Product DetailsA few weeks ago I wrote a piece for MusicRiot on the Natalie Duncan album “Devil in Me”.  Before the piece was published, I had a few hard looks at one sentence which I thought might be seen as a bit harsh, particularly in the context of a very positive review, but I decided to go with it anyway; I must have been having a bit of a Lynne Truss moment.

This weekend one of Natalie’s supporters sent some feedback to the website in the form of a very polite and well-argued case defending the grammatical usage which I objected to.  After a very civilised exchange of emails, I’m happy to accept that the way the line was written was the result of an artistic decision and not a grammatical error.  Call it poetic licence if you like, but that’s the way Natalie Duncan wanted the line to sound and I’m not going to criticise that.  In the all-time list of grammatical clunkers in pop music, this wouldn’t even merit a mention.  How about “Live and Let Die” (thanks for pointing out that one Andy) and “Real Gone Kid”?  And Ricky Ross used to be a teacher as well.

I have to say that I’ve taken a couple of really strong positive messages from this episode.  It’s fantastic that there are people reading MusicRiot who feel so passionately about an artist’s music that they are willing to defend it in this way.  More importantly, I’m really pleased that two people can still have a respectful and intelligent debate about a fairly emotive issue and achieve some kind of resolution.

We try to make sure that everything published on MusicRiot is accurate, but any review is, inevitably, subjective and will reflect the reviewer’s opinions and prejudices to some extent.  If you don’t agree with something you see on the site, let us know why; we’re always open to discussion.  If you strongly agree with something, let us know about that as well, because we all like to have our egos stroked occasionally as well.

Anyway, the bottom line is that “Devil in Me” is still one of the best albums released this year and you should all be listening to it.

Product Details5 piece Canadian band Stars are now onto their sixth studio album, “The North”, which is the follow up to 2010’s in part lacklustre “The Five Ghosts” (even the weakest Stars album contains at least a handful of fantastic songs). There’s something very British and very old fashioned about the Stars although they have never had commercial success in this country and there’s no reason why that should change now. They sound like a look of bands that were big in UK pop around the late eighties (The Smiths are actually referred to on the final track ‘The Wall’ and Saint Etienne may want some of their middle eights back) and favour the male/female verse-sharing most effectively employed by The Human League along with the same predominantly electronic soundscape and they can be pretty broad.  Don’t think Crystal Castles more say The Beautiful South without the whimsy, on occasion at least; Stars are pretty hung up on nostalgia.

Opening track “The Theory Of Relativity” confidently sets the 1988 drum machine rolling and the union of Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell is fully established and intact by the minute and a half mark; it’s a glorious one and the ‘a warm standing ovation please for the dude who sold us ecstasy, he’s building homes now in the new third world’ line confirms the usual themes of past and present, suburbia versus the city with the man-child struggling with the overdue burden of adulthood,  like a slightly less depressed and analytical Arcade Fire. On the similar “Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It” you can’t help but hear New Order, but both songs hold their own without being pastiches. It’s the only time that something so big musically is attempted therefore making the second half of the album more introverted and complex and this is boosted a great deal by the solo tracks handled by Amy Millan, which seems like a realisation by the band that she should be given more songs as each album passes. She handles both the jangly warmth of “Backlines” and the chippy, flinty cool of “Progress” impeccably, not a major voice but an extremely affecting one.

The centre of the album is presented almost as a suite of 3 tracks that bleed into each other beginning with the fatalistic 1950’s strum of “Do You Want To Die Together?” which collapses into the Cyndi Lauperish “Lights Changing Colour” and then the blurry ambience of “The Loose Ends Will Make Knots” with it’s disconcerting, underlining synth line,  ghostly reminiscent of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. It demonstrates how this band have matured and can now allow themselves some breathing space in between all of the intensity.

Stars’ masterpiece is generally considered to be 2005’s “Set Yourself On Fire” which is a much more full bodied, bombastic album than “The North” but I think I prefer this direction; the small but careful details (the string arrangement of Backlines is so intricate and beautiful) have paid off and encourage you to come back time and again noticing new elements on each new listen. If you don’t own anything else by the group then pick this up, it’s a perfect representation of some of their best work to date and will help keep you in warm in the forthcoming months.

So.  I won’t be referring to the album cover art, Kate Bush or Florence and her posh Machine in this review. It seems as though no-one can discuss Nastasha Khan aka Bat For Lashes third album without referring to one of these three, detracting from the music offered here which is always interesting, sometimes beautiful and at times complex beyond necessity.  Bat For Lashes does remind me of many other artists on this album though and because of this I’m still not convinced that she is the true original that I hoped she may be evolving into.

More than anything else Khan has proved that she is a skilled song writer, 2009’s “Daniel” was a brilliant piece of smart pop and this time the name “Laura” has been chosen for the best thing that she may have put her name to. When first heard it marked her out as someone to now be taken seriously and as a lead single it was a brave move such is its starkness and mournful beauty. Maybe if it was recorded by Lana Del Rey it would have been a big hit, the themes of fractured glamour and forged identities that are apparent in “Video Games” are replicated with “Laura” although Khan doesn’t play the victim role like Del Rey, the soaring strength in her vocal is a life saver. So is it just a coincidence that both songs were co-written by Justin Parker? Khan apparently wanted a simply structured piano ballad for the album and approached Parker after liking what he done with Lana Del Rey and who really cares anyway when Natasha Khan sings the song so well and the impact is so devastating. “Laura” goes some distance in giving this album its heart and soul; there’s nothing else like it here. Bat For Lashes has since conception been an artist inextricably linked with a  very strong  physical image, that of gothic, mystical, medievalist and with “Laura” that appeared to have shifted somewhat to Natasha Khan, the person behind the feathers and Steeple Hennin hat but that isn’t quite the case.

According to Khan this was an album that almost never got made, suffering from tour burnout and struggling for inspiration she eventually, along with some help from her very talented friends (Beck, David Sitek and Adrian Utley amongst others), got it together and recorded this album with a theme of re-found strength and a newly discovered love of life. Some of these tracks are from the prospective of the usual Khan heroine referencing wars, blood and dying men and it’s on some of these tracks where she sometimes struggles. “Horses Of The Sun” continues to add layers of sound to the final choruses but lacks the proper climax it’s crying out for and the title track has a stand-alone male choir and military drumming but it all seems superfluous and trying too hard in the absence of a really good song. The opening track “Lilies”, with its cry of ‘I’m Alive!’, again struggles amongst its own bluster of r’n’b beats and percussion and strings (this following an intro that sounds like “Song To The Siren”) and “Marilyn” is a complete oddity; half way through the twitchy, skittering beats and flimsy melody a middle-eight of yodelling, chipmunk ‘yoo hoo’s!’ appears. It’s funny and unexpected but little else.

Leaving these, albeit fascinating but not fully realised tracks aside, there are some incredible songs and sounds here. Second single “All Your Gold”’s strutting guitar line introduction is a shock, it’s funky and possessed and not at all an indication of how it ends up; flecks of harp, strings gradually unfurling and an angular synth motif wrap themselves around Khan’s sumptuous vocals. The electro triptych of “A Wall”, “Rest Your Head” and, in particular, the ghoulish “Oh Yeah” (a drum machine and a loop of distorted male chorus of ‘Oh Yeah, Oh Yeah’s’) have a lightness to them and are a continuation from some of the musical themes established in “Two Suns”. She knows how to use space on these tracks which is no small skill and takes it way beyond the standard, electro scare pop material. “Winter Fields’” encapsulates what I hoped this album would be though, a perfect mesh of electronic and acoustic and Khan’s cool vocals state ‘In sub zero I can’t stand still, colours of absence flooding the hill’ and you swear you can see them; gorgeous stuff.

“The Haunted Man” is an album made by an artist who genuinely wants to make something special, who cares enough but has struggled a little in making something bigger than they’re capable of, at least for now. Khan has proved several times over now that she is a diverting and distinct presence, her voice can soothe and scare in equal measure and this album, which is still her best to date, is a solid demonstration of that along with her sometimes inspired musical instincts and deft songwriting.

Michael MarraI’m guessing that most of you, unless you’re Scottish or you’ve spent some time in Scotland, won’t even have heard of Michael Marra who died on Tuesday in his hometown of Dundee.  Michael was a true free spirit, an original and innovative songwriter who had an uncanny knack of tapping in to the Scottish psyche and who inspired, and was in turn worshipped by, generations of Scottish performers including Pat and Greg Kane, Eddi Reader and Ricky Ross.  His songs reflected life in Scotland from the 60s onwards and covered all of the subjects we talk about in the pub; football, politics and religion and all the rest.

I first saw Michael (or Mick as he was known then) playing with the band Skeets Boliver at Dundee University Students’ Association in my first year at university.  Skeets were a great live act and played constantly on the Dundee scene in the late 70s.  They even secured a record deal with Thunderbird Records, releasing two singles which went unnoticed outside Scotland as punk erupted and swept subtlety aside.  When the inevitable Skeets break-up came, Michael secured a two-album deal with Polydor, went to London and recorded the album “The Midas Touch”.  Despite critical acclaim, the relationship wasn’t made in heaven.  The second album didn’t happen and Michael moved back to Dundee; London’s loss.

The move left Michael free to write songs about subjects he was interested in and to write and sing in a Scottish idiom and accent; just using “wee” instead of “small” can make a huge difference to the way someone hears the song.  It was from this point that he found his true voice (I once described Southside Johnny’s voice as “honey poured over gravel”; Michael’s was broken glass poured over gravel, and totally authentic) and wrote his greatest songs.  After returning to Dundee, Michael’s reputation as a songwriter grew almost daily as he produced songs which reflected life in contemporary Scotland over a period of nearly thirty years.  You can find plenty of examples of Michael’s work on YouTube and I really recommend that you check some of them out.  If you want a bit of help, try these: “If Dundee was Africa”, “Chain Up the Swings” and “Mother Glasgow” (Hue and Cry).

Michael had a wicked sense of humour as well, probably developed by dealing with Dundee hecklers over the years.  I’ve got a Skeets Boliver live bootleg which features some Marra patter between songs and I loved his routine about the lack of promotion from Thunderbird for the second Skeets single, “Moonlight in Jeopardy”.  It went something like:  “They put up posters outside all the Tube stations in Dunfermline; and you know how many tubes there are in Dunfermline”.

My thoughts are with Michael’s family; their loss is so much greater than ours.  RIP Michael Marra; fans of real songwriting everywhere will miss you.

Product DetailsThis album has been out for a while and it’s taken us a few months to get round to reviewing it; I can only apologise.  I hadn’t heard of Natalie Duncan before her appearance on “Later” although, to be fair, I don’t think Matt Bellamy had either and he caught on fairly quickly.  So, let’s make amends for missing out originally.

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I love albums that cut to the chase and start with a track that features the power of the songs, the arrangements, the playing and the vocals.  The opener “Devil in Me” does all of that and more; a stunning a cappella intro showcases Natalie Duncan’s fabulous voice leading in to a song in 3/4 time which features classical guitar and traditional brass band instruments; how often do you hear a euphonium on a soul song?

This is an album that keeps you guessing; you never know what’s around the next corner musically or lyrically and even the production styles vary hugely across the album from the fairly straight soul of the title track through the country-folk styling of “Songbird” and the dub reggae feel of “Pick Me Up Bar” to the aggressive dissonance of “She Done Died”.  Lyrically, the first four songs on the album are in fairly standard territory for a downbeat soul chanteuse, but after “Sky is Falling”, the mood darkens with the intimations of mortality and irrelevance in “Old Rock” before moving into failed panaceas (“Pick Me Up Bar”), rootlessness (“Find Me a Home”) and failing relationships (“Flower”). And that’s before you get to the cocktail of sex, drugs, alcohol, love and betrayal of the powerful, emotionally-charged “She Done Died”.

Throughout the album, it’s impossible to fault the quality of the singing, the playing, the arrangements and the production.  The only small fault with the album is that, for me, some of the lyrics would benefit from a bit of extra polishing.  I know I can’t just say that without giving you an example, so how about “little man sat in the corner” from “Old Rock”.  There’s no reason for not using “sitting” rather than “sat” in that line; it fits in just as well with the melody and, for all of us grouchy old pedants, it’s  grammatically correct.  Apart from the slight doubts about the odd lyric, this is an incredibly polished, accomplished and moving album and the best debut album I’ve heard this year; Natalie Duncan is a name that you’ll be hearing for a long time to come.

It’s not just about the quality and variety either; there are 14 tracks on the album and they’re all worth listening to.  Approach this album with an open mind and you’ll find a unique talent drawing in influences from jazz, soul, blues, reggae and many other musical styles to create something that is totally Natalie Duncan.  It’s more Jill Scott than Alicia Keys, more Angie Stone than Joss Stone and much more Billie Holiday than Ella Fitzgerald; you won’t ever regret listening to this one.

A few weeks ago we reviewed Paul Carrack’s new album “Good Feeling” here on MusicRiot and we loved it.  If you haven’t listened to it yet, you really should.  If you want to hear the songs live, Paul and his band are just about to start a UK tour running through October and November.  Support on all dates will be the excellent Tinlin.

If you want to see Paul before that, BBC4 are showing an hour-long profile on Friday October 12 (10 pm) as part of an evening of Squeeze-related shows.

Tour dates


Tuesday 16 October                                              Derby, Assembly Rooms

Friday 19 October                                                  Worthing, Assembly Hall

Saturday 20 October                                             Bournemouth, Pavilion

Monday 22 October                                              Northampton, Derngate

Thursday 25 October                                            Scunthorpe, Baths Hall

Friday 26 October                                                 York, Barbican

Monday 29 October                                              Southend, Cliffs Pavilion

Tuesday 30 October                                              Ipswich, Regent

Wednesday 31 October                                        London, Indigo 2


Wednesday 7 November                                      Llandudno, North Wales Theatre

Thursday 8 November                                          New Brighton, Floral Pavilion

Sunday 11 November                                            Eastbourne, Congress Theatre

Monday 12 November                                           Swindon, Wyvern Theatre

Tuesday 13 November                                          Swansea, Grand Theatre

Friday 16 November                                              Preston, Charter Theatre

Saturday 17 November                                          Leamington Spa, Royal Spa Centre

Thursday 22 November                                        Crawley, The Hawth

Friday 23 November                                              Southampton, The Brook

Wednesday 28 November                                    Harrogate, Royal Hall

Keep an eye out for exclusive news on this one coming very, very soon.

"Push and Shove"No Doubt can hardly be considered prolific; this is their sixth album in 20 years, 10 years since their last and best album “Rock Steady”.  In the decade since this album Gwen Stefani temporarily left her bandmates, had children and released 1 brilliant and hugely successful pop album as a solo artist,  “L.A.M.B”, followed by the far less cohesive “The Sweet Escape” in 2006 which betrayed itself by chasing r’n’b trends and guest spots. No one seemed to be sure what was to follow, which finally finds us here in 2012 with the Mark Stent-produced “Push and Shove”.

Settle Down” was the public’s first taste of  the bands new material and it tasted familiar and reassuring; pop ska with some ‘hey, hey, heys’, a Bollywood string opening and a spacy full minute and a half instrumental dub outro.  It also seemed to confirm that the band were prepared to experiment a little . Next up and the best track here by a long shot, is the exuberant Major Lazer-featuring and produced title track ‘Push and Shove’.  Stefani shares tongue-twister verses with dancehall rapper Busy Signal and the whole track with its slowed-down, big beat chorus and multi- part structure could have been an over-ambitious indulgent mess but is the only track that really has any authentic energy and demonstrates all that can be potentially fantastic about No Doubt. Both of these tracks were made available before the album was released, “Settle Down” as the first single accompanied by a full 6 minute video directed by old favourite Sophie Muller and “Push and Shove” as a teaser track.  Shame that these tracks were not indicative of what was actually remaining on the, at that point unheard, album.

Gwen Stefani has recently been conducting the usual round of interviews required when promoting an album from a hugely successful band who many thought may never record together again and she said an interesting thing. Whilst referring to her solo albums she commented they were never meant to be taken seriously, a weird comment to the millions who bought them and watched her tour them live. Even stranger is that one of the better tracks here, “Sparkle”, was originally recorded for Stefani’s second album but was never used and that the template for at least half of this album is exactly the electronic pop that defined her solo excursion, so is this also not serious? The ska/surf pop punk makes a very brief reappearance, a few trumpets here and there but the songs themselves are bland and fail to stick. “Gravity” is a nice electro pop track but is the complete spit of Stefani’s big solo hit “Cool” and “Undone” is a dreary acoustic ballad which never reaches its destination.  “Looking Hot” and “One More Summer” are shallow, slick non-starters and could be sung by either Pink or Katy Perry on a slow day.

It’s hard to understand how No Doubt managed to make such a sluggish, boring album; they have access to the best producers, songwriters and musicians but that’s failed to make a difference.  “Push and Shove” will probably do very well, though I doubt somehow it will sell like its predecessor. Incredibly significant changes have taken place in the music industry, good and bad, over the last decade and it looks like No Doubt are trying to play by the new rules when really they need to throw them aside and just do own their own thing.  A major disappointment.

OK, I apologise in advance; this isn’t just a Lilygun review although, if you want me to cut to the chase, they were great and even better than the first time I saw them a few weeks ago.  The gig at “Upstairs at the Garage” on Sunday night highlighted issues with today’s music scene that we all need to think about.  But I’ll tell you about the gig before I get on my soapbox.

The four bands on the bill all have female singers but that’s just about all they have in common.  The first two bands, Cryogenica and Riot in Paradise, didn’t really do anything that I loved instantly but they got a good audience response, so fair play to them.  Your Army livened things up a bit with some good songs and energetic playing and powerful lead vocals.  Their set moved the night up a gear towards Lilygun’s headline slot.

I know this is a Lilygun live review, but I’m not actually going to say too much about the show.  I’ve reviewed the album and interviewed Anna-Christina and if you’ve read those, then you’ve got a pretty good idea about what’s going on.  The band are dynamic, well-rehearsed and on top of their game.  The set is basically the songs from the album and when the band play this well, they’re a force of nature.  The line-up is a bit of a surprise tonight (if any Lilygun line-up is ever a surprise) because Aaron John has taken over lead guitar duties while David Ryder Prangley plays bass and Belle Star (of course) is drumming.  The personnel change certainly doesn’t have any negative effect on the band; if anything, they’re a tighter more focussed unit because all of them have already been involved at some stage in the band’s history.

It’s difficult to pick out any highlights because the band was on fire, the songs were great and there was a bit of an edge to the performance as well.  You can see “Sunlight Dream”, “Conversations” and “Diamonds” here but my personal favourite was “Scum”, the song which disses all the haters, with an even more personal edge tonight (especially when Anna-Christina made a point of asking Aaron to introduce it).

 So why wasn’t the venue absolutely packed out?  Four bands to see at a pretty good price; even on a Sunday night, I was shocked at the low turnout.  When Lilygun play bigger gigs, they always go down well so why isn’t that audience turning up to a smaller show?

It certainly isn’t because of a lack of commitment on the band’s part.  I’ve met Anna-Christina a few times and I’ve never met anyone more passionate about and committed to their music and getting people to listen to it.  Maybe it’s London, maybe it’s the recession, maybe everyone’s staying in to watch Downton Abbey.  Let’s get real everyone; if we don’t go to these gigs, they won’t happen.

OK, rant over; back to Lilygun.  They have a great set of songs with a wonderful sense of dynamics, they’re playing really well as a unit and Anna-Christina is an incredibly charismatic leader.  They’ve done the album now and they’re ready to take on the world.  All it needs is one little spark and the whole thing will lift off.  One synch opportunity, one radio play in the right place or one well-placed support slot is all they need to launch them; they’re ready.