Mollie TitleWell, first gig of 2015 and it’s my first visit to The Hospital Club near Covent Garden to see Mollie Marriott play an acoustic set at ‘Vin’s Night In’. The former St Paul’s Hospital has an unassuming exterior on Endell Street which opens into an Aladdin’s Cave of bars, television and recording studios, an art gallery, a restaurant and a live music space, so guess where we’re heading (after the bar)? The Oak Room is a cosy 125-capacity space with a nice sound system and, more importantly, a good sound engineer. Musically, ‘Vin’s Night In’ is about giving a break to up-and-coming or undiscovered talent and we’re not about to argue with that.

So, first up musically was Louis Dunford and the impact was immediate. His highly distinctive deadpan vocal delivery works perfectly as a vehicle for his songs of adolescence and teenage years in London in the Lily Allen era mid-noughties. The lyrics are well-crafted and witty, and feel like a darker, grittier version of “Alright, Still”. It’s only a short set, but the audience love “When We Were Hooligans”, Saturday Night/Sunday Mourning” and “London’s Requiem”. Let’s hope his mum forgave him for “When We Were Hooligans”. Chaz Thorogood was next up, turning in an interesting set which relied on his loop pedal a little bit too much for my liking, but which finished on a spacy, psychedelic cover of “Toxic” with not even a hint of that annoyingly catchy hook; fair play to him for that.

After a quick interval and a one-song cameo appearance (sounding great without the benefit of a soundcheck) from singer-songwriter Bea Munro, it was time for Mollie Marriott.

It’s hard to believe that Mollie Marriott’s been involved in the music business for nearly twenty years now. She started at the age of twelve with her girl band D2M and has been involved in music ever since, racking up a very impressive list of backing vocal credits. After hearing her with the Jim Stapley Band, I’ve been looking out for a solo gig and this was it. Mollie was joined by Jim Stapley band members Johnson Jay Medwik-Daley (for the entire set) and Izzy Chase-Phillmore (for most of the set); you’d be surprised at how big one guitar and three voices can sound. Even within the limits of a short acoustic set which included the two singles “Ship of Fools” (a World Party cover) and “Transformer” (co-written with Judie Tzuke and Graham Kearns) and a cover of Alanis Morissette’s “Mary Jane”, Mollie displayed a very impressive dynamic range and the ability to engage effortlessly with the audience.

What sets Mollie Marriott apart from the thousands of performers who can sing well is that she has a lot more than the powerful pure pop voice of “Transformer”; she can push it to the limit to bring out the ragged emotional edges that work so well with blues and soul songs. As a singer, she’s the real deal and it’s looking like she can write as well. This should be a big year for Mollie, with a new album due out in 2015; let’s hope it gives her the breakthrough her talent deserves.

You can see Mollie playing with her band at The Half Moon in Putney on Monday 23 February.

Angel HazeAngel Haze is an exciting prospect. The 22 year old rapper and sometimes singer from Detroit’s flow is like an exhilarating and effortless amphetamine hit; you hear her, you sit up and you ask ‘who?’ Her story is one of cult religions, abuse and an exploration of her sexuality and sexual orientation and how all of these things have resolutely not made her into a victim. After several mix tapes it was 2012’s unexpectedly diverse and brilliant “Reservation” and her covers EP “Classick”, both exploring all of these experiences, that guaranteed she could no longer go unheard. Her biggest hit to date, the skeletal and booming “New York” has now become a club essential and a classic in itself. So why exactly does “Dirty Gold”, Angel Haze’s first official album release sound like such a step backwards?

It may take a while to pull your already-established fan base along with you, but the decision to move from the relatively underground to the mainstream is not necessarily bad. It’s apparent after hearing  the opening track, the scene-setting “Sing About Me” that Angel Haze wants to make it big as a crossover act; not as a rap artist or a hip-hop artist but as a pop star. Listening to recent interviews and the snippets of dialogue contained through “Dirty Gold” this indeed would appear to be Haze’s choice. Beginning with a sung chorus, shimmering synths and a repetitive R2D2 whistle, “Sing About Me”, is uplifting and pleasant but completely derivative r’n’b pop. With sing-song rapped verses, Haze encourages us to celebrate her success and this formula of sung chorus and rapped verse is repeated almost throughout the entirety of the tracks on “Dirty Gold”. On the third song, “A Tribe Called Red”, a trapped-out and dub-stepped rhythm supports Haze’s rap spit efficiently enough but then  is completely compromised  and crushed by the excruciatingly heavy-handed (sung) chorus telling the listener  ‘Don’t give up…turn it around’. It already sounds dated; the EDM ticks, the histrionics and the self-empowering sentiment.

As if any further confirmation were required, the presence of omnipresent songwriter and pop star in her right, Sia, both singing and writing on “Battle Cry” (the hands in the air chorus actually states ‘lift your hands towards the sky’) and with production by equally in-demand Greg Kurstin (Kylie, Britney and Lily Allen), there is no doubt that Haze is aiming stadium big. But even with such dependable collaborators the overall sound of this is overwrought and clichéd, particularly in the slower and more ‘serious’ second half. The most obvious comparison is that of Nicki Minaj who, like Haze, released early mix tapes and through thunder-stealing features proved herself as a gloriously eccentric, genuinely witty and charismatic performer and then her debut “Pink Friday” appeared and  it was sonically safe, overly sentimental and, worst of all, dull. The Minaj that was initially promised was not the Minaj delivered and the Angel Haze that we expected has similarly been mislaid somewhere in transit.

There are moments of “Dirty Gold” that do work well within this new format. The first single taken from the album, the Markus Dravs-produced (Bjork, Arcade Fire and Coldplay, amongst others) “Echelon (It’s My Way)” sounds fresh and relevant. It has the best chorus on “Dirty Gold” by some distance and its trap styling and deceptively shallow subject matter (fashion, basically) are pretty perfunctory --  it’s pretty much the second instalment to ASAP Rocky’s “Fashion Killa” – but on an album that is looking for instant pop gratification and perfect hooks this does the trick very well. “Deep Sea Diver” has a tight groove and throbs and rattles like prime time Missy Elliott and “White Lilies/White Lies” has breadth and an epic feel that moves away from the more predictable structures found here with the spaghetti western-type loop and long instrumental fadeout adding atmosphere.

It’s maybe important to point out that the deluxe version of this album, and I am loath to review these ‘versions’, which are essentially just marketing tools and undoubtedly cynical, contains four of the most compelling, sonically-challenging and vibrant tracks contained under the “Dirty Gold” banner.  Admittedly one of these is the previously-released “New York”, but listen to the baroque and oddly beautiful “Rose-Tinted Suicide” and marvel at what could (should) have been achieved. The decision to still include these tracks, albeit in this unabridged version of the album, confirms that the young star’s talent is still very much intact. It might be of course that Angel Haze herself wants to distance herself from these more nuanced and disturbing tracks but one can only hope that she changes her mind and finds again the bright light that’s hidden beneath the dirt here, the one that attracted us to her in the first place. The three-star rating is based on the Deluxe Edition.

Body MusicAlunaGeorge have already achieved an incredible amount in a very short space of a time. It’s less than a year since their first official single, the haunting and  sonically ever shifting “Your Drums, Your Love” (also the best thing here) and London-based Aluna Francis (vocals) and George Reid (production) have already created a ‘sound’  that is instantly identifiable as theirs. In that respect they are more on a par with the R’n’B super producers of the late nineties/early noughties who were less successful with their own projects (see in particular the early solo albums of Timbaland and Pharrell Williams with N.E.R.D.) but had a sound that was undeniably theirs and hugely desirable to other artists, mainly because it sold by the cartload and it also provided some cool when it was urgently required (Britney, Justin and any other Mouseketeer I may have missed out). It’s the other way around with AlunaGeorge and their success is with their own band rather than work with other artists, at least for now ; unsurprisingly the remix requests already appear to be coming in thick and fast (listen to their work with US hipster idols Dirty Projectors on “The Socialites”).

The AlunaGeorge sound is maybe best described as fluid and ‘watery’ (even lyrically ‘I’m treading water for your’ on “Your Drums”, “Diver”), adjectives like shimmering, skimming and plopping immediately come to mind and this is combined with a harder, more disjointed sound of pitched cut-ups of Francis’ voice or an isolated synth line with the genre firmly established as r’n’b and highly polished, late nineties British two-step and garage. In addition to this, with the most successful example being the fantastically snarling “Attracting Flies”,  there are out and out pop songs where Aluna sounds like an urban Lily Allen (Allen not actually being urban, but don’t tell her that). Aluna Francis’ voice is what’s best described as youthful. She can at times bring to mind a slinky Aaliyah, see in particular the excellent slowie “Friends To Lovers” which is the most mid-90’s indebted  American R’n’B track here ( I won’t mention the Montell Jordan cover version of “This is How We Do It”, quality control alert!), but on the poppier tracks it’s high-pitched and pushy. It’s not a live voice necessarily but it’s a very engaging and charismatic studio one.

Tracks like “Diver”, one of the half-dozen tracks heard prior to the album’s release, use the cut-up, sped-up and disconcerting vocal effects to create an additional hook and mood (their best tracks are all about creating a mood) that is equal to the strong melodies already contained within the song. This is undoubtedly their strength but is also where “Body Music” on occasion sags with the misuse of this formula. If the song-writing fails, as it does on occasion, then it seems the more manic and overwhelming these effects become as if to make up for, or distract from, the lack of a conventional tune. A case in point being the whizzing, stutter splutter of “Best Be Believing” which struggles in vain to locate a noticeable chorus and the lethargic but intermittently hyper title track. “You Know You Like It”, the oldest song here, pumps and throttles away for four minutes, however, and is an astounding track that production-wise you would have been pushed to find in the UK even five years ago. This is changing now of course with the likes of Rudimental and Disclosure (complete with a high profile feature from AlunaGeorge) also releasing high quality but uneven, bass and garage debut albums this year but they can’t yet compete with AlunaGeorge’s sonic niche.

There’s no doubt that half of this album is brilliant and it’s most certainly the first half. The concern for AlunaGeorge will be where to go now with their sound. The weaker tracks here are the newer ones, and if like me you’re listening to the deluxe version of “Body Music” which has 19 songs, no remixes, you will be familiar with the concept of repetition of a successful formula to the point where you’ve nodded off. There is talent here and originality, not easy things to come by at any period in contemporary music regardless of what some may tell you. If AlunaGeorge can continue to make music that keeps them interested, music they would listen to, then this is a duo could become one of the most influential and important acts the UK R’n’B scene has experienced for a long time, in the meantime this will do nicely.