There’s a link between all of the members of Space Elevator , apart from the fact that they’re all very good musicians (and I always include singers in that category); all of them have, at some time, been involved the Ben Elton/Queen musical, “We Will Rock You” which played for twelve years at London’s Dominion Theatre before closing in May of this year. I know that some music fans are pretty sniffy about musical theatre, but the fact is that you have to be a very, very good (and consistent) musician to play in such a high-profile production as this. So, what I’m saying is that the five members of Space Elevator are musicians of the highest order and, putting “We Will Rock You” aside, they have worked with some of the biggest names in modern music.
Space Elevator comprises The Duchess (vocals), David Young (guitar), Neil Murray (bass), Elliott Ware (keyboards) and Brian Greene (drums) and their first album “Space Elevator” is out now and, in the best possible way, it’s what you would expect from a group of musicians with their background and experience. The songs are well constructed, the performances are all faultless and the whole album is underpinned by sense of theatricality and fun that’s so often missing from serious (or po-faced and pretentious) rock albums. And, there are quite a few segues from one song to the next, so don’t even think about listening to it on shuffle.
It’s not too difficult to pick out reference points either, musical and lyrical; “We Are the Losers” features layered Brian May-style guitars, massed vocals and changes of tempo and instrumentation before the music hall piano leads into the anthemic finale and straight out into “I Will Find You (Gallifrey Dreams)”. This epic pop ballad provides a musical setting for the Dr Who/Rose love story, opening with gently picked acoustic guitar and close-miked vocal and building up to a chorus with a great guitar hook and The Duchess’s vocal cords set to stun. The album’s first song “Elevator” and “More Than Enough” both use highly processed spoken intros representing an automated lift voice and radio announcer respectively, while “Little White Lies” and “We Can Fly” rely on tempo changes to keep the attention focussed. Lyrically, the album is shot through with the theme of looking to the future, which forms the basis of “Move On” and “Really Don’t Care” and also pops up elsewhere. The Duchess even has a “Killer Queen”-style Freddie Mercury moment with “Oils and Bubbles”, featuring the memorable lines: ˊI’m so clean, scrubbed to a sheen, I’m a total hygiene queen; it’s the only way I’ll be bedded, to cleanliness I’m totally weddedˋ, which wouldn’t sound out of place in “The Rocky Horror Show”, but fits perfectly with the high camp of the piano backing, the guitar solo and the layered backing vocals in the chorus.
“Space Elevator” isn’t an album that will allow your attention to wander; you’re never more than eight bars from another surprise, whether it’s a tempo change, a guitar fill, a breakdown or an unexpected segue into the next song. The rock purists will object to the theatrical elements and the production, but if that bothers you, then stick to Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts. Throughout the album, The Duchess’s dynamic range is matched by superb playing and arrangements full of hooks which just won’t quit. Go on, you know you want to.
It’s been a busy year for Stone Foundation. The album “To Find the Spirit”, released independently in March 2014, made a significant impact on the indie charts as the band’s live following increased with their own gigs in Europe and Japan and support slots with The Selecter and The Blow Monkeys. With radio support from Craig Charles on 6 Music and endorsement from the Modfather himself, things have been looking pretty good for the band this year. So, how do you keep that momentum going? Well, a few gigs with soul legend and SF collaborator, Nolan Porter, and a DVD as a more permanent memento, would probably do nicely. The gigs have come and gone and the DVD, “Finding the Spirit”, was released on 21 July.
So let’s just rewind a little bit here; Stone Foundation is a bunch of guys from the West Midlands (an area more renowned for heavy metal, to be honest) which formed around the nucleus of Neil Jones (guitar and vocals) and Neil Sheasby (bass and backing vocals) around ten years ago and developed into a classic soul/r’n’b lineup (and by r’n’b I mean Stax and Atlantic, not Jay-Z and Beyonce) with the addition of drums (Philip K Ford), Hammond organ (Ian Arnold), sax (Gary Rollins), trombone (Spencer Hague) and trumpet and latest recruits trumpet (Gareth John) and congas/percussion (Rob Newton). Stone Foundation operates completely outside what’s left of the mainstream music business. On the band’s website, the imagery of the biography is equal parts gang/team and an almost religious evangelism; if you’re thinking early Dexys and The Clash here, then you’re pretty much on the money. Personally, I’m more drawn to the idea of a collective than a gang; the band’s a very tight unit, but they find like-minded contributors outside the unit willing to help promote the manifesto, including writer Paolo Hewitt, Specials’ bass player Horace Panter (who contributed the artwork for “To Find the Spirit”), and videographer Lee Cogswell.
Lee has put together “Finding the Spirit” (described as “a collection of films”) which pulls together various strands of the band’s work over the last few years, combining music videos, a documentary of the 2012 collaboration with Nolan Porter (“Keep On Keepin’ On”), a track-by-track exploration of “To Find the Spirit” with Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby, and a record of Stone Foundation’s 2014 Japanese tour (“Tokyo 2014”).
“Keep On Keepin’ On” mixes interviews with the two Neils and Nolan Porter with live footage from The Musician in Leicester and London’s 100 Club and some lovely studio footage of the recording of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” featuring Nolan’s lead vocal; it’s a familiar (but still welcome) story of an artist whose career has been resurrected by the UK Northern Soul scene, but this time with some help from contemporary musicians. The film captures the relationship between Nolan, the band, and their collective audience perfectly, particularly in the footage from The 100 Club.
The track-by-track breakdown of “To Find the Spirit” is enlightening and informative; the interviews with Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby give a genuine insight into the way the album came together while emphasising the part played by fate or the collective spirit. The cameos played by Carleen Anderson and Andy Fairweather-Low were arranged through friends of friends, “Don’t Let the Rain” started with a bass riff and a string sound from Ian Arnold’s new keyboard, and the original inspiration for the album and the song “Child of Wonder” came from a prose piece by Paolo Hewitt. It’s surprising to hear that there were question marks over whether “Crazy Love” had a place on the album; thankfully, common sense prevailed there.
“Tokyo 2014” is a collage of impressions from the brief Stone Foundation Japanese tour earlier this year superimposing quick clips of the band meeting their fans over a live soundtrack which includes a particularly raw version of the Booker T and the MGs classic “Time is Tight” by a Japanese band called The Tramp. The technique of using quick cuts between short video clips conveys the feel of continuous motion while the entire piece emphasises the devotion of the band’s Japanese fans.
The final section of the DVD is a compilation of Lee Cogswell’s videos for the songs “To Find the Spirit”, “Bring Back the Happiness”, “That’s the Way I Want to Live my Life” and “Hold On”. “To Find the Spirit” opens with a quick reference to the Dexys debut album, “Searching for the Young Soul Rebels” as the lead character tunes across the static of a radio dial before leading into an aspirational story which is shot through with visual and audio Stone Foundation references. “Bring Back the Happiness” plays under a father/son reconciliation story featuring Andy Nyman (who featured in the hilarious Channel Four show “Campus” and “Peaky Blinders”) and newcomer Ben Finlay, who was spotted dancing at a Stone Foundation gig. “That’s the Way I Want to Live my Life” is a very clean black and white (and silhouette) video of the individual band members featuring multi-screen effects, and “Hold On” is a fairly straightforward studio piece featuring Andy Fairweather-Low guesting on backing vocals. You can have a look at the videos here.
By any standards, this is a very high quality piece of work; if you take into account the fact that this venture has no music business backing, then it’s absolutely exceptional. Lee Cogswell has worked across a variety of styles, including documentary, interviews, live footage, reportage and music video to produce a cohesive piece of work which enhances his own reputation while documenting the rise of a band with an absolute commitment to fulfilling its own agenda. It’s more than a just a souvenir, it’s a lovingly-crafted insight into the workings of a group of people who are making music for all the right reasons. The band is also appearing in a special session recorded for the Craig Charles funk and soul show on BBC 6 Music this Saturday (August 9).
This DVD is worth buying for its musical and visual quality, but also because the people responsible for the creative input actually see some financial reward for their efforts.
Out now. Available from Lee Cogswell.
It’s relatively easy to record an album these days; you can do it at home or maybe in a studio and it won’t cost you the earth. You can organise your own distribution online or at live shows; you won’t get rich but you will get some return for your creativity. Not everything released by this route is good; there are way too many vanity projects, but occasionally something really worthwhile emerges. Sometimes a group of talented and like-minded musicians get together and just play the tunes they really want to play. If it makes a few dollars, that’s fine, but that’s not really the point because the musicians are playing the music they want to play and having a bit of fun with their own original material and a few covers. Very, very occasionally the result is an album packed with, superb performances and arrangements that you want to listen to again and again. “New York Horns” is one of those.
So, who are the New York Horns? Well the horn players are Chris Anderson (trumpet and flugelhorn), John Isley (tenor and baritone sax and bass clarinet) and Neal Pawley (trombone and vocals) and they’re better known as the horn section of Southside Johnny the Asbury Jukes. Here they’re aided and abetted by fellow-Jukes Jeff Kazee (piano, Hammond B3, keys and vocals) and Glenn Alexander(guitars, dobro, mandolin and vocals) and a rhythm section of Shawn Pelton (drums and percussion) and Tony Tino (electric bass).
The album opens with a very different instrumental take on KT Tunstall’s breakthrough song “Black Horse & the Cherry Tree”. Where the original builds gradually by using a loop pedal for instrumental and vocal parts, the NYH version comes in, after a quick guitar intro, at full strength with Latin American percussion (courtesy of Marc Quinones) and perhaps a hint of early Santana. Chris Anderson’s tone poem “Morningside at Midnight” is next, taken at a walking tempo, and evoking the spirit of Morningside Heights with electric piano, wah-wah guitar and unison sax and trumpet. The Hank Williams classic “Hey Good Lookin’” is the first vocal piece, driven along by a guitar riff and horn fills before the sax, guitar and Hammond solos kick in. “Song for Levon”, a Chris Anderson and John isley co-write is a tribute to Levon Helm. It’s stately and mournful in classic New Orleans tradition and features Southside Johnny as guest harmonica player.
The uptempo jazz-funk of John Isley’s “Little Miss Thing” wouldn’t sound out of place on either of Donald Fagen’s first two solo albums and features the first trombone solo on the album from Neal Pawley; it’s great fun. “Can’t Stand to See You Cry”, written and sung by Jeff Kazee, is a powerful soul song with a superb plaintive vocal and an arrangement that Allen Toussaint would be proud of while “Strollin’ With Sean” is a fairly straightforward blues driven along by a horn riff and it’s another chance for the guys to solo for all they’re worth and have a great time. The final cover on the album is John Hiatt’s “Little Head” which retains the feel of the original while adding punch with horn fills.
John Isley’s “78 Below” opens with an uptempo Nile Rodgers –style lead/rhythm riff which, with the punchy bass, drives the piece along underneath a staccato muted trumpet melody before the mood mellows again with Chris Anderson’s “More Than Tears”. Opening with a restrained combination of piano, acoustic guitar and mandolin, this moody and melancholic piece is perfect for the flugelhorn which Chris uses to carry the main melody. John Isley’s “Under the Hood” is an atmospheric piece using Hammond and the horn ensemble to create the mood and features a muted trumpet solo from Chris Anderson. The album’s closing song, “Nothing Left to Say”, opens slowly in New Orleans jazz funeral style, with a guest vocal by Christine Ohlman before erupting just before the halfway mark into uptempo New Orleans jazz with trumpet and sax counterpoint. There’s also a lyrical message here which underpins the whole album; however bad things get, there’s always music to pull you back, whether you play it or listen to it. It’s a perfect way to close the album.
The beauty of this album is that it was made because the musicians involved really wanted to make it. They had a lot of ideas and they wanted to get those ideas out there to people who might want to hear them. It’s not about focus groups or marketing teams; it’s about strong, sometimes very personal, material arranged well and played superbly. If you need to label it, I suppose it’s jazz, but it also pushes out in other directions as well, towards funk and old school soul; there’s certainly plenty of variety on display. Check out some of the song links here and think seriously about buying yourself a copy, if only to let a bunch of great musicians know that some people out there are actually getting the message.
Available now from Amazon and iTunes.
Michelle Renée is an American singer-songwriter who has toured as a backing vocalist and keyboard player with The SOS Band and briefly with Peabo Bryson before striking out as a solo artist, performing regularly across the USA. “Michelle Renée” is her debut album, and a quick look at the packaging gives you a pretty good idea what to expect, with its soft-focus model-style photos and glossy lyric booklet.
The album feels like an attempt to showcase Michelle Renée as an artist in her own right, rather than a batch of great songs that were just begging to be released. There’s nothing to take exception to on the album, but it’s also fair to say there’s nothing that I could remember a couple of days after hearing it. The playing and singing is of the highest quality throughout but, with a few exceptions, nothing really catches fire, and the same applies to the lyrics; nothing sounds clunky or out of place, but you won’t find any fascinating insights or epiphanies here.
The highlights are: “Fly Away” which is fairly lightweight, but has a soaring chorus; “If I Say I love You” with layers of keyboards and tasteful acoustic guitar and Michelle’s cover of John Legend’s “Ordinary People”. The mid-tempo opener “Heaven”, with its funky, clipped guitar and 90s feel and “Say” with its bubbling fretless bass and wah-wah guitar both have a strong Anita Baker influence while “Mamacita” is pure 1980s (just think Irene Cara) and “Ooh La Love” sounds a lot like mid-70s solo Lamont Dozier.
The single “Missing You” (written by album collaborator Rodney Shelton) features some tasteful acoustic guitar, “Gypsy Girl” is the obligatory bad girl song and “Love of my Life” is driven along on 80s percussion and a hook appropriated from “You Only Live Twice”. Which brings us to “Time for Kama”, the album’s attempt at disco erotica. Apart from the laboured play on words of “karma” and “Kama Sutra”, which might have got a snigger from third formers at Cheltenham Ladies College in 1970, it’s just far too polite to be sexy; Millie Jackson it isn’t but it might just get a play on a SAGA swingers night.
“Time for Kama” apart, there’s not a lot to actively dislike about this album; the songs are ok, the vocals are assured and the playing is impeccable (there’s even a guest appearance from the legendary bass player Willie Weeks) but there’s nothing that would make me want to listen to the album again. It’s possible that some of these songs could pick up a bit of radio airplay on Heart or Smooth but, other than that, it’s difficult to see where it’s going to succeed in the UK.
Out Monday July 28 on Yelloweed Records (Yell444).
Last Friday I had the opportunity to spend some time with the legendary Southside Johnny before the final show of his UK tour, featuring Gary “US” Bonds, at Shepherds Bush Empire. He was entertaining and engaging (as always):
AM – We did an interview here three and a half years ago and at that time you spoke to me about this acoustic thing that you might or might not be doing, which was really big news at the time and that’s happened now, so how’s that going?
SJ – It’s really good, it’s a fun thing. It’s really stripped down; we travel in a van together, we have breakfast in the morning as a band (there’s only six of us, with the road manager) and we set up our own equipment and tear it down and it really feels like the old days when you used to have to do that. It was a complete commitment to the whole day of travel, set up, play, tear down and travel again and even though I’m kinda long in the tooth I really enjoy it because it seems so organic and basic; there’s no star turns at all. I love playing acoustic music and it gives us a chance to play George Jones and Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and some Bruce in a different format.
AM – You mentioned a few country artists there; you’ve always been a country fan haven’t you?
SJ – Yes I liked country when I was very young. What I didn’t know is that my mother, way back in the thirties when the ukulele was the big thing, she bought a ukulele from Sears Roebuck and she would sit on the porch with her father (her mother had died young) and some neighbours, and they would sing country songs, so I guess it’s in my blood, it’s the Irish part of me.
AM – I’ve heard you play “He’ll Have to Go” (country classic made popular by Jim Reeves) at The Astoria, I think.
SJ – Well, Soozie Tyrell, who plays violin with Bruce, she has a country band in New York City, and I would go up and do lots of songs with her because they’re real singer’s songs, they’re story songs with great melodies so it’s fun to make that kind of music.
AM – The old Jukes revolving door seems to have slowed down a little…
SJ – Not too much. We’ve got a new saxophone player, John Isley; I think (drummer)Tom Seguso’s been over here.
AM – At the time of the last interview, Joey (Stann, tenor sax) and Ed (Manion, baritone sax) were still with you but they’re obviously off doing other things now. There seems to be lots of side projects going on as well now that the New York Horns have made a record.
SJ – These days it’s a lot easier to make a record for a little money and it’s also easier to manufacture; for a buck apiece you can make as many CDs as you want and there’s a profit margin once you’ve paid for the studio time and the musicians and all the rest of it. I’m lucky that Jon Bon Jovi lets me use his studio but, even if he didn’t, studio time’s not as expensive as it used to be, home recording’s easier and the internet makes it easy to get distribution to all your fans round the world. It’s a good time to be a musician because you can do all the little things you want to do without incurring great expense.
AM – Did the side projects always happen to a certain extent; do we just hear about them more because of social media?
SJ – We’ve always done those things; Bobby (Bandiera, guitar, now playing with Bon Jovi) and I went out for months, here and there, doing a lot of charity gigs and they put us on a plane, in business class, just him and me and a guitar and harmonicas. We went all over and played charity things and it was just a chance to play in hotels and every little place you could find and it was a lot of fun because it was no stress.
AM – I saw you at Sheffield City Hall in 1995, I think, just the two of you doing the stripped back thing and it was a great night.
SJ – Well, if you have confidence in what you’re doing and you have material you think you can accomplish with just a guitar and a harmonica it’s a chance to explore all that too. Years ago Bobby, Rusty Cloud, David Hayes and I played in Paris at the Chesterfield Club. We did a two-week stint there with very little publicity and we rode the Métro and that was a lot of fun too. We all stayed in the same hotel, this funky little place and it was two weeks in Paris. I’m lucky I’ve had the chance to do those things and just explore what making music means other than pedal-to-the-metal trying to earn a living. I can do just about anything I want now. I’m never going to be rich, I’ve known that from the very beginning so there’s not a great stress to be a big star and make a lot of money; I make a living and that’s all I want. I just want to be allowed to do whatever kind of music I want to make.
AM – I was going through some of my very old Jukes records today and it struck me that after Billy Rush left, you got much more involved in the songwriting process; there’s not a lot of your songs on the early albums.
SJ – I was a writer back then but I would write certain things with certain people but the bulk of the song would be theirs and I’d say “forget it, I don’t want to have anything to do with it”. I wrote with Billy but I don’t have the kind of ego that I need to see my name on the album, but now with Jeff and Bobby the songwriting is really a collaboration so I get to write a lot of lyrics that I find interesting like “Into the Harbour” and “Winter in Yellowknife” and stuff like that which is not the norm for romantic love songs.
AM – On “Pills and Ammo”, it struck me that your name’s on every track as a writer. Do you have a certain way of working; do you do the lyrics and Jeff does the music?
SJ – It’s pretty much that way except that if I come up with a musical idea we’ll explore it and he helps me with lyrics; it’s a real collaboration in other words. I’ll come with an idea, a whole lyric and I’ll say “I think it sounds like this” and he’ll find a way to make it sound like what I want, but then he’ll say “what about this…” and we really try to bounce ideas off each other.
AM – I know Jeff’s a big fan of Squeeze and Difford and Tilbrook wrote in that way as well.
SJ – I’m a big Squeeze fan too.
AM – About your audiences; you’ve retained a very loyal audience in the UK. In the US, are the audiences different?
SJ – Well, they speak English. There’s people who come and see us a million times and there’s people who come and see us for the first time and usually we can win people over. It’s the energy and a lot of the music is made to lift you up so it’s not some shoegazer and it’s not some egomaniac, it’s really just music. I think one of the things that keeps people coming back is that it’s never the same night after night and I don’t know where it’s going to go and tonight’s going to be like that too because we’ve got Gary Bonds and we know what we’re going to do but when we get on stage, that may change.
AM – I’ve been watching Billy Walton live for a while and I’ve noticed that his crowd seems to be getting younger. I’ve seen teenagers at his shows but I’ve also seen people in their twenties who know all of the songs. I just wondered if that was happening with The Jukes.
SJ – We do get a lot of younger people; we had a bunch last night in Holmfirth, but we have our loyal fans and they’re the ones that usually get the first tickets and they’re older, but they bring their kids and some of them bring their grand-kids but anybody who’s willing to give us a shot we’re willing to play for as long as they come and have a good time and just enjoy themselves.
AM – November used to be the traditional time for a Jukes tour but the last couple of years you’ve been over during the summer. I’m guessing that’s because of festivals.
SJ – Yes. This year especially, because we had the Cornbury Festival to start it and we’re ending with Bospop in Holland so we had two festivals and we put a bunch of gigs in between and those get to be the anchor gigs. Unfortunately there’s new taxes in England, Foreigner Entertainer Tax (FET) and Hood, who settles everything got hit with it the other night and they wanted £1,400 for FET. Nobody knew exactly what it was but it’s legitimate and all that does is it makes it harder for bands like me to come over here; you can only lose so much money. On the one hand I guess they need the tax money but if they really need that, they should get all those people who hide their money offshore and let us poor bands try to play a little music.
AM – And a lot of musicians are hiding money offshore.
SJ – Well I’m not hiding any money; my money comes and goes and I get to see it as it goes past and that’s about it.
AM – Going back to the festivals, what’s the biggest gig you’ve ever played?
SJ – Probably Knebworth with Led Zeppelin. We did two shows; we did the first one, flew home and did a show in Washington DC, flew back and did the second show at Knebworth and flew home again, if I remember rightly, so it was a lot of flights. And we played about forty minutes but it was fun, it was a unique experience and we met some good people over here.
AM – As far as I can remember, and I was a long way away from the stage, it seemed like you got a pretty good response that day.
SJ – It seemed like that; of course we didn’t the full power that the headline act got (we don’t do that, if somebody opens up for us they get full power, but I’m not ever worried about a band opening up for us, I hope they do well). But I thought Led Zeppelin was terrible; there was no bass in the mix in the audience.
AM – That’s all the serious stuff but I’ve got couple of other questions for you. You’ve now got a huge body of work to choose from when you play; is there anything you feel can’t be left out?
SJ – Well, there’s nothing that can’t be left out, but I’m not there to just indulge myself, I’m there to give people what they want too and you split the difference. I know they want to hear “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “The Fever” and “Trapped Again” or “Talk to Me” or “This Time It’s for Real” or “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” or whatever and you try to include those but when you twenty-two, twenty-three songs, there’s plenty of room for you to do what you want too. There are times when I say “I’m sick of this song, I’m not doing it” and it lasts for few months then it’s back in.
AM – Here’s one from my sister, who’s a big fan. Is there a song that makes you cry?
SJ – There’s a lot I guess. I’ve got some that I’ve written but Alison Krauss does a song called “I Can Let Go Now” which I think was written by Michael McDonald and it just kills me because I relate it to my mother. I don’t think that’s what it’s really about but for me it is and I just can’t listen to that song. There’s a lot; there are things that really touch me. I wouldn’t be doing if I didn’t get emotionally involved. When I was young and heard certain songs, I either got happy or excited or even felt sexy or touched, and to be part of that tradition is an amazing thing, but I’ve never really lost the idea that if someone sings a great song and really means it then I can get lost in the emotion.
AM – I find it really difficult to listen to “Many Rivers to Cross” after the version Jeff did here in 2010.
SJ – He really puts his heart and soul into it.
AM – Finally, hoping for another scoop, have you get anything in the pipeline?
SJ – Well, Jeff and I have written most of the songs for the next Jukes album; when we get it finished, I don’t know. We’re hoping to get in the studio, perhaps this winter and get it out some time next year. I’d love to get it out by Christmas but that’s just not gonna happen, and I’ve written some songs for a new Poor Fools acoustic thing and I’ve got a couple of other projects in mind too. I could retire if I wanted to, but then what would I do? I’d sit around the house, get fat and drink myself to death, and I can do that on the road.
AM – Johnny, many thanks for making the time for the interview.
SJ – My pleasure, any time.
How about this stripped-down version of a great John Fogerty song? Recorded live in Clerkenwell:
Looking forward to their “Tilt the Moon” EP at the end of August.
“Lost at Sea” is the follow-up to The Reads 2011 debut “Stories from the Border”. Although three years is a relatively long time between albums, it pales into insignificance beside the eleven years between their formation and the release of the first album. The line-up of the band is: Marcel Delrue (keyboards and programming), Jamie Russell (lead guitar, harmonica and backing vocals), Stuart Bennett (vocals and rhythm guitar), Clare Goddard (bass guitar and lyricist), Matty Goddard (drums) and Chris Goddard (percussion, mandolin, lap-steel and backing vocals) and they are located, geographically and spiritually, in the rugged area where North Wales meets the North-West of England. They’ve already had some support from BBC Radio Wales, XFM and Radio 2 and if you listen to this album that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
I hesitate to use the dreaded phase “concept album” to describe “Lost at Sea”, but there’s an unusual cohesion across the album in the musical and lyrical themes and, with some songs segueing into the next, it’s clearly meant to be heard as an album and not just as a bunch of songs. It took a while to persuade my media player to play the tracks in the right order, but it was worth it. Of the album’s ten tracks half are over five minutes long and only one clocks in at less than four minutes, allowing plenty of time to build up a mood before the vocal comes in.
The opening track, “Drowned” is a perfect example of this, fading in for forty-five seconds before the lead guitar cuts in to push the song along in a fairly traditional arrangement (ok, with a mandolin as well) before a long fade-out featuring a montage of seaside sounds. If you’re looking for lyrical themes, here’s your first one; the sea, or more accurately, the place where land and sea meet. The seaside montage fades in to “Lost at Sea” with sparse beats and some nice lap steel creating a backdrop for a vignette of two strangers looking out to sea. “Scarlet” is a wistfully reminiscent folk-styled piece which, unusually, slows down for the chorus. The instrumental tone poem “High Taid” follows, again building up layers over a percussion heartbeat which continues through the next track, “Haunted”, with its cascading keyboards and synth washes and the great line ‘Feeling spoiled like a painting in the rain’.
“Love or Be Loved” kicks off with a six-note sequencer intro which runs on through the song. There’s plenty of wah-wah guitar and a lyric which presents a series of bipolar, or black and white, choices, so it’s interesting that the next track is “Counting your Greys”, a mainly acoustic song about people growing old together. The atmospheric “Schnitzler” is unlike anything else on the album with its beats, trip-hop feel and Clare Goddard vocal which creates an almost hypnotic feel by repeating lines and part-lines throughout the song. The gentle “Shifting Sands” hints, instrumentally at mid-70s Pink Floyd with a relatively simple lyrical message that you can’t build anything without a solid foundation.
The closer, “Spitting Feathers”, (references to a local brewery and Thom Yorke there, and that’s just the title) is the busiest production on the album building up to the rising melody of the chorus, before breaking down after about four minutes to an evocative sequencer and synth-dominated closing sequence. The melancholy musical textures and the lyrical rhythms of the album combine to create a sadness that’s strangely ethereal and uplifting, while the north-western accents keep the whole thing grounded. Not one for the playlist generation, but if they don’t want melodic and lyrical invention, interesting blends of traditional instruments and technology and ten songs/pieces which form a cohesive work, that’s their problem.
Out now on iTunes.
There’s a part of me that wants to always see The Kennedys (and a lot of other very talented artists) playing in small intimate venues like Green Note where the atmosphere is friendly, intimate and respectful and both performers and audience both have a good time. There’s a larger part which wonders why they aren’t playing to much bigger audiences and achieving wider recognition. I guess it’s about fashion rather than talent, but so many people are missing out on a wonderful music experience. It’s not about turning everything up to eleven and relying on lots of technology; you can get that at The Dublin Castle, and it’s closer to the Tube station. It’s about beautiful voices, gifted playing and a rapport between performers and audience.
This is the second time I’ve seen The Kennedys and this time they’re approaching the end of a tour celebrating the work of their good friend and collaborator, Nanci Griffith; Edwina Hayes is also there to add another guitar and another layer of harmony but before that, there’s the support band – The Kennedys, playing a set of their own material (all chosen by the audience) including “Breathe”, “Half a Million Miles”, “I’ll Come Over”, “9th Street Billy” and Pete’s awe-inspiring ukulele rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue”; I mean, Gershwin on a uke, what more could you want? As ever, Maura’s vocals are perfect with even a hint of Joni Mitchell that I’d never noticed before and Pete’s harmonies are spot on. It’s amazing the kind of stew you can cook up with two guitars and two voices, when you know the recipe.
For the Nanci Griffith set, Pete and Maura are joined by Edwina Hayes who helps to produce some stunning three-part harmonies which, at times, are hairs-standing-on-the-back-of-the-neck good. Edwina has also toured with Nanci, who covered “Pour Me a Drink”, the title track of Edwina’s second album. The next hour passes in what seems like five minutes as the trio rattle through a set which includes “Pour Me a Drink” (of course), “Trouble in the Fields”, “Across the Great Divide”, “I’m Not Driving these Wheels”, “From a Distance” and “There’s a Light Beyond the Woods (Mary Margaret)”. The three voices work perfectly together throughout the set and the audience is spellbound; no-one’s talking about their terrible journey of the Tube or checking their phone and I even feel a bit guilty about the noise of my camera shutter in a couple of the quieter moments. It’s a superb set from three gifted musicians who obviously love the songs they’re playing; I don’t think you can ask for anything more.
You can still see The Kennedys on Friday June 13 at The Quay Theatre in Sudbury, Saturday June 14 at The Grayshott Folk Club and Sunday June 15 at The Kitchen Garden Café in Birmingham. You can also get Pete or Maura to sell you “Tone, Twang and Taste” (Pete’s solo instrumental CD) and “Dance a Little Closer”, a live recording from New York of the Nanci Griffith interpretations. Go out and see them; you’ll have a great time.