Alphabetic aren’t having any of that shoegazing malarkey. None of your dreary monochrome, monotone moping; “French Boyfriend” is loud, it’s catchy, you can dance to it and it’s Technicolour. It does what every good single does; it grabs you with intro; eight bars of almost disco drums, organ stabs and a great guitar hook drag you into the first verse where singers Walter Heale and Rebecca Lever deliver their sides of the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses- girl, boy-stalks-girl-with-new-boyfriend story. And it’s glamorous (and a bit sleazy) because it’s set in Paris.
Alphabetic have mixed a lot influences into this song; the guitar has a clean sixties sound while the production tends towards eighties blue-eyed British soul. Imagine The Shadows in a soundclash with Pulp, ABC and The Associates and you won’t be far off the mark; maybe a little Saint Etienne shine as well. This is a great lead track from their upcoming debut album “Touch”, out on July 15th.
We’ve been waiting for this one for a while now, and I’m chuffed to say it was well worth the wait. The second Black Casino and the Ghost album, “Until the Water Runs Clear” is packed with great individual performances, but the great strength is the way they work together as a band. Elisa Zoot’s voice is stunning and Ariel Lerner’s guitar playing is faultless across a range of styles, but Paul Winter-Hart (drums) and Gary Kilminster play a huge part in the band’s sound, supplying the rhythmic pulse and some melodic and inventive basslines.
There are some influences which are woven through the album; there’s more than a hint of sixties pop, and a hint of psychedelia channelled through the trip-hop filter of Portishead and Massive Attack or the shimmering nineties pop of Saint Etienne and Morcheeba. So the obvious opening song is one which sounds like early English folk, isn’t it?
“The Pool” proves that Elisa can do the quieter, more reflective songs as well as the belters, starting with a finger-picked acoustic guitar backing and multi-layered backing vocals, adding shards of percussion, synths and slide guitar before dropping back to the minimalist guitar backing. After the trippy feel of “Age of Contagion” and the monster guitar riff of “Veggie Tarantula” (the two singles so far), it’s a bit of a departure but it’s very effective.
The sixties influence is clearest in “Soul Mall”, the bass-led “Sherry” where Elisa delivers the verses in a cool, almost dismissive style, and “Mr Puppeteer” and “Hoochie Coochie Lover” where Ariel plays in a clipped, precise style that’s very Hank Marvin, or maybe it’s just like Eddie. Apart from the obvious “Lucifer, Lucifer, Lucifer”, there’s a darkness and obsession suffusing the album, and it surfaces in lines like ‘Wish I could skin you, look at what’s in you’ in “Hoochie Coochie Lover”; it’s challenging and not always comfortable but, if comfort’s what you want, you should be listening to Smooth Radio.
There are still a few more stylistic twists and turns to the album; “Tarjeteros” has an Ennio Morricone feel, “Bitter Beast” contrasts a verse with a hint of Bjork with a wall of sound chorus, while the album’s last song, “Solar Storm”, closes the circle with Elisa’s controlled vocal over a sparse arrangement that builds with keyboards and backwards effect before fading into the ether.
I don’t think I’ve heard a better album than “Until the Water Runs Clear” this year; Black Casino and the Ghost have created an album that’s full of hooks to grab your attention, but is full of dark and mystical undercurrents to keep you enthralled.
If you want to see Black Casino and the Ghost live (and you really should), they’re playing at The Finsbury on December 8th and it’s completely free.
Sometimes it’s shocking that a band can be around for nearly ten years playing quality music without ever grabbing your attention; maybe it’s because, contrary to popular belief, there are still hundreds of superb bands out there and it’s just possible to occasionally miss one. So I have to apologise to Stone Foundation; let’s hope I can make up for my shocking ignorance. Before I even start on the music, I have to say that there’s an attitude about the band that evokes the early days of Dexys Midnight Runners; the band page on their website reads like one of Kevin Rowland’s legendary communiqués in the band’s heady early days. There are lots of underplayed references to their influences on the website as well, but you can find those for yourself.
The band members are Neil Jones (vocals, guitar and harmonica), Neil Sheasby (bass), Ian Arnold (Hammond), Philip K Ford (drums), Spencer Hague (trombone), Lynn Thompson (trumpet) and Gary Rollins (saxophone and flute). They’ve been touring as headliners and recently as support to acts like The Specials on their recent arena tour, steadily building up their own fanbase and “To Find the Spirit” is their fifth studio album. This is a band which wears its influences proudly on its sleeve; if it’s remotely soulful and it was made in the 60s or 70s, it’s probably had an influence on Stone Foundation. The playing is of the very highest quality but this isn’t about style over substance and flashy solos; on “To Find the Spirit”, everything is beautifully arranged for the seven-piece ensemble and nothing is out of place. And if that isn’t enough for you, there are guest appearances from soul legend Nolan Porter, 60s icon and soul survivor Andy Fairweather Low, former Dexys bass player Pete Williams, journalist and soulboy Paolo Hewitt and the fabulous former Young Disciple Carleen Anderson.
The album pulls you in instantly with the opening bass, guitar and Hammond crescendo of “To Find the Spirit” leading into a horn arrangement that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Southside Johnny record; to make things better still, it evoked memories of the 70s Natalie Cole classic, “This Will Be”. A pretty good start really. “Bring Back the Happiness” (featuring Nolan Porter) starts with a clean guitar riff and Hammond chords and tips more than a wink to Booker T’s “Time is Tight”. “That’s the Way I Want to Live my Life” again has a lovely Stax feel, presenting us with the rare treat of a trombone solo and you really don’t hear enough of those these days. “When You’re in My World” (featuring Carleen Anderson and the Q Strings) continues in a similar 60s feel with a lovely understated sax solo before the thunderous drum and pure Dexys horn intro leads into “Stronger Than Us”.
“Don’t Let the Rain” is, I suspect quite deliberately, the centrepiece of the album with its laid-back positive message and gradual build-up over nearly nine minutes using all the elements of the band (particularly sax and muted trumpet) in the arrangement, and it’s followed by the slow 60s groove of “Crazy Love”, again featuring a Nolan Porter vocal. “Telepathic Blessing”, with its moody electric piano intro, builds to an ending which has the Hammond and horns working perfectly together. “Hold On”, featuring Andy Fairweather Low, with its mid-tempo feel could be a post-Impressions Curtis Mayfield song and I don’t throw compliments like that around lightly.
“Child of Wonder” is an interesting combination of a surreal Paolo Hewitt rites-of-passage monologue set against a jazz-funk background (built around the bass riff from Roy Budd’s “Get Carter” theme) evoking smoky LA bars lit by out-of focus neon lights. If you’ve heard “Over the Border”, the opening track from the recent Saint Etienne classic album “Words and Music”, you might hear a few similarities. “Wondrous Place”, featuring Pete Williams is the mid-tempo, Hammond and horn-led closer to the album before the bonus Dennis Bovell dub mix of “Don’t Let the Rain”, which creates a lot of space and doesn’t try to compensate with a lot of unnecessary effects.
If you’ve ever liked anything by Booker T and the MGs, Young Disciples, Nuyorican Soul or anything on Stax and Atlantic, then you’ll love this. “To Find the Spirit” is a labour of love where the songs, the performances and the arrangements dovetail perfectly to create a seductive and glorious stew of influences which still sounds vibrant and contemporary.
Released March 10 2014 on Republic of Music, via Universal (CD – TPCD007, Vinyl – TPL007).
If you check out MusicRiot regularly, you’ll know that our contributors have one thing in common; they’re all passionate about (maybe bordering on obsessed by) music. All of the Riot Squad (John Preston, Louie Anderson and, most recently, Klare Stephens) love music of all styles and the reason we do this is because we want to share our passion and maybe get a few more people to listen to the music we love, whether it’s live or recorded. Also, because music is such a personal thing we like to bring that element into our contributions; opinions are always subjective, but at least we’re upfront about it. Often it can feel like shouting in the dark: then you have a weekend like the one I’ve just had.
Last week I published a review of the excellent album “Closer than you Know” by The Kennedys and I was invited to review their gig at Kings Place in London on Friday. I also had a gig lined up for Sunday night, going to watch the Billy Walton Band in High Barnet with some good friends. Both gigs were superb in very different ways; you can read The Kennedys review and previous Billy Walton Band reviews here on MusicRiot and work out for yourself that I’m impressed.
The live performances by these bands, however, are only part of the story. All of the musicians at these two gigs (Pete and Maura Kennedy, Billy Walton, William Paris, Rich Taskowitz and John D’Angelo) are extremely gifted musicians who love what they do and love to interact with their audience personally and online. Both bands mix with the audience when they aren’t actually performing (and sometimes when they are; yeah that’s you Billy and Rich) and have a huge amount of respect for their fans, fellow musicians and songwriters.
Both gigs were superb in different ways; The Kennedys stripped down their songs to arrangements for two acoustic guitars and two voices while the Billy Walton Band played raucous r’n’r (and blues and soul and the rest) in the way that bands from New Jersey do. Both bands were happy to play requests from the audience regardless of the setlist they had prepared. Most importantly, both bands were obviously having a good time. So far, so good, but excellence is pretty much what I expected from these two bands and this weekend was about much more than that.
I’ve been reviewing gigs in London and elsewhere for MusicRiot for six years now and sometimes it can be a bit depressing; you watch incredibly gifted bands and artists performing to audiences which just scrape into three figures and most of them are friends of the band. I’ve been to blues gigs where the majority of the audience at least twice as old as the musicians. It was great to see two very different gigs this weekend where the ages of the audience ranged widely and everyone was there to hear great live music and have a good time. And that brings me on to the reason why we all contribute to MusicRiot.
We don’t ignore the established bands at MusicRiot; we had two reviews of the Daft Punk album last week and we’ve reviewed albums by Bruce Springsteen, Scissor Sisters, Lana del Rey and Saint Etienne in the last year or so. We also love to discover a diverse range of bands and artists that you might not have heard of and tell you all about them so we’ll carry on telling you all about artists like The Kennedys, the Billy Walton Band, MS MR, Sally Shapiro, Tomorrow’s World, Lilygun, Stoneface Travellers, Dean Owens and many more. We’ve even got some pretty good photos for you to look at.
If there’s one lesson that I’ve learned from six years at MusicRiot it’s this; whatever you hear on daytime radio, there’s always good music out there if you know where to look and that’s why the Riot Squad do what they do. And thanks to Richie Taz for the title.
Last time around Little Boots lost out to La Roux and no one was expecting it. Little Boots was hyped to the point where it was inevitable that she would become, at least for a year, a Very Big Star indeed, but this didn’t materialise. Following her big, underground blog hit and debut track “Stuck On Repeat”, still many people’s favourite LB track, the first big, official song “New In Town” came with a misjudged video and after a quick appearance in the top ten, it was gone. RedOne, massive at the time because of his involvement with the newly hatched star Lady Gaga, was roped in to produce the next single “Remedy” (subsequently very popular at the Olympics I’ve been told) and again, another terrible video and another song that failed to dominate. An album, “Hands”, was eventually released to very mixed reviews (it’s actually a very solid debut) and then La Roux crept in and became the Very Big Star with a number 1 single, a number 2 album and USA success resulting in a Grammy. That was, somewhat terrifyingly, 4 years ago now and neither LB nor LR have followed up their debuts; until now that is.
“Nocturnes” is an album that had a considerable history before it was even released; massive rows with record companies, lack of creative control and scrapped sessions finally resulting in Victoria Hesketh aka Little Boots releasing the album herself. One of the reasons for this act of ultimate control was obviously to allow Little Boots to release the album that she has been trying to make for the last 4 years with no absolutely no restrictions or compromises and this is why it is so bewildering that the end product is most definitely and disappointingly a flawed one. Little Boots knows her dance music and with co-writes from members of Hercules and Love Affair and Simian Mobile Disco and the album being produced by Tim Goldsworthy of DFA, sonically this is a change from the first album where Phil Oakey was a guest vocalist and eighties electro synth pop was cited as the main influence. There are overlaps of course but this sounds different. This is an album that wants to take its time and stretch out, languish; two tracks are over 6 mins long (and they are both mid tempos and down-hearted) but Boots is still writing 3 minute pop songs which can rattle around a bit in the overly extended time frames given to them here.
Three of the best songs on “Nocturnes” have been released before but the general tone this time is more serious. “Shake” is a straight-up chunky house track, the structure of the song, the repetition, it’s not a pop song and it holds up; you play this in a club and people dance. “Motorway” sounds like Saint Etienne (Hesketh and Sarah Cracknell also sharing similar sounding vocals) doing Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” (a good thing) and “Every Night I Say a Prayer” is old school vocal house with a lovely, dreamy piano riff. New tracks don’t do as well but “Confusion” has some lovely, intricate details and is a successful stab at disco (unlike the chicken in a basket, flabby Kylie album track, “Beat Beat”) and “Crescendo”, which is a real oddity, a pop ballad stretched out to 6 minutes that is lovely and sad for about 4 of those until it starts to morph into Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” and things become stretched to breaking point. The songs are here on the whole but the energy is oddly not, which is by far the biggest difference between this and her debut, and this is meant to be a dance album. Minutes go by where nothing happens and awkward synth lines or a lonely syndrum fill time where anther song could have taken their place; she must have written more than 10 in the last 4 years?
Little Boots reminds me of Cocknbullkid, another young, talented British singer-songwriter who has failed to engage with their target audience. Both are slightly self-conscious, intelligent women who can’t seem to fully inhabit the role required to be a successful pop star; arrogance and posturing is absent and it isn’t just this aspect that La Roux gets right. She is admittedly outspoken but she also has an almost instant iconic appearance which she knowingly, smartly exploits. I doubt most people could identify Hesketh by picture only, music lover or Daily Mail reader. Boots’ strength is her song writing and “Nocturnes” will establish her place in the touring circuit as a dedicated artist that needs to create and I hope she finds a way to continue to do this without becoming the massive pop star that initially it looked like she would be.
We’ve heard and read a lot this year about the death of the album as a format. Well, we’re having none of that at Riot Towers; as far as we’re concerned the album is still alive and kicking (and none of your download nonsense either). The site contributors have all put together their favourite fives of the year and we’re sharing our choices with you as a little festive thank you. As the most senior (oldest) contributor, I get to open the batting for the Riot Squad 2012 favourites. I can’t even attempt to rank these so here we go, in alphabetical order by title. You can find reviews of all of these albums on the site.
This is one of two debut albums in my Top Five for 2012. Natalie’s a superb singer and a great piano player but the songs are something else. Some are observational such as the superb “Old Rock” while others appear to be very personal (“Uncomfortable Silence”); what they have in common is that they are all superbly-crafted songs which work equally well when orchestrated on the album or played live with a smaller drums/bass/guitar/piano set-up. You should really make the effort to see Natalie Duncan live in 2013.
Paul Carrack has been one of my favourite singers for longer than I care to admit so I approached this with a bit of caution; there’s always a chance that an album like this can disappoint. I didn’t need to worry because this blend of originals, songwriting collaborations and covers is absolutely superb. His voice is as stunning as it was 40 years ago and he’s great keyboard player and good guitar player; it’s sickening really. It’s worth buying for the voice alone, but there’s so much more to admire here, particularly the Nick Lowe song “From Now On” and Springsteen’s “If I Fall Behind”.
Another debut album, this time from a band that defies classification. I still don’t know whether this is indie, goth, rock, emo or any combination of the above. What I do know is that it’s melodic, inventive, dynamic and original and the band is great live as well. My first contact with Lilygun was a review of the single “Moonlight” and I’ve seen quite a lot of the band since. This is an album where you don’t shuffle the tracks; it’s programmed to tell a story from the first to the final track and that’s how you need to listen to it. Also featured on the album is the live favourite “Scum”.
This seemed to come out of nowhere in the autumn of this year. All of the band members have been doing their own thing for years and the only motivation for this project was love of the music. Ricky Ross provided the strongest set of songs he’s written in years and they were recorded live in the studio; the result was an album which was fresh, immediate and memorable. I know you can’t rewrite history, but I wish this had been the second Deacon Blue album rather than the slightly bombastic “When the World Knows your Name” (and I’m not saying that’s a bad album). The songs here are much more personal; “Is There No Way Back to You?” and “Laura From Memory” are written in the first person and the ironically- titled “The Hipsters” (the best summer song of 2012) is neatly counterbalanced with the more accurate description of “The Outsiders”. However you look at it, it’s a great album.
This was the soundtrack to my summer this year. I’ve always loved Saint Etienne but I hadn’t really expected to hear any significant new material from them; This was quite a surprise. It’s the perfect package; great songs which are nostalgic but never mawkish with enough references to satisfy any pop trainspotter and the best artwork of the year. From the scene-setting opener “Over the Border”, the album explores the soul of the music obsessive through the great settings of Wiggs and Stanley and Sarah Cracknell’s perfect voice. As with every other album on this list, there isn’t any filler here but, if I have to pick a few standout tracks then “Tonight”, “Answer Song” and “Popular” should do nicely.
Ok I said Top 5, but I also need to give a mention to Dean Owens who released 2 great albums this year (“New York Hummingbird” and Cash Back”) which were both reviewed as 4-star albums. Nobody else managed that particular feat. So, does anyone still want to tell me that the album’s a dead format?
5 piece Canadian band Stars are now onto their sixth studio album, “The North”, which is the follow up to 2010’s in part lacklustre “The Five Ghosts” (even the weakest Stars album contains at least a handful of fantastic songs). There’s something very British and very old fashioned about the Stars although they have never had commercial success in this country and there’s no reason why that should change now. They sound like a look of bands that were big in UK pop around the late eighties (The Smiths are actually referred to on the final track ‘The Wall’ and Saint Etienne may want some of their middle eights back) and favour the male/female verse-sharing most effectively employed by The Human League along with the same predominantly electronic soundscape and they can be pretty broad. Don’t think Crystal Castles more say The Beautiful South without the whimsy, on occasion at least; Stars are pretty hung up on nostalgia.
Opening track “The Theory Of Relativity” confidently sets the 1988 drum machine rolling and the union of Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell is fully established and intact by the minute and a half mark; it’s a glorious one and the ‘a warm standing ovation please for the dude who sold us ecstasy, he’s building homes now in the new third world’ line confirms the usual themes of past and present, suburbia versus the city with the man-child struggling with the overdue burden of adulthood, like a slightly less depressed and analytical Arcade Fire. On the similar “Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It” you can’t help but hear New Order, but both songs hold their own without being pastiches. It’s the only time that something so big musically is attempted therefore making the second half of the album more introverted and complex and this is boosted a great deal by the solo tracks handled by Amy Millan, which seems like a realisation by the band that she should be given more songs as each album passes. She handles both the jangly warmth of “Backlines” and the chippy, flinty cool of “Progress” impeccably, not a major voice but an extremely affecting one.
The centre of the album is presented almost as a suite of 3 tracks that bleed into each other beginning with the fatalistic 1950’s strum of “Do You Want To Die Together?” which collapses into the Cyndi Lauperish “Lights Changing Colour” and then the blurry ambience of “The Loose Ends Will Make Knots” with it’s disconcerting, underlining synth line, ghostly reminiscent of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. It demonstrates how this band have matured and can now allow themselves some breathing space in between all of the intensity.
Stars’ masterpiece is generally considered to be 2005’s “Set Yourself On Fire” which is a much more full bodied, bombastic album than “The North” but I think I prefer this direction; the small but careful details (the string arrangement of Backlines is so intricate and beautiful) have paid off and encourage you to come back time and again noticing new elements on each new listen. If you don’t own anything else by the group then pick this up, it’s a perfect representation of some of their best work to date and will help keep you in warm in the forthcoming months.