Estuary Fringe DCS ScrollerIt’s not just Edinburgh that has a festival in August. What about Southend? Maybe not as fashionable but there’s a great arts scene around Southend and its satellites. So, on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, why not head out to have a look at The Railway Hotel’s contribution to the Estuary Fringe Festival which is an afternoon session in the beer garden followed by more live bands inside in the evening. I got there just as the belly dancing was finishing and the stage was being set up for live music (with background music leaning heavily on blues classics and some nice Al Stewart songs).

First on stage was Pick Yer Feet Up, or Eleanor Donne (fiddle) and Dave Murray (twangs and bangs) playing a selection of ‘bogus Bulgarian bangers’. It was relatively low-key but very melodic in an Eastern European way with a nice line in dry patter from Dave between songs. In the great old Python tradition of ‘now for something completely different’, next up was Dirty Captain Scott. What can I say? A twentieth-century estuary poet backed with cajon beats (and guitar towards the end of the set). The rhythms were insistent and the delivery, well, imagine Adele rapping and you’re most of the way there. A great set that you just couldn’t ignore.

Next? The Timlins (Matt and Victoria) played a lovely set of melancholy (maybe even miserable) songs, reminding me a lot of Turin Brakes and (bonus points if you remember this band) Budapest. Victoria’s keyboard filled out the textures created by Matt’s acoustic guitar and the harmonies were sublime. Personally, I like a bit of miserable; always have. Dead Air next, playing their first (and possibly only) gig, played a set of folky Americana with a female lead singer, acoustic guitar and mandolin backing and some lovely harmonies. If you wanted a backing track for an English summer day you wouldn’t go far wrong here.

And on to Phil Burdett, backed by long-term collaborators John Bennett (guitar), Steve Stott (mandolin and fiddle) and Colleen McCarthy (backing vocals). This was only Phil’s second live appearance after major surgery earlier in the year and he was a man on a mission, determined to get songs from his two (yes, two) new albums out there in a live setting. Throughout the set, the arrangements were a masterclass in understatement; the instruments created a framework that allowed the songs to shine. John Bennett is subtle and understated in a way that reminds me a lot of Steve Cropper; no fuss, but just try to imagine The MGs without the guitar parts. Even “New Greyhound Rag”, which was written as full band piece with bass, drums and various other bits of percussion is driven along nicely by the two guitars.

But just focus on the songs. From the opener “Sea Change” to “A Kind of Chalkwell Station Blue”, the short set was packed with melodic and lyrical invention.  The lines ‘you switch the channel in your mind – and on the news voices buzz like cracked kazoos the needle stuck on tombstone blues’ are a great example of Phil’s ability to create a striking, evocative image. All delivered to perfection in Phil’s mellow growl. You really shouldn’t get music this good for free in a pub beer garden, even if the pub is The Railway.

I’m looking forward to seeing Phil officially launch “Humble Ardour Refrains” and “Shaky Path to Arcadia” on November 5th in Southend.

If you haven’t seen them before, here are some pictures of the event.

1989It goes without saying that each generation gets the pop stars it deserves. Of the ones remaining and still performing, Madonna, Boy George and Prince belong to what could be called my era, not too shoddy. This current batch of kids will eventually become nostalgic about Beyonce, Adele and, I’m sorry, One Direction. In the last five years Taylor Swift has been riding their coat-tails with her persistent country -pop and, for better or worse, she may turn out to be the biggest pop star of them all, certainly of 2014. “1989”, Swift’s fifth album, is not only the year of her birth but also refers to the eclectic and idiosyncratic musical chart toppers of that same year, part of my era, and which allegedly inspired her to finally, and somewhat predictably, make the full transition to that of a pop star.

Max Martin has produced and written for the cream of Billboard magazine’s sweethearts over the past decade and a half and Swift called on him to help with a clutch of songs for her last album, the gazillion-selling ‘Red’. Those tracks were the ones that provided the album with a contemporary pop sheen, dubstep and more heavily electronic soundscapes featured, and some of its biggest hits. Martin returns here with the weightier task of almost full production responsibilities of “1989” and co-writes with Swift herself. He does a consistently robust and appropriately timeless job here and, between the two of them, the songs are frequently sharp, smart and exhilarating and avoid any of the obvious potential pitfalls; no features, no EDM and no Dr Luke.

The best moments here, and there are many to choose from, are the more thundering and urgent guitar, drums and synth tracks that call to mind pop acts such Go West, Simple Minds and Kelly Clarkson. “Out of the Woods” is not only the biggest success here, Swift’s sneer is surprisingly apparent and the gulping repetitive chorus is perfect, but almost the most lyrically competent and stylish. “All You Had to Do Was Stay” with its cheeky vocal nod to the Eurythmics, “I Wish You Would” and “Bad Blood” all provide rollicking middle-eights, tight arrangements and artful choruses that all make the intended impact. “Style” is an elegant mid-tempo electro soon-to-be chart topper which offers up the hookiest chorus – and that’s saying something here – and “Wildest Dreams” is as close as Swift gets to a mood piece although it owes quite a debt to the omnipresent Lana Del Rey sound.

The rest of “1989” is serviceable enough but lacks the passion of the better tracks and struggles to live up to the album’s conceit. “Welcome to New York” is not only one of the very worst, most insipid songs written about the city – and also a rare moment when the album also slips into musical parody of the period it’s influenced by – but it is almost a genuine reflection of it as seen through the Swift’s eyes as a recent, over-excited new comer. It also highlights just how bland and naïve lyrically many of these songs are; Starbucks lovers, it’s all good, haters and players and “How You Get the Girl”, even if used with irony, make the album sound like a massive corporate tie-in with a particular brand of young girls who can afford to live in a big city. Since the album’s release Swift has indeed, and not without controversy, been appointed as an official ambassador of New York; it wasn’t like this with Debbie Harry.

If Swift were to be a representation of the very best that pop could offer in 2014 then “1989” would confirm that pin sharp songwriting and hooks were still in abundance and lush, enveloping production was of a consistently high standard. But within the genre that is only one part of many essential components. Her previous albums have been built on an authentic and believable persona where it was possible to identify the style of the song – the actual sound of it – with the singer; here she sounds technically proficient but for the main part generic. The major players of the last thirty years right up to and including Beyonce and Adele have all developed a sound that is quintessentially theirs but Swift has failed to do that here; there is nothing exceptional or original about the way “1989” sounds. It is unlikely that her next few records will see a return to country music so maybe they will continue to build on Taylor Swift’s respect for pop and see her as confident enough to be as unpredictable and individual as her idols; or maybe she is readjusting the standard.

Complete SurrenderPreviously forlorn and just on the doable side of twee, Sheffield girl-boy duo Slow Club decided they wanted a change. Their two previous albums, the second a great improvement on the first, were a mix of shoe-gaze and rattling, nurturing indie-folk; it was sweet but had a dark and more interesting undercurrent. “Complete Surrender” doesn’t rattle and isn’t folk music but the dark tendencies and songwriting style have, in part, remained. Colin Elliot, who has worked with Jarvis Cocker, Kylie Minogue on her Abbey Road album and, most notably, Richard Hawley, has been enlisted to produce and in doing so has in part become what feels like a third member, such is his presumed impact. Retro, northern soul and Motown girl-group stompers dominate in what is now a fully formed and lushly intricate backdrop that accompanies Charles Watson and, in frequently spectacular fashion, Rebecca Taylor’s tales of heartbreak and determined, if not always successful, reinvention.

Slow Club’s emphasis has always been on their centre-stage vocals and their self-written durable melodies so, although the sonic energy here has been intensified, and, on tracks like the endlessly ascending title track, is pitched to equal a song’s mood, it’s always the songs themselves that shine through. There is not a case for style over substance here and this is before taking into account the duo’s vocals; Watson’s doleful white-boy falsetto, pitched high and yearning, like a northern Ben Gibbard, and Taylor who sings with tremendous power and a nuanced, technical ability to express a catalogue of emotions without ever over-egging. Unlike her male partner who is certainly competent but not awe-inspiring, Taylor sounds closer to firmly established female singers who have earned iconic status. Maybe closer to Sandie Shaw, on songs like the frail but fighting “Dependable People and Things that I’m Sure Of”, a slow solo performance, she astounds with a plaintive but rousing vocal documenting the fresh pain of a terminal relationship.

‘But I can run further than I could before
And I can laugh louder, I can dance ’til I’m sore
Then in the morning, I can do it again
I just have to keep moving, don’t ever stop moving

And all of this envy and all of this fear
Will just be a memory of this shitty year

The pair share vocal duties throughout the album’s eleven tracks with songs dedicated to either one or the other but on occasion their voices merge in the most surprising way considering how different they are. On “Tears Of Joy”, Taylor’s wistful voice is actually underscored by Watson’s throughout although at first this isn’t obvious, clearly initially taking the lead his vocal gradually morphs into the ecstatic whoops of his partner’s -- the joy of the title expressed. On “Everything is New”, with its strings, ahhh-ahhh serenades, spirited chorus and rock guitars their vocals -- again led by Watson -- collide and separate again, beautifully. “The Queen’s Nose”, another glorious ballad delivered solely by Taylor, and an obvious high point, is so exquisite that it is hard not to begin wishing that the power-couple had weighed out their responsibilities differently when it comes to vocal duties. Songs like the playful and more electronic “The Pieces” don’t stand up to the weightier performances here many of which do belong to Rebecca Taylor, but it is also the various shades of their vocals playing together that make tracks such as “Wanderer Wandering” such a multi- layered, rich but still airy pleasure.

“Complete Surrender” has elevated the duo to a position where they will be at the very least heard in the same context as some of pop’s most soulful big hitters; Jessie Ware, Sam Smith and even Adele are their contemporaries now. Whether they experience the same level of commercial success is another issue of course and realistically, extremely unlikely -- only a tiny percentage will after all.  But to make a record like this and to take strides that enables your sound to be both mainstream but wholly grounded in a lyrical sensibility that is essentially British in its self-deprecation and rejection of sentimentality is admirable and is what gives Slow Club their edge. “Complete Surrender” is an album that eventually becomes a part of you and as much as it is nurturing, moving and empathic; it also thrills with its new ambitions and ends up sounding unlike anything else experienced over the last eighteen months.

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

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

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

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

Little RedThere are at least two things that the South London-raised trio of Adele, Jessie Ware and Katy B have in common. Apart from all having spent their formative years absorbing the culture that is inherent to Brixton and it subsequently informing and influencing their musical sensibilities, all three are notoriously fame-wary. Being somewhat at odds of the point and concept of what a Pop Star actually is and entails, these young women seem endearingly reluctant to outgrow their initial fanbases consisting predominantly of friends and family. This also confirms their main motive for making music – their compulsive and overwhelming love of melody and rhythm and of making connections.

Adele now performs in gigantic stadiums and at the Grammys but there are constant hints that she will become a recluse sooner rather than later. Jessie Ware has found an audience with the new generation of (pop up) wine bar sophisticates and vogueing American, gay men. Katy B meanwhile has received her education and is selling her records to, amongst others, London’s funky house and UK garage club community. Out of her contemporaries Katy Brien is the one that most represents youth culture and associated underground dance music trends expertly. She may have been warned by her management to avoid going to small, local clubs, to help build the fame surrounding her, but don’t they understand that it’s intrinsic to her craft?

On A Mission”, Katy B’s debut from 2011, established her authenticity. She wasn’t just being produced by dance artists, she was actually part of the scene itself and creating music that would be played in the clubs that she would she visit. The difference between that record and this one is actually subtle, a case of splitting hairs in many ways, but certainly significant. Then first three tracks on “Little Red” are evidence that the musical influence and direction this time around is equally American- influenced as it is British, something that was not heard on “On a Mission” whose roots never strayed too far from South London. “Next Thing”, the album’s terrific opener hurls itself at you with its retrobeat progression and, in particular, the staggered and broken synth-hook paying a massive homage to Inner City’s “Good Life” and the house music that prevailed at the time.

5AM” continues in much the same vein and is the stronger song of the two, incorporating a quite delicious decline in the chorus’s chord progression which ends with the word ‘Valium’ and is akin to the drop in anxiety and energy that taking this drug can induce.  “Aaliyah” sees follow Brixtonite Jessie Ware trading verses with Brien in what is a sly tribute to both the late R’n’B singer’s fluid and sensual phrasing and Dolly Parton’s pyscho-drama classic “Jolene”. It’s beautifully effective, appropriately seductive and bewitchingly sisterly, it’s also stands alone as a brilliant dance track.

These first three songs form a sort of loose narrative that begins with an introduction to the club and its characters, subsequently getting lost in the crowds and finally, addressing late night/early morning sexual tension and competitiveness. The fourth track, and “Little Red” is an album whose first half is unflinchingly strong, is a very big pop ballad indeed – the comedown perhaps. It is blocked out with banks of mood synths, significant key changes and a vocal performance from Brien that is as impressive as it’s believable.  And that’s when that big difference of her debut versus “Red” really makes itself known. There wasn’t anything on the well-received and competent “On a Mission” that comes close to “Crying for no Reason” for pop sensibility or come to that matter, the three tracks that precede it.

There are more highlights further in with the sinewy, twisting “Tumbling Down”, and the mood house of “Everything” is reminiscent of early 90’s house group Electribe 101. “Play” is a lovely, bright Motown-influenced beat track featuring Sampha and “Sapphire Blue” is a gorgeous mid-tempo track that expertly delights with repetitive phrases and wonderment.  On the very tail end of decent enough ballad “Emotions”, Katy B’s old drum and bass inflections burst forward for the manic finale and it’s only on the last track “Still”, which is a ballad too far, when the lifeless arrangement starts to sound derivative and dull.

It goes without saying that “Little Red” is available in a ‘deluxe’ format which offers up a very generous additional five songs, all new. All five are very strong indeed. Replacing the (very) few weaker tracks on the main version’s release with the likes of the warped and wonderful “Wicked Love”, for example, would have resulted in turning an album that is very good into one that’s exceptional. The additional tracks stand apart from the album proper however in that they are all archetypal UK garage and twostep including an M J Cole produced cup-up vocal track harking back to the genre’s heyday around the turn of the decade. If you want the definitive version of “Little Red” then buy the deluxe; Katy B has made a brilliant record, why would you not want to hear it all?

Out now.

Product DetailsIf you had given me this album, Delilah’s debut, and told me it had been in a time capsule since 1995 then I would probably believe you. I haven’t heard anything this influenced by that period’s prominent trip hop sound for a very long time but then everything comes back around again eventually I suppose.

The surprise is that Delilah didn’t go to one of those British stage/ talent schools that Adele (there’s actually a song on here called “21” on here, it’s rubbish), Jessie J and Leona Lewis (to name just 3) went to, because Delilah sounds a little bit like all of these artists and the songs here sound as though they could be interchangeable between any these singers (and this does give a small clue that this album could only have been recorded in the last 4 years or so). The supposedly inspirational but horribly gloopy “Shades Of Grey” for example could feature as one of the many power ballads on any of those artists’ albums and in particular brings to mind Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” and Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” but is not as good as either. And “Only You” sounds like a pale, completely soulless imitation of Regina Spektor’s exhilarating “Us” and would be great as an advert for a diet hot chocolate drink. Delilah can sing but then so can lots of people, it’s what you do with your voice and surround it with that matters.

Trip hop was a mix of genres – hip hop, pop, dub, drum and bass, r ‘n’ b – that, more than anything else, was about creating a mood.  It was ‘trippy’ and melancholic, dark and melodic and personally, I liked it a lot. Its Bristol-based pioneers (Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky) ensured that the effect was narcotic, thick and uneasy but as time went by it became watered down beyond recognition and the choice of the post yuppie supper party and style magazine crowd (hello Morcheeba, not the worst offenders to be fair though) and this unfortunately is the sound that Delilah’s borrows from. I found it hard to actually find anything in the first 7 tracks to interest me, it was all so polite, tasteful and moody but in a very self conscious way  it became the worst thing that I can say about music; part of the background.

There are small glimpses of inventiveness here particularly, ironically, on the Rufus and Chaka Khan-sampling, claustrophobic and bipolar “Go”’ but not so much on the Minnie Ripperton-sampling “Inside My Love” where it sounds as if they’ve said ‘let’s have another go at doing something like that Chaka Khan one we did’. “Love You So” is a good song and makes its point with strings and stomping and great verve.  I could imagine Shara Nelson post-Massive Attack owning this, and “Tabitha, Mummy and Me” is a nice, simple and melodic piano lead ballad which certainly has something about it which makes me hope that Delilah can maybe become something more authentic and diverting. On the whole though, this is a dull but highly-polished, mediocre ode to the worst of the mid to late nineties.