troubled diva  

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Recently: VV Brown, Alabama 3, Just Jack, Phantom Band, Frankmusik, Twilight Sad, Slaid Cleaves, Alesha Dixon, Bellowhead, The Unthanks, Dizzee Rascal.

On Thursday September 17th, I danced on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Click here to watch, and here to listen.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Albums of 2009.

Here's a Spotify playlist, containing a sample track from 33 of these albums.

1. Live In London - Leonard Cohen
2. Vertical Ascent - Moritz von Oswald Trio
3. Here's The Tender Coming - The Unthanks
4. Tres Tres Fort - Staff Benda Bilili
5. The xx - The xx
6. Bitte Orca - Dirty Projectors
7. Warm Heart Of Africa - The Very Best
8. II - Lindstrom & Prins Thomas
9. BLACKsummers'night - Maxwell
10. Le Suivant - Smith & Mudd
11. Origin:Orphan - Hidden Cameras
12. Arc Light - Lau
13. Checkmate Savage - The Phantom Band
14. Yesterday And Today - The Field
15. Tarot Sport - Fuck Buttons
16. Merriweather Post Pavillion - Animal Collective
17. Troyka - Troyka
18. La Roux - La Roux
19. The Fame Monster - Lady GaGa
20. My Maudlin Career - Camera Obscura
21. The Glare - McAlmont & Nyman
22. The Middle Way - Keaver & Brause
23. Imidiwan: Companions - Tinariwen
24. Two Suns - Bat For Lashes
25. Inspiration Information - Mulatu Astatke & the Heliocentrics
26. 2032 - Gong
27. The Future Will Come - The Juan Maclean
28. Two Dancers - Wild Beasts
29. Vagarosa - CéU
30. Ready For The Weekend - Calvin Harris
31. Hands - Little Boots
32. Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast - Cornershop
33. JJ N° 2 - JJ
34. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - Phoenix
35. Fever Ray - Fever Ray
36. Party Hard - Donae'o
37. See Mystery Lights - YACHT
38. Real Life Is No Cool - Lindstrom & Christabelle
39. The Glass Bead Game - James Blackshaw
40. It's Not Me, It's You - Lily Allen

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Natalie Duncan: EP review.

Natalie Duncan – 5 track EP.
Farmyard Records

Natalie is a 20-year old singer and keyboardist from Nottingham, who has been making steady progress on the local live circuit. Her debut release showcases five original compositions, four of which are performed with a full band: saxophone, cello, flute, bass and drums.

There’s something breezy and yet melancholic about the arrangements, which blend soul and jazz influences with a more folky, acoustic approach. Natalie’s vocal style might loosely belong within the Bille Holiday / Nina Simone / Aretha Franklin tradition, but she also brings something uniquely of her own to the table. Her songs are complex and contemplative, resisting easy interpretations. At times, you feel that she is singing more to herself than to an outside audience, and there’s a diffidence to her approach that does place certain a barrier between herself and the listener. Nevertheless, Natalie’s slow-burning passion and unarguable talent make this EP an absorbing and refreshing delight.

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Keaver & Brause - The Middle Way.

The Middle Way
Keaver & Brause
Dealmaker Records

Once known mainly for its hip-hop output, Nottingham’s excellent Dealmaker Records have recently been branching out into leftfield, downtempo electronica. Following last year’s well-received album from Lone, fellow Nottingham artists Keaver & Brause make their debut with a similarly flavoured and equally absorbing collection of short instrumental cuts, which evoke the feel of woozy, hazy afternoons in the heat of the summer sunshine.

On first hearings, the album manages to be both relaxing and unsettling at the same time. The beats might be mellow, but the dissonant samples, unexpected stops and starts and occasional rasping acid bass lines guard against any blandness. With each repeated playing, these elements sound progressively less awkward and more integral, making The Middle Way a slow-burning and richly rewarding delight. If you’ve been missing Boards Of Canada, then this may well be the album for you.

Available from

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mike's albums of 2008.

Ah, what a list this is! From where I'm sitting, this has been a stunning year for albums, nudging me to conclude that 2008 has perhaps been this decade's finest year for music.

(The one disappointment has been the lack of African music - but then I did rather take my off the ball in that regard, having Mali-ed myself out by the end of 2007.)

1. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid

An album I rate from a genre I hate (middle-youth indie-lite mope-rock, to be precise). Piercingly honest, palpably heartfelt songs of love, loss, loneliness, friendship and second chances. Pitch-perfect performances, exquisitely produced. You owe it to yourselves to see them live. (But maybe not at Wembley Arena in March. I can't see how the intimacy would scale up.)

2. Late of the Pier - Fantasy Black Channel

Local boys done good (for once). Everything that the Klaxons promised, but didn't deliver. Rowdy and screechy and all over the place. Am I supposed to be too old for this sort of thing?

3. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend

You have to be wary of albums which knock you out on the first listen, as this usually signifies a series of rapidly diminishing returns. And sure enough, I did reach a point over the summer where this felt somewhat played out. As it turned out, this was nothing that a couple of months of "laying down" couldn't cure. An obvious pick, but the critical consensus got it right on this one.

4. Lindstrøm - Where You Go I Go Too

Perfect travelling music: epic, expansive, atmospheric, with slow builds towards intensely pleasurable peaks. (I want to say "soundscapes", but it's such a wanky word.) Is this Cosmic Disco, Nu-Balearica, or both, or neither? It's so hard to keep track of these things. Shades of Jean-Michel Jarre and Jan Hammer along the way, and I never thought I'd be mentioning them in a positive context.

5. Hercules & Love Affair - Hercules & Love Affair

Smart, sexy, moody New York neo-disco, from the ones who got away on the gig-going front. (Did they HAVE to come to town on the same night as Public Enemy?)

6. Portishead - Third

I have to be in a Certain Mood for it, stark bleakness not being my strongest aesthetic suit. Consequently, this is my least played album in the top ten. But when the mood is right, the effect is staggering. If I were but starker and bleaker, this would have topped the list.

7. The Hold Steady - Stay Positive

I've had to vault the bar of their Springsteen-isms, and it's a bar which prevented me from getting to grips with their earlier work - but there's something new here (an expansiveness? an authority? an added depth and weight?) which keeps pulling me back, and a seemingly bottomless lyrical and conceptual richness which should keep me returning in weeks to come. In this context, Craig Finn's comment that "hopefully on someone’s 75th listen, they get something that they didn’t get out of the 74th" is most reassuring. There's no rush. Give it time.

8. Lone - Lemurian

Woozy, hazy, sun-bleached wonkiness from Nottingham's king of the wow and the flutter. An imaginary soundtrack for the summer that never was.

9. Barry Adamson - Back To The Cat

Did I just say "imaginary soundtrack"? Perplexingly overlooked film noir magnificence.

10. Bellowhead - Matachin

English folk done in a big band style, by a veritable supergroup drawn from folk's new breed (Spiers, Boden, the boys from Faustus). Jollier than its more Brechtian predecessor, and hence my feelgood album of choice for that crucial first beer on a Saturday evening.

11. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
12. Solange Knowles - Sol-Angel And The Hadley St. Dreams
13. Grace Jones - Hurricane
14. Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir - Ten Thousand
15. Lau - Lau Live
16. The Dodos - Visiter
17. Geeneus - Volumes One
18. Amadou & Mariam - Welcome To Mali
19. The P Brothers - The Gas
20. The Bug - The Zoo

21. Laura Marling - Alas, I Cannot Swim
22. Joan As Polce Woman - To Survive
23. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
24. Martha Wainwright - I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too
25. British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music?
26. Goldfrapp - Seventh Tree
27. Neil Diamond - Home Before Dark
28. Paul Weller - 22 Dreams
29. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
30. Rokia Traoré - Tchamantché

31. Estelle - Shine
32. Lambchop - OH (Ohio)
33. Jamie Lidell - Jim
34. Benga - Diary of an Afro Warrior
35. The Breeders - Mountain Battles
36. Various / Fred Deakin - Nu Balearica
37. Mary Hampton - My Mother's Children
38. Shearwater - Rook
39. Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak
40. Teddy Thompson - A Piece of What You Need

41. Drever, McCusker, Woomble - Before The Ruin
42. Faustus - Faustus
43. Kelley Polar - I Need You To Hold On While The Sky Is Falling
44. Camille - Music Hole
45. Various / Charles Webster - Defected presents Charles Webster
46. Friendly Fires - Friendly Fires
47. System 7 - Phoenix
48. The Ting Tings - We Started Nothing
49. Scooter - Jumping All Over The World
50. The Rascals - Rascalize

And what were your favourites? Do tell.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Kevin Ayers - Songs For Insane Times (An Anthology) 1969-1980.

In a fairer world, Kevin Ayers would enjoy the widespread acclaim of a Martyn or a Reed. Had tragedy struck, we would reverently file him next to Barrett and Drake. Instead, Ayers has carved out his own singular, defiantly low-key niche, seemingly destined to remain under the popular radar.

For the uninitiated, this four-disc set offers an expertly chosen overview of the Ayers glory years. The earliest material combines post-psychedelic pastoralism with veiled menace, flitting between nostalgic whimsy and radical experimentation. As the early Seventies progress, the songwriting deepens and matures, its easy tunefulness concealing rich seams of romantic idealism and wry cynicism.

By the mid-Seventies, stardom began to beckon. Unimpressed by its false promises, and temperamentally ill-suited to the rigours of self-promotion, Ayers slowly retreated. Overlooked by all but the committed few, there are still shining nuggets to be mined from the patchier later work, as ably demonstrated here.

A previously unreleased and quite magnificent 1973 concert performance completes the package, showcasing the cult hero at the height of his powers.


(Extended fanboy witterings still to be appended....)

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Lone - Lemurian.

(I wrote this a while ago for the newspaper - but then their album reviews section was binned for a couple of weeks, so it never saw the light of day. Always good to have somewhere else to park it...)

Having established himself on the UK hip hop scene with Kids In Tracksuits, Nottingham musician Matt Cutler is now branching out on his own, with a fresh, intriguing new take on chilled out electronica. Named after the mythical lost island of Lemuria, and sporting titles such as Atoll Mirrored, Lens Flare Lagoon and Buried Coral Banks, the album successfully evokes images of sun-drenched seascapes, shimmering reefs, and the woozy heat hazes of high summer.

The seventeen short tracks resemble a series of sketches, taking a few simple ideas and developing them without excessive elaboration. Crunchy beats add grit to the sweetness, as does Cutler’s fondness for introducing dissonant effects that sound like samples from heat-warped vinyl or dashboard-baked cassette tape. Although initially disconcerting, there’s something compelling and beautiful about this kind of sonic experimentation. Immediate comparisons with Boards of Canada spring to mind, but Cutler’s added wows and flutters take his music to a whole new place.

A potential landmark release for Nottingham’s Dealmaker label, Lemurian is a bold yet understated treat.


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Friday, August 08, 2008

Ten Thousand - Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir.

Listening to this rootsy, rambunctious take on pre-WWII Mississippi Delta blues and Appalachian “mountain music”, you’d never guess that its practitioners hailed from a different set of mountains, several thousand miles northwards. As it turns out, the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir have transplanted the music of the Deep South up to their native Calgary in Canada, where they have developed their own twists on tradition.

Recorded mostly live, and overdubbed with bursts of slide guitar and dilapidated junk shop trombone, the mostly self-penned songs tend towards the fast and furious, adding an almost punk-rock energy while paying clear nods to Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart. It comes as no surprise that Seasick Steve has already voiced his approval.

This album’s appeal lies less with song craft and emotional range – the mood being uniformly joyous throughout – and more with the sheer pleasure to be had from the band’s playing. On the strength of this hugely enjoyable set, next Wednesday’s show at the Bodega should be well worth catching.


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Friday, July 04, 2008

The Rascals: Rascalize.

Fresh from his recent chart-topping collaboration with Alex Turner (as the Last Shadow Puppets), Miles Kane has returned to his day job band, for what amounts to his second consecutive debut album. As you might expect from such close kindred spirits, Kane covers similar stylistic ground to Turner’s Arctic Monkeys. The lyrics are wryly observational, the vocals are sardonically Northern, and both bands specialise in the same kind of rattling, rumbling uptempo indie-rock.

That said, there’s more of a late 1950s/early 1960s retro feel to Kane’s outfit, with nods to Link Wray and The Shadows, and copious usage of the whammy bar. And while Alex tends towards hard-bitten cynicism, Miles plays the part of the wide-eyed innocent, “people watching” in cafés (Does Your Husband Know That You’re On The Run?) and chronicling the ramblings of a random nutter at an after-hours party (Freakbeat Phantom).


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Friday, May 16, 2008

Defected Presents Charles Webster.

Various, mixed by Charles Webster (3xCD)
**** (***** for the "Lounge" CD)

For devotees of the deep house underground, local hero Charles Webster needs no introduction. For everyone else, this triple set forms an ideal starting point for anyone wishing to investigate the man and his music. Webster’s stock in trade is soulful, spiritual house music: light on banging beats and formulaic breakdowns, but suffused with a subtle, sinuous vibe that lends itself well to home listening.

The “Club” CD re-creates a typical Webster DJ set, mixing popular favourites from Kings Of Tomorrow and Rosie Gaines with long-standing cult heroes such as Blaze, Moodymann and Matthew Herbert. The “Studio” CD showcases his music-making career, and features several previously unreleased mixes.

Best of all, a truly superb “Lounge” CD makes connections between 1970s acoustic folk (Vashti Bunyan, John Martyn and even an unusually chilled out Black Sabbath), ambient electronica, soul, jazz and rock, offering a glimpse into Webster’s musical heritage, and his interests outside dance music.

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Ultimate Eurovision Party.

Various Artists (2xCD)
Sony BMG

Now that Eurovision season is upon us, what better way could there be to get revved up for next weekend’s finals, than by re-visiting 42 of the contest’s past glories on this handily timed double CD? Bearing in mind our natural patriotic bias, the compilers have done a commendably even-handed job, with over half the selections coming from that scary place known as “abroad”.

Kicking off with Abba’s immortal Waterloo, CD1 focuses mostly on the 1970s, with occasional forays into ancient history: Sandie Shaw, Lulu, and Cliff Richard’s newly controversial runner-up Congratulations. CD2 divides neatly between the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, including Finland’s monster-masked heavy metallers, Israel’s fierce transgendered diva, and Ukraine’s bacofoiled Christopher Biggins lookey-likey. The “party” only comes unstuck towards the end, with a sequence of drippy, buzz-killing ballads, but for the most part this is a rollicking good soundtrack for internationally themed finger buffets everywhere.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Interview: Alison Moyet.

Of all the people that I interviewed last year, Alison Moyet wins the award for the interviewee I'd most like to go down the pub with. Warm, earthy and direct, with a wicked laugh, I took to her from the off - and I could happily have gone on talking to her for twice as long. (This was also the only occasion to date where I ran out of time to get through all my questions, as I wasn't expecting such detailed and thoughtful responses.)

What follows is an extended remix of the version that ended up in the newspaper - including a lengthy first section, in which we talk about a subject that is particularly dear to my heart. Chauffe Alison, chauffe!

Before we talk about the new album, I want to ask about your blog, Letters Home. As a blogger myself, I’ve been enjoying reading it. Do you enjoy having a place to vent your spleen, and to communicate directly with your audience?

Yeah, I do. It’s a funny thing: you’re aware that people are reading it, but at the same time, there’s this feeling that you’re still at home with it, and you’re saying it to yourself. Do you know what I mean by that?

I know exactly what you mean. It’s like you’re in the confessional booth…

You have a greater honesty. You can use a language that you might not use somewhere else, but that is your own language.

You have a very particular writing style, which comes across well. I perceive you differently from having read the blog, I think.

I think a lot of people have got that, and that’s one of the great things about having it. Being in the public eye, there’s sometimes an intimidation about being on the television or speaking to a journalist, which can curtail your natural language. The fact that I’m also a bit of an insular character means that I stutter and start, and can’t always be particularly cohesive in a public forum – and so when I’m on my own, just writing, it’s all much clearer to me.

And you don’t have to be consistent, either. There are pieces written in different styles, and it’s however you feel on that day.

Absolutely. The record company said I should do something every day, but I said that wasn’t the point. I’m not doing it to pull anybody in. I’ll write when I feel like there’s something that strikes me, and when I’ve got something to say. The only reason it’s readable is because you’re not particularly searching for something to say.

I’ve seen so-called “celebrity blogs” before, and they can be very PR-driven.

Either that or they’re like a diary, and I’ve no interest in that. My life is no different to anybody else’s, and it sometimes makes me laugh when you come across people who say: why don’t you go and do a photo session for Hello, for example. Oh yeah, here’s me by a Dust Bunny! Here’s me by a pile of laundry! Your life is no more interesting than anybody else’s. You just have these kinds of little actions, these little activities that people will find fascinating, because they’re different to what they do. You see what I mean now? I can’t even be coherent! (laughs)

Well, it’s smoke and mirrors in a way. You give people the feeling that they’re really getting an insight into you, but actually you’re controlling what you put out about yourself.

Of course you can be controlling – but more to the point, you can be concise. You can think about what it is that you really mean. If there’s something that I really didn’t want to expose, then I just wouldn’t write about it. So the things that I do write about are things where I’m really happy to tell it like it is.

Do you read other blogs? Do you take part in that kind of community building aspect?

No, I can’t say that I do – because in some ways, it’s something that I’m writing to myself. It’s for when I feel like a rant, and I don’t have any ears that are listening to me. My husband’s got no interest in me going “nyeh nyeh nyeh”, the kids are too self-absorbed…

So it’s like: go tell it to the PC!

Exactly. I have other areas, though. I go onto forums, and I’ve got an Internet fan base, and we’ll be pretty straight with one another. I kind of like that. That fulfils the role that I might have had on the Internet, had I not been somebody that was known. What I like about doing it with the fans is not because I’m looking for someone to tell me that I’m great, but it’s about people who have, in a way, gotten over who I am. If I was to go somewhere else, and write with another group of people, then I would do it under a disguise – but then you could never be completely open with anybody, because you wouldn’t be telling the truth about who you are. And if you do tell the truth about who you are, then you’ve almost kind of separated yourself.

Those people who write a personal blog under a disguise will all too often come a cropper, because there’s some identifying detail that gets traced back to them. It’s a very dangerous strategy.

There are some things that I’ll choose not to say. For example, people have wondered why I don’t write a biography. But my kids have got different dads, and we’ll have had altercations during that time. So you could sit there and dive into another human being, or you can say: well actually, that’s somebody that somebody who’s close to me cares about. I’m not going to share somebody else’s life with you.

And what need are you fulfilling on the part of a reader? What insight are they going to gain by rifling through the dirty laundry, if you like?

Exactly. Why would you want to do that? Why would you do that to your kids, or to anybody you’ve ever cared for, you know?

And then you cross a line, and then people can use the defence of: oh well, she makes herself a public figure, so we can dig all the dirt we want.


OK, let’s talk about your new album, The Turn. There was a mix-up in getting a promo copy to me, so I actually went out and bought it. With my own money! In a shop!

Thank you! Let’s hope you can charge somebody for it, eh? (laughter)

I think there might be a few meanings associated with the title. Obviously, there’s you as the cabaret “turn”, posing in your feather boa on the sleeve. I presume that no menopausal reference is intended, though. I mean, it’s not called The Change…

(Laughter) That’s one I hadn’t thought of. I probably would have used that if I had! But the thing about The Turn is that, if you look in that face, there’s something kind of resilient and tragic about it, all at the same time. It’s the idea of being a 46-year old, and still having to shake your arse out there, and still having to sell yourself, even when you’d really like to say to someone, why don’t you just f**k off? You’ve still got to take it up the arse sometimes. Whatever anyone says, when they talk about never compromising themselves, that’s just not true. In every walk of public life, there is a compromise. And that compromise is what makes one a “turn”.

But for me, what I can genuinely say to you, hand on my heart, is that musically, I haven’t compromised. There are other compromises that you make.

Well, your whole career took a “turn”. After an eight-year hiatus, you’re now well into Chapter Two, which seems to be much more about establishing artistic control, and making the music which you want to make. You’ve also indicated that this is your favourite album to date. Why so, and why now?

It’s something that you can say with every new love affair. You’ll tell them that you love them better than you’ve ever loved anybody else, and at that point it’s probably true – but you’ve also been at that point with somebody else at another time. It’s just that time has rid you of it.

Going back to why I think this is my best record: firstly, I’m singing much better than I have sung before. As for the lyrics, I’ve always been slightly anal about them. It’s always been important to me to make a lyric intelligent. Sometimes I’ve succeeded in that, and sometimes, due to my lack of education or my lack of nous, it hasn’t happened. But there has been a progress, and it has been something that I’ve been going towards. With this album, I’ve tried to write intelligent lyrics, but ones that lose the self-conscious obliqueness that is present in some of my older work. And so lyrically – as a kind of prose, or as verse – it’s my most coherent work.

I have approached this whole record as a melodic collection – and melodically, I feel that there’s great form and great shape. I think there’s passion, and I think there’s restraint, and I think there’s intelligence.

It certainly pushes the envelope a bit further than I was expecting. I’ve not followed every inch of your career over the years, and so it took me somewhat by surprise. Vocally, a different quality is coming out in your singing. There’s something about the technique, and the precision, which has maybe come after all the stage work that you’ve done. Has that had an impact on the way that you approach your singing?

The reason why the stage work has helped is that up until then, I had never got to work consistently. Instead, I would have these little bursts of activity. I might do a thirty date tour, and then I wouldn’t work again for three years. I could never learn from the previous experience, because you always have to go back a step and build yourself back up – and just as you’re ready to start learning again, the work stops.

The great thing about doing theatre – seven shows a week, for eight months – is that every night, I was learning, and adjusting, and applying. By the end of it all, I had lost any residue of the stage fright that I used to have. That’s one of the most important things for a singer, because when you’re frightened, your larynx is up. It’s as simple as that: all of the stress goes into the voice, and so the whole time that I was touring, I was completely neurotic and paranoid that the voice was going to go, and that I was going to cancel a show. So it’s just learning how to get rid of that fear, dropping the larynx, and just singing with an open throat. Obviously, as I’ve got older my voice has dropped anyway – but there’s just less fear in it, and I’m more able to manipulate it.

What is interesting is that people will see that I’m singing differently, but they might not realise that I’m singing differently for that record. I can still do all the other stuff, but for that particular project I choose not to. For the next one, I very possibly would do again.

There’s also a marriage between the tone of your voice and the age that you’ve reached. When you first came out, there was that slight disconnect: an old voice, but on young shoulders. In a way, it’s like what happened when Joss Stone first appeared. But now I think the two have melded together very successfully.

I think that with Joss Stone, there is an element of being a tribute singer. You can hear that with a lot of young singers. You can hear who they’ve been listening to.

But they haven’t lived it yet.

Yeah. You hear their influences, and what they’re doing is moulding their voice to suit the style that they enjoy listening to. When I first started singing, I was listening to a lot of British R&B such as Doctor Feelgood – but also to people like Sonny Boy Williamson and Billy Boy Arnold, so there was that slight American twang on an estuary voice.

As I’ve gotten older, two things have happened. One is that I’ve become very protective about my English accent, and I’ve become determined never to sing with an American accent. People often see that as being an older approach. It’s absolutely not; it’s just claiming your nationality. The other fact is recognising what you are as an instrument, and the sound that your body makes. If you’re a cello, you can sit there and mimic a flute as much as you like – but it’s not until you recognise that you’re a cello, and try to make the sound that cellos make, that you’ll find what your voice is.

But you’re also blending in some of your French influences on the album – by including the veteran French accordionist, Marcel Azzola, for instance. He certainly plays well for eighty.

It was the most incredible thing. He played on Jacques Brel’s Vesoul. When Brel is going “Chauffe Marcel, chauffe!, that’s who he’s talking to.

French music has been a big influence – but more than that, it was my French upbringing. Culturally speaking, I most definitely had a French upbringing. In the same way, I suppose British Asians could say that culturally they’ve been brought up as Asian, but that they’re British and that their British culture comes from a different place. That’s what it was like for me. Outside of the home, my reference points were British, but inside the home they were French.

My family was very heated. There was no restraint. I wished to God there had been restraint, many a time, but everything was on the surface of everyone’s skins. It was in your face all the time. As such it informed my music, and so I never felt self-conscious about emotional display.

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Rufus Wainwright - Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall

Following the recent DVD release of his London Palladium show, Wainwright fans can now enjoy a double CD version of his widely acclaimed song-by-song re-creation of Judy Garland’s 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall, as recorded at that very venue in 2006. Given that this was his debut performance, the practised slickness of the London shows can’t quite be matched – but the sheer excitement in the air is tangible, and not lessened by the occasional fluff or re-start. As with the DVD, Rufus’s emotional rendition of Noel Coward’s If Love Were All is both the highlight and the evening’s turning point – although two songs later, his sister Martha threatens to blow him off stage with a truly incandescent Stormy Weather. Touching sleeve notes from Wainwright’s mother Kate McGarrigle complete the package.


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British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music?

Never shy of making somewhat grandiose claims for their music, British Sea Power’s third album sees them addressing some fairly weighty themes, ranging from quantum theory (on Atom) to Eastern European migration (on the anthemic current single Waving Flags). Of course, by flagging your work as Big And Important and suchlike, you also run the risk of promising more than you can deliver. Although this risk has just about been avoided, prepare to be initially underwhelmed by the somewhat generic material on offer (Arcade Fire, anyone?), which sounds as if it has been made by pale and earnest young men in big overcoats, gazing out to sea from a suitably craggy cliff-top. Give it time though, and the undeniable power and majesty of the music will eventually win you over.


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Monday, December 31, 2007

Mike's albums of 2007.

1. The Unfairground - Kevin Ayers
2. Sound Of Silver - LCD Soundsystem
3. Release The Stars - Rufus Wainwright
4. The Bairns - Rachel Unthank And The Winterset
5. The Good The Bad & The Queen - The Good The Bad & The Queen
6. Raising Sand - Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
7. Because I Love It - Amerie
8. Hissing Fauna, You Are The Destroyer - Of Montreal
9. Stardom Road - Marc Almond
10. Aman Iman: Water Is Life - Tinariwen
11. Mirrored - Battles
12. The Reminder - Feist
13. Holy Fuck - Holy Fuck
14. Good Girl Gone Bad - Rihanna
15. Untrue - Burial
16. Apples - June Tabor
17. Late December - Maria McKee
18. Curse Of The Laze - The Laze
19. Cuilidh - Julie Fowlis
20. Overpowered - Róisín Murphy
21. Kala - M.I.A.
22. White Chalk - PJ Harvey
23. In Rainbows - Radiohead
24. The Miracle Inn - Euros Childs
25. Made In Dakar - Orchestra Baobab
26. Segu Blue - Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba
27. Planet Earth - Prince
28. Comicopera - Robert Wyatt
29. Lady's Bridge - Richard Hawley
30. Neon Bible - Arcade Fire


1. Body Language Vol.5 (Chateau Flight)
2. BBC Folk Awards 2007
3. The Rough Guide To World Party
4. Rough Trade Shops - Counter Culture 1976
5. Box of Dub Vol.2: Dubstep and Future Dub
6. Late Night Tales (Nouvelle Vague)
7. Good Times Vol.7 (Norman Jay)
8. Fabriclive 36 (James Murphy & Pat Mahoney)
9. The Triptych (Fred Deakin)
10. Hallam Foe OST


1. Ring Them Bells - Joan Baez
2. Mothership - Led Zeppelin
3. 101 70s Hits - Various

Duds of the Year:

Fantastic Playroom - New Young Pony Club
Theology - Sinead O'Connor
Another Side - John Barrowman
Brett Anderson - Brett Anderson

Delayed But Played:

1. Back To Black - Amy Winehouse
2. Sigil - Nuru Kane
3. Burial - Burial
4. Burlesque - Bellowhead
5. Beautiful World - Take That
6. The Letting Go - Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
7. Begin To Hope - Regina Spektor
8. Calcutta Slide Guitar - Debashish Bhattacharya
9. B'Day - Beyoncé
10. Song Of The Blackbird - William Elliott Whitmore

New Discoveries and Re-discoveries:

1. You - Gong
2. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight - Richard & Linda Thompson
3. Sweet Deceiver - Kevin Ayers
4. Good Morning - Daevid Allen & Euterpe
5. The Very Best Of Timi Yuro - Timi Yuro
6. On Land And In The Sea - Cardiacs
7. Odetta Sings Dylan - Odetta
8. Third - Soft Machine

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Stylus review of Kevin Ayers' The Unfairground.

DAMN, that was hard work - and a reminder of why I gave up writing feature length album reviews for Stylus a long time ago. So DRAINING, darlings.

But some things simply have to be done, and promoting the new Ayers album to the indie intellectuals of America (even though it can only be ordered on import) was one of them. If it helps nudge the album a fraction closer to getting a proper distribution deal in the US, then the job will have been a good 'un.

All that aside, the finished piece is as honest an assessment of the album as I was able to give it, grade inflation and all. (Update: link now corrected.)

(If I'd been reviewing The Unfairground in the first week of release, it would have earned a B. If I'd been reviewing it two weeks ago, it would have been a B+. But some things take time, and in any case I'm a firm supporter of the commercially unsustainable concept of only writing album reviews after you've lived with them for a couple of months. Which is why I don't tend to write many album reviews!)

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The welcome return of Kevin Ayers.

Long-time readers of this blog will already know of the special place in my heart that is reserved for the music of Kevin Ayers, whose work I have been consistently enjoying over the past 32 years - even though he hasn't actually released any original new material for the past 15 of those years.

Until now, that is. The expression "stunning return to form" is possibly the most over-used and debased in all of popular music journalism (particularly with reference to every successive release by Prince since, ooh, Diamonds and Pearls or thereabouts), but Ayers' sparkling new comeback album The Unfairground, if not exactly a "stunning" return (for "stunning" is not really his stock in trade), is certainly delightful, welcome, and wholly unexpected. Having lived with the album for nearly a month now, it is also, in my sober assessment, easily his best work since Yes, We Have No Mananas in 1976 - and that's me being cautious.

What makes The Unfairground succeed where other latter-day releases have fallen short is this: for once, Ayers doesn't sound as if he has let the hired hands walk all over him. As with the best of his 1970s solo work, he is once again surrounded by a gifted bunch of collaborators, who sound in tune with his ethos and both willing and able to do his songs the justice which they deserve. This sense of collaboration, commitment and sheer enjoyment permeates the whole album.

And what collaborators! Here we will find old friends such as Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper (Soft Machine), Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music) and the long-lost Bridget St. John working alongside younger admirers such as Euros Childs (whom I saw last night - see below), Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub), Candie Payne, and members of Architecture In Helsinki, Ladybug Transistor, Of Montreal, Noonday Underground, Trashcan Sinatras and others.

Here's a track from the new album (featuring Euros Childs, Norman Blake and Bridget St. John on backing vocals, along with the string section from the Tucson Philharmonia), which was sent to me by Kevin's manager (Tim Shepard, who also drew the cover art pictured above) for the express purpose of making it available on this blog. Hope you like it.

Walk on Water - Kevin Ayers.
(Order The Unfairground from Amazon UK / Amazon US)

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Hard-Fi: Once Upon A Time In The West.

This review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.

From The Kinks to The Jam, from Suede to Hard-Fi, the suburbs of outer London have provided English rock music with one of its most enduring sources of inspiration. Nevertheless, having risen to prominence by documenting the world around them, and by expressing their desire for escape, most of these bands will traditionally seize the first available opportunity to re-locate to the big city.

Unusually, Hard-Fi have defied this tradition by electing to stay put in their native Staines in Middlesex, even going to the lengths of building their own recording studio there, in a former mini-cab office. Seeing nothing to be gained from being subjected to the pressures of London life, and opting instead to remain amongst their families and friends, their perspective remains firmly, almost defiantly suburban.

Nowhere is this clearer than on the lead single Suburban Knights, with its rallying call of “We're the ones you've forgotten, but we will not be denied, coming out of the shadows, we rock the satellites.” In common with most of the tracks on this follow-up to the chart-topping Stars of CCTV, the mood is rousing and anthemic, blending the staccato swagger and strut of vintage Clash and Jam with pulsing electronics and instantly memorable pop-influenced choruses.

Although the band’s musical template remains broadly similar to their debut album, there are touches of musical progression to be found, most notably in the orchestral arrangements which accompany many of its twelve tracks. Set against this is a heavy reliance on the sort of wordless terrace chants that seem purpose-built for crowd participation at live shows. Indeed, these choruses are stuffed so full of hey-ey-eys, woh-oh-ohs and aah-ah-ahs that the overall effect becomes dangerously repetitive.

However, the band’s chief weakness remains a lyrical one. For all the earnestness of Richard Archer’s delivery, it is difficult to suppress a snigger at some of the more trite lines, particularly on the first couple of listens. After all, observations such as “Television, the new religion” and “Politicians don’t wanna listen” (both from the chorus of Television) are scarcely original ones.

Similarly, I Close My Eyes would be a much more effective depiction of an office worker’s soul-crushing daily grind, if it wasn’t weighed down by pedestrian clunkers such as “I've got to get to work, you know I'm always late, the boss is on my back, the boss is in my face.”

That said, just because something is a cliché, it doesn’t necessarily make it any less true – and there’s something about the palpable sincerity of the band’s performance which, particularly after repeated plays, inclines you to forgive the occasional banality of their lyrics.

Unsophisticated, obvious and suburban they may be, but in this age of so-called “ITV indie”, Hard-Fi’s gauche, heart-on-sleeve sincerity is infinitely preferable to the smug, calculated superficiality of the Kaiser Chiefs, the identikit conservatism of the Kooks or The Twang, or the tastefully wan miserablism of Newton Faulkner or Snow Patrol.

For that alone, they should be welcomed back with open arms.


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Athlete: Beyond The Neighbourhood.

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.

There’s something both accurate and misleading about the title of Athlete’s third album, which will be slugging it out with Hard-Fi in next week’s race for Number One. In common with the Staines lads, Athlete have built their own studio in the area where they grew up, making this self-produced album very much a product of remaining within the neighbourhood. Conversely, its lyrical themes are firmly centred outwards, tackling hefty concerns such as global warming, environmental destruction and the futility of protest.

There are obvious dangers with this approach, which can easily slide into patronising preachiness. Thankfully, Athlete have avoided this trap. Rather than claiming a exalted rock star’s insight, the songs have an uncertain, questioning feel. As such, this marks a healthy progression from the inward-looking emotional concerns of its predecessor, Tourist.

Unfortunately, what hasn’t changed is the over-familiar, derivative sound of the music. Although efforts have been made to sidestep the “poor man’s Coldplay” accusations, the nagging feeling is that this is Athlete’s attempt at “doing an OK Computer”. Despite a promising opening run of spirited, uptempo numbers, the songs soon become bogged down in stodgy earnestness.


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Friday, June 01, 2007

Marc Almond: Stardom Road.

(This review originaly appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

In October 2004, a serious motorcycle crash left Marc Almond in a coma for two weeks. Following a lengthy recovery process and a gradual return to music-making, Stardom Road is effectively his comeback album.

Having vowed to turn his back on future songwriting, Almond has recorded just one original composition, the disappointingly mawkish (*) Redeem Me. The rest of the album is given over to a selection of covers, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s, which trace a clearly autobiographical path.

The songs are given full orchestral arrangements, with no lingering traces of Almond’s electronic roots. Instead, he is reborn as an accomplished, almost conventional cabaret crooner, blending stately grandeur with high emotion.

Selections range from the familiar (Strangers In The Night, Dream Lover) to the obscure (London Boys, penned by a pre-fame Bowie, and a bizarre mash-up of Paul Ryan’s Kitsch with T.Rex’s Hot Love). Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell and Antony of The Johnsons make equally splendid guest appearances.

Although Almond’s intensely dramatic vocals will win few new converts, long-time fans will instantly warm to this intriguing and frequently affecting collection.


(My interview with Marc Almond will appear on Troubled Diva on Friday June 8th.)

(*) I've changed my mind about this one. We'll be talking more about it in next week's interview.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

The Very Best Of Bucks Fizz (CD+DVD).

(An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

Poor old Bucks Fizz. Although winning Eurovision established their careers, they have never managed to escape the dubious legacy of Making Your Mind Up. Forever associated in the public eye with cheesy chirpiness and strategic skirt-ripping, the remainder of their musical output has almost totally faded from view. Since they never recorded anything as excruciatingly lightweight again, this seems more than a little unfair.

Instead, guided by producer Andy Hill, Bucks Fizz went on to record a series of varied and increasingly sophisticated singles, eleven of which made the Top Twenty within five years. On material such as the intricate, sparkling My Camera Never Lies, their work approaches the greatness of Trevor Horn’s productions for Dollar. Now Those Days Are Gone features some lovely a cappella harmonising, while even the superficially sugary Land of Make Believe conceals a “virulent anti-Thatcher song”, as its composer described it.

Of the later material, the slinky, sinuous I Hear Talk is a forgotten gem, while New Beginning is a percussion-driven pop symphony of epic proportions.

17 of the 18 featured tracks are included in video form on the accompanying DVD.


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Erasure: Light At The End Of The World.

(An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

Although long past their commercial peak, Vince Clarke and Andy Bell have settled into a comfortable niche which could sustain them indefinitely. It has been over twenty years since their last flop single; two years ago, Breathe even went Top Five. Like the Status Quo of electro-pop, they plough their particular furrow, oblivious to the changing musical landscape around them.

Following what Vince has called a “mid-tempo crisis”, the thirteenth Erasure album sees a return to short, snappy, mostly upbeat pop songs, with an overall mood of romantic optimism. The opening three tracks form a terrific opening salvo: lively, danceable, and stuffed with hooks, they suggest a confident return to form.

Thereafter, as the mood progressively mellows and softens, the essential conservatism of Erasure’s approach becomes increasingly problematic. Vince still has a winning way with a melody, and Andy’s voice is as fine as ever – and yet the material sounds formulaic, overly familiar, and curiously unaffecting.

This is pleasant, business-as-usual fodder, that will please fans but fail to make much of an impact elsewhere. Maybe that’s all we have a right to expect.


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Friday, May 11, 2007

Rufus Wainwright: Release The Stars.

This article originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.

Rufus Wainwright has one of those classic Marmite voices. By his own admission, there’s a nasal, whining quality to his singing that will irritate many. However, once that line is crossed, you will discover one of the richest, most expressive vocal talents that modern music has to offer.

As with all Wainwright’s albums, there’s an awful lot to digest here. This is complex, multi-layered stuff, which demands concentration and repeated playing. To avoid the onset of mental indigestion, it is probably best approached in two sittings, six songs at a time.

The first half works particularly well as a “song cycle”, with clear lyrical themes running between numbers. Do I Disappoint You is the big orchestral opener, performing a similar function to Oh What A World on 2003’s Want One. As the song progresses, layers of sound are piled on top of each other – a trick which will be repeated time and again.

Current single Going To A Town continues the theme of barbed disillusionment, as Rufus declares that he’s “so tired of America”, and prepares to make his escape. The song starts mournfully, but ends with purposeful defiance (“I got a life to lead, I got a soul to feed”) – again setting the tone for much of what lies ahead.

With Tiergarten, the Wainwright wanderings commence. The album was recorded variously in London, Paris and Berlin, and the sense of an exile’s displaced restlessness is strongly in evidence. The mood is light and pastoral, with a touch of the Brian Wilsons in its swooning harmonies.

From here on in, the same patterns are followed. Downbeat introductions repeatedly give way to climactic orchestral flourishes, displaying Wainwright’s astonishing arrangement skills. Between My Legs offers an unprecedented nod towards rock, featuring Richard Thompson on lead guitar and a bizarre dramatic monologue from Sian Phillips. The orchestra is only laid to rest once, on the comparatively stark ballad Leaving For Paris No. 2. Slideshow is the album’s biggest show-stopper, pitting Thompson’s country-rock guitar against thrilling brass stabs.

Unlike its predecessors, there is little playful light relief to be found – unless you count Sam Taylor Wood’s photographs, in which Rufus poses in monogrammed lederhosen, fingertips stuffed down the front. Executive producer Neil Tennant has done a sterling job, although you will search in vain for any electronic dance beats.

Like its creator, Release The Stars is ambitious, precocious and ever so slightly pretentious. It is also his ravishing, triumphant masterpiece.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Album reviews: LCD Soundsystem, Brett Anderson, Mr Hudson & The Library.

(Edited versions of these reviews originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

Sound Of Silver
LCD Soundsystem


This time three years ago, largely thanks to the underground classic Losing My Edge, LCD Soundsystem’s pioneering “dance-punk” sound was perched at the very apex of cool. Following an uneven, over-hyped debut album, the bleeding-edge fashionistas may have moved on – but the band have stayed more or less in the same place musically, and sound all the better for sticking to their guns and refining their basic stylistic template.

Sound Of Silver might be less club-heavy, but it’s also more cohesive and purposeful. The straightforwardly chugging back-beats are augmented by skittering, understated details, and topped with James Murphy’s arch lyrics and clenched, moody chants. At times, the vocals seem to be deliberate pastiches of Murphy’s heroes: Davids Byrne and Bowie, and the Human League’s Phil Oakey. The early 1980s post-punk influences are still there, but the occasional nods to moody Chicago house add something fresh to the mix.

The sardonic North American Scum is an obvious standout. So is the compelling, addictive All My Friends, which repeats a single piano chord for over seven minutes. This is dance music for grown-ups, and it’s an absolute delight.

Brett Anderson
Brett Anderson

Drowned In Sound

Of all the British guitar bands which came to prominence during the mid-1990s, Suede’s musical legacy remains the most underrated. Following the band’s disappointing final album in 2002, and a vain attempt to re-capture former glories by re-uniting with guitarist Bernard Butler as The Tears in 2005, former Suede front man Brett Anderson has finally decided to launch himself as a solo artist. At this stage in his career, this could be make or break time.

Perhaps for this reason, the album plays it very safe in musical terms. This is a clear move into “adult contemporary” territory, pitched at an audience who will have grown up with Anderson, jettisoning brash twenty-something hedonism in favour of tasteful thirty-something Angst Lite. The eleven songs are mostly mid-paced, vaguely wistful in tone, and augmented by politely swelling string arrangements.

The overall effect is reminiscent of Richard Ashcroft’s similarly problematic solo work, following the demise of The Verve. The overall sound is pleasant enough, and Anderson’s vocals have never sounded stronger – but the songs simply aren’t there. This is thin, forgettable stuff, which half-heartedly strives for profundity, but simply ends up sounding tired and forced.

A Tale Of Two Cities
Mr Hudson & The Library


Following an impressive support slot on Amy Winehouse’s recent UK tour, many curious eyes will be focussing on this debut from Oxford English literature graduate Mr Hudson and his band.

Those hoping for an accurate representation of the live shows might be in for a slight disappointment. This is a noticeably tamed version of their sound, with much of the liveliness and funkiness reined in. Instead, what we have is an amiable collection of melodic, accessible pop-rock, whose downright politeness sits easy on the ear.

Thanks to the relaxed, conversational, bloke-ish vocals and the light, sparse ska and trip-hop influences, comparisons with Lily Allen, Just Jack, Plan B and The Streets are inevitable. Other influences stretch further back: to Paul Weller, Joe Jackson, Tom Robinson – and, as a reworked version of On The Street Where You Live (from My Fair Lady) demonstrates, to the era of the classic Hollywood movie.

Some distinctive and gorgeous piano work brightens up the sound, but the album’s overall mood remains low key and easy-going, with an increasingly mellow and reflective quality in the second half.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Album review: Golden Afrique Vol.3

This review originally appeared as part of Stylus Magazine's new monthly world music column.

Following widely acclaimed historical round-ups of West African (Vol.1) and Congolese (Vol.2) musical styles, this exemplary series now turns its attentions southwards. Disc One traces the development of South African music from 1939 to 1998, covering all its best-known genres: Mbube, Kwela, Kwaito, and Mbaquanga, a.k.a. “township jive.” The emphasis is on dance grooves rather than song structures, and although over half the tracks rely on the exact same ascending three-chord sequence, the defiantly joyous spirit of the apartheid-era “shebeens” is equally all-pervading.

Disc Two, which splits equally between Zimbabwe and Zambia, is dominated by the sort of pealing, tumbling guitar lines which came to prominence in the mid ‘80s, via bands such as the Bhundu Boys. There’s less rawness and more fluidity, but the overall celebratory vibe is equally intoxicating.

(Samples from the album's 34 tracks can be streamed here.)

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Album review: Public Warning – Lady Sovereign.

(An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

Hands up, who remembers “grime”, the critically acclaimed new wave of British hip-hop which spawned a generation of stars such as Dizzee Rascal and, er, Dizzee Rascal? Although Lady Sovereign originates from the same scene, 2006 saw her achieve a major commercial breakthrough in the USA, while remaining largely unappreciated over here.

Such Stateside success is all the more surprising when you consider the sheer Englishness of Lady Sov’s lyrics – which she spits out at breakneck speed, like a blend of Vicky Pollard and Betty Boo on helium. You have to wonder what American audiences make of references to Lambrini, Maccy D’s, the Vicar of Dibley, “Katie Price’s boobs” and “the ginge from Girls Aloud”. It must all seem very exotic.

Despite hanging out with Jay-Z and roping in Missy Elliott for a guest appearance, Sov remains the gobby, cheeky North London kid with the razor-sharp tongue and streetwise attitude, who’ll give you the finger if you call her a chav. This is light-hearted, knockabout stuff, with an almost cartoon-like humour and energy, which will irritate some and delight others. ****

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

That George Michael hatchet job, then.

This review originally appeared in last Friday's Nottingham Evening Post.
George Michael
Twenty Five
Aegean/Sony BMG

Hmm, is it really time for another “greatest hits” collection from George Michael? After all, he has only released one album of original material (2004’s under-performing Patience) since the last collection, 1998’s Ladies and Gentlemen. Come to think of it, there have only been two original albums in the past sixteen years – but presumably true art can’t be rushed.

The reason is simple. As George is touring for the first time in fifteen years, he needs new product to shift. So why not bundle up a representative sample of the man’s work over the past quarter century – both with Wham! and as a soloist – and bung it out in good time for Christmas?

This would have been fine, if Twenty Five really was a “greatest hits” package – but without the likes of I’m Your Man, I Want Your Sex and I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), we can’t really call it that. Or is it a “best of” collection? Hardly, if the awful “protest song” Shoot The Dog can make the grade, at the expense of classics such as I Can’t Make You Love Me – and do we really need to be burdened with Last Christmas all the way through the rest of the year? OK, so maybe it’s a concert souvenir, containing all the songs from the tour? Wrong again: large chunks of George’s current set list are absent from these two CDs.

Instead, what we have is a hastily conceived cash-in, seemingly compiled by people with scant knowledge of George’s music, and even less respect for his long-suffering fans. Why else would fifteen songs from Ladies and Gentlemen crop up again on Twenty Five? Once again, all the ballads are on one disc (For The Loving), with the livelier stuff on the second disc. (For The Living – clever, huh?). Someone has tried to arrange the tracks chronologically – but even this simple task is carelessly botched.

Worst of all, an attempt has been made to lure the fans with a limited edition bonus disc (For The Loyal), which will set you back another few quid. However, instead of the expected hard-to-find rarities for the connoisseur, there’s just one new song (a pleasant ballad called Understand), and no less than seven selections from Patience. Add these to the six tracks from Patience on the other discs, and you have virtually a full reissue. It’s a strange way of rewarding the “loyal”, to put it mildly.

Still, there are always the other three “exclusives”: An Easier Affair (one of George’s weakest singles, Outside having already covered the “gay pride” angle so much better), a re-recorded Heal The Pain (featuring fellow tabloid target Paul McCartney), and a rather lovely collaboration with ex-Sugababe Mutya, This Is Not Real Love. All three can be legally downloaded from the usual places, at a fraction of the cost.

If you’ve never owned a George Michael album, then this is a passable introduction. For everyone else, Twenty Five is a sad reminder of wasted talents and diminishing returns.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Yes, I know full well that you don't come here for the music stuff...

...but I need to archive these reviews somewhere, and here's as good a place as any. These all appeared in t'local paper in the last couple of weeks - but either they never made it to the website, or else they were only published in a heavily edited state.
The Automatic / Mumm-Ra – Nottingham Trent University, Wednesday October 18.

With the sold out NME Rock’n’Roll Riot Tour lined up for tomorrow, and The Divine Comedy scheduled for November, Nottingham Trent is clearly serious about re-establishing its Shakespeare Street building as a venue for “name” acts. After a gap of over a decade, this is welcome news, as the hall lends itself superbly to live music. The stage has been shifted onto the long wall, allowing the crowd to spread itself out, visibility is excellent, and the acoustics are spot-on.

None of this was enough to lift Mumm-Ra’s support set out of competent mediocrity. The band cut their teeth with two-hour experimental Krautrock jam sessions in village halls – but such experimentalism is long gone, replaced by the sort of tame orthodoxy which has characterised far too many of this year’s bands. They need to get their Krautrock back, and fast.

Thankfully, The Automatic took the evening to a new level, aided by excellent lighting from the impressive rig, and an inventive series of brain-scrambling animations on the cinema-sized screen behind them, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Super Furry Animals last came to town.

It would have been understandable if they had been weighed down by Monster, their ubiquitous mega-hit of the summer. (Indeed, it was cheekily introduced as a “Status Quo cover version”.) However, a tight, energetic, confident set showed that the band have stepped up to the mark admirably, and are already at ease in larger venues.

An unexpected highlight was a cover of Kanye West’s Gold Digger, which had the irrepressible keyboardist Alex Pennie rapping over vocalist Rob Hawkins’ flute, in a kind of hip hop/Jethro Tull soundclash (ask your Dad).

If straight-up, student-friendly, NME-approved guitar rock has begun to bore you, then The Automatic are the hugely enjoyable exception to the rule.
Duke Special - Songs from the Deep Forest. (V2)

When first encountering Duke Special – the stage name of Peter Wilson, an outlandishly dreadlocked singer, songwriter and pianist from Belfast – the inevitable first point of reference has to be Rufus Wainwright. Not only do both singers use similar phrasing (complete with that same slightly nasal quality), but they also share a certain theatricality, with deft orchestral arrangements and stylistic nods to Gershwin, Weill and vaudeville traditions.

What sets Wilson apart from Wainwright – aside from his pronounced Irish brogue – is a lighter, warmer, more straightforward approach to his songwriting. There’s little arch, artsy self-consciousness to be found in these instantly accessible melodies – alternately rousing and reassuring – which engulf the listener in a kind of genial bear-hug. For despite a certain wounded quality here and there, the aim of Wilson’s songs – like those on the new Badly Drawn Boy album – is to tell you that everything is ultimately going to be okay. In his own words: “I want to capture something that sounds like Christmas smoking through an old wooden radio.”
Sean Lennon - Friendly Fire. (Capitol)

When you consider how much mileage could have been extracted from his family connections, it is to Sean Lennon’s credit that he has followed a more low-key, unassuming career path. Indeed, this is only the 31 year old’s second album, and his first in eight years.

Unlike its more stylistically adventurous predecessor, Friendly Fire sees a move towards more conventional song structures. The overall mood of these ten mid-tempo love songs is gently plaintive, as a resigned Lennon sighs over the loss of his girlfriend, and the betrayal of the friend who snatched her away.

Perhaps this would have been an angrier album, were it not for the real-life fate of the friend in question, who died in a motorcycle accident shortly after Lennon penned the vengeful opening track, Dead Meat. Consequently, most of the album is drenched with a regretful melancholy, which – despite some attractive arrangements from Jon Brion – becomes increasingly monotonous.

None of this is helped by Lennon’s puny, strained, curiously inexpressive vocals, which – like the album in general – are a pale shadow of his father’s grit and passion.
The Datsuns - Smoke & Mirrors. (V2)

Stand by your bass-bins: it’s the Battle of the Retro Rockers! With those flash-in-the-pan upstarts The Darkness already a fading memory, there are only two serious contenders left standing. Representing Australia, it’s Jet, with their newly released second album. And in the New Zealand corner, plucky underdogs The Datsuns are trying to claw back lost ground with their third, self-produced effort.

Jet may have the cheekbones, the column inches – and, well, the sales – but at least The Datsuns have a comparative maturity, and a deeper commitment to the core values of head-banging, hard rifffing, Jack Daniels swigging, Led Zep ripping, Good Time Rock And Roll. Unlike Jet, there are no sappy Beatles-esque “sensitive” ballads to be found here. Perish the thought!

Instead, this is a swaggering, stomping, merciless assault, with hefty dollops of slide guitar and swampy Southern boogie thrown into the usual hard rock stew. You will search in vain for subtlety, substance, originality, or indeed any sense of musical history much beyond 1975 – but if tunnel vision’s your thing, then Smoke & Mirrors will serve you well.
Bugz In The Attic – Rescue Rooms, Monday September 25.

This multi-racial seven-piece collective from West London specialises in something called “broken beat”. If you thought this was an esoteric sub-genre, of interest only to serious-minded chin-strokers, then think again: there is nothing “broken” about this good-natured, accessible and thoroughly likeable music, which mixes the best elements of funk, soul and electronica into an infectious brew which deserves a wider audience than the clued-up Gilles Peterson crowd from which it originates.

Now promoting their long overdue debut album Back In The Doghouse, the band are finally taking their live show to the rest of the country. After a competent but lukewarm start, heavy on the groove but light on actual songcraft, things clicked into place from the fourth number onwards.

Despite the large number of people onstage, the music was mainly generated from three keyboardists and a live drummer. In the back corner, the band’s resident DJ had the cushiest job. Never touching his decks, he contented himself with occasional light percussion duties. Nice work if you can get it.

The Bugz belong to that fine tradition of eclectic home-grown funk which stretches back from Basement Jaxx to the Brand New Heavies and Soul II Soul. Some of their most effective material evoked classic early 1980s acts such as Shalamar and Evelyn King. Their powerful re-working of Don’t Stop The Music ignited the crowd, as did all the material which is currently showcased on their Myspace page – an increasingly common phenomenon.

An encore of Sounds Like turned into a celebratory extended jam, with three band members attacking the drumkit, as the DJ cheekily lapped up the applause from centre stage. With Basement Jaxx beginning to falter, and the reformed Brand New Heavies desperately trying to claw back lost ground, the opportunity for the Bugz to break through is wide open.
Coming soon: New album releases from Isobel Campbell (a respectful shrug) and George Michael's latest "greatest hits" collection (a well-deserved kicking).

Not coming in a month of Sundays: My wince-makingly corny David Essex gig review. There's "respecting your target readership" by not being a sneery snobby show-off... and then there's stepping over the line, into full-blooded Light Entertainment cheese. ("The enduringly fantastic Gonna Make You A Star sent us home smiling." Aaargh! My soul, my soul!)

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Mountain Goats - Get Lonely.

This review first appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.

The Mountain Goats
Get Lonely

Over his last two albums, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats has dealt with some fairly harrowing autobiographical themes: teenage drug addiction, and his relationship with an abusive stepfather. Now, with his tenth release, Darnielle adopts the equally harrowing voice of an abandoned, heartbroken lover, teetering on the brink of madness. The result is quite possibly the bleakest “break-up” album ever made.

Over a series of understated, deceptively gentle, largely acoustic arrangements, Darnielle’s high, cracked voice relates a series of scenes which see his protagonist lurching from bad to worse, in a kind of numbed-out, post-traumatic daze. In “Wild Sage”, he stumbles along the roadside, before falling over and lying there, bloodied and immobile. At other times, he simply wanders around his home, displaced and desperate, not knowing what to do next. By the album’s closing track, “In Corolla”, his despair has reached its ultimate, tragic conclusion.

Although these twelve songs certainly exert a grim fascination, it is difficult to imagine anyone actually playing this album for pleasure. In particular, if you’re looking for music to help you through your own break-up, then you are strongly urged to stay away.

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