Meanwhile“Meanwhile” -- Part Time Heroes

Whilst this is completely new to me and probably the best album I’ve heard in 2014, it actually got released back in 2008 but pretty much passed everyone by. I first heard the track “Shadowlands” on Jamie Cullum’s Jazz show that airs on Radio 2; my ears pricked up immediately and I instantly sought out the album, which is a gem, not a duff track on it. They use various vocalists and it certainly has a contemporary jazzy feel to it but I also hear echoes of Terry Callier and lots of other stuff going on. It’s destined to be one of those lost classics, certainly worth investigating for sure.

Carleen_AndersonCarleen Anderson at Ronnie Scott’s

I didn’t get to as many gigs as I would have liked to this year due to Stone Foundation’s hectic schedule throughout 2014. The one that really stood out head & shoulders above everything else I saw this year was Carleen Anderson’s performance at Ronnie Scott’s at the start of the year. She is (still) such an underrated talent with an exceptional vocal range, obviously we (Stone foundation) were very fortunate to have Carleen grace our last album where she contributed an amazing vocal to one of our songs called “When You’re in My World“. She is an amazing songwriter and arranger too; her new material is just outstanding, as good as anything she has ever written and I really hope it sees the light of day sometime soon. It was an inspiring evening and one that will stay with me.

Eminent Hipsters“Eminent Hipsters” -- Donald Fagen

I’ve been reading a lot this year, much more so than usual, I have no idea why, perhaps I have been looking for inspiration to kick start my own scribblings again; I’m 12 chapters in to my first book but kind of stalled once again really due to other commitments but I hope to pick up the trail again come the new year and get it finished. This book by Steely Dan main man Donald Fagen was a real treat, his words danced from the pages. It covers all the cool hipster characters that influenced his own inevitable style, it also covers his late college years in New York where he first met Walter Becker his co-founder and musical partner in Steely Dan. It’s a very funny book too, especially in the latter chapters when documenting his time on tour recently with Boz Scaggs & Michael Mcdonald. It brings to life the up’s and down of the anxieties and indignities of life on the road in the most brilliantly humorous way.

Ana_MatronicRadio DJs

This year I rediscovered the joys of the radio. A couple of programmes in particular really inspired me. Ana Matronic’s Disco show that aired on Friday nights for six weeks on Radio 2 was a real winner; she didn’t so much play obvious disco musak in the sense of the naff, cliched sound you would imagine but focussed on the real grooves of that period such as the influential Salsoul sound and some of the orchestral arrangements that people like Barry White popularized with Love Unlimited and also the wonderful world of Gamble & Huff and that whole Philly thing. It introduced me to a lot of new stuff that I hadn’t heard previously like Francine McGee’s “Delirium”; I also ended up buying the whole works, a box set of Philly stuff. Don Letts’ show on 6 Music has also turned me on to a lot of new music too; only last night I heard something by Jaga Jazzist called “Made for Radio” that had my attention from the off. I think it’s great to know that there is still some really thoughtful radio still being aired and made; long may it continue. It’s how I first got inspired, by listening to Peel on a transistor in my bedroom when I should have been doing my homework; I guess in many ways I was………

No Deal“Space is the Place” -- Yusef Lateef / Melanie De Biasio “No Deal”

I’ve been gravitating towards a more jazzy sound over the past couple of years. I’ve kind of not lost interest but put Guitar / Rock music on the back burner for a while; it’s not what I want to inform me when it comes to my own writing at the moment. I’m more pre occupied with space in arrangements; this Yusef Lateef track kind of personifies that mind set. I’ve heard a lot of great new music too this year but mainly in a pop vein like the Jessie Ware album & that Jungle single “Busy Earnin'” which I really liked. Also one of my favourite new albums and discoveries of this year has been the Melanie De Biasio album “No Deal…”; she is a classically trained flautist from Belgium who has a tremendous voice too. It’s a great record and one that also exemplifies my love of space in the music. It’s not in a hurry to impress; it creeps up on you. In saying all of this I must admit that I was impressed with Ryan Adams’ spectacular return to form on his last (self-titled) LP; the production and sound of it is incredible. It sounds like “Rumours” which is a tough task to pull off.

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.

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.

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.