.  With his soothing, Orbison-esque baritone gracing sublime songs that often hark back to an era when melody and arrangements were king, Hawley has carved out his own 21st-century balladic niche. “Further” (his first album without a place name in the title) just cements his place at the singer/ songwriter’s top table. The album opens with “Off My Mind” – a raucous 70s style wig out proving that there’s more to the man than just being a crooner backed by strings – and closes with the gorgeous, twangy ballad, “Doors”. Sandwiched in between are nine superb tracks of vintage Hawley.

14: RAPHAEL SAADIQ – Jimmy Lee (Columbia)

Unless you follow the soul/ R&B scene, Raphael Saadiq is probably a name that will mean little to you. But, for those of us that do, this polymath of the black music scene is a bit of a legend. Now aged 53, Saadiq has forged a career as a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. He has worked with, amongst others, Prince, Whitney Houston, Mary K Blige, D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar. He was also the main man in Lucy Pearl and chart -toppingTony! Toni! Tone! before embarking on a solo career.  “Jimmy Lee”, (named after his brother who died of a heroin overdose), is his 5th (and most accomplished) solo album to date. With songs dealing with addiction, racial injustice, love, loss and redemption across a variety of styles encompassing soul, blues, gospel, jazz and hip-hop, Jimmy Lee is the sort of album that, if they were still with us Marvin, Curtis or Gil would have been proud to call their own.

13: LAVILLE – The Wanderer  (Acid Jazz)

Occasionally, British soul acts emerge that rivals anything the Americans can throw our way. In 2019, North London’s Laville is one of those acts. An accomplished young singer who, if “The Wanderer” is anything to go by, has a big future ahead of him. The sultry, summery groove of “Easy” sets the tone for the rest of the album with the mood only broken by the funky disco beat of “This City” which leads us out of the bedroom and straight into Studio 54.  With a voice as smooth as silk, Laville is very much a soul man in the classic old-school sense. “Giants”, “Thirty One”, “Love Shine” and “What You Won’t Do For Love” are all as laid-back as they come and I suspect that fans of Grover Washington Jr, Bill Withers and more recently, Omar, will find much to enjoy here.  Laville is most definitely a lover, not a fighter.

12: BRITTANY HOWARD – Jaime (Columbia)

Most people will know Brittany Howard as the lead singer with the powerful Southern Soul voice from Alabama Shakes.  The great news is that on her debut solo album, “Jaime” (named after her late sister) she’s lost none of that soulful power and has also expanded her musical palette to include funky rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, jazz and psychedelia. Through the course of “Jaime’s” eleven tracks, Howard deals with subjects as diverse as her sexuality (“Georgia”) racial prejudice (“Goat Head”) and her faith (“He Loves Me”). The ghost of Prince looms large throughout the album, not least on “History Repeating”, “Baby” and “Run To Me” and on one of the record’s high points, the gorgeous “Stay High”, you’d also be forgiven in thinking that Curtis Mayfield was alive and well and alongside Howard in the studio. Alabama Shakes as a band were good, but Brittany Howard as a solo artist is absolutely bloody fantastic!

11: LANA DEL REY – Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Polydor/ Interscope)

It’s eight years since the enigmatic Lana Del Rey burst onto the music scene with her mega-selling single “Video Games” and twelve-million selling No.1 album, “Born To Die”. Some people wrote her off as a quirk but “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” (named after the American author, artist and social commentator) is now the artist formerly known as Elizabeth Woolridge Grant’s fifth studio album and proof that those people were idiots. Del Rey is a master of discombobulation; the sweet melodies and lush arrangements of these songs hide shadowy secrets. Her unique brand of beautiful but darkly skewed Laurel Canyon melancholia draws you in, makes you feel warm and comfortable but then punches you in the face with lines like “And if I wasn’t so fucked up, I think I’d fuck you all the time” (“Fuck It I Love You”). There’s a definite retro feel to NFR (think The Shangri-las style “death-discs” of the 60s) but with Del Rey’s own twisted 21st-century slant stamped into every nuanced line. It’s a Sunday morning album for sure, but a Sunday morning which follows a really fucked up Saturday night.

10: NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – Ghosteen (Ghosteen Ltd)

Much like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tom Waits et al, some people refuse to listen to Nick Cave as they’ve already decided they won’t like him; that he’s too niche; an enigma; difficult to “get”. So, if you’ve arrived at this review and fall into that camp, please suspend your preconceptions right now. Before you listen to “Ghosteen”, read about the tragic death of Cave’s son in 2015 and only then, with the perspective of a grieving parent, give this achingly beautiful double-album a chance. In Cave’s words: “The songs on the first record are the children. The songs on the second record are their parents. “Ghosteen” is a migrating spirit.” The instrumentation throughout is synth-heavy and hymnal; mournful washes of sound serve as a backdrop to Cave’s cryptic, plaintive meditations and allusions to an unspecified spirituality. This is no more evident than on the ethereal, spoken word “Fireflies” when he intones: “We are photons released from a dying star. We are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar. And everything is distant as the stars. I am here and you are where you are”. Given the tragic nature of the subject matter, in less skilled hands “Ghosteen” could have ended up a mawkish dirge but, in Cave’s, it has a redemptive almost uplifting quality. Fans of The Blue Nile, David Sylvian or late period Talk Talk will find much to love about this mesmeric, otherworldly album.

9: WEYES BLOOD – Titanic Rising (Sub Pop)

The sublime “Titanic Rising” is the fourth studio album in eight years from Weyes Blood (aka Natalie Mering), and whilst she’s gained favourable reviews for her previous work, this sublime record has raised her to another level altogether. Although some of the album’s subject matter (climate disaster, the perils of the internet, the failure of capitalism) is serious and earnest, Merings honeyed vocal delivery disarms the listener and delivers the weighty messages with hypnotic charm. Either side of the album’s instrumental title-track and the soaring electronic grandeur of “Movies”, the tone of “Titanic Rising” shouts, unashamedly, “seventies singer/ songwriter”. “Everyday” and “Something To Believe”, especially, owe much to the legacy of Carole King or Judee Sill but channelled effortlessly through a dreamy Karen Carpenter. This is an exceptional album for extraordinary times.

8: DRUGDEALER – Raw Honey (Mexican Summer)

When I came across the video for “Fools”, the superb first single from Drugdealer’s second album, “Raw Honey”, I wasn’t sure whether they were taking the piss. I’m still dubious. However, pisstakers or not, Michael Collins and his merry band of stoners have crafted a supremely accomplished, harmony drenched (dare I say) “yacht-rock” album that could have been recorded at any time between 1967 and 1977. It appears that they wear their influences like large tie-dye patches: “Lost In My Dream” (Crosby, Stills * Nash); “London Nightmare” (Beatles/Kinks); “Wild Motion (feat Dougie Poole)” (Roy Orbison), and even the instrumental album closer “Ending On A Hi Note” has the hallmark of a Beach Boys classic stamped on it. In fact, you could spend a lost weekend rolling fat ones and guessing who each track sounds like. Pastiche? Maybe. But if you’re going to go down that route, make sure you do it as well as these guys and no one will ever care. Bong!

7: PURPLE MOUNTAINS – Purple Mountains (Drag City)

Purple Mountains IS David Berman and David Berman was one of America’s finest songwriters of recent years. I say “was”, as tragically, shortly after the album was released, he took his own life. “Purple Mountains” was Bermans first new music since his band The Silver Jews broke up in 2009 and whilst these (now poignant) songs will serve as a wonderful parting gift, the world has most certainly lost a lyrical titan. Like so many geniuses, Berman struggled with addiction and depression throughout his life and the death of his mother (the subject of one of his most beautiful songs “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son”), in 2016 floored him. Listening in hindsight to his deep Johnny Cash like drawl on the incongruously upbeat “All My Happiness Is Gone” and the signs of his frail state of mind are there: “All my happiness is gone, It’s all gone somewhere beyond”, whilst “Darkness & Cold”, offers up: “Darkness and cold, darkness and cold, Rolled in through the holes in the stories I told, Conditions I’m wishing weren’t taking control”. However, despite the often self-loathing subject matter, this is one of the funniest, most passionate and listenable albums in my chart. Berman confronted the imperfections of the human condition head-on and through “Purple Mountains” sang it back to us with a wry and perceptive nod and a wink. I mean, how can you not laugh out loud at these lines in “That’s The Way I Feel”:  “I met failure in Australia, I fell ill in Illinois, I nearly lost my genitalia, To an anthill in Des Moines”. RIP David, you’ll be missed.

6: THE SPECIALS – Encore (UMG/Island)

When it was released in 1979, The Specials’ self-titled debut album changed my life forever. I’d never heard anything quite like it, or them, before. Despite already being a music-obsessed teenager, they, along with their hugely influential 2-Tone label opened my sixteen-year-old mind to a world of music, culture and attitude that has never really left me. Forty years on and still as vehemently anti-racist and anti-Tory as ever, the current incarnation of The Specials (Terry Hall, Lynval Golding & Horace Panter) were deservedly rewarded with their first No.1 album. The record kicks-off with a funky cover of The Equals’ “Black Skin, Blue Eyed Boys” quickly followed by the wonderful BLM (Black Lives Matter) which has Lynval Golding narrating his personal story of racist treatment in the UK after arriving from Jamaica in 1954, and then more of the same when he moved to the USA some forty-years later. Throughout the album,  political or social commentary is rarely more than a line or two away. “Vote For Me” (which gently reprises the classic “Ghost Town”) is about snout-in-the-trough politicians; “10 Commandments” sees activist Saffiyah Khan reworking Prince Buster’s “Ten Commandments Of Man”; “Embarrassed By You” berates the current generation for their lack of respect and obsession with gang culture and knife crime. Album highlight for me though is the lilting reggae of “The Life & Times (Of A Man Called Depression)” – a spoken word track in which Terry Hall bares all and tells of his battles with bipolar disorder.  Album closer, the plaintive “We Sell Hope” brings things to a close with the lines: “Looked all around the world, We’ve gotta take care of each other”, which, in an increasingly divided society, might be the best advice of the year. The Specials, like all of us original fans, may well be getting old, but “Encore” is more than enough proof that they’re sure as hell not hanging up their loafers just yet.

5: P.P. ARNOLD – The New Adventures Of…P.P. Arnold (earMUSIC)

When a soul legend releases her first new album in over fifty years, it’s a noteworthy event. When that legend is mod icon P.P. Arnold and her Steve Cradock and Paul Weller produced album is one of the best things she’s ever done, well, that’s just a massive bonus! Although this isn’t the first we’ve heard from Ms Arnold recently, (Cradock was also instrumental in getting her “lost” late sixties LP “The Turning Tide” released in 2017) it’s obvious from the opening notes of the poppy Northern Soul belter, “Baby Blue”, that she’s lost none of her power or range. The New Adventures Of… is certainly value for money. It weighs in at over an hour and, across the album’s fifteen tracks, P.P tackles a variety of styles and genres, all with some great aplomb. There are gorgeous ballads: “Though It Hurts Me Badly”, “I’m A Dreamer; groovy house “Hold On To Your Dreams”; a funky nine-minute spoken word version of Bob Dylan’s “Last Thoughts Of Woodie Guthrie” and a brand new Paul Weller penned track “When I Was Part Of Your Picture” (plus a Weller cover, “Shoot The Dove”. On top of all this, Steve Cradock (not just content with production and playing duties) wrote one of the albums many highlights – the rousing, Motown-esque cracker, “Magic Hour”. Without any doubt, The New Adventures Of P.P. Arnold is THE comeback album of the year.

4: CARLTON JUMEL SMITH – 1634 Lexington Avenue (Timmion)

It seems that every year at least one album appears out of nowhere and completely blows me away. This year that album is “1634 Lexington Avenue”, from one of soul music’s unsung heroes, Carlton Jumel Smith.  I’m not sure what’s more bizarre, the fact that he’s left it until his late fifties to release such a brilliant set of songs or that in 1999 he somehow failed to become a huge star after appearing as James Brown in Barry Levinson’s excellent movie, “Liberty Heights” . “1634…” contains ten original tracks of classic old-school soul straight from the Al Green, Bobby Womack and (his hero) James Brown school, each expertly performed by the flamboyant and charismatic Smith and expertly supported by Timmion Records’ in-house band, Cold Diamond & Mink.  Every track on this wonderful album is worthy of mention here but “Woman You Made Me”, “You Gonna Need Me” and one of the singles of the year “This Is What Love Looks Like” (if you can watch the video here without smiling then you’re probably a serial malcontent). Don’t leave it too long between records next time please Mr Smith.

3: DURAND JONES & THE INDICATIONS – American Love Call (Dead Oceans/ Colemine) 

When Indiana based Durand Jones & The Indications released their excellent self-titled debut album in 2016, I didn’t expect them to follow it up with one of the finest soul albums of the 21st century (so far!). Trust me, “American Love Call” is a classic. It’s vintage, old-school soul made by a bunch of young men who pay homage to the greats (Al Green, Smokey Robinson, The Dramatics among many others) but whose style is very much their own. In Durand Jones, the band possess a dynamic, cool-as-fuck frontman (as evidenced when I saw them perform at Bristol’s Thekla back in October) whose pleading vocals dovetail perfectly with drummer Aaron Frazer’s sweet falsetto. “American Love Call” is a more laid back album than their funky debut and this new approach works in their favour. Frazer’s vocals, plus the lush arrangements on tracks such as the Stylistics channelling Philly-soul of “Court Of Love” and the dreamy “How Can I Be Sure?” are exquisite, whilst the mid-tempo “Don’t You Know” and “Circles” plus the jaunty “Long Way Home” lend themselves more to Jones deeper delivery. What sets this album apart from their debut is a greater sense of cohesion. This is especially evident on the album’s opening three tracks:  the not-so-optimistic state of the nation lament, “Morning In America” plus the pleading “Don’t You Know” and “Circles” on which this supremely talented quartet all gel together and are at the top of their respective games. If album number three continues this upward trajectory then we really will be in for an even bigger treat.

2: MICHAEL KIWANUKA – Kiwanuka (Polydor/ Interscope)

Michael Kiwanuka’s brilliant number one LP, “Love & Hate” was my 2016 album of the year and because it was such a commercial and critical success, it could have been easy for him to sit on his laurels and succumb to the “difficult third album” syndrome. However, I’m extremely pleased to report that his Dangermouse and Inflo produced follow up, “Kiwanuka”, is every bit as good as its predecessor. Admittedly, there’s nothing quite as grand as “Love & Hate’s” atmospheric, ten-minute opener “Cold Little Heart” (“Kiwanuka’s” gorgeous two-part “Piano Joint” comes close) but across the album’s fourteen tracks there’s a greater overall sense of cohesion plus evidence of an artist who at last is starting to feel more comfortable in his own skin. The album opens with two upbeat belters; “You Ain’t The Problem” starts out sounding like a distant Caribbean party before bursting into a funky, fuzzy barefoot groove straight outta ’71. The psychedelic soul of “Rolling” then takes up the reigns with a driving percussive beat before segueing into one of the album’s gentler tracks – the glorious gospel-tinged “I’ve Been Dazed”. There are references to racism, police brutality and division dotted throughout, no more so than on “Another Human Being” a telling gunshot ends the track abruptly after a passage of recorded civil-rights commentary. The gorgeous seven-minute love-song-of-sorts “Hard To Say Goodbye” (which to these ears wouldn’t sound out of place on Weller’s “22 Dreams”) drifts in and out like a daydream. It also marks the point at which “Kiwanuka” starts its gentle descent into another aural realm, culminating in the lysergic, orchestral (heavenly?) final track “Light”, in which he appears to have found some kind of peace. “Shine your light over me (shine on me), (All of my fears are gone), All of my fears are gone, baby, gone, gone (And it don’t bother me), It don’t bother me, don’t bother me, now… “. Three albums in and MK has now released two bona fide classics in a row. Make no mistake, he is one of the most important and vital artists to have emerged from the UK this century.

1: BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – Western Stars (Columbia)

And so to this year’s Acoustic Egg Box Album Of The Year. Although since its release, not a week has gone by when I haven’t played “Western Stars”, I honestly don’t know how to go about reviewing one of the best albums (in my opinion!) made by one of the greatest rock stars of all time. It sounds like a cop-out but I genuinely don’t feel that I can add anything worthwhile to the thousands of reviews that have already been written and are widely available anywhere you care to look. I love Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen. I love his music and I respect him immensely as a person, however, I realise that he is one of that select group who has obsessive fans who know (I mean REALLY know) every last detail about him and his music. They can tell you how many different pressings (plus the catalogue numbers) there are of his nineteen studio and twenty-three live albums; they will know who designed and printed the cover sleeves for each of his seventy singles and they will probably have the name and address of the man who drove his tour bus in 1985. So, rather than harp on about the specifics of “Western Stars” and then recycle the millions of words already written about its creator, below I’ve written just a few words about why it’s become such an important record to me.

If I’m honest, from the moment I first heard “Western Stars” back in June, I knew that it would be my album of the year. It felt like a record that I’d always known; a record crammed with proper songs and gorgeous melodies that sounded new and yet familiar at the same time. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the sixties and seventies on an aural diet of Bacharach & David, Glenn Campbell & Jimmy Webb, Roy Orbison, Harry Nillson and Jim Reeves that I love records with sweeping orchestral arrangements. Records with lyrics telling stories about the loved or the scorned, the lost and the found; about gamblers, chancers and unsung heroes from far off places I’d never been to but where I knew I wanted to go. Those songs burrowed their way into my young brain without me even realising it and they’ve stayed there ever since.  The songs on “Western Stars” have that quality. Every single one of them. They are sumptuous and textured songs; sweeping widescreen epics as big as the Nebraskan sky and telling tales of drifters, hitch-hikers and lovers who are too many miles from where they long to be. “Wichita Lineman” or “Everybody’s Talkin” or “Rhinestone Cowboy” also achieve this feat. In the space of just a few beautifully constructed verses, these songs fill your head with characters and emotions brought to life by fine words, all carried along on melodies to die for. The songs on “Western Stars” have that quality. Every. Single. One.

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9/11 – Why Gods Aren’t Great

As an atheist, people sometimes ask me why I hate god. The answer is easy: I don’t. I can’t hate something that doesn’t exist, but I do hate the lunatics who torture, maim and kill in its many names.

Lunchtime in the Virgin Records offices where I worked was a surreal experience on 11th September 2001. Along with several colleagues, I sat and watched a horrifying drama on the office TV. Only it wasn’t a drama, it was the BBC news. And it was live.

Like New York, London is one of the world’s great cities; a city also vulnerable to terrorism. That afternoon I had to go into central London for a meeting at Tower Records. As I drove through the eerily quiet streets, I felt petrified. I needn’t have bothered with the meeting though as, like me, everyone else was in a state of shock. And anyway, discussing new music campaigns seemed churlish and almost disrespectful.

I didn’t go back to the office after my non-meeting, but went straight home instead. My flatmates and I stayed up and watched the rolling news until the early hours. We didn’t talk much that night, but I’m sure we all hoped to wake up the next morning and find out the previous day had been a collective bad dream. Sadly, it wasn’t.

My first child was due only three months after 9/11. I eventually crawled into bed at around 3 a.m on 12th September, but before I slept, tears of frustration and despair came. I couldn’t stop thinking about what sort of world he would soon be born into.

Eighteen years on, I still struggle to watch footage of that awful day. It was my “where were you when…” moment and my memories of watching those terrible events will stay with me forever. I also live hoping that one day, humanity will wake up. Wake up and realise that we only have ourselves to answer to and that there are no gods coming to save us from killing each other and the planet we live on.

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Hey kids! Exams are the failures, not you

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

The exam results silly season is upon us. I keep hearing horror stories in which children are suffering from severe mental strain because of the pressure to achieve. As a parent, I find this heartbreaking.

Life is only just beginning for these youngsters and they should enjoy every waking minute, but the burden to perform brought on by the current exam system is killing them. Literally. I’m not suggesting that students should expect everything on a plate, but the current state of affairs is unacceptable. So I wrote the following article:

Hey kids, whatever you do, above all else, make sure you lead a varied and interesting life. Despite what you might be told, you don’t need piles of money to do this – an inquisitive and open mind will do. Qualifications are desirable, but happiness is vital.

You are likely to be alive and kicking for another 60 or 70 years. You can (and will) change your minds and your careers more times than you imagine. You are only here once and this life isn’t a dress rehearsal, so make the most of every precious second.

Do crazy stuff. Embrace diversity. Party. Take risks. Express yourselves. Play sport. Be rebellious. ALWAYS be kind. Be confident. But don’t be arrogant. It’s ok to cry. It’s not ok to suffer in silence. Laugh a lot. Don’t dwell on your mistakes. Don’t boast about your successes. Travel. Spend more time outside than in. Don’t believe everything on social media. Do believe what your heart tells you is right. Fall in love. Ask questions. Ask more questions. Fuck things up. Be wise enough to know when you’ve fucked things up. Relax. Be passionate about at least one thing. Swear creatively and lots. Never assume you’re immortal. Don’t fear failure. Be brave enough to say no. Say sorry. Read. Read some more. Keep reading. Have an opinion. Change your mind. Love animals. Listen to music. Make music. Watch movies. Eat well. Get drunk. Sleep. Win with class but lose with grace.

But, most of all, don’t ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever be dull.

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Goodbye Salary, Hello Freedom!

 

On 1st August 2019,  I’m leaving the world of employment to set up a freelance sales agency. Combining over thirty years of sales experience with a passion for writing, I also have ambitions to become a copywriter. As part of my master plan, I’m now in the middle of a Copywriting Diploma.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Mark Manson, Geoff Burch, Roger Horberry & Gyles Lingwood, Tom Albrighton, William Zinsser, Strunk & White, Dan Ariely, Mish Slade, Dave Trott and Glenn Fisher (among others) for their inspiration and insights over the past few months. They have been great companions and have joined me during lunch breaks; on planes, trains & automobiles; in the garden; on the beach; at the dinner table and even in bed.

Between them, this talented bunch has written some exceptional books (pictured), several of which I am now reading for the umpteenth time. (Apparently, all highly successful, wealthy, intelligent and handsome people read a lot. I know this is true, as I’m the exception that proves the rule).

Finally, I have a question for you: if you could recommend just one relevant book, website, blog etc, to inspire, enlighten or educate me, what would it be?

 

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Old Fart For Hire Or Rent

After spending nearly a year with Mrs Bridges (and her preserves, marmalades, chutneys, curds, mustards, relishes, and mayonnaise) we are divorcing. Sadly, unlike Bob Marley, we really weren’t jammin’ and therefore, from 1st August, I’ll be back out on the pull.

Let me start as I mean to go on. I don’t have a doctorate, a degree, or even an ‘A’ Level. I do, however, have over thirty years worth of skills and knowledge gained in a diverse variety of sales, marketing, and account management roles. I’m pretty sure that my track record far outweighs any lack of academic qualifications. That said, I do have ‘O’ Levels in Geography and Art; so if you ever need a really pretty map drawn, I’m your man.

Also, I’ve always had a passion for writing. With an eye on combining this passion with my sales experience, I’m currently halfway through a Copywriting Diploma. Although not up to Booker Prize standard yet, you can sample some of my literary shenanigans on the pages of this here blog.

It’s easy for people to make boastful claims on their CVs about their unsurpassed professional prowess, but let’s be honest, how many of those claims are at best fabricated, or at worst bare-faced lies? Although I struggle with the burgeoning look-at-me-aren’t-I-great crowd, please don’t confuse my self-deprecation with a lack of ambition or drive. I’m justifiably proud of my career achievements and my track record speaks for itself.

Let’s face it, as a short, ugly bloke with dodgy knees and as much grace on the dance floor as a kangaroo with vertigo, convincing a beautiful, athletic and talented lady to become my wife (and then stick around for seventeen years) must surely mean that I’m a truly gifted salesman…

Other things that you won’t read on my CV: I’ve got a fork-lift truck driving license attained whilst ferrying explosive material around a munitions factory and a qualification that means I can practice hypnotherapy. Look into my eyes, not around my eyes… (At least £200k per annum please).

Finally, as previously stated, I’ll be open for business from 1st August. After four years in the food industry, I am setting up as a freelance sales agent. I already have one fabulous client on board, so if you would like to chat with me about your own circumstances, please drop me a line. I will also consider an employed role with the RIGHT company (i.e. a supportive, appreciative, motivational, collaborative one), either in or outside of the food industry.

You can read my LinkedIn post and connect with me by clicking here –https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/old-fart-hire-rent-ian-pople/

My real CV is available on request.

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Is Danny dire?

Prince Harry seems to be a decent chap and Meghan is a very hot fine actress, those two aside I have little enthusiasm for the Royal Family.

Danny Baker also seems to be a decent chap. He’s funny, smart, inventive and a huge music buff. He’s also a football lover, a very readable journalist, a great broadcaster and an entertaining and eloquent raconteur. What I’m sure he’s not, is a racist.

We now live in an era of 24-hour information and super-connectedness. An era, hopefully, in which discrimination and racism are slowly being driven to the margins. With these two facts in mind, innocent or not, if you post a photo on the planet’s biggest social media platform portraying the new baby of the world’s best-loved mixed-race couple as a monkey…

It’s not like anybody would notice, Danny. You fucking idiot.

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My colonoscopy: A gut-wrenching tale packed with twists and turns

Photo: author’s own

At 9:00 this morning (3rd May 2019), my wife, Rachel, gleefully inserted a long plastic tube into my anus along with what seemed like a vat full of potent, fast-acting fluid.

Why? I hear you ask. No, it’s not the weird West Country sex-game some of you are imagining; today is my Bowel Cancer Screening day! (A word of advice to anyone who intends to help their friends or lovers with this delicate task: never proceed whilst uttering, “I’m going in dry”. This will only result in a strong clenching that takes several minutes to subside).

My cleansing irrigation now completed (I won’t go into detail…) Rachel whisked me off to the hospital, trying hard not to drive over too many bumps on the way. Why she found it necessary to put a rubber sheet on the car seat, I don’t know. Several times I had reassured her that after my explosive “movements” during the past hour, the only thing possibly still be inside me was the doctor’s wedding ring he claimed went missing during my prostate examination the previous September.

Twenty minutes after arriving, they checked my vital signs. Somehow, although only draped in a flimsy backless gown and lying on a couch in a foetal position while four women (including a menacing looking one armed with a camera attached to a hosepipe) stared ominously at my exposed arse, my blood pressure was still that of a world-class athlete.

They then offered me a tray of exotic-sounding drugs to ease the potentially uncomfortable experience; don’t ask me what they were – I only know the street names.

Not wishing to appear wimpy, I refused the narcotics and manfully instructed the menacing-looking nurse (the one still armed with a camera attached to a hosepipe but now also wearing a miners’ helmet with a lamp attached) to go ahead and “horse it in”. Which she did. From a distance of twelve feet. With a run-up.

The camera (and what felt like an accompanying cameraman) started winding its way around my colon. Refusing the drugs now felt like a terrible decision, especially as they forced me to watch the unfolding horror on the colour screen next to my bed. If nothing else, being stoned would have helped my rising anxiety as I was dreading the sight of a hideous, life-threatening tumour looming into view after every bend. But, to my relief, there was only mucus and shit (and, thankfully, no wedding rings)

It’s said that time flies when you’re having fun. I wasn’t, but before I could say “Dyno-Rod”, the credits on the screen started rolling, colour returned to my blanched knuckles, and with a sound like that of a champagne cork popping, my rectum was tubing-free and the ordeal was all over.

Thankfully, the nurses didn’t start clapping or high-fiving.

Joking aside, although the big-screen appearance of my insides won’t make this year’s Oscars and it certainly won’t go down as one of the more dignified experiences of my life, no one should ever underestimate the importance of this free procedure. It really could save your life.

I can now rest easy (for a while at least). They have given an important part of my anatomy a clean bill of health. This, and hearing the immortal words: “Mr Pople, you have a spectacular bowel”, made me happy that we still have such an amazing NHS in the UK.

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2018 – The Acoustic Egg Box Top 20 Albums Of The Year

In an annual tradition rapidly taking on as much importance as the Queen’s Christmas Message, remembering to remove the plastic bag containing the turkey giblets, and avoiding Mrs Brown and her Boys until they’ve all been imprisoned on a remote Scottish island without any form of communication, I bring you the first instalment of The Acoustic Egg Box Albums of the Year for 2018.

I’ve undoubtedly missed some wonderful records again this year and I actively encourage you to let me know what they are. I only have a finite amount of hours in a day and, generally speaking, if I’m not listening to music I’m reading about it so I genuinely rely on my many equally sociopathic friends on various social media platforms to keep me informed about things I might have overlooked.

Although they would undoubtedly have been high up in my chart, I haven’t included the posthumous Charles Bradley album “Black Velvet” as, out of the ten tracks, only three are new. Likewise, Primal Scream’s  “Give Out But Don’t Give Up: The Original Memphis Recordings” is exceptional but it’s not “new” as such and therefore can’t be included (my gaff, my rules!). Also, an honourable mention to those that fell just short of the Top 20: The Coral “Move Through The Dawn”; Janelle Monae “Dirty Computer”; Belle & Sebastian “How To Solve Our Human Problems”; Khruangbin “Con Todo El Mundo”; James Hunter Six “Whatever It Takes”; Jonathan Wilson “Rare Birds; Corduroy “Return of the Fabric Four”

My other favourite things this year were:

Gig : Georgie Fame – Rosemoor Gardens, Torrington 25th May

Film: BlacKkKlansman

TV Show: A Very English Scandal

Book: Stuart Cosgrove’s “Memphis ’68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul”

Disappointments of the year for me were the new Suede album “The Blue Hour”, which I’ve persevered long and hard with but just can’t get into, the fabulous John Grant’s “Love Is Magic” which is just hard work and not up to his usual very high standard. And Morrissey.

Anyway, enough of this bollocks, here’s the Top 20 – a Spotify playlist of which you can listen to below.

20: JONATHAN JEREMIAH – Good Day (PIAS)

Previously unheard of by me, it came as a surprise that “Good Day” is North London-based singer/ songwriter Jonathan Jeremiah’s fourth studio album. Jeremiah possesses a warm, soulful voice which has more than a hint of John Martyn about it. His voice is perfectly showcased on the album’s title track, a gorgeous slice of summery soul which was the opening single and, for me, one of the records of the year. Other album highlights include “Deadweight”, a seven-minute epic, apparently inspired by the Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra classic “Some Velvet Morning” and “U-Bahn (It’s Not Too Late For Us)”, a track that sounds like a lost ’70s classic that Glen Campbell never recorded. 

19: TARA MILTON WITH THE BOY AND MOON – Serpentine Waltz (Boy & Moon Recordings)

A handsome, edgy, talented musician and songwriter, Tara Milton should have been a major star. In 1991 he was the bassist and singer with Mod rockers, Five Thirty, who recorded one classic album, “Bed”, before disbanding acrimoniously shortly after its release. In the twenty years since Milton’s second band, The Nubiles, split, the only hint of him resurfacing was the occasional rumour that he was working on new material. Earlier this year, happily, those rumours proved to be true when “Serpentine Waltz” was born; and what a triumphant return from the wilderness it was. With shades of Dylan, Drake and “22 Dreams” era Weller, he has treated us to nine lush, beautifully crafted tracks. From album opener, the cinematic “Assassins” through the gorgeous, late-night jazz-club feel of  “Getting It On With The Man In The Moon” and the exceptional, existential two-part epic “Double Yellow (Lines 1 and 2)”, Serpentine Waltz is without a doubt the comeback album of the year – just don’t make us wait another 20 years Tara!

* You can read a full album review by clicking on the brilliant Monkey Picks blog here.

18: WOODEN SHJIPS – V. (Thrill Jockey)

V. is Wooden Shjips (named after the Jefferson Airplane/ Crosby Stills & Nash track – adding the extra “j” to make themselves sound Swedish!) fifth album to date.  Across forty-three minutes and six tracks, in V., the San Franciscan psychedelic space-rockers have, at least for them,  released a more accessible record than their previous efforts which, especially on album closer “Ride On”, is almost stately in places. That said, the album is far from sedate. The cracking opening track, “Eclipse”, kicks things off with a driving, motorik beat underpinning echoey, Stone Roses-esque vocals, while the shimmering “Staring At The Sun” sounds like a superb reimagining of Buffalo Springfield’s classic “For What It’s Worth”. If it emerged slap bang in the middle of 1967 V. would still sound great which only enhances its credentials as one of the best rock albums of 2018.

17: STONE FOUNDATION – Everybody, Anyone (100% Records)

The hardest working British band around, have followed up last year’s excellent Top 30 album “Street Rituals” (AEB 2017 No.10)  with another accomplished set of funky, soulful, grooves. “Everybody, Anyone” is the band’s eighth studio album in just over thirteen years – a period in which they’ve toured relentlessly and gained more fans (including a certain Mr Weller) with each release.  Heavyweight guests on this album include former Style Councillors, Mick Talbot and Steve White; Dr Robert from The Blow Monkeys; singer/ songwriter Kathryn Williams and legendary Average White Band guitarist Hamish Stuart.  Best tracks; rich with brass and strings, the sultry,  uplifting seven-minute groover, “Standing On The Top” and the gorgeous, lilting “Don’t Walk Away” featuring Kathryn Williams. As good as their recorded output is, the band need to be seen live as the obvious love and passion for what they do shines through like a big, funky beacon. For me, their gig at Bristol’s Thekla in November was one of the best, and most enjoyable of the year.    

16: SPIRITUALIZED – And Nothing Hurt (Bella Union)

After surviving liver failure,  a recent bout of double pneumonia and years of rampant “self-medication”, praise be that Jason Pierce is still with us let alone releasing arguably his best work since 1997’s classic, “Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space”. “And Nothing Hurt” was, apparently, recorded alone in the spare room of his apartment with “no one on the record being in the same place at the same time”; some achievement given his state of health. Of the nine tracks on the album, only two are uptempo, “On The Sunshine” and “The Morning After”, the rest feature Pierce’s fragile vocals backed by heavenly choirs, dense orchestration, psychedelic synths and lullaby melodies whilst on country-tinged ballad “Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go” he even doffs a cap towards early ’70s Stones. As with all Spiritualized records, “And Nothing Hurt” is, still thankfully, the aural equivalent of being half asleep in a warm bath whilst a flickering candle casts occasionally unnerving shadows on the walls.

15: LEON BRIDGES – Good Thing (Columbia)

Leon Bridges 2015 début album “Coming Home” (AEB 2015 No.19) was a reverent homage to the great soul singers of the ’60s. “Good Thing”, however, whilst retaining many traditional “soul” elements, sees Bridges move towards a more contemporary sound,  albeit a contemporary sound rooted in the ’80s & ’90s than the late noughties. “If It Feels Good (Then It Must be)” enters Pharell territory; “You Don’t Know” has Nile Rodgers’ influence running through it; opening single, the brilliant “Bad, Bad News”, is a swinging, jazzy number and “Beyond” is one of the most heartfelt ballads you’ll hear this year. It will be interesting to see which direction this talented, 29-year-old Texan takes next.

14: INSECURE MEN – Insecure Men (Fat Possum) 

When Saul Adamczewski, the songwriter and newly clean former heroin-addict from perennial miserablists Fat White Family, joined up with his old friend Ben Romans-Hopcraft, frontman of pop-soul outfit, Childhood, (“Universal High” AEB No.5 2017) to form Insecure Men, the outcome was far from certain. However, the resulting, self-titled album is, on the surface at least, a tuneful delight awash with echoey vocals, loungey exotica, squelchy synths and the occasional Bontempi organ underpinning off-kilter easy-listening melodies. Scratch just beneath the surface though and you will discover an incongruous lyrical bleakness running through many of the album’s eleven songs, especially “Mekong Glitter” (about Gary Glitter), “The Saddest Man In Penge” (a painful memoirs), “Cliff Has Left the Building” and the heartbreaking “Whitney Houston & I”. “Insecure Men” is definitely one of the year’s unexpected treasures.

13: VILLAGERS – The Art Of Pretending To Swim (Domino)

Conor O’Brien, the driving force behind Dublin’s Villagers has had a busy year. Not only has he released the most accessible and sonically interesting Villagers album to date, but he also co-wrote and produced a track for Paul Weller’s current LP. Maybe spreading his wings is the reason that Villagers’ latest effort has a more eclectic feel to it, with elements of electronica weaving interesting and often unexpected textures through many of the tracks.  Always melodically strong, O’Brien’s songwriting on “The Art Of….” has taken on a greater maturity with “faith” being a central theme, especially evident on the album’s best track “Trick Of The Light” where he writes “If I see a sign in the sky tonight / Nobody’s gonna tell me it’s a trick of the light / May never come but I’m willing to wait / What can I say? I’m a man of the faith”.

12: JOSH ROUSE – Love In The Modern Age (Yep Roc)

Josh Rouse is one of my favourite singer/songwriters and yet, despite “Love In the Modern Age” being his twelfth album in twenty years, is virtually unknown to the casual music fan. So, before I start this mini-review of his current LP, here’s a plea – if you love “proper” songs and don’t know his work, start with 2003’s “Under Cold Blue Stars” and then work backwards and forwards from there. “Love In The Modern Age” is superb, but it’s the least “Josh Rouse” album he’s ever released. Goodbye acoustic Americana tinged pop-folk and hello shiny ’80s production values and synths. It’s a supremely catchy album with earworms at every turn, no more so than on opening track “Salton Sea” with its electronic drum patterns, vocodered vocals and a guitar riff reminiscent of The Cure’s “A Forest”. Other album highlights are the title track, and “Businessman”; two perfect slices of smooth, retro-pop, both of which could have been inspired by The Blue Nile. A marmite album for sure, but I am a sucker for some good old-fashioned synth-pop, a well-placed saxophone and a drum machine so it’s definitely a “yes” from me!

11: ISRAEL NASH – Lifted (Loose) 

Back in 2015, Nash’s wonderful fourth album “Silver Season” (AEB 2015 No.3) was my introduction to this enigmatic artist. Three years on, and although the Neil Young/ CSNY influences are still very much in evidence, they have also been joined by celestial Beach Boys harmonies and a production that gives this suite of expansive, widescreen songs room to grow and breathe – “Looking Glass” being the prime example. If you’ve ever wondered what War On Drugs would sound like with added smatterings of woozy pedal steel, a sprinkle of psychedelic space dust and produced by a hippie Phil Spector, you’ll probably find “Lifted” fits your bill.

10: THE FERNWEH – The Fernweh (Skeleton Key Records)

In January, BBC6Music got behind The Fernweh’s excellent début single, “The Liar” – a record that for thirty seconds sounds like a lost Joy Division single but then the vocals kick in and it takes a left turn before veering off down a sunny, psychedelic country lane. In March the second single “Is This Man Bothering You”, a rockier number that tips its hat to “John Barleycorn” era Traffic, followed whilst in June, the band cemented their place in my heart with the release of “The Next Time Around”, a song with a melody and vocal so pretty and timeless you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’d resurrected a lost Syd Barrett penned Peter & Gordon track from 1964.  In fact, dotted throughout the album there are subtle ’60s folk and psychedelia influences with nods to Fairport Convention, The Zombies and latter-era Beatles.  In 2017, my album of the year was The Clientele’s wonderful “Music For The Age Of Miracles (AEB 2017 No.1) and the biggest praise that I can give “The Fernweh” is that they have made a superb record that inhabits the same woozy, autumnal sphere, conjuring up a bygone, sepia-toned, age when bonfires, bicycles and birdsong were kings.  

9: J.P. BIMENI & THE BLACK BELTS – Free Me (Tucxone Records)

On his multi-cultural debut album, “Free Me”, London-based, Burundian born J.P. Bimeni, along with his superb Spanish backing band, The Black Belts, has absolutely nailed the unmistakable sound of classic ’60s soul. Having been shot, poisoned and witnessed the murder of several school friends, Bimeni managed to flee his country’s civil war as a refugee in the early ’90s, bringing with him a deep well of life experience to draw on. Because of these experiences, you know that when he says: “When I sing, it feels like I’m cleansing myself; music is a way for me to forget” he means it. All great soul singers have a certain undefinable gift that sets them apart from “normal” vocalists and on “Pain Is The Name Of Your Game”, “Honesty Is A Luxury” or album highlight, “I Miss You”, you realise that Bimeni has that gift in bucket loads. With the loss of soul heavyweights Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley in the last couple of years, J.P. Bimeni has the voice, the looks, the band and the songs to be a huge future star.

8: GRUFF RHYS – Babelsberg (Rough Trade)  

Former Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys is one of the most eccentric, but utterly brilliant, British songwriters of his generation. On this, his fifth solo studio album, Rhys has followed up 2014’s “American Interior” (AEB 2014 No.19) (a concept album about 18th Century Welsh explorer John Evans!) with a set of mini-masterpieces – all enhanced by a seventy-two piece orchestra. Opening track, the brilliant “Frontier Man” is an acerbic “Rhinestone Cowboy”- the sort of record that Lee Hazlewood might have made if he’d grown of in the Rhondda Valley. The catchy, “Limited Edition Heart” is as lyrically daft as it gets (“I’m not interested in your limited edition lies, limited edition porcupines, I’m just interested in your limited edition heart”); “Take That Call” is a string-laden AOR delight lifted straight from the ’70s, and album closer, “Selfies In The Sunset”, a duet with Lily Cole, is a love song but with the bizarre a backdrop of impending nuclear Armageddon. No one writes quite like Gruff Rhys which is why he remains this country’s most unique musical maverick.

7: MICHAEL NAU & THE MIGHTY THREAD – Michael Nau & The Mighty Thread (Full Time Hobby)

In my book, anyone who makes music that sounds uncannily like “Nixon” era Lambchop, and there is plenty on this record that ticks that very agreeable box,  is worthy of further investigation. When the gorgeous, season-defining “Can’t Take One” floated from the radio back during our long, hot summer, my musical love affair with this previously unknown artist began. Nau writes beautiful, textured pop music of indefinable but classic provenance. The album’s opening track, “Less Than Positive”, has Cash and Orbison undertones which give the track a richness and depth often lost these days due to unnecessary over-production. Throughout the album’s eleven tracks, the lush, summery arrangements give it a warm, soulful feel; “On Ice” and “What’s A Loon” being prime examples. Swooning pedal steel, slightly off-beat vibraphone and Nau’s languid, comforting voice add to the narcotic ambience which, by the end of final track “Smudge” will have calmed even the most irascible mood.

6: FATHER JOHN MISTY – God’s Favourite Customer (Sub Pop)

Those of you hoping to hear an electroclash dance anthem or a jazz-fusion wig-out will be disappointed, as this is an unmistakably FJM album. Although the former Fleet Fox isn’t known for his three-minute party anthems, “God’s Favourite Customer” takes on an even more melancholy tone than his previous releases, feeling somewhat like an aural morning-after-the-night-before, narcotic hangover. Starting with the romantic, love-drunk feel of career-best, “I Love You Honeybear” (AEB No.1 2015) through last year’s majestically sprawling, “Pure Comedy” (AEB No.11 2017) his current effort plays out like a cryptic break-up album and is (possibly?) the third part of an exceptional, personal journey, trilogy. Self-confessional, self-absorbed and occasionally self-loathing, Tillman’s beautifully crafted and elegantly composed songs resonate with emotion; they move in an orbit inhabited by the classic works of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, early ’70s era Elton John et al. If you need proof of this, listen to the best track on “God’s Favourite Customer”, the exquisite, piano-accompanied minor-chord ballad, “The Palace”, and after the pleading last line “I’m In Way Over My Head”, fades out, let me know I’m wrong…….

5: TRACEY THORN: Record (Unmade) 

I love Tracey Thorn. She is the rarest of beasts in an entertainment world full of professionally incompetent narcissists – a supremely talented yet disarmingly modest and genuinely charming lady. Not only has she been involved with some of the greatest pop records of the past forty years, penned one of the best music autobiographies ever (Bedsit Disco Queen) and is currently the writer of a witty, intelligent monthly column for The New Statesman, but in 2018 Thorn has just made the best solo album of her long, distinguished career. “Record”  (2012 Christmas album Tinsel & Lights apart) is her first release since 2010 and is also her most successful solo effort to date.  A synth-pop tour de force, “Record”, in her own words, comprises “nine feminist bangers”, the most strident of which is the menacing “Sister”, an eight-minute collaboration with Corinne Bailey-Rae and Warpaint’s pounding rhythm section. With the opening lines “Don’t mess with me/ don’t hug my babies/ I’ll come for you/ you’ll find you’ve bitten off/ More than you can chew” Thorn certainly seems like she means business! Although lyrically the album appears disarmingly confessional at times, the catchy, uplifting Human League style electro-pop of album opener “Queen” is a rumination on what-ifs (“What happened if we never met?/ If I’d just ignored/ Those sliding doors”). The bright, breezy “Guitar” hints at an adolescent crush teaching her about music as well as love; “Babies” is a humorous take on not wanting/ wanting kids and the ensuing travails of motherhood and “Go”, is a melancholy ballad about those same “babies” then leaving home for University. Very few artists make intelligent “pop” music these days and, sadly, Tracey Thorn may well be a member of the last generation doing it this well.

4: ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS – Look Now (Concord)

In a career spanning over forty years and (including collaborative efforts) forty-three albums encompassing genres as diverse as pop, jazz, country, rock’n’roll and reggae, you can hardly accuse the former Declan MacManus of being lazy or lacking in diversity. “Look Now” is Costello’s first album for five years and his first with The Imposters for ten, it is also his most melodic and emotionally satisfying work since the stunning 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach, “Painted From Memory”. No surprises then that Bacharach co-wrote and played piano on album highlights, “Don’t Look Now”, “He’s Given Me Things” and “Photographs Can Lie” although his influence can also be found throughout, especially on the sublime “Stripping Paper”. Dear old Burt isn’t the only living-legend involved with “Look Now” though, as Carole King also contributes a co-write on the upbeat stomping soul of “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter”. As one of the most talented and best-loved songwriters that this country has ever produced, it came as a shock to many when news broke earlier in the year that the sixty-four-year old Costello was having treatment for an aggressive form of cancer. Hopefully, the treatment he’s received has resulted in a cure because on the strength of this wonderful record, there is still plenty of creative life left in the old dog yet.

3: R W HEDGES – THE HUNTERS IN THE SNOW (Wonderfulsound)

In an era when most of what passes as pop music is often generic, derivative overproduced tat with not even so much as a memorable melody to rescue it, it is always a huge pleasure when I discover new British talent who can still combine great tunes with intelligent, thoughtful lyrics. RW Hedges, is in fact, a collaboration combining (Roy) Hedges and Luca Nieri, old school friends now working in tandem to create music born of their passion and love for songs from the classic American songbook.  Whilst the influences of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer or Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe may lurk knowingly in the background of the nine songs on this delicate and, in places, achingly beautiful album, there are also harmonies and melodies that would sit gracefully on any classic Everly Brothers album. The opening two tracks, the yearning, plaintive “Out Of Your Rain” and “Night Owl” are both imbued with a “Roy Orbison meets Richard Hawley and a “True Love Ways” era Buddy Holly in a smoky gin bar”, vibe. “Some Girl” opens like “Close To You” before settling into a lovelorn lament about a man struggling to find a good woman, before the superb opening single, “Signal Man”, offers a change of tack with a stunning song based on the Charles Dickens ghost story of the same name. Anyway, I hope I’ve given you a flavour of what to expect from “The Hunters In The Snow”, however I’m not going to run through every track as I’m hoping to interview Roy and Luca at some point soon and I’m sure they will offer up a more personal insight into how some of the songs were conceived. Before that happens though, do yourselves a favour and take a chance on this exceptional record – you really won’t be disappointed.

2: TRACYANNE & DANNY – Tracyanne & Danny (Merge)

When the lead singer from one of my favourite bands of the last twenty years teamed up with the man who released my favourite album of 2012, there was always a likelihood that something special might happen. It did. This beguiling, ’60s tinged eponymous début from Glasgow’s Tracyanne (Campbell), of Camera Obscura and Bristol’s Danny (Coughlan) who is, to all intents and purposes, Crybaby is VERY special. Much like the RW Hedges record, there is a gentle, timeless quality to this album’s ten Edwyn Collins produced songs on which Coughlan’s Morrissey meets Orbison croon dovetails perfectly with Campbell’s sweet Caledonian country-soul voice. This combination (along with a cameo from Collins himself) is no more evident than on the album’s greatest track, Alabama – a warm, pedal steel infused tribute to Campbell’s best friend, Camera Obscura’s Carey Lander, who died of cancer in 2015 aged just thirty-three. Although Ms Campbell with her unmistakable vocal style takes centre stage on most tracks, Coughlan delivers the goods on “Jacqeline”, a mournful Leonard Cohen style ballad about love gone wrong “Jacqueline/ Heart-breaking porcelain/ Cursed with a winning smile/ Tears of a crocodile”.  With Camera Obscura on what we are led to believe is an uncertain hiatus, this stunning record is everything, and more, that fans of the band could have been hoped for. Tracyanne Campbell is most certainly back and in fine form and the great news is that in Danny Coughlan she’s found a new and very talented partner in crime.

1: PAUL WELLER: True Meanings (Parlophone)

As he’s my biggest (living) musical hero, I find it difficult to write objectively about Paul Weller – not only that, it’s difficult to add anything original when writing about one of the few remaining, and most documented great British rock icons still performing. Through his various incarnations, Weller, even at the arse end of the ’80s when it seemed that he was about to become a burnt-out footnote (an important, influential burnt-out footnote mind you), his songs and lyrics continued to be as important to me as they ever had. Happily, with the UK release of his self titled, solo début album in 1992, the great man resurrected himself and, although unknown to any of us at that time, was about to enter, Lazarus like, the most productive period of his career. “True Meanings” is now Weller’s fifteenth solo album and his third in as many years, coming hot on the heels of 2017’s superb “A Kind Revolution”, (AEB No.4 2017) and “Saturns Pattern” from 2015,(AEB No.18 2015). Released to coincide with his sixtieth birthday, this album is, without doubt, one of Weller’s most accomplished and satisfying records, however, anyone expecting an angry, politically charged rant will be somewhat disappointed. A largely acoustic, modestly paced record replete with orchestral flourishes and string arrangements courtesy of The Unthanks’ Hannah Peel, “True Meanings” is aligned more to the pastoral folk of Wild Wood and 22 Dreams than, say, the more experimental and rockier “Saturns Pattern” or “Wake Up the Nation”. Although notoriously a man in supreme control, Weller has given up co-songwriting/ vocal duties on four of the album’s fourteen tracks. Villagers Conor O’Brien takes a co-writing and vocal credit on soulful opener “The Soul Searchers” and Erland Cooper of Erland & The Carnival is a co-writer on “Bowie”, reportedly written the day after the titular star died, the bucolic, folky “Wishing Well” and album closer, the gorgeous, reflective “White Horses”.  It is, however, on the album’s self-penned ballads that Weller shines, tracks that see him ruminating on, and coming to terms with, his advancing years. “Gravity”, (“Find the child inside of me/ This rusty key will set him free”) written back in 2011 is simply one of the most beautiful songs he has ever written and is the track that the album is reportedly based around. “Glide” (“Glide, glide/ Through a portal to my youth/ When the stillness of silence/ Bought its undisputed truth”) is a beautiful, dreamy lullaby whilst “May Love Travel With You” (“Wherever your mind wanders/ While coming through the years/ May love travel with you/ Forever and without fear”) is an orchestral, soaring, almost hymnal epic. I did state at the outset of this review that it’s difficult for me to write objectively about Paul Weller, but, in my defence, whoever had the supreme talent to release something this good in 2018 would be looking at the top spot as this album is an absolute masterpiece.     

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Don’t Just Sit There – Say Something!

Below is an article I posted on my Facebook page. Writing it was a cathartic exercise and, due to its intensely personal nature, I thought long and hard about whether I released it into the wild. I’m so glad I did, as the response was overwhelming. The most wonderful thing is that a few people have taken the first brave steps after reading it. This is what I wrote:

On August 2nd 2018, it was exactly 40 years since my dad died. He was only 38. I was just about to turn 15.

This milestone anniversary, combined with the recent death of a childhood friend, has prompted me to share my story with you. After reading it, if just one of you finds the courage to seek help for your problems, it will be the best thing I’ve ever written.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here goes…

At some point between my parents’ bitter divorce and my dad’s death a few weeks before starting my last year at secondary school, I got lost. So lost that I can’t remember that school year at all. I must have taken exams as I’ve got a bunch of O’Levels but I don’t remember taking them.

Being a sensitive child caught up in the middle of their imploding marriage was tough. Even though I was living through a shitfest I obviously didn’t want my parents to separate, but when my dad did move out, it was a relief. At least there were no more rows I had to pretend not to hear or stony silences I had to sit through. Sadly though, this relief was short-lived, and things were about to get far worse.

During the following months, I had to cope with my mother’s two suicide attempts. I was also the lucky recipient of a letter she left for me after “going out for a drink with a friend”. The letter stated that she couldn’t cope anymore and had left home, never to return. My dad had already left and now my mum had gone too. The pain I felt from reading the last line of her letter: “never forget your mum”, remains the single most horrific moment of my entire life. It was so mind-shattering that for a long time I firmly believed that anyone I cared about would always leave me.

In the years that followed, my mother would often comment to friends, family and anyone who would listen that I was “just like my father”. Despite the smile that accompanied her words, it wasn’t a positive statement. Her resentment, although she didn’t realise it, was palpable.

I was now at an age when the emotional turmoil I’d suffered as a kid was about to collide with hormonal teenage angst. The self-doubt and debilitating lack of confidence I felt were horrible. I spent what should have been a joyous and carefree time in my life worrying about, well, everything. At least when I had a panic attack, I felt something. But mostly, there was lethargy and numbness.

Sadly, I barely knew my dad. Over the years, my young mind had blanked out any essence of who he was or what he meant to me. I’m not a psychiatrist, but I guess this was an attempt at mental self-preservation. In fact, I did such a good job on myself that on the day he died, although I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news, I felt nothing. I didn’t even go to his funeral. This still saddens me so much.

As my formative years were such a massive psychological disaster, getting too close to anyone as an adult was a terrifying prospect. The trail of disastrous and broken relationships left in my wake is testament to this. I’ve also suffered several bouts of depression and anxiety, and I still have a tendency to self-destruct at the drop of a hat. Although I’ve dealt with many of my issues, my godlike comedy-genius and confident persona hide are still hiding the real me. Imposter syndrome? Check me out!

My reason for sharing this very personal story is simple. As I’m a massive coward, if I can find the strength to seek help and talk about my problems, I know you can too. When I was in a very dark place, just before my 40th birthday, I plucked up the courage to speak to someone. I was in denial, drinking too much and left things later than I should have. I was desperate and, I suspect, not far away from chucking myself off a tall building. I talked to my doctor and was then recommended an amazing counsellor. She listened and listened and then listened some more.

Gradually, through her patience and skill (and lots of my tears), I came to understand why I felt like I did. She gave me some tools and strategies to help me cope with these feelings. I still have my dark moments, they will never completely leave, but Rachel, my rock, is always there for me when I need emotional support.

Never feel that you have to suffer in silence because I promise you there is ALWAYS someone out there ready to listen and help. Take that horribly difficult first fucking step, you will thank me later.

RIP dad – I wish things could have been different x