I’m fascinated by the way current affairs are reflected in the arts generally and music in particular. The last few years have seen the resurgence of the protest singer and the protest song and, to use pandemic terminology, in 2020 the resurgence has been exponential as the time approaches when America has to make another choice of President and the majority of creatives are making it clear where their support lies. The trajectory of Tim Grimm’s trilogy of Trump singles (“Woody’s  Landlord”, “Gonna be Great” and “Gone”) reflects the response of many of the many American artists I’ve seen or heard over the last four years – from amusement at Trump’s candidature, through disbelief at the election result to horror and despair at results of four divisive and confrontational years.

“Gone” is where the rope runs out, in the middle of a botched response to a pandemic and the most unprincipled and vicious American presidential election campaign in living memory. This could have been a very angry song, but Tim takes a different path. “Gone” emphasises the despair felt by some Americans at the state of their country. It would have been very easy to push the highly emotive buttons, but Tim doesn’t do that, musically or lyrically. “Gone” is a sparse, slow, unshowy country-rock arrangement with lyrics that are allusive; no names are mentioned although we know it’s about Trump and we know that ‘And the man who brought us Paradise has laid down his guitar’ is about the loss of John Prine.

Subtlety is crucial here, probably as a deliberate contrast with the methods of POTUS. We don’t need to have everything hammered home in detail; we should be able to connect the dots and see the patterns ourselves. It’s an important message in an era where aggressive confrontation seems to be the accepted norm and it’s a welcome respite.

“Gone” is out now on Cavalier Recordings (CR255931).

And here’s the video:

Occasionally, just occasionally a song can be so powerful and visceral that it strips away my natural instinct to ‘give it another listen or two’ before trying to write about it. Danny Schmidt has already done that to me a couple of times this summer with his two ‘state of the nation’ singles, “A Prayer for the Sane” and “2020 Vision”. After listening to the new single “Black & Blue” once, I’m ready to tell you that it’s something you need to hear.

Danny, inspired by the very early civil rights campaigner and escaped slave, Frederick Douglass, looked at the American constitution as a work in progress and, in the light of the George Floyd murder, assessed how far the USA still has to go; it’s a long way. Danny wrote and recorded the song at the end of June and released it on July 4th. On its own, the song is forceful and emotive, but the images Danny has put together for the lyric video ram the message home that this annual review is far from satisfactory.

“Black & Blue” is a heart-rending indictment of the state of affairs in the land of the free today and it’s out now. Don’t take my word for it, just watch the video:

It’s fair to say that this is at the poppier end of the music we feature on musicriot.co.uk, but we always like to keep an open mind. Astraea has one of those voices that sounds like you’ve heard it before, and you probably have. She’s done loads of stuff across various platforms and her voice also has hints of Kate Bush (with steroid production) and maybe Ellie Goulding as well. Not only that, she writes, performs and produces and does her own distribution as well. In a musical world that’s so male-dominated, that has to be a good thing. And it’s obviously working, because her high-profile collaborations include Jack Savoretti, Ward Thomas, Nina Nesbitt and Lewis Capaldi.

So that’s Astraea, what about the song? It’s a love song and it opens quietly with a gentle vocal, subtle bass, and piano arpeggios, then builds and keeps on building, each chorus getting bigger and louder providing more and more support for the breathy, ethereal voice. There’s also a niggling familiarity about the pre-chorus; it has a melody that’s similar to the pre-chorus in “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and leads perfectly into the chorus in exactly the same way. Like a good story, “Nobody Loves Me Like You” has a start, a middle and an ending, all in the right order; it’s uplifting and you’ll feel better for hearing it.

“Nobody Loves Me Like You” is out now. Have a listen here:

 

 

We seem to have a spate of singles at the moment. Not complaining, but it’s mainly albums that pop through the letterbox or into the inbox these days. In a different era, there were definite reasons for releasing a single; because it was aimed at a specific market, because it was a trailer for an upcoming album or because it didn’t really fit on the album and all of these hade to be part of a marketing schedule. Things are much more fluid now; it’s only a few weeks since Danny Schmidt released a complementary pair of singles almost simultaneously and almost immediately after they were completed in order to catch the moment they were documenting. In this case it seems that Illinois native Dan Hubbard has a song that he’s pleased with and wants to get it out where it can be heard.

“Hotshot” is a twist on the eternal triangle theme, with the disruptor taking the part of a middling small-town singer with a Loki-like appetite for mischief and mayhem, moving in to break up a solid relationship for his own ends. It’s an interesting arrangement as well; Dan recorded the 12-string guitar and vocal acoustically (and loud) before handing it over to his guitar player Matthew Pittman to create a dense, multi-layered, reverb-heavy mix where the instruments blend into each other. It’s easy enough to pick out the synth, but I’d struggle with the mandolin and marimba. There are lots of nice little hooks that put their stamp on the song, including the unison guitar/bass riff in the bridge and choral vocals that push the song on to its climax. “Hotshot” is Americana on steroids; front and centre is acoustic while the rest of the production wraps around it like a woolly jumper, adding extra emphasis and contrast to the clean guitar and vocal parts.

“Hotshot” is simple song with a big arrangement displaying Dan’s gift with a melody and a lyric and it’s well worth a listen.

It’s self-released in the UK on Friday June 26th to stream or download.

It’s a bit of a rock/pop tradition; the weekend song. They’re liberally sprinkled through the history of the rock era and the best of them have a bit of an edge. Dave Edmunds, not surprisingly had more than one, his Nick Lowe co-write “Here Comes the Weekend” and the John Fogerty cover “Almost Saturday Night”. Even Elton got in on the act with “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”.  As we moved towards the 21st century, the emphasis shifted from booze to clubs and chemicals – David Gray’s “Babylon” and Hard-Fi’s “Living for the Weekend”. Which points us to 2020 and the new single from Anton and the Colts, “Boy Living for the Weekend”.

Anton O’Donnell, who fronts Anton & The Colts, is based in Glasgow (bear with me here) the subject of a very famous music-hall song on a similar theme, “I Belong to Glasgow”, written by Will Fyffe a hundred years ago in 1920. “Boy Living for the Weekend” opens with a plaintive harmonica evoking the horn of a train heading for the city before breaking into a Celtabilly shuffle that has a lot in common with the Dave Edmunds offerings. Lyrically, it’s a 2020 version of all the songs above – let’s shake off the shackles of the weekly grind and take everything (every little bit) that the weekend has to offer. After all, we’ve got five days to regret and recover.

Sonically, it’s a lot like a seventies/eighties Dave Edmunds Spector-like Wall of Sound mix. There’s a lot going on, with two guitars, the punchy rhythm section, piano and loads of harmonica fills under Anton’s gruff American-tinged vocal. It’s the kind of production that would take your head off played on a Rock-Ola; it’s a full-on assault on the senses in the same way as the anticipated weekend will be, and once it starts, there’s no letting up until it’s over.

“Boy Living for the Weekend” is out now as a download and on streaming platforms and will be available as a limited run of 300 seven-inch singles later in the year.

Here’s a bit of a late addition, the video which was released this week:

This piece started as a review of “Prayer for the Sane”. As I was writing that, an email from the promo company representing Danny in the UK came through, announcing another single that was being released immediately; two singles out at the same time – that’s pretty unusual. After listening to both singles, it was obvious that they had to be reviewed together; they look at the current situation in America through different lenses. “Prayer for the Sane” is the wide-angle view, looking at the state of the nation as a whole, and “2020 Vision” is the telephoto view, zooming in on the impact on individuals and small communities. Danny feels so strongly about these songs that he’s bypassed the whole planning and scheduling business to get the songs out there while fresh (and raw) and contemporary. Both songs were recorded in quarantine.

Danny Schmidt’s a strikingly good songwriter. His songs are witty, clever, original and most important, memorable. I can’t think of another writer who’s come up with a song about string theory. “A Prayer for the Sane”, however, is a bit of a departure; it has all the elements mentioned above, but it’s also a call to arms. Danny’s a very laid-back kind of guy, but the political situation in America today has pushed him down the protest singer route. He never actually uses the ‘T’ word but it’s obvious that he’s alluding to the orange one and the social impact of his term in the White House.

The arrangement for the song is a single guitar with a relatively simple finger-picked backing and some multi-tracked harmonies (The Dannettes, I guess). It’s as stripped-back as the lyrical theme is broad; this is a state of the nation song, a clarion call that highlights the schisms in America today (‘Fences make for consequences, we’re prisoners of our own defences’) and points the way to the solution – ‘It’s time to shake the voting booth, It’s time for us to scream the truth’. It’s a protest song that nails the problems of the States and the wider world today.

Here’s the video:

“2020 Vision” is a much more personal take on the current situation and an even more minimal production. The song structure is a very basic strummed I-IV-V chord progression (three chords and the truth) and the lyrics explore the way we’re dealing with the social changes springing from the pandemic, from social distancing to supermarket shelf clearances and comparisons to our forebears’ experiences in WWII. I won’t quote the lyrics because I’m going to recommend that you watch the video. Amid all the references to our transformed way of life, Danny even manages to fit in a reference to the late, lamented John Prine in the final line of the song.

And here’s the “2020 Vision” video:

These two songs, taken together, are a perfect musical summary of life in the USA in 2020. They convey anger and empathy and demonstrate why Danny Schmidt is so revered among songwriters worldwide.

“Prayer for the Sane” and “2020 Vision” are out now on Bandcamp to download free or pay what you want and will be available later on streaming platforms.

And there’s some late news just in. On Saturday May 9 at 8pm UK time, or 2pm CDT, you can watch Danny and his wife, the equally talented Carrie Elkin, do a free lockdown gig on this link.

how-animal-are-you[1]We’ll have more to come on this one in a few days, but in the meantime just wrap your ears around this little beauty. Slydigs are from the North-West (that’s the grim-up-north place) and they’re four school friends led by songwriters Dean Fairhurst (vocals/guitar) and Louis Menguy (guitar). “How Animal Are You” (the lead track from the EP of the same name) is a classic slice of melodic rock fusing the melodic nous and rock stylings of Def Leppard with the attitude of Oasis. And when the lead vocal comes in after the Lenny Kravitz-esque intro, it’s a potent mix of Liam and Roger Daltrey. “HAAY” is three and a half minutes of melodic rock with all of the classic rock ingredients spiced up with a little bit of Cool Britannia swagger. Let’s just start the weekend right here:

“How Animal Are You” is released on Friday May 12.

Sam Way and Henry Dell scrollerWant to know what a love song sounds like in C21 London – it sounds a lot like this actually. Sam Way and Henry Dell have got together to turn a nice little acoustic song into a Radio 1-friendly and dancefloor-embracing hook-filled anthem. “Pretty Liability” is all about the ‘bad girl’, the transgressive party girl that we should keep at arm’s length but has a magnetic pull on us. The bass pumps, the percussion skitters and the synths wash and there’s the obligatory breakdown at about the two-thirds mark. It’s when the chorus kicks in that you realise how catchy this tune is – you just can’t help singing along with it. And there’s a neat animated video to go with that you can see below.

“Pretty Liability” is out now and here’s the video:

the-korvids-bad-faithJames Grant; he’s an enigmatic artist. You never know what’s coming next, but you know it won’t be dull. I’ll save the history lesson for another day, but let’s just say he’s been around for a while. His latest venture is a collaboration with producer Gordy Goudie under the name of The Korvids and “Bad Faith” is the third single taken from the upcoming album “The Korvids”.  “Bad Faith” isn’t just influenced by late seventies disco, it is late seventies disco, from the melodic bassline and clipped, toppy rhythm guitar parts to the congas and falsetto vocals. It’s a joyous romp through everything that was great about the heyday of disco; it’s played with style and panache, but it’s also great fun. What more could you ask for?

The publicity for the single focusses on the musical style as a departure from James Grant’s previous work but there are elements of the single that have echoes of his past work; the album “Strange Kind of Love” had a funky feel and was also produced by Gary Katz, who was brought in to remix this single. This James Grant and his past incarnations have more in common than you might think.

James Grant, it’s good to hear from you again.

Out now on Nang Records.

Eden RoyalsWell, there’s a novelty; a press release that undersells the product it’s promoting. You get used to reading a lot of half-arsed attempts to link new unproven artists with someone who’s had a bit of success and some of the links are pretty tenuous. The first surprise for me was that “Time Won’t Wait” didn’t sound anything like the alternative/indie noise I was expecting. What it did sound a lot like was classic eighties British funk underpinned by a very Bernard Edwards-like bubbling bassline. The guitars and synths (including synthesised brass) weave intricately in and out of melody and rhythm lines to create a shimmering slice of classy twenty-first century pop with a socially aware lyric. I don’t know about you, but that pretty much ticks all the boxes for  me.
 
“Time Won’t Wait” is released on Friday March 10th.