Neil Sheasby’s had quite a year this year. Not only has Stone Foundation gone from strength to strength (without even releasing a new album), but he’s become an author with the first volume of his memoirs, “Boys Dreaming Soul” hitting the bookshelves this year. When the call goes out for High Fives contributions, Neil’s always one of the first to reply, which is why he’s always at the top of the list when we publish. Here are Neil’s thoughts on some of the things that have crossed his personal horizon in 2019:

 

Touring

I never thought I’d be saying this but I appear to have re kindled a passion for touring over the past few months. Gigging and touring are two separate beasts, the gigs I can handle, in fact it’s fairly obvious to anyone who comes along to see Stone Foundation that it’s an enjoyable experience for us all, there’s certainly no going through the motions routine in evidence. Usually though that 90 minute release upon stage is sandwiched between endless hours of travelling & hanging around, but alas you barely get to see anything of the destination except for a hotel room, dressing room and a stage (I’ve been to Hamburg six times and I still couldn’t tell you anything about it except there’s a decent kebab house opposite The Mojo Club) 

Anyway, at some point over the past twelve months I have begun to appreciate and embrace my time spent on the road more. We began the year by doing a gruelling jaunt across Germany & Spain, the gigs were fantastic but the miles we had to put in, especially zig-zagging all over Espana were undeniably exhausting (I think the promoter had routed our tour by throwing darts at a map).

However, whilst this almost literally killed me off, the subsequent dates back here in the U.K. felt as though it was a bus trip up to Baddesley Ensor. A doddle in comparison. The summer tour of forests supporting Paul Weller was a bona fide high, not just hanging with him but the crowds! Wow! What a reception we received too. It felt like another corner turned, the bar once again raised and our music making a connection with folk who’d never seen us before. I loved every second of it and to add to my enjoyment even more I got the opportunity to take my son Lowell out on the road with us and for us both to share what unfolded was indeed a real solid bond. 

Our most recent tour reaped the benefits of this exposure and I’d go as far to say that the November gigs were some of our best yet, certainly the most enjoyable for us all. I’m now looking forward to a new decade, new challenges, new chapter and lots more new music. I’m buoyed and excited for the future. 

 

Page Turners

As you’ve probably gathered by now I’m an avid reader of music biographies, I don’t even have to really appreciate the subject’s career; I’ll pretty much read anything music-related (Phil Collins, for example) 

I think there’s been some great page-turners of late. I really enjoyed both the Brett Anderson books (whose music I could take or leave), Will Birch’s fine assessment of Nick Lowe and enjoyable biogs from Elton John, Debbie Harry & Andrew Ridgeley. 

Obviously it was also somewhat of a landmark achievement for me to finally get my own book “Boys Dreaming Soul” published and into print this year. I’m glad I decided to put it out there as the response and reaction to it has been humbling. I’m considering following it up but it’s just a case of assigning the time to do it as it’s a fairly hefty project to take on but enjoyable and cathartic nonetheless.

 

Music

I think it’s been an exceptional year for new music. If I remember correctly last year I told you how I was embracing Spotify playlists and all I was discovering via that medium, and that has just continued to turn up so much new incredible music and artists. 

The Colemine label is excelling in great new soul music and even established contemporary labels such as Daptone have spread their wings somewhat with releases by artists such as Doug Shorts. I thought the Michael Kiwanuka album was another winner too, a proper listening experience from start to finish. Durand Jones and The Black Pumas also showed a way of presenting soul by avoiding the cliches. 

In other areas I really enjoyed albums such as Nick Cave’s latest and the Lucy Rose LP that came out at the beginning of the year. 

 

Vision

I recently watched The Irishman. I’d read mixed reviews, mainly bemoaning its length but all those movies were three hours plus (Once Upon a Time in America, Goodfellas, Casino etc…) I’m not sure people have the patience or attention span they used to; I guess we have social media to blame for that? I found the film kind of emotional to witness, with what will surely be the last hurrah for the greatest actors of our  generation; De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and even Harvey Kietel all under the genius direction of Martin Scorsese.What a journey and what an incredible collection of talent, the likes of which we will never see again. I thought Pacino in particular was amazing. 

The Joker was also a masterclass in acting, I caught it at the cinema and it blew me away. A great intensity to Joaquin Pheonix’s performance. It’s fantastic to see an upsurge in thought provoking and challenging movie making. 

 

The Beautiful Game

I can’t say too much about this subject because I’ll end up cursing their season again but I have rekindled my love and passion for football over the last few years (I’m not sure it ever dwindled to be honest), it’s mainly due to Leeds United’s turn of form under the guidance of Bielsa, he’s a maverick and a visionary but most of all he’s a hell of a lot of fun, right down to the bucket he rode in on. 

I sincerely hope this is our time, the city is rocking and buzzing with optimism, investment and finance to make the giant leap into the premiership is all in place, it would be heartbreaking to fade away again post-Christmas and return to the merry go round of a managerial circus and also lose this incredible crop of young players. It’s the hope that kills you eh? 

I’m also catching a few Adders games when I’m not touring with the band and that non-league action still enthralls me. If you haven’t witnessed an away game in Burbage on a freezing cold Wednesday night in December, clutching a Bovril then you haven’t lived…

One BreathAnna Calvi’s debut album was heralded as a new classic within moments of its release. It was florid and troubled, being close cousins to artists such as Nick Cave and with a cinematic cloak draped over it as if imagined by David Lynch at his most romantic and doomed. It was also produced by Rob Ellis, long-time collaborator with PJ Harvey. Ah yes, PJ Harvey. It would be almost irresponsible as a reporter of music not to acknowledge that both artists can share a writing and melodic style, vocal comparisons can on occasion be made between Calvi and Harvey and both fall into the same genre of woman with a guitar (sometimes), not passive, singer-songwriter blues/rock, visually hyper-stylised , entertainer. There are many people who have made records over the past decade or so where the influence of PJH is undeniable but unlike the majority, Calvi’s talent is the actual link between the two and not her desire to mimic Harvey. This is reinforced here on her second album, the radiant and self-possessed “One Breath”. After the stalking guitars and ghostly ‘ooh-oooh’s’ of “Suddenly” and “Eliza” with its thumping strum, it’s only on the third track, “Piece by Piece”, that Calvi deviates from the sonic template previously established on her debut. After the broken and collapsing strings of the intro a rhythmic, tumbling drum snaps into shape and a plucked mandolin and various electronic  zips and pops swoon around Calvi who has conjured up the spirit of Siouxsie Sioux here,  whilst a scuzzy bass muscles  up against an airy string part. The total effect is mesmerising. It’s these string sections, very much a musical theme here, that give “One Breath” its power, the push and pull between light and dark. Producer John Congleton, who has, amongst others, worked with Joanna Newsom and St Vincent, helped create a sumptuous but frequently uneasy and volatile soundscape throughout. Calvi has spoken out about how during the making of this album she suffered from very low moods and that someone very close to her died. It is likely that this in some part went toward dictating the themes and mood of this album and the title track is the boulder around which each track is laid. ‘I got one, I got one breath to give ….it’s going to change everything’  Calvi repeats as though a mantra whilst everything around her is building unforgivingly and then, precisely at the 3 minute mark, a gorgeous orchestral coda breaks through the tension and instantly lifts Calvi, and the listener, wordlessly away to a safer and more beautiful place. It’s both moving and dramatic, a combination of theatre and absolute sincerity. Elsewhere, the near 6 minute “Carry Me Over” with its demonically euphoric final minute of Calvi’s rapturous wails pillowed by the continuing orchestration is a genuine tour de force and “Sing to Me”, which regularly threatens to break into “River Deep, Mountain High”, is an authentic and commanding torch song. After this heightened sensation of a noir love story gone awry , the false start of the rock roll throb of the most straightforward song here,  “Love of My Life”, is an unexpected and thrilling thump in the eye. The shortest and perhaps most breath-taking song here is the album closer “The Bridge”, an acapella, choral hymn that chills and will make many misty-eyed with its simple, crystalline beauty. In some ways Anna Calvi has toned down the theatrics and threat that dominated her debut and replaced them with a more nuanced and considered account of a persona under attack but ultimately, and appropriately breathtakingly, breaking free from previous restraints, self-imposed or otherwise. Without doubt the drama and darkness are still present, but on “One Breath” Calvi has created a collection of songs which reflect and show her as an exceptional artist in her own right as opposed to a great artist within the genre. If you want to be genuinely thrilled and startled by music that twists and turns in unpredictable shades and volumes then Anna Calvi has made an album to treasure and completely immerse yourself into, it’s quite an accomplishment.

Love your Dum and MadNadine Shah has made a good, albeit slightly anonymous, debut album which has one major downfall; her purposely dour and low delivery combined with Ben Hillier’s swampy, stylistic production with tales of troubled men and put upon women positively encourages immediate comparison to the Gothic Elite. PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Marianne Faithfull are names you will undoubtedly see in reference to Shah’s work and as the first track “Aching Bones” moans and trudges into view there is no getting away from the similarities between this and Harvey during her exaggerated and traumatised blues vamp that she inhabited during her vivid “To Bring You My Love” period. Drawing comparisons to such iconoclasts is a risky business but “Love Your Dum and Mad” goes some way towards proving that there is enough room for everyone.

The first half of the album is packed out sonically, full and dusty with looped samples and reverb. Songs like the excellent “To Be a Young Man” and in particular “Runaway” (‘Did you ever stop to notice I too worked hard to build this home, and now I am of no use to you now that the children have grown’) are character-based songs sung in the first person with Shah deliberately exaggerating her northern accent, she sings with it throughout, to colour the mood wonderfully. Later on the album does she confuse slightly with more traditional ballads such as “All I Want” which could be an Adele song, it’s soulful and surprisingly radio friendly with its electronic piano and ‘just sit in cafes and not say a word’ refrain.  Another slower song and early single “Dreary Town” (an Adele song title if ever there was one!) is nice but considering its autobiographical relevance here (it’s about a former lover of Shah’s who because of bipolar disorder subsequently killed himself) it doesn’t pack the punch that it could and should.

“The Devil”, a song title so ubiquitous within the genre that not only has Anna Calvi, who was 2011’s PJ Harvey, but Harvey herself had ‘Devil’ songs and Shah’s attempt will almost certainly not be remembered as an essential addition to an already overcrowded collection and to include it here seems at best ill-advised. The deceptively hypnotic “Floating” does a lovely thing very early on and positions a very David Lynch type twanging, distorted instrumental break right where there shouldn’t be one; its beauty is slow burning and unsettling. “Filthy Game” is this album’s attempt at a “Surabaya Johnny” and Shah is a convincing, worldly-sounding narrator.

Nadine Shah has been making this record for four years and this goes some way towards explaining the varying levels of maturity that are evident from song to song; it’s a very grown-up record or at least wants to be but is occasionally betrayed by volatile songwriting with Ben Hillier’s production sometimes resembling too many other similar artists. Shah has an amazing voice and does not descend into histrionics where others would; given the potentially melodramatic subject matter here the temptation must have been great and her controlled performance throughout the entirety of “Love Your Dum and Mad” is indeed its greatest asset.