I’ve listened to a lot of new albums this year and a huge chunk of those have been very good indeed. I’ve reviewed a lot of Americana/country/roots albums, but there’s been thrash metal, blues, London indie, British folk, jazz instrumental, European electronic pop and one or two that defied classification. Here, in absolutely no order are my five favourite albums of this year; theses the ones that stayed with me, refusing to be replaced by new kids on the block. I’m including links to them where possible so that you don’t have to trust me, just click and listen for yourself.
“Shaky Path to Arcadia” – Phil Burdett Group
Phil Burdett released two albums almost simultaneously at the beginning of the year, leaving me with a really difficult choice about which to include (not the only example of that dilemma this year) and I think it’s “Shaky Path to Arcadia” by a hairsbreadth. It’s a great example of Phil’s work pulling together lyrical references from the American popular songbook, Dada,travel across the American continent, and Basildon (where Phil grew up and was in a band with a pre-Depeche Mode Martin Gore). Match up a breathtaking range of references with pure poetry and some lovely ensemble playing from Southend’s finest and you have an album that’s a thing of rare beauty. I really can’t understand why the world has never discovered this singer/songwriter/poet/renaissance man. Maybe this year. No Spotify link for this, but check out the first album in the trilogy “Dunfearing and the West Country High”
“Six on the Out”- The Westies
The Westies is Michael McDermott’s band project, running parallel with his solo work as Michael McDermott. In 2016, within the space of a few weeks, he released this Westies album, followed by the “Willow Springs” solo set (which could easily have made this list). “Six on the Out” is mainly the darker side of his past; the twilight zone inhabited by losers, petty criminals, addicts and misfits. It’s a dark and almost unrelenting journey through the things that did happen and the things that could have happened at the whim of fate. The ideas and the inspiration behind the songs are solid, but Michael’s lyrics (inspired and informed by the likes of Dylan and Springsteen) turn them into perfect little vignettes. When an album opens with the song “If I Had a Gun”, you know it won’t be easy listening; “Six On the Out” will leave you emotionally wrung out but elated to be in the presence of songwriting greatness.
“Double Take” -- Frankie Miller
Frankie Miller; best soul singer ever from the UK? No contest. Frankie had a massive brain haemorrhage in 1994 which incapacitated him for over a decade and from which he’s still slowly recovering. Around four years ago a batch of seventies demo tapes of unpublished songs resurfaced and Frankie’s supporters (with some firm guidance from Frankie) decided that they were suitable for release and that the perfect way to get them noticed would be to create duets with other singers. Not surprisingly there was no shortage of takers, including Rod Stewart, Paul Carrack, Kim Carnes and Willie Nelson and “Double Take” was born. But it’s not those cameos that make it great; it’s a whole bunch of great three-minute songs, simple and effective, and that phenomenal voice. The quality of the vocals is so good that it’s hard to believe that these are demos; this is the business. The duet idea’s been handled fairly well, none of them sound jarring, and Elton John sounds like he’s having a great time, but the highlight for me is still the three band demos with “Full House” proving what a superb rock ‘n’ soul outfit they were.
“Big Sky Country” -- Sofia Talvik
In a year when I reviewed a lot of Americana , “Big Sky Country” stood out from the crowd because of the way it blended American and Scandinavian influences to create a voice that’s uniquely Sofia Talvik. The album was a result of a lengthy tour of the USA and manages to capture the vast open spaces of the deserts and prairies while keeping the intimacy and melancholy of tales of broken relationships and depression. Sofia’s pure, ethereal voice floats gently above a variety of musical stylings, creating an atmosphere that’s widescreen and ethereal, grandiose and mundane, summed up by these lines from the title song : ‘I’ve seen the Blue Ridge Mountains rise tall, I’ve heard the San Francisco sea lions call, I left my heart in a dirty old bar, in Laramie, Wyoming, I slept in my car’.
“Truth is A Wolf” -- Mollie Marriott
This one’s the album that never was. I had a review copy for months, played it to death in the car. Loved the songs, the singing, the playing, the whole lot. As the release date kept slipping, I held off publishing the review until I just had to get it out there. Apparently the album won’t ever be released in that form, but some dodgy reviewers have been selling copies on eBay. Mollie has a tremendous voice that’s backed up by impressive songwriting (and choosing her collaborators well) but the album works so well because you can feel that it’s a real band. They’re all great players, but it’s more than that, you can feel a sense of unity running through the entire album. I’d love to be able to share the album with you, but the best can do is share this single video for “Ship of Fools” and point you in the direction of YouTube:
Well, after spending a morning trying to pick my five favourite photos of female artists this year, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m either very indecisive or a rampant egomaniac (answers on a postcard please). After a lot of soul searching, I managed to narrow it down to ten photos that I really like, so I’m going to split them over two days. I hope that doesn’t make me a bad person.
Gabi Swiatkowska (Tildon Krautz) @Green Note
I’ve spent a fair amount of time at Green Note this year and I’ve now stopped moaning about the lighting. I know what it’s going to be and I’ve actually had some great results there. So why complain. This was a Josh Harty gig and he was supported by Tildon Krautz, a surreal and incredibly entertaining string band. The image of Gabi dwarfed by the upright bass was too good to miss, but it took a few attempts to get the perfect angle and even more attempts to get a shot where the neck of the bass wasn’t in front of Gabi’s face. The lighting at Green Note always gives muted colours on stage, so black and white was always the way to go with this one. You can see the whole gallery here.
Dani Sylvia @The Unsigned Music Awards
I was really pleased to be invited to photograph the UMA’s at The Troxy in Limehouse this year. The discipline was very different from either the first three songs only for major venues, or complete freedom at smaller venues. Each artist did one live song and the photographers had to move away from the front of the stage before the end of the song to avoid being caught by the TV cameras as they moved from the main stage to the awards stage. Dani Sylvia’s performance was so visual and colourful that it would have been difficult to take a bad photo. This one captured the atmosphere and ambience perfectly and I was really chuffed that Dani liked it. Result.
Hannah Aldridge @Green Note
If you’ve read any of my random ramblings about music, you might have worked out that I’m a huge fan of Hannah Aldridge. She’s a singer-songwriter from Muscle Shoals, Alabama and her astonishing first album grabbed my attention immediately. Hannah’s songwriting and live performance are absolutely exceptional, but she also understands the value of the visual image. I’ve photographed her in several settings now and always produced something I was really happy with, but this shot from Green Note (again) in black and white (again) had the look of a promotion photo for a silent movie star from the forties. Once again, I was really pleased that Hannah loved the shot as well.
Mollie Marriott @Time Out Rising Stars
So it’s Mollie again. A bit like Hannah, I find it almost impossible to take a bad, or even ordinary, picture of Mollie. When she sings, she gives it everything, every time, and that passion is clear in every shot. There were two shots of Mollie in my (not so) shortlist for this selection and this made the cut because she’s so obviously singing her heart out and the purple backlighting creates a lovely halo effect on her hair. With Mollie, I’m not sure I can even take any credit for good photos because every time I’ve seen her (and that’s quite a few times now) I’ve managed to grab some exceptional shots. Here’s the original gallery, and you really need to listen out for Mollie’s debut album which will be released in early 2017. And thanks to Ray Jones at Time Out for the invite.
Sarah Kayte Foster (Daisy and the Dark) @Ace Hotel, Shoreditch
For various reasons, this year I tried to get along to every gig that I was invited to and this one came about because of an invite from Quite Great PR. I’d never visited the venue before and I hadn’t heard anything from Daisy and the Dark. The lighting wasn’t great in this basement venue, which meant that black and white was favourite, a decision that was helped along by Sarah’s very sixties hairstyle. This was a gig that I could have very easily missed and it’s a great advert for taking every opportunity that comes your way. It was a challenge to navigate around the video camera setup, but it worked out perfectly in the end. Here’s the original gallery.
More to come soon.
This review’s going to be different from most of the things you’ll read about Mollie Marriott’s album “Truth is a Wolf” in one important way; I won’t be saying anything about Mollie’s musical heritage. You can read about that elsewhere, and I want to focus on Mollie and the superb team she’s created to deliver her musical vision. As a songwriter and singer she deserves to be judged on her own merits (and on the merits of her writing and performing partners) as she releases her debut solo album. The band deserves a special mention here as well. This isn’t an album put together by a bunch of studio hacks; Johnson-Jay Medwik-Daley (guitar), Sam Tanner (keyboards), Henrik Irgens (bass), Alex Reeves (drums) and Izzy Chase-Phillmore (backing vocals) are Mollie’s live band (in various acoustic and electric permutations)and Sam and Johnson collaborate on songwriting as well. In a live setting, it’s obvious that they’re all great players, but equally obvious that they love working together and they’re good mates.
The other songwriting collaborators include Judie Tzuke, Graham Kearns and Jim Stapley (one of the best voices in rock at the moment) and to add little spice, there are a couple of non-originals; a storming version of World Party’s “Ship of Fools” (Mollie’s first single, released last year) and the title track, written by Gary Nicholson and Bonnie Hayes. Mollie’s channelled a lot of heartbreak through these songs, including the opener “Broken” which deals with a failing relationship, and “Love your Bones” about the death of a good friend, but it’s ultimately a hugely uplifting album, despite the serious themes. So, how does that happen?
There are a couple of reasons; one is Mollie’s huge voice and the other is the incredibly good band. Let’s start with the band. The rhythm section does exactly what it says on the tin (there’s even a few melodic bass riffs thrown in)and creates a platform for the interwoven guitar and keyboard arrangements, which are all beautifully played without ever straying into muso ‘look at me’ territory. The second single, “Transformer” is driven along by Johnson’s infuriatingly catchy, over-driven earworm of a guitar riff while Sam’s smoky keyboard riff is the impetus behind “Truth is a Wolf”. And then there’s Izzy, also a great singer, whose voice works perfectly alongside the lead vocal.
And Mollie’s voice? Well, what can I say? She can do the pop singer thing, hitting all the right notes and sounding crystal clear and that might be enough for a lot of people, but there’s another dimension. When she goes up through the gears, she finds a raw emotional edge that only the best soul and rock singers have, and she can move seamlessly between these styles.
In putting the album together, Mollie’s written about a lot of painful episodes, but she’s managed to create a superb, powerful album from those episodes. This is an incredibly assured debut album packed with personal, well-crafted songs and technically perfect but often under-stated instrumental performances. This sounds like Mollie’s breakthrough.
Oh, and just one more thing, go and see the band live if you get the chance; you won’t regret it.
“Truth is A Wolf” is out in February 2016 on MITA Records.
So how about five great gigs this year? Well, I’ve had plenty to choose from and I can’t say that I’ve seen a bad one, so it hasn’t been an easy choice to whittle it down to the top five (and no cheating this time either). These are all gigs that I walked away from feeling elated, feeling that I’d seen something special that I wanted to tell the world about. So I did, and here’s a reminder of how good these gigs were.
On a freezing February Friday night in Shoreditch, Rich Mix was a welcome respite from bars full of bankers and ‘exclusive’ lap-dancing joints. The venue is a social enterprise where the motivation isn’t purely profit and programming of events is always interesting. On this particular night, John Fairhurst, along with Pete Episcopo (bass) and Toby Murray (drums) played a raw and raucous set of blues focussing on the 2014 album “Saltwater”. Some of the album versions of the songs were fairly big production numbers but the live performance was strictly a power trio affair with John’s blistering guitar topping off the mixture. The journey back through Shoreditch didn’t seem quite so bad after a night of proper blues with electric guitars playing way up loud. You can see some photos from the gig here.
Mollie Marriott @The Half Moon
This one was firmly in the eagerly-anticipated category. Mollie’s been working quietly for some time putting together a great band for live and studio work featuring her Jim Stapley bandmates Izzy Chase-Phillmore, Sam Tanner and Johnson-Jay Medwik-Daley. After an interesting acoustic support set from her nephew, Mo Evans, Mollie’s full band made their first live appearance in a Half Moon packed with fans and a few well-known faces as well. It was obvious from the start that this isn’t just a bunch of hired hands; this is a bunch of really good mates as well. None of their playing is showy or attention-seeking; everything serves the songs and underpins Mollie’s phenomenal voice, and it all works perfectly. The audience were onside anyway, but Mollie and the band gave a great performance of material from the upcoming debut album and a couple of covers as well. Here are some photos of this one.
This was a very special gig. I’d been invited along to see Mad Dog Mcrea and I had no idea about the support on the night, Sound of the Sirens. It’s such a great feeling when you see an artist for the first time and you know instantly that they’re something special. And it’s not just me; apparently Chris Evans was quite impressed with them as well. Anyway, they played a storming set completely winning over the audience with their powerful songs, dynamics, and harmonies. If the night had stopped at that point, I would have been perfectly happy, but we still had Mad Dog Mcrea to come, with an energetic run through material from their album “Almost Home” plus a few old favourites and crowd pleasers. Two great bands with enough in common to appeal to the whole audience but with enough differences to create a very varied night. And there are some photos here.
Another interesting double bill, this time with two very different artists, linked by the era which saw the start of their careers. John Cooper Clarke (now making the most of his honorary doctorate) has been doing poetry and comedy events for a few years but the tour with Squeeze put him back in front of big audiences filled with people who remembered him from the first time round. He throws more one-liners and gags into his routine now but a lot of the old favourite poems are still there, although some of them, particularly “Twat”, have evolved over time. On this night he was a barnstorming crowd-pleaser, building up the audience nicely for the headline act.
This year Squeeze had a new album to promote so the setlist was varied, to say the least, with material covering almost forty years from “Take Me I’m Yours” to new songs like “Cradle to the grave” with the usual smattering of different interpretations of Squeeze classics. What made this performance so special was the group of musicians (mainly Glenn Tilbrook’s Fluffers) now making up the rest of Squeeze who add upright bass, melodica and other esoteric instruments to the mix as well as adding rich vocal harmonies. Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook have never sounded better and what an incredible set of songs. Guess what, some photos here.
Graham Parker and Brinsley Schwarz & The Union Chapel
And finally. One of the greatest talents never to break through in the seventies and eighties, Graham Parker, who toured twice this year; once with The Rumour and once with Brinsley Schwarz. With a songbook which again covers almost forty years and a new album to promote as well, Graham Parker mixed up some established classics, some surprises and some new songs to delight an audience which might have been a little biased anyway. His voice is still remarkable and the songs are all strong enough to work in stripped-back arrangements. This wasn’t just a nostalgia thing; there were new songs to promote and they all sounded as good as anything he’s done before. He’s a remarkable man and it was a real pleasure to hear these songs in such a beautiful venue. How about a look at GP in the seventies and now?
2014 wasn’t a great gig year for me, so I decided to catch up in 2015 by getting my cameras along to every gig I could possibly get to. It obviously worked; when I had to pick my favourite five photos of the year, I had difficulty narrowing it down, so I decided to cheat. I’ve seen a lot of female singers this year, so I decided to create a High Five dedicated to them. As always, in no particular order.
Mollie Marriott at The Half Moon – By the time I saw this gig, it felt a bit like I was stalking Mollie. I’d seen her play live three times in three months. This gig was her second at The Half Moon with her full band and it wasn’t quite as busy as the first so there was a bit of space to pick some nice angles and just wait for Mollie to get completely absorbed in her songs and try to catch some special moments. She’s a singer who totally commits herself to the song and all you have to do is press the shutter release at the right time.
Elisa Zoot of Black Casino & the Ghost at The Finsbury – I’ve loved this band since I was introduced to them by John O’Sullivan of Red Adore Music. They’re totally original and Elisa has a phenomenal voice. It’s a little bit weird when you suddenly transform from two people talking in a pub beer garden to a photographer and a performer within fifteen minutes, but it’s always good to get a chance to get to know the artist. The lighting wasn’t great, but there was a lot of contrast, so black and white was the way to go. It’s good to know that Elisa likes this photo as well.
Rosanne Cash at The Union Chapel – I have to say I got a very lucky break here. When I discovered that Dean Owens was playing as support to Rosanne Cash, it was full-on grovel mode with Dean’s manager, Morag to try to get a photo pass but, as always, Morag came up with the goods. It’s always an interesting shot at this venue if you can get the stained glass window in, but Rosanne Cash happened to look heavenward at exactly the right time to make this work. Maybe I need to rethink the atheism thing.
Nova Twins at FTFH, Birthdays, Dalston – FTFH is a monthly event at Birthdays promoting female performers and Nova Twins were topping the bill with their intriguing and eclectic mash-up of rock, hip-hop and punk attitudes. The lighting was decent and Amy and Georgia’s style and stage presence made it pretty much impossible to take a bad shot. I finally settled on this picture of Amy because of the attitude and power and the nice mix of colours in the background, but I could have chosen any one of a dozen shots from this gig.
Hannah Aldridge at Green Note – Green Note’s a venue where you have to put in a bit of effort to get a good shot. I went along to this gig on the strength of Hannah’s stunning debut album, “Razor Wire” and I wasn’t disappointed. I had just moved around the stage to get a slightly different viewpoint when Hannah introduced a new song “Gold Rush” which was incredibly powerful and completely enthralled the audience. I think the shot just about captures the emotion she was pouring in to that song.
Just click on any of the thumbnails to see the picture at full size.
It’s about a year since we first picked up on Mollie Marriot, when she popped up doing backing vocals (with Izzy Chase-Phillmore) for Jim Stapley on his debut album and at a London gig last year. It was obvious to anyone who didn’t have tin ears that she had an outstanding voice. What we didn’t know at the time, but discovered after a few gigs, was that she also has at least an album’s worth of great songs which she’s worked on with a bunch of co-writers that includes Jim Stapley, Sam Tanner of Brother Strut and Judie Tzuke. Lyrically, it’s not always comfortable because it deals with some troubled times in Mollie’s life, but the arrangements and performances create positive feelings from negative experiences. And she’s put a phenomenal live band together as well.
“A Million Miles” is her third solo single (following “Ship of Fools” and “Transformer”) and it might just be the one to make the breakthrough, ahead of her debut album “The Truth is a Wolf” which is due for release in early 2016. The song opens with Johnson-Jay’s shimmering guitar weaving in and out of Sam Tanner’s trickling keyboards evoking a seventies Californian drivetime feel before Mollie’s voice comes in, gently at first, with just a suggestion of Stevie Nicks and the story of an unravelling relationship. As the instrumental intensity builds, the vocal goes up through the gears from pure and clear to powerful and emotional, building to a climax before fading to a gentle finish. It’s a song that takes you on an emotional journey, so buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Mollie Marriott’s made a lot of great decisions in the last couple of years; she’s surrounded herself with superb musicians and collaborators who happen to be lovely people, and she’s created a very tight little family that just happens to be a musical powerhouse. If anyone can achieve popular success while pursuing their own artistic vision in today’s music business, my money’s on Mollie.
“A Million Miles” is out on MITA Records on October 23rd.
To round off the mid-term report for 2015, we thought it would be good to have a look at some of the people we’ve discovered this year. Some of them are relatively new and some have been around for a while but they have one thing in common; they’re all very good.
We heard about Mollie Marriott last year when she did backing vocals (along with Izzy Chase-Phillmore) on Jim Stapley’s debut album “Long Time Coming”. She’s had a couple of singles out (“Ship of Fools” and “Transformer”) and the first album’s just about ready to go. She’s been collaborating with some exceptional songwriters and her live band (Johnson-Jay Medwik-Daley, Sam Tanner, Alex Reeves and Henrik Irgens) sounds stunning. Top that off with a voice which can do the pure pop, but has a raw, soulful edge as well and you’ve got something a little bit special. The only way is up.
Discovering Sound of the Sirens earlier this year was proof that turning up for the support band can pay off. They supported Mad Dog Mcrea on a few dates earlier this year, including The Half Moon in Putney and they were superb. Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood create a huge sound with two voices, two guitars (or guitar and mandolin) and two stompboxes. If you insist on attaching a genre tag to Sound of the Sirens, ‘twenty-first century acoustic anthems’, is pretty close to the mark; it works for us anyway. But don’t just take our word for it, in the last couple of months, Abbe and Hannah have played at Glastonbury, have secured a BBC Introducing slot and are appearing at Carfest. And they’ve got a new EP out.
The guys in Jupe are Dublin-based and they’ve been together for a while, but now that their line-up has settled they’re just starting to get the attention that their anthemic soul/pop/rock really deserves. The Riot Squad saw Jupe at a showcase gig at The Garage in Islington a few weeks ago and they were the band that got the entire audience on their side. The sound is contemporary and commercial but it’s backed up with rock-solid musicianship and a charismatic singer who knows how to work a live crowd. The single “Rocket” is out on August 3.
Hannah Aldridge released her jaw-droppingly good debut album, “Razor Wire” in 2014; it’s a collection of intensely personal songs written from the perspective of a writer who has walked the darker side of the street. She toured the UK recently in support of the album and won over audiences with her stripped-down solo versions of the album material, including a storming version of “Howlin’ Bones”. The album and the live performances of the “Razor Wire” material alone would secure Hannah’s inclusion in this feature, but there’s even more. During the show at Green Note, Hannah played a new song called “Gold Rush” which held the audience in hushed awe. If the rest of the next album is even close to the standard of “Gold Rush” it’s going to be an album to grace anyone’s collection.
Three years ago, we were seriously impressed by Natalie Duncan’s debut album “Devil in Me” and her stunning live performances. Things went a bit quiet following the initial promotion for the album and the major label deal didn’t really work out, but Natalie’s a strong character and a formidable talent; she’s been working on new material and, over the last year or so, she’s been playing to a mixture of album material and new songs to appreciative audiences all over London. The new songs from her “Black and White” EP are much more edgy than her earlier material, using vocal loops and samples as part of the backing tracks and they seem to be attracting a new audience to augment her original following. Anyway, she’s sounding better than ever and you should give her a listen.
And, if that’s not enough to be going on with, there are a few other bands that you should keep an eye on. Black Casino and the Ghost release their second album later this year, Space Elevator’s brand of theatrical melodic rock is attracting wider attention, The Jar Family are reaching wider live audiences with their well-crafted songs and energetic gigs and Jim Stapley (Mollie Marriott collaborator and astonishingly powerful rock singer) is working in New Orleans on new material for that difficult second album. By the time you’ve checked out all of those, we’ll be doing the year-end review.