Ghosts of DownloadThe last album by supergroup Blondie to be considered an outright classic was 1979’s wall of sound and words of steel “Eat to the Beat”. Two more albums followed that and continued the trajectory that started three records earlier in 1976 and then, following serious illness and drug problems, everything went quiet for the group for a very long time. Lead singer Debbie Harry pursued a prolific but unpredictable solo career and seventeen years after Blondie’s dismal 1982 “The Hunter” album, 1999 finally saw the return of the group with the successful but sporadic “No Exit”. Two more albums eventually came after this and post-eighties, post-new wave and post-disco (the first incarnation) Blondie had become an odd, nostalgic beast. Without a doubt Debbie Harry was one of the most charismatic, self-possessed and dazzling front women that pop music has ever borne witness to or is likely to again. Iconic in the truest sense, Harry and the boys will be forever be a part of Andy’s authentic Pop Culture and a slew of wannabes shall it seems, forever follow. Interestingly “Ghosts of Download” comes with a pointless, bonus CD of re-recorded versions (albeit marginally – re-created to sound identical to the originals is a more honest description) of their greatest hits which, bar 1999’s surprise hit “Maria”, do not go beyond the band’s 1980  ‘Autoamerican’ album. Undermining the new material somewhat  and also demonstrating how long it’s been since the band has been successful on any kind of measurable level, it just reinforces the question – is there any reason for Blondie to keep releasing new material some thirty-five years  plus after their debut release? Based on the evidence here, the answer is maybe not straightforward but is still probably a forgone conclusion.

“Ghosts of Download” is produced by Jeff Saltzman and long-term band member Chris Stein and that is part of its problem. Whereas 2011’s “Panic of Girls” was a studio and live band album and had a handful of dynamic and hungry tracks, “Ghosts of Download” has been made using isolated computers. Files being passed backboard and forward finally being mixed together to bring some cohesion, it suffers from sounding compressed and airless. This is a shame as there are some good songs here, ones that instantly appeal and others that take a bit longer. “Rave” in particular sounds like a less muscular “Atomic” and the gleaming verses of “Take It Back” feature Harry at her most exuberant. “Take Me in the Night” and the lyrically bizarre and thrusting “Can’t Stop Wanting” from the deluxe issue all feature Clem Burke’s dominant and recognisable drum patterns and are tracks that certainly bring to mind classic Blondie tracks while never quite matching them.

The duet about bi-sexuality with Beth Ditto “A Rose by Any Name” starts well and sees Harry, who is in fine voice throughout, contained within a cool, detached and metallic soundscape but it loses some ground come the chorus which sonically at least, sounds dated and ill thought-out . Blondie have always had a tendency towards reggae and, in more recent years, Latin American and Spanish music and this is again in evidence here. The lilting “Backroom” is effectively boisterous and Colombian band Systema Solar and Los Rakas appear on “Sugar on the Side” and “I Screwed Up” respectively but neither track is an obvious highlight. “I Want to Drag You Around” has a complex, snaking melody, some sitars and is haunting and memorable and “Make a Way”, another well-constructed song, is the most contemporary and commercial-sounding song here but one that needs some help realising its full potential. “Mile High” is a thin, silly EDM attempt at a Katy Perry song and “Relax”, the Frankie song, is not Blondie’s best cover version – split into three distinct if not distinctive musical parts with each progressively worse than the one before.

Blondie’s tenth and possibly last studio album continues their pattern of post-eighties, hit and miss, occasionally brilliantly eccentric, scattershot songs with Debbie Harry’s nonchalant and still effortless presence overseeing proceedings. “Ghosts of Download” is maybe more frustrating than their other recent work because the better material here, which becomes a casualty of the naive and stagnant production, sounds unfinished and demo-like for the best part. “Rave”, “Take Me in the Night” and “I Want to Drag You Around” are tracks that, although good here, could have been much better. Blondie clearly have the drive and motivation to make new and, on occasion, experimental music so why not work with other producers who could take their sound into a more modern, interesting and cohesive direction? Maybe it’s too late now; the group’s relevance is impossible to regain but this doesn’t mean they have to be relegated to the role of a heritage act. If this is their last recording, then it is still very much worth a listen and particularly if you are already a fan which is probably why you’re interested in the first place. “Ghosts of Download” is still a Blondie album after all, sadly not one that ranks alongside their best but then who ever really thought it would be?

Nikki NackTune-Yards – aka New England vocalist Merrill Garbus and partner in bass-playing crime Nate Brenner – have allowed some major pop producers, namely John Hill and Malay, access to their already established and almost aggressively individual sound. Concerns of a disaster in the making may ring out; their first album unbelievably lo-fi and the second self- produced – how would makers of albeit alternative but identifiable r’n’b pop affect the truly eccentric and self-sufficient band’s identity? Well, not as you much as you may imagine or possibly fear. There are changes of course as one would expect and also hope from any artist that has been producing music in excess of five years, but these are subtle and even, on occasion, welcome amendments made to the Tune-Yards manifesto.

2011’s “Whokill” was an astonishing force of nature; it blew everyone and everything that stood in its path away but left Merrill Garbus drained and creatively arid. “Nikki Nack”’s opening lyrics tell of Garbus’ frustrations and the encouragement given to her by a stranger based only on her casual, overheard, singing:

‘You tried to tell me that I had a right to sing

Just like a bird has to fly

And I really wanted to believe him because he seemed

Like a really nice guy

But I trip on the truth when I walk that wire

When you wear a mask, always sound like a liar

I tried to tell him all the reasons that I had never to sing again

And he replied ‘You’d better find a new way’

Garbus’ wide eyed, exclaiming vocals – certainly soulful and often astoundingly powerful – sound pretty much the same on “Find a New Way” as they always did. The change then comes mainly from the songs themselves and Tune-Yards development as writers. Garbus has spoken about her love of sticky, ear worm- songs that attack the brain, embedded forever. One of the objectives she had for this album was to figure out how to write such hooks and incorporate them without compromise of creativity and individuality. Maybe this was the reason for recruiting the producers of, amongst others, Pink, Shakira, Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera; John Hill and Malay are music specialists who understand how to navigate an artist towards the potential of a great melody. Along with Brenner, the band has again self-written the entire record and this objective of creating catchiness has, on the whole, been met, with many satisfying examples.

The first half on “Nikki Nack” is more convoluted stylistically than the second and also has a lower hit rate. “Water Fountain”, the album’s first single, squashes all of Tune-Yards characteristics and tics into one song. It’s a very tight squeeze; playground skipping rhymes, yelps and ‘yee- ha’s!’, clanging and clattering percussion, exhibitionist vocals and lyrics about a crumbling and under-funded neighbourhoods and a video that references Peewee Herman’s “Play House”. Ostentatious, wacky and be-jewelled, it’s not subtle and, after the initial and undeniable rush has worn off, it’s not enduring either. “Look Around” and “Time of Dark”, both slower tracks, feel longer than their playing time and “Real Thing”, which starts off brilliantly with staccato thrown verses circa “Writing on the Wall” era Destiny’s Child, ends in a tangle of voices and sonic muddle.

Hey Life” chronicles an existence led too fast accompanied by anxiety and a pressure to cram as much as possible into every waking second; its drumming, synth prods and speed singing all add to the heightened feeling of panic with Merrill central to the ensuing chaos. It’s a minor track in some ways but one that is nonetheless thrilling and manages to avoid any cartoonish inclinations on a track where this could have been an easy temptation.

The strongest section of the album begins with “Stop that Man” which introduces a trio of songs where evidence of growth in song-writing and an ability to apply a more contained but ultimately more rewarding approach is clearly apparent. One of the continued aims of Tune-Yards has been to comment on social and left-leaning political issues with lyrics that are set against predominantly upbeat and dense dance rhythms and beats that imply a celebratory mood. Casual racism, gentrification and sexual harassment are all central themes here and “Stop that Man” questions racial assumptions based on media statistics and news reports and also personal experiences. The song succeeds mainly though by being part angular, glitchy electro clash experiment (it turns inexplicably and temporarily into Blue Monday/ Bobby O for forty-five seconds mid-song) and part glorious, singalong pop song. So if Garbus’ intention was to create a song serious in intention that you’ll also sing and dance along to, she has also again succeeded.

Left Behind” and the downbeat but not depressing, smoothly r’n’b “Wait for a Minute”, probably the album’s best tune and performance, complete the trio and these moments are some of the finest in Tune-Yards discography to date. There is nothing that rivals the unruly, audacious and already ground -breaking “Gangsta”’ for example, here; the Tune-Yards of “Nikki Nack” are indeed more mannered but also more intricate with one beady eye placed on fine detail and songs that reveal themselves more slowly and reward generously over time. Claims of cultural appropriation, for they have been made, are surely overblown and only on the multi harmonies of the lullaby-like “Rocking Chair”, short and little too on the nose, does the intention grate. Other influences can also be heard, Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper, Missy Elliott and Timbaland, Santigold, Big Boi, MIA and Neneh Cherry in particular all register at certain points but never once could you mistake Tune –Yards for anyone else. “Nikki Nack” may not shout its intentions as loudly as before but its power is found elsewhere, you’ll find yourself madly singing its merits – probably unaware and almost certainly with glee.

KelisThis reasonably priced, sold-out concert was part of The Great Escape Festival and attracted a festival crowd.  Ella Eyre kicked off proceedings, most recently known for her vocal duties on Rudimental’s hit “Waiting All Night”.  She certainly warmed up a growing crowd, with her energy and stagecraft.  Kelis arrived on stage at ten pm for an hour and twenty minutes, predominantly to promote her latest album, “Food”.  Wearing a mid-blue empire-line dress, she began unaccompanied to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”, which she returned to midway and finished with, but this was not a covers show.   Kelis then launched into four songs from “Food”, which were received with polite applause; I just don’t think the crowd knew the songs.  This was further in evidence when the audience raised the roof for the first few bars of “Trick Me”; I think most of them were here for a club set of former glories.  The seven-piece outfit were well rehearsed and sounded much bigger especially the brass section which comprised just tenor sax and a horn.

Whether by default or design, Kelis largely swerved the slower moments from “Food”, perhaps hearing the noisy crowd and knowing that a ballad would be unlikely to work; “Floyd”, a dreamier moment from the album was notably absent from the set. At one point Kelis delivered a Mariah Carey-like tour of her upper register, probably just to prove she could, but her voice, husky at times was in fine form.  Through her singles, Kelis is known for her assertive brand of sexuality and while this was demonstrated on the night with hits like “Milkshake”, she is much more than a one trick pony.  A mother and now a trained chef with her own line of condiments, Kelis is keen to explore other aspects of herself with this album as well as keeping her sensuality.  “Food” is a soulful, organic-sounding concoction including some big, brassy horns, but stops short of being a 70’s retro album.

The ageing club crowd certainly showed their appreciation for the back catalogue, which made up about a third of songs.  Studio-sound singles were reworked into live tracks, the best example of which was “Acapella”, heavy synths were dropped and replaced with jazz piano and horns, though not all the adaptations worked as well.  One slowie that sounded pretty good was Labi Siffre’s “Telephone”, by which time Kelis was on her stool and the atmosphere had calmed a little; Kelis was chatty and on-form with her banter.  The chairs had been removed from the front stalls to allow for dancing, though it was not much in evidence with the constant tempo changes.  Unfortunately, the stage atmosphere did not reach as far as the seated area or probably the circle, which was a shame given that Kelis must have had a fair experience now of playing theatres and not just clubs.  Kelis left the stage to a last chorus of “Feeling Good” and didn’t return for an encore.

In retrospect, this was a good night out, although I’m not sure it will encourage many to buy the well-rounded “Food”, which may appeal to a different demographic than the crowd here tonight.

Long Time Coming EdThere’s a bit of a buzz going on around Jim Stapley at the moment and, on the evidence of “Long Time Coming”, his debut album after over ten years as a professional musician, it’s more than just hype. He’s been highly recommended by Kenney Jones and the album has been produced by the legendary (over-used term, but justified in this case) Tony Visconti. Taking the album as a whole, it feels like a showcase for Jim’s prodigious vocal talent across a fairly wide range of styles and, in those terms it’s very effective.  There’s no doubting that Jim has a great rock voice; he can do everything from heartfelt ballads to the wails of Percy Plant and it all sounds totally convincing. And he plays keyboards and guitar on the album as well.

The core band for the album is Jim, CJ Evans (drums), Tom Swann (bass), Ricky Glover (electric guitars and vocals), Johnson-Jay Mewik-Daley (electric and acoustic guitar and vocals). Tony Visconti steps in with some string arrangements and vocals while additional keyboards and horns are courtesy of Josh Phillips (Hammond) and James Arben (tenor and bass sax). Last but not least, the string quartet is Rachel Dawson, Sarah Tuke, Polly Wiltshire and Catriona Parker and Mollie Marriott, Rachel Leavesley and Jessica Morgan are the additional backing vocalists. If you think the name of the first backing singer sounds familiar, you’d be right; Mollie is the daughter of the late Steve Marriott.

The album opens with all guns blazing; “No Good Reason” has a guitar riff straight out of the 70s (or the Black Crowes) and a massive chorus underpinned by power chords and it’s followed by “Laid to Waste” which changes the mood with an acoustic guitar intro and a string quartet. “Hurricane” is a power ballad which culminates in a kitchen-sink ending, while “Heartstrings”, possibly the first single from the album, is a reflective piece with acoustic guitar, strings and harmonium supplying the backing.

“New Religion” and “My Way Home” both have a slight country tinge while “Made of Stone” moves the influences forward to the 80s with a massive chorus and a lead vocal/guitar riff duet towards the end. “My Own Worst Enemy” is another ballad with strings before three songs, “Out of Sight”, “Grey Matter” and “Breaking Out” which open with acoustic guitar intros before building up to big finishes. The final song, “Shield”, closes out the album on a low-key note with finger-picked acoustic guitar, brushed drums and cello laying the foundations.

It’s not difficult to pick out Jim Stapley’s influences on this debut album; he’s emulating some superb singers. What is astounding is that he can do it all, he sounds equally at home with the ballads and the all-out screamers and I know from musicians who have worked with him that he can do it live as well. If there’s a niche in the market for a new rock god singer (and let’s face it, most of the originals have collected their bus passes now), then he might just be the man for the job. Maybe the lyrics could move away from the standard rock themes of bad women and finding yourself, but that’s relatively unimportant compared to the superb musicianship and quality of the singing on this album.

This is a very assured debut album, packed with quality playing, singing and instrumental arrangements and should certainly get Jim Stapley’s name out to a wider public whether it’s through Radio 2 (it’s ok, it’s acceptable now) or specialist rock stations. Either way, it may have been a long time coming, but I think we can safely say he’s arrived now.

FoodKelis is an incredible singles artist. I’m not going to begin listing them all but if a reminder is needed then just play 2008’s greatest hits compilation – barely a mis-step over a near fifteen- year career. Seen often as an innovator, Kelis is certainly an artist that the world of r’n’b and hip-hop cannot seem to contain. Hailed as the next big thing upon her arrival in 1999 with the brittle and bawling “Caught Out There” she was the original Pharrell/The Neptunes collaborator. Falling down on the spare and only occasionally fully-realised second album “Wanderland”, she rose again in spectacular fashion with the still ubiquitous “Milkshake” from 2003’s “Tasty” album. She conquered EDM just before it reached saturation point with the bold but uneven “Flesh Tone” and although this contained the mammoth “Acapella”, it just continued the fate of the star’s underwhelming if ambitious run of full length recordings. 2014’s incarnation may however see a reversal for Kelis; possibly lacking that one massive hit single, “Food” might instead be her most cohesive and consistently engaging long playing collection to date.

‘Are you hungry? My mum made food’, so asks Kelis’s 5-year old little boy Knight on album opener “Breakfast”. Using her son’s voice to introduce the album neatly sets up the album’s themes; a new outlook as a single mother and a woman who has recently graduated as a chef, nurturing on a more organic and sensual level and looking for quality fulfilment. Produced by David Sitek and incorporating a live band, assertive backing singers and strings which reference an era that begins in the late sixties and moves through to the mid-seventies. Genre switch-ups of this kind are not uncommon career decisions but Kelis has a charismatic and unusual delivery and an assertiveness that can carry such a radical change. The first three songs, which include the brassy and euphoric single “Jerk Ribs”, are very pleasant if predictable excursions into this unknown territory  but it’s only on the fourth track “Floyd”, that the deal is secured. Delicious baritone horns, a gorgeous and dreamy vocal and a wonderfully restrained, seductive one minute fade out set the scene for the album’s sometime raucous and constantly surprising middle section.

The last quarter of “Food” is the most satisfying and diverse. “Bless the Telephone”- originally by UK artist Labi Siffre, is a warm and melodic, acoustic guitar duet with Sal Masakela. Tender and beautifully sung it’s the shortest song but delivers one of the biggest successes. “Rumble” is a simple, piano-riffed and rolling mid-tempo song which, on a rare moment here, sees Kelis address problems with an ex-partner in the no-nonsense and honestly amusing style that she has become famous for. Her vocals sound thick and hoarse on the chorus, the perfect combination given the aggrieved but still conflicted demand that he return her keys. “Change” is “Food”’s star, it captures everything that is essentially Kelis and filters it through the dynamics and soundscapes that have been chosen as the sonic and stylistic template for the album. One of only a couple of songs to do so, “Change” also has influences that don’t predate Kelis’s age; it has a noir trip-hop quality which has been set against a sparkling and angry early seventies Blaxplotitation soundtrack. It could be covered by Adele or Shirley Bassey but suits Kelis perfectly.

Many new millennial r’n’b starts did not survive their first decade but “Food” is Kelis’s sixth album and is as surprising and spirited as her first. Whilst her 1999 debut “Kaleidoscope” sounded like the future, this is a look back on her musical heritage which thankfully steers clear of pastiche or cosiness. More than anything, Kelis feels as though she is fully responsible for guiding her own path here and that, for better or worse, the music she is producing now is made with heart and conviction. An idiosyncratic and unpredictable performer who has successfully refused to be pigeon-holed from the get go, she still encourages excitement on each new release and attracts genuine respect based on her resilience and decision not to become the cliché that some of her contemporaries have. Kelis is one of pop and r’n’b music’s most interesting and brave characters and “Food” is her most satisfying album yet; indulge.

TroubleHospitality are a three-piece, female-led band from Brooklyn and “Trouble” is their second album. This is indie, guitar pop with new wave synths and the occasional dusting of strings or an unexpected lonely and sad piano solo. The group make music that although decidedly retro, see Television and Belle and Sebastian for obvious comparisons, still sounds modern if somewhat unfashionable. If all of these ingredients sound appealing then you might just love “Trouble”, an album which has a mood and turn of phrase that suggests disappointments and bright, city afternoons but spent in slightly grubby vintage dresses accompanied only by overflowing ashtrays and a telephone.

Nightingale” opens the album in a strident and assertive manner before positioning an airy and dreamlike slow drum and hushed percussion break that would usually appear as a middle eight and not within a track’s first minute. It’s a lovely affecting trick, gently pulling the rug out from under your feet that is repeated several times in different forms.  The 10 songs here are all artfully but quietly arranged which in turn encourage repeated listens just to revisit the thrill of the surprise. Much of this is also down to lead vocalist Amber Papini’s ability to merge other-worldliness and dressed-down normality.  She inhabits a world that is part Brit-pop sarcasm and smirk (Elastica, Sleeper and later entrants, The Long Blondes) occasionally mixed with the savage sheen of early Blondie.

It’s Not Serious” sees Papini at the Neko end of haughty but she’s surrounded by a swaying and strummed soundtrack and with a chorus that however languid, is built to stick. “Inauguration” is krautrock that manages to pack so much into two minutes and nine seconds with such elegance and humour that is easy to dismiss the level of skill required to pull this off. The song is addressed to an individual called Valentino, a small thing but even the choice of name adds to the visual associations created whilst listening. One of the two ballads that close the album, “Sunship” is a glorious ode to a changed season which has a trumpet solo that the song can barely contain. Full of optimism with a massive light heart but devoid of any cheap sentimentality:

‘Out of the coats
And out of our hats
Out of the wool flying socks that
Bruised out cheeky bodies
Fingers dying our beat over the rock-shed sand
Unpack your bags
Tie up your swimming cap
And go with the creatures ’

Mood and minor key music of this shade, the type that doesn’t announce itself loudly as soon as the first hook has been established, is rarely on the radar these days. Refusing to commit to either full on guitars or machines, Hospitality fall somewhere in the middle and for them this setting, especially following on from their far less daring 2012 debut album, appears to be the perfect one. Amber Papini is a charismatic front woman who maybe isn’t as assertive and as centrally placed vocally as some of her contemporaries; she can, for example, struggle to recapture the essence of some of these songs live, but none the less she bristles with the personality that this material requires.  As a band, the trio have proved that they are capable of creating music that starts small and, through the use of magical trap doors and beguiling long, twisting corridors, becomes much bigger the more it is experienced. An uncommon album, as beautiful in its low key way as it is strange – “Trouble” comes highly recommended.