A new regular column in which freaky Peter Kearns casts a spell on a bunch of new album releases! You’ll wake up screaming!
THIS WEEK BRINGS a Spotify playlist of 19 gems found in the many January releases I heard. I considered a YouTube one but most of these songs weren’t there. Not that I advocate the streaming sound quality by any stretch. Every time, I’d recommend CD or vinyl, if a higher res file is not available. Many people don’t get to hear about quality music now unless it appears by accident in the mainstream void. A waterfall of product is coming out all the time. Everyone throws their album down the falls, and with few exceptions it hits the bottom and that’s the end of it. I tried to be discerning and eclectic in the song choices and avoided concentrating on a couple of fields that appeal to me personally, though most styles do anyway. I figured a list length that covered an average commute to be acceptable. Styles here vary. In fact I was amazed at the quality of the bluegrass that’s being made now. It’s experimental, boundary-pushing, and the writing is of a very high calibre indeed. Two of those are included here. The rest are outstanding in some facet of their production, are hooky earworms that wouldn’t leave me alone, or just have that indefinable magic about them. Something here is bound to turn your head.
THE WATERBOYS – Modern Blues (Folk rock/UK) (Puck)
Chief Waterboy Mike Scott is writing songs so literate, the staunchest Dylan advocate would surely be most impressed. Subject matter runs the gamut from 20th-century pop culture, through lust and self analysis to the lament of an age passed, ‘Nearest Thing To Hip’. The stories unwind over a rock rhythm section that substantially supports, but never encroaches on the true stars of the show, the lyrics. The audio mix is finely balanced, with Scott delivering his tales clearly at the forefront. All expressions, whether of joy or contrition, are imbued with a sense of celebration that renders any regret non-existent. ‘Everywhere that I go I see streets that are low in distinction, And high in the banal and the bland, How did we get to this?, We plumbed the abyss by the twisted grace of the law of supply and demand’. These lines from ‘Nearest Thing To Hip’ partially reflect the outlook of the ‘50s Beat Generation – An icon of which, author Jack Kerouac, can be heard reading from his master work ‘On The Road’ at the end of the song. It’s a subject well worth researching if you’re not familiar with it. The hipsters or ‘beats’, as they were known, along with the jazz of the time were, in the words of Mike Scott: ‘The nearest thing to hip in this shithole, And it’s gone’. A-
PUNCH BROTHERS – The Phosphorescent Blues (Progressive bluegrass/USA) (Nonesuch)
Equal parts fun and serious, the chamber bluegrass of Brooklyn quartet, Punch Brothers, fuses smoothly with art music and pop song. The singing of vocalist/mandolinist Chris Thile, formally of bluegrass group, Nickel Creek, has a youthful air that could make it a difficult vehicle to use for a serious non-sentimental delivery. But balanced by the violin and often bowed double bass which in classical chamber music often sound like heavy business together, The Phosphorescent Blues arrives at an accessible in that doesn’t sound at all like either end of the fun/serious dynamic is compromised. The pop hooks are clear, as is the European art music influence taken up in renderings of Debussy’s ‘Passepied’ movement from his Suite Bergamasque, and a Scriabin prelude. Add to that, traditional bluegrass instrumentation of fiddle and banjo, and Punch Brothers’ original songs replicate life – With the lighter times squeezing themselves in around the serious unavoidable aspects. Quite the recipe. A
NATALIE PRASS – Natalie Prass (Singer-songwriter/USA) (Spacebomb)
The debut of the US-based singer-songwriter is a ‘70s-sounding analog artifact filled with the spirit of Al Green, Leon Russell and Philadelphia soul. ‘Why Don’t You Believe In Me’ could pass as an Al Green backing track with the lead vocal swapped out for Dolly Parton, and even has an echo of the 1976 Elton John deep cut ‘If There’s A God In Heaven’. Matthew E. White of Virginia’s Spacebomb Records uses a house band with string and brass sections to fabulous effect on these subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) love songs, even closing with a fully-orchestrated paean to the post-war waltz, ‘It Is You’. We could pull the public taste bar back up if pop as organic as the single ‘Bird Of Prey’ dominated mainstream radio again. If that was the case, I might turn it on more often. A-
TROYKA – Ornithophobia (Fusion/England) (Naim)
On their third album, Ornithophobia, Troyka create a bewildering atmosphere built around a dystopian tale of a future London where avian flu spreads to humans, slowly turning them into birds. With Hammond organ to the fore, this British trio concoct their musical vision with percussive melodies that burrow under your skin, and unsettling Bill Frisell-esque guitar wafts that comfort but don’t cure. The record is balanced by ‘The General’ – the closest piece to conventional, that becomes a psychedelic rock jam half-way through – And the phenomenal ‘Life Was Transient’ and ‘Troyka Smash’, which are digital constructions made from parts of the existing recordings. With a touch of mock news-broadcast narration tastefully scattered in spots, Troyka have delivered an other-worldly musical note novel of great scope, but which censors itself as reasonably digestible enough for anyone unfamiliar with the experimental, to dive right in. A-