Madison Violet - 'The Knight Sessions' - cover (300dpi)Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac are Madison Violet and they’ve been together since 1999 using the perfect blend of the two voices as the starting point for experiments in musical settings. “The Knight Sessions” is an experiment with different musical settings created with junkshop finds including children’s wooden blocks and old electronics to create interesting sonic textures and ambience without distracting from their powerful melodic songs. Generally speaking it works, creating a hint of spacey trip-hop over the stripped-back instrumentation.

My only reservation is that this approach tends to create a uniformity across the album. There’s an attempt to address this by focussing on the guitars and vocal harmonies in the basic acoustic versions of “Trouble” and “Operator”, which is partly successful. The truly innovative treatment on the album is the roots/Americana dub version of the lullaby “Hush” (also known as “Hush Little Baby” or “Mockingbird”). It’s wonderfully trippy, spacey, disorientating, menacing, and a high point of the album.

“The Knight Sessions” is released on Big Lake Music (Cat. No.471203-2) on Friday May 5 and Madison Violet will be touring the UK in May.

Holy Smoke scrollerBlair Chadwick and Charlie Bateson (Steepways) set out to create an album with the feel of classic seventies singer-songwriter albums and with “Holy Smoke”, it’s mission accomplished. There are nods in the direction of country with “Ghost Walks” and “Pin it on Me”, bluegrass with “Rather be Alone” and even skiffle with “Chaperone” and “The Collector” (which also gives a tip of the titfer to early Kinks). The instrumentation is pure seventies Laurel Canyon with pedal steel and occasional banjo and an occasional glimpse of the classic seventies ornament, the nylon-strung guitar solo. And it’s all done beautifully. The album’s lovely closing song “Dying on the Vine” delicately exposes the evasions of alcoholism, while the lyrics generally lean towards melancholy on a personal scale; life’s minor triumphs and failures. It’s an interesting debut and it reminded me of one artist in particular; Ringo Starr just after the Beatles split. I’d say, on balance, that’s a good thing.

Out on May 5 on Mansion House Records.

Crazy HorseI’m not sure if any artist holds definite claim to having avoided as many expectations as Neil Young and I very much doubt there is. More than anything, the performance displayed at the S.E.C.C. has taught this reviewer more than anything not to presume anything about a gig upon purchase of tickets.

Entering the hall it was clear I was not about to witness the no-frills, stripped back grunge set I was prepared for. The enormous fake storage crates behind the band set-up (which were elevated to reveal giant pretend amplifiers) as well as the giant fake televisions hanging either side of the stage illustrated this much. Never mind the lab-coat- and builder-uniform-clad roadies running around frantically, seemingly performing a mime act in the entire run-up to show time.

After the intro music of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and a surprising playing of “Flower of Scotland” over the PA system, complete with saltire hanging from the back of the stage, Young and Crazy Horse chugged slowly into Ragged Glory track “Love and Only Love”, which laid the blueprint down for how many of the nights songs were to be performed: long instrumental openings, wandering, guitar-laden interludes and seemingly ceaseless final cadences. The final chord of “Walk Like a Giant” was stretched to at least ten minutes and with each crash, a different image of Neil and the band from decades past flashed across the TVs either side of the stage.

This was just one of the interesting visual elements implemented throughout the night. After the aforementioned song finally ended, an impressive lightning storm effect was displayed across the stage and dialogue from the weather warnings from Woodstock in 1969 were played before a massive banner in tribute to the event was dropped. During unreleased track “Singer Without a Song”, a young girl with a guitar case in hand playing the title role of the song wandered around the stage among the band members looking lost. It seemed to have little consistency with the rest of what was on display but then again, look at who we’re talking about here. Finally, at the end of the encore the giant storage crates were lowered back down to cover the pretend amplifiers occupying the stage. In terms of setlist, picks for the evening stretched far and wide across Young’s career, from tracks off the new release, Psychedelic Pill to more obvious numbers found on Harvest and Rust Never Sleeps.

Of course, the audience seemed most receptive during a short solo acoustic slot where “Heart of Gold” won back any of those lost during the quarter-hour of feedback. Singing into spot mics mounted on his harmonica, Neil was free to wander the stage unconstrained by a mic stand. It made for a really natural performance, wonderful to both look at and listen to. Here it was also clear just how strong his voice still is. Every word was clear and not once did it seem he was losing grip. In fact, the only moments where it seemed the audience were not totally on board were during the aforementioned feedback storm and later during Ragged Glory track “Fuckin’ Up”, where very few seemed willing and ready to join in with the chant of “you’re just a fuck up!”.  However the rest of the evening saw a rather hypnotised crowd ready for whatever came on. At the end of the main set, Neil seemed to echo a sentiment shared throughout the entire audience, singing “don’t say it’s over” repeatedly on the last chord of “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” (performed in the style of “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) ?!?!?!?!).

The encore brought an emotive end to the night, with touching words spoken before the penultimate song, wishing everyone a save journey home that kids who parents had left at home would have a good night’s sleep. This moment was particularly important for the evening as a whole, reminding anyone unimpressed by what could be described by some as a self-indulgent set of noise and taking the piss that the man in front of them was entirely of sound mind when it came to every detail of what he was doing. This along with the length of time Young and Crazy Horse spent taking in their final applause illustrated how engaged all performers were and how truly grateful they were to everyone in attendance. This reviewer was certainly grateful to be there.

CATB @ The Finsbury (Photo by Allan McKay)

CATB @ The Finsbury (Photo by Allan McKay)

This exciting five-piece band from Canterbury headlined the Africana fundraiser tonight, raising money for projects in Kenya.  They formed in 2011 and only a year later, won the accolade of the UK’s best unsigned act.  They describe their music as ‘Fip Fok’ (the title of their first EP), a bouncing hybrid of folk, pop and hip-hop; even checking them out on You Tube before the gig, I was excited about the evening’s entertainment.  They feature a unique set-up of guitar, banjo, double bass, violin and beat-boxing so the sound is unlike anyone else I’ve heard.

The support acts: Brighton’s The Beatnik Horrors and singer songwriter, George Olgivie were good too making the long wait for the headliners a real warm up.  The Beatnik Horrors are a post-Chilli Peppers rock act with 3 guitars and helium vocals from their tom-boy lead singer, Ari playing memorable and distinctive songs.  George Olgivie is an acoustic singer-song-writer with a nice vibrato, playing covers and original material who will release a self-penned EP in July.

It was late in the evening when the Butterfields started  their set; C&TB are used to playing a variety of arenas from busking, which they still do, to thousand-seater theatres, but they seemed particularly at home in this large music pub, having brought some of their loyal tribe with them.  The audience are mainly students who gave them a warm welcome, but the venue is sadly not packed, probably due to the cool, wet weather.  They kick off slowly with Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”, but turn up the tempo half way through with some impressive beat-boxing.  Then it’s swiftly into Supertramp’s “Breakfast In America”, or their unique twist on it.  The crowd are on their feet and stay there for all of the hour long set  but the fun really began when they launched into seven original songs, starting with “Scarecrow”, apparently a tribute to the band’s variety of long or be-dreadlocked hair.  I was glad I had worn my dancing shoes as I was soon jigging around too, as were, I noticed, the support acts.  The last couple of times I have been at such a lively feel-good gig were Basement Jaxx in Brixton and going back further still, The Pogues in Kilburn on St Patrick’s night in ’87!  It was almost as if C&TB were playing a unique hybrid of both in this festival atmosphere.

Fan favourite “Astronaut” was next, utilising the strong musicianship of each member of the band, including Dulcima the female lead’s vocals.  Percussion duties were entirely the domain of the beat-boxer of the group, who had astounding energy, variety and talent, later soloing in a most entertaining way, but each band member, like in a jazz quintet, got to show their impressive individual skills in a short spot-light.  The next highlight, and there were many, was the new single “Warriors” which went down very well with the crowd and is released this week.  All this and a radio presenter I chatted to, who had interviewed them earlier in the day, confirmed what a nice bunch Coco & The Butterfields are, and they look the part too.

The evening of exuberance concluded with “The Hip Hop Song” and Flo Rida/T-Pain’s “Low”.  I hope the band get the wider audience they deserve; in an era of karaoke pop and synthesised dance, this band are the real thing constructing an original sound with great musicality and a very infectious energy.

Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello

The last gig in May was in a cellar bar in Edinburgh which held about a hundred people and the first one in June is The Royal Albert Hall which holds about five thousand.  I’m going to be honest with you, I normally try to avoid the Albert Hall; the acoustics may be great for The Proms and orchestral music generally, but anything percussive and bottom-heavy usually sounds like a sock full of custard hitting a wall.  There; I’ve said it.  There may be an acoustic sweet spot, but I’ve no idea where it is and I feel sorry for any sound engineer who gets that particular gig.

Elvis Costello is one those artists who has been around so long, and written so many great songs that, like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison, he’s entitled to a bit of leeway with his live and recorded output.  Just like all of those legends (maybe with the exception of The Boss), he sometimes pushes our tolerance close to the limit and tonight was no exception, but I’ll come back to that.  This tour features the “Spectacular Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook”, where members of the audience are invited on stage to spin the giant wheel to pick a song from the extensive back catalogue or a theme that allows Elvis or a band member (Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher) to choose where the set goes next.

The first six songs were relentless, with the band playing flat out, too fast and leaving no gaps between songs.  It sounded a lot like the 1978 El Mocambo official bootleg, and I think we all know that it wasn’t just youthful exuberance and adrenaline to blame on that occasion.  It meant that songs like “High Fidelity” and “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” were lost in a headlong rush to the first spin of the wheel.  Thankfully, the interactive element of the set forced some much-needed changes of pace.  From the first spin of the wheel, things became less frantic as Elvis put on his Napoleon Dynamite, Master of Ceremonies persona and introduced members of the audience aided and abetted by the mysterious Josephine and the go-go dancer Dixie de la Fontaine.

I’m not even going to attempt to give you a complete setlist for a three hour performance, but there were a lot of highlights (and a couple of lowlights), so here we go.  We got “Girls Talk” (better known to most as a cover by Dave Edmunds) fairly early courtesy of the wheel, which also gave the band the chance to play a more soulful live version of “Every Day I Write the Book”.  It was nice to see Elvis totally ignore the wheel’s selection to throw in “(The Angels Wanna Wear my) Red Shoes” because one of the audience spinners wanted to hear it.  The “Cash” segment of the wheel also gave us the obvious Johnny Cash cover, but also a Rosanne Cash song, which is always going to be fine by me.  There was also a cameo appearance by the wonderful Bonnie Raitt who, unfortunately, didn’t sing or play but did come along to say hello and be serenaded by Elvis.

A spin of the wheel also gave Steve Nieve the chance to deliver his stunning piano backing on one of my favourite Elvis songs, “Shot With his Own Gun”, which opens with the line “How does it feel now you’ve been undressed by a man with a mind like the gutter press”.  As always, this song was made more powerful by the stripped-down backing which also gave a contrast to the first verse of “Oliver’s Army” before the full band kicked in for the rest of the song.

“Jimmie Standing in the Rain” was a perfect fit with the vaudevillian atmosphere of the performance, which you almost expected to lead in to “God’s Comic”, but it was another song from “Spike” which grabbed the attention.  “Tramp the Dirt Down” was an angry song, and rightly so, when it was released in 1989, less than two years before Margaret Thatcher was deposed by her party, but I’m puzzled by the need to play it now apart from the obvious unthinking kneejerk reaction it received; bit of a cheap shot, really.  If you want to score political points, the haunting live version of “Shipbuilding” stands the test of time much better and should be the one that demonstrates a commitment to something more than just pop songs.

The encores were a return to the hundred mph enthusiasm of the opening section, but with the audience fully behind the band at last as they delivered runaway versions of “Watching the Detectives”, “Pump it Up” and, ironically for this location, “(I Don’t Want to go to) Chelsea”.  Just before I get to the main highlight, I’ve got a few observations.  The dynamics of the show, particularly at the beginning, could have been better; the endings of the songs could have been less overblown; and, Elvis could have turned the wick down on the guitar solos.  At times he strayed into Neil Young territory and that’s a dangerous place to be unless you’re Neil Young (even then it’s hit and miss).

Maybe I’m just being too picky.  The Elvis back catalogue contains some stunning songs and even a three hour set means missing out on some favourites; I would have loved to hear “Alison”, “Green Shirts” and “Good Year for the Roses”, but I got to hear “Shot with his Own Gun”, which I really didn’t expect.  The last song of the night was Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding”, which made my night anyway, but there was still a surprise to come.  Steve Nieve dashed off stage and followed a crew member upstairs as the rest of the band played on.  Seconds later, the band was augmented by the thunderous sounds of the Royal Albert Hall pipe organ as one of pop and rock’s greatest keyboard players had the chance to finish off the set in a unique way; I certainly won’t forget it.

I had a few reservations but, as a spectacle, (no pun intended) this was wonderful; loads of great songs, great performances and audience involvement.  I’d go back and do it again.

I like you 'cause you're freeFollowing on from their debut EP “Falling into pieces” in 2011, this free download is the first release from Black Casino & the Ghost’s first album “Some Dogs Think their Name is No”, scheduled for release in September 2013 on Lucky Machete Records.  Black Casino and the Ghost are Elisa Zoot (vocals and piano), Ariel Lerner (guitar), Gary Kilminster (bass) and Paul Winter-Hart (drums) and their songs are guitar-based indie/alternative which explore the darker, stranger side of human emotions and, in this case, alienation and a dysfunctional relationship.

It’s a song of two halves and packs in a lot of ideas in just over three minutes.  The song begins with just Elisa’s voice and piano (and a little bit of guitar in the background) setting the lyrical scene for the song before the drums and bass come in at the halfway point and Elisa’s vocal moves up from breathy and intimate to powerful and punchy enough to cut through an anthemic kitchen-sink production of massed choral vocals and reversed instrumental samples peaking with the refrain  “All we are is what we choose to hide from each other, tell me how you really feel or don’t even bother”.

This single demonstrates the dynamic range of Black Casino & the Ghost instrumentally, but particularly the vocal range of Elisa Zoot, which is exceptional.  I’ve heard some of the tracks from the album and I’m not sure that this is completely representative of the band’s work, but it’s still very good and you can download it free, so why wouldn’t you?

Some of my Closet Classics are there mainly on musical merit, some mainly on the strength of memories they evoke, but this earns its place on both counts.  I first heard the songs on this EP during my Freshers’ Week at the University of Dundee and I still say that “September”, featured on this EP, is one of the finest pieces of guitar-playing I’ve ever heard live.

Cado Belle was one of 3 bands I saw in a hectic week (the other 2 were Frankie Miller’s Full House and Skeets Boliver, if you must know) that set the scene for 4 years of watching great bands, DJing and generally having a good time.  I did a bit of studying as well, when I had to.  I went along to the gig with my new mate Steve J (still my mate now and a bloody good bloke) in his yellow ex-GPO Morris van, which was great if you were in the passenger seat, but a bit agricultural otherwise.  It had the added advantage of being absolutely impossible to lose in a car park.

We knew nothing about the band, but it was Freshers’ Week and we were determined to do everything that was on offer, especially if it also involved having a few beers.  We discovered that Cado Belle, fronted by singer Maggie Reilly, was a great Scottish soul band with a line-up of drums, bass, keyboards, guitar and sax.  Blue-eyed soul was huge in Scotland in the mid-70s; it was actually a criminal offence to have a band in Scotland without at least 1 sax player at that time.

It’s fair to say that it wasn’t a capacity audience, but we were enthusiastic and the band was exceptional, playing material from their first (and only) album and the eponymous EP.  The set was packed with superb playing and singing from a very accomplished band (we all said “tight” in those days) and we were all having a great time.  And then the band started to play “September”.

Anyone in the audience who had ever picked up a guitar was absolutely speechless as Alan Darby’s guitar gently wept its way through the beautiful extended intro using perfectly controlled feedback over a wash of electric piano to lead the song into Maggie Reilly’s ethereal vocal.  You expected recordings of guitarists to be this good, but it was incredible to see it live.  I won’t say that it changed my life, but it was one of the events that made me realise guitar-playing was only ever going to be a hobby.  When you analyse it, it’s not really much of song because it’s only really one verse but it’s an incredibly evocative piece of music; if you were pretentious, you might even call it a tone poem.

Obviously, I bought the EP as soon as I could get my hands on it and it’s a perfect little mini album.  The other 3 songs are “It’s Over” (a Boz Scaggs classic), “Play it Once for Me” (written by Stuart MacKillop, the band’s keyboard player) and “Gimme Little Sign” (as made famous by Brenton Wood and covered by many others since, including Peter Andre).  All 4 tracks on this EP stand up on their own merits and my vinyl 12” copy has been played to death since I bought it.  I’ve played it to many people including some very gifted musicians and it always gets the same response; stunned silence followed by queries about the band and then the inevitable “Why haven’t I heard this before?”

The band split up in 1979, but maintained loose ties and worked together occasionally.  Colin Tully (saxophone and woodwind) composed the music for the Bill Forsyth film “Gregory’s Girl”, Stuart MacKillop worked with ABBA and continues to work regularly with Maggie Reilly, along with bass player Gavin Hodgson.  Maggie Reilly went on to have hits with Mike Oldfield (including “Moonlight Shadow”) and is still recording and performing.

As for Alan Darby, he’s currently working on the Queen musical “We Will Rock You” in London, but if you run a quick search, you’ll be amazed at what he’s done and the artists he’s worked with.  Strangely enough, Alan Darby’s name has cropped up in conversations decades apart with various people.  In the early 80s, a friend of mine managed a cocktail bar in Covent Garden and told me that Alan worked there as a doorman for a while, which may or may not be true.  Twenty years later, in the early Noughties, during one of many late-night chats with the late Allan Mawn, the subject of Cado Belle came up again.  Allan (who genuinely seemed to know every musician in Scotland) told me that he’d recently spoken to Alan Darby just after his return from a tour in Japan with the Bay City Rollers and that he was currently working with Lulu’s band.  It’s a long way from playing to 150 students at Dundee University Students’ Association and, no doubt, a fascinating journey.  Normally, I would fill a piece like this with links to the music but, unfortunately it just isn’t out there.  If you want to hear a little more Cado Belle, try their MySpace page.

These 4 tracks, and “September” in particular, have been favourites of mine for over 30 years.  They still sound fresh even now and they’ve created a whole set of memories and associations years after they were initially released.  Great songs and playing never get old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Product DetailsThe song “Queen of Denmark” was made to known to me, and to many others I would presume,  in its venomous but life-affirming cover version by Sinead O Connor which featured on her most recent album and was an obvious highlight. I wasn’t aware of the original and had never heard of the former lead singer of The Czars before; sorry. Since then I’ve been curious enough to listen to John Grant’s much-adored, very good indeed debut album (also called “The Queen of Denmark” )released 3 years ago and am curious as to what fans of that recording will make of this, the follow up, “Pale Green Ghosts”.

The “Queen of Denmark” album was predominantly acoustic, occasionally full-on jokey but mainly folky, tongue in cheek Carpenters-aspiring melancholia. The song writing here remains pretty unchanged, every song is about John Grant and his emotional, cognitive state; there is a lot of humour and a lot of anger. Musically however there has a been a very significant change, give or take a couple of tracks every song is awash with electronics, executed perfectly and  extremely well produced courtesy of art pop Icelandic group GusGus’s Biggi Veira. The leading title track and “Black Belt” are typical examples of that with “Pale Green Ghosts” also incorporating Sergei Rachnaninoff’s “Prelude In C Minor” and sounding very much like Barry Adamson’s late nineties, cinematic stuff. “GMF” follows and is the first of the 2 acoustic tracks but it’s not until the beautiful and biting “Vietnam” (hold out for the striking string coda at the end), which signifies the start of an amazingly strong run of 6 songs, where Grant ups the song-writing ante and everything comes together magnificently as a whole.

Sensitive New Age Guy”’ could be considered to be the most throwaway track here and is a delirious, techno sneer at the irritation that phrase conjures up. It sounds like it’s been produced by Felix Da Housecat in his prime and shares DNA with Donna Summer’s “Sunset People”;  you wouldn’t have seen that coming after listening to Grant’s debut. “Ernest Borgnine” refers to Grant being informed of his recent HIV diagnosis and it isn’t depressing; it’s funny and catchy and one of the closet things here to an actual, albeit wonky, pop song. This and the elastic “You Don’t Have To” more than anyone else bring to mind Rufus Wainwright, another gay smarty pants; ironic, bitchy, scene-hating intellectuals who still feel outside of any supposed community and both of these tracks bear a strong resemblance to Wainwright’s best, most-realised work from the “Want One” and “Want Two” albums.

So John Grant must have also really enjoyed Sinead O’Connor’s take on the ‘Queen of Denmark’ because she features on 4 songs here (and is amusingly referred to as Mrs Grant in the credits) and what a joy and surprise it is to hear her in such a bleak, electronic setting and no more so than on the razor sharp “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore” which is the darkest and probably the best song here.  More of a duet than the backing vocals she provides on the other 3 songs, O’ Connor sings the whole song with Grant as a ghostly duet, echoing back each line with both suspended in the most chilling electronic soundscape, the pile up of duelling synth melodies at the end just continues the sense of a couple’s relationship disintegrating.

I think some of Grant’s original fans could struggle with the musical direction he has taken here and although understandable I think it adds a dimension that was in fact needed,  the weightiness of some of the lyrical themes justify an equally substantial and edgy musical surround. He is an interesting, complex and sometimes challenging artist and this album finds him successfully experimenting and taking risks in areas where he could just have easily replicated the original sound of his much loved debut. Bravo big guy, one of the best releases of the year so far.