A Girl in Teen City ScrollerNot so much a concept album as a themed album; Suzie Ungerleider (Oh Susanna) has produced a wonderfully moving album set in her teenage years in 1980s Vancouver. As the album unfolds, the sense of time and place are reinforced by the musical references (mainly second generation punk) and geographical references to Vancouver and her birthplace Northampton, Massachusetts. Don’t think for a minute that it’s all rose-tinted nostalgia; there is a bit of that, but Suzie doesn’t ignore the darker side of adolescence. “A Girl in Teen City” is a gorgeous piece of work and one where the musical settings are perfectly matched to the lyrics; there are lots of contributors, but the production always feels really uncluttered, leaving Suzie’s beautiful voice plenty of space to deliver her moving and poetic lyrics (‘We’d dream in black and white and chocolate’ from the haunting “Puget Sound”). 

The songs are sequenced in roughly chronological order, beginning with the innocent friendship of “Flashlights”, working through the sexual experimentation of “Darkroom at the School”, drugs, booze and bands in “Getting Ready” and “Tickets on the Weekend”, to the Springsteenesque street sleaze, disillusionment, and finally acceptance of “My Old Vancouver”. And there’s humour as well, in “My Boyfriend”, the true story of an ex-boyfriend chosen for a band because of his looks, who couldn’t actually sing. It’s a feminist message as the young woman who can actually sing sits it out and watches the audition. “Thunderbird” is an “American Graffiti”-style story about the cool factor of working to pay for, and falling in and out of love with a broken-down T-Bird. 

Apart from the perfect songs and the understated playing (no solos, well, just one guitar break), the lyrics are shot through with references to the music of the era, with mentions (directly or indirectly) of The Ramones, Teenage Head, DOA, Prince and Camper van Beethoven (very indirectly). There’s something here for anyone who appreciates the art of songwriting and great musicianship. I haven’t heard a better, or more complete, album this year so far. 

“A Girl in Teen City” is released on Friday May 12 on Continental Song City (CSCCD1142).

How Big...Florence + The Machine is a relatively rare and interesting type of multi-million selling global superstar to be found in this or even the past decade. She is more suited to the mid-eighties/nineties stretch of pop stars that included Kate Bush, Prince and Bjork -- artists that used idiosyncratic and sometimes iconoclastic imagery that was key to their success but didn’t define it and whose music was frequently strange and brilliant but sold by the shed load. Where Florence Welch differs from her idols though is that her musical choices so far have found the singer already approaching what could be regarded as caricature of herself. Her debut album “Lungs” was a rag-tag but solid collection of goth-pop which established her eclectic eccentricity and 2011’s highly polished “Ceremonials” had some fantastic songs which were often marooned in a samey, shouty and exhaustingly one-note soundscape. “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” sees Florence set out to actively change this, to breath nuance and restraint and personal experiences into an album’s worth of songs.

Markus Dravs has taken over almost all production duties from Paul Epworth (who still co-produces one track here) and has laid down the law, it seems, telling Welsh that certain well-worn subjects are off-limits, such as water metaphors (a few still slip through the net, excuse the pun) and an early song called “Which Witch” bought to him by Welch was rejected because of song title only (and that too still appears, but as a bonus track only). He wanted to put her voice up front and to be more exposed and vulnerable, less multi-tracked, and for the music to also have space to breathe. Will Gregory, the introvert half of Goldfrapp, was bought on board as Welch wanted lots of brass and she’s certainly got her wish. It seems that there was some compromise on both sides, as this is a different Florence album in part, but it is not to be considered as any real, radical departure in sound. With the strength of songwriting on display here and a successful transition to more interesting and diverse soundscapes this is not important, it’s the most balanced and cohesive album that Welch has made thus far.

The first song to be heard from “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” was the striking “What Kind of Man”. With Welch’s voice manipulated to echo that of Karin Andersson from The Knife, she sounds genderless and possessed and it’s something of a shame that guitars and drums crash in all too soon. The mania and panic associated with Welch and evidenced here again is offset beautifully by a return to the coolness of this initial refrain though and “Ship to Wreck”, with its soaring near gospel middle-eight, continues with the indie rock motifs . The title track’s opening line ‘between a crucifix and the Hollywood sign’ is not the only thing that sounds like you might hope a Madonna track would in 2015; it has a spaciness and warmth that is designed to be heart- swelling and it is. The long instrumental play-out is the most optimistic that a Florence track has ever sounded, assertive trumpets and forthright strings herald a new dawn with all of its possibilities. Sounds cheesy perhaps but it’s sincere and as gorgeous as hell.

Various Storms & Saints” and “Long & Lost” continue with an acoustic, bare bones but lush instrumentation and “Caught” is a mid-tempo r’n’b song with an unexpected country sway and is swoonsomely heartbroken. Over a plaintive organ and understated orchestration it is “St Jude” which cements absolute melodic perfection with Welch’s forever fallen angel, compulsively drawn to chaos. “Delilah” and “Third Eye” will delight the Florence diehards with both tracks pulling across the established, bombastic and commercial sound from her previous two albums and turning the dial up even further to not-quite ludicrous settings. Album closer “Mother” incorporates all of these ingredients but stirs them about with a 1970’s blues-rocker shtick that creates something altogether more strange and the final, thrashing fifty seconds genuinely excite. Florence + The Machine may never be able to do subtle but with “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful”, Welch has made considerable progress with making music that is more complex, satisfying and timeless sounding than before, never alienating her current fan base and undoubtedly attracting many more new ones in the process.

1989It goes without saying that each generation gets the pop stars it deserves. Of the ones remaining and still performing, Madonna, Boy George and Prince belong to what could be called my era, not too shoddy. This current batch of kids will eventually become nostalgic about Beyonce, Adele and, I’m sorry, One Direction. In the last five years Taylor Swift has been riding their coat-tails with her persistent country -pop and, for better or worse, she may turn out to be the biggest pop star of them all, certainly of 2014. “1989”, Swift’s fifth album, is not only the year of her birth but also refers to the eclectic and idiosyncratic musical chart toppers of that same year, part of my era, and which allegedly inspired her to finally, and somewhat predictably, make the full transition to that of a pop star.

Max Martin has produced and written for the cream of Billboard magazine’s sweethearts over the past decade and a half and Swift called on him to help with a clutch of songs for her last album, the gazillion-selling ‘Red’. Those tracks were the ones that provided the album with a contemporary pop sheen, dubstep and more heavily electronic soundscapes featured, and some of its biggest hits. Martin returns here with the weightier task of almost full production responsibilities of “1989” and co-writes with Swift herself. He does a consistently robust and appropriately timeless job here and, between the two of them, the songs are frequently sharp, smart and exhilarating and avoid any of the obvious potential pitfalls; no features, no EDM and no Dr Luke.

The best moments here, and there are many to choose from, are the more thundering and urgent guitar, drums and synth tracks that call to mind pop acts such Go West, Simple Minds and Kelly Clarkson. “Out of the Woods” is not only the biggest success here, Swift’s sneer is surprisingly apparent and the gulping repetitive chorus is perfect, but almost the most lyrically competent and stylish. “All You Had to Do Was Stay” with its cheeky vocal nod to the Eurythmics, “I Wish You Would” and “Bad Blood” all provide rollicking middle-eights, tight arrangements and artful choruses that all make the intended impact. “Style” is an elegant mid-tempo electro soon-to-be chart topper which offers up the hookiest chorus – and that’s saying something here – and “Wildest Dreams” is as close as Swift gets to a mood piece although it owes quite a debt to the omnipresent Lana Del Rey sound.

The rest of “1989” is serviceable enough but lacks the passion of the better tracks and struggles to live up to the album’s conceit. “Welcome to New York” is not only one of the very worst, most insipid songs written about the city – and also a rare moment when the album also slips into musical parody of the period it’s influenced by – but it is almost a genuine reflection of it as seen through the Swift’s eyes as a recent, over-excited new comer. It also highlights just how bland and naïve lyrically many of these songs are; Starbucks lovers, it’s all good, haters and players and “How You Get the Girl”, even if used with irony, make the album sound like a massive corporate tie-in with a particular brand of young girls who can afford to live in a big city. Since the album’s release Swift has indeed, and not without controversy, been appointed as an official ambassador of New York; it wasn’t like this with Debbie Harry.

If Swift were to be a representation of the very best that pop could offer in 2014 then “1989” would confirm that pin sharp songwriting and hooks were still in abundance and lush, enveloping production was of a consistently high standard. But within the genre that is only one part of many essential components. Her previous albums have been built on an authentic and believable persona where it was possible to identify the style of the song – the actual sound of it – with the singer; here she sounds technically proficient but for the main part generic. The major players of the last thirty years right up to and including Beyonce and Adele have all developed a sound that is quintessentially theirs but Swift has failed to do that here; there is nothing exceptional or original about the way “1989” sounds. It is unlikely that her next few records will see a return to country music so maybe they will continue to build on Taylor Swift’s respect for pop and see her as confident enough to be as unpredictable and individual as her idols; or maybe she is readjusting the standard.

My Black Arts TitleSo, here’s an interesting one; “My Black Arts” is the second album from The Dream Logic. The core of the band is singer and guitarist Charles Compo, bass player Jerry Brooks and drummer Camille Gainer but the album also features cameos from guitarists Eric Krasno (Soulive) and Vernon Reid (Living Colour). As far as trying to pin a genre on the band, I’m sticking to guitar-based at the moment.

The first track, “My Red Heart”, opens with some guitar and percussion noodling before dropping into a groove that echoes “Gaucho”-era Steely Dan (right down to a sprinkling of atonality in the guitar solo) with clean guitars and keys under Charles Compo’s very distinctive vocal, which has more than a hint of Sweet Pea Atkinson (more about that later). From here on in, the band takes on a variety of different disguises, as it tackles a range of musical styles.

“Cisco Kid” and “When I Go” have a bluesy feel, the first funky, and the second a slow blues with very clean picking in the style of Albert Collins before a coda which shifts to mid-tempo before a paint-stripping guitar solo. Drums and bass are fairly funky throughout and the songs “”Just Can’t Quit It”, “The Way That I Want It” and “Think I’ll Stay” stick fairly closely to a funk template.

“It’s Murder”, with its driving bassline, “I Hope It’s Real”, with a catchy guitar hook and guitar fills in the verses, the Southern swamp boogie of the single “Drunken Monkey” and the all-out driving tempo of “Headlights Into the Darkness” (with a hint of pastiche in the backing vocals) all help to establish the band’s rock credentials while “Don’t Judge” has slow 70s style soul arrangement with nice laid-back, almost jazz, guitar.

The remaining three tracks are the seasoning which gives the album its unique flavour. “Biznasty” (with a lyric about a music business sleazeball) is propelled along by Stones-style intertwined guitar parts with an added sitar to give the song its individual style. And then things get weird. “Trying to be a Buddha”, a slow piece which evokes 80s-era Prince meeting Tom Verlaine is almost a mantra, while the closing (and title) track, “My Black Arts” is a loose jam which perhaps made a lot more sense in the studio than it does here.

On the positive side, the playing is superb throughout, particularly when the arrangement is for two guitars. There’s a lot of variation; it’s never boring because you just don’t know what’s coming next and the band sounds fairly convincing across all of the genres they tackle. The negatives are that there’s probably too much material here (14 songs) and the title track, “My Black Arts”, comes over as a bit self-indulgent and aimed at the band rather than the listener. The band is obviously influenced by a tremendous variety of styles and the finished product here feels mostly like Steely Dan interpreted by Don and David Was (who also had a penchant for including half-finished jams and other bits of weirdness on their albums) with hints of many other styles. It’s not a bad album at all; it’s a good album which might have been even better with a tighter focus.

 

St VincentSt. Vincent’s star has been steadily rising for almost eight years. Each one of her three albums has surpassed the other for originality, songwriting ability and scorching self-possession. This, her fourth and the first to be self-titled (and appropriately at that), continues with that trend. Although it may not actually be better than some of 2011’s seductive and quietly threatening “Strange Mercy”, it is a more human and bolder work and marks the introduction of an unfiltered honesty that previous albums kept closer to their chest. She has taken both musical and physical elements of the biggest and most successful pop stars of the mid-eighties and early nineties -- Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson- and compressed them into an art rock template where David Bowie continues to dominate Annie Clark’s pop-cultured psyche. But then again the eponymous naming of the album adds credence and a confidence to the idea that this could only be a St Vincent album, every second of it could have only come from Annie Clark’s own pen, her lips and guitar.

A lot of the songs on “St. Vincent” are uncoded, straightforward story-telling songs relating to Clark’s own experiences. Some of the songs are harder to decipher and are more abstract and, on occasion, surreal. If there is an underlying theme here then it is how life is now for someone who has known what it is to be online for the majority of their adulthood but who has also experienced at the start of their childhood, pre-internet life. It is the outlook of someone who has therefore placed some (healthy?) distance to the option of only living a life continually attached to a screen of some size.

The opening track “Rattlesnake” and cloudily synthetic ballad “I Prefer Your Love”, which sits in the centre of the album and quite sensibly between two of the most frenzied and odd tracks, both fall into the first category of this vivid storytelling. The metallic and brittle shake of “Rattlesnake” recounts Clark’s walk through a seemingly deserted desert, how she removes all of her clothes due to the heat and a desire to be free and connect with both the moment and the surrounding nature. The sound and then appearance of a rattlesnake provokes a fight or flight sprint back to safety. This is a very loaded image or course, phallic maybe and certainly mythical and the raise in Clark’s vocal inflection towards the end -- ‘I’m not the only one!’ -- and the dryness of the rhythm helps bring to life both the thrill and the fear. 

“I Prefer Your Love” really does wear its heart firmly on its sleeve. Annie Clark recently very nearly lost her mother to illness and with lines like ‘wipe the blush and smudge from my cheek and wonder what will be become of your little one’, this is a last lullaby for a child whose parent means more to them than any spiritual or religious figurehead could. There is no trickery with this track, it’s a beautiful song and although the rhythm and melody of the verses sound a little like the verses of “Ashes to Ashes” and it could easily be the missing song in a quartet of Patrick Leonard-written Madonna ballads, compared to Clark’s discography thus far it is surprising for its truthfulness and sincerity.

Following last year’s sometimes successful collaboration with David Byrne, the brass funk that dominated “Love This Giant” makes a brief reappearance on the exhilarating “Digital Witness”, a better and more memorable track than any that appeared on “Giant”. Along with the eccentric and genre shifting “Huey Newton”, this song explicitly questions the point of some social media and specially that of sharing information that really requires no further spectators and the reasons why such validation is required for just about everything. Liking another person’s status when that status tells you that they are in their garden? ‘If I you can’t show it, you can’t see me; what’s the point in doing anything?’ echoes Clark.  “Digital Witness” is an example of the move, albeit subtle, to songs that are as catchy as can be, subversive lyrically still but brighter and bolder than before. In another lifetime it could have been a Kid Creole and The Coconuts track.  The astounding “Huey Newton” which follows a sedated lo-if r’n’b first half suddenly breaks down irreconcilably into a guitar-led psychosis-fuelled second half, initiated by nights of winter time loneliness with only Google Search for company.

Bring Me Your Loves” is probably the most outwardly and bracingly strange moment on “St. Vincent”. It has an addled and fevered sweat and atmosphere with marching drums, multi-tracked and obnoxious harmonies frustrated by the ‘I took you off your leash but I can’t make you heel’ predicament it finds itself in. The gradually building “Regret” is a throwback in some ways to the woozy and unstable 1960s Disney soundtrack style that dominated the “Actor” album and “Birth in Reverse”, although bold in its lyrical gaucheness (‘it just an ordinary day, take out the garbage, masturbate’) and fluid and spontaneous guitar playing is a good St Vincent song but certainly not a brilliant one.

Later on, “Psychopath” delivers a taut electro-pop number which has some lovely and riveting sonic touches around the ‘ahh, ahh,ahh-ahh ahh’ refrain with everything bar the beat dropping out immediately and unexpectedly after the song’s chorus and “Prince Johnny” swoons sarcastically with divine lyrical  bite. Album closer “Severed Crossed Fingers” is quite probably Clark’s best song so far, certainly featuring her most soulful performance to date. 60s girl group swells, chiming bells and guts, spleens and missing fingers. It’s interesting that the silly, noodling introduction to the track almost tries to undermine the weightiness of the sentiment, as though it’s embarrassed by its power. But its double bluff only really goes to show that St Vincent also acknowledges the absurdity that can accompany such grand gestures, that it is all still just an act and that sometimes there really is no hope left.

This is not the album with disco sounds and influences that many claim it to be (partly fuelled by St. Vincent’s description of the material herself before its release). You can dance to it, yes, but probably in the same robo-mannequin moonwalk style that Clarke herself has adopted during recent live shows. The full but still sometimes disconcertingly skeletal sound that is so intrinsically hers remains and has been honed to perfection here and the on-going production by John Congleton (previous collaborations tellingly include both Anna Calvi and Erykah Badu) is typically sharp and  flawless. It seems unrealistic to expect her to stay in this role which is her most defined and confident thus far for long but for now St. Vincent has delivered her most accessible, easy to relate to, and consistently engaging and sparky album to date; if you haven’t experienced her yet then “St Vincent” is an excellent place to start.

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.

Aynsley ListerEver since I first heard Aynsley Lister’s latest album “Home”, I’ve been looking forward to seeing him play live; last Thursday was my chance as he supported blues legend Joe Louis Walker at The Garage in Islington.  The majority of the audience had come to see Joe Louis Walker but were very appreciative, giving their support to a talented and charismatic support act.

Aynsley Lister live is quite an experience.  He’s totally at ease and confident centre-stage without ever appearing arrogant, but he has been doing this since he was barely a teenager and playing guitar since he was eight years old.  Bear with me here if you read my review of “Home”, but Anysley Lister is the real deal; he plays superbly across a wide dynamic range, he has a voice which is the perfect balance of power and control and he writes songs which step out of the standard blues/rock themes; how does a Gene Hunt tribute song grab you?

The set opened with “Big Sleep” and “Early Morning Dew”, from the 2009 album “Equilibrium”, before slipping in to a batch of songs from “Home” which effortlessly demonstrate the quality and variety of Aynsley’s playing, singing and writing.  The funky, clipped groove of “Inside Out” eases the audience out of the older material and into a couple of songs with a harder edge, starting with the menacing opening guitar riff of the “Life on Mars”-inspired “Hyde 2612”.

Next up is the more traditional blues barrel-house boogie of “Sugar” featuring André Bassing’s piano alongside some old-school blues guitar followed by the beautiful “Home”.  The final track from the album is another rocker, “Possession” which takes us almost to the end of the set.  The finale is a breathtaking version of the Prince classic “Purple Rain” which builds from a subtle and quiet intro to a storming climax to bring the set to a close.

The headliner, Joe Louis Walker, played to a hugely partisan audience and delivered a set which featured blues, funk, rock and gospel with stylistic nods to B.B. King and Albert Collins, among many others.  The high point of the set came when Joe Louis, in time-honoured blues tradition, invited Aynsley back on stage to jam for two songs.  The two guitarists alternated on lead and rhythm for a while before an extended session of trading licks which brought smiles to the faces of the two players, the band and the audience.  Great while it lasted but, unfortunately, it meant that the set peaked too early, apart from Joe Louis’s solo gospel song, his first encore.

So, back to Aynsley Lister.  He was even better than I expected; he writes, sings and plays beautifully live and, even playing a support set, he’s so engaging that he wins over the audience from the outset.  You really should have a listen to “Home” for starters and then make the effort to get out and see him live.  His tour dates to the end of 2013 are:

September

05/09/13     WIMBORNE                 Tivoli Theatre           www.tivoliwimborne.co.uk

06/09/13     PUTNEY                       Half Moon                www.halfmoon.co.uk

13/09/13     MILTON KEYNES       Stables Theatre        www.stables.org

14/09/13     SOUTHAMPTON        The Brook                www.the-brook.com

15/09/13     DARLINGTON             R&B Festival

20/09/13     BLAKENEY                  Harbour Rooms       www.blakeneyharbourroom.co.uk

21/09/13     IMMINGHAM               Golf Club

26/09/13     FARNHAM                   The Maltings            www.boogaloopromotions.com

27/09/13     SUTTON                      Boom Boom Club    www.feenstra.co.uk

November

07/11/13       CHISLEHURST         Beaverwood Club  www.feenstra.co.uk

08/11/13       KENDAL                     Bootleggers           www.bootleggersbar.com

12/11/13       CHESTER                  Telfords                 www.telfordswarehousechester.com

16/11/13       PRESTON                  53 Degrees            www.53degrees.net

22/11/13       YORK                        The Duchess          www.theduchessyork.co.uk

23/11/13       REETH                       Buck Hotel             www.buckhotel.co.uk

29/11/13       NEWCASTLE            The Cluny               www.thecluny.com

December

01/12/13       EDINBURGH            The Caves              www.thecavesedinburgh.co.uk

05/12/13       FARNHAM                The Maltings           www.boogaloopromotions.co.uk

06/12/13       DERBY                      The Flowerpot        www.rawpromo.co.uk

 

I may even see you there.

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.

Product DetailsOne half of eccentric hip-hop due OutKast, this is Big Boi’s second solo album (Andre 3000 has yet to release his debut) following the acclaimed, sturdy and bombastic ‘Sir Ludicrous Left Foot’ from 2 years ago. “Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumours” main selling point is that, unlike his debut, Big Boi has, this time round, chosen high profile but still relatively underground indie stars to work with and less dependence on his contemporaries within the hip-hop or rap genre. This is not necessarily a surprise as his dream collaborator is Kate Bush, something he has spoken about many times and his adoration and knowledge of Bush’s work is that of a committed fan boy.

“Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumours” is in fact a very broad record, it has massive pop choruses (see in particular the joyous New Edition-indebted, and featuring Kelly Rowland vocal, “Mama Told Me”) and is commercial in a way that the two most predominant guests here, terminally hip Little Dragon and Portishead-lite, US trip-hoppers Phantogram, within the confines of their own work are not. It continues to confirm that Big Boi’s tastes are wide and his love of music generally is far reaching and passionate but there is a compromise sonically here; instead of a union of creative talent on some of these overly crowded tracks there seems to be a disconnect.

Phantogram and Little Dragon generously get 3 songs each and their tracks also featured rappers such as Killer Mike and Lana Del Rey favourite and rap’s next Superstar, ASAP Rocky. On the plus side “Objectum Sexuality” establishes an insistent and funky groove, a silly rap (‘we’re playing doctor but with no stethoscope, just heels and knockers’) and Phantogram delivering one of the strongest and most charismatic choruses here and the short, punching “Higher Res” featuring Little Dragon (only available on the Deluxe version kids!) is one of the few excitingly and genuinely experimental tracks here, vocals and beats continually slipping in and out of view, and hints at what could have been. “CPU” (Phantogram again) is a mess and in respect to the new, mainstream electronic ‘genre’, which this incorporates (EDM), already sounds dated and the overloaded, albeit satisfyingly thick and nasty sounding. “Thom Pettie” leaves Little Dragon sounding completely uninvolved and un-catered for.

Shoes for Running” features Wavves (I’ve never heard of them but they sound like Green Day to these ears which, in itself, is problematic) and is the musical equivalent of a scrappy kids cartoon and not just because it features children singing on the final chorus; it isn’t good by any stretch of the imagination. Some of the best stuff here features Big Boi and his male contemporaries only.  “In the A” is superb, brassy and scorching and “Raspberries” is a woozy, filthy and funny delight. Big Boi’s own performance throughout is top notch and the only consistent element here, he is charismatic and smart and can dominate his own material with no the need for the many helping hands he insists on this time around.

This album reminds me of one those albums by DJ’s or dance acts that were particularly prominent in the mid-nineties that had many high profile ‘featuring’ tracks but failed to deliver any genuine and successful merging of the talents involved. There are touches of EDM here and there (but nothing too heavy-handed), trip-hop, Prince-influenced funk (touching ballad “Descending” sounds like a “Purple Rain” cast off) and of course hip-hop and R’n’B; it’s a surprisingly easy listen and at times a thoroughly entertaining one but it is rarely essential or forward looking in the way that on paper and based on past evidence suggests it might have been. Imagining she actually does get to hear this, I wouldn’t get my hopes too high for that Kate Bush collaboration happening any time soon.