Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Never judge the artist from the album cover...

I'm taking a week off, starting tomorrow, and I've just decided that - as a matter of principle - I'm not going to take any music away with me! What I hear over the next ten days or so will almost entirely be that which a French ski resort (Les Arcs, as it happens) serves up in one way or another and that could be quite instructive but I rather doubt much of it will be of French origin. To be honest you'll probably find more of that here on this blog but it is said that 'a change is a good as a rest' and, at the very least, it will be interesting to see which artists they have picked up on.

My disappointment earlier this week with Not Too Late, the new album by Norah Jones, served to remind me that (and it was something I had stupidly forgotten for a moment) often the best things are not the ones that come with the biggest hype.
Somewhat obscure albums are good escapism as you are unlikely to be asked your opinion of them, unless of course you choose to offer it, and foreign language ones are even better because as long as they sound good there is no real need to analyse, or even really listen to, the lyrics. Or you even could try both at once but I find ignoring the lyrics hard to do nonetheless - even if they are incomprehensible!

There is some bleating at the moment that the UK chart music scene is stagnating but even if it is there is no excuse whatsoever; it is more easily changed by public opinion and marketing than it has ever been.
This is slightly more contentous: there has been much hubris on message-boards in the last year or so about the methods that certain artists (possibly helped by labels) have used to position themselves, firstly on My Space (Lily Allen, and others) and more recently on You Tube (Mia Rose is this week's bête noire in this respect) but it is just a case of new medium, old tactics; something that seems utterly lost on the "new moralists" of the internet forums (sic) who have, we can only assume, never illegally downloaded a single song between them!

As for the perceived lack of diversity in music, well I'm not having a word of it! If you can't find something of interest then you simply aren't trying hard enough!

The album below was included, strictly on its own merits, in my 'Top 10' of 2006 and
if you think that The Pipettes are a strange throwback - three girls (l to r; Rosay, Gwenno and Becki) singing cleverly constructed faux early '60s pop, backed by their four-piece male backing band 'The Cassettes' - then you are taking the polka dots far too seriously. The lyrics are often so very NOT pop circa 1961' and you need to check out their 2006 début album We Are The Pipettes released on CD and 12" vinyl by Memphis Industries (MI), along with several 7" and CD singles, in 2006.

You might reasonably think that the blonde one, Gwenno Saunders, is just a 'pretty face' as she was recruited (at a gig where they were support to MI label-mates Go!Team in Cardiff) after one of the original members left in the early days of The Pipettes and because she had already appeared in Welsh language soap Pobl Y Cwm and, slightly later, as a presenter on BBC Wales.
Well maybe, but she had also already released two solo EPs on CD and they are both mainly sung in Welsh, with the exception of a few tracks sung in Cornish or English. The first of them was Môr Hud, released by Caernarfon-based CRAI Records (CRAI CD086) on 5th September 2002.

It is still available at a reasonable price but might take a little finding. The second, Vodya (CRAI CD089), was released slightly later but can equally be found and this time the title track is sung in Cornish.

Not too late... maybe the dinosaurs can adapt?

I got this album today. My local supermarket had priced the DVD/CD version as the normal one and s0 I had to buy it there and then! The good news ends here and because I generally don't do negative posts I hope this is as near as I will get in 2007. I fear, however, that it may not be so.

There is nothing wrong with the audio content of this album, which I believe is exactly the same as that on the regular release (I haven't yet watched the DVD content that also came with this version) but as far as I can tell far it has fewer truly memorable tracks than "Feels Like Home". Maybe people who like "Come Away With Me", which I still like less than 'Feels Like Home', will prefer it to her last album?

She has a great voice, and the album might well grow on me in time, but I seriously wonder if it will win her many new converts. EMI were also playing down its likely success last year and, particularly worryingly is that it was then still pre-release in the US. If they can't appear to be confident in an established artist in their home market what is the point in their existence?

Track 2 Sinkin' Soon has the following lyric:

In a boat that's built of sticks and hay
We drifted from the shore
With a captain who's too proud to say
That he dropped the oar
A tiny hole has sprung a leak
In this cheap pontoon
Now the hull has started growing weak
And we're gonna be sinkin' soon.

It is not a bad album but I can't help thinking that it could have been so much better. I wonder if the lyric above has something to say about the industry?
It is true that she has to worry about offending the strange sensibilities of a major label. That is hardly something an artist should have to worry about but
it seems to me that this album is a result of playing rather too safe. Maybe she would be better off elsewhere?

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Hand Full of Hurricanes...

Plangent is a word I didn't expect to use in a review, or indeed elsewhere, any time soon but this album delivers as good a working definition of it as any dictionary could provide.

  • Loud and resounding.
  • Expressing, or suggesting, sadness; plaintive.
The two meanings may seem contradictory but, at least on this recording, they are not; the ambiguity of the lyric does however often make up for this.

"Terror is a great way to enforce your rules and we've lost control"

This is possibly as directly threatening as the lyrics get but the inspirations and implications clearly run far deeper and darker than that. It is also remarkable for the cunning use of her own vocals and instruments, used on a loop pedal (on Tiny Flower for example), combined with real, but almost always electric, guitar and vocals.
  • 'A Hand Full of Hurricanes', the full début album by Rose Kemp, is released by One Little Indian on 5th February 2007.
In late 2006 it was preceded by a single, Violence, taken from the album and c/w non-album track Fire In The Garden, which was only available on 7" format (500 copies, all pressed on red vinyl).

While the music is quite different, when it comes to performance it may come as no particular surprise to learn that Rose Kemp is the daughter of Maddy Prior and Rik Kemp both of whom were members of the legendary Steeleye Span.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Harpo's Ghost - Thea Gilmore

I have had this album since it came out last summer - to no great commercial fanfare unfortunately - and I've been meaning to review it for months but it is a uniquely difficult prospect.

It named for Harpo Marx, who only expressed his on-screen personality via music, and had it been a début album such a gimmick could have been regarded as just that. In this case it can't!
Although Harpo's Ghost is her first album released on Sanctuary Records - and it comes after a break of 2½ years - it is not her second commercial release but her seventh; she released her first six in little over four years and even now she is only 26 years old! Most of them can still be found fairly easily, though The Lipstick Conspiracy (2000) is probably an exception.

Thea Gilmore got married in 2005 and had a baby in November 2006 but in the meantime she wrote, released and then toured this album around the UK and only this week she has announced a 26-date UK tour from February - April 2007. It does perhaps help that her husband, Nigel Stonier, is also her producer and occasional co-writer but it is still a considerable achievement.

Harpo's Ghost is quite special as it is an album full of influences from folk to early pop, rock and blues, but they are never hammed up or too obviously reverential and while it references Americana too, as Gilmore has also toured extensively throughout both the US and Canada, it is never in danger of becoming in awe of it. Sandi Thom, who has today been nominated for a 'Brit Award' for her first album Smile, It Confuses People, writes great songs but listen to these two albums back to back and you can soon spot the difference!

If the world were a fair place Harpo's Ghost would have been nominated for at least one 'Brit Award' tonight, but then nobody expected it to be and of course it wasn't. The world is patently not a fair place - a theme that is at the heart of this album - and she frequently rails against the music industry, but never against the music or the musicians, and also often the politics that underlie it and almost everything else.

While many labels despair at the slow output of their cherished artists - Michael Jackson only released five studio albums in the 20 years or so before his fall from grace - don't ever expect her to sign to EMI! Do however expect to hear more new songs soon (not least on the forthcoming tour) as she has recently blogged that during the aforementioned 2½ years she continued to write songs at the usual rate and that the result, by her own admission, means about three albums worth of songs ready to record!
It is hard to choose any favourites, but the 'hidden track' on the CD is a splendid closing salvo to a really rather persuasive, yet uncompromising, album.

I don't need triggers and I don't need a sword
There's a tool of revolution there in every single chord
I've got an old Neil Young record and a bottle of red
And I know he'll still be saying just what needs to be said.

If you like it, then I suggest listening to her 2004 album Rules For Jokers next.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The first UK album chart of 2007...

Five years ago it would have been dominated by US music, and while these things change this would have been quite unthinkable even a year ago...

These are the top-selling albums of the first full week of of 2007:

5: The Fratellis - Costello Music
4: Take That - Beautiful World
3: Snow Patrol - Eyes Open
2: James Morrison - Undiscovered
1: Amy Winehouse - Back To Black

The diversity is perhaps unremarkable - two indie pop/rock bands, a revived 1990s 'boy band' and two very different solo artists, one male and one female - but the fact that all of them are British acts certainly is.
What is more Amy Winehouse has finally reached the top of the album chart, three months after Back To Black was released, despite being both as mad as a box of frogs and also twice mentioned (1) (2) in this blog! She is a real star, and a natural performer, who just happens to be able to sing like no one else - see her live and you will know exactly what I mean.

On the make? The sweet price of failure...

Someone apparently on a downward career path is Alain Levy, chief executive of EMI's recorded music business. The division is performing poorly, particularly in the US market where it had not one album in the 2006 top ten sellers, and he has been fired. I have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever as regards his current plight.

It is true that he 'carries the buck' and has paid the price for what are essentially long-standing corporate management failings that have been blindingly obvious for ages. He could however have acted swiftly to fix them and he was paid (handsomely) presumably to do just that? My humble opinion is that if he couldn't see a way to do it then he should never have accepted the job in the first place.
It started boldly enough: Levy rescinded Mariah Cary's recording contact on his arrival at EMI. (She then promptly signed the biggest live performance contract in music history - basically to belt out her hits in Las Vegas forever!)
The artists are not, for the most part at least, at fault but the bloated self-justifying management structure certainly is and he has utterly failed to tackle it. It is amazingly easy to end an artists' contract but, strangely enough, not those of executives.

So what has redundancy cost M. Levy?
It would seem about £7 million ($14 million) --- paid to his bank account. That is reported as being the aggregate of a year's salary, bonuses already agreed (for doing what?) and the buying back of his share options. Oh - the sweet price of failure!

Try selling that line to aspiring artists and bands that work their a**es off touring, with nothing more realistic than the hope of modest success. The 'majors' still don't learn from their mistakes and wonder, with incredulity exceeded only by their astounding arrogance, why new talent is increasingly opting for the far more modest deals offered by the '
independent' labels. Once again the 'majors' have proved themselves to be their own worst enemy - and it also fails their many passionate employees as well as artists - but it is the one thing they seem to be unfailingly good at!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

My first purchase of a genuine 2007 release...

Almost all UK new releases come out on a Monday and as Monday 1st January 2007 was a Bank Holiday in the UK this just added to the general sense of awfulness that Christmas "pop music" brings; it being all too fresh on the mind. It is therefore hardly surprising that this was a week that was another absolute non-starter for UK new releases. Buying a genuine 2007 new release this week was not actually as easy as it may seem!

I have had one in particular on my list for some while
however - and it was a result of my searches across both genres and labels. My first 2007 album (well strictly it is an EP, but who is to quibble when it is this good) is Station Life by Anne Bacheley, a French singer-songwriter born in 1977 and then variously resident in Caen, Vannes, Paris, Cambridge and Nantes, but now settled in Poitiers.
While not actually her first release, the Mixtape Babies EP of 2004 probably has a claim to that, this is her first real solo release that has everything: a screen printed sleeve, booklet and everything else one might want - in short all that might lead you to think that she has been snapped up by a major label.
In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Station Life, for all the glory of its packaging and the truly minimalist cover art (also by the artist), was actually released on the tiny French Indie label MIMIKAKI on 01/01/2007 and it is limited to just 133 copies.

I haven't yet mentioned the best thing about it - the music.
This varies widely; from the slightly stabby acoustic guitar and tambourine of opener 'Good Luck Dear' to the beautiful warm vocal and flute-laden 'Lost Weekend', plus everything and more in between. 'Elastic Girl' starts as an almost normal guitar and drums track (it is none the worse for that), then temporarily metamorphoses part way through as if in a dream, only to return slightly changed as a result.

For those of you that might worry about such things, or even the small matter of language, this EP is actually all sung in English but the really important thing is that it all works - absolutely!

All copies of Station Life are individually numbered and, for as long as they remain available, this 6-track CD costs just €10 (port payé dans la UE) and it is an unmissable bargain.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Dne Na Ot Emoc Sgniht Doog Lla Od Yhw - melody matters!

The title to this post might seem like complete jibberish and no, it is not sung in Welsh or any other slightly obscure language!
Some songs are instantly recognisable in just a few seconds, if it takes that long as merely just a couple of notes are enough if one knows it well. That is a fascinating reflection on the way the human mind has developed to distinguish sounds by nuances such as pitch and timbre. The above "song title" is simply spelt backwards but it is hard to spot that in a similar time, just as samples of well known songs often are when used as sampled elements in remixes of songs of a completely different genre and style. and this is often the basis of "phone-in" quizzes on the radio. I have for some time subscribed to the theory that the best clues almost always lie in the melody, if that is present in the sample, as it tends to survive in a recognisable form almost regardless of genre and style.

The above title is that of a recent (late 2006) UK single release that is quite recognisable from the melody even when the song is played backwards and
once I have worked out how to add such content to my blog I'll add clips from the song, played in both directions, so you can see if you agree with me!
The melody writer might also be apparent, even though he does not sing on it (well not on this version at least) though it rumoured that it is to be re-released to be shortly and, this time with the aforementioned on backing vocals.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Live music in Britain...

What is currently making the UK the place it is? Not actually the few dozen bands and artists that can sell tens of thousands of seats in a morning but rather the very many hundreds that can pack out a pub or other small venue almost anywhere in the country and on any night of the week they choose!
The former of course almost always come from the ranks of the latter and, as long as there are plenty of promising new bands, there is almost certainly little to worry about. Currently there are and some are already signed to labels while others, such as pop/punk/indie five-piece Bi-Polar Baby , here seen live in their home city of Birmingham in December 2006, are not.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Welcome, 2007!

So 2007 is here - and what might we expect from it? One thing that most seem to agree on is that, as the last months of 2006 showed, there will probably be a resurgence of dance music (possibly in the form of euro-trance) and electro-pop. The latter has been bubbling under the surface for a while and, as the two are not incompatible by any means, both might become mainstream again in 2007. If that is true then it will be likely led by Scandinavian and German influences, as both are traditionally strong here.
If it takes a British turn then this might also involve 'trip-hop' and other 'ambient' dance, which would certainly not be a bad thing either, and with the current penchant for French lounge-jazz, and also the sexy pop-rock that Latin America now does so very well (both of which it borrowed from, heavily from the former and tacitly from the latter, before their recent resurgence) , fits well with this theory and the pan-European success of Brazilian band CSS (Cansei de Ser Sexy) in 2006 was therefore probably no fluke.
Returning to UK music and one theory has it that 2007 spells doom for the recent spate of male singer-songwriters that were so prominent in 2006 ... James Morrison, Jack Johnson, Paolo Nutini, and James Blunt amongst others; that concept will be tested to the max when James Blunt releases his second album and there will no doubt be others too. Another lament of 2006 was that there was a surfeit of female singer-songwriters and, while I don't see it as a problem myself, it looks likely to remain as such for those that do in 2007.
Two UK artists - Natasha Bedingfield and Joss Stone - that have been away for some time, both successfully doing the near impossible by conquering America, are likely to return with new albums. American singer-songwriter Norah Jones is set to release her third album, Not Too Late, in the spring.

It might do something to redress the trans-Atlantic balance that could otherwise have been be upset by the release of Lucie Silvas' second album, The Same Side, at about the same time.

As yet largely unknown in the US, but unlike Norah Jones already rather more so in Japan, she can belt them out like Koda Kumi but in English and she also happens also to be a rather good pianist and song-writer (often for other artists). She was once a backing vocalist and occasional keyboardist for Judy Tzuke and now her sister Mia does the same for her.

The one thing that is certainly not going to change in 2007 is the ascendancy of all forms of live music and all the above-mentioned are well-capable of that. From pub-bands to major festivals, and everything else in between, it is
an area in which Britain excels! The Japanese may buy more music per capita than anyone else but, measured on the same basis, the UK not only records more of it but plays it live too!