Electroclash’s First Lady, French DJ and singer songwriter Miss Kittin’s third solo album is a 2 CD affair but is also her most straightforward collection of songs to date. Her schizophrenic  debut  “I Com” and its more underground follow-up ‘”Batbox” were both idiosyncratic, humorous, hard and dark albums but neither quite matched up to the brilliance she had already achieved with The Hacker (“Frank Sinatra”), Felix Da Housecat (“Silver Screen Shower Scene”) and Golden Boy (“Rippin Kitten”);  between 2001 – 2003 Carline Herve was the go- to ‘featured artist’ and in demand collaborator and was one of the main characters and artists that defined that short-lived, exciting era and one of the few that is also still recording today.

“Calling From The Stars” is consistent, high quality electronica; there is no radical departure here so don’t expect any surprises. The second disc is really a stand-alone piece (“Part 2”) that is largely instrumental and ambient and not essential but the main album has some nice highlights, and for the first time is completely self-produced. Elements of classic, early house music blended with supremely melancholic synth lines appear early on with the rolling, chunky “Come Into My House”, appropriately enough, and also on the equally solid “Bassline”.  “Maneko Neko” is staccato, deadpan electro pop, very reminiscent of her earlier work, as is “Blue Grass” which actually sees the Kittin harmonising with herself towards the end. She also sings REM’s  “Everybody Hurts” as a pretty, faithful to the original ballad, albeit completely electronic, which is interesting to hear maybe twice but serves as little more than a novelty cover.  “Tears like Kisses” is another slower track but one which comes with explosions, a beat box, laser guns, and Kittin, none too convincingly, singing ’ I’m crying because I’m happy’ and sounding fantastically lush and full against the jagged, chilly sound effects. There are actually too many slow tracks here, oddly, and unlike the majority of her discography, although she does reference discotheques here, she never once breaks into a sweat. In fact this is so polished, so elegant that I wonder where the earlier personality has gone; lyrically some eccentricity remains but sonically, this has been pretty much eliminated here.

I have read that this is Miss Kittin’s attempt at something more mainstream and pop, uncluttered and pure. To a point this has been accomplished and tracks like “Bassline” and “Tears Like Kisses” will definitely find fans, although I’m not sure how many new ones. A lightness of touch is missing that could have transformed some of these tracks into something that could have been a more deadpan, a grown-up version of somebody like Robyn, or Kylie even .  It’s nice to have her back but to really re-establish herself as a vital, relevant presence in a pretty crowded electronic scene which has moved on considerably from a decade ago, one way or another this Kittin really does need to let rip again.

If you only ever listen to chart radio (and maybe watch “Later” every week) then the chances are that you won’t have heard of Paul Rose. I can’t imagine that you would hear him on 6 Music either.  You might just get lucky with Paul Jones on Radio 2 on the right night.  Paul Rose, like many other incredibly gifted players here and in the US, is a blues/rock guitarist and, from a commercial point of view, that’s a really difficult place to be at the moment.  There’s a small but knowledgeable and enthusiastic live circuit in the UK and mainland Europe, but almost no chance of mainstream radio exposure or shelf space in the few remaining record shops.  You have to admire the commitment of the musicians who carry on playing that circuit and releasing albums; they aren’t doing it for the Ferrari.

Paul Rose has released 11 albums before “Double Life” and has built up a reputation as a powerful live performer whose style is basically blues/rock with elements of jazz and soul and maybe a hint of country; this album shows hints of all of those styles.  What’s certain to me is that he’s a guitar virtuoso and that always brings its own little set of problems, which I’ll get to a bit later. The album is a set of blues/jazz standards performed almost live in the studio over 15 days by a group of incredibly talented and experienced musicians including Randy Jacobs (rhythm guitar), Richie Morales (drums), Kenny Hutchison (bass) and Tio Banks (keyboards).  The singers featured are Terry Evans, Raffia Ford, Bernard Fowler and Sweet Pea Atkinson.  Now I’m not doing all the work for you here, but Bernard Fowler has been the Stones backing vocalist for as long as I can remember and Sweet Pea Atkinson was the singer with my favourite incarnation of Was (Not Was).

So, how does it sound?  It sounds great actually; the band work together well through the variety of styles on the album from the riff-based rockers “Cold Sweat” and “Honey Hush” which open the album through the mid-tempo, soulful “Let’s Straighten it Out” and “Drowning in a Sea of Love” (with a bit of a Robert Cray feel), the soul ballad “If Loving You is Wrong I Don’t Want to be Right” to the slow blues of “Stormy Monday” which closes the album.  There are plenty of reference points and influences; “If Loving You is Wrong…” has a Stones feel with the intertwined guitar intro, while “Just a Little Bit” reminds me of the Albert Collins song “Conversation with Collins”.

Most of the songs here have been covered so many times that you shouldn’t expect to hear any truly novel interpretations, but that isn’t the aim of the album.  It’s about a group of musicians playing songs they know and love, having fun and producing a record that’s great to listen to while showcasing the musicians at their best.  And that leads us on to my only little criticism.

When you can play as well as Paul Rose (and I did use the word virtuoso earlier), it’s easy to miss the line between great playing in the service of the song and technique for the sake of technique.  On “Stormy Monday”, the slow blues style lends itself to guitar fills at the end of each of vocal line, which works really well for most of the song but, for me, becomes a bit intrusive at times, particularly when Paul uses violinning.  As always, this is completely subjective and I’m prepared to be shot down in flames if loads of you contact us and say I’m talking out of my elbow.

With that very minor exception, I think this is a very, very good album.  The quality of the playing is exceptional throughout, the arrangements are superb and each of the singers is perfect for the songs they do.  If you like blues, then you should have this album in your collection and even if you don’t, you should give it a listen.  If you want to know what they band’s live show is like, keep an eye on MusicRiot next week when I’ll be reviewing their London Jazz Café gig.

“Double Life” is released on Mita Records on Monday May 29.

British pop artist Charli XCX aka Charlotte Aitchison loves a sing-song spoken verse or middle eight, the type that dominates songs like the spectacular “Never Ever” by All Saints or the slightly less spectacular but just as influential “China In My Hands” by eighties favourite T’Pau. They crop up again and again on this, her 3 years in the making debut album, “True Romance” features only 2 songs I haven’t heard before; the danger of releasing mix tapes and singles for years and then deciding to retain them all, also signalling a slight lack of quality control, in one format or another, for your first release proper.

Apart from the cartoon rave popping of “Take My Hand” (appropriately enough about taking amphetamines and being unable to stop dancing or get any sleep for many hours; no subtleties here) and the low-fi, underwhelming “Black Roses”, and as far as I’m aware these are also the two ‘new’ tracks, the tempos are all mid and the inspiration seems to be predominantly taken from that mid-nineties girl group sound that incorporated r’n’b and pop before Timbaland and The Neptunes descended from outer space and changed the sound of pop forever at the very beginning of the noughties.

I’m talking “Honey to the Bee” by Billie Piper, Atomic Kitten, The Spice Girls debut album and I mentioned All Saints earlier. What Charli XCX does however is subvert the genre gently by adding some grubby synths, ambient sounds and a sense of alienation and real individuality that you never quite got from Geri Halliwell or Kerry Katona. This, admittedly pretty common, hybrid can work really well and does on a good half of this record, “Stay Away” and “Nuclear Season”, two of the oldest songs here, sound sulky and satisfyingly challenging whilst being built around pure pop structures and “So Far Away” and “Cloud Aura” both steer more towards r’n’b and are instant and substantial. On the current single “What I Like”, Aitchison channels Lily Allen, both of them guilty of masking their social class with their mockney accents and it’s as good as anything Allen put her name to over her brief reign as ruling pop woman.

“You (Ha, Ha, Ha)” is Gold Panda’s insistent, nagging instrumental “You” with singing and is pin-sharp perfection but surely this is in fact a collaboration so Charli XCX can’t take full responsibility for its brilliance.  On the previous single “You’re The One” a massive chorus springs out from the doomy verses and is the number 1 Eternal never had, insane pop produced by the man responsible for Robyn’s juggernaut, “Dancing On my Own”. Immediately before and after this track though (its track 10 of 12) things plod and get samey and something I thought was there is actually only apparent in flashes and only fully realised on a couple of tracks.

Come the summer we are all going to be familiar with, love for 15 minutes and then hate “I Love It” by Swedish girl duo Icona Pop (currently I still love it), a track that Charli XCX wrote for the pair and features on, the kind of song that has a life of its own, the Adele affect where you can actually see and experience a song much like any common or garden object but can no longer hear it. It will affect people’s lives, simply put, for better or for worse. There isn’t a song like that on here and maybe Charli XCX doesn’t want that kind of immediate, intensified fame that it could bring but there is enough to make you confident that this is an artist that understands the value and importance of pop and will find a way to keep releasing it to hopefully larger and larger audiences, to be her own smaller and far more thoughtful phenomenon.  And you can add another half-star to the rating if you like.

If you like the thought of the dreamy, synth pop of French duo Air (“Sexy Boy”) mixed with the more angular, detached malaise of London’s  New Young Pony Club (“Ice Cream”) then Tomorrow’s World’s eponymous debut album will be right up your darkly lit, probably by some French auteur, alleyway. This is mainly because Lou Hayter and Jean Benoit Dunckel are in fact the keyboardist in New Young Pony Club and half of Air respectively. Lou Hayter sings with precision and grace on every track here and the whole thing sounds pretty much how you would like it to and expect it to given the artists involved.  

The best tracks certainly recall early, peak period Air along with, and possibly because of, the cross-cultural mix of French and English, the work that they did with Charlotte Gainsbourg. “Life on Earth” is a doppelgänger for Gainsbourg’s “5:55” and the sweet and sour drunkenness of “Pleurer et Chanter”, the only French language song and a definite highlight, could have featured on either of her last 2 albums. “Metropolis” could be from “Moon Safari” and wouldn’t have affected the consistently high quality of Air’s debut album and “Drive” has a guitar lick and kick that immediately recalls Hayter’s work with New Young Pony Club. “You Taste Sweeter” is vocally and sonically early Ladytron to a T (“Sugar” anyone?) and “Don’t Let Them Bring You Down”, a plaintive, piano-led ballad is very Twin Peaks and the kind of song that, this time around, Donna Heyward could have sung to James Hurley whilst simultaneously crying at the Bang Bang Bar.

It’s only on the muddy, crawling “Catch Me” where Hayter, sharing the chorus with Dunckel, pleads ‘Dark Angel, take me away’ that a sound begins to emerge that could be considered as belonging to “Tomorrow’s World” and not referencing their own work or, at least not obviously, that of any other artist. The album ends with the yearning “Inside” which appears to be a tribute to Julee Cruise’s enormously influential “Mysteries of Love” with the final two minutes morphing into a stuttering, repetitive malfunctioning computer that wouldn’t have dared disturb the calm of Cruise’s ballad. It’s a perfect closer and the only other example here of Hayter and Dunckel creating something more unique to them, at least in sound if not content.

Even though the duo are guilty of overusing core elements and sounds lifted from their past work to a greater or lesser degree in almost every track here, this is to a certain degree unavoidable and is also responsible, in part, for creating some of the gorgeous, hazy cinematic passages here which I would strongly urge you to seek out. A few more dark angels though and they’ll have their very own, new, world to inhabit, one I would love to experience.  

Last year I reviewed an album by Edinburgh-based singer-songwriter Dean Owens called “Cash Back” which was a tribute to the late Johnny Cash.  The album was a set of covers of songs made famous by Johnny Cash apart from one, “The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin”, which is a Dean Owens original and was recently released as a single on Drumfire Records.

Although the song’s part of a great set of songs written by Johnny Cash and other songwriters, it doesn’t sound out of place at all.  It’s based around one of the classic country themes of the prisoner serving his sentence (on death row this time) but with the added twist that he’s in San Quentin at the time of the legendary Johnny Cash performance.  The song moves between verses telling the prisoner’s story and a chorus using details from the actual San Quentin performance, which adds historical authenticity to the story.  The instrumentation and production give the song an authentic early-period Johnny Cash feel with Dean’s acoustic rhythm guitar and Will Kimbrough’s electric guitar and slightly distorted slide guitar; it could have been made at Sun Studios in the ‘50s.

This is a beautifully constructed song with a sparse but effective arrangement which highlights the quality of the song and the powerful, emotive vocal performance.  It’s as good as any of the classic songs on the album and it’s the best single I’ve heard so far this year.  Even if you’re not a fan of country, you really should give this a listen; you could even buy it.

Out now.

Well, we’ve had a relatively quiet few weeks but that’s all about to change because Spring is here, the clocks have gone forward and we’re beginning to see some sunshine at last.  The next few months are going to be pretty busy here at Riot Towers because we have loads of album reviews quite a few interesting gigs to see.

On the album front, over the next 4 weeks or so John Preston’s going to be telling us about the latest albums from Tomorrow’s World, Cassie, Charli XCX, Major Lazer, Little Boots and MS MR.  I’ll be going to see blues guitarist Paul Rose, Rosco Levee and the Southern Slide and (at last) Anna-Christina’s solo show “Pretty Little Lady?”.  I’ll be reviewing the Paul Rose album “Double Life” and whatever else pops through the letterbox or into the inbox.

Do you have a “Closet Classic” album?  We’ve been running this as an occasional feature for a while now but we would love you to tell us about your guilty musical pleasures or even your favourite criminally under-rated album.  Send it to us through the “Contact” section and we’ll publish it on the website; easy.

And we should have a few surprises coming up for you as well…

I don’t want to alarm you but, this summer, our gig venues (large and small) are about to be invaded by bands from New Jersey.  There are 4 bands from the area touring our sceptred isle over the next few months, so here’s a quick rundown on who’s touring when.

Southside and Billy Walton at Buxton Opera House

Southside and Billy Walton (photo by Allan Mckay)

Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, veterans of the 70s Stone Pony scene, and an incredible live experience, will be making a very brief visit at the beginning of May:

Thursday 02/05/13          City Hall, Salisbury

Friday 03/05/13                 The Apex Arts Centre, Bury St Edmunds

Saturday 04/05/13           Burnley International Rock & Blues Festival

The Billy Walton Band (whose frontman Billy Walton has toured the UK a couple of times as guitar player with Southside Johnny) form the second wave of the onslaught when they arrive in mid-May.  A night with BWB is guaranteed to be a great night of rock, blues and soul as Billy and  sax player Richie Taz front up while William Paris and John D’Angelo keep the show rock solid.  The dates are:

Thursday 16/05/13          Beaverwood Music Club, Chiselhurst, Kent

Billy Walton (Photo by Allan McKay)

Friday 17/05/13                 The Cluny, Ouseburn, Newcastle upon Tyne

Saturday 18/05/13           Calva Bar, University of Cumbria, Carlisle

Sunday 19/05/13              Kings Arms, St Mary Street, Bedford

Monday 20/05/13            Yardbirds, Church Street, Grimsby

Tuesday 21/05/13            The Fishpond, Matlock Bath

Wednesday 22/05/13     The Greyhound, Beeston, Nottingham

Thursday 23/05/13          The Cellars, Cromwell Road, Eastney

Friday 24/05/13                 Blakeney Harbour Room, Blakeney, Norfolk

Saturday 25/05/13           Saint Bonaventure’s Club, Barkeley Road, Bristol

Sunday 26/05/13              Barnet FC (Underhill Stadium), Barnet

Monday 27/05/13             The Pavilion, Broadstairs, Kent

Thursday 30/05/13          The Flower Pot, Derby

Friday 31/05/13                 Travellers Rest Club, Barrow-in-Furness

Saturday 01/06/13           Boom Boom Club/Sutton Utd. Football Club, Sutton, Surrey

In early June, the venue sizes move a few notches as the Bon Jovi “Because We Can” tour comes to the UK.  Despite the controversy surrounding Richie Sambora’s sudden departure from the tour a couple of weeks ago, the show goes on.   The additional musicians on the live shows include guitar player Bobby Bandiera, who spent a few years as Southside Johnny’s head honcho with the Jukes.   The dates are:

Saturday 08/06/13           Etihad Stadium, Manchester

Sunday 09/06/13              Villa Park, Birmingham

Wednesday 12/06/13     City Stadium, Cardiff

Thursday 13/06/13          Stadium of Light, Sunderland

Sunday 16/06/13              Isle of Wight Festival

The final wave of the invasion overlaps slightly with the Bon Jovi tour when Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball tour rolls back into the UK in mid-June.  It probably won’t come as a surprise to you now to hear that there’s an ex-member of the Asbury Jukes in the E Street Band.  Ed “Kingfish” Manion (baritone sax) joined the horn section for the “Wrecking Ball” tour after many years  of touring and recording with Southside Johnny.  You can see The Boss here:

Saturday 15/06/13           Wembley Stadium, London

Eddie Manion and Billy Walton at Buxton Opera House

Eddie Manion and Billy Walton (photo by Allan McKay)

Tuesday 18/06/13            Hampden Park, Glasgow

Thursday 20/06/13          Ricoh Stadium, Coventry

Sunday 30/06/13              Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London

Just in case I need a sledgehammer to get this message home, some great music has come out of New Jersey (and I haven’t even got on to Patti Smith, Gary Bonds and The Four Seasons).  Some bands have been incredibly successful over a long period of time and some haven’t; what the bands touring the UK this summer have in common is mutual respect and shared personnel.  You can probably still get tickets for The Boss and Bon Jovi but, if they’re playing anywhere near you, try to get out and see Southside Johnny and Billy Walton; you won’t regret it.

I suppose this is a pretty highbrow album or piece of work. It references the philosopher Foucault, authors Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood and apparently its themes are gender, queer politics, capitalism and environmentalism.  This in itself is not a problem and sounds like it should be pretty thrilling, dynamic experience but on the whole it’s not obvious from listening to Swedish electronic duo The Knife’s fourth album what this album is about, if that, in fact, is even important. When half of the tracks are instrumental as is the case here then it’s more about a mood or a feeling being conveyed through the music without a dependency on lyrical explanations and admittedly there are some ugly, challenging and uncomfortable sounds present but not many that you would not want to listen to more than 2 or 3 times at the very most. And music, unlike film for the majority at least, is surely made for repeated listens so it’s maybe not a coincidence that half of this album does sound like a score, a soundtrack to a probably not very good film, with a dystopian theme maybe. I just don’t really get it, or maybe I should come clean and say I just don’t really like it.

I have loved The Knife, I do love The Knife. “Deep Cuts”, their second album, is a brilliant, pioneering album that was so influential that elements of their sound began to seep into the mainstream and it still sounds weird, silly, political yes, but completely accessible and relevant today. Its follow up, “Silent Shout”, was more linear and cohesive and much darker and it cemented one of those very rare things; The Knife had developed their own sound that was as much about song writing as it was about vocals; often distorted, and a sonic landscape which was nightmarish often but consistently beautiful and intricate. It was instantly recognisable, as them. At the core were the songs though, the melodies, and they were beautiful and sad like “Marble House” and you can sing along to “Heartbeats” or  the elegant ‘Pass This On’ and this is where “Shaking The Habitual” differs from their previous work; there are no real tunes here, nothing that you can easily connect to.

 ‘A Tooth For An Eye’ misleads as the opening track, it tricks you with its relative simplicity and traditional song structure and on the big pounding, tribal drums of “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” there is an imperial, dangerous mood created; if these 2 tracks had been a teaser for the album I would be extremely excited about what’s potentially to come. The first 5 minutes of “Raging Lung” do pretty much the same thing and are very good but the following 4 minutes drag and drone on and make the whole thing a chore. On the lead single “Full of Fire”, all ten minutes of it, which is highly rhythmic and percussive dance music for people who don’t (or can’t) dance Karin Dreijer Andersson bemoans ‘liberals giving me a nerve itch’ and by the time the seagull noises come in around the 4 minute mark and there’s still 6 minutes to go I can completely relate. On the final 20 seconds of the track though my favourite pop cultural reference on the album appears, far more low-brow than the others; Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’, changed here to ‘let’s talk about gender baby, let’s talk about you and me’; brilliant and effective. And there are flickers of brilliance in this track and repeated listens really do pay off, there is in fact a musical riff and lyrically it’s pretty funny and interesting but I’m just not sure how many people will bother to put the effort in.

The 20 minute “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realised” which is bare, ambient electronic, is just so very, very boring; surely this wasn’t the siblings’ intention? To make something that would soundtrack an art exhibition or installation but is ultimately background music?  “Fracking Fluid Injection” is obviously, from the title, making a political statement although I’m not sure how and to who exactly? No one will get to the end of this track, with its ten minutes of sawing noises and some screeching who isn’t already a fan and doesn’t already shares the band’s beliefs. So what’s the point? It is in no way pleasurable to listen to; it grates and aggravates. The final track “Ready to Lose” is excellent; it isn’t much of a progression musically from “Silent Shout” or “Fever Ray”, Andersson’s solo project, but it sounds magnificent and it makes it point.

Many people will consider this album to an important, revolutionary piece of work but it’s ultimately narrow and pretentious in the worst possible sense when it could and should have been exhilarating, difficult and addictive. I am deeply suspicious of the many reviewers who will heap superlatives onto this album but who are unlikely to listen to it again, not because they don’t have the time but because they have no desire too.  Don’t alienate the people you could be entertaining and maybe, possibly, educating too, although this is almost always too much to ask.

Stoneface TravellersStoneface Travellers are a three-piece outfit in the power trio tradition comprising Andrew Thornley (bass), Micah Woulfe (drums) and Emile Gerber (guitar and lead vocals).  Apart from a change of drummer, it’s the Emile Gerber Band as reviewed here 3 months ago live at The Finsbury.  The band have been spending some time in the studio with highly-respected producer Brad Kohn, who has produced a set of tracks which will form the basis of an EP to be released later in the year.  The lovely people at Bandhouse Promotions have given us an exclusive sneak preview of 1 track from the sessions, “I Don’t Really Love You”, which you can hear on Soundcloud .

The song opens with an overdriven slide riff and harmonica (played by the drummer even) before the rhythm section kicks in to drive the song along with a loping swamp-blues feel.  Emile is a very good blues guitar player (I think I might have just said that before) but what makes him such a unique performer is the quality of his voice.  It’s an unusual delivery in that he sings in the same sort of range as Neil Young with a little bit of vibrato at the top of the range, which emphasises the emotion of the vocal.  The solo towards the end sounded just like mid-70s vintage Rory Gallagher and I really don’t know if that makes me feel old or young; maybe both.

This is a great little sample of what Stoneface Travellers are capable of in the studio but, until they get the EP and then the album together, you really should try to get out and see them live; you won’t regret it.