Gavin Chappell-Bates : ’95’ single, released July 2015

Disco 2000, 1999, 1975 (band and song), 1984, In The Year 2525……it has always been a neat (and fortunately not overused) pop device to reference a year in your title for nostalgia, speculation or celebration.
Bryan Adams enjoyed his ‘Summer of ’69’ and now singer-songwriter Gavin Chappell-Bates has wistful feelings for the summer glories of 1995. He has constructed a clever song here, an acoustic guitar introduction pulls us in and then before we know it it is all full-on band and rousing catchy chorus ‘I want to be back in 95 with you…’

The lyric is a music quiz of references, ‘Design For Life, ‘Look Back In Anger’, ‘Girl from Mars’, even Thom Yorke gets a look-in, all good Brit-pop anthems to have grown up with.

Gavin Chappell-Bates performs live with acoustic guitar, loops and effects but this strong song really benefits from the fizzing production and celebratory full band sound.

Bouquet Of Dead Crows : Don’t Panic!/Just A Little More, released 28 August 2015

What’s in a name?
Cambridge-based ‘Bouquet Of Dead Crows’ sound like an object found on an ancient quest or the worst order that Interflora have ever had to deliver. But the ambiguity of their name actually suits the music very well. They are a four piece Rock/Pop band and have just finished recording their debut album ‘Of The Night’, due for release later this year. On this new double A-sided single they show their hardest rock sound, but tempered with smooth melodic vocal from Antoinette Cooper sailing majestically above.

Opening track ‘Don’t Panic!’ starts with a thunderous guitar riff from Neil Bruce that hardly lets up and I am always pleased to hear dynamic drumming, energetic stuff from Andrew Coxall, especially in the anarchic instrumental break towards the end. The second track ‘Just A Little More’ seems to cram a lot into the three minutes, opening with a guitar figure partly reminiscent of classic prog-rock ‘Heart Of The Sunrise’ by Yes (high-praise indeed!) and dominated by Antoinette’s powerful vocals and a strong hook line. A short bass interlude(Graeme Clarke) is some quieter relief then the track rocks to a heavy finish.

I caught some of their tight live set recently (at Corner House Cambridge) and also some acoustic songs on a radio session. More evidence of their versatility and variety as musicians, I look forward to hearing the album…

Mammoth Penguins, Corner House, Cambridge, 14 July 2015

A tasty free gig at the Corner House, with Violet Woods (reviewed extensively elsewhere on this site) sounding on great form, big echoing twelve string, organ and explosive drums all in place and bass player Mark Boxall featuring in Mammoth Penguins later too. As well as songs from their self-titled album there was also a new unrecorded song and a French interlude to celebrate Bastille Day.

Violet Woods have an album to be proud of, as now do Mammoth Penguins, with new disc ‘Hide And Seek’ forming the majority of their set. The packed-in and very hot audience warmed to the stripped back and very tight sound, a balance that often only the classic guitar, bass, drums line-up can achieve. Emma Kupa sings tales of grown-up disappointment, regret and hope, mostly distilled into three minute bursts of indie joy with biting lyrics floating on great bass/drum interplay and sharp guitar.

‘Propped Up’, ‘Played’, ‘Strength In My Legs’ are all neat snapshots and ‘March Of The Penguins’ is pure pop delight cloaking a bitter summary of rejection. A promising unrecorded song ‘Put It All On You’ showed a different direction with all of the band contributing vocals and then they finished with the dark chronicle of perceived failure ‘When I Was Your Age’ with the closing line ‘I’m going nowhere…’

Perfect summer listening, deserving a much bigger audience…

Sarah Cracknell : Red Kite, released June 2015

As the voice of Saint Etienne, Sarah Cracknell has given a distinctive tone to their many cool and sparse musical vignettes. It is going back a bit, but their ‘Too Young To Die : Singles 1990-1995’ is a great listen.

A follow up to ‘Lipslide’ from 1997, this new solo album features co-writing and many instruments played by Carwyn Ellis of Colorama. The opening track ‘On The Swings’ is a beauty, the spooky introduction creates for me an image of 4am on a damp London Street in 1965 even before the vocal breathes in to take it to another level. Sarah has an instantly recognisable voice, never seeming to try too hard she dominates the piece. The duet with Nicky Wire on the radio-friendly ‘Nothing Left To Talk About’ is the bittersweet ending of a relationship, short and sharp with slide guitar. ‘In The Dark’ is a smooth and velvety voice over waves of acoustic guitar and building strings.

And so the album flows and dreams on like a perfect summer evening. Folk-rock duo The Rails add layers of harmony to ‘Take The Silver’ and the cover of the song ‘The Mutineer’ goes into gentle folk territory. ‘Hearts Are For Breaking’ is pure up-tempo pop. ‘I Am Not Your Enemy’ has sinister guitar lines and is a bit different in texture to the rest, then the closing lullaby of ‘Favourite Chair’ showcases Sarah’s pure vocal.

This album is a grower, give it a spin through the summer and like me hope one day to see her in concert…

Franz Ferdinand/Sparks : F.F.S, released June 2015

Franz Ferdinand recording with Sparks?! A dream collaboration, resulting in this new album. Along with early Roxy Music, Sparks’ TV performances still stand out when shown on the many music compilations shows from the 70s (thanks BBC4!) and their ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’ is prime-cut electronica from 1979. Franz Ferdinand continue to be a formidable live attraction (see my review on this site) and last album ‘Right Words…’ kept up their high standard.

The sixteen tracks kick off with ‘Johnny Delusional’, a keyboard-led stomper and from the start it is clear that this offspring has shared the traits from the two parents equally. ‘Call Girl’ keeps the energy up, then listening onwards you get the feeling that they are recording all sorts of styles and ideas, then without thinking too much sticking it on the album anyway. A commendable attitude indeed, this experimentation yields many delights – the most spectacular being the many sections of mini-operetta ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’, probably unlike anything else released this year?

Across the songs the lyrical subject matter covers modern obsessions, cultural touchstones, semi-obscure icons, death references (‘so many bridges in the world to jump off of….’) and the music jumps around unpredictably. ‘Save Me From Myself’ could be an Abba greatest hit and ‘The Power Couple’ an excerpt from an updated Brecht/Weill songbook.

It is all a bit much in one listen, but give the album time, you will be occasionally disappointed but in the end richly rewarded…

Half Man Half Biscuit, The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, 12 June 2015

‘At DFS a job I have landed
But I don’t get paid for the first five years…’

If that raises a smile you could be a potential fan of the cult national treasure that is Half Man Half Biscuit. They arrived on stage to the sounds of ‘Summer Is A-Comen In’ from the film The Wicker Man, a tribute to recently deceased actor Christopher Lee and as soon as they started it was clear that The Apex was a fine venue for their show, with good sound quality allowing the words to be heard.

Frontman Nigel Blackwell continues to explore the lyrical backwoods of living in small towns, daytime TV, musical trends, forgotten celebrities and one-time sports stars. His surreal narratives combine astute observations, rants, jokes, absurd wordplay and almost unintentionally end up as social documents of the minutiae of life not recorded elsewhere.

Sometimes more serious subjects are filtered through the same process and make statements about unemployment (‘Turned Up, Clocked On, Laid Off’), mental illness (‘Used To Be In Evil Gazebo’) and death (‘When The Evening Sun Goes Down’). Of course there are the ‘love songs’, she always leaves (with featureless TV Producer Steve… in ‘The Light At The End Of The Tunnel’), or is missing and renders all else pointless (‘For What is Chatteris…’) or there are relationship misunderstandings (‘My Outstretched Arms’).

And there is much much more; celebrate the delights of Korfball in ‘Joy in Leeuwarden’, experience the insomnia of ‘Restless Legs’, recall that BBC 6Music was nearly closed down if it hadn’t been for the campaigning anthem ‘Joy Division Oven Gloves’ and of course relive the anticipation and disappointments of ‘All I Want For Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit’.

In the two hour show early songs from ‘Back In the DHSS’ (their first album and John Peel favourite) went down a storm, as did the newest tracks from current album ‘Urge For Offal’ but their back catalogue is so rich there was plenty else they could have included.

Its not just the words and wit, they are not to be underestimated musically. As a live outfit they are a taut, noisy post-punk riot of guitars, drums and grinding bass. Between songs Nigel holds the crowd with tall tales and reminiscence, handing out luxury backstage crisps and getting the front row to decipher the setlist. He is a likeable bloke and clearly still enjoys performing and meeting his audience. It was a brilliant show; they play dates now and then instead of long tours, probably a very civilized way to be?

All together now…
‘For you I’d lose my self-esteem
For you I’d lose my self-esteem
For Crewe I’d use Junction 16…’

Trick Bird : Window EP, released June 2015

The new EP from Cambridge musician Trick Bird, a collection of self-penned tracks, well-crafted inviting sounds with their apparent summery lightness tempered by a darkening edge.

1. Window. The title song is a catchy pop tune, nicely arranged with a distinctive hook in which the narrator is fascinated and tempted by a vision/imagined temptation in a window, but like Odysseus drawn to the Sirens’ enchanted call you sense it would not end well.

2. Horizontal View. A similar musical feel to track one, evolving from an echoing guitar intro into a more complex sound. A slightly sinister lyric about snow, forests and hidden paths. Driven along well by drums and multi layered guitars, but still a feeling of claustrophobia..

3.The Great Escape. Pulsing bass line with almost whispered vocal, not sure what the paranoid singer is escaping from, this one is all about texture and ambience.

4. Chase. Relaxing acoustic strumming and a gentle repeating guitar line coiling around the layers of other instruments floating in and out, including some rather lovely strings taking over at the end..

5. Sleep All Day (Dream All Night). A suggestion of early Pink Floyd or Genesis (1970 album ‘Trespass’) for this song describing cycling through a graveyard and then becoming enveloped in its more mystical elements (like the ivy entangling the gravestones?). It is my favourite track, a sparse but rich arrangement, with atmospheric keyboards and more strings..