This started the way the best features do, as a conversation in the pub. We’ll let Allan take it from there.

It’s one of the oldest tricks in the pop music book; if the song’s on its last legs and you still need another thirty seconds or so to get you up to the optimal time for radio play, then you deploy one the producer’s most potent tactical weapons – the trucker’s gear change. In its most basic form, the whole arrangement shifts up a tone or a semitone, to grab back your attention before the chorus repeats and fades. Usually, it just happens once, but that depends on how desperate you are (or how weak the song is). You might even get some clever stuff going on to get from one key to the next; when that happens, you get all classical and call it a modulation. What do they sound like? Let’s start with an absolute clunker.

“I Will Always Love You” – Whitney Houston

Considering the quality of the musicians available to producer David Foster, this TGC is bone-jarringly unsubtle; there’s no attempt to pretty it up by repeating a riff in the new key or moving through a few passing chords. Oh no; old key/bang/new key – we’re done. As if that’s not enough, there’s a whole bar of almost complete silence before the melody crashes back in again, maybe David Foster thought that the average listener couldn’t remember which key the song was in after 4 beats. Who knows; anyway it’s a crash/bang/wallop of the highest order and you can hear the teeth grinding off the flywheel:

“Love on Top” – Beyonce

OK, we’re now well and truly in the era of digital recording and production and it’s much easier and quicker to manipulate sounds. You can do a TGC with a mouse-click. If it’s so easy to do, why not do loads of them – one is good, two must be better. Beyonce co-produced this with Shea Taylor, so she’s sharing the blame here. In the last ninety seconds of the radio edit there are four, yes four upward key shifts as the chorus is repeated. It makes you wonder what it would be like if the key shift just kept repeating. As it happens, someone thought of that. Here it is with fourteen upward shifts:

 

“The Snake” – Al Wilson

Ah, the old Northern Soul classic. Fans will remember that one of the UK pressings of this song had a cover of the John Fogerty classic “Lodi” on the b-side. That’s not relevant, just me showing off. Sometimes you can get away with a few stick shifts if you’re building up to the climax of the song and that’s what happens here. At the end of the second verse, there’s a bass riff which is then repeated a tone higher and you’re in a different key. It’s not just a chorus repeated in exactly the same way but higher, it’s part of the process of moving the story along. And the same device is repeated at the end of the third chorus into the final verse as the song reaches its dramatic finale. Maybe I’m biased, but I think this is part of the arrangement of the song and that keeps it out of Room 101:

“Heat Treatment” – Graham Parker & the Rumour

You might think that any key change part way through a song would be agreed with the writer; it ain’t necessarily so. This was the title song of GP and the Rumour’s second album “Heat Treatment”, released in 1976, the same year as his debut “Howlin’ Wind” (two albums in a year and incessant gigs; musicians grafted in those days). Partway through the song, there’s a modulation; it’s quite musical – a two-bar horn section phrase takes the song up a tone. It’s not lumpy but it does the job fairly quickly. The problem is that it’s not part of generating extra excitement, just the opposite. It takes the song into a bass riff breakdown and the groove has to be built up again from scratch. Graham Parker made his feelings about it known when the album was remastered for CD; his sleeve notes refer to it as ‘that abusive key change’. Fair enough.

“Up the Junction” – Squeeze

This was the title track from the second Squeeze album, with a tip of the hat to Nell Dunn who wrote the novella of the same name. Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford were just beginning to realise their potential as songwriters and Jools Holland was still their keyboard player. This is a key change that is about as far from a trucker’s gear change as you can get. It’s a modulation that reflects a downbeat turn in the lyrics through a ten-bar bridge using minor chords before dropping a whole tone for a more upbeat verse and then, paradoxically, going back up by a whole tone for the downbeat final verse. Difford and Tilbrook characteristically messing with the conventions. Bits of “Up the Junction” trivia? There are no choruses and the title of the song doesn’t appear in the lyric until the last three words:

ael-scrollerJust over a year after the release of her eponymous third album, Anna Laube has become Anna Elizabeth Laube and released her fourth album, “Tree”. She’s moved on from the playful experimentation of the previous album and produced a little classic of restrained melancholy where her pure, fluty vocals are set against sparse arrangements creating a lo-fi intimacy that perfectly matches the mood of the songs. With “Tree”, Anna has restricted her palette to sepia tones rather than the vibrant Technicolour of “Anna Laube”, although even the pared-down arrangements allow for some experimentation within the album’s sombre overall mood, which is enhanced with lashings of reverb on vocals and instruments.

The album opens with a Dylan cover, “Wallflower”, a melancholy old-country waltz telling the story of two lonely people in a crowded room, complete with some lovely fiddle fills. And that’s not the last of the songs in three-four time; the imploring “I Miss You So Much” with its wailing harmonica, the love ballad “Longshoreman” and “Lose, Lose, Lose”, the story of recovery from alcoholism, ruined by the reappearance of an old flame (at Christmas of all times). If you spliced together Patsy Cline and Rickie Lee Jones, it would sound like this.

XO” is a gentle finger-picked acoustic version of the Beyonce song, helped along by a trumpet accompaniment, not the usual strident brass, but a muted version with a Mexican tinge. And finally, two absolutely beautiful songs. The title song is the story of a tree and the way it, and other trees, intertwines with our lives. The gentle acoustic arrangement and lovely multi-tracked harmonies are a contrast to the over-driven, but quiet and tasteful guitar solo; all of the parts fit together perfectly. “Please Let it Rain in California Tonight” expands from concern about drought to become a secular Lord’s Prayer with piano backing. It’s a deeply moving piece that is so catchy you’ll be singing along on the first listen.

“Tree” is a flawless album that works with limited soundscapes to create a mood that’s mainly melancholy with a few lighter touches for contrast. It’s a very beautiful piece of work.

“Tree” is released on Aah…Pockets! Records (Aah …Pockets!4) on Friday October 21st.

So, what have we got this time then? A new premium-quality music streaming service; well, that’s just what we need; isn’t it? Especially when you line up a bunch of superstar investors for a launch event that makes the service sound like it’s going to put an end to world conflict. I’m not even giving you a link to the video of the launch because on the tedium scale it’s somewhere between a party election broadcast and watching custard set. Here’s the summary: two minutes of introductions (to a crowd that apparently hasn’t heard of any of the celebrity stakeholders), ten minute ‘inspirational’ speech from Alicia Keys, two minutes of signing ‘the document’ and two minutes of standing around looking embarrassed while someone tries to find a border collie or a cattle prod. Sixteen minutes and Madonna only hogged the limelight once; that has to be a record. I’ve had more fun at the dentist.

Just take a look what this motley crew (they’ve got one thing in common, but we’ll get to that) are so evangelical about; what are they actually trying to sell you? Basically, the sales pitch is that it’s like Spotify but better, which means you have to pay twice as much for it. I’m not saying Spotify is perfect but if the alternative is punters downloading illegally and artists being paid bog all, then I’m on the side of Spotify. Tidal isn’t an attempt to address the big issue of music having no value because you can download it free from any number of illegal sites, it’s purely about commercial rivalry; we’re better than Spotify but that’s reflected in the subscription price. Unlike Spotify, there isn’t a ‘free’ version of Tidal, you buy in or you don’t.

And then there’s “lossless” compression. In the words of John Lydon, ‘ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated’ – there’s no such thing as lossless compression. You can compress something so that it sounds reasonable on a phone or a media player, but why not try playing that same file through a decent hi-fi setup. No, don’t, that was rhetorical, it’s going to sound horrible; if you take information out of an audio file, it’s going to be noticeable eventually if your ears do more than keep your head balanced. If you stream audio, the higher the quality, the more problems you’ll have with buffering so you wouldn’t want to make things more difficult by introducing video playback, would you? Yeah, you just might, and you might want to introduce social features (nothing new) and have the music carefully curated (obviously not patronising at all – we’ll tell you what you should like) while you offer exclusivity (you can hear the new Beyoncé song here first).

So, the bottom line is that you can pay twice as much as you would pay for Spotify for the dubious privilege of “lossless” streaming which will sound just the same on your earbuds or PC speakers; anyone buying in to that yet? Thought not; how about new artists, surely an ‘artist-owned’ service would help to bring new talent through the system. No, not even a mention, so who benefits from this premium service? Easy, the bunch of artists on the stage at the beginning of this piece. The bunch of artists who have one thing in common; against the odds in the twenty-first century, have already made huge amounts of money from the dying embers of the music business. None of the artists involved in this enterprise actually need more money, but they’re happy to take if they can get it.

Maybe Jay Z’s pissed off that Dre managed to corner the market in headphones, but that’s no excuse for launching this ill-conceived ‘premium’ service. No-one involved with this project comes out of it with any credit.

 

Broke with Expensive TasteAt the very least, the dramatic and unexpected release of Azealia Banks’ debut album is a relief. Her one bona fide hit, the filthy and fantastic “212”, was released in 2011 and talk of her first album, mainly by Banks herself, has been on, off and on again pretty much consistently since then. Some three years later and Beyonced onto iTunes at 7.00pm on a cold Thursday in early November “Broke with Expensive Taste” finally saw the light of day. We can all now move on; Banks, the naysayers, the many she has horrified with brattish abuse via her volatile twitter account -- let’s go and fix our glare on the new kid. Maybe the surprise then is that there is a lot more to Azealia Banks than being a big dirty mouthed one- hit wonder. The breadth and rush of the consistently surprising, eccentric but accessible tracks here is absolute proof that she knew what she was doing all along. One of the most interesting and revealing aspects of Azealia Banks first full length release proper is all of the things that it is not. There is no EDM, and although this is most definitely a dance record, no dubstep, no grand-standing features and no sign of the kind of producers that eclipse the artist themselves and are usually called in for last minute emergencies. In fact the one track that was produced by and featured the ubiquitous Pharrell Williams (the lacklustre and generic “ATM Jam”) has wisely been left off. The Williams collaboration was forced upon Banks by her then record company (she has since left Interscope, to call it a rocky relationship would appear an understatement) to bag an easy hit, as is often the case, and by all accounts represents the reasons why “Broke with Expensive Taste” has suffered such a long and bumpy ride to release. Banks is not an artist who is willing to compromise or curtail her artistic impulses and this is made abundantly clear here. Album opener “Idle Delilah” has clattering pots and pans percussion, a fuzz-box island guitar riff and a chorus, if it can indeed be called that, that consists only of  a chopped- to- utter -smithereens Brandy sample from her hit  “I Wanna Be Down” which is rendered utterly unrecognisable here.  This is to support Banks warbling but radiant rap and vocal lines laid out over a building house beat. “Desperado” and “Gimme a Chance” go down different roads entirely; the former has Banks speeding sulkily over an old and moody MJ Cole 2-step track, “Bandelero Desperado”, with muted trumpet and an unmistakeable British identity whilst “Gimme A Chance” references early hip-hop scratching and a Ze Records “Off the Coast of Me” dead – eyed sung chorus. This all comes before the second half of the track which explodes into Latin American horns with Banks both singing and rapping in Spanish. “JFK” is a snooker balls-cracking house track with vocal inflections mimicking an almost operatic narrative of the vogue balls and creative rivalry and “Wallace” has dark cavernous drums, a blink and you’ll miss it Missy Elliott reference, and might be about a dog. At this point it is hard to accept that the album has not even reached its half-way point, such is the diversity and ambition that is alluded to. The album’s middle section is its most conventional and traditionally urban, all of the tracks are rapped. “Ice Princess” in particular, which is a variation on Morgan Page’s “In The Air” hit, proves that Banks can more than hold her own in commercial rap; her rhymes are effortless and engaging, often surreal,  with a flow that is sharp but soothing. “Soda” is a popping, taut house track that sounds like little else coming out of the urban genre or any other stable at the moment  and is completely sung in Banks highly distinctive swooping, and occasionally flat, contralto. It introduces the last act of the album and at this point some of the admittedly unexpected flow of the first half does suffer, due mainly to “Nude Beach a Go-Go”. Produced by Ariel Pink with an intense love or loathe quality, it sounds like a Beach Boys carol about the joys of nude beaches (‘Do you jingle when you dingle-dangle? Everybody does the bingle-bangle’) as imagined by the B 52s who already have a song called ‘Theme for A Nude Beach’. It is quite a lot to take in and is probably brilliant but is jarringly sandwiched between the album’s deepest house tracks, the alluring triptych of “Luxury”, “Miss Camaraderie” and “Miss Amor”. The decision to include older tracks here, including ones already featured in Banks 2012 “Fantasia” mixtape (and yes, “212” is also here), is the only misstep that hinders the irresistible freshness “Broke With Expensive Taste”. Not only are they the weaker tracks in the majority but they overload the track listing to sixteen and subsequently dilute the potential power of the lesser-heard and superior material. The real surprise here though is that Azealia Banks could not get this album released in the first place; this is the stuff that classic debut albums are made and is massive indictment of the state of the music industry in 2014. An unreserved success still, with “Broke with Expensive Taste”, Azealia Banks has ably demonstrated that the fight was most definitely worth it and has emerged from the other side as an important, original and necessary artist.

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.

TaigaThe objective Zola Jesus set herself for her fourth album was to face her own fears about how her love for pop music would eventually have to inform her work and what that might sound like. It is significant maybe that the oldest song here and the one that finally forced Jesus into the glare of potential mainstream and started the ball rolling, “Dangerous Days”, is also the purest pop song on “Taiga”. It has a brightness that contradicts its title, a brilliant pre chorus, an actual chorus which is only slightly less captivating and a sonic energy that’s slick and addictive and brings to mind the slightly more intricate and risky songs from Madonna’s mighty “Ray of Light” album.

The remainder of Taiga is not really a pop record although it frequently aspires to be one. Soundscapes are stripped almost entirely of any of the glitch that featured on 2011’s “Conatus” or the muddy density on her brilliant breakthrough album “Stridulum II” and replaced by something that is undeniably big and rich but simpler and more concentrated than before. A lot of the songs have beautiful, powerful intermissions; it’s just that too frequently the melodies are lacking the strength to push these tracks to required level, the one which you presume she had in her sights. Dean Hurley co-produces with Jesus and is an odd choice given his primary job as David Lynch’s new sound man, responsible for producing both of Lynch’s inconsistent and naive solo albums, and hardly a name synonymous with making music that can be sung along to. There are references here to the Ryan Tedder meets Sia school of Beyoncé power pop on the crashing but dull “Lawless” and the Rihanna-phrased “Long Way Down” but neither songs would pass the pop queen’s test of a tune that hijacks relentlessly.

The more successful tracks, and “Taiga’” is the definition of a front-loaded album, happen in the first half. “Dust” has a woozy, avant r’n’b doo-wop swing which is hypnotising and commercially-minded and “Go (Blank Sea)” like Petula Clark, and hundreds after her, successfully sees Jesus pining for the eternal pop never-never land of “Downtown”. “Hunger” has a thrusting and bewildering attack of beats, brass and synths -- at one point it’s hard to distinguish between the two- and a glacial, persistent string part and is exhilarating and sharply euphoric. “Ego” is a suspended hymn of considerable power where all of “Taiga”’s elements fall into place; a lucid and possessed vocal interrupted by sheets of brass that morph effortlessly into aching strings. The ongoing presence of strings and brass in particular bear out the theory that “Taiga” is more of a continuation of the stripped down “Versions” of last year then something you might hear in a bar. From here on in and midway through “Taiga”’s playing time the focus is lost, however, and gives way to repetition and mediocre tunes. “Hollow”, for example, attempts to salvage some drama and presence but is an oddly similar reimagining of the far superior “Hunger”.

Since the release of “Taiga”, Jesus has been remixed by the likes of The Juan Maclean and Diplo, a still relatively underground sophisticated pop-dance act, and the man rumoured to be producing the next Madonna album. Both artists have done commendable jobs in highlighting the hooks in what were admittedly already two of the album’s stronger songs (“Dangerous Days” and “Go”). Where their real strength lies, though, is in taking Jesus’ music to a demographic previously unaware of her and potentially initiating an interest to investigate further. This is where Jesus and “Taiga” stumble as the initial promise of something different and more accessible is never really delivered so new fans are unlikely to convert and current ones will be dissatisfied at the loss of the incredible depth and half-shaded mystery that permeated her earlier work. A good album still with some great songs but “Taiga” doesn’t quite provide the soundtrack that Zola Jesus commands and deserves, whether she continues to chase her big pop arrival remains to be seen but you feel that this isn’t it.

1000 Forms of FearHer association with mega-watt superstars including Beyonce, Rihanna and Katy Perry has meant that bipolar, acutely self-conscious and socially anxious singer-songwriter Sia has never been more famous or exposed. A cruel irony or maybe the plan all along? Four years after her last album, “1000 Forms of Fear, her sixth, with its shrewd marketing campaign and consistently, relentlessly mighty major-key choruses means that every hen party and XY and Z Factor hopeful will require a copy, but there’s always been much more to Sia than straightforward show-boating. Slowly veering towards coffee table Dido-isms over the course of her discography, the late noughties saw Sia Furler kick through the inoffensive AOR that always threatened to dominate, and collaborated with guitar and synth pop super-producer Greg Kurstin on 2010’s “We Are Born”. More Cyndi Lauper than Madonna (although a Madonna cover was included, Furler and Kurstin both displaying their collective pop chops) it was more forthright, raucous and brightly commercial than anything before, and still managed to incorporate the power ballads that she is better known for. It was also the album that pushed Sia into semi-retirement from performing, instead concentrating on writing material for other artists, an endeavour that has proved to be more successful than her own solo career.

This sound is both amplified and smoothed out on “1000 Forms of Fear”. “Chandelier” starts off sounding a lot like Rihanna and then it doesn’t sound like Rihanna at all. Once you’ve heard, or experienced, its staggeringly audacious chorus you’re unlikely to forget it and it’s hard to imagine anyone else, let alone Rihanna, sing it. Almost a novelty record, such is its persistent, cartoonish swoops and appropriately high drama; one of the most incredible things about this particular song, one that has already defined and led this era, is how much it is a Sia song and could be only be meant for her. Her vocal eccentricities, and they have always been there but never so pronounced, ensure that this ultimately melancholic song has a clear personality attached to it and could never have been interpreted as effectively by any of its potential owners. 

Big Girls Cry” and “Eye of The Needle” are both unsubtle belters that could soundtrack the next Bridget Jones movie and how you feel about this type of sentimental, rom-com ready music generally will determine how much you enjoy them but they are extremely well done here.  Apart from the terrifically loping and previously released “Elastic Heart” which is co-produced by Diplo, Furler has again paired up with Kurstin and he is at the helm sonically throughout. Less playful and rambunctious than “We Are Born”, there are still some lovely touches here such as the shredded vocals on the chorus of the manically deranged “Free the Animal” which provides some respite from the reliance on a blared super-hook. The seductive, sawing, “Fair Game” shocks with a sudden, sickly , close-up xylophone solo competing with Sia’s distant moans, and an explosive final third, while “Hostage” gallops along with guitars and a retro Motown energy.

Fire Meet Gasoline”, another power ballad and probably the crudest here, highlights the problem of Sia’s omnipresence within the current pop framework. It is without question a song which could be a big hit, it sounds like a million-selling Sia record but one which is already recorded by someone other than her. It sounds a lot like “Diamonds” or “Pretty Hurts”, r’n’b mid-tempos sung by two of the world’s most popular and famous female singers but it doesn’t sound like a record that Sia would ever sing. The same goes for the over-long, over-wrought and noisy album closer “Dressed in Black”. Compare these to the hissing and crackling psychodrama of “Cellophane” (‘Can’t you see I’m wrapped in cellophane, watch the blood pump through my veins, electricity floods my brain, can’t hide the pain’), a rare exercise in restraint here and one of the album’s best songs and the equally macabre, bell-flecked “Straight for the Knife” and it’s clear that some songs are closer to the singer’s own world and personal experiences than others and these are the most successful within this context.

Sia is at the very top of her game with “1000 Forms of Fear”, an album which can admittedly fatigue when played from end to end but when individual songs, or the extremely strong middle section, are played in isolation this is indeed some of the most warming but persistently dark and potent music that Sia has both written and performed. The problem is that we can now clearly see, understand and start to deconstruct her formula, within these twelve songs her technique is laid out bare for all to see. The consistent use of metaphors and building a lyrical theme around them rather than the metaphor fitting the songs’ content (nine out of the twelve titles -- look at them!) and lyrics which are straightforward and defy any kind of confusion or mis-reading, her traditional use of verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus writing and key changes which are predictable but wholly satisfactory; there is no deviation from this pattern. Pop’s most reclusive queen may have her back to the audience but she isn’t the reluctant star she proclaims and “1000 Forms of Fear”is her loudest cry for self-recognition so far and  will undoubtedly be her must successful. Good thing too as it seems Sia has finally become tired of standing in the shadows.

Blank ProjectI have a confession. It would be unreasonable and creatively and artistically crippling for her, but I want Neneh Cherry to make another “Buffalo Stance” and one more “Manchild” whilst she’s at it. These two songs, twenty five years old and counting, and her most famous along with Youssou N’Dour’s “Seven Seconds”, are as fantastic examples of perfect r’n’b, hip-hop pop as you will ever hear. Weird, joyous, melancholic and just gloriously sing-along tracks they instantly established Cherry as an artist that represented the period so completely that she has never been forgotten and as a female performer who embodied supreme self- possession and control over her image and her music. But therein of course lies a real truth in my confession and that it is built on nostalgia, sentimentality probably, and an opportunity to recapture something that probably can’t be and shouldn’t be. And Neneh Cherry has never been an artist to wallow or revisit, not for she the desperate and depressing revival tours and reality TV features so I wonder, when will my one pop wish ever come true?

2012’s “The Cherry Thing” was the last full length album to feature Cherry’s vocals on every track. It was a relatively specialist jazz album, wild and uninhibited but a sideline nonetheless. This, only her fourth album proper, has some of the residue of the itchy, structure-punishing, live feel of that last outing but where that album felt like an ensemble piece, which is what it was, this is all her; front, back and centre. “Blank Project”, a misleading title given its sharp focus, is very much about Neneh Cherry and her life now and the roles that she plays out, old and new. To get back to my confessional wish, there is not another “Buffalo Stance” here; of course there isn’t. There is however, amongst the avant-garde noises and sometimes bare sound stages, some bold and invigorating pop song structures. Surprisingly they are not to be found in the ponderous and strangely characterless duet with Cherry’s super groupie and number one fan Robyn on “Out of the Black” but in a trio of songs that appear in the album’s first half.

Following the reflective and protective “Across The Water”, a gentle and partly-rapped opener set to African percussion and stark patted drums, the title track “Blank Project” establishes Kieran (aka Four Tet) Heden’s production (he’s responsible for the whole album) style and sonic choices. Live drums, drum machines, guitars, pinging jangling ear-flinching percussion and a low frequency, vibrating and rubbery electronic bass that shares equal billing with only Cherry herself for persistence and aggravated attitude.  Along with “Blank Project”, “Naked” and “Weightless” detail addictive/compulsive relationships, making peace with a world and culture that resists being grounded in anything other than the present and feelings of being overwhelmed by the pressure to carry on ‘as normal’.

‘Strip me naked and put me down right

Strips me naked, my wings need to blast off

Life is going faster, like a bus it runs me over

No kind of beacon, fill me up and make me whole now’

All of these songs have a rambunctious punk energy which link in with Cherry’s earlier time with Rip, Rig and Panic but also, like her best work, they have fantastic melodies and exuberant, big choruses. “Weightless” in particular has a massive charge swinging around a chorus that lists bad dancing, over-spending, hasty decisions and a desire for some kind of spiritual balance. Any of these songs could be performed by artists that are half the age of Cherry and who represent the more interesting end of r’n’b and dance hybrids such as Angel Haze, MIA, Sky Ferreira and even Lorde, which is testament not only to the influence that Cherry has had on modern music but also her refusal to conform to perceived notions of appropriateness.

Spit Three Times”, a mid-tempo track that recalls Cherry’s dalliance with trip-hop around the mid 90’s, and, in particular the track ‘Feel It’, tackles depression but is not in itself a depressing track. Cherry’s warm and clear vocal also sounds suspicious of the superstitions that she thinks may help her dark mood at bay.

‘Monkeys on my back

Holding me down

Black dogs in the corner

Looking up at me

But you’re like an old friend or an enemy; holding me down’

Dossier”, a definite standout track, has a truly sinister build and bipolar mood but ends up revealing nothing scarier than domesticity although maybe this is Cherry’s biggest fear? The one true ballad “422” sees Cherry joining her native Swedes with a glacial, melancholic electronica reminiscent of The Knife and the closing track “Everything”, which may be overlong at nearly eight minutes, is the most experimental track here calling to mind Yoko Ono, albeit at her most subdued. All of it though hanging together beautifully with a graceful and consistent temperament.

Neneh Cherry has always been more of a commentator than a player. Her views have come from her own perspective and experiences as a woman, a woman of colour, a hip-hop star, a pop star, a parent and a reluctant participant of the music industry. To use an overused and often incorrectly-applied phrase she is what you might call authentic. “Blank Project” feels like a concentrated version of Cherry in that she is so present throughout and her strength and vulnerability heightened. It’s as if you’ve spent the morning with her sharing pots of coffee whilst trying to disentangle problems and laughing hysterically at pretty much nothing together, and she’s just left. She’s still live in your head but she’s no longer present, such is the personal nature and intensity of these songs. I won’t deny that I would love to hear her produced by Pharrell or the new Beyonce whizz kid Boots just to hear what they would come up with; I think it would be amazing. But that’s not to belittle or underestimate the quality of this record. Neneh Cherry is back and her art and soul informs this project, blank only for you to fill the role of listener and to share the very human experiences expressed honestly, courageously, and often thrillingly throughout.

Days are GoneHaim are in a minority of artists who also form part of the majority where influences from chart music over the last thirty years can be heard clod-hopping all over their work but who are also pushing forward musically, and sound strikingly different from their current, retro-obsessed contemporaries. The three twenty-something sisters from LA write their own material and play their instruments, they aren’t an electronic act and neither do they aspire to be urban makeover superstars. But there are some fascinating deep and dark synths here and an R’n’B spirit is shadowing almost every song to the point where it does, albeit briefly, finally jump into the driving seat. “Tango in The Night”-era Fleetwood Mac, Prince, Sheryl Crow, The Police and eighties soft rock are the most dominant and easily-spotted influences for the Haim sisters debut though. Time and again you’ll hear these mentioned in reference to the group but importantly at the core of “Days Are Gone”, is a sound that is all theirs.

The first third of the album is home to all four heavily-promoted singles and with the possible exception of the worryingly Shania Twain tendencies of the overly-perky “The Wire” (not forgetting the Eagles “Heartache Tonight” drum intro – Ed), all still sound spring fresh, funky and with plenty of space for instruments and vocals to stretch out and sparkle. “If I Could Change your Mind” has a fidgety, skipping melody line which brings to mind freestyle electro pop from eighties artists like Cover Girls and Lisa Lisa, and the title track, a surprising co-write with UK new-house artist Jessie Ware, has plenty of tension and bustles along with an urgent agenda and rhythm.

It’s on the futuristic R’n’B of the oddly titled “My Song 5” where the band really surprise. If this were the lead single from Beyonce’s near-mythical, possibly forthcoming album or even more excitingly, another attempt at a comeback from Missy Elliott then either would be rightly lauded. Three seconds of dirgy, descending buzz bass and then massive slow pounding drums introduce vocals which mimic Wendy and Lisa doing their Purple Rain residence; dead eyed and dangerous, pitch black promising ‘honey I’m not your honey pie’. A dizzy and delirious middle eight where tight angelic harmonies flip forward and then just disappear and it’s one of the one of the most exciting and weird four minutes you’ll have experienced since the first time you heard “Get Ur Freak On”.

Continuing with the genuinely thrilling and experimental final third of “Days Are Gone” where the sound that we’d already heard from the band is both intensified and stripped away, “Go Slow” is a gorgeous and gently skulking “True Colours” but with all of the sonic fuzz wiped away. “Let Me Go” is the angriest sounding moment here, building from the sixties girl group chants in the dark into a tribal thud and clanking, dubby outro and “Running If you Call my Name” closes the album in a traditional way as a down-tempo mass of drums, guitars and those beautiful harmonies.

“Days Are Gone”, maybe more than anything else, is very welcome at this point in pop culture. Pop music is more female-driven and dominated than ever before; Gaga is eaten by Lana is eaten by Taylor is eaten by Miley. It happens so quickly and all have their place and merit but none sound like Haim. Image, although clearly very much considered, seems less of an issue to the group than the music itself, you can listen to the songs here and you don’t necessarily feel hijacked by a carefully constructed persona and brand as you may do when listening to “Born This Way” or “Video Games” say. This is a charismatic and superior release, real musical talent and love of performing that doesn’t sound cynical or short-sighted. Probably most satisfying of all, you can almost guarantee that this really is only the beginning for Haim and the best is still to come.

Out now.

Product DetailsI have a confession to make, I only own one Antony and the Johnsons album, “I Am A Bird Now”, and I’m sure that it’s the same one most people bought when he won the  Mercury Music Price in 2005. I’ve never really warmed to it; I admire it and acknowledge Antony’s talent but it’s been gathering dust next to Kate Bush’s “Arial” album (sorry Bush fanatics, I love her as much as you do but miss the pre 10 minute song cycle days).

My favourite Antony performance is probably his guest performance on Hercules and Love Affair’s   homage to late seventies, organic disco “Blind”. It was marvellous to hear that voice soar and be less reined in by more something more mainstream and accessible. For me there is a bagginess and heaviness in Antony’s work, musically and melodically, that I find tars everything with a very samey brush that leaves me feeling hung over. This album though, which reads like a greatest hits of tracks taken from Antony’s first 4 albums and mainly from his third album “The Crying Light”, succeeds in erasing that sonic fog.

Most of these songs here are transformed and oddly given it’s a live album (“Cut The World” being the only new studio track, quite brilliant with a genuinely shocking video) everything is more concentrated, bright and tight and beautiful; in this context Antony, accompanied by the faultless Danish National Chamber Orchestra, and his songs translate so clearly. “Another World” is a perfect example of a good song that was somewhat lost on “The Crying Light” album but  here it is reinvigorated and  undercut by an amazing tension provided by a note established by the orchestra within the new, 1 minute introduction and which is held until the 3 minute plus mark before it subtly changes key. I couldn’t figure out what exactly they had done to change the mood as it’s such a tiny adjustment but works marvellously at making a song about the world coming to an end appropriately unsettling.

Cripple and the Starfish” has always been an amazing song that sounds as though it were written for a David Lynch musical (‘I am very happy so please hit me’) and in its original setting was just strings and piano which it is here also but magnified by a hundred so that it’s become completely magical and otherworldly and is maybe the most beautiful performance from Antony on an album of many. Aside from the fact they are the shortest tracks, “Epilepsy is Dancing” and “Another World” in particular become concise, opaque and delightfully melodic lullabies that highlight Antony’s solid song writing skills and incredible booming and by turns soothing vocals. “I Fell I Love with a Dead Boy” now stabs your heart with a James Bond introduction with Antony asking ‘are you a boy or a girl? over and over and the relevance isn’t missed. It has a new danger and will break your heart in a way that the original doesn’t.

I still don’t like the morose when it should be uplifting “You Are My Sister”, surprisingly the only song from “I Am A Bird Now”, and the spoken monologue “Future Feminism” is lovely and captures the ethos of Antony and his vision but doesn’t need to be heard more than once or twice (I would have loved one more track, maybe one his brilliant cover versions of either Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” or Julee Cruise’s “Mysteries of Love”?) but apart from that this an incredible representation of Antony’s work to date and for me at least, as someone who has always struggled with this art up until now, a revelation.