Smoke Fairies : Out Of The Woods, single released August 2019

Rejoice! the Smoke Fairies are back! After a tour in 2015 with Public Service Broadcasting (and their vocals on The Race For Space album) there was the highly regarded seasonal LP ‘Wild Winter’ and then silence. Now we have the release of a superb new single ‘Out Of The Woods’ with an accompanying video and the hope of more music to come.

With a confident guitar figure in the introduction this track has that brooding, relentless feel of the best of their work, including a lyric loaded with threat and ambiguity, ‘….. Like the tangled roots I grew into you…. in winter’s mires you burn your fires…and you burn me too…’.

Every element is in place; the verses are heavy with melancholy and questioning but it is the harmonies in the chorus that really drive the track along ‘….Out there in the trees…the branches moving…I want to follow you but you cut your path straight through me…’. Sparsely arranged to focus on the hypnotic guitar and unadorned drum beats this distinctive folk-rock soon has the listener under its spell.

The video has the duo playing guitar and running through London Docklands and Epping Forest while a semi-mythical figure blends with the boughs lit only by the occasional sunlight through the trees. All very atmospheric and mysterious, reminiscent of cult eighties movie ‘The Company of Wolves’, illustrating the light and dark of the track perfectly.

https://smokefairies.bigcartel.com/
https://cambridgemusicreviews.net/2015/04/26/public-service-broadcasting-corn-exchange-cambridge-25-april-2015/

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Elma, Babylon Gallery, Ely, 4 August 2019

Elma showcased their new line-up in the attractive setting of a riverside art gallery in the small cathedral city of Ely, well worth the short journey from Cambridge.
It had been a much longer trip from Ireland for singer/songwriter Darragh Cullen; he immediately made a connection with the audience as he performed a short collection of originals accompanied by his acoustic guitar and smooth background vocals from Sinead McConville.

‘Rising Tide’ set the tone for evocative, rhythmic-driven songs, given a personal touch with the description of life for twenty-somethings in Dublin’s ‘Bridge Street’. Darragh moved to piano for new song ‘Leave With Love’ then finished his fine set with a bit of audience singing for gospelly new single ‘Alright’.

It was the first Elma show for multi-instrumentalist and singer Rhiannon Penney, making a big impact in the first song ‘On Track’. In a new direction for the band, Rhiannon unleashed her inner Bonnie Raitt for a belting slice of double guitar blues rock. Having the extra instrumental options means more flexibility in their live set; with Rhiannon at the piano for ‘The Game’, a sinister waltz that could easily be a classic sixties TV theme.

When not playing his great-sounding semi-acoustic guitar Mark Ellis is a relaxed and witty frontman and he described the background to some of his newer compositions, including the elegiac ode to change ‘For Yesterday’ relating to the closure of music venues, as well as the romantic London skyline that inspired ‘City Lights’. This is a delicate but show-stopping ballad, beautifully sung by the duo with the subtlest of guitar backing.

Some of the more uptempo tracks from debut LP ‘Dreamland’ were re-imagined including a slower version of ‘Slo-Mo’ (the song that started off the band) and ‘California’ the stomping anthem I last saw performed with a full brass section at the Portland Arms album launch.

The new arrangements show the depth of the songwriting, with the two musicians able to complement each other and embellish the structures of each piece.

‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ was a memorable song to cover for an encore (at the soulful pace of the Gladys Knight hit version) then this excellent show closed with their bittersweet Spector spectacular ‘September’.

Off into the studio soon and fired with enthusiasm the future looks bright for Elma…

https://www.facebook.com/elmaband/
https://www.facebook.com/darragh.cullen.54

(Photo by Paul Cullen)

Bug Teeth : When All The World Has Gone To Bed, EP released July 2019

Appropriately self-described as ‘…the sounds dreams make…’, this is a five track EP from electropop auteur Bug Teeth, originally digitally available in 2018 and now released as a CD version to tie in with various live dates including the Latitude Festival.

1. Confetti Death This starts with an insistent cello-like tone undulating in intensity that provides the key reference point for the track, other layers join then finally a distant voice appears, treated into an otherworldly, ghostly instrument. The overall effect is haunting and powerful, pulling the listener into a strange world.

2. Serotonin My favourite song on the EP, Bug Teeth garnishes the electronics with a guitar loop; this one glistens in the sunshine before it is joined by some persuasive percussion beats that take it to another level. Again the voice tantalises with parts of lines and words revealed, then disappearing into the ether.

3. Raspberry The synthesisers have an analogue eighties sound here with waves of sound washing invitingly over the listener before the inquiring, plaintive voice arrives. Like the other tracks there is a feeling of timeless and limitless space.

4. Forests on the Way There
A short guitar-driven intro with a small jump in the loop to unsettle the sound, before other themes and lines interweave. While the strings are relatively untreated the vocal is echoing and weaving through the dark trees in this evocatively named track.

5. Moth (Jasmine’s Song
) A pulsing synthesiser with slowly descending electric piano is the musical core of the finale. Bug Teeth does not compromise the sound and ideas, breaking conventions of song structure and vocal presentation every time to create something magical, involving and enduring….

https://www.facebook.com/insectcavities/

Ember Rev : From The Country To The City To The Sea, LP released 20 September 2019

A new album from Cambridge art/folk rockers Ember Rev, a complex mixture of acoustic mystery and thoughtful intensity. It is said there are only seven basic plots for any story, this presumably applies to concept albums too; here it is the ‘quest’ and the ‘voyage and return’ that give an arc to this set of songs and instrumentals.

‘Like Dreamers’ places the story in possibly an imaginary context, a floating ethereal landscape where the cymbals roll in and out and the accordion becomes a haunting meander. ‘From The Country ‘ describes the optimistic and youthful narrators setting off on an odyssey across the countryside into Cambridge ‘….and with our hip flask full and boots tied tight we set off to search for gold….’. The groove of this track stays restless and Dan Ecclestone’s vocals immediately pull you into the action.

‘To The City’ jumps ahead to a surreal interlude of a parade of lanterns in the capital, a metaphor for moving on. The most uptempo track here, it has a satisfyingly loose structure with a neat hookline and guitar figure, eventually dissolving into an extended workout with guest clarinet making a welcome contribution.

Two instrumentals follow, the first a short scene-setter with extra tuned percussion cameos then ‘Walk/Don’t Walk’ is a more ambitious piece, with terrific drumming driving a late seventies Brand X influenced piece of jazz fusion. ‘And So To The Sea’ hints at a tragedy to come on the final stage of the journey/quest ‘…..but I waited, I waited there at the water’s edge you never returned….’. The acoustic guitar gleams with melancholy and dominates the song. ‘Be Still’ is a wordless meditation where the mournful voice becomes a darker instrument to counterpoint the light of the accordion.

‘Ultramarine’ is a multi-sectioned piece with surreal musings on life and death with the inevitable draw of the sea for the central character ‘…let’s swim with the fishes tonight..and dance to their ebb and their flow…had you asked me jump I’d have jumped; and the waves would’ve welcomed me under…’. Instrumentally there is lots going on here – all of the band making an excellent contribution to this affecting mini-movie.

As Dan performs the Peter Gabriel-esque final track ‘Like Dolphins’ he leaves the listener in no doubt that the allusions in earlier songs reference a tragedy ‘….for though we slowly came of age you remained…and of your bones are coral made…’; one that lingers with those involved, as does this very personal and thought-provoking album.

https://www.facebook.com/EmberRev/

R.J. Archer & The Painful Memories, EP released July 2019

A new EP from Cambridge bluesman Richard Archer, a favourite on this site and now recording as the trio R.J. Archer & The Painful Memories, bringing the welcome addition of a neglected style to the Cambridge music scene.

1. It’s Snowing in Hell A song that first surfaced on his 2017 EP, this is now given the full band treatment, adding an extra energy to the insistent riff, always returning to that great title line,‘…you tell me that you’re doing well, it must be snowing in hell…..’ With the gradually increasing desolation of the vocal it is a mini Tarantino movie soundtrack. Roger James on bass and Ben Kingsbury on drums make their presence felt at the end of this excellent track.

2. Bad Guys Always Win A more free-form track with RJ’s best vocal performance and lots of instrumental embellishments and nuance. The lyric is of course a tale of woe but with a twist away from the personal heartache to more general and bleak regard of the human condition ‘……comeuppance never comes along and where it’s gone nobody knows….they used to end up in jail, now it seems they can’t fail…‘.
An anthem for our mixed-up times…

3. In The Wrong The other two tracks were sparser in their sharpness; this one is full-on blues rock with unashamedly distorted guitar smeared across the mix creating a triumphant ‘as-live’ sound. The powerfully delivered declaiming lyric pulls no punches in its meaning, ‘….you’re in the wrong, there will be hell to pay….’.
A speeded up ending reminds us that there is something invincible and addictive about a bluesy rock trio in full flight.

https://www.facebook.com/RJArcherMusic/

Film Review of ‘Yesterday’, released June 2019

The premise of this film is now well known; struggling musician wakes up in a world in which nobody knows of The Beatles so he seizes the opportunity to pass off the classic songs as his own. The concept is then weaved skilfully into romantic comedy, family and buddy movie, satire on the music business, East Anglian travelogue, a cameo from Michael Kiwanuka and generous helpings of Ed Sheeran. In the hands of writer Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle this all works as it should but of course some of the prominent reviews are predictable and fairly lukewarm.

I have limited interest in the much more favourably reviewed recent megahit music biopics (I would rather watch a proper documentary!) but I believe this film delves into something deeper – through the vehicle of well-known Beatles music there is a less frequently told tale of the huge creative and emotional investment that so many artists have in their writing and performing which is probably never going to lead to ‘bigger things’ – the antithesis of reality TV easy fame.
Lead character Jack has stumbled on a goldmine but still wants his ‘Summer Song’ to feature on the album, as he is so connected to his own compositions.
Few around him share his enthusiasm, except some well-meaning friends and sweet-natured but steely superfan Ellie. Unfortunately this is so true – many original musicians continue to play and record while the world around them only seems interested in the well established acts or variations that are openly commercial.

I didn’t grow up with the Beatles as a soundtrack, they have always been in the background with some songs far too overplayed (heresy warning – especially ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Let It Be’). In recent years I have heard some of their album tracks for the first time and realised the depth and richness of the back catalogue.
The song selection here is not huge but there are many gems; ‘Back In The USSR’ helps develop the plot, the sublime ‘In My Life’ probably surpasses ‘Yesterday’ as a show-stopping ballad and best of all the triumphant ‘Help’, a punk-scarred full-band blast in front of a huge crowd of extras on Gorleston beach. (I wish I had been there….and are there other outtakes from this mini-show?)

With some fun plot twists and star performances from Himesh Patel and Lily James this is a heartwarming entertainment with plenty of interest for the music enthusiast. I highly recommend it.
To paraphrase Noël Coward; “Strange how potent Beatles music is.”

https://www.yesterdaymovie.com/

The New Fools : Brilliant, LP released June 2019

A track by track review of the new album from Cambridge band The New Fools (their name drawn from a Bob Dylan lyric…)

1. The Big Wheel A cracking opener – rolling along and relentlessly driven by acoustic guitar. With sharp similes to describe the excitement of a new relationship it is a warm and engaging lyric ‘….like the first page of your diary…you make me feel brand new….’. There may be a darker twist at the end but the Wave Pictures/REM groove makes this one of the best tracks on the album. I saw the band play this at the Cambridge NCI club back in February; it is an excellent live track too.

2. A New Way of Thinking Optimistic but tinged with regret; a manifesto for starting afresh and moving on over jazzy bar room piano and some neat brass lines.

3. Singalong A fun but searing indictment of the modern music ‘industry’ and hopeful recollection of a possibly non-existent past when ‘…we were happy enough to just singalong…’. The acquisition of money and fame for its own sake leading to decay brings to mind the seminal 1974 film ‘Stardust’, touched on again in recent Beatles-themed movie ‘Yesterday’.

4. Martine (and Me) There is plenty going on in this song, a sort of mini dramatic opera where the narrator lives a normal drab life while fantasy partner Martine is on a different plane altogether. The track succeeds in blending these worlds together over an ever-changing musical background featuring a cello sound and lots of interesting guitar work. After a gradual picking up of pace it ends with ‘…when the cops burst in they think they’re gonna find Bonnie and Clyde…but all they find is Martine and me….’ and a playout guitar solo completes the circle.

5. Everything This track is a bit of a grower – a thoughtful meditation on the passing of time and our cosmic insignificance. Perhaps they are depressing thoughts but lifted by a strong melody and a stealthily building guitar-driven rhythm and keyboard colouring.

6. George & Adele More comment on the media, music industry and its distortion by reality talent shows (I think?). A distinctive brass fanfare and some angry-sounding electric guitar provide the tension while you ponder on who exactly is George?

7. The Boy You Met On Holiday This is the melodic and emotional highpoint of the album. A simple tune goes straight to the heart with an evocative timeless lyric of longing and loss. The mournful and well-judged flugelhorn solo gives that flavour of melancholy like a long-forgotten colliery brass band.

8. (Waiting for the) Good Times Irresistibly catchy but different in tone to anything else on the album. An anthem of procrastination (always an uncomfortable trait to admit to!) juxtaposed with a jaunty call and response vocal and rolling along instrumentation. As an album closer it is certainly a memorable end to the collection.

https://www.facebook.com/thenewf00ls/