There are two albums which were reviewed on MusicRiot on the Top 40 Independent Album chart last week, Neneh Cherry’s “Blank Project” and Stone Foundation’s “To Find the Spirit”.  These albums have a few things in common; they’re both fourth studio albums, they both have guest artists, both were rated as 4* by MusicRiot writers and both feature guest performers and the similarity pretty much ends there.  Except that, as Neil Sheasby, bass player and songwriter with Stone Foundation pointed out a few days ago, both albums were in the 30-to-40 section of the Independent Album chart, “To Find the Spirit” at 33, “Blank Project” at 38.

It isn’t a straightforward comparison; Neneh Cherry’s album peaked in the top ten a fortnight earlier while “To Find the Spirit” has just entered the chart in its first week.  The interesting story here is the journey that each of these albums made to reach those chart positions.  This isn’t a criticism of Neneh Cherry; it’s an achievement to get any kind of significant album sales at a time when the value of music has been so degraded by piracy and the industry has no time or money for artist development.  Most of the bands I’ve spoken to recently have only the most tangential contact with the traditional music industry, usually at the distribution end of the chain.

Neneh Cherry was operating on a fairly tight budget with “Blank Project”; it was recorded and mixed in five days (featuring guest appearances from Robyn and RocketNumberNine) by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, generating a certain level of interest in the project outside Neneh Cherry’s own fanbase, which is still reasonably healthy after a long time out of the spotlight.  In the weeks leading up to the release there was a significant amount of interest from the trade press and even the inkies in the UK; the physical release was in vinyl and bonus CD form with the CD containing the almost obligatory remixes.  So, signs of a marketing budget there.  Maybe not a huge budget, but enough to get the album into the mainstream media.

Stone Foundation have been doing their thing for about ten years, building up a local, then national, then international following; putting in the hard graft, basically.  The band has played as Stone Foundation and has also backed touring soul singers such as Nolan Porter and Joe Harris, building a reputation and a hugely loyal fanbase.  There’s no complicated organisation in place here; no manager or entourage; just seven very gifted and committed musicians (plus long-time production collaborator, Andy Codling) with a total belief in what they do.

“To Find the Spirit” has a few guest appearances too.  Nolan Porter, Carleen Anderson, Pete Williams from Dexys and even Paolo Hewitt are all there.  The album even has a remix; the Dennis Bovell dub of “Don’t Let the Rain”, which is available on all formats.  The promotion campaign was minimal, focussing on social media and a support slot on The Selecter’s anniversary tour, but still the album managed to break into the official Independent Album Top 40.

It would be easy to moan about how much better it was in the good old days when artists got huge advances and only toured in support of an album, but that model just doesn’t apply any more.  Most artists now only make money by touring, and a lot of that income is from merchandising.  Take a step away from singles charts and there are thousands of talented and hard-working musicians taking control of the recording, marketing and distribution processes (physical and electronic) to get their own material out into the marketplace with very little help from the mainstream media.  The MusicRiot writers try to cover as many artists as we can who are working in this way (as do thousands of other websites) but it’s only effective if our readers actually do something about it.  It’s so easy to try before you buy these days that any music lover should be able find new artists doing something interesting and appealing if they make the effort.  It’s all going on out there but, despite 6 Music’s slightly patronising campaign, it won’t come to you automatically; you have to make the effort to go out and find it.

So I say thank you to Stone Foundation and the other artists and labels we’ve featured recently; The Brothers Groove, Roscoe Levee, Bandhouse Records, Drumfire Records, Ags Connolly, Phil  Burdett, Dean Owens, Jo Hook and Geoffrey Richardson, Noel Cowley, Pete Kennedy, Aynsley Lister, Vera Lynch and the Billy Walton Band.  All of these artists are making their own wonderful live and recorded music while doing whatever else it takes to allow them to keep on making music.

Now go out and support them.

It’s worth mentioning this one again, I think.  It’s rereleased today and it comes with a nice new video as well.  Great single:

You can buy it here.

ThumbnailFor one March night in the spring of 2014, the north-west corner of Fitzrovia became a time machine.  Last Friday, the area shifted back thirty-five years; you couldn’t escape the check shirts, Harringtons, black shades and pork pie hats in The Albany and the Green Man.  The reason for this sartorial timeshift was that The Selecter was back in town at 229, The Venue supported by Warwickshire’s best-kept funk secret, Stone Foundation.  Reunion tours and nostalgia gigs, I can take ’em or leave ‘em; The Selecter played a really tight, professional set and had the audience bouncing  to the sound of all the old hits.  The old fans loved it and why shouldn’t they; the performance was probably much better technically than the late 70s/early 80s shows.  They also got a really good DJ set from Rhoda Dakar, which built up nicely to the start of the headliners’ set.

But while we’re talking about time travel, let’s go back to the start of the evening.  The support band chosen by The Selecter for this tour is Stone Foundation from Atherstone in Warwickshire and they are very special.  Stone Foundation’s fourth album, “To Find the Spirit” is out this week.  On the back of years of hard work and touring, the band seems to have become a ten-year overnight success.  The independently-released album looks set to make an impact on the album chart this week and the band is riding the crest of the wave; the band recognise all of this and refer to it during their support set, but really it’s business as usual with maybe a hint of celebration.

And business as usual is a seven-piece soul/funk band playing together as a tight unit and having a great time.  This band doesn’t have an obviously dominant personality; they all work together, the guitar, horns and Hammond combining over the solid rhythm section of Neil Sheasby and Philip K Ford to produce a sound with all of the best elements of sixties and seventies soul and funk.  If you imagine a cross between the Average White Band and Dexys Midnight Runners, then you won’t be far off the mark.  In true jazz club style, there are solos throughout the set from Ian Arnold (Hammond), Spencer Hague (trombone), Dexy D’Angelo (trumpet), Gary Rollins (saxophone) and, occasionally, Neil Jones (guitar).  How often do you hear trombone, muted trumpet and soprano sax solos these days?

The set opened with the new album’s title track, “To Find the Spirit”, and also included “Bring Back the Happiness”, “Don’t Let the Rain” “, “Stronger Than Us” and “That’s the Way I Want to Live my Life” as well as earlier tracks, “No More the Fool”, “Let the Light” and “Tracing Paper”.  If you want to hear flawless contemporary soul/funk then you should really listen to Stone Foundation either live or on record; you won’t be disappointed either way.  While we have bands like this writing, playing and performing, there’s still hope for the music business.

Blank ProjectI have a confession. It would be unreasonable and creatively and artistically crippling for her, but I want Neneh Cherry to make another “Buffalo Stance” and one more “Manchild” whilst she’s at it. These two songs, twenty five years old and counting, and her most famous along with Youssou N’Dour’s “Seven Seconds”, are as fantastic examples of perfect r’n’b, hip-hop pop as you will ever hear. Weird, joyous, melancholic and just gloriously sing-along tracks they instantly established Cherry as an artist that represented the period so completely that she has never been forgotten and as a female performer who embodied supreme self- possession and control over her image and her music. But therein of course lies a real truth in my confession and that it is built on nostalgia, sentimentality probably, and an opportunity to recapture something that probably can’t be and shouldn’t be. And Neneh Cherry has never been an artist to wallow or revisit, not for she the desperate and depressing revival tours and reality TV features so I wonder, when will my one pop wish ever come true?

2012’s “The Cherry Thing” was the last full length album to feature Cherry’s vocals on every track. It was a relatively specialist jazz album, wild and uninhibited but a sideline nonetheless. This, only her fourth album proper, has some of the residue of the itchy, structure-punishing, live feel of that last outing but where that album felt like an ensemble piece, which is what it was, this is all her; front, back and centre. “Blank Project”, a misleading title given its sharp focus, is very much about Neneh Cherry and her life now and the roles that she plays out, old and new. To get back to my confessional wish, there is not another “Buffalo Stance” here; of course there isn’t. There is however, amongst the avant-garde noises and sometimes bare sound stages, some bold and invigorating pop song structures. Surprisingly they are not to be found in the ponderous and strangely characterless duet with Cherry’s super groupie and number one fan Robyn on “Out of the Black” but in a trio of songs that appear in the album’s first half.

Following the reflective and protective “Across The Water”, a gentle and partly-rapped opener set to African percussion and stark patted drums, the title track “Blank Project” establishes Kieran (aka Four Tet) Heden’s production (he’s responsible for the whole album) style and sonic choices. Live drums, drum machines, guitars, pinging jangling ear-flinching percussion and a low frequency, vibrating and rubbery electronic bass that shares equal billing with only Cherry herself for persistence and aggravated attitude.  Along with “Blank Project”, “Naked” and “Weightless” detail addictive/compulsive relationships, making peace with a world and culture that resists being grounded in anything other than the present and feelings of being overwhelmed by the pressure to carry on ‘as normal’.

‘Strip me naked and put me down right

Strips me naked, my wings need to blast off

Life is going faster, like a bus it runs me over

No kind of beacon, fill me up and make me whole now’

All of these songs have a rambunctious punk energy which link in with Cherry’s earlier time with Rip, Rig and Panic but also, like her best work, they have fantastic melodies and exuberant, big choruses. “Weightless” in particular has a massive charge swinging around a chorus that lists bad dancing, over-spending, hasty decisions and a desire for some kind of spiritual balance. Any of these songs could be performed by artists that are half the age of Cherry and who represent the more interesting end of r’n’b and dance hybrids such as Angel Haze, MIA, Sky Ferreira and even Lorde, which is testament not only to the influence that Cherry has had on modern music but also her refusal to conform to perceived notions of appropriateness.

Spit Three Times”, a mid-tempo track that recalls Cherry’s dalliance with trip-hop around the mid 90’s, and, in particular the track ‘Feel It’, tackles depression but is not in itself a depressing track. Cherry’s warm and clear vocal also sounds suspicious of the superstitions that she thinks may help her dark mood at bay.

‘Monkeys on my back

Holding me down

Black dogs in the corner

Looking up at me

But you’re like an old friend or an enemy; holding me down’

Dossier”, a definite standout track, has a truly sinister build and bipolar mood but ends up revealing nothing scarier than domesticity although maybe this is Cherry’s biggest fear? The one true ballad “422” sees Cherry joining her native Swedes with a glacial, melancholic electronica reminiscent of The Knife and the closing track “Everything”, which may be overlong at nearly eight minutes, is the most experimental track here calling to mind Yoko Ono, albeit at her most subdued. All of it though hanging together beautifully with a graceful and consistent temperament.

Neneh Cherry has always been more of a commentator than a player. Her views have come from her own perspective and experiences as a woman, a woman of colour, a hip-hop star, a pop star, a parent and a reluctant participant of the music industry. To use an overused and often incorrectly-applied phrase she is what you might call authentic. “Blank Project” feels like a concentrated version of Cherry in that she is so present throughout and her strength and vulnerability heightened. It’s as if you’ve spent the morning with her sharing pots of coffee whilst trying to disentangle problems and laughing hysterically at pretty much nothing together, and she’s just left. She’s still live in your head but she’s no longer present, such is the personal nature and intensity of these songs. I won’t deny that I would love to hear her produced by Pharrell or the new Beyonce whizz kid Boots just to hear what they would come up with; I think it would be amazing. But that’s not to belittle or underestimate the quality of this record. Neneh Cherry is back and her art and soul informs this project, blank only for you to fill the role of listener and to share the very human experiences expressed honestly, courageously, and often thrillingly throughout.

Silence Surrounds Me CoverThere’s quite a story behind Canterbury-based Jo Hook’s third album, “Silence Surrounds Me”, and it’s a story of talent, hard work, and optimism triumphing over adversity.  Jo’s first album, “Inside Out”, was released in 2000 and her second, “Settle Down”, in 2005.  Following the release of “Settle Down”, Jo was forced to take a sabbatical to deal with kidney failure, resulting in the donation of a kidney from a friend.  Following her recovery, Jo started writing again with, not surprisingly, a different perspective.  Another period of illness followed, leading to paralysis, before Jo finally approached multi-instrumentalist Geoffrey Richardson, also based in Canterbury, to record this album.  The partnership worked so well that it quickly became a joint project, Jo’s songwriting and singing being complemented by Geoffrey’s playing and arrangements.  The recording line-up was completed by Paul Townsend (drums) and Richie Bates (bass).

Jo’s style of songwriting is intensely personal and, unsurprisingly, there are many references to her recent experiences, although the minimally-arranged “Voice” cautions against identifying the performance too closely with the performer.  The overall message of “Silence Surrounds Me” is positive and hopeful, although “Smile” and “Wind Me Up” both have darker sides and deeper layers of meaning.  “Silence Surrounds Me” doesn’t reveal all of its secrets immediately; in the seemingly whimsical “Alexander Beetle”, for example, the title character is also a metaphorical representation of our choices of friends and lovers.  Apart from the relatively straightforward melancholy of “Mrs Zippy” and the love song “Like What You Like” (a lovely vocal duet with Geoffrey Richardson), most of the songs need a little bit of effort from the listener, but it’s an effort that’s generously rewarded.

The opening two songs effectively set the musical scene for the album.  “Eight” is topped and tailed by unhurried acoustic guitar interplay (with a bit of cello) with an uptempo middle third featuring the full band, and “Living is Easy” is driven along by a string section to a big finish with loads of backing vocals.  Lyrically, both of these songs seem to be inspired by the recent events in Jo’s life and the lyrics of “Living is Easy” provide the title for the album.  “Arial Ten” is another clever piece of wordplay, the title likening the ubiquitous font (or type) to the vanilla option, the average non-entity and the comparison that every artist dreads.  “Oldest Silence” is another intensely personal song built around revisiting an old, but not extinguished, relationship while “Inside Out” is an acoustic reworking of the title track from Jo’s debut album which works much better with traditional instruments than the beats and samples of the original arrangement.  “20,000 Bottles” closes the album in rollicking, upbeat folk style with fiddles, whistles and lots of layered harmonies.

Jo Hook has put together a very strong and varied set of deceptively simple songs on personal themes while also slipping in some social comment as well.  Her voice has returned as clear and true as ever with the occasional fractured edge to add feeling to the more personal songs.  The arrangements and playing of Geoffrey Richardson complement the songs perfectly, creating an album that amply rewards repeated listening.  It’s great to have you back, Jo.

“Silence Surrounds Me” is out now.  It’s available to download from iTunes and Amazon and to stream from Spotify.

Another little snippet of a new song for you.  It’s called “Blues Come Calling” and it’s going to be interesting to see how this one develops.

Video courtesy of Eric Taylor.

Old people who used to watch the satirical comedy show ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ hundreds of years ago (me) may remember that they spoofed the idea of the grandiose eighties music video accompanying the limp, underwhelming song. ‘Nice Video, Shame about The Song’ is still very much applicable in 2013 too but in the case of London based Cash + David and their debut single “Funn” they both carry very much equal weight. An arresting visual that includes drag king caricatures of David Bowie and Johnny Cash duelling it out in an empty studio which is set to a razor sharp, liquid cool hybrid of electronics and guitars. The vocals, presumably female, are pitched to confuse like a more accessible Planningtorock, no bad thing, but will Cash + David change identity with each record? If the music maintains the quality and panache demonstrated here, who cares?

Released on March 10 2014.  Available to pre-order on iTunes.

Tone, Twang and TasteIn the years between the invention of the electric guitar in the early 1930s and its adoption by rock and roll groups in the late fifties and early sixties, there was a very steep learning curve for jazz and dance band players as they realised that this wasn’t just a louder version of the acoustic guitar, but a new instrument with its own distinct tonal qualities and capabilities.  Pete Kennedy’s latest solo album explores this period through his interpretations of standards from this era, a few less well-known pieces and some of his own compositions. 

If you haven’t listened to Pete Kennedy before, then you really should.  Listen to his solo work or his albums as one half of The Kennedys, with his wife Maura; it’s all good.  Pete is a technically superb player so, as you might expect, the quality of the playing throughout is excellent.  The first three tracks on the album (“This Ain’t the Blues”, “Cannonball Rag”, and “The Mad Russian”) are all characterised by the clear, toppy tone which still survives today in country music and some blues, but which you rarely hear in effects-heavy rock music.  “Rhapsody in Blue”, which has become a live staple, is a ukulele version of the famous George Gershwin mood piece; you have to hear it to believe it.  Pete has also previously recorded a guitar version of this piece.

The uptempo country of “Jerry’s Breakdown” is followed by high register jazz version of the standard “How High the Moon” and the Pete Kennedy original, swing blues “Baby Catt’s Blues”, dedicated to Baby Catt Garland and played in the style of her uncle, Hank Garland.  Tunes made famous by three very different guitarists follow this: Chet Atkins’ “Main Street Breakdown”, Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing” and Charlie Christian’s “Seven Come Eleven” before the standard, “Harlem Nocturne”, opens with an over-driven blues sound which is almost shocking in the context of the rest of the album.  The gentle harmony guitars of “Lover” come next before another Pete Kennedy original, “Django’s Train” in the style of – well you work it out.  The closing track is another live favourite, the JS Bach piece “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”. Roger McGuinn says that this piece was the inspiration for the intro to “Mr Tambourine Man”; it was also used by the Beach Boys for “Lady Lynda”.

Great albums can affect us in different ways; this one made me smile.  I love to hear dedicated and talented musicians showing their skills and generally having a good time and there’s plenty of that here.  It’s a perfect way of exploring the pre-rock development of the electric guitar and, I hope, bringing some incredible musicians back into the spotlight.  It made me go back and listen again to Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian while introducing me Speedy West and Hank Garland.  It’s fair to say that “Tone, Twang and Taste” won’t be seen as fashionable, but with talent like this on display, who cares about fashion?

Short and sweet; here’s the first instalment of the Billy Walton Band studio documentary, featuring Mike Finnigan on keyboards.  Fans of the band will probably recognise the song.