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.
We’ve been waiting for this one for a while now, and I’m chuffed to say it was well worth the wait. The second Black Casino and the Ghost album, “Until the Water Runs Clear” is packed with great individual performances, but the great strength is the way they work together as a band. Elisa Zoot’s voice is stunning and Ariel Lerner’s guitar playing is faultless across a range of styles, but Paul Winter-Hart (drums) and Gary Kilminster play a huge part in the band’s sound, supplying the rhythmic pulse and some melodic and inventive basslines.
There are some influences which are woven through the album; there’s more than a hint of sixties pop, and a hint of psychedelia channelled through the trip-hop filter of Portishead and Massive Attack or the shimmering nineties pop of Saint Etienne and Morcheeba. So the obvious opening song is one which sounds like early English folk, isn’t it?
“The Pool” proves that Elisa can do the quieter, more reflective songs as well as the belters, starting with a finger-picked acoustic guitar backing and multi-layered backing vocals, adding shards of percussion, synths and slide guitar before dropping back to the minimalist guitar backing. After the trippy feel of “Age of Contagion” and the monster guitar riff of “Veggie Tarantula” (the two singles so far), it’s a bit of a departure but it’s very effective.
The sixties influence is clearest in “Soul Mall”, the bass-led “Sherry” where Elisa delivers the verses in a cool, almost dismissive style, and “Mr Puppeteer” and “Hoochie Coochie Lover” where Ariel plays in a clipped, precise style that’s very Hank Marvin, or maybe it’s just like Eddie. Apart from the obvious “Lucifer, Lucifer, Lucifer”, there’s a darkness and obsession suffusing the album, and it surfaces in lines like ‘Wish I could skin you, look at what’s in you’ in “Hoochie Coochie Lover”; it’s challenging and not always comfortable but, if comfort’s what you want, you should be listening to Smooth Radio.
There are still a few more stylistic twists and turns to the album; “Tarjeteros” has an Ennio Morricone feel, “Bitter Beast” contrasts a verse with a hint of Bjork with a wall of sound chorus, while the album’s last song, “Solar Storm”, closes the circle with Elisa’s controlled vocal over a sparse arrangement that builds with keyboards and backwards effect before fading into the ether.
I don’t think I’ve heard a better album than “Until the Water Runs Clear” this year; Black Casino and the Ghost have created an album that’s full of hooks to grab your attention, but is full of dark and mystical undercurrents to keep you enthralled.
If you want to see Black Casino and the Ghost live (and you really should), they’re playing at The Finsbury on December 8th and it’s completely free.
Here’s another little teaser from Black Casino and the Ghost to whet your appetite for the upcoming album “Until the Water Runs Clear” which is out on November 16th. It’s been a while since their debut “Some Dogs Think their Name is No”, and we’ve heard some of the new material live, so the expectations are high. “Veggie Tarantula” opens with an overdriven guitar riff followed by a thunderous bassline and you wonder if Elisa Zoot’s voice can cut through the wall of noise; the answer’s obviously yes, although you have to wait until the chorus to hear the raucous sound of the entire band playing at full tilt. And just when you think you’ve been battered into submission, there’s a bit of remission with a psychedelic breakdown and layers of ethereal vocals before everything goes back up to eleven. Absolutely glorious.
We’ll have the album review for you in the next few days; in the meantime, just watch this on repeat.
The one thing you can definitely say about Black Casino and the Ghost is that whatever they do, it’s going to be interesting, and probably unlike anything else that you’re seeing or hearing. It’s two years since their last album “Some Dogs think their Name is No” was released and they’re back in the summer of 2015 with new material and live performances kicking off with the release of “Age of Contagion” on June 18, from the new album, “Until the Water Runs Clear” which is due to be released later in the year.
The song is dark, moody and bass-heavy, a bit like nineties Bristol trip-hop, which is the perfect backdrop for Elisa Zoot’s stunning vocal and explores the idea of transformation by ordeal and taking a step into the unknown. The accompanying video is pieced together from Peter Bogdanovich’s cult 1968 movie “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women” and emphasises the sombre, slightly menacing mood of the song:
If you want to see Black Casino and the Ghost live, they’ll be headlining at The Finsbury in North London on Friday July 10.
Black Casino And The Ghost are a London band formed in 2010, which surprised me as they have the kind of ‘swamp’ rock Americana sound that had me reminiscing about my old Cramps albums, although this is a layered sound with a more sophisticated lyric.
Black Casino and the Ghost are: Elisa Zoot (vocals, piano), Ariel Lerner (guitar), Gary Kilminster (bass) and Paul Winter-Hart (drums). “Hoboland” is the second single taken from their forthcoming September release, the intriguingly-titled “Some Dogs Think Their Name Is No”. This is a strong offering that gets my curiosity going for the album. “Hoboland” has been recorded live and captures that energy very well, but still remains more disciplined than many live recordings and it is self-produced, hinting at talent in the studio as well as with their instruments. It really sounds as if they are happy with the resulting three minutes of tight, bluesy rock they produce, and as a listener, so am I.
According to their press release, the song is about the moment ‘when dreams turn into obsessions and ambitions become consuming like a virus,’ as the singer looks in vain for Hoboland; although not all of the lyric is completely discernible, it is certainly dark and anthemic-sounding. It opens with menacing bass guitar and drums before the vocal comes in, ‘Nicotine days and nicotine nights, it might be a phase or just wait and sit tight…’. The vocal is distinct and unlike any other female vocalist I can think of. ‘Someone stole my love, like the eye of a scarecrow taken by the bird,’ bewails Elisa and she sounds very present and ‘in’ the story of this energetic song. The chorus is where the boys join in with ‘Whao-oo Ooh’, etc and is very effective to sing along with especially at their live gigs, if this is anything to go by. Definitely worth a listen, they deserve more than just indie success, or wait for their album and get both singles and more besides.
Out now as a download. It’s somewhere between 3 and 4 stars so let’s call it 3½.
Following 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?