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 without any form of communication on a remote Scottish island, 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.     

Don’t Just Sit There – Say Something!

Warning! This is not my usual unfathomable nonsense about music or films, it’s the unedited version of something very personal that I posted on Facebook on Thursday. I expected to be metaphorically patted on the head and told to have a little sit down and a nice cuppa, however, the response has been overwhelming. It has also given me a renewed sense that most people are genuinely kind and loving which is an amazing feeling.

On August 2nd 2018, it was exactly 40 years ago that my dad died. He was just 38 and I, a boy of 14.

So, this particularly noteworthy anniversary, combined with the death of a childhood friend last week, has prompted me to share something with you, and if, after reading the following story it gives just one of my friends enough courage to, at the very least, just speak to someone about their problems, I’ll be a very happy man.

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

Somewhere in between their bitter divorce several years earlier and my dad’s death just a few weeks before I started my last year at secondary school, a large part of me had become cast adrift and lost in a horrible and oppressive fog.

With subtle, probably unwitting, coercion from my mother combined with a large dollop of hormonal teenage angst, my self-confidence during what should have been a joyful, carefree existence at that age, was largely replaced by a heady mixture of terror and numbness and the very essence of who or what my dad was had been systematically erased from my young mind.

In the middle of their imploding marriage, and soon after my dad left the family home, in the space of a few months I had to deal with the reality of my mother’s two suicide attempts and, if that wasn’t enough, I was also the lucky recipient of a letter she left behind after “going out for a drink” one evening which stated that she couldn’t cope and had left home, never to return. Bearing in mind that my dad had already gone, the mental anguish that I suffered from reading the last line of that letter: “never forget your mum”,  remains the single most horrific moment of my entire life. All I can remember thinking for years afterwards was “why is everyone that I care about trying to leave me”?

At the time of these events, I was still only about 11 and how I coped during that period is anyone’s guess, so, on the day that my dad died, although I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing, I felt nothing due to the psychological wall of steel that I’d used as a coping tool during those intervening years

Because those formative years were such a massive, emotional disaster for me, I’ve suffered several bouts of depression and a trail of broken relationships because being too close to anyone was a terrifying prospect. Although I’ve mostly dealt with these issues now, many of you will be surprised to learn that despite my outwardly confident persona, I live my life beset by crippling self-doubt – I’ve just learned to hide it well.

My point and reasons for sharing this very personal story are just to say that there is hope for anyone who’s suffering. When I was at my lowest ebb, just before my 40th birthday, I plucked up the courage to speak to people – first a doctor, then a brilliant counsellor. I was desperate and, I suspect, not far away from chucking myself off a tall building, but she listened and listened and then listened some more. Gradually, through her patience and skill (and lots of my tears), I started to understand why I felt like I did and she gave me the tools to help me cope with these feelings. I still have my “moments” of course, (my amazing and patient wife Rachel knows this only far too well!) but, if I hadn’t had the courage to take those first difficult steps and open myself up to someone, who knows what would have happened. Don’t suffer in silence

RIP dad – I wish things could have been different x

2017 – The Acoustic Egg Box Top 20 Albums Of The Year (Part Two: 10-1)

So here we are then, the ten best albums of 2017 as decided by the sole judging panel that is The Acoustic Egg Box. It was great to see new acts like Bette Smith and Childhood releasing music that bodes well for their future success, an outfit as hard-working and talented as Stone Foundation FINALLY getting some recognition for their many years of hard graft, the sensational return of one of the UK’s very best songwriters, Michael Head and established acts including this years worthy winners, The Clientele,  still making exceptional music after many years in “the business” and despite not always getting the commercial success that their talents surely deserve. The one sad note though, is that despite, without any doubt, having her best years still ahead, Sharon Jones will never get the opportunity to release another record – and that is a real tragedy.

Anyway, as it’s New Year’s Eve and I have a surfeit of gin secreted around the house, I will bid you a fond farewell and hope that 2018 brings you everything your music loving heart desires (as long as it’s not a new Sam Smith album in which case I hope you develop a painful, unsightly boil on the end of your nose).

 

10: STONE FOUNDATION – Street Rituals (100% Records)

From their meeting nearly twenty years ago, Stone Foundation’s main men, Neil’s Jones and Sheasby, have, with the release of their seventh and career-best studio album, “Street Rituals”, finally seen their incredible hard-work and talent translated into long overdue recognition and with it, their best-selling record to date.  It also helps, of course, that they’ve garnered the help and support of a big fan – a certain Mr Paul Weller. Street Rituals was recorded at Weller’s Black Barn Studio and the great man also produced, played and sang on the album, most notably on the soulful “Your Balloon Is Rising”. Along with PW, other notable contributors to the record include the vocals of Stax legend William Bell on “Strange People” and the amazing Bettye LaVette on “Seasons Of Change”. Having watched them live at the Fleece & Firkin in Bristol earlier in the year, I can honestly say that I’ve rarely seen a band look so grateful to, and in tune with, their audience. Great work gents – you deserve all the accolades you are getting.

9: BETTE SMITH – Jetlagger (Big Legal Mess Records)  

With the sad death of Sharon Jones in November 2016, the soul music world lost one of its greatest female singers and, as is often the case when we lose a true-great, there remains a void which is often difficult, if not impossible to fill. However, when I saw the video for Bette Smith’s storming first single “Manchild” back in the summer, it didn’t take a genius to realise that this was someone with the potential to fill Ms Jones’ very talented shoes. Everything about this young lady hollers star-quality; from her flamboyant wardrobe, her larger than life personality and a big voice that just makes you sit up and listen. Bette is coming over to the UK in early in 2018 to play a couple of dates in Manchester and London so I suggest you get to see her now so you can say “I was there”! If you would like to read the full review of “Jetlagger” that I wrote back in November, you can get there by clicking here.

8: MAVIS STAPLES – If All I Was Was Black (Anti-)

With a magnificent solo career of nearly fifty years behind her, Mavis Staples, now seventy-eight, is enjoying something of a vibrant, 21st-Century rejuvenation. This renaissance, plus an unlikely alliance with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who has co-written and produced three of her last four albums, is no fluke either, as he has developed a knack for coaxing out some great performances from this legend of soul and gospel. Although “If All I Was Was Black”, an album very much made for these days of political and racial difficulty, is at times a sparse and quite dark record, it is still brimming with her trademark messages of hope and redemption, especially on the lovely “Peaceful Dream” and the superb title track on which this amazing lady tells us “Sometimes I have regrets, but I ain’t done yet”. We sincerely hope not Mavis because the world needs more people like you, not less.

7: MICHAEL HEAD & THE RED ELASTIC BAND – Adios Senor Pussycat (Violette)

If you ever see a poll listing the greatest British songwriters of the past few decades and Liverpool’s ridiculously underrated Michael Head isn’t on it, it’s not a list you should take seriously. As former frontman of The Pale Fountains, Shack and The Strands, Head has been responsible for some truly great albums (check out Shack’s “HMS Fable” or The Strands “The Magical World Of The Strands” if you need proof) and the great news is that Adios Senor Pussycat, his first record for eleven years, sees him returning straight to the top-table once again. Album opener, the bittersweet Scouse Americana of “Picasso” kicks us off in fine style, offering up a sense of melancholy that pervades much of the rest of the album. Other songs of note include “Winter Turns To Spring”, a fragile beauty of a ballad; the Velvet Underground channelling “Queen Of All Saints”; a great version of Scottish standard “Wild Mountain Thyme” and the breezy album closer “Adios Amigo”. Let’s hope that “Adios Senor Pussycat” is the herald of a golden new Mick Head era because when people keep citing Ed Sheeran as a great songwriter, you know that this man’s hugely talented presence is desperately needed.

6: PETE FIJ/ TERRY BICKERS – We Are Millionaires (Broadcast Recordings)

Every year an album comes out of nowhere and completely takes me by surprise. In 2016 it was the self-titled début from Man & The Echo (AEB No.6) and this year it’s “We Are Millionaires”, the magnificent second album from former Adorable singer Pete Fij and ex-House of Love guitarist Terry Bickers. Put your dancing shoes down for a minute, as this is very much a record to sit with and wallow in; a record beautifully crafted by two men who have undoubtedly had plenty of hard-knock life experience and who need to share with us their pain and heartbreak. However, despite the largely downbeat feel of the album’s nine tracks, their intricate and beautifully crafted lyrics are imbued with a wry sense of humour. If you take, for instance, the opening couplet on “Mary Celeste”, “Like a crossword puzzle without a clue, there is no working out you”, you get a feeling that a knowing smile is never far away. If you’d like to read a little more about “We Are Millionaires” and hear the single “Love’s Going To Get You”, my full review of the album is available by clicking here. 

5: CHILDHOOD – Universal High (Marathon Artists)

In 2014, Childhood released their début album, “Lacuna”. Whilst it was by no means a poor effort, it lacked identity and, despite some favourable critical reviews, it drifted away into a fog containing other bands all trying to plough the same musical furrow. Fast forward to the Spring of 2017 and the transformation in the band has been astonishing; not only did they release my single of the year with the summery, shimmering soul of “California Light”, but also completely reinvented themselves and released the coherent and superbly crafted pop-soul album “Universal High”.  If the band can continue to evolve and lead singer Ben Romans-Hopcraft continues to hone his wonderful falsetto and write more songs as catchy and melodic as the ten tracks on this fantastic album then it surely won’t be long before they are major stars. If you would like to hear the brilliant “California Light” and also read the comprehensive review of “Universal High” that I wrote back in August, you can get there by clicking here.

4: PAUL WELLER – A Kind Revolution (Parlophone)

When you’ve been in one of the best British bands of all time, written several of the greatest songs ever to grace the UK pop charts during a career spanning over forty years and are fast approaching your 60th birthday you might think it’s time to start putting your feet up but not if you’re Paul Weller and still bursting with ideas and ambition. “A Kind Revolution” may be Weller’s thirteenth solo studio album but he continues to defy the critics as, despite its eclecticism, it’s also one of his most cohesive and satisfying. Opening track, the PP Arnold and Madeleine bell backed “Woo Se Mama” is a full-on funky wig-out and certainly the most upbeat track on the album.  This is followed by the Bowie-esque fuzzy psych of “Nova” and then three stunning tracks in a row; an exceptional and beautiful ballad, “Long Long Road”,  the jazzy, lilting “She Moves With The Fayre” which features vocals and trumpet flourishes from Robert Wyatt and could have been lifted from a Style Council album and finally in this superb trio of songs, “The Cranes Are Back”, which is possibly one of the most soulful and affecting songs he’s ever written. Elsewhere, “Hopper” is a Beatley tribute to painter Edward Hopper; “New York”, complete with honking horns and traffic noise is a groovy grower about the Big Apple; Boy George shares vocal duties on the brilliant six-minute Balearic beats of “One Tear”; “Satellite Kid” is a cracking swampy blues number and last but not least, the waltz-time album closer “The Impossible Idea” is classic Weller – a song which, he stated in an interview with Q Magazine, is about him still having “this mad, impossible idea that music can make a difference”. Well Mr Weller, on the strength of your current output, I think it’s safe to say that you’re still doing a hell of a job with that task!

3: SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS – Soul Of A Woman (Daptone) 

Back in 2014 I reviewed Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings excellent fifth studio album “Give The People What They Want”, the release of which was delayed because Sharon had undergone treatment for cancer. However, the great news was that the treatment was working and so she and the band continued to tour and record with the fervour and enthusiasm that was always generated by this always positive lady. Sadly though, it turned out that all wasn’t well; Sharon’s cancer returned and, despite a brave battle during which she continued gigging and sometimes working from her hospital bed to complete the recording of “Soul Of A Woman”, she sadly passed away on November 18th, 2016 aged just sixty. As a tribute, this exceptional album was released on the first anniversary of her death and although sentimentality could conceivably cloud any subjective reviews that might be written about it, it’s so good that it would be considered no less of a classic if she was still with us.  I wrote a full critique of the album only a few weeks ago, so if you would like to read it and watch the videos for the singles “Matter Of Time”, “Sail On” and “Call On God”, please click on the link here. 

2: JUDY DYBLE/ ANDY LEWIS – Summer Dancing (Acid Jazz)

Before I get taken to task over it, in the last line of my full review of “Summer Dancing” which I wrote back in August, I stated quite confidently that “if there’s a better record released this year, I’ll happily eat my trousers” because it’s so good and I truly didn’t expect to hear anything better during the rest of 2017 (and in most other years I wouldn’t have). So, although this album is truly exceptional I am now faced with a wool based diet for the forseeable future. “Summer Dancing” is a timeless beauty of a record that works incredibly well even though it probably shouldn’t. Couple Judy Dyble, the original, very English, 1960’s singer in legendary British folk group Fairport Convention with Andy Lewis – the former Paul Weller Band, bass playing, rare soul and funk DJing, solo recording artist, producer and all-round clever-clogs and the results could have been distinctly odd, but, what we are treated to instead are fourteen songs of such rich musicality and depth that, from the moment I first heard them, I felt sure my trousers were safe from the dinner table.  I will leave you with a quote from my original review in which I try to summarise what makes this such a gorgeous album, however, my words can never do it justice and so I implore you to seek out a copy and spend some time alone with it – I promise that you won’t be disappointed: “add a generous dusting of sunny psychedelia and a pinch or two of gently burbling synths to a collection of richly textured, pastoral, occasionally elegiac songs and voilà you have Summer Dancing – the beguiling new Acid Jazz release from Judy Dyble/ Andy Lewis”

PS I’ll keep you posted on the trousers………….

1: THE CLIENTELE – Music For The Age Of Miracles (Tapete Records)

Until I heard the spellbinding “Lunar Days” on BBC Radio 6 Music back in the late summer, I genuinely thought that The Clientele, one of the greatest British bands never to have really “cracked it” despite having released a number of intelligent, melancholic and critically lauded albums, had disbanded for good back in 2011. I suspected that “Lunar Days” was a track from their past; the forerunner of a record company cash in and “soon-to- be-released-compilation” of lost classics from a band who had developed cult status but with an unfathomable lack of commercial success. And yet it wasn’t a “lost classic”, it was a brand new track from Alasdair Maclean and his slightly reshuffled and added to band of talented musicians who had already recorded “Music For The Age Of Miracles”, their first new album in over six years. As a fan, the fact that the band were, completely out of the blue, releasing new material was great news but nothing could have prepared me for how consummately wonderful this album is. Short of repeating the review I wrote about “Music For The Age Of Miracles” in this brief summary, nothing I write here will do this exceptional record justice, so I urge you to visit and read that review, give the two tracks I’ve linked to it (“Lunar Days” and “Everyone You Meet”) a listen, and then, after you’ve also fallen head over heels in love with it, rush out and buy the Acoustic Egg Box Album of The Year!

 

 

 

 

 

2017 – The Acoustic Egg Box Top 20 Albums Of The Year (Part One: 20-11)

And so, without further ado and after many hours of turmoil, sleepless nights and long conversations with myself, I present for your delectation (and dismay no doubt), the first half of this year’s prestigious Acoustic Egg Box Album’s Of The Year for 2017. I’ve based the chart on nothing more than my own exceptionally good taste in music, but, due to the fact that I also have a “proper job”, (yes I know, how selfish), I only have a finite amount of hours listening time in what, I think at least, has been an exceptional year for new music. There will, of course, be records that some of you equally discerning readers think should have been included among these magnificent examples of music being made in 2017- but it’s my blog and therefore I’m obviously right! Seriously though, the wonderful thing about any art is its subjective nature and its ability to create debate and discussion; I know this is true as, when my gorgeous wife is questioned about her strange choice of husband, she always replies with “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”…………

 

20: BECK – Colors (Capitol)

Beck’s sublime, career-best record “Morning Phase” was The 2014 Acoustic Egg Box Album Of The Year so he was going to have to come up with something pretty special to equal that feat.  As something of a genre-hopping chameleon you’re never sure what you’re going to get with Mr Hansen and on Color’s (his 13th studio album) he has traded in wistful and melancholic introspection for classic pop. Although not quite reaching the dizzy artistic heights of its predecessor, “Colors” is still a cracking album and with the opening single, “Up All Night”, it gave us one of the catchiest tracks of the year.

19: ELBOW – Little Fictions (Polydor)

I love Elbow, they are my comfort blanket; a band of quietly unassuming but richly talented blokes who make gorgeous, grown-up music that warms your cockles even during the bleakest of moments. Although “Little Fictions” is still unmistakably Elbow,  in the time that’s elapsed since 2014’s gorgeous “The Take Off & Landing Of Everything” (AEB No.5), drummer Richard Jupp’s shock departure from the line-up has resulted in the band taking on a more experimental and percussive sound than on recent albums. However, despite the slightly different direction they’ve taken in places, we were still treated to another lush Elbow classic in the anthemic opening single  “Magnificent (She Says)”.

18: THUNDERCAT – Drunk (Brainfeeder)

Thundercat’s (AKA Steven Bruner) hugely entertaining and utterly bonkers set, was, for me, one of the highlights of Glastonbury 2017 and made me sit up and take notice of this extraordinarily talented musician. With his inventive, yet accessible, brand of “cosmic” jazz, bassist Thundercat, along with Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington et al, is one of the most innovative of a new breed of young black musicians kicking fresh life into the R&B/ Hip-Hop scene. Don’t be put off by the jazz label though, as this album will also appeal to fans of, among others, Earth, Wind & Fire and Steely Dan and, on “Show You The Way”, he even enlists the unlikely help of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins on one of the singles of the year.

17: CURTIS HARDING – Face Your Fear (Anti-)

The great news is that this year has seen something of a resurgence in classic soul music made by proper singers singing decent songs accompanied by real musicians and with “Face Your Fear”, former CeeLo Green backup singer Curtis Harding has definitely made some classic sounding soul music. Although more introspective than his 2014 début, “Soul Power”, the eleven co-penned, Dangermouse produced, Gaye/ Mayfield influenced tracks on show here aren’t without their uplifting moments. Highlights include the terrific, Motown-esque single “Need Your Love” which is impossible not to tap your toes to and “Dream Girl” on which Harding’s falsetto conjures up visions of Prince doing psychedelic-soul. A great second album indeed that bodes extremely well for the future of Curtis Harding and the soul genre overall.

16: LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – American Dream (DFA/ Columbia)

Back in 2011, after releasing three exceptional “new-wave electronica dance rock” (ok, I made that up) albums, LCD Soundsytem’s main man and Bowie acolyte, James Murphy, decided to “retire” the band with a spectacular last concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. However, with the untimely death of his hero (and whose Blackstar album Murphy was a contributor on) his creativity has been jolted back to life. As you’d expect, Bowie’s influence is all over the album – “Change Yr Mind” could have been lifted from Scary Monsters and echoes of his Berlin period abound but if you want further reference points, think OMD (“Oh Baby”); Talking Heads (“Other Voices”); PiL (“How Do You Sleep”) and Human League (“American Dream”).  Despite all the touchstones though, this is an album as fresh and relevant as anything released in 2017. Welcome back Mr Murphy, you were missed!

15: SAINT ETIENNE – Home Counties (Heavenly)

After a gap of five years, this quintessentially English band return with a quintessentially English album about the Home Counties. Over the course of these nineteen tracks, the band embark on a typically melodic musical journey through the areas surrounding London as envisioned by lyricists in chief Sarah Cracknell and Bob Stanley. The songs, replete with birdsong, dulcimers, a church choir and mentions of apple-tree orchards, rail replacement buses and characters including “Train Drivers In Eyeliner”, are little kitchen sink dramas often wistfully referring to England’s (imagined?) idyllic past. High points include the lush, synth-driven “Whyteleaf” in which they imagine what would have become of David Bowie if he’d never left the area and the exceptional Cracknell narrated, swirling psychedelic majesty of seven-minute epic, “Arcadia”.  Bands twenty-six years into a brilliant career have no right to be making albums this good, but then again most of them don’t contain songwriters of the calibre of Cracknell and Stanley.

14: THE LEN PRICE 3 – Kentish Longtails (MRI)

To my detriment, until the September release of their fifth studio album “Kentish Longtails”, I had never heard anything by Medway band, The Len Price 3. So, for those of you who are still in the Len Price 3 wilderness that I was in August, here’s a quick introduction to the band and their music: imagine it’s 1979 and the post-punk Mod revival is in full swing, throw into the mix some Buzzcocks, Undertones and Sham 69 along with The Jam, The Chords and Dr.Feelgood, stir in the best bits from the mid-nineties Brit Pop era and garnish generously with classic The Who and The Kinks songwriting, and you’ll get a sense of what to expect. This album is so good that many of the fourteen catchy, three-minute power-pop mini-classics on Kentish Longtails would almost certainly have graced the Top 10 in another era, especially “Childish Words”, “Saturday Morning Filmshow”, “Stop Start Lilly”, “Paint Your Picture Well” and the beautiful ballad “Telegraph Hill”. Find of the year!

13: REAL ESTATE – In Mind (Domino)

New Jersey’s Real Estate are as good an aural antidote to the British winter as you’ll find. Since the release of 2014’s sublime “Atlas” (AEB No.3) and despite being shaken by the acrimonious departure of founding member, guitarist and sonic lynchpin Matt Mondanile, I’m happy to report that they are still intact and every bit as mellow and melodically sublime as ever. Lead singer and songwriter Martin Courtney has once again worked his magic on “In Mind”, their fourth album, and given us eleven more tracks that would sit comfortably among the best Laurel Canyon offerings from the late 60’s/ early 70’s, and on the stoned, swooning “After the Moon”, he has penned something of a minor classic.  Put this record on, pour yourself a Pimms and daydream about the summer

12: DON BRYANT – Don’t Give Up On Love (Fat Possum)

75-year-old Don Bryant is something of a legend – not so much for his singing career but as a songwriter. Married to soul star, Ann Peebles since 1974, Bryant was responsible for penning her biggest hit,  “I Can’t Stand The Rain” along with many other songs for Hi-Records artists including Al Green and Otis Clay. He also wrote the classic “A Nickel & A Nail” – a big hit for O.V Wright and the opening track on this, his first album for forty-eight years! Other album highlights include the yearning title track;  the swinging Southern Soul of “Something About You”; the upbeat and bluesy “I Got To Know” and the gospel call and response belter “How Do I Get Here”, on which he demonstrates that vocal control and power isn’t just the domain of the young. Comeback album of the year.

11: FATHER JOHN MISTY –  Pure Comedy (Sub Pop)

Although the former Fleet Foxes drummer, Josh Tillman (AKA Father John Misty), can act like an arrogant bellend of some aplomb, when it comes to the task of making music, there are few singer-songwriters currently working that can touch him for sheer lyrical and musical brilliance.  Although as an album “Pure Comedy”, which addresses themes of fame, technology and the human condition, doesn’t quite hit the heights of “I Love You Honeybear” (The 2015 Acoustic Egg Box Album of The Year) it has given us, in the title track, possibly the greatest song he has ever written: “Their languages just serve to confuse them, Their confusion somehow makes them more sure, They build fortunes poisoning their offspring, And hand out prizes when someone patents the cure”.  Based on his recent output, the man is an undoubted genius and, as we all know, geniuses are often flawed, so, in his defence, and as long as he keeps making great music, I will forgive him his twattery.

ALBUM REVIEW: Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – Soul Of A Woman (Daptone Records)

Formed in 2001, the American funk and soul label, Daptone  Records is, in terms of both recording methods and quality of output, the nearest we now have to classic Stax or Motown. So, when in the space of little over a year, the label lost not only their two biggest stars but two giants of the soul scene, full-stop, it could be considered something of a disaster.

Firstly, in November 2016, Sharon Jones succumbed to the cancer she had fought so bravely for several years, and then, in September this year, we also lost The Screaming Eagle of Soul,  Charles Bradley, also to cancer. Although both artists were relatively late starters in their professional careers, they both released records that, when measured against some of the finest soul albums of the past 60 years, comfortably hold their own. Cruelly, at the time of their premature deaths, both singers were at the peak of their powers with, undoubtedly, some of their best work still to come.

Including their 2015 Christmas album “It’s A Holiday Soul Party”,  “Soul Of A Woman” is Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings seventh studio album since they first entered the studio to record their, and Daptone Records, début record “Dap Dippin With Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings” back in 2002. Since then, although proudly flying the retro-soul tag in a generation full of manufactured, bland and generic singers often touted as “the next ———” (fill in blanks depending on record company desperation), Miss Jones proved, with each new release, that she was the real deal – and then some. On their last studio album proper – 2014’s “Give The People What They Want” –  armed with their best set of songs yet, they sounded more cohesive and fully formed than ever, despite Sharon’s illness, and subsequent treatment, delaying its release.

“Soul Of A Woman”, poignantly released on November 17th, 2017 to coincide with the first anniversary of Sharon Jones’ death is, sentimentality aside, a wonderful record. Of course, there is immense sadness that it’s a posthumous release, but, ably supported by the fabulous Dap-Kings as always, it comprises a set of eleven songs that will serve as a lasting tribute to her immense talent.

The album kicks off with a rousing call for world peace and unity in, “A Matter Of Time” followed by the terrific James Brown-style funk of “Sail On” (below) in which she offers redemption to a former lover who almost certainly doesn’t deserve it! “Give Me Some Time” and “Come And Be A Winner” take things down just a notch before the catchy as hell, Motown-esque “Rumors” ends the more upbeat first-half of the album.

Side two, despite being more ballad-heavy, is still full of positive vibes. The Hammond rich Southern Soul of “Pass Me By” is gorgeous but lovelorn, and, with a passing nod to Rose Royce’s “Wishing On A Star”, “These Tears (No Longer For You) sees our leading lady displaying her trademark strength in dealing with the bad-boys in her romantic liaisons. The languid, summery “Searching For A New Day” could have been lifted from a Style Council greatest-hits album; the soaring “When I Saw Your Face” is a straight-up tale of love at first sight and “Girl! (You Got To Forgive Him), could have, with a little push in the right direction, been lifted from a Bond movie – and how great would Sharon Jones singing a Bond theme have sounded!

And yet, for all its positivity and upbeat grooviness, when the last, plaintive notes of the beautiful and moving gospel hymn “Call On God” (below), that Sharon wrote forty years ago when singing with the Universal Church of God choir,  fade away, I had tears rolling down my cheeks.

RIP Miss Jones – the world is certainly a less joyful place without you in it

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Bette Smith – Jetlagger (Big Legal Mess Records)

It still gives me a huge buzz when I discover a previously unheard artist, especially when they’ve got a voice and personality as big and bold as New York’s sensational new soul singer, Bette Smith.  Ms Smith was born and raised in the tough Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant and, when you watch the video for “Manchild” (below), you instantly know that just like her influences, Etta James, Tina Turner, Millie Jackson et al, she’s one feisty lady that ain’t going to take any messing!

In a music industry obsessed with dull, over-styled singers warbling melismatic, pro-tooled nonsense over generic backing tracks, Jetlagger is a breath of fresh air and devoid of any artificial additives.  Over the course of this, her debut’s, ten “live” studio recorded tracks (six originals and four covers), and under the expert tutelage of multi-instrumentalist, producer and songwriter Jimbo Mathus (a former colleague of blues legend Buddy Guy), Bette, growls, hollers and sings like a seasoned Southern Soul blues(wo)man.

The album is bookended by two absolute belters; self-penned, “I Will Feed You” is a reflective mid-tempo ballad that builds to a rousing climax, showcasing Smith’s more soulful and vulnerable side – it also sounds like the best song Macy Gray never recorded. The album closer, however, is one of four well-chosen covers – a superb version of the Staple Singers 1974 classic, “City In The Sky”, which I’m pretty sure Mavis would approve of.

In between these two crackers, we are treated to the Tina Turner channelling title track, the aforementioned single “Manchild” (above), plus the other Mathus penned originals; the swampy street-blues of “Durty Hustlin'”,  Southern Soul classic-in-waiting “Shackle & Chain” and the country-tinged stomper, “Moaning Bench”.  Alongside “City In The Sky”, the eclectic choice of well-executed cover versions include the rocking Steve Van Zandt/ Maria McKee penned Lone Justice track “I Found Love”; a glorious gospel take on “Flying Sweet Angel Of Joy” by fellow Fat Possum Records (of which Big Legal Mess is a  subsidiary) artist, the mysterious Famous L Renfroe and finally, a sultry version of the 1971 Isaac Hayes classic “Do Your Thing”.

All in all then, “Jetlagger” is a fine debut from a singer who demands to be heard and, as more people get to discover her, they will realise that she has grabbed the classic blues and soul genre by the scruff of the neck and injected it with some welcome attitude and sass. On 27th February next year, she’s coming to the UK to play one night at the London Borderline and I think it’s fair to say that it’s going to be a show not to miss.

ALBUM REVIEW: The Clientele – Music For The Age Of Miracles (Tapete Records)

For the uninitiated, The Clientele are a London-based British band from deepest, darkest Hampshire who specialise in a superior and unique brand of intelligent, literary dream-pop.  They released “The Violet Hour”, the first of their (now) seven superb albums in 2002, but, despite huge critical acclaim, have never gained the commercial success in the UK that their rich talents deserve. It came as no surprise then, that after their lauded 2010 mini-album “Minotaur” once again failed to give them a much-deserved break, in 2011 they announced they were taking an “indefinite hiatus”. Plus, with founder member, vocalist and main songwriter Alasdair MacLean also recording material with his “other” band, Amor De Dias, most fans, I suspect, thought that the game was finally up………….until now!

Although having always trodden a somewhat Arcadian path, on “Music For The Age Of Miracles”, more so than on their previous records, the band have explored a more gentle, pastoral psychedelia; an autumnal palette of sounds born in leafy London suburbs but imbued with the warmth of a Californian Santa Ana breeze. The album’s twelve new, but dreamily familiar songs (including three instrumentals) imparted as always in MacLean’s breathy, languid vocal style, have a lysergic quality – seemingly plucked from that magical realm somewhere between wake and sleep. It’s no coincidence either that the hiring of multi-instrumentalist and arranger Anthony Harmer, who, whilst complementing original members, James Hornsey and Mark Keen, has also brought subtle new dimensions to the band’s sound by introducing, amongst other things, the exotic santur (a Persian dulcimer) and saz (a Turkish stringed instrument) into the mix.

Album opener, the hypnotic and hymnal “The Neighbour”, is one of the most beautiful tracks you will hear this year and sets the tone for the rest of this exceptional album. Through the swooping choral backdrops a violin solo gives way to uplifting and sublime key changes whilst MacLean gently, but optimistically, intones that, “In the corridor, the face of God is smiling”

Running hand in hand with the album’s abstract, dream-state imagery, themes of both the natural and celestial worlds abound. Superb first single “Lunar Days” is (possibly?) a lament, wrapped up in an autumnal metaphor, about the creep of London’s suburban decay: “When it’s late November and you’re lost in the leaves/ And you speak in beaten copper tongues that nobody hears” followed a few lines later by “So, I walked along the street with no one home/ Lamps no one lit, roads no one drove” are magical lyrics and encapsulate the feel of the whole album.

“Falling Asleep” is a stroke of genius –  a musical adaptation of celebrated First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon’s bucolic poem of the same title, which, for this budding writer and music lover at least, is worth the purchase price of the album alone. The melodic, orchestral “Everyone You Meet” with opening couplet “Pleiades fall/ Pleiades rise”, the brooding and elegiac “Constellations Echo Lanes” and two of the three instrumental tracks, the brief but lovely semi-classical vignettes “Lyra in April” and “Lyra in October”, have stellar connotations while the third instrumental, “North Circular Days” is a pretty tribute to an ugly road.

Harmer’s instrumentation and arrangement on “The Circus” push it in a “folky” direction and with a little stretch of the imagination, it could have been a track that the late great Ronnie Laine may have been happy to record. The lyrical stream of consciousness of “Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself”, complete with harp, insistent guitar refrain and uplifting trumpet flourishes complementing the lush, layered vocals, is another album high point; “The Museum Of Fog” is a spoken word track recounting the tale of a young man’s evening attending a real/ imaginary gig which may, or may not, have been fuelled by narcotics of a hallucinatory nature……..

“Swallows wheel from sun-bleached eaves/ Trucks glow on peripheries/ Light the lamps, the empty house is falling” are the opening lines from the exquisite, goose-bump raising final track, “The Age Of Miracles”, and which, in just a handful of words, explain far better than I ever could why the return of The Clientele should be lauded as one of the musical high-points of 2017.

Fans of Belle & Sebastian, Tindersticks, The Blue Nile, Nick Drake, The Byrds and even Broadcast or Saint Etienne in their more tender moments should embrace and then rush out to buy “Music For The Age Of Miracles” because, if this wonderful band decide to take another extended sabbatical through lack of sales or wider recognition, we will all be the poorer for it.

LIVE: PP Arnold – The Plough Arts Centre, Great Torrington, Devon – 14th October 2017

The Plough Arts Centre – Great Torrington

From the Watts ghetto in Los Angeles to the mean streets of Great Torrington in just over seventy-one years is some journey, but when you’re a soul legend who has been lovingly embraced by music aficionados and everyone in the UK mod-scene for over fifty years, us discerning, stylishly attired West Country folk are prepared to forgive the wait. And so it was, that on Saturday evening, in the presence of just over 100 other fans in the intimate surroundings of the lovely little Plough Arts Centre, the former Ikette, turned solo superstar, P.P.Arnold, entertained an appreciative crowd for ninety minutes with a non-stop mixture of great music, witty banter and anecdotes about her long and varied career.

When you launch your career as a backing singer for one of the world’s biggest acts in Ike & Tina Turner, then you become “re-discovered” and mentored by one of the world’s most famous singers in Mick Jagger before being asked to work with one of the greatest British bands of all time in the Small Faces, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re in possession of a voice that’s just a little bit special, and yes, the former Patricia Ann Cole most certainly does have a voice that still, as was superbly demonstrated this evening, ranks alongside some of the best that have ever been committed to record.   

P.P. Arnold & Yours Truly

The current nationwide tour has been put together to celebrate both her fifty-year solo recording anniversary and also the release of “The Turning Tide” – an album that brings together thirteen tracks from 1968-1971 produced by Barry Gibb (and latterly Eric Clapton) which were then inexplicably shelved before being released. It is largely thanks to the hard work of Ocean Colour Scene founder, and now Paul Weller band member, Steve Cradock and his wife Sally, that this fantastic P.P. Arnold “lost classic” has now had the release it always deserved (It will be reviewed in these very pages during the next week or two).

Superbly backed by Steve Cradock’s talented young touring band, among other lesser known classics, we were treated to all her solo singles – the original and best version of “The First Cut Is The Deepest”, Northern Soul favourite “If You’re Feeling Groovy”, and the beautiful, top 20 record, “Angel Of The Morning”. Her performance of “River Deep Mountain High”, an Ike & Tina track she helped turn into a classic, was powerful and flawless and “To Love Somebody”, originally a big hit for the Bee Gees which she recorded for her 1968 Kafunta album, was as gorgeous as her rendition of Traffic’s “Medicated Goo” was funky. Apart from meeting the still beautiful Ms Arnold when she spent some time after the show in the bar chatting and signing albums, the highlight of the evening for me, and I suspect many others in the audience, was the final song; a brilliant and faultless rendition of the Small Faces classic, “Tin Soldier”, with the band’s young guitarist,  Jake Fletcher, who P.P. introduced as “mini Marriott”, playing that inimitable role quite superbly. This was, without doubt, the fitting finale of a memorable gig.

 

The Day I Met….Mark Knopfler


Way back in the olden days when you had to sell more than a hundred singles to get to number one, album sales were still in rude health and the internet was just a twinkle in most people’s eyes, I started work as a Sales Rep for PolyGram Records. Believe me, for someone who was (and still is) obsessed with music, this was nothing short of the dream ticket and to coin a phrase, I felt like the proverbial pig in shit. It was 1990, the year in which Thatcher resigned, Mandela was freed, West Germany won the World Cup and Bruce Forsyth was celebrating only his 62nd birthday. It was also the year that I had a surreal meeting with Mark Knopfler. At the time, he was one of the biggest rock stars in the world, largely due to the phenomenal success of Dire Straits’ previous 30 million selling release, “Brothers In Arms” which was, incidentally, the first album to sell a million copies on CD 
alone.

I had only been with the company a few weeks when the sales team was invited to the famous Metropolis Recording Studios in Chiswick, West London, for an advance playback of the upcoming Notting Hillbillies album, “Missing…Presumed Having A Good Time”

 The Notting Hillbillies were, to all intents and purposes, Knopfler’s country-rock side project; a band also comprising accomplished musicians, Brendan Croker, Steve Phillips and Guy Fletcher – names I wasn’t even remotely familiar with. However, as a West Country soul-boy whose only previous claim to fame was meeting a man who once came third in the National Life Insurance Sales Awards, whilst working for my previous employer, The Prudential, these guys were obviously rock-gods and I didn’t much care that I’d not heard of them. I also didn’t much care that I’d recently referred to Dire Straits as Dire-reah or that “country-rock” was about as interesting to me as 18th-century Russian literature – I was getting paid to go to and meet a bona fide pop star and so suddenly I was a massive fan…..

What exactly is the protocol for meeting the rich and famous from the showbiz world? In the 15 years I worked in those circles, I never really found out, but as a general rule of thumb, I discovered that, although there were a handful of notable exceptions,  the bigger the star the more charming and pleasant they were and at 6pm on this cold winter evening that premise was about to be tested for the very first time.

The beautiful, black, Porsche roared into the parking lot at a rate of knots, driven by someone who was obviously exhilarated by speed – I subsequently discovered that Knopfler has a collection of classic sports cars which he likes to race. Much to my surprise there was no advance party of make up girls, an entourage of heavily armed bodyguards or even a manager smoking a fat cigar, just a lone, slightly dishevelled, regular looking bloke speaking in a soft Mid-Atlantic Tyne & Wear accent – albeit emerging from the brand new, privately number-plated car of my dreams!

After some small talk about the weather, we were ushered inside to the warmth of the studio and formally introduced to my new friend, Mark, who had already taken the mickey out of my Somerset burr but self deprecatingly admitted that his own regionally accented speaking voice hadn’t stopped him singing like a native New Yorker! The new album was then presented by it’s leading performer and whilst listening, drinks and snacks were served as we got to spend a good hour or so with him discussing the making of the record and also some of the highlights of his Dire Straits’ career.

The evening sped by and it was after we had said our goodbyes that Knopfler turned to ME and asked where the loo was. I didn’t want to appear rude so pointed to a door on the lower level of the building that looked like it could be the toilet, although worryingly I wasn’t 100% sure. My eyes followed him down the stairs and then watched, mortified, as Mark Knopfler, world superstar and multi-million selling recording artist opened the door to the room I had decided “looked” like a toilet where was greeted by the clattering of brooms and buckets due to the fact that I had given him directions to a rather overfilled cleaning cupboard. I froze in horror as the room went quiet bar a few muffled sniggers. It was at this point that I expected to be looking for another job in the morning, but this engaging, witty man looked up to where I was stood and laughingly shouted the words that are indelibly imprinted in my brain:

“Nice one! If I’d known calling you a yokel was going to piss you off that much I’d have asked one of your mates where the crapper was”

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Childhood – Universal High (Marathon Artists)

Firstly, let’s get one thing straight: “Lacuna”, the 2014 debut album from South London’s Childhood, was NOT a bad record. However, with nods to Puressence and the House of Love here, Toy and Temples there and several others of that broad ilk in between, the major problem that Childhood had was being a composite of many other indie guitar bands of the past 25 years. Writing decent songs and being competent musicians is one thing, but if the noise you’re making is derivative of your already established peers, you need be something special to stand out, and despite the album containing two excellent singles in the baggyish Stone Roses channelling “Blue Velvet” and the soaring, anthemic “Solemn Skies”, I’m not entirely sure that they managed it.

The great news is that on their exceptional new album, “Universal High”, they haven’t just repeated the same formula hoping that it would somehow attract a bigger audience the second-time around, they’ve reinvented themselves so completely that, whilst listening to these ten gloriously sunny pop/soul tracks, you might well be forgiven for thinking that there are two bands called Childhood – with this one being the far superior version!

Back in June, whilst we were enjoying the rarity of warm, sunny day in the UK, I heard what sounded like a classic, but unfamiliar, 70’s soul number drifting mellifluously from the radio. With shades of Roy Ayers and the Young Rascals plus a soaring falsetto that Curtis Mayfield would have approved of, I was excited to know who this new old band was. It came as something of a surprise then when it turned out that the track I’d just enjoyed, the groovy, summer swoon that is “California Light”, was recorded by a British act – not only that, a British act who only three years previously were indie-rock also-rans and who had seemingly disappeared from the radar.

In Ben Romans-Hopcraft, Childhood now have a versatile lead singer whose new-found style lends itself perfectly to the songs on Universal High; an album which, although very much a product of 2017 with more recent touchstones being the electro-poppy psychedelia of Tame Impala, MGMT, B.C. Camplight or Mac DeMarco, wears its love of 70’s/ early 80’s soul and disco very much on its sleeve. Opening track “AMD” tips a nod to the Isleys, “Cameo” might be the best song Imagination never recorded and Kool & The Gang’s classic, synth-heavy instrumental, “Summer Madness” pervades several tracks with its woozy groove. Elsewhere the summery theme continues with one of the many album stand-outs, the bouncy sing-along “Don’t Have Me Back”, with its gorgeous Beach Boys infused melody, complete with sax solo and a beat borrowed from the Motown canon.

Overall then, whilst Lacuna was certainly an accomplished record, it got lost in a sea of sameness. Universal High, on the other hand, is the sound of a young band who, even though the album’s influences are many, have found a sound of their own that pays tribute and reinvents their inspirations rather than getting bogged down and swamped by them. All we need now is for the rest of the world to wake up and discover Childhood too because if they come back in three years’ time reinvented as a heavy metal combo, my review will be far shorter………….