A nearly new regular column in which freaky Peter Kearns casts a spell on a bunch of new album releases! You’ll wake up screaming!
It’s the beginning of a new month, which means delivering a playlist of new tracks I found in February. This one gets progressively weirder, culminating in a pair of melodic jazz excursions. But along the way you’ll find different flavours of pop, rock, folk, funk and even a sterling rap outing from Big Sean and Lil Wayne. Included are a new stunner from New Zealand’s Cairo Knife Fight, and the gorgeous song ‘Roots’ from British artist Lucie Silvas who has a strong kiwi connection and is someone we don’t hear enough about down here. If something a bit out there is more your thing, there’s the trippy Eric Chenaux, but not before having a good read below. Bon appétit. (Bows)
DUTCH UNCLES – O Shudder (Art pop/England) (Memphis Industries)
Witchdoctor General Gary Steel recently lamented the current dearth of manly singing voices. If you feel the same, Dutch Uncles won’t comfort you. Described in various quarters as indie pop or art rock, this Manchester-based group are essentially a new wave band displaced in time. But I don’t refer to a Bronski Beat style of non-manly voice, and the non-committal description of androgynous straddles the line too much. No, what we have in vocalist/pianist Duncan Wallis is a feminine voice something akin to Alison Moyet – not on purpose, he sounds that way naturally. The band did reveal a wish to sound like Grace Jones backed by Talking Heads on ‘Be Right Back’, when in reality they’re more like Moyet backed by The Fixx, at least on ‘Decided Knowledge’. But it’s more subtle, like a less earnest Alison unconcerned with invisibility, tear depletion, or the myriad other woes that comforted in song the mid-‘80s population of perfectly manicured, high-haired soft-core spikey wallflowers. Not that I dislike Alison, but that’s another story.
Elsewhere, much is being made of the sexual content of the O Shudder lyrics. But for me, Dutch Uncles have a much more interesting and deeper discussion-worthy musicality that on 2013’s Out Of Touch In The Wild album, bore hallmarks of contemporary Brit art-rockers like Field Music. But O Shudder reflects a more accessible but substantial ‘80s pop slant as per The Fixx, Scritti Politti, and Beat era King Crimson. The instantly recognisable guitar Fripperies noodle their way around these songs like liquid satin, smoothing their linear maths of five or seven beats against a straight 4/4 drum rhythm that only meets up every so often. Sometimes those straight dance beats themselves trip you up with the odd bar of three or five thrown in. But it’s all tastefully underplayed, showing the music-focused Dutch Uncles are more than your typical 21st century combo with a mere fame death-wish. I told you they were displaced. A
BIG SEAN – Dark Sky Paradise (Rap-Hip hop/USA) (Def Jam)
If you’re lucky, developing a taste for hip-hop leads you down some dark, gritty avenues – metaphorically and literally if you’re so inclined. I’ve wandered some seedier parts of downtown LA with nothing for protection but my shades, but I’ve probably never been further than a pedestrian crossing or two away from geographical refuge. Not that it was ever necessary. But the further you venture into the urban wasteland without turning back will do nothing but help your understanding of rap, which at its most authentic, reflects poverty, hardship and unemployment, etc – not achievement and the downside it brings of having to work, in Big Sean’s borrowed phrase, ‘eight days a week’.
But with Sean, like many successful rappers, the elephant in the room is irony. His faux-complaining is difficult to digest after two Grammy and MTV Music Video award nominations apiece, nine BET Hip Hop Award nominations (two won), record deals with Kanye West’s GOOD Music and Def Jam, and a current girlfriend in one of America’s current pop successes, Ariana Grande. And yet Sean is still skiting in song about being ‘finally famous’, eight years after his 2007 debut mixtape Finally Famous, which upon release was a prediction at best. It would be easier to take if the anger was directed at a prior condition of lack, which Sean Anderson never really suffered from, having been the young pupil of both a Rudolf Steiner School and Detroit’s respected Cass Tech, which required that you could be no slouch.
On Dark Sky Paradise, any fleeting lyrical protest in support of people still living back in Detroit hardship, soon turns to espousal of Sean’s current level of obvious comfort and how much he deserves it. That’s a paradox you’d rarely, if ever, hear in the lyrics of that parallel limb of America’s contribution to western music, the blues. I can’t imagine Robert Johnson, even if he’d been rich, singing his laments from a comfy chair paid for from his own heavenly bank account full of millions. He was known to have been uncomfortable and even embarrassed to be recorded in the first place. You’d never get that these days. C+
SUSANNE SUNDFOR – Ten Love Songs (Synthpop/Norway) (Warner Music)
Upon receiving her 2008 Norwegian music award for Best Female Performance, Susanne Sundfor declared “I am first and foremost an artist, not first and foremost a woman”. This came in response to an ongoing controversy surrounding whether the Artist Of The Year award should be split into male and female categories. As if awards (or reviews for that matter) mean anything, the Spellemanns committee got their knickers in a knot over a politically correct ‘blandardisation’ (my word). They missed the point that it’s the music that matters and not the invented necessity to take precautions against an imaginary uprising of paranoid protestors living in fear of everyone forgetting the existence of race, gender and nation, causing the furore to spill into an all-out scandal of war-like proportions resulting in multiple firings of personnel employed by the International Federation ofB the Phonographic Industry. (Catches breath.) See the trouble one little change to an award title could make?
Vocalist/keyboardist Susanne Sundfor had the right idea – she preferred to be judged (if it had to happen) for her musical ability, not her biological category. I concur. Imagine the music world minus best male this, best female that, best short that, etc. A truncated version of the music categories themselves could stay of course, because we need traffic lights or we’ll all crash into each other. I’ve seen Ten Love Songs categorised in at least six different genres. But the undeniable description is No. 1, as the album has become in Norway. I’d say it’s most likely because of the intricate but accessible vocals, adventurous musical arrangements, seamless combination of string section and synthesizer, and daring dynamic moves within a pop context. Either that or the Norwegians just like it a lot. They know how to buy. A-
BOB DYLAN – Shadows In The Night (Traditional pop/USA) (Columbia)
What strikes me most when confronted so starkly with Dylan’s voice, minus a lyric expectation thanks to a group of traditional covers, is how much I’m reminded of other singers. Some people fuss about his apparently less than perfect voice, but clearly it continues to influence modern contemporaries such as English Canadian, John Southworth, and more obviously, American troubadour, Willie Nile. These names may not be familiar to all, but they are so Dylan-influenced as to come to mind anytime I hear him, more-so than Dylan comes to mind when I hear them. That’s an about-turn. What also didn’t come to mind listening to this collection of pieces earlier rendered by Frank Sinatra, was Sinatra himself. Though in preparation, Dylan immersed himself in the Sinatra versions, he delivered these songs as melded to his own sensibility. More than merely covering them, he in his own terminology, ‘uncovered’ them. I’d certainly describe the Matt Dennis/Tom Adair-penned wartime ballad ‘The Night We Called It A Day’ as a buried treasure since Sinatra recorded it in the ‘50s – it never crossed my path before anyway. But what an experience to hear something so well written that it shines no matter who’s singing it, even if it’s Bob Dylan, the guy that according to some, can’t sing. In many ways, Bob’s is the perfect voice for these sentimental gems as they keep the hard edge a more virtuosic singer might lose in interpretation. Not Sinatra though, he was always able to avoid the sentimental abyss via a realistic level of desperate truth, but he was different. And so is Dylan on Shadows In The Night – the album he wanted to make for 35 years. B+ PETER KEARNS