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………….

ALBUM REVIEW: Judy Dyble/ Andy Lewis – Summer Dancing (Acid Jazz)

Take an erudite, semi-retired ex-librarian who was the original, crystalline voiced singer in Fairport Convention, a member of pre King Crimson band Giles, Giles & Fripp, and also one half of critically acclaimed but short-lived folk duo Trader Horn; put her in a recording studio with an eclectic soul/ funk DJ who is also a solo recording artist, a producer, and a bass-player with Paul Weller’s band; 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 voila you have Summer Dancing – the beguiling new Acid Jazz release from Judy Dyble/ Andy Lewis.

Although on paper the most unlikely of bedfellows, Dyble with her cut-glass almost RP vocal style and Lewis with his deft, retro-modern production values (with the aid of Japanese hand drums, timbales, glockenspiels and a vintage Optigan of course…..) have somehow forged a fertile alliance. Due to the subtle lysergic currents, especially evident on album opener and first single He Said/ I Said (below), swirling through many of the fourteen tracks, the spirit of 1967’s “Summer of Love” is never far away, which is especially serendipitous as earlier this month Dyble performed at Cropredy with The Band of Perfect Strangers as part of Fairport Convention’s 50th Anniversary celebrations.

As a whole, but especially amongst the bucolic swoon of Up The Hill and Saint Etienne-esque paean to the capital, A Net Of Memories (London) (complete with travel report!), the album often evokes memories of an imagined past when life was simpler, summers were warmer, birdsong was

louder, bees were buzzier and lazy, hazy holidays were never far away. Other themes of the human condition are addressed; the intensity and power of love in the hypnotic, A Message; insomnia, in the woozy, dreamlike, Night Of A Thousand Hours (below); and ageing in the poignant and heartfelt Tired Bones “now the smell of canvas fills my nose, as they count me out in old-mans clothes, when the fight has all but gone from tired bones”. For me though, the highlight of an album that contains barely a wasted note, let alone a duff track, is the beautiful, yearning love song, No Words.

Although it’s difficult to align this exceptional collection of songs to anything else currently swirling around the musical ether, if you find them as captivating as I have, you might also enjoy the last couple of releases by legendary British singer/ songwriter Bill Fay who inexplicably, before his masterful resurgence in 2012 with the stunning Life Is People and follow-up, Who Is The Sender, in 2015, decided to “retire” for forty-one years. Once you’ve fallen in love with Bill’s work, you can then move on to Californian, Linda Perhacs who, after releasing the influential but poorly selling Parallelograms in 1970, like Bill, thought she’d also have a little rest and “retired” from music for an even more staggering forty-four years! However, it was well worth the wait as in 2014 she gave us the incredibly beautiful psych-folk opus, The Soul Of All Natural Things.

Anyway, I digress. If, as I suspect, due to the fact that you’re reading this blog, you really are a discerning music lover, Summer Dancing is a bona fide, genre-spanning classic which absolutely all of you MUST hear; I will even go so far as to say that with four months of 2017 still remaining, if there’s a better record released this year, I’ll happily eat my trousers.

ALBUM REVIEW: Pete Fij/ Terry Bickers – We Are Millionaires (Broadcast Recordings)

Pete Fij and Terry Bickers are best known as the lead-singer in Adorable and the guitarist in The House Of Love respectively. Both bands had varying degrees of success on the (then) relatively unknown Creation label in the late 80’s and early 90’s and although critically lauded in the press and touted as the next big thing(s), by the mid 90’s both men were treading different musical paths. As Pete Fij/ Terry Bickers, they first started writing and playing low key gigs together in 2009 although it wasn’t until 2014 that the journey started in earnest when they released “Broken Heart Surgery” – their critically acclaimed debut album.

If it really is true that the greatest source of songwriting material is derived from the pain of a broken love-affair, on the evidence of their deliciously maudlin second LP, “We Are Millionaires”, these two gents haven’t half been through the wringer! However, despite the melancholic tone that Fij’s careworn vocal style sets, the melodies throughout are beautiful, and despite their downbeat nature at times, the superbly crafted lyrics often display plenty of wry, ironic, humour.

Although it would be difficult to describe any of the songs on “We Are Millionaires” as happy, there are light moments, notably on album opener “Let’s Get Lost Together”; the Lee Hazlewood channelling, “Waking Up” and also, (eventually!) during the closing track “Sometime Soon” in which, over Bickers’ Twin Peaks style twang, a weary Fij declares that “everything will be OK”. Other highlights include the catchy, string-drenched opening single “Love’s Going To Get You”; the haunting late-night shimmer of the album’s title track; Bond theme in waiting “If The World Is All We Have” and the poignant “I Love You”, in which Fij pleads “I love you, is it really so hard to say, it doesn’t matter if it’s not true, just say it to me anyway”.

The undoubted charm of this fine record lies is in its lush, richly textured arrangements combined with quirky takes on love, loss and redemption – universal themes that have been given a fresh perspective by these two massively underrated musicians. Fans of Lloyd Cole, Richard Hawley, I Am Kloot, Lee Hazlewood, The Libertines et al will find much to love here, although if there was any justice in the world, Pete Fij and Terry Bickers would already be on that list.

LIVE: Brian Wilson Presents Pet Sounds – Glastonbury Abbey Extravaganza, 5th August 2017

After the torrential downpours and thunderstorms that crossed the region earlier in the day, it was at a chilly, but mercifully dry and sunny Glastonbury Abbey that I witnessed something as melancholic and sad as it was beautiful and touching, when Brian Wilson and his band rolled into town to perform one of the greatest albums ever made on the latest leg of their Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary tour.

Glastonbury Abbey grounds – pre-show

The fact that Wilson is now 75 and embarking on this run of global dates is exceptional in itself, the fact that he is now 75 with a well documented lifelong history of mental illness, drug addiction and crippling self-doubt behind him renders this feat even more remarkable.

The set was split into three parts; well-known hits, the full Pet Sounds album, more hits to finish – and make no mistake, despite the pathos unravelling before our eyes, it was still rollicking good fun and great to hear these timeless songs, especially being performed in such a beautiful setting.

A supremely talented band containing original Beach Boy Al Jardine, the ebullient, occasional member, Blondie Chaplin, and Jardine’s son, Matt, whose exceptional voice effortlessly took over most of what would have been Wilson’s parts, gave everything the appreciative audience could have hoped for. However….. I constantly found myself wondering, with the obviously struggling maestro looking vulnerable, confused and at times almost missing in action, especially during his tear-inducing, barely coherent stab at the beautiful “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”, whether some things would have been better off left at the “great idea” stage and then quietly forgotten.

As glad and privileged that I feel having got to see what will almost certainly be Wilson’s last ever dates in the UK, I left the venue after their final song, the hugely popular Beach Boys singalong hit, “Fun, Fun, Fun” with the ironic yet heartbreaking thought that this evening may have been about as far from fun for the great man as it was possible to get