The debut single from Cambridge band Apteekii starts with a gentle but moody piano punctuated by restless electronic pulses. The lyric soon sets the tone of the message of this track with the bleak ‘….just another Saturday…as you scream into the void…..alI I hear is birds that tweet….’. It is portraying a swirling mix of the pernicious influences of fake news, distorted messages and the exploitation of negative social media. This is chillingly shown by the infamous comments that scroll behind the song words within the video.
It is not all downbeat – despite the despairing ‘….the more I read, the less I see, the less I understand…’ of the chorus the music sounds more optimistic. It is lifted by layers of synthesiser with a rich cello sound and there are glimmers of hope; ‘…so be my guide…to know what’s right…before it’s washed away…’ could be a fragment from a tender love song.
This is a complex, immaculately produced and thoughtful debut from this talented trio.
Continuing the build-up to an EP later this year Graywave, the performing name of Birmingham singer/songwriter Jess Webberley, releases a final preview single. In many ways this is a companion piece that climbs down from the all-out onslaught of ‘Like Heaven’ back in December 2020. On that track multiple layers of sound were wrenched from the decibel dense guitar as the drums languidly punctuated the pace. Jess’s vocal soared through the mix; deliberately not escaping but melding into the whole.
Now new song ‘Before’ addresses the subject of anxiety in the lyric while musically building on a mysterious, echoing guitar line. This blends with a percussive pattern that starts and stops like an expiring heartbeat. The final minute is a rich explosion of sound; perhaps contrarily described as ‘#ambient’ on Soundcloud this track crams volumes of emotion and highly charged dynamics into its short run time.
On this debut album from Canadian singer/songwriter Madisyn Whajne the first track ‘Summer Love ‘ is a supreme slice of dreampop with an edge, as a hypnotic drum pattern is a platform for a sublime voice and all over hypnotic effect.
Then ‘Killing Desire’ maintains the momentum as a seventies style glam rock piano figure drives a minimally chorded epic into pure pop heaven.
‘One Shot’ is in rockier territory, where the band battles with the vocal to great effect. Madisyn drives the vocal straight through the middle of the musical mayhem.
This opening triumphant triumvirate of tracks is followed by the duet ‘So In Love’, where Madisyn and James Grey deliver a neat ballad, before the chiming vocal glories of ‘Sweet Talk’ and the punchy pulses and descending scale of ‘Don’t Walk Away’. ‘When Morning Comes’ echoes the ambience of dreamy pop titans Alvvays and ‘Never Give In’ is reflective and relaxed.
The last two tracks showcase the contrasting sides of Madisyn Whajne; the up tempo airiness of ‘Fire’ and the looser, bleaker threads of the title track finale bring this superb collection to an end.
A solo debut release for singer/songwriter Dan Ecclestone, last heard as part of Ember Rev on their 2019 album (see review here).
1.Half of All We See Are Shadows. The opener sets the pace and palette for the collection; acoustic instruments enhance the piano as Dan’s voice conjures up lost days, recollections and connections. The imagery is beguiling ‘….watch the lights flicker down there….as there in the shallows tiny minnows dance as if flames in a fire…’ before a soaring chorus ‘…..all the world was watching us that day….’. Unrestrained by too firm a structure the song ebbs and flows, allowing atmosphere and expression to come through.
2. Cri Du Coeur. This starts by showing how effective a simple piano/vocal structure can be then the track sends the listener into a different direction as the strings and drums create an expansive soundscape.
3. Approaching Silence. A wistful musing on regret and the passing of time, built around the opening line ‘…as I approach the age my father died…’, with minimalist keyboard before a sudden stop to this thoughtful minute and a half.
4. King of Lands of Skies and Sea. The musical centrepiece of the album, a calming opus springing from the evocative title. The unhurried verses evolve into the grand chorus with the chamber orchestra at full stretch then dying away to beautiful effect.
5. This Uphill River. Recalling the edgy polyrhythms of Ember Rev this track increases the pace of the collection, pushed on by a spiking drum pattern battling with soothing strings and brass. Dan’s restless vocal drives and binds all the elements of the song together.
6. I Forever Dream of Home. With just piano and voice the finale is a jazzy, late night meditation, tinged with melancholy but there is an undercurrent of hope. The recurring line ‘…….will you still be there when I get home…..’ lingers in the memory as this excellent album concludes.
A distillation of tracks taken from some of the memorable albums, singles and shows of 2020…
1. Coral : i just want you cause you’re gone. Probably my single of the year, a glorious summery confection where the bass and drums maintain a pulsing beat as an unadorned guitar runs up the scale to dreampop heaven. Floating on top is Coral’s voice delivering tones of regret, melancholy and a certain amount of hope on this brilliant track.
2. Ward Thomas : Someday. As the duo move their country sounds towards pop territory they can still deliver the heartfelt emotion on this big ballad (listen as well to the acoustic version…)
3. Salt House : Staring at Stars. The last live performance I saw in 2020 featured this acoustic folk evocation of windswept islands, timeless in its beauty, especially when the instrumental section takes over. A reminder of a very special show.
4. Josienne Clarke : Seconds. As the opener to her live show early this year this was quiet, gentle and magical.
5. Smoke Fairies : Out of the Woods. Wintry and sensuous, when heard played loud by the full band this track was a dark and dense treat.
6. Bob Dylan : I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You. This emotive slow and shuffling waltz is one of many highlights from the long-awaited album of new material.
7. Moscoman feat. Tom Sanders : What Do We Care. Sparse and finely honed electronics as the perfect backdrop for icy vocals from Teleman’s Tom.
8. Mammoth Penguins : Closure. I never tire of seeing this Cambridge trio perform and their recordings too capture the band energy and shared emotions, especially on this track which brings many aspects of their musical styles together.
9. Harriet Rose : Small Town Chains. The UK Americana/country scene is filled with talented writers and performers as emphatically shown on this debut single from Harriet Rose, it is an anthem of positivity and assertion.
10. Love Ssega : Find Another Way. A key song from immersive politico-dance LP ‘Celebration’, this is a swirling tapestry of rhythm, electronics and interweaving vocals from the London singer/songwriter.
11. The Harriets : Cafe Disco. Indie quartet from Leeds captures the spirit of early Pulp in this instantly likeable track, full of atmosphere and instrumental nuance.
12. Emzae : Thrive. Eighties stylings in this electro-funktastic culmination of a string of classy singles from the Derby singer/songwriter.
The debut EP from Edinburgh quartet Yellow Helen is a varied and rich mix….
1: I Know. The most immediate track on the EP, a confident swagger of 60s pop influences, retro guitars, echoing backing voices and an interplay between verse and chorus that interlocks perfectly.
2: Frills and Lace. A sinister waltz with acoustic guitar and organ as a platform for a complex and surreal lyric, ‘…..circumnavigate once you’re caught in the jaws of a grizzly bear….’, before an edgy guitar solo joins in the end build-up. An ambitious track, and on repeated listens very much an addictive treat.
3: Spooky. Never quite sure where this EP leads to next, this is a built around a lingering descending guitar figure, languid electric piano chords and another set of strange words. This could easily accompany a pastoral interlude in a 70s psychological thriller.
4: Honeymoon Suite. With a wide ranging bass line to the fore the title track is another mini-movie, with wordplay ‘….please concierge….don’t give me the urge to leave a hateful review….’ and a nice relaxed feel to the instrumentation. Reminding me of the eccentricities of current indie stylists Tugboat Captain and back to the acidic reflections of The Divine Comedy, this is a fine conclusion to this excellent EP.
This is a version of a lesser known Bing Crosby seasonal offering; it is superficially a cosy Christmas love song but there are some dark undertones too. Gold Baby have used the lyric of isolation to reflect where we are at the end of 2020, ‘….looks like a long, long winter…what do we care?….’, but ultimately a bit of tentative optimism to see us through. ‘…..far from you, I’ll make it through if I know you’re still there……’.
Whatever the messages of the words, the music is a mellow mix of gently glistening guitar and mellow bass and drums. The band showcase these simple and beautiful chord changes as Siân Alex delivers a sensitive, airy vocal laced with harmonies and wintry firelight.
Canadian collective The Dears have packed plenty into this joyous five minutes; tubular and sleigh bells, catchy vocal call and exchange chorus along with heightened emotions and imagery, ‘I could have never imagined you’d say to me that night….behind the rumbles of the snowploughs on the buried streets of white….’. There are many varied sections, always returning to the timeless refrain ‘…you’re my only Christmas Love…’, then building up to a big finish with the full band in overdrive. There is even a contrasting B side, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ set to a less familiar and melancholic melody. Hopefully these tracks will get an airing when I eventually see the band performing in Cambridge next November….
While still waiting for the release of their new LP, power-punk quartet Fightmilk release a seven track EP of solo contributions and cover versions, with proceeds going to the Trussell Trust. The titles themselves sum up the acerbic wit of ‘(I’m Stuck at the) Work Christmas Party’ and ‘I’m Dreaming of a Christmas (Where You Just Explode)’ while ‘Happy Christmas (I Guess I’ll See You Next Year)’ is a bittersweet reflection on the state of the year, ‘….the second album’s finished, but we can’t go get a beer…I’d really love to spread some joy and cheer…by singing something loud for all to hear….and high-five the rest of Fightmilk without fear…’.
I’m not sure why Britney Spears’ My Only Wish (This Year) is not more of a playlist staple, so bassist Healey’s fuzzy pop version here is a very welcome revival. ‘Little Drummer Boy’ was always a bit of a strange song, with memories of the Bowie/Bing video. Probably less covered is ‘It Feels Like Christmas’ from the much loved ‘Muppet Christmas Carol’ movie; somehow here singer Lily manages to perform the whole range of parts. Then there is the very husky skiffle of ‘Driving Home For Christmas’ to bring this seasonal confection to an end…
From the introductory guitar footsteps in the snow and sleigh-bell beat there is no mistaking the intention of this gorgeous seasonal offering from Elma. Rhiannon’s pure and natural voice sets the scene ‘….it’s gonna feel strange to celebrate this year…. but I still think we should…’. and we soon get to the perfectly judged hookline ‘….send love this Christmas…it isn’t hard to do….and love will come right on back to you…’. Mark adds layers of ringing guitar lines and backing vocals to an uncluttered, retro and timeless mix. There is a winning middle-eight and by the end the duo have proved once again that their melodic command, vocal delivery and pop song construction is impeccable.
Jo Ash has created an atmospheric song drawing on images of lost battlefields, forgotten heroes and lingering memories. In her emotional tale of farewells she uses echoing, repeating piano figures and orchestral synthesisers to generate a tense, dramatic backing to her soaring vocals.
Lyrically and musically evoking a dark season, ‘…..look up to the diamond sky…..a blanket of a million miles….encompassing you and I….’, but there is still hope ‘….I’ll never be too far from home….’. Finally there is reflection ‘….. I hear the words he said to me as I recall those winter nights…..as we made paper cards around the tree, and sang Silent Night….’.
So ideally sat in front of the fire with mulled wine in hand; slow down, hibernate and listen to this affecting track, contemplating the unchanging rhythms of the winter solstice.
A fun song with a serious message from singer/songwriter Louise Eatock, who usually performs in the indie-folk band Flaming June and now releases this single as a one-off with group The Eli Lillies.
The profits are going to mental health charities and the essence of the lyric is clear in an effort to remove the stigma of necessary treatment ; ‘…..’cause with the right medication…Christmas can be such a fun celebration…’.
Louise can always turn a neat phrase in her compositions and ‘……Christmas can be fun and I will show you how…so take a mood stabilizer for your breakfast….and an anti-anxiety tablet for tea……pop an anti-depressant when you open your presents….’ pulls no punches with a great balance of humour too. Musically it is a real treat, a sort of vigorous folk/punk mix up with crashing noise suddenly giving way to sleigh bells and 60s harmonies. Enjoy the celebratory energy of the video too!
The last single from London based singer/songwriter Dexy was the seasonal ‘Xmas Lights’ in 2018, an affecting meditation on love and loss with bittersweet lyrics such as ‘….I can’t stand another Christmas alone…’ or ‘….I’m blowing out all the candles…pushed your presents back under the bed….’. That may seem a bit downbeat but it is strangely uplifting especially when the full band sound kicks in.
Now new release ‘Drop Your Hand’ arrives, a precursor to his second long-player in early 2021. This is more up-tempo, driven along by rhythm guitar and featuring Hammond organ textures and a persistent drum pulse from collaborator Steve.
Dexy’s vocal delivery has a purity that is laced with tension and reflection ‘…..getting older takes no effort at all….but getting kinder?…that’s a task too tall…’. It is appropriate to the dismissive tone of some of the words, describing that the only way out of the difficult situation is just ‘moving on’. This is summarised concisely in the final stanza ‘……tried to walk together….but you’ve got some way to go…and we could talk forever….and you’d still say you don’t know….so drop your hand, I’ll burn this bridge alone…’.
The metre of the final phrase could be a musical nod to ‘I’ll Sail My Ship Alone’ made popular by Hank Williams or the similarly titled hit by The Beautiful South. As in those songs, the reluctant optimism in ‘Drop Your Hand’ is underpinned by melancholy and a memorable melody; this would make a strong opening track for the forthcoming album…?
A compilation of cover versions of James Bond film themes, with all the artists connected in some way to punk-pop legends The Wedding Present, raising money for charityThe Campaign Against Living Miserably (see link below).
1. James Bond Theme – The Sleazoids. Amiable workout of that most recognizable entry theme for a film character, a flute adds to the feedback and fuzz before the distinctive final chord.
2. You Only Live Twice – The Wedding Present. One of the finest melodies, interweaved with that distinctive John Barry counterpoint figure. David Gedge delivers the words with relaxed gravitas.
3. Goldfinger – Simone White. The bombast of the original is stripped away for a beguiling vocal over a guitar that emphasises all the beauty of the jazzy chords.
4. Goldeneye – Follow The Moths. A lesser theme to start with but full of sinister intrigue building up to the big chorus.
5. The Man With The Golden Gun – Jetstream Pony. One of my favourites of the collection, pacy and punchy with time for a dreamy interlude in the two minutes.
6. Live And Let Die – The Donalds. The highly regarded multi-sectioned source material is treated with fun and reverence, the semi-spoken vocal imbues some tongue in cheek drama.
7. The World Is Not Enough – Maria Scaroni. This torch song lends itself to the 1920s Berlin nightclub atmosphere and the piano and sensuous voice sound like they are in the room with you.
8. Diamonds Are Forever – Cinerama. Full of atmosphere, emphasising the stealthy smooth melodic allure.
9. Tomorrow Never Dies – Danielle Wadey & Charles Layton. Another favourite of mine, with the descending echoing piano intro and arpeggios, full Spector-ish chorus and soaring but vulnerable vocal. Sensational.
10. All Time High – Minitel. Experimental electronica which builds layers of complexity, the song is in there somewhere (but at the time it was never the most memorable?)
11. Nobody Does It Better – Samuel Beer-Pearce. Slowed down version with sliding acapella harmonies turn this into a late night interlude.
12. For Your Eyes Only – Klee. Developing the 80s synth tones of the original, this is a sensuous, immersive electronic journey driven by a strong vocal performance.
13. Thunderball – The Legendary Len Liggins. Spiky guitar and super deep bass underpins this summation of the Bond character before Len deconstructs the myth in a surprise spoken passage…
14. Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – Sleeper featuring David Lewis Gedge. The proposed theme for Thunderball but then instead used in the film soundtrack, it is full of energy with great lines ‘…like a shark he looks for trouble ..that’s why the zeroes double…’
15. From Russia With Love – Graeme Ramsay. Languorous and echoing, dark and sinister, this is another melodic highlight from the Bond canon.
16. View To A Kill – Terry de Castro. Sixties retro vibe with lounge music overtones gives subtle drama to one of the most commercially successful themes.
17. Die Another Day – The Ukrainians. The band are supreme masters of unexpected covers and as usual this one has all of their excellent musical trademarks. And it speeds up halfway through too….
18. Skyfall – Such Small Hands. The award winning original is turned inside out with hypnotic electronics, percussion and keys and a brilliant, haunting vocal.
19. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – Shaun Charman. John Barry’s descending bass sequence sounds as foreboding as ever, with a classy guitar solo over the top in this cinematic instrumental.
20. We Have All The Time In The World – David Lewis Gedge. As in the film, appearing at the finale and here sounding especially poignant with an unadorned classical piano accompaniment. A fitting end to this rich mix.