After AllBillie Ray Martin has been very busy of late and finally the fruits of her musical labour are beginning to materialise. A forthcoming duet with Hercules and Love Affair resident Aerea Negrot and a new Jon Tiven-produced country and soul album are pencilled in for some time later this year as well as a re-release of her back catalogue including, perhaps, the mythical follow-up to 1990’s ‘Electribal Memories’. Preceding all of these though, is this intriguing and deeply satisfying cover version of an early seventies David Bowie album-track, “After All”.

A quintessential Billie Ray Martin track in many ways, this new single does hark back to a sound that can be equated to Martin’s old band Electribe 101. A constantly evolving and innovative artist, it is unusual to hear the star reference her own sound in this way and that’s not to say that this is in any way a nostalgic or indulgent recording; it is in fact one of her most vibrant and possessed for some time. Haunting and lusty vocals that are very high in the mix and sound as though they are being whispered directly into your ear, pitched backing vocals that sound likes crazed infants (and true to Bowie’s original in that respect) all set to a throbbing bass-line that was first established in the late eighties. It’s a little freaky and you can dance to it, a perfect combination and Martin has never sounded better – a truly virtuoso performer.

With remixes by Miijk Van Dijk and Caesar Gergess (Van Dijk gets my vote with its hyperactive disco cowbell), there is something to please everyone here. However the original can’t be beaten and this is much more than just a stop gap between other releases. One of the best things I’ve heard this year, Billie Ray Martin continues to shine.

As a special treat, here’s a link to the video as well:

Enjoy.

The Feast of the Broken HeartHercules and Love Affair have, on their third album, confirmed that their own intense love affair with dance music made during the various halcyon years of its many important manifestations is ongoing and as slavish and cult-like as ever. Whilst their 2008 debut album put Anthony of the Johnsons at its centre as the wounded but forever stoic and ultimate Disco Queen and its follow up, 2011’s “Blue Songs” flirted with stranger, European disco and electronic music of the late seventies and early eighties “The Feast of the Broken Heart” is an all-out, no exceptions and no-holds-barred house music rewrite. Trax Records, bitch house, dominant, soulful vocals and luxurious and uplifting melodies are the setting here and, unlike previous releases from the collective, the fever never resolves itself with a ballad. BPM are set at an almost constant 126 and it is relentless in its intention. The sadness and melancholia which is an intrinsic element of House and Disco music’s DNA has translated to Hercules and Love Affair’s music; it was always there from the beginning and it is what helps sets this band apart from other similar but less knowing and respectful acts. Importantly, the band don’t do irony or kitsch, they are interested only in the heart and blood of dance music-and having the most amazing night of your life, again and again.

Andy Butler represents dance music made mainly but not exclusively by openly gay and transgender artists. It feels synonymous with a post-aids New York but is considerably more wide-reaching than this, more than anything though it is resolutely and absolutely ‘queer’. Alternative and maintaining free and radical thinking and challenging the norms of today’s gay culture, the list of Butler’s vocal contributors has always supported this. The biggest name here is singer-songwriter du jour John Grant, an inspired and fascinating choice. Alongside him are established soul singer Krystle Warren, trans star Rouge Mary and Berlin based vocalist Gustaph. Grant’s contributions here are not a million miles from those featured on his ground-breaking and celebrated excursion in techno and electronic-folk album from last year, “Pale Green Ghosts”. As might be expected the arrangements here are more florid but detail is everything particularly with the incredible “I Try to Talk to You” which deals with an issue that also played a pivotal part in “Pale Green Ghosts”, that of Grant’s HIV status. Set against distinct hi-hats , churning beats, strings and synth ‘whoosh’ stabs which have been adopted by everyone from Lisa Lisa to the Pet Shop Boys (past and present) it almost, but not quite, tips into handbag house that prevailed briefly in the mid-nineties.  A dancing and tinkling, emotional piano refrain props up Grant’s mournful longing ‘I would give you anything to take away your pain’. 

‘Are you talking to me? My name isn’t girl. Nor is ‘hey look at me, c’mon baby, give us a twirl’….I’ve come too far from the girl I was taught to be for you to make a bitch out of me’; on “My Offence” Krystle Warren’s vocals are assertive and warm and very much at home on this self-empowerment statement, punctuated by a sharp disco whistle note; this is neither preachy nor sentimental, it’s the album’s highlight. “That’s Not Me” featuring Gustaph is a twitchy and tense minimal house workout and “5:43 To Freedom” harks back to the bitch tracks of early Junior Vasquez and Larry Tee --  ‘is that boy of a girl? A communist?  Probably a speed freak. Some sort of intellectual -- or a muscle-queen? Just a whore’.  “Do You Feel the Same?” builds on the bliss house of The Beloved and Electribe 101 and the “The Light” sees Krystle Warren’s vocals glisten and soothe over Basement Boys (Ultra Nate, Crystal Waters) keyboards, making good use of a determined answer-machine bleep and electric-guitar samples.  

Although not as experimental as previous releases which have played with language, tempos and sub-cultures of dance music, “The Feast of the Broken Heart” is Hercules and Love Affair’s most optimistic, euphoric and consistently engaging album to date. There is enough lyrical weight and personality to prevent this from becoming as one note as it could have been if left in the wrong hands, although this would still play gloriously as a continuous DJ set, which is no criticism. Dance artists have time and again failed when they have diverted from their own template, tried to incorporate styles that can’t yet master but Andy Butler doesn’t even attempt that here. A record to dance to then, from a start to finish non-stop movement and joy which is never dumb or repetitive. “The Feast of the Broken Heart” is a celebration of dance floor families, love and survival.

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 DetailsIndependent avant r’n’b artist Dawn Richard released an incredible EP last year, “Armor On”, which was actually an album, and has now released her first album which should have been an EP. With 16 tracks and over an hour’s playing time something has been lost along the way after the excitement of “Armor On” and her intriguing and original way of subverting the r’n’b genre, given its tired and wayward state following the golden years of the mid nineties. That’s not to say this a bad record, far from it, it’s just that I was expecting so much; “Goldenheart” makes a very good try but in the final analysis falls a little short of the mark.

The first third of Dawn Richard’s debut is the part I have the most trouble with, which is surprising considering it’s almost the most experimental segment, sonically at least. Richard and her producers have a default setting musically; a totally electronic, somewhat ambient, sometimes new-agey, beat-heavy soundscape with recurring (6 tracks) rapid hand claps panning from one side to the other, glassy and chiming sound effects, layered synths and multi-tracked harmonies. It’s a cold, crowded mix but ultimately (weirdly) thin and soulless with the disconcerting end result of certain songs sounding as though the backing track used could be interchangeable and almost irrelevant, such is the similarity between them. It feels as though tracks such as “Gleaux” (pronounced Glow) and “Riot” have been made precisely to demonstrate to Richard’s musical persona and aesthetic but instead end up sounding unfinished and experimental for the sake of it.

Pretty Wicked Things”, the sixth track, will make you sit up. Richard fans will already know this track as it was the first single from “Goldenheart” and from the eerie, desolate opening through to the unexpected collision of gentle trance pads, vocal effects exploding and a hefty dubstep drop, she has managed to produce a song with real tension and originality sounding nothing like Calvin Harris, Guetta, Skrillex or any of the other big name producers all of whom have gone from the dance genre to that of r’n’b, for better or worse. It’s an impressive achievement and an example of how I expected this album to sound; vocally Richards is a world apart from her contemporaries.

Warfaire” marks a change in mood musically and the second half of “Goldenheart” is a far stronger and more engaging, warm listen. “Warfaire” is a ballad that has one of the strongest melodies that we’ve heard thus far, it is simple both musically and vocally, impassioned and, (an overused word, but it’s appropriate here) ‘real’.  I believed the sentiment based on Richard’s brilliant, affecting performance. And, this is the surprising thing, the tracks that ditch the glitch and the complicated time signatures and honour the more traditional r’n’b/soul blueprint are without question the most cohesive and effective. Punning power ballad “Break of Dawn” sounds like a Diane Warren song that Beyonce would be happy to take to number 1 and, along with the one-off 3 minute electro pop perfection of “In Your Eyes”, is the best song here.  “Tug of War” is a persistent, soulful mid-tempo roller and could have featured on Electribe 101’s 1990 album “Electribal Memories” and current single, again mid-tempo, “86” is more than a little indebted sonically to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” but is very much its own odd, unclassifiable creation that expands in power with each listen. The most audacious song though is the title track, Richard’s sumptuous harmonies echoing over Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’, it’s straightforward and maybe a little stand-offish but you have to admire her nerve for even attempting it.

All in all “Goldenheart” is clearly a  labour of love which could have been an exceptional debut but ends up being a very good one, due mainly to its unwieldy track listing and running time and a pandering to a style which may not be the one that best suits Dawn Richard’s undeniable talent. This album is apparently the first album of three and I very much look forward to the next instalment from this curious, ambitious and intelligent artist.