Every year we seem have another ‘death of the album’ story as the established music business struggles to keep up with (or buy in to) services trying to maximise profit for the industry at the expense of the artist. But this year something strange has happened; sales of vinyl and record decks have risen dramatically. OK, the baseline’s still low but as CD sales plummet, it’s a good sign that people are investing in the hardware to play an analogue album format. Meanwhile, thousands of artists and bands are ignoring the established music business, funding their own recordings and using whatever methods they can to get their music out there. All of my High Five albums this year have been self-funded by artists who are making music because they believe in what they do and hoping that they can find an audience. I had seven albums on the shortlist for this selection, so there are a couple of honourable mentions as well.
It’s been another good year for Stone Foundation. They’ve signed up to a couple of overseas labels, toured Japan again and released “A Life Unlimited”, an album that moves their search for the new soul vision onward and upward with hints of jazz, house and Latin disco (and even guest vocal performances from Graham Parker and Doctor Robert). Songwriters Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby have produced another set of classic songs while the band line-up has evolved with the permanent addition of congas and baritone sax replacing trombone in the horn section to give a slightly harder sound. This album (like its predecessor “To Find the Spirit”) is all about a group of musicians working together to create a very British soul sound; no egos, no big solos, just a bunch of guys pumping out perfect grooves. You can read the original review here.
You have to admire someone who’s been singing for over forty years, come through some difficult times and still gets fired up about recording and performing songs. Since cutting his ties with the corporate music business, and setting up his own label around fifteen years ago, Southside Johnny has undergone a creative renaissance, becoming more involved in songwriting (with co-writer Jeff Kazee) and exploring new musical areas (including Americana with his second band The Poor Fools). “Soultime!” is the work of an artist who isn’t bound by a release schedule and a cycle of album and tour. This album is inspired by some of the soul and rhythm and blues greats of the sixties and seventies, and evokes the era joyously without ever becoming a pastiche. It’s an album that’s great fun to listen to and sounds like it was fun to make. It’s essential listening and you can read the original review here.
This is an album that had a long gestation period. Pete has been working on it for about ten years and there are a couple of reasons why the album took so long to make. Pete and Maura Kennedy have a very busy schedule with their other projects but, more importantly, this album could only be released when everything was absolutely perfect. “Heart of Gotham” is a song cycle about Pete’s love for New York City, delving into the city’s history, geography and ambience against a backdrop of Pete’s outstanding musicianship (playing all the instruments on the album) and some beautifully-realised arrangements. Pete’s multi-layered guitars and gravelly vocal delivery create an atmosphere that’s unlike anything else I’ve heard this year. You can read the original review here and you should also read Pete’s contribution to this year’s High Fives, which links in to the album.
This was a debut album with instant impact. Hannah puts together all of the classic singer-songwriter elements perfectly; she has a powerful, clear voice and she sings intensely personal songs with conviction and emotion. Everything on the album is inspired by life events, apart from “Parchman”, the story of a woman on death row, who has no regrets about the crime which put her there. There are songs about jealousy, revenge, addiction and inappropriate relationships, but there’s also a counterbalance, particularly with the nostalgia of “Black and White”. The album visits some very dark places but there are enough positive moments to create balance between the dark and the light. Hannah’s always been inspired by Jackson Browne; I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear the fruits of his influence. You can read a live review from Hannah’s Green Note gig in July here.
Black Casino and the Ghost (can we just say BCATG from now on) are a four-piece based in London and Essex and “Until the Water Runs Clear” is their second album. They’ve been Riot Squad favourites since their first album was released over two years ago. It would be easy to focus on the stupendous voice of singer Elisa Zoot and the guitar virtuosity of Ariel Lerner, but bass player Gary Kilminster and drummer Paul Winter-Hart play their part as well, with Elisa’s keyboards adding even more possibilities. “Until the Water Runs Clear” has drawn in many influences from sixties pop to trip-hop, mutated them and thrown them in the blender to create something that alternately sounds familiar and completely original. There’s also a lyrical dark side that runs through the album, creating sinister undertones and a hint of paranoia; maybe you shouldn’t skin up before listening to this one. The end result is an album which keeps you guessing; you’re never quite sure where it’s going, but you don’t want to miss a second of it. You can read the review here and see a few photos of the band at The Finsbury here.
And there are a couple of honourable mentions for the Dean Owens album “Into the Sea”, which was recorded in Nashville and packed with memorable and very personal tunes, and Bob Malone’s “Mojo Deluxe” featuring some keyboard virtuosity and a bunch of great tunes across a wide range of musical styles.
Following successful appearances at Latitude and Dartford festivals over the weekend and with Fuji Rocks coming up a week later, things are pretty hectic for Stone Foundation at the moment in the run-up to the release of “A Life Unlimited” in early August. The album looks set to be their biggest to date and the fanbase seems to be growing by the minute, so it was great to be able to have a quick chat with bass player and co-songwriter Neil Sheasby about the band’s roots and the events of the last year or so.
Allan – So Neil, tell us a bit about the origins of the band.
Neil – It started around the friendship between me and Neil Jones (Stone Foundation singer and co-writer). He was in a band previously that supported a band I was in and I was immediately impressed with his voice and when the band I was in broke up, the first thing I wanted to do was to get a proper vocalist, so we started writing songs together, fifteen years ago probably. But it took so long because we knew we always wanted it to be a heavy-hitting band with the horns and Hammond and it took a long, long time for us to be able to get the right line-up together. We had the vision and the thoughts and the ideas but it took ages to get that line-up and for it to come to fruition.
Allan – The fact that it’s taken a long time, does that keep you grounded about the whole thing?
Neil – Absolutely, we would be anyway, because first and foremost we’re music fans. Both of us have got big record collections and we create for the buzz of it. We’d be doing it anyway whether people were paying attention or not. So we’ll always be grounded really; it doesn’t matter how much media attention we get or how many people come through the door at gigs and buy records, there’s no reason for us not to stay grounded.
Allan – Over the last couple of years in particular, a lot’s been happening for you and it’s gone crazy over the last six months, so how does that feel after all the time you’ve spent grafting at it?
Neil – It’s heartening and humbling and encouraging for us because you know you’re making a connection: you know you’re not fooling yourself really. We try and do the best we can and we try and make records that we really believe in; fundamentally we’ve got to like them. It’s a cliché that you make music for yourself and if someone else likes it, it’s a bonus, but you do want people to like the records and you do want people to make that connection. Fortunately, the last couple of records, especially “To Find the Spirit” found us a really wide audience and I hope the new record “A Life Unlimited” will broaden it; I think it’s our best work to date. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t care if anyone liked it or not; we do. We want as many people as possible to like it. It’s humbling and encouraging and it means we can carry on. If no-one was interested and no-one bought the records there would be no point in us staying together; this keeps us working, keeps us together and keeps us moving forward.
Allan – I think it’s interesting that your fans are a lot like Dexys fans, for example, they seem to be a very loyal bunch and they really buy in to the whole package.
Neil – Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. When I was younger I used to follow bands like Dexys and The Jam around; you wouldn’t just go and see one gig, you’d go and follow the tour around, but there’s hardly anyone that does that now and I think we are that sort of band. You never know what you’re going to get from night to night; I think people see that in us and maybe we remind them of things that they’ve grown up with and that’s a good thing; we’re really lucky to have that fanbase that are loyal and just get what we do.
Allan – I think it says a lot about the respect that you have from other musicians that you can pull in such great guest artists on the albums as well.
Neil – Definitely, but that’s not something that we do just for the sake of it. We’ve been fortunate to work with people like Nolan Porter who came over from America and we were his backing band, but while he was over we did some things in collaboration. People like Carleen Anderson and Graham Parker, they don’t do just anything; they have to like what’s in front of them, what they’re hearing, otherwise they wouldn’t do it.
The Carleen Anderson thing “When You’re In My World” was written with that Marvin Gaye duet kind of vibe; that’s how we heard it and we approached Carleen on a whim really. It’s beyond our expectations to be working with people like that, but it’s a massive compliment to what we’re doing that they say yes and get right behind it as well. They believe in what we’re doing as well and they say some very nice complimentary things about our thing and it’s as much of a surprise to us as it is to everyone else; it’s a lovely thing to happen.
Allan – So how did you manage to land Graham Parker?
Neil – Funnily enough, I was at a book launch. I’m really good friends with Paolo Hewitt and I went to the launch of his last book and Graham was there. I just approached him as a fan because I‘m a big fan of Graham Parker and the Rumour and I’ve got all their records. We got chatting and we just hit it off, really. We just started talking, and we never stopped talking so we exchanged emails and numbers. I had a song called “The Night Teller” and it was a bit of a late night phone-in thing like the cover of “The Nightfly” by Donald Fagen, which you mentioned in your review, didn’t you?
Allan – Yeah, I did…
Neil – You got that exactly, nailed on, which really surprised me; it was exactly that, it was a late-night helpline with two people phoning in having a conversation so we needed another voice and I thought Graham’s voice would be absolutely bang-on for it really, so I put the suggestion to him, sent the track and sure enough he went for it. It was one of the bonding things with me and Neil when we started Stone Foundation, we had a few jumping-off points and Graham Parker and the Rumour was certainly one so to have him on our record was fairly incredible really.
Allan – And it sounds great, it really works well for the song.
Neil – As I say, it’s not just for the sake of it. It’s because you can hear it happening.
Allan – One thing that always fascinates me, and I always try to ask songwriters about this, is do you and Neil have a particular creative process, do you always work in the same way?
Neil – No, not really; we collaborated a lot more on this last record. We write separately and sometimes it’s like finishing off each other’s sentences. Neil will have an idea and I’ll think ‘I’ve got this bit that’ll probably work with that’ or I’ll have a song that I haven’t got a bridge for and he’ll have something that just fits hand-in glove, so there’s no real process; we don’t sit down in a room together or anything, there’s various ways it can happen. It can start from a little groove or we can come in with the lyrics first or even the title, as in the case of “Beverley”. We’d had that little hook for a while and we wrote the song around that, so there’s many different ways we work. Also, the band play a part in the arrangements as well. Phil, the drummer, has a great ear for arrangements but there’s no set ways. Sometimes it just happens, when we share the vision and the ideas. It’s sometimes difficult for me and Neil to get the sound out of our head that we want, but the musicians that we’ve got around us now know us well enough to have an understanding and they grasp it really quickly and we get the ideas in our head out and on to the record. We’re very fortunate in that respect.
Allan – The horn section’s sounding really good on this record, although I kind of miss the trombone live, but I guess that’s one of those things about having a big band.
Neil – Well we didn’t want to hide behind the last record, “To Find the Spirit”, so we wanted to make subtle changes. Spencer (Hague, trombone player) played on the last record, but he’s taking a break from the band; he’s having a family and he’s got work commitments. The more the band’s successful, the more the demands of gigging, the more the band’s going through the gears, the more pressure there is on people to give up time to do it because they’re all working guys as well. Spen’s taken a back seat but who knows, never say never, he might be back, but I think it’s nice to have a change with the horns as well and have a different dynamic. We’ve brought in a baritone sax (Adam) and Gareth on trumpet; it’s nice to have a change in dynamic and it’s healthy to keep changing from record to record and I’m sure it’ll change again because it’s inevitable with big line-ups.
Allan – Thanks very much for your time, Neil and good luck in Japan next week.
“A Life Unlimited” is released on August 7.
It’s unbelievable, really. We’re already halfway through 2015; how did that happen? Well, however it happened, there’s been an awful lot of it. At the start of the year, we made a few predictions about bands and artists to keep an eye on in 2015 and this seems like a pretty good time to have a look at how they’re getting on and maybe add a few more to the mix. So why don’t we start at the beginning because, apparently, that’s a very good place to start.
The first of our hot picks to shake some action in 2015 was the Billy Walton Band with “Wish for what You Want”, their first release on American independent label Vizztone in February 2015 after a series of self-released albums. We’ve been watching Billy Walton live since 2010 and he’s been steadily edging up the rankings. The band’s increased in size as well, from a power trio to a six-piece on the latest UK tour and the addition of sax, trombone and keyboards has emphasised their awesome live power while allowing them to move in new directions. Like his fellow New Jersey artists Springsteen and Southside Johnny (Billy has toured as an Asbury Juke in the UK a couple of times), Billy’s fond of taking the show in unexpected directions and these guys are easily good enough to follow him. They should be back in the UK later in the year, so watch out for them in your area.
Dean Owens is another artist the Riot Squad has been following for some time; well since the release of his 2012 album “New York Hummingbird” anyway. Dean has deservedly been acclaimed by those in the know (including Irvine Welsh) for some time now as a singer/songwriter but hasn’t ever managed to get the wider attention he really deserves; it looks like his 2015 album “Into the Sea” on Drumfire Records may have changed that. It’s generated a huge amount of media attention including a Bob Harris interview and live session for Radio 2 and an appearance on the cult BBC Radio Scotland football show “Off the Ball” presented by Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan. The album’s probably his best yet with some highly personal lyrics and memorable melodies backed up by a great group of Nashville musicians.
Next up was The Kennedys; Maura and Pete Kennedy are also from the East coast of the USA; New York City is their adopted home. They decided to celebrate their twentieth anniversary by releasing not one, not two, but three albums this year and to tour in support of the albums. Two of the albums have already been released, The Kennedys album “West” and Maura’s solo album (with lyrics from poet B.D. Love), “Villanelle” and they’re both exceptionally beautiful pieces of work. Still to come (in September) is Pete’s long-awaited solo piece “Heart of Gotham” a suite of songs inspired by New York City and its inhabitants. Pete’s poetic sensibilities, huge knowledge of the history of American music and quiet mastery of his instrument (or more accurately, instruments) make this another one to look out for.
Well that’s the story so far, but there’s more to come later in the year. Stone Foundation were obviously on the way up in 2014 when we reviewed their album “To Find the Spirit”, but 2015 has seen them providing the title track for the wonderful short film “Beverley”, trekking across Europe, signing record deals in Japan and the USA and recording the superb “A Life Unlimited” album which is released in the UK on August 7 this year. There’s a UK tour to promote the album, followed by a Japanese tour and some festival appearances over the summer. Pre-sales on the album have been very impressive and this looks like the year that Stone Foundation finally become an overnight success. Keeping the faith seems to finally be paying dividends.
Part Two coming soon…
It’s always a good feeling when a band or artist you like starts to get a bit of recognition, particularly when you know they’ve put in the hard hours over a long period of time and they’re doing something that they believe in and they’re committed to body and soul. In 2014, things were finally starting to happen for Stone Foundation. After years of serious graft with no industry backing, playing support slots, organising their own tours and self-funding their releases, people started to take notice and they got a bit of radio exposure (Craig Charles helped a bit there). They did support tours with The Selecter and The Blow Monkeys and the album “To Find the Spirit” made a dent in the independent charts; even The Modfather was photographed holding a copy. So, where to next?
Well, the next album, “A Life Unlimited”, is out on August 7th, so that’s a pretty good place to start. It would have been so easy to stick with the style that made “To Find the Spirit” successful, but that’s not what these guys do; the new album was always going to move in a slightly different direction, particularly after a few of the personnel changes that are almost inevitable in a large group.
The opening song, “Beverley”, (the theme tune from Alexander Thomas’ short film of the same name) is a tantalising hint as to the slight change of direction. It could almost be a track from the previous album, apart from the congas (courtesy of new member Rob Newton), which infuse a little Latin spirit into the funky cocktail of horns, Hammond and wah-wah guitars. There’s a change of emphasis in the brass section as well; Gareth John filled the trumpet vacancy last year and Adam Stevens has come in on baritone sax to replace trombonist Spencer Hague while he takes a break, both joining long-standing tenor saxophonist Gary Rollins. It gives the brass section a more Stax/Atlantic feel with a greater focus on ensemble playing as opposed to solos. It’s a philosophy which applies to the band generally; Stone Foundation is about eight guys working together to create gorgeous grooves and it works because the egos are reined in and the band is more important than the individual.
The sumptuous ballad “Pushing Your Love”, with harmonies from The Four Perfections, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the previous album, while “Something in the Light” takes a little step forward with the brass section, particularly Adam Stevens’ baritone lines, generating a Memphis Horns feel and the Q Strings adding a touch of velvet to the sting of brass. And that’s all before the Van Morrison-style breakdown with strings, tenor sax and backing vocals from The Four Perfections and Janet and Samantha Harris. Lovely stuff.
“The Turnaround” and “Learning the Hard Way” are real departures for the band. The horn fills have a New York/Cuban feel which weave around Neil Sheasby’s bubbling bass lines and Neil Jones’ guitar to create a sound which is much more New York fusion than small town soul; the kind of thing Southside Johnny and his brass section The New York Horns have been doing so well recently. They’re both irresistibly funky.
It’s the two centre pieces (or the last track on side one and the first on side two if you’re going for the vinyl) which give the clearest indication of the new influences on this album; there’s a bit of jazz in the mix. “Speak Your Piece” is a sprawling epic of a song which starts with handclaps, a piano motif (which is picked up later by the horns) and a five-note bass riff which runs through the song. Even as the song builds and layers are added, there’s always plenty of space in the mix; it never feels crowded as it builds up to a noisy chorus and drops back to piano and bass under the lead before building up again to big horn-driven finale. There’s even a one-note piano solo from Ian Arnold, and if that isn’t jazz, I don’t know what is. “The Night Teller” has a mid-tempo cool jazz feel evoking the cover artwork of Donald Fagen’s classic “The Nightfly” album and features a guest vocal by Graham Parker underpinned by some understated baritone sax. It’s all beautifully played and GP’s vocal works perfectly as a complement to the voice of Neil Jones. “These Life Stories” is a mid-tempo groove built around some laconic brass ensemble playing and delicate electric piano and it’s another example of the ‘less is more’ philosophy; you don’t need flash when a band can play this well together. Even the conga solo is politely restrained.
“A Love Uprising”, the album’s penultimate track, opens up like a 1990 house tune with a simple piano riff and Philip Ford’s four-to-floor kick drum but, within a few bars congas come in to soften the beat before seventies hi-hats and funk guitar, and then brass fills morph the piece into classic New York disco. And who’s that coming in just before two minutes with a rap? It’s Dr Robert from The Blow Monkeys making a guest appearance. Just to add to the Studio 54 ambience, you even get congas and disco whistles; it’s so authentic they knocked back Nile Rodgers when he tried to get in to the session. The closing track “Old Partners, New Dances” is an instrumental piece featuring Ian Arnold on piano and Gareth John on flugel horn, evoking the feel of a jazz club at four in the morning and it’s perfect way to bring the album down for a soft landing after the manic buzz of “A Love Uprising”.
Since the sessions for “A Life Unlimited”, the band has signed record deals in Japan (with P-Vine Records) and the USA (with Spectra Music Group); things definitely aren’t standing still at the moment and, with this album, they probably have the right set of songs to break through. What shines through every aspect of the album is quality; the songs are well-crafted, the arrangements are sensitive and varied and the performances are all superb. Even the artwork by Horace Panter (you are going to buy it on CD or vinyl, aren’t you?) is spot on. Maybe “A Life Unlimited” proves that, in a world where a Glastonbury headliner gets away with out-of-tune karaoke, there’s still room for music created with passion and talent.
“A Life Unlimited” is released on August 7/ 2015.