Love your Dum and MadNadine Shah has made a good, albeit slightly anonymous, debut album which has one major downfall; her purposely dour and low delivery combined with Ben Hillier’s swampy, stylistic production with tales of troubled men and put upon women positively encourages immediate comparison to the Gothic Elite. PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Marianne Faithfull are names you will undoubtedly see in reference to Shah’s work and as the first track “Aching Bones” moans and trudges into view there is no getting away from the similarities between this and Harvey during her exaggerated and traumatised blues vamp that she inhabited during her vivid “To Bring You My Love” period. Drawing comparisons to such iconoclasts is a risky business but “Love Your Dum and Mad” goes some way towards proving that there is enough room for everyone.

The first half of the album is packed out sonically, full and dusty with looped samples and reverb. Songs like the excellent “To Be a Young Man” and in particular “Runaway” (‘Did you ever stop to notice I too worked hard to build this home, and now I am of no use to you now that the children have grown’) are character-based songs sung in the first person with Shah deliberately exaggerating her northern accent, she sings with it throughout, to colour the mood wonderfully. Later on the album does she confuse slightly with more traditional ballads such as “All I Want” which could be an Adele song, it’s soulful and surprisingly radio friendly with its electronic piano and ‘just sit in cafes and not say a word’ refrain.  Another slower song and early single “Dreary Town” (an Adele song title if ever there was one!) is nice but considering its autobiographical relevance here (it’s about a former lover of Shah’s who because of bipolar disorder subsequently killed himself) it doesn’t pack the punch that it could and should.

“The Devil”, a song title so ubiquitous within the genre that not only has Anna Calvi, who was 2011’s PJ Harvey, but Harvey herself had ‘Devil’ songs and Shah’s attempt will almost certainly not be remembered as an essential addition to an already overcrowded collection and to include it here seems at best ill-advised. The deceptively hypnotic “Floating” does a lovely thing very early on and positions a very David Lynch type twanging, distorted instrumental break right where there shouldn’t be one; its beauty is slow burning and unsettling. “Filthy Game” is this album’s attempt at a “Surabaya Johnny” and Shah is a convincing, worldly-sounding narrator.

Nadine Shah has been making this record for four years and this goes some way towards explaining the varying levels of maturity that are evident from song to song; it’s a very grown-up record or at least wants to be but is occasionally betrayed by volatile songwriting with Ben Hillier’s production sometimes resembling too many other similar artists. Shah has an amazing voice and does not descend into histrionics where others would; given the potentially melodramatic subject matter here the temptation must have been great and her controlled performance throughout the entirety of “Love Your Dum and Mad” is indeed its greatest asset.

Santiago Coma 25/07/13.

Santiago Coma 25/07/13.

So, a Spanish indie band playing at a small but well-established venue five minutes from Kings Cross station; sounds good to me.  The venue was Monto Water Rats and the band was The Dirt Tracks, making their second appearance there in four days to promote their current single, “Kaleidoscope” and their upcoming debut album.  The line-up is Santiago Coma (guitar and vocals), Rafael Vicente (guitar and backing vocals), Carlos Ortigosa (samplers and backing vocals), Miguel Alvarez (bass and backing vocals) and Guillem Masid (drums and percussion) and if I had to define their musical style, I would probably call it psychedelic indie.

The band opened their set with the first song from the debut album, “All Paths Cross”, which gradually builds through an extended intro of sampled synth washes to a main section which hints at some Pink Floyd influences before segueing straight in to the second song “Pulse” with its sampled beats and big, dirty guitars.  “Bit-Train” took the pace down a few notches with a slow-riffing  guitar intro leading into a main section dominated by the two guitars.  The middle section of the set featured two singles “The Madding Crowd” and “Kaleidoscope”, which are both melodic and showcase the band’s vocal harmonies and, in particular, the backing vocals of Carlos Ortigosa.

The set started to build to a climax with the heavy metal guitar riff of “Lady Low”, the jangly, catchy pop of “Never Been to Mars” and the final song “Bloop” with its emphasis on the guitars and vocal harmonies again and a closing section with entire band playing percussion to bring the set to a close; and that was it.  In just under forty-five minutes, The Dirt Tracks played a set which gave us well-written songs, great playing and arrangements (particularly the harmonies) and a huge dynamic range from the quiet and subtle opening of the set to the heavy guitar riffs of “Lady Low” and “Never Been to Mars”.

Despite a disappointingly small audience (possibly because of the good weather) the Dirt Tracks played their short opening set of eight songs as if their lives depended on it.  Santiago Coma is a hugely charismatic frontman with a superb voice who is also crucial in the band’s guitar strike force with Rafael Vicente; sometimes it’s obviously rhythm and lead guitar, but more often it’s intertwining guitar parts which meld into something truly creative when they combine with the sampled sounds.  The band can do the quiet and introspective material and then blast straight in to megariff mayhem with complete confidence; they are a very accomplished and exciting live act and there are plenty of good melodic songs to get them some radio play.  This is a band which has all the pieces in place and only needs the breakthrough now; a bit of airplay or festival set with a big audience is all the momentum they need to send them on their way.

Keep an eye on MusicRiot for future UK tour dates and an exclusive review of the debut album in the next few weeks.

CiaraIf Ciara were a cat she’d definitely be on her ninth life by now. After massive success, a number one no less with “Goodies” in 2004, and also responsibility for pioneering a music craze with krunk, further long term success, which she has tried commendably hard to achieve, has all but eluded her. A surprisingly prolific artist she has been gone from one record label to another, seen release dates pushed forward to the point of exhaustion for all concerned and promoted incredible singles online which then never got to see the light of day. This, her self-titled fifth album, is her best since her debut and is certainly her strongest set of songs to date and as I’m actually holding it in my hands I can confirm that does in fact really exist.

Over an economical ten tracks, a wise decision maybe, Ciara still plays around with what could be considered as her signature and most weird sound of all; moody, skeletal soundscapes which are slowed down, sped up again and demonstrated best on the spacey and drunken “Keep on Lookin’” and the buzz and drama of “Super Turnt Up”. The current single “I’m Out” plays to current r’n’b trends with its rapid handclaps and Nicki Minaj feature and is a decent, if derivative, attempt at a ladies anthem, Minaj being on good form especially here with her explanation of the consequences of having a big bottom being particularly to the point and hilarious.

It’s on the perfectly formed playful slabs of pop r’n’b however, the likes of which haven’t been heard since the golden days of 2001 (Christina Milan “AM to the PM”, J-Lo “Play”, Mya “Case of the Ex”), that really pushes the quality skyward and potentially places Ciara in a very powerful position again. “Livin’ It Up”, again featuring Minaj, but unnecessarily on this occasion, is a funky, breezy and just so easy blast of pure, feel-good adrenaline and on the even better “Overdose”, which must refer to the amounts of hooks contained within it, Ciara has never sounded so self-assured. The Rodney Jerkins plip-plopping drum machine-dominated “Read My Lips” doesn’t quite scale these heights but it comes a close second and is beautifully sweet sound whilst being hysterically pornographic lyrically.

It’s hard to say where this will take Ciara; the slow jam of the predictably sensual “Body Party”, also featured here in a more interesting slow/fast trap remix, has already featured on the US Billboard charts and she is now a smooth and capable performer; her determination and ambition cannot be faulted. R’n’b in 2013 is still a confused genre but Ciara has remained a constant for coming up to a decade now and the overall strength of “Ciara” combined with the oh so necessary go-hard marketing could see her propelled her back into the limelight, her natural home surely? Let’s certainly hope so.

Rolling Stone July 2013

Rolling Stone July 2013

I can remember a time when Rolling Stone magazine was the standard against which all other music magazines were measured.  Things have changed since then and apparently not for the better as far as Rolling Stone’s concerned.  It’s been a long journey, but the July cover is a lowpoint for the magazine; it doesn’t matter how well-written or well-researched the piece is, what percentage of people who have seen the cover will actually read it?  I’m willing to bet that it’s in single figures and probably in one hand territory.  The magazine is going to be judged by the iconography of the cover and the Rolling Stone team should know that as well as, or better than, the rest of us.

Once upon a time, the Rolling Stone cover used to mean something.  Bands and fans saw it as a mark of credibility; there was an intense rivalry between performers over the amount of Rolling Stone covers you had featured on.  There was even a song about it, “Cover of the Rolling Stone”, written by Shel Silverstein and recorded by Dr Hook; you can see it on YouTube and it’s very funny.  Even in the 1970s being featured on the front of Rolling Stone was a big deal and that’s why this is such a disappointment.

The piece itself is nothing special; it’s very basic journalism.  You round up a few family members and friends and get them to give you some background and then pad it out with some simplistic pseudo-sociological theorising; it’s not going to win any prizes and it’s doubtful whether it has any place in a music/culture magazine.  I know the magazine claims it covers social issues as well as music, but that’s no excuse for this piece.  Janet Reitman stacks up the factors that could have led to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev committing an outrage; his parents left him in America, he smoked weed constantly, he was jealous of his brother, his brother led him into Islam, his mother pushed him into Islam and so on.  In the end, the piece tells us nothing.

I can’t believe that no-one on the editorial staff at Rolling Stone asked whether this piece was a good idea.  Even the explanatory paragraph signed “The Editors” below Reitman’s byline makes dubious claims.  “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers”; I think you might want to have a fact-checker take a look at that one.  I did and, using Rolling Stone’s media kit figures, discovered that he’s at the bottom end of a bracket that contains 25.3% of their readers; it’s stretching a point really, particularly when you break down the other statistics on income, home ownership and ethnicity.  So was it a series of naive mistakes made by a group of well-meaning but misguided journalists, or was it a cynical attempt to shock the entire world in to talking about Rolling Stone again?

Well, let’s get back to the iconography.  The cover isn’t just a dreamy-looking young troubadour; it’s a specific visual reference to a Jim Morrison 1981 cover which, again, wasn’t one of their finest moments.  Ten years after his death, the tagline was “He’s hot, he’s sexy and he’s dead”.  Bad taste certainly but, ironically, at the time of his death he couldn’t be described as hot or sexy.  That particular image has become cultural shorthand for the soulful, tortured rock poet and that’s exactly what the magazine is trying to do here and it seems that they’re deservedly reaping the whirlwind.  Flirting with controversial topics to boost sales is always a dangerous game, even more so when the subject has a tenuous link with your core values.

And, just to give it a bit of local UK context, can you imagine a Q front cover and thinkpiece featuring  Michael Adebolajo?  Thought not.

Electric‘Return to form’ can sometimes be a cruel phrase when applied to an artist usually following a long period when attempts at a experimenting and self -expression are regarded as not working; when it’s finally time to ‘give the people what they want’, especially when the artist in question is finally happy with their new found creative freedom. It’s also a phrase which may have been overused in association with the Pet Shop Boys over the last decade or two. I’m reluctant to use it here as initially “Electric”, their twelfth  studio album, feels more like one of their semi-regular ‘Disco’ excursions rather than a new album proper.  There are only nine tracks, two of which are instrumental, with almost every track being at least 5 minutes long; there are no slow songs, but there is a ballad. But it’s much more than that, these are all new compositions, not remixes, and bears closest resemblance to 1988’s ‘Introspective’  which was an exceptional collection of long, newly-written at the time, dance-orientated songs.  “Electric” also contains some of the most PSB-‘type’ songs the duo have released in a very long time and with Stuart Price’s bombastic, detailed and instantly gratifying production this is an album that fans who may have drifted away in recent years will feel instantly and overwhelmingly connected with.

“Axis” is an instrumental, extended intro, sounding very much like of a mid-eighties TV theme, something butch, as imagined by Bobby O and Harold Faltermeyer; it’s warm and full sounding and is where the album title comes from.  “Bolshy” follows, with its emphasis on the Russian Bolshevik rather than general stroppiness, and is the track which really launches the album with its house piano, familiar melody patterns and sarcastic attitude. Midpoint the vocal track sticks on the ‘O’ of Bolshio and a familiar cowbell sticks to the beat and acid house squiggles start to spiral out and take over. “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” could have been a worry with the album peaking too early, an unwarranted concern as it turns out. With a filtered intro very much like Madonna’s “Hung Up”, also produced by Price, strings saw before a twee, archetypal British sample floats around, and then thump, we’re off. Like the best tracks on “Electric”, “Bourgeois” has a twin with an earlier PSB classic and in this case it’s the mighty “Left To My Own Devices”; if it doesn’t quite match the level of brilliance of that track then it comes pretty close.  ‘I’m exploring the outer limits of boredom, moaning periodically, just a full time lonely layabout, that’s me’ is Neil Tennant’s admission as, in a heightened version of himself, he manages to refer to Tony Benn, Karl Marx and uses the word schadenfreude all in the same song.  A male choir crashes in a la “Go West” and it’s this one track that both grounds and dictates the overall sound and scale of “Electric”.

“Fluorescent”, one of the best tracks, is moodier; minor in key with an ascending synth melody that constantly threatens to turn into “Fade to Grey” and containing some of the best lyrics on an album packed with them (‘I can’t deny you’ve made your mark with the helicopters and the occasional oligarch…every scandal has its price’) with one of the PSB favourite themes of international glamour and clandestine lives led at night continuing after they were first introduced on the couple’s debut album from 1985, ‘‘Please’. “Electric”’s non- ballad, ballad is the thumping, squally  “Last to Die”, a cover version of a Bruce Springsteen song which I’ve never heard before  but here sounds very much like a Pet Shop Boys original; pompous, sad, sincere and just a very good pop song.

Aside from “Bourgeois”, the two very big hitters are saved until last. “Thursday” is essentially “West End Girls”, sonically definitely, with Chris Lowe’s monotone chant of ‘Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday’ leading into a brilliantly realised, working class, blokey rap and middle eight by Example.  Listen to the way he pronounces ‘memories’ for example (excuse pun); it was always about the details. “Vocal” is the most euphoric and obvious track on “Electric” and plays to many of the clichés of the current EDM craze with its big, cheesy, rave hook which is straight from 1999, see in particular Felix’s massive anthem “Don’t You Want Me”. But it’s the combination of the audaciousness of this sound coupled with the themes of nostalgia and narcissism (‘I like the lead singer, he’s lonely and strange….It’s in the music, it’s in the song, and everyone I hoped would be here has come along’) and also the subject of music itself that makes it such a success; it’s moving and it has history.  The Pet Shop Boys have been making records like this for nearly 30 years; you can jump up and down to it and it will leave its mark somewhere deep.

So in 2013 the Pet Shop Boys sound an awful lot like they did whilst they were at their peak in 1988  and it appears as though it’s very much business as usual after it was strongly hinted that the business could finally be about to close down completely (last year’s “Elysium”). You could argue, and many will claim, that it’s the inevitable “return to form” then, but the PSBs form should not really be called in to account.  All of their releases have merit, just in varying degrees, and their decision to do this seems a natural one; the whiff of cynicism is not detectable. In Stuart Price, Lowe and Tennant have found a producer who sounds like the lost third member and on “Electric” he has delivered his most on-the money, consistent production to date on some of the most accessible and immediate songs the duo have written in years. Whether or not it buys new fans, younger fans, is debatable and will remain to be seen but there are enough people who will rightly adore this sparking, intelligent and brilliant pop record and it does feel as though this album was made especially for them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo, I’m in a basement bar in Dalston, painted black of course (the room, not me) on a Sunday night in July and it’s the hottest day of the year so far; this had better be good.  I was in Birthdays on Stoke Newington Road for the launch party for a new release from The Nyco Project, whose EP “The New Machine” is being released in the form of an app.  The Nyco Project (TNP) has four members: Ben Hardy, Zahara Muñoz, Joantoni Segui and Daisy Brodskis.  I’m not going to list their instruments because, apart from the drummer, Joantoni, they mix it up quite a lot.

There were two support bands for the evening, Sky Between Leaves and Turnpike Glow.  TNP decided to ignore the usual headline-band-last hierarchy and played between the two support bands to ensure that anyone leaving early to make sure they could actually get home on public transport (yeah, that’s me) didn’t miss their set. Unfortunately that meant I missed Turnpike Glow; sorry about that and I’ll try to catch you soon.

After an interactive session using the sound and vision clips from the EP on a big screen which allowed the audience to remix the songs in real time, Sky Between Leaves took the stage to play a set which was enthusiastically received despite the unbearable heat in the venue.  The low-tech lighting effect created by shining a lamp through a stencilled cylinder rotating on a Technics SL1200 deserves a mention as well.

TNP are usually described as psychedelic indie, but there’s a lot more than that going on.  From the opening song of the set, “Blown”, it’s obvious that they have great songs but the really impressive thing is that they deliver so well as a live act.  The playing isn’t flashy, but the arrangements are perfect and when it has to be spot-on (vocal harmonies, for example) the band always nail it.  The EP tracks “The New Machine”, “Fade Away” and “You’re So Weak” are spaced equally throughout the set, but TNP save the best for last.  The final three songs, the storming “Poor”, the experimental “Disco Pedro” (which has a feel of early Pink Floyd) and the closer “She’s Only Carbon” are stunning.  The final song was dedicated to a friend of the band who is no longer with us and demonstrated the quality of the band as they gave a perfect performance while struggling visibly with strong emotions.

So, what’s all the fuss about the EP/app release?  The concept is that the band recorded each instrumental and vocal take as audio and video files with the motto “Everything you hear, you see”.  They took this concept to the Arts Council, which agreed to fund the project (so even that losing lottery ticket is a winner for someone) and that enabled them to produce the app which shows the video footage of all of the takes used in the production and allows the user to isolate individual instrumental and vocal parts or to get information about the band members.  It’s an original idea which works really well because the listener gets the chance to unpick the song and hear the way the parts fit together as well as having plenty of eye-catching visuals.  It’s very addictive because you can’t see or hear everything at one attempt and you have to repeat to pick up on the parts you missed.  And the live interactive version on the big screen is even better.  Apparently there’s a chance that you might even be able to see this at The Barbican at some point and it’s the kind of installation that should work really well in that environment.

As a live band, The Nyco Project is superb and the EP/app is an innovative attempt to explore the possibilities being opened up by developing technologies; I love both approaches and I think you should download the EP/app and then get out and see the band live as soon as you can.  You won’t regret it.

HomeWhen I’m reviewing music I always focus primarily on the quality of the vocal, the quality of the playing and the quality of the lyrics.  With blues albums I expect the playing to be good and if you get a great vocal performance as well, that’s a bonus.  Lyrically, it’s easy to fall into old blues clichés and I guess it’s understandable in a musical form that places such an emphasis on performance and improvisation.  On this album, Aynsley Lister nails the playing, the vocals and the lyrical themes; that’s why “Home” (his tenth album) is a great modern blues album.  I mean where else are you going to hear a song inspired by “Life on Mars”?  And I mean Gene Hunt, not David Bowie.

Aynsley has responded to the implosion of the music business (referenced in the album’s second song “Broke”) in the same way as many other performers; he decided to bypass it completely and record and release material on his own label (Straight Talkin’ Records).  He’s an accomplished songwriter and a inspired lyricist, tackling some of the standard rock themes on “Home” and “Insatiable” with a creative, poetic twist and moving into less conventional subjects with “Broke”, “Hyde 2612” (the Gene Hunt song) and “Free”, the very moving tribute to his friend Rod Thomson.  He covers a wide range of blues styles, but the lyrical themes on “Home” are pushing at the boundaries of the blues/rock genre and that has to be a good thing if the genre aims to survive the music industry meltdown.

The album features a couple of covers, placed together in the running order.  The first, the James Morrison song “You Make it Real”, shows that Aynsley isn’t afraid to put his own stamp on a contemporary song while the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley standard “Feeling Good” is pitched somewhere between the Nina Simone and Muse versions with robust guitar work and a powerful vocal.

And that brings me quite neatly to Aynsley Lister’s vocals.  His reputation is built around his playing (which is faultless), but he has a fabulous voice which isn’t always in the characteristic blues style.  His vocal style is very radio-friendly with a hint of plaintive melancholy which nudges into the territory of Rob Thomas (former Matchbox Twenty frontman) at times and maybe (for those of you with very long memories) he has a hint of Iain Matthews.

So we’ve got some sensitive and quite radio-friendly songs but if you’re into the heads-down, no nonsense mindless boogie there’s a bit of that as well with the barrel-house boogie-woogie of “Sugar” and the album closes with the jazzy “Straight Talkin’ Woman”  where eight bars of stuttering, staccato guitar develops into a powerful flowing solo.

The band is superb throughout.  Andre Bassing (keyboards), Steve Amadeo (bass) and Wayne Proctor (drums) are perfectly at ease with the album’s varying musical styles and provide a rock solid foundation for Aynsley’s guitar and vocals.  I’ve reviewed a few good new British blues/rock albums over the last few months, but “Home” stands above the rest because of its variety, songwriting quality and willingness to move the blues forward in the twenty-first century.  This is classy, blues writing, playing and singing of the highest order.

Out now on Straight Talkin’ Records (STR 2612).

ThornsWell, this is certainly a welcome change of pace to fit in with the British summer arriving at last.  Tess of the Circle is a collective of musicians built around the (confusingly, male) singer/songwriter Tess Jones and, in terms of songs and arrangements, harks back to the classic era of British folk/rock in the seventies.  The songs on “Thorns” are very much in the introspective lyrical mould which first became popular at that time with the success of Carole King and James Taylor and the arrangements vary from solo acoustic fingerpicking and vocal to full group arrangement with drums, bass, keyboards and strings.

“Thorns” is the second album from Tess, following the solo “Magpie” in 2010 and the band assembled for the project all have solid experience of working with well-known performers apart for the guitarist Lee Clifton, who auditioned by dubbing his own guitar parts on to the band’s demos.  While working on an indie label budget, he’s managed to attract some major label players to the project with the strength of his songs and this quality shows in musical settings where the players rely on skill and technique rather than volume and effects to fill out the arrangements.

The album opens with the current single “Better Days” which, after a low-key intro, is driven along by a rhythm pattern from the two strummed acoustics and slightly discordant strings enforcing the lyrical theme of escape and growth.  “Vagabonds and Rogues” is a mid-tempo, mainly acoustic piece leading in to the opening electric riff of “Cracks and Burns”, which demonstrates a slightly different, harder-edged approach to the songs made possible by using the full band.  “Eyes of a Clown” is another introspective acoustic piece, this time filled out by a haunting string arrangement.  “History” is much more uptempo with an intro which vaguely recalls the Divine Comedy’s “National Express”.  I’m guessing that the position of “Lifesong” at the centre of the album is quite deliberate; all of the songs are very good, but this stands out from the very first hearing.  The Latin rhythm patterns of the acoustic guitar intro are emphasised by the piano part and it feels like this is the song where everyone gave it their best shot.  Tess’s voice is powerful throughout, but is really exceptional here and Lee Clifton’s guitar work generally, but particularly the two solos, is stunning.

“Say What You Want (Run)” takes the foot of the pedal a little before “No Place Like Home” where Tess Jones vocal sounds incredibly like Greg Lake (yep, the ELP Greg Lake), featuring yet another lovely guitar solo.  The title track is a gentle, mainly acoustic piece, about a relationship which isn’t quite working, building up to a full band section and an acoustic coda.  The poignant “Mixed Emotions”, with its lilting strings is the penultimate song before the closer, “”Girl in the Window” goes back to Tess’s performing and writing roots with finger-picked acoustic backing and ethereal backing vocals bringing the album to a wistful close.

You can certainly hear the influences on this album; it has a very seventies feel with references to gentle troubadours of that era but there’s also a move towards the raunchier folk feel of Jethro Tull, for example. There are eleven well-crafted songs here which are delivered by incredibly good musicians playing subtle and intricate arrangements.  If you appreciate those qualities, and I certainly do, then you should be listening to “Thorns”.

Out on July 17th on Vintage Voice Records Ltd. (VINVOC005).

OlympiaAustra, a 3-piece female- led electronic group from Canada, refer to themselves as a gay band and it’s interesting to think about the pre conceived ideas that may already have sprung into your mind about what they might sound like. Every artist should be able to be open about their sexual orientation if they so wish and some bands, like the Scissor Sisters or Rufus Wainwright say, have in part built a career around it. Austra are indeed making music that is sensual and in places political but specific gay reference points are subtle and ambiguous, the most significant thing about ”Olympia” though, their beautifully-crafted second album, is just how good it is.

Austra’s 2011 debut album “Feel It Break” was graceful and hard, relentless in its pessimism; song titles included “The Choke”, “The Villain”, “The Noise” and ”The Beast” and these themes of threat and terror were played out against slow motion techno and, on occasion, piano with only Katie Stelmanis’ shocking and beautiful classically-trained soprano providing the humanity. You could actually dance to “Beat and Pulse” if forced, which is probably surprising given the seriousness of the album, but one thing you couldn’t call it was warm and it probably wasn’t pop either. The first track on “Olympia”, the grammatically confused “What We Done?”, is the bridge between the coolness and alienation of “Feel It Break” and this album’s more fleshed out and human sound.  More than any other song here “What We Done” focuses on a graphic external scenario;  ‘So I dance for nothing and I dance for free and there is no glamour, stumbling down queen…come back to me, you’re 17’ is the plea against minimal clicks and synths until the final two minutes, where it opens up and a hi-hat spits, a house beat throbs and horns melt, the first indication that Austra have moved into an altogether more emotional sonic place.

The second track here, “Forgive Me”, borrows its bassline from Madonna’s “Jump”.  I can’t remember who she pinched it from but it’s completely unexpected and after a quiet start, which is a definite and definitely misleading theme here, this builds into another lonely dancer with a fantastic middle eight; a sudden swell of beautiful harmonies and strings which, as quickly as they’ve appeared, are gone. “Fire” continues to play with these styles, all layered and stacked up harmonies, mid tempo pop house and a quiet intro giving way to something far more expansive in the song’s final minute. On the first single release, and a contender for one of the best songs of the year so far surely, the magnificent “Home” switches dramatically from pounding, classical piano notes to an Italo piano house riff within the song’s first minute, with Stelmanis despairing ‘You know that it hurts me so, when you don’t come home at night’, and like the best, sad disco songs, which is what this really is, you can feel the pain in your chest as well, it’s shared.

“I Don’t Care (I’m A Man)” introduces the more complicated, introverted second half of “Olympia” and, at just over  a minute long, it’s more than an interval and is a statement chamber piece; ‘The quiet indoor fighting, the whimper in her sigh.. I don’t care, I’m a man’ Stelmanis intones, reinforcing and also challenging gender stereotypes as she sings in the first person. Immediate relief comes with “We Become” with its cowbells, Larry Levan synthetic hand claps and a lilting, harmonica hook which is reminiscent of Carly Simon’s Chic-produced oddity ‘”Why”. Definite album highlight is the fantastically titled “Annie (Oh Muse You)” which has steel drum samples, an obvious nod to The Knife, and drum machine sequencing that is pure Shep Pettibone  mid-eighties house –pop, very much at odds with the disturbing  ‘go on, get off the ground, oh muse you’ lyric; beguiling. If there was any doubt at this point of the charge and power of Stelmanis’ voice then the penultimate track “You Changed My Life”, a song in two parts, will leave you wiped out and convinced.  Around the one minute mark she holds a long note, clear and affecting and then bows out completely, heralding the arrival of a quietly murmuring army equipped with drums and piano.

Austra have made an album that quietly but effectively incorporates early house music and melancholic disco builds in a way that Little Boots tried to do with her “Nocturnes” album earlier this year but which only occasionally delivered.  Some of the tracks here, like the pure trip hop of album closer “Hurt Me Now”, use different references but just as successfully and, like the vivid and exhilarating blues and green of the album’s cover, Austra have allowed their sound to become saturated with colour, with very strong songs about difficult and painful human relationships now having a far sharper focus. “Olympia” is one of the most rewarding and impressive releases of the year.  To hear a band develop and grow from one record to the next at this rate is rare; go and get it.

Out now.

Wrecking Ball tourYou have to wonder what was in Jon Landau’s mind when he made this statement in a 1974 article in The Real Paper: “I saw rock and roll’s future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.”  At that time Bruce had released two critically-acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums (“Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” and “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle”) and “Born to Run” was just a twinkle in his eye; either Jon Landau was incredibly prescient or he made a very lucky guess.  Whichever way you look at it, surely even Landau wouldn’t have predicted that The Boss would still be playing stadia and arenas forty years later.  The band on Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” tour, now in its second year, includes five musicians (Max Weinberg, Gary Tallent, Roy Bittan, Steve van Zandt and The Boss himself) from the “Born to Run” album which was released in August 1975.  However unlikely it is, that’s why I’m in the Olympic Park in Stratford to watch the E Street Band for the first time as part of the Hard Rock Calling festival on a rare sunny summer day in London.

The Boss is one of those artists I’ve loved since the very early days but always avoided seeing live.  I know this sounds weird but there are artists whose work I love so much I didn’t want to see them live and possibly be disappointed.  You have to admit there’s a kind of twisted logic to it.  Anyway, call it the bucket list if you like but I finally saw sense this year and decided to go to the Hard Rock Calling gig.

The support line-up of the Zac Brown Band (great country music throwing in “Kashmir” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” towards the end of the set), Alabama Shakes and Black Crowes who dropped a Georgia medley of “Hard to Handle” and the wonderful Joe South song “Hush”.  And then it was time for the The Boss.

The E Street Band hit the stage slightly early with a high-powered version of the “Wrecking Ball” song “Shackled and Drawn” which slid straight in to “Badlands” and the audience were hooked from the start. As usual, Bruce picked request placards from the audience, walked back up to the stage, showed the band the card and immediately launched into the song.  The first song to get this treatment was “Johnny 99”, transformed from the stripped-back album original to a full-on band arrangement with horns and fiddle from Soozie Tyrell which was followed by a rock version of  “Reason to Believe” driven by Steve van Zandt’s guitar riff.  The two audience requests obviously had The Boss in a “Nebraska” mood because “Atlantic City” completed a run of three songs from the album before rousing versions of “Wrecking Ball” and “Death to my Hometown” brought the first part of the show to a close.

The band has been playing entire albums throughout this tour and tonight it was “Born in the USA”.  If “Born to Run” was the album which made Springsteen famous, “Born in the USA” was the one which made him a global phenomenon with its crowd-pleasing anthems.  It’s easy to forget how many classic songs come from the album until you hear it all live. With such a huge amount of great songs to choose from, it’s obvious (even with a three hour set) that some fans won’t get to hear their favourite song.  I would have loved to hear “Highway Patrolman” or “Factory”, but I did get to hear “Bobby Jean”, so I’m pretty happy with that.

As if we hadn’t heard enough anthems, after a relatively low-key close to the set, the encores kicked off with “Jungleland”, “Born to Run” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “American Land” before closing with the downbeat but very moving acoustic rendition of “My Lucky Day”.

As a bit of break from forcing my opinions on you, I decided to get some feedback from Faye and Alice who came from Birmingham for the gig.  Alice (who’s been going to Springsteen gigs since before she was born) loved the gig (not surprisingly) bouncing about and singing along to all the songs while Faye (who was seeing The Boss for the first time) was amazed at how good the show was and loved the idea of the band playing songs chosen by the audience.  So, a big thumbs up from Faye and Alice.  I hope you both had a safe journey home.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are a live phenomenon; they can play for three hours without even scratching the surface of their repertoire and drop immediately into any song called by The Boss without missing a beat, but it’s not just the musicianship I admire.  The E Street Band (and Southside Johnny, Gary Bonds, Bon Jovi and Billy Walton) are all part of a Jersey shore tradition of bands that give a hundred per cent and want to play all night because they love playing and they understand that a mainly blue-collar audience wants their favourite bands to give them everything they have; you work hard to earn your dollar and you expect bands to work just as hard to earn it from you.

But there’s more to it than that.  The Jersey shore bands are part of a family, literally and metaphorically.  The Boss demonstrated that at Stratford by bringing his mother on for “Dancing in the Dark” and his sister Pam to accompany him at the close of the set.  And don’t forget Clarence Clemons’ nephew Jake playing tenor sax.  I’m convinced that “We Take Care of Our Own” from “Wrecking Ball” isn’t flag-waving patriotism, it’s about all the players, singers and songwriters whose spiritual home is The Stone Pony.  It doesn’t matter how successful you become, you’re still just one of the Jersey crew; for every Bruce, Steve van Zandt and Jon Bon Jovi, there’s a Soozie Tyrell, Ed Manion and Bobby Bandiera and they all have a huge amount of mutual respect.

If you can still get tickets for Springsteen gigs in the UK or Europe, then you should really give it a try; you won’t be disappointed.