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July 2021 – single & track reviews – Yes’ ‘The Ice Bridge’; Brachmond’s ‘Teufelsdanz’; Brainsqueezed’s ‘My Fears in the Night’

23 Jul

There was a time when Yes defined their own musical shapes, and did it incredibly well. You can quibble about their otherworldly detachment and high pitching, their grandiose poly-stylistic gestures, their lasers, harps and ’70s frocks; but behind all of that detailed prime-prog fantasia was a furious collective musicality in which virtuosity served the music rather than vice versa. These days (minus their original core of creative-spark singer Jon Anderson and recently-passed choral bassist Chris Squire), an ageing Yes seem content to graze, like cosmic cows, on their own long-established tropes. While the band do still revisit some of their former intensity in their concert catalogue, current studio recordings have shown the acrobatic flights of the old Yes replaced by a cruising argosy of pomp as long-term members age, fade and lose focus.

That said, ‘The Ice Bridge’ is a near-heroic attempt by current Yes singer (and de facto songwriter) Jon Davison to pull his lumbering bandmates back uphill. Co-written with keyboard player Geoff Downes – whose fantasy-soundtrack synths and trumpeting analogue leads provide the song with most of its pomp – it’s an attempt at linking our current precarious position of climate threat to the Paleo-American crossing of the Beringian steppe, over sixteen thousand years ago. A survival song, in blurred terms. “With fear of extinction, / we’re pushed to the edge of the ice. / Instinctive direction, / a drive to survive.” 

It’s never precisely clear what Davison’s “Snowflower Elder”, leading his people across the mammoth steppe to Alaska, has to do with our current, floundering status as twenty-first century blitzoid man; but lyrical exactitude has always been rare with Yes. Still, ‘The Ice Bridge’ is a typically Yes-ian melange of ancient wisdom, the past-as-future, and fanfares for spiritual unity. While the music remains as earthbound as a pilgrim caravan, it’s expansive; and after a decade of creative disappointment, it’s good to hear something which echoes at least some of the Yes strengths of old.

While Squire’s soaring Anglican harmonies are much missed, his replacement Billy Sherwood recaptures some of the ex-bassman’s grinding instrumental swing. Rather than winding his guitars into the heart of the music, Steve Howe now flies in stern flaring pronouncements like an occasional god on a cloud. But it’s Davison’s show this time, tumbling harmony cadences against the rolling rhythm, persistently pushing his saga of hope and determination, and ensuring that all of the proggy pennants are backed up with heart – and at least Yes now sound like a version of themselves again, rather than a shadow of themselves.

Mediaevalism has, on occasion, been an ingredient in the Yes stew; for other bands, it’s a raison d’etre. German “mediaeval rockers” Brachmond embrace it ardently, entwining bagpipe, flute, violin and flights of campfire harmonies into their twin-guitar heavy metal punch. Although they’re a product of re-enactment meets and contemporary folk fayres, their old-tyme enthusiasms seem more akin to a heavy sauce-dousing than a faithful immersion. Thanks to extra guitar roar and some surprisingly punky drumming, they’re considerably closer to Iron Maiden than they are to, say, Gryphon, Ougenweide or even fellow fayrists like Schandmaul. Nonetheless, their irreverent gusto overcomes any purist qualms.

Mining the Brothers Grimm and the dark-fantasy TV series ‘Grimm’ (more or less equally), ‘Teufelsdanz’ does what a lot of the more hectic and rebellious folk music does: linking the supernatural with wilder human hungers, and with stuff that goes on behind God’s back and out of sight of the church spire. Passing the pellmell folk-metal guitars, strings and pipes and unravelling the German lyrics reveals some zesty infernality – a Godfather Death playing a song on old bones; an irresistible dance which fires your blood and charges your loins; a hidden and seductive Devil who offers you knowledge and compels your willing surrender, but gifts you back with spontaneity.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that many European folk tales present the Devil almost as one of us – an adversary who must be outwitted and denied but whom it’s ultimately fun to spar with, and who seems closer to actual human feelings than do Christ and the saints. Brachmond understand this and take a full-hearted run at it, while singer Stefanie Schmid’s gutsy vocals and knowing glances make her the perfect cheerleader for a bout of witty wickedness

Drawing on Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, ‘Metropolis’ and Mary Shelley, themes of willingly-mechanised men (or robots with human hearts) have wended their way through futurist prog for ages; from Rush and Buggles to The Mars Volta, steampunk rock and Tom Slatter. In that respect, Franco-Australian prog-pop act Brainsqueezed‘s upcoming album (dealing with a robot attempting to transcend its programming, and to discover a soul beyond its AI) taps into a well-established tradition. But in spite of its ‘Blade Runner’-meets-Asimov video – with its iconic android at work on human tasks, running with the animals, or undergoing significantly cryptic events in Virtualworld or the forests – the lead single is much less story-specific than that.

Rather than directly wading into mechanical-man angst or changeling dread, ‘My Fears in the Night’ concentrates on habits of terror and of self-intimidation; of how childhood nightmares lay the ground for adult insecurities and hangups. Presumably it’s a drawbridge song – a straightforward pathway to lure more resistant people into the looming Big Concept. Since Brainsqueezed’s Sébastien Laloue has a basic, if slick and industrious, idea of creating progressive rock or pop (you take an straightforward song, polish it up with some alternative or electronic rock vinegar, and then escalate the choruses and bridges with layers and layers of guitars, extra instrumentation and guest vocals) this might well work for him.

Still, as with Yes’ Paleo-American, it’s difficult to see quite how the concept ties together yet; and in this case, what separates ‘My Fears in the Night’ from being yet another well-machined bit of 2D sadness-rock. I guess I’ll have to wait a little longer to find out.

Yes: ‘The Ice Bridge’
InsideOut Music (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
23rd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, YouTube, Tidal, Spotify, Amazon Music,

Yes online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Amazon Music, HD Tracks   

 

Brachmond: ‘Teufelsdanz’
Hicktown Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
23rd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
YouTube, Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music

Brachmond online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Amazon Music    

Brainsqueezed: ‘My Fears in the Night’
DOWEET (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
23rd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
YouTube, (other platforms t.b.c.)

Brainsqueezed online:
Homepage, Facebook, Soundcloud, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Amazon Music  

July 2021 – single & track reviews – Sug Daniels’ ‘Kintsugi’; Jesse D’Kora’s ‘Far from Home’; No Thee No Ess’ ‘Chorus’

16 Jul

“I get broken, I get mended by my love for you.” Yes, things can be fixed, but if what was broken was and is something that runs deep, you need a memory of that fracture. You have to have it that way in order not to get fooled again, or to ensure that justice is highlighted, or perhaps simply to know yourself.

Under her light, knowing blues-y vocal, Sug Daniels‘ ‘Kintsugi’ has gently bouncing ukelele, soft bops of bass and gentle burbling punctuations of Leslie-fied electric piano. It’s also got a name taken from Japanese art. Kintsugi is the practise of picking up a broken piece of pottery and repairing it, but not with transparent glue and the deception that nothing happened.  Instead, the repairs are done with lacquer blended with precious metals – gold, silver, platinum – making burnished veins and patches for the points of damage and the former fractures. Fixed, but highlighted. Mended but remembered.

For Sug, kintsugi serves as a personal metaphor for “the botched relationship between America and a black woman coming into her own.” It’s also a perfect metaphor to build a bruised-yet-hopeful love song around. Here, she does both; and you can read ‘Kintsugi’ as either thing. Sug doesn’t dig too deeply into the hurts, exploitations and callousness doled out, but ensures that you know that they happened and that she’s unbowed. “When you need me, / know I’ll be there, / ‘cos I grew up poor-tough, darlin’, / and I ain’t never, never scared… / When you gonna do right by me? / Glad I’m on this side of history. / I just want a fighting chance, you see. / Don’t leave me here in misery.”

It’s unfooled, it’s mindful and it’s tinted with the lightest shade of blues; but it’s upbeat and choosing a hopeful mutual path. “I‘m willin’ to try, I’m even willin’ to die. / Got nothin better to do, ‘cept I want to do it with you.” Some might quibble at the shortage of killer lines, or that there are jabs left unlanded; but Sug seems to take all such matters as known and read. Instead, this is a low-key plea – and manifesto – for a step away from bullying, from neglect and bad treatment, perhaps from mutual destruction. It’s all there, reading between the cracks. 

Emerging just as Covid-19 takes its third bite out of British life, Manchester singer-songwriter Jesse D’Kora makes his debut appearance via a softly melancholic song about long-distance relationships and break-ups. Topical. However, it’s not Covid-driven capsule pop: not enhanced by quarantine, anomie and angst; not languishing over forced separations. ‘Far from Home’ comes from an earlier, more innocent age – one in which distance was something regularly travelled, even to the point where it became a daily irritation.

“If only you had moved closer to me,” sing-sighs Jesse, as if that had been the straw that broke the camel’s back; and perhaps it was. Love does, after all, founder on mild, cumulative delays; on small over-stretchings; on gradually worn-down patience that can’t be patched. Jesse is soft-voiced, kind-toned, but he’s clearly slipped past the point where he has enough willpower to keep things going. “I’m going home, I need to find another way – / ‘cos I’ve been with you too long now, / and I can’t erase the words that stained us yesterday.”

In terms of tone, ‘Far from Home’ could have emerged at any time in the past twenty years – at any point in which someone felt like blending upbeat jangle-pop with a Milky Way dream-pop swoosh (or imagining what might have happened had Chris Bell foisted a more galactic production style on The Go-Betweens). Gently propulsive narcotism and solipsism turn alienation and numbness into heavy-lidded grace, letting life puff away into car-wakes and distant flame-ups. “I’m driving through a valley just to be with you, / and I’m falling asleep now at the wheel,” Jesse laments over the jangling yearn of his own guitars, a light-bodied baby Glenn Campbell lost in the Pennines. “And I crash and burn like there’s any other way. / Cracks in the windscreen lead me back to home. / It’s where I go and where I’m coming from. / It’s where I feel that I belong. / It’s liberating now you’re gone – / now it’s time that I moved on.”

Perhaps he’s a gentle romantic turning back to his roots; perhaps he’s a plausibly soulful bastard worming his doe-eyed way out of a commitment. Either way, he’s made a good first impression. 

More psychedelic factors bleed into ‘Chorus’, by No Thee No Ess,  although in this case it’s more like eructation than decoration. The Cardiff psychedelicists have recently upped their game by collaborating with onetime μ-Ziq and Rocketgoldstar guy Frank Naughton, who gleefully brings his own toys to the game. Consequently, ‘Chorus’ sounds like a series of dogged mid-air collisions – first Hawkwind smacking into a cluster of seagulls, with the resulting airborne contusion then clipping a seaside amusement arcade, and finally the whole mass exploding through the kind of rootless, genderless ’90s post-rock consciousness you’d get from A.R. Kane. 

No Thee No Ess have put out some driving weirdness before (punctuating and puncturing the clarity of their usual acid folk/acid pop explorations) but never anything quite so gleefully liberated from gravity or from containment. If the history of British psychedelia was a set of sequential smoke rings, ‘Chorus’ would also be the charged and speeding particle stunting its way through all of them. Swamp-bubbling synth bass, white-noise scurf, and little piled-up analogue-electronic foldings all play their part alongside the guttural guitar chug, but what really puts the cherry on the cake is the singing, in which falsetto vocals are bricolaged with carolling voicetone samples in an undulating cable of studded sound. It sounds as if someone’s waylaid and spiked a minor angel, who’s now hurtling through the skies on its own, singing in tongues, blurting out an incomprehensible paean.

I’ve tried to pick out the lyrics and failed twice; first practically and then philosophically, feeling that trying to comb this glorious voice-stream into straightforward sentences would somehow undo its spell. As a phalanx of synthesizers swing into place and then joyously fragment, like Cian Ciran and Tim Blake in a happily turbulent wrangle with a young Vangelis), I decide not to pin anything down any further than that. Sometimes you’ve just got to let things sing away, and be blown ahead of them.

Shug Daniels: ‘Kintsugi’
Weird Sister Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
12th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music

Shug Daniels online:
Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music 

Jesse D’Kora: ‘Far from Home’
doink (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
16th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, Spotify

Jesse D’Kora online:
Facebook, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Spotify, Instagram  

No Thee No Ess: ‘Chorus’
Surk Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
16th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, Apple Music, Amazon Music

No Thee No Ess online:
Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music  

July 2021 – single & track reviews – Lizard Brain’s ‘If Our Eyes Were Blue’; Vi. & sam’s ‘Pressure’; Parnell March’s ‘Therapy’

9 Jul

A little parable about bigotry from politically-inclined Cambridge pop brain Lizard Brain lays out the nonsense of segregation, and of Jim Crow racism. ‘If Our Eyes Were Blue’ draws heavily on the educational thought experiments of Jane Elliott, in which school classes were divided up purely on the basis of eye colour and then made to act out rules of discrimination, of social caste and of restricted association based on that distinction.

Via archive samples, Jane’s crisp voice punctuates the retro-synth-pop bounce, buzz and beat in which Lizard Brain have chosen to sheath the song; almost in duet with on/off Lizard Brain vocalist Tony Jenkins as she delivers her satirical edicts. “Brown-eyed people are better than blue-eyed people… You blue-eyed people are not to play with the brown-eyed people at any time.” Meanwhile Tony, dreamy and gentle, provides the emotional content, the empathy which soothes the sense of outrage. “Young girl she cries, / tears crystallize… / Can’t understand / the heavy hand / “look at the things they do, / because my eyes are blue”…”

There’s never any question of where Lizard Brain’s own sympathies lie, regarding Jane and her lessons –“She can see the people we should be / and what we all should do.” This is essentially an adjunct to the original experiment, a pop reduction for a classroom singalong. It even ends with a quick sample of Jane proposing the idea of discrimination as fair to her classful of children, and with them resoundingly rejecting it. Unambiguous in its stance – a spelled-out whiteboard lesson rather than a philosophical trick-bag – this might not be exactly what you or I need as adults; but in its ethical straightforwardness it might be exactly what our kids need (assuming that they’ve not already learnt their civics, and they’re not already way ahead of us).

In contrast, ‘Pressure’ – the latest from Swedish production duo Vi. – deals with the problems in being straightforward. Housed in a softly melancholic deep house pop frame, and helmed by singer sam, it dramatizes the feelings of someone wanting to vent deep emotions but being terrified of judgement. Right from the start, it’s rooted in imminent panic (“blurry vision, voices in my mind – wish I could flow the world around me,”) and building angst ( “I got way too many hours on my own, / and I’m not that good at being all alone.”) While sam sings with the abstract tenderness of many a deep-houser, his words ripple with introversion (“searching for a sign / I never really made an effort, / falling back to square one all the time,”) and slip into a chorus like a soft-shoe landslide – “I don’t want to talk about it, it won’t work. / Can’t you see that I have tried it – it gets worse. / Gets better if I keep my feelings to myself. / I shouldn’t bother someone else. / Keep it all to myself, just talk about something else.”

The soundcrafting does what it can to capture this, too. While Vi. have shaped ‘Pressure’ to be a smooth, gently tear-jerking slice of contemporary dance pop (and while they’ve succeeded in this), small production details and club mix tricks give it an edge of subliminal hysteria. The instrumental hook is a glorious yet tissue-thin synth billow, tentatively overwhelming but pulled back. Other parts sometimes come lurching violently out of the mix only to be yanked back immediately. The effect is one of brittle poise being wrecked by rippling tells – one which breaks down into a silky middle eight of impending collapse. “Please don’t do this right now – I don’t wanna see ya. / I’ve been doing all right, / now I’m gonna leave ya – / tryna find a place where I don’t have to hide.”

All of which should lead neatly into Parnell March‘s ‘Therapy’, a rolling spread of analogue EDM in classic Germanic/post-Boards of Canada style; a serenely ecstatic micro-weir of tumbling electronic tones and melody-pulses. But while there’s a voice is there, it’s tweaked beyond recognition by vocoder into an unintelligible but comforting burble. If there’s a message, it’s muffled and medicated; sunny but slimmed; a minimal, murmuring beehive.

In the accompanying video, meanwhile, a sweet little ginger-haired lad grows gradually more disturbed by online imagery and body anxiety, seeking out the services of a series of slick but shallow counsellors before deciding to take matters into his own hands. A thin film of quizzical irony covers the bright, mundane vistas. Therapists nod along sympathetically while covertly buying stock in anti-depressants; there are cameo appearances from a Joe Rogan video and a Jordan Petersen paperback; and even after he tosses his pills down the toilet and hits the road there’s no clear conclusion as to where our boy ends up. For the moment, Parnell seems content to soundtrack the ambiguous anomie of these states of mind – the strange, shallow elations, the papery calm; the gentle manic high and the buried rumble; the vacant reverb behind the day-to-day noise.

Lizard Brain: ‘If Our Eyes Were Blue’
German Shepherd Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
9th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music

Lizard Brain online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Amazon Music,    

Vi. & sam: ‘Pressure’
ART:ERY Music Group
(no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
9th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music

Vi. online:
Homepage, Soundcloud, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Amazon Music   

sam online:
Deezer, Spotify  


Parnell March: ‘Therapy’
Uncle Herb Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
9th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify

Parnell March online:
Facebook, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify   

July 2021- single & track reviews – 2 Lost Souls’ ‘Qanon’; E Rodes’ ‘Isolation’; Pearl & The Oysters’ ‘Soft Science’

7 Jul

Still rabbiting, joke-ranting and stretching his argumental monologues as if they were chewing gum stuck to his fingers, Ian Moss turns his attention to conspiracy theorising with ‘Qanon’.

Not backing them up, of course. His sense of the absurd is far too amiable, far too easily amused to inhabit those angry warrens. Instead, as 2 Lost Souls turn out a growling, churning, tooting synth-funk groove in the P-Funk tradition, Ian capers across the top like the kid’s-party clown version of Mark E. Smith, Manc-rapping sarcastically about shapeshifter lizards, melting ice-caps, Trump, moonshine and doomsday plots. “…’Ere’s armageddon, that’s a fact. / We deal in truth and won’t retract; / but the day, it gets pushed back, / falls off the edge of the earth, that is flat.” 

He sounds like he’s having a laugh, at least; a cackling veteran who hasn’t let age get the better of his critical faculties, or his mither-detector. It’s sometimes a little disappointing – conspiracists seen merely as a deluded flock, worth little more than a dusting of observational comedy and an eye-roll synced with a tongue-wobble, rather than a phenomenon to be taken apart properly; but if light-hearted fun is all we’re going to get, then so be it.

It’s not as if some of the lines aren’t enjoyable in their custard-pie fashion. Maybe we should be content, for the moment, to see some of these idiots off with a bit of screw-you, laugh-at-you dancing while Ian conducts the singing with a bog-brush. “The living Agent Orange is the golden one… / Is all that I believe a con / but your wisdom I can count upon?… / Are you part of that joyless throng, / or are you going to a fancy-dress party?”

It’s arrived a little later than planned, but here’s E Rodes‘ early-July offering. Over the past year, he’s proved himself to be one of the most reliable generators of psychedelic-tinged guitar pop in Britain. ‘Isolation’ continues to build on that. Built around a ravishing fingerpicked guitar part and a decidedly country-ish rhythm as it sprints down the road, it’s sweetly disrupted by pounces of mad panning and exultant sonic smearing. It’s also got one of his most winning melodies so far; beyond the country, there’s also tinges of classic Glaswegian literary indie (Lloyd Cole, Edwyn Collins, Postcard Records) and of Prefab Sprout. 

Musically, it’s delightful enough that you could just enjoy the play of sounds and ignore the lyrics, which would be a pity. Étienne’s worked out a little personal spiritual conundrum, but he wants to express it in Enlightenment terms: maths, geometry and the self. “Raise a finger, point it to the stars, / and the non-Euclidean plane of the night sky / show two lines meet always, not sometimes. / Show your working out, end it with a clear-eyed summation / so one knows it emerged in isolation. / I’ve found myself, I was right there all along, / just round the corner from a certain nowhere. / It has been years and miles / of near-misses and solitary trials in oscillations.” It’s an agile bit of wordery, smuggling its cerebral play across under the guise of tunefulness.

Call me a smartarse, call me effete, but I like it when that happens. I like it even more when that kind of cleverness merges seamlessly with emotion, with humanity; where there’s no awkward edge. That’s what Étienne manages here, skimming like a brinksman round the curb, choosing not to stay in the conundrum. “Just know it emerges in isolation. / We owe it all to chance and isolation, / orphan idioms and isolation. / And though I may have gone too far with isolation, / I’ve reasoned myself out from isolation. / So take me home.” While still keeping up that light-footed groove, the bridge falls deliberately out of time for a few measures, tossing up some turbulence, ripping some wild guitar fragments and pasting them into a swirl: a bit of welcome, manic joy to counter the reasoning. 

If you feel as if you’re being cheated of a carefree summer (whether its by fires, quarantines, or just holes in your wallet), the latest Pearl & The Oysters single might feel like some kind of compensation, possibly also involving a touch of time travel. Luscious and carefree, ‘Soft Science’ is a loving contemporary cop of any number of 1970s quiet storm sprinklings (think Minnie Riperton, Stuff, even the softer Flora Purim end of Return to Forever) and space age pop.

In essence, it’s three minutes of loving tug-of-war and soft banter, dusted with Rhodes pianos, Omnichord and little psychedelic meteorites. Juliette Pearl’s restless summer-baby coaxes a boyfriend (played with gently agreeable charm by Kuo-Hung Tseng from Taiwanese synth-poppers Sunset Rollercoaster) away from his studies and out to the beach. There’s not much more to it than that. Affectionate worrying from her (in both senses of the word), and polite reluctance from him (“I really should work” / “You’ve studied all night long”… / “Love…” / “I told you I can’t.” / “The sun is hot.” / “I don’t want to know.” / “You shouldn’t stay inside.” / “I’m not nearly done”) until he packs it in. (“Well, I guess I could / close my books for now.”)

The rest is drops of sunshine, all of it welcome.

2 Lost Souls: ‘Qanon’
German Shepherd Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
7th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Spotify

2 Lost Souls online:
Homepage, Bandcamp, Spotify   

 

E Rodes: ‘Isolation’
Don’t Tempt Me Frodddo (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
6th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, Spotify

E Rodes online:
Facebook, Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Instagram, Spotify

Pearl & The Oysters: ‘Soft Science’
Feeltrip Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
7th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

Pearl & The Oysters online:
Facebook, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music    

July 2021 – single & track reviews – Franz Yusef vs. David Peel & Friends’ ‘How Lucky We Are’; Fatum Aeternum’s ‘Spiders’; The Academy of Sun’s ‘It is Finished When It’s Destroyed/Ghost Foxes’

3 Jul

Had he lived, Tim Smith would have been sixty years old this week;  but with a wealth of Cardiacs-inspired music still riffling up from the underground like a crop of wheat, it’s almost as if he was still here.

Celebrating Tim’s birthday, Franz Yusef vs. David Peel & Friends are an assortment of his fans – principally Israeli odd-rock maverick Franz Yuzef and half-hidden Liverpudlian talent David John Peel (who’s had stints in The Farm and with a pre-Space Tommy Scott, amongst others), but also Eric Kearns, Johnee Beegood and Bobby Bilsborough and Pocket Gods’ Noel Storey. ‘How Lucky We Are’ is an unabashed tribute, full of open sentiment, but with the words attempting to recapture some of those peculiar, endearing Smith sensibilities – the touch of the maritime, the open and unashamedly awkward emotionalism, the sense of gleeful rampage, and the strange public mixture of schooling and punk idiot savant. “How lucky we are / to have known that man, / to have heard his mind / trample kindly through our own, / tickling through the tar. / How lucky we are.”

It could have been winsome, it could have been embarrassing. It could have been a coy cop of Smith-y sound. In fact (although it’s a close-run thing sometimes) it’s actually none of these. It’s more of an inhabiting; a realisation that Smithworld isn’t something which you should pastiche, but a sensibility which you can slip into. Franz sets up a web of awkwardly-related synth and organ chords over a rattling-door haunted-house rhythm and then turns them all into family, venturing out on a strange, stretched-out harmonic limb that always feels a second away from breaking apart. The feel constantly flickers between mediaeval to the dark recesses of Victoriana to this week’s inspiration; there are fake reeds and a Mellotron, and a sort of sonic flickering, like a swamp at the deepening of the dusk.    

Meanwhile, Franz clambers from point to point on this web, dotting down David’s words as a theatrical incantation and a thanksgiving, replete with that slightly arcane and macabre Cardiacs touch; that fractured grammar; and, for the fully committed, glancing references to Smith lyrics. “How lucky we were to be a part of miracle fun, / to sing the score of heaven, / to hear the brave son, shine on. / To swim the waters there. / How lucky we were…. / How lucky we shall be / to shout the crowns of majesty, / to bring our children to the sea / and hold their heads beneath the waves / of glory not unfound and see / how lucky they shall be… / We are better / for having known him.”

Israeli multi-genre rockers Fatum Aeturnum are playful and theatrical, as were Cardiacs, but they don’t quite swim in the same peculiar seas. They’re a more self-consciously artful proposition – flashy, stagey board-stompers whose avid raiding of heavy metal, jazz, Paganini violin heroics, Goth rock, gypsy dance and even little dollops of Shakespeare turn them into a obvious, omnivorous circus act. But they do what they do with heart, humour and lip-smacking gusto (especially not that they’re lightening up a little); and ‘Spiders’ is heaps of fun.

It starts with swing hi-hat, big-band saxophone riffs and diving violin, only to have them blown up by burly metallic bass and by guitar riffs tossed in like precision cherry bombs. While this is noisy enough to punch out the flap of a cabaret tent, everything that’s been blown up falls slap-bang back into place. Sonically, it could be early King Crimson (the blood-red crunchy big-band jazz sandwich of ’21st Century Schizoid Man’) meeting Iron Maiden, with kooky Muppet Show vocals sprinkled on top: you can toss in the straighter end of Mr Bungle and the weirder end of The Stranglers if you want to. Away from the geeky comparisons, you get a carefully controlled set of romps and explosions. Stunts, but no chaos. Bits of it may wriggle like eels, on cue; but (as ever in the circus) nothing’s left to chance.

It might be ironic, then, that the lyrical targets of ‘Spider’ are those who make a religion out of regulation – and vice versa (“We expect you to be good people / since we erect our holy steeple. / Pay your taxes, live on the edge,/  buy affordable, conquer your rage. / Watch TV, drink some Coke, / give away your life as a joke.”). Fatum Aeturnum’s real target, of course, is structured consumerism; and as I imagine them prancing around in their satirucal marketeer’s masks, I’m reminded of some of the more fantastical Brechtian clowning which popped up at one end of British psychedelia during the ’90s – Sleepy People, Poisoned Electrick Head. Plus, of course, somewhere in counter-culture heaven, Daevid Allen must be grinning a little. “Keep on running, with your blinkers – / we don’t appreciate the thinkers.”

Traces of the Tim Smith spirit also seem to have found their way into The Academy of Sun‘s ‘It is Finished When It’s Destroyed/Ghost Foxes’ single (a limited-edition double-sider cut by Graham Duff’s boutique label Heaven’s Lathe). If so, they’re wrestling with a rabble of Nick Hudson’s other influences – on this occasion, dark British psychedelia, Cramps-y psychobilly, Goth rock and rattling lysergic American garage rock.

It’s typically diverse Academy of Sun in that it’s volatile, ready to shift. At any moment the light could polarise. ‘It is Finished…’ opens with warnings of tainted help, of murder and dysfunction, sailing along as a mystic-urban incantation with a spider-strewn Goth riff before lapsing into an unexpected silence, changing gear, then coming back with a prog boost and a doubled-down sense of doom. (“Lie down, lie down, they all lie down – / the walls are falling in this town.”) It sounds like nothing so much as a fateful, biblical-apocalyptic meeting between the Bad Seeds and long-gone ’90s Britpsych comets Levitation

‘Ghost Foxes’ showcases another side to The Academy of Sun. Gnarling along on a 13th Floor Elevators/Seeds tip, and kicking off on a stop-start guitar slam, it reminds us that there’s more than one meaning to acid wit.  “If I had a book of unhealthy stuff, I’d like to let you read it / but gazing at your fevered eyes, I don’t know if you need it… / If you don’t think my love is true, maybe magic doesn’t believe in you. / If you feel you’re being ignored, maybe change the batteries on your ouija board.” It seems to be bringing a prank perspective into a relationship, although where it’s therapy or some kind of weaving, elusive kiss-off is difficult to see as it ducks and dives behind its off-beat witticisms and peculiar maxims. “Used to be a part of me, / but all that’s left is electricity. / Ghost foxes are best on the periphery.”

Throughout, though, it crackles with verve and interest. “What a curious time to be alive!” interjects Nick, partway through, and apropos of nothing. You feel that it’s that which propels Academy of Sun onwards, through apocalypse and squabbles and failed understandings. A keenness of curiosity.

Franz Yusef vs. David Peel & Friends: ‘How Lucky We Are’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Streaming single
Released:
2nd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud

Franz Yusef online:
Facebook, Bandcamp    

David Peel online:
Facebook  


Fatum Aeternum: ‘Spiders’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
2nd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

Fatum Aeturnum online:
Homepage, Facebook, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music, VK


The Academy of Sun: ‘It Is Finished When It’s Destroyed/Ghost Foxes’
Heaven’s Lathe (no catalogue number or barcode)
7″ vinyl-only single (100-copy limited edition)
Released:
2nd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Heaven’s Lathe (vinyl), Soundcloud (stream)

The Academy of Sun online:
Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Instagram

July 2021 – single & track reviews – Colin Moulding’s ‘The Hardest Battle’; ZOLA’s ‘Glitter and the Gold’; Filed Fangs’ ‘Conduit’

2 Jul

Inspired by an e.e. cummings line about the struggle for selfhood, Colin Moulding‘s new solo single turns out to be a song about solidarity. Sort of. While XTC’s impish streak means that they were wilful and rarely that straightforward – and while their former bassist and part-time hitmaker was a big part of this – he was also the warmer side of the partnership. Much of this comes through in ‘The Hardest Battle’: an encouragement to personal integrity, sheathing warnings and assertions in a gently pounding cream-tea arrangement of English brass and Beatles piano. “The hardest battle you can fight / is just to be yourself – / face the dragon on a hilltop shelf. / But you’ll see – /  yeah. that’s a lonely place to be.”

The lyrics might be English underdog poetry writ cosy (there’s a touch of children’s story to Colin’s choices of maxim and metaphor) but the music belies it. This is a confident summery thumpalong, like a march to a rural fete, anchored firmly back in the Ray Davies Anglo-pop tradition but with lashings of organ and doo-wop overdubs, and confident shifts of rhythm and arrangement. It’s pretty trad, pretty veteran in its tradition and indeed much of its execution, but it also gives the feeling of shaking out fine old linen and finding it as good as new.

Ultimately it’s a reassurance, and a heartening one in every respects. A little conservative, perhaps, at a time when that concept’s being tied ever more closely to intolerance and narrow-mindedness; but in this case never reductive, never exclusive, and flipping underdoggery away from sourness. “My guardian angel said to me, / ‘whether a magpie or whether a crow, / whether your plumage might spoil the show – / but you’ll do. / Yeah, there’s room in the world for you… / To thine own self be true, / so let’s stick like glue to our true colours now.”

There are plenty of differences between ‘The Hardest Battle’ and ZOLA‘s ‘Glitter and the Gold’. In contrast to the former’s brassy, ’60s-pop strut and bounce, the latter’s R&B beats cradle gently tinkling arrangements in a slow-dreaming groove (as if ZOLA were lazily rolling a set of jingle toys across the floor) and chopscrews a stray vocal phrase into a muted jazz trumpet line. There’s also a considerable gap between Colin’s endearing, avuncular bloke-singing and ZOLA’s own cautious, conversational soul-girl tones; and while Colin keeps his subject matter wrapped up in a package of universal maxims, ZOLA’s are more explicitly tied to one field, one situation. Nonetheless, this is another integrity piece.  

Colin’s a multi-decade veteran of pop music, but ZOLA’s a relatively fresh starter, still preoccupied with its behind-the-scenes demands and its public masks, still fending off dubious wheedlings from starry-eyed friends and potential managers. “If I don’t move to southern California, / smoke weed on your couch or write a song for Coca-Cola, / if I’m not there when you have people over, / will I miss something big?” she asks, “I asked you what you thought about the words I sew together. / You say I missed the chance to meet this famous rapper…” Swimming uneasily through the glad-handing and the game-playing, she’s unsure of whether resisting it will stunt her (“if I remain somewhere that fits my nature / will there be inwards and upgrowth?”) or whether she just doesn’t have it in her to make the compromises. (“Sometimes I’m not social and I’m shy… / and I don’t like being asked to talk about myself. / Some might think that’s humble but you might think it’s weak. / If I want to make it somewhere, gotta learn to sell my art – / but my art is me…”)

In spite of her trepidations and her skepticism, there’s enough spine in ZOLA to resist; there’s enough perspective for her to establish where her music needs to fall into place; and she can find the right words to describe her own value. “You follow me on Instagram and comment on my pictures,” she comments, pointedly, “but you’ve never seen me spill my heart to a room full of strangers. / Maybe, just to start, we can have a conversation?” By the end, she’s cut it down to the core  – “so maybe, maybe get to know me?” – and corralled the key point of singing, of communicating, of being original enough in yourself to be worth listening to in the first place 

Taking an altogether more abrasive approach, Filed Fangs return with ‘Conduit’. Their glassy squall of post-punk guitar and their dance culture tussles of blipping sequencer and romantic synth are now applied to cognitive behavioural therapy and with routes out of disillusionment. “I was once an enthusiast – it didn’t last,” Paul Morley observes, tartly, over the colourfully melancholy motorik riffs and the drum-machine whack.  

This is a Covid lockdown anthem, of sorts. It’s also another solidarity piece, this one aimed at those whose mental health has swayed or bent during the quarantines (or whose existing problems have been exacerbated). Bits of programmatic psychological jargon are buried, violently echoing, within the mix, but Paul and Boz seem keen to bring out something hopeful. Offering a childlike freshening to (or a highlighted road map out of) trouble, the conduit they’re talking about leads “back to the electricity that is denied us… depression extinguishes that spark.”

For a song connected to the talking cure, however, it’s surprisingly short of words. Paul’s vocal skims intermittently over the top of the instrumental drive, or diffuses into barely comprehensible splinters. Very Manchester, in a way: there are clear echoes and contemporary reworkings of the city’s post-industrial post-punk and its chattering Madchester vocal licks in what Filed Fangs are doing. Certainly any mushy sentiment is barred from the song, pared back to guarded understatement.

The empathy, the message isn’t in the words; it’s in the instrumental cadences and tones, the glinting light bouncing off the top of those freeze-dried guitars, the rippling ascendance of the electronic sequences, the assertive slam of a riff that’s caught artfully between weightlessness and buttressing strength. The rouse-yourself dance imperative, beside which the blips of laconic Mancunian speech are just seasoning, understatements; a refusal to submit to sentiment when there’s proper work to do. With ‘Conduit’, Filed Fangs have honed the understated pick-me-up to a fine point.

Colin Moulding: ‘The Hardest Battle’
Burning Shed, CMCD01 (5060164400530)
CD-only single
Released:
2nd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Burning Shed, YouTube

Colin Moulding online:
Facebook, Soundcloud, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music    


ZOLA: ‘Glitter and the Gold’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
2nd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify

ZOLA online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music 


Filed Fangs: ‘Conduit’
German Shepherd Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
2nd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Spotify, Amazon Music

Filed Fangs online
Homepage, Facebook, Bandcamp, YouTube, Spotify, Amazon Music 

 

June 2021 – single & track reviews – Obijan’s ‘Ubesvarte anrop’ (featuring Action The Man & Julie); All Cats Are Beautiful’s ‘thought i saw u in the shop last nite’; E Rodes’ ‘Fortune’

15 Jun

As today’s opener, ‘Ubesvarte anrop’ is pretty irresistible. Reformed dream-popper Obijan ropes in both his favourite rapper Action the Man and (I think) Danish pop and media sensation Julie Berthelsen, then lets them loose on something that resembles contemporary electropop merging seamlessly with peak-period New Order dance choruses… but in Norwegian.

The title means “Missed Calls”. I can’t tell whether they’re singing something smutty about area-code hookups, or whether it’s about regretting chances to talk, or whether it’s a tale of ever-mounting farce revolving around phones. Action seems to be rapping about metallophones at one point – and meows – so perhaps there’s some cats-on-glockenspiels action in the story. I can only go by the moods: sparkling syncopations, blue-neon club-night synth jabs, kick beats that tickle your instep, and a bobbing air of keyboard-driven optimism. Bewildered by a succession of London heatwaves and torrential rain, I’m just going to hang onto this one as evidence of a consistent summer falling into place, and I’ll hope for the best.

After Obijan’s retro effervescence, All Cats Are Beautiful sound subdued, but that’s part of the point. As a duo separated by Covid lockdown in different countries, they’ve been spending their time writing songs together over the web about how much they miss each other, blurring them into the world of love-songs (with their own particular femme-queer/non-binary friendship and personal mix adding some interesting ripples to the usual undercurrents).

Elena sings this one on her own, as it emerges from scrappy soul chords to build through layering synth and rhythm parts from a bedroom-studio skeleton to kick drum and a full shimmying pop body. Solo or not, she seems to be singing for both herself and her Cats partner Kyle, separate wishes and memories slotting and merging into each other until it’s just one person again, one combining story. “I wanna show you round my hometown – where I learned to stand up and where I learned to fall down. / I don’t wanna let you out of my sight – the world was pushing me left, but you were on the next right… / I wanna circle back into that place – where we listened to Frank Ocean on the fire escape. / There’s all these moments just waiting in line – I got enough here to last the whole ride.”

What emerges from this merging and layering hints at disco and rave (in those cheerful little keyboard bloops) while homing right on the twee-pop preoccupations of ’90s indie heart-achers like The Field Mice. “Even though we’re miles apart, my mind is playing tricks on my heart. / I thought I saw you in the shop last night but I know you’re taller in real life.” It’s cute, it’s a little solipsistic, but ACAB work affectingly within the fact that love and fellowship are often built piecemeal out of trivia, memento-moments and small, benevolent personal quirks; out of solidarities in parallel; out of finding someone who understands your little flaws and markers, and the sparks that make you think; and that sometimes these little firefly nuggets are tremendously important, and that you miss them inordinately when they’re not there. “You can come around any time / Now would be a good time.”

E Rodes‘ mid-month single ‘Fortune’ sees him back on his own after early June’s full-band Electric Roads outing – and if you felt that that one seemed like a humorous gripe at the pinch of marriage and partnerhood, then you could view this one as a kind of apology. If ‘Soon Canoe’ poked fun at inconsistency, cramped spirits and the apparent impossibility of satisfying someone else, ‘Fortune’ turns it around and focuses on the fonder perspectives of passing time, of gratefulness and thankfulness. “Old, blind, I’m not he who finds gold and silver beneath the sea. / Still, fortune found me. / In her wake, a smoke of memories.”


Easing in on children’s-story countryside ambience (a blanket of gentle hammered dulcimer, birdsong, church bells, street chatter and duck gabble) the arriving song chords build on each other; like worn, wonky granite steps sparkling in the sunlight. As gentle carpeting Hammond organ and winding, wandering bass lead us deeper in, ‘Fortune’ journeys through classic, sleepy-rural English psychedelic cadences. There’s more than a touch of latter-day David Gilmour in here, a sprinkle of pastoral-era Andy Partridge; and, in some respects, answering echoes to the blossoming Italian Anglophilia of Sterbus… but more than anything it feels as if Étienne is finding more of himself in revealing more of himself.

In spite of the sonic beguilement in the loving production and the expansive nature-to-music arrangement – the feeling that this is stepping smoothly from outside comfort to inner reverie – it’s the generosity that stays with us. “Row, row, have no fear / We have weathered far worse storms and stronger wind…. / Song of love, I don’t know? I may be a fool / But it’s the least I could do for you.”

Obijan: ‘Ubesvarte anrop’ (featuring Action The Man & Julie)
Apollon Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
15th June 2021

Get/stream it from:
Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, Qobuz

Obijan online:
Facebook, Soundcloud, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, Qobuz   

All Cats Are Beautiful: ‘thought i saw u in the shop last nite’
Moshi Moshi Music (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
15th June 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

All Cats Are Beautiful online:
Facebook, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Instagram  

E Rodes: ‘Fortune’
Don’t Tempt Me Frodddo (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
15th June 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify

E Rodes online:
Facebook, Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Instagram, Spotify

June 2021 – single & track reviews – Gabriella Smith/Gabriel Cabezas’ ‘Lost Coast III’; Hot Mustard’s ‘Jerkwater Strut; Ada Moreau’s ‘My Shadow Halts’

7 Jun

Following up on last month’s twirling ‘Bard of a Wilderness’ single, Gabriella Smith and Gabriel Cabezas continue to bring voice, cello and found percussion items to bear on the theme of human responses to the wild spaces, and to the destruction wrought on Gabriella’s California home by last year’s wildfires. While building on the pattering jazz and classical extended-playing techniques which threaded through ‘Bard…’, ‘Lost Coast III’ also sidesteps the former’s barely-restrained murmur and its mingled mourning/accusatory wordings. Skipping across a triple-beat, it’s more of a fiery Latinized waltz heading out on an angry roadtrip – its rage barely constrained, its grief turned into a wild chattering momentum veering all over the tarmac.

This time, Gabriella ignores texts in favour of dance chanting and thermal-tossed multi-tracked vocalese. She plays against herself in what sounds like a wordless, impressionistic vocal ballet of fire-panicked neighbours chattering and arguing, sharing fears and concerns as they try to save themselves what they can. Mingling with this is a sense of boiling injustice, a fury at the fact that this is actually happening. Hands and bow beat on cello case and cans, while Gabriel’s rapid string melodies squeal, strum and chop against the rhythms (and the viola of Bedroom Community labelmate Nadia Sirota adds more midrange sinew).

Round about the halfway point, the piece erupts into a frantically hummed-and-sung chorale of overdubbed Gabriellas, the cello casting disaster drones across the voices. Towards the end, everything disintegrates into a tangled mass of cello frenzy, alarms and firebell rattles before soaring out into a finale which combines everything that’s gone before into a thrillingly twisted-up whole. The more times that you listen to this, the more it seems to reveal; as if it’s not just dealing with the impact of the 2020 fires but mining deeper into Californian history for a catalogue of misfortunes, oppressions, mismanagements and outright fuck-ups, giving voice to all of the indignations that came with them but which were brushed under the forest floor. Rousing stuff, in every sense.

The remaining two singles (this time around) are much more relaxed.

Mixing rare groove with early hip hop/boom bap, the debut Hot Mustard single ‘Jerkwater Strut’ is a bit of idealised, retro-fitted funky-sidewalk strolling. At the group’s core, Jack Powell and Nick Carusos create a Chic-ish dynamic of guitar and bass co-leadership, although the group’s rural South Carolina location (and Jack’s taste for softly melting wah-wah trickles and behind-the-beat pacing) locate it in a much lazier groove. Brooklyn’s Big Brass Beats horn duo (with their Antibalas and TV on the Radio connections) phatten it out, but with the outcome being more New Orleans and Memphis than it is Big Apple (though they do cite a little bit of Wu-Tang Clan as an addition to the mixture). I guess Charleston (a boat ride and a bump away from Hot Mustard’s Johns Island hangout) also gets a look in.

Wordless, thoughtful and quietly happy, ‘Jerkwater Strut’ is more urban than island. Yet, if so, it’s a window onto a different kind of city life in which the tourists are gone, the guests no longer need to be impressed, and an early evening can be spent on the stoop and the street at your own, relaxed pace.

We might be being softened up here, or we might be being let in on an open secret. I can’t really tell yet. That title (like a bit of ancient jazz-age mockery) and Jack’s Gilliam-esque animated video (full of fish, cryptids and marine mythology) are laden with clues which don’t ultimately lead anywhere. Eventually, it’s just sunshine, personal contentment, and the subliminal beat of the far-off city as a comfort, all subsumed into a relaxed neighbourhood vibe.

The third in a monthly progression of singles by Stockholm-based semi-ambient composer Ada Moreau, ‘My Shadow Halts’ leaves behind the gorgeous European fogginess of its predecessors. With that former chilly brume replaced by a more evanescent sonic misting, its descending temple-bell arpeggios, distant piano and even more distant mother-of-pearl synth-sheening lead it more into Asian temple haunts.

These days, there’s more of a risk involved in attempting this kind of thing. Even as ‘My Shadow Halts’ nods to the 1980s traveller’s-ambience of Harold Budd or Roedelius, it also risks summoning up the same kind of atmosphere as many a touristy New Age salute to Bhutan or Kyoto (narrowly skirting Chinoiserie and faux-Gamelan as it does so). Fortunately, despite sounds and intimations, Ada’s actual intentions are less to do with evoking place than in fixing a position of grace.

According to her, ‘My Shadow Halts’ is about “the subjective experience of time. When the light is just right, and everything seems to slow down to that moment, frozen in time. A sudden sense of a more elevated and peaceful reality. Your stress and aggression momentarily forgotten and left behind.”

With that in mind, listening reveals something better. By avoiding direct geographical or cultural tags, Ada allows the crass, picture-postcard aspects which can taint this kind of project – that collecting, spiritually acquisitive side of things – to gently drop away from the music. While still a little second-hand, the Asiatic touches become more like a thoughtful, mood-evoking temple print hung on the opposite wall, rather than a wholesale theft of scenery. As with Hot Mustard, I think Ada’s successfully blended her inspirations into something fresh enough to work. I’m also feeling that she’s narrowly dodged a genre bullet.

Gabriella Smith/Gabriel Cabezas: ‘Lost Coast III
Bedroom Community Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 7th June 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

Gabriella Smith online:
Homepage, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

Gabriel Cabezas online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music

   

Hot Mustard: ‘Jerkwater Strut’
Color Red (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 4th June 2021

Get/stream it from:
Color Red store, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Youtube, Spotify, Amazon Music

Hot Mustard online:
Homepage, Facebook, Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music

 

Ada Moreau: ‘My Shadow Halts’
ART:ERY Music Group, ART:ERY20210307
Download/streaming single
Released: 4th June 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, Apple Music, Youtube, Spotify, Tidal , Amazon Music, Qobuz

Ada Moreau online:
Homepage, Soundcloud, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Amazon Music, Qobuz

May 2021 – single & track reviews – Craig Fortnam’s ‘Ark’; Gabriella Smith/Gabriel Cabezas’s ‘Bard of a Wasteland’; LEYA’s ‘ABBA/Mary’ (Christina Vantzou remix)

17 May

“If you are lonely, I’ll be lonely too. / Find yourself a wall and I’ll hang next to you. / It won’t be easier hanging there that way / but we can be a diptych for the light of day…”

Craig Fortnam has spent two decades building a distinct style, both with North Sea Radio Orchestra (leafy, nostalgia-toned English chamber music drawing ever closer to lucid, Canterbury-esque psychedelia) and with Arch Garrison (slimmed-down duo/trio songwriting with more upfront personal concerns and a ranging freedom). It’s not surprising that his first solo material (at least, the first released under his name alone) falls close in tone to both of his previous projects. It’s also still very much a family affair, with the Garrison’s James Larcombe contributing piano and a delicately shrunken raft of other NSRO members adding strings, reeds and vibraphone.

‘Ark’ (the title track of Craig’s forthcoming album) is still redolent with dark walled-garden curlicues of NSRO bassoon and cello, gently astringent viola, bumble-bee monosynth and twinkling glockenspiel; all of it pumping away like steam-workings under the naive strum of guitar and Craig’s unaffected Wyatt-ish drone of vocal. Impacted by his loves and losses in the past few years – not least the death of his mentor Tim Smith – it’s downbeat, uneasy and self-effacing in a particular English fashion (a way that still throbs and flows on beneath current aggressive Brexit blustering). As a song, it’s in part a retreat and an admission of fear in ominous times. Craig’s never looked as vulnerable as he does in the video, fumbling around his rehearsal room, gazing anxiously through thick glasses, gently contorted around his guitar or haltingly reassembling broken-down instruments.

However, it’s also a frail but faithful statement of empathy and loyalty in times of threat – a recognition that trust can be rebuilt in the face of despondency. An unexpected coda with a new hint of furrowed darkness suggests that Craig has swapped some of those NSRO green leaves for a bag of tougher, tarter limes; but he’s shored up the delicate song-line, made strengthening bulwarks to share. “Two by two, I’ll paint the people in” sings Craig, “with all my deepest longing.” The clouds may be fat and dark, the cliffs may be crumbling, lights may be going out in the little houses everywhere;  but community starts with two, and then another two.

When much of California went up in relentless wildfires last year, blotting out much of the Pacific seaboard in a broil of toxic brown smoke, it left scars – economic, geographical, psychic. Singer/composer Gabriella Smith might live mostly in Marseille these days, but her roots are thoroughly Californian, emotionally entwined with the hiking trails through forests and over rocks in the wild places, now little more than ash and scorching. Composed on the hoof as she paced helplessly in the Bay Area, unable to stop the despoilment from the raging fires, ‘Bard of a Wasteland’ is the first part of a fierce lament over the wrecking of her countryside.

Rage pushes at the roots of Gabriella’s soft conversational soprano, beginning to unweave its politeness, swooping through its steel-guitar pitching and murmurs. Meanwhile, her collaborator (the genre-flexing New York cellist Gabriel Cabezas) makes his cello sound like – and do – everything else. Jazz swoops and purring, fretless Mediterranean bass lines of the Mick Karn kind; quivering tremolo ornaments to the vocal melodies; staccato thumps and strums; subtle screeches of desert birdcall; reedy drones and a rainfall pattering of fingertip percussion.

All of this is layered into flexing rhythmical and methodic song-loops, perhaps owing something to Arthur Russell’s cello-beat, to African cycles and Italian tarantellas, in which Gabriel explores the rub and the push of instrumental voices while Gabriella digs into root causes of neglect and responsibility, of strip-mining the future and impoverishing the present. “You left us with fire / and we let it burn / You lined your pockets with the breath of your children,” she sings. “All you leave is a wasteland / And we’re fighting to breathe on.” As music, it’s pretty thrilling, it’s rhythm teasing your ankles and hips into dancing. As a story, it’s unresolved and inconclusive: as it has to be, as Gabriella starts to piece together her own emotions, to find out what her new place is, and where she sits on the chain of responsibility (if not the roster of blame).

“Lost time. / Another lick of the tide, / another loop in a line…. / Far enough from the slaughter, / close enough to the dam, / I lost the dream of a daughter / to be the bard of a wasteland.” It’s a reminder that protection of a landscape comes with sustaining one’s own awareness of and connection to it. Gabriella is performing the start of a war dance on hers, to remind those who failed their duties that this kind of failure matters.

On ‘ABBA/Mary’, ambient-classical composer and onetime Dead Texan Christina Vantzou effects a two-on-one remix of eerie New York post-classical rebels LEYA, whose threnodic conflations of violin, harp, unusual intervals and porously melancholic male-alto vocalising have enthralled various freak-pits, noise-dens, art-porn movies and other liminal performance spaces ever since they formed. The originals sound like weeping shroud-cloths peeled off the sleeping bodies of castrati. They’re disturbingly beautiful, their lyrics indistinct and parched, and they’re also deliciously unmoored from time, from strictness of gender, from tone-temperament. ‘ABBA‘ is a meeting of undulant string fades and detuned harp; ‘Mary‘ is more slanted towards traditional balladry and baroque continuo.

The Vantzou blending produces quite a different hybrid. Swimming in on a tide of fluting, falling vocal samples, its shifting spine is built from gentle alteration to ‘Mary’s harp continuo. Of the vocals, Marilu Donovan’s wispy backings are moved more upfront and given their moment in the spotlight; while Adam Marciewicz’s alto is further detached from its blurred storytelling role, now echoing protracted yearning syllables in distant corridors. Throughout, gentle background interruptions prod and nudge LEYA’s original building blocks as Vantzou mixes in computer blips, finger cymbals and insect chirps and the kind of electronic glissandi you’d expected to hear in vintage psychedelic science fiction.

Building assertively on LEYA’s taste for detuning, Vantzou also brings regular and unsettling shifts in pitching, progressing the music from chord to subtly dissonant chord. You’re never entirely sure where you’re being led, other than down a staircase in which the steps are each of different, treacherous sizes. There is no particular ending or straightforward resolution: the component fragments fray and ghost out together, the last sigh of a spectral tape.

Craig Fortnam: ‘Ark’
Onomatopoeia Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released:
14th May 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp (free download with album pre-order), Soundcloud, Amazon Music, Spotify, Shazam

Craig Fortnam online:
Facebook, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Vimeo, Spotify, Amazon Music, Shazam

Gabriella Smith/Gabriel Cabezas: ‘Bard of a Wasteland
Bedroom Community Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
14th May 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, ‎Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

Gabriella Smith online:
Homepage, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

Gabriel Cabezas online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music

LEYA: ‘ABBA/Mary’ (Christina Vantzou remix)
NNA Tapes (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
17th May 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music

LEYA online:
Facebook, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music

Christina Vantzou online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Vimeo, Deezer, Pandora, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music

May 2021 – single & track reviews – Loud Women’s ‘Reclaim These Streets’; Penelope Trappes’ ‘Blood Moon’; Spellling’s ‘Boys at School’

17 May

The personal, and the political. Flip a coin next time you walk out of doors. If it falls the wrong way, imagine that at some point you’re going to be the target of some kind of abuse while you’re out there – aggressive attention, or being boxed in, or physically assaulted. Possibly murdered.

Loud Women: 'Reclaim These Streets'

Loud Women: ‘Reclaim These Streets’

If you’re male (and if you’re taking this seriously), you’re probably feeling slightly paranoid at imagining this sort of a world. If you’re female, you don’t even need me to tell you that you’re already dealing with it – often the actuality, but always the ever-lurking fear and concern, and the rage that comes because of the way that this situation just grinds on and on forever… and of how it not only stalks the street, but seeps into the home, smothers the protest, blocks the initiative.

Spurred into action by two particular deaths, those of Blessing Olusegun and Sarah Everard (two outcroppings of this collective outrage, the first of which has highlighted the relative dismissal which the deaths of black women receive; the second how gynocidal murder can be dealt out even by those who are duty-bound to protect), a choral swarm of female musicians have come together under the umbrella of the Loud Women collective for ‘Reclaim These Streets’. In part it’s a well-deserved fund raiser for Women’s Aid. In part, it’s a righteous kick against this horrible cloud of threat and complacency.

On top of all that, as a protest song it works both in message and in form. Written by Loud Women founder Cassie Fox (of Thee Faction and I, Doris) it sits tight in the crossover pocket of punk and guitar-pop, with perhaps Deb Googe’s ferocious dragster-thrum bass as its prime component. Pounding along, fiercely and hungrily, it simultaneously finds room for a whole spectrum of female thinking, emoting, flavourings and positioning. The assured and assertive whomp of punk protest to the bruised-but-unbeaten notes of confessional; the hookiness of girl-group vigour and the whisper-to-gale push of the female chorale; the empowered party zest of women in solidarity; through to the roar of collective rallying.

As for the words, they’re forthright in their abraded, angry sketching of trepidations and injustice (“From the age of thirteen / I’ve known the fear of dark streets. / I’ve known my body’s danger / – can he hear my heart beat?.. / From the age of thirteen, / been told that it is my fault. / Blamed for male violence, / better watch where I walk… / Every woman’s got a story, / breaks silence with a whisper… / Text me you when get home; / keys between your fingers; / staying close to streetlights – / fear of shadows lingers…”). They’re equally forthright in their call for something better, something more just. “We have a right to safety / She was just walking home / Too many women share a story / You are not alone… / Daring to tell her truth / Calling to her sisters… / Till every woman’s safe from harm in her own home / Till every woman’s safe to live her truth / Till every woman’s safe to walk on every street.”

Perhaps its strongest impression, though is the coming-together – the commonality – of so many female musicians from across nearly five decades. A tranche of 1990s indie queens include Debbies Googe and Smith, Salad’s Marijne van der Vlugt and journalistic ground-breaker Ngaire Ruth; Brix Smith adds a gawky-but-gutsy rap in the middle;. latterday rock journeywomen Charley Stone and Jen Macro serve as guitar backbone. Elder voices (with lippy and lippiness) include Siobhan Fahey and that steadily-evolving, she-punk/polymath-auntie Helen McCookerybook.

As for the extended hand-to-hand patchwork of the Loud Women community choir, it contains among others MIRI, Lilith Ai, Laura Kidd (of Penfriend/She Makes War), Julie Riley, Lee Friese-Greene, Estella Adeyeri (Big Joanie) and Cassie’s I, Doris bandmate Abby Werth; plus dive-ins from assorted members of fierce female and female-slanted bands (such as Dream Nails, The Pukes, The Tuts, Desperate Journalist, Gender Chores, Slut Magic, Deux Furieuses, Berries, Muddy Summers & the Dirty Field Whores), all of them asserting and persuading together. It’s a reminder that few things are as naturally formidable – as naturally authoritative – as adjacent generations of women in full agreement, and who are forcefully letting it be known.

From material certainties to something metaphysical. In ‘Blood Moon’, Penelope Trappes imagines herself as Isis (protecting goddess of women and children, divine healer) but also as struggling against present-day burdens which have grown too heavy, too deadening. In the Agnes Haus short film which accompanies the song, a silver car pulls skittishly into a multi-story car park at night and Penelope-as-Isis (tumble-haired, teary-eyed, all too human in her distress) drags the unresponsive body of another woman across the concrete. The other woman’s face is unseen. Her leopard-print coat is snagging, her mass a dead weight.

There are flickers of power in Isis yet – she summons lightning and snow from her fingertips, and is dogged in her hauling efforts – but the film ends unresolved. Having dragged her burden all the way to the moon-shrouded docks, and with both the lifeless other body and her own wig of blonde curls now discarded on the roadway, the exhausted goddess stares angrily into the camera in a smear of kohl and sweat. Around her, the world continues, part-asleep, part-unregarding; a freight lorry cruising slowly past as if all too aware of damaged and brutalised women, and indifferent to them.

Visually, it’s all a bit didactic: besides Penelope’s goddess-role, there’s the fact that that anonymous dragged woman is eventually identified only as “societal expectations” (like something out of a mummer play for …feminism) It makes up for this with its mingled air of dread, fear, resolve and resentment as Isis shudders, pulls together strengths and repurposes fear, tries to function in the face of a massive injustice which billows between the mythic and the material. Likewise the song, which sounds as if it’s been stitched together from shreds and rags of weariness and resolve. The beats are like sparse, distant artillery; the piano sounds as if it’s been dropped from a great height before Penelope could pick a tune out of it.

Her own voice is a denatured wisp heard round a corner, delivering shadowy ambiguous lyrics. Groundings and splinterings mingle with prayers and protest and, somewhere, deep down, the shards of a mangled love song.“Centre body and guide, /show me what to do. / Serve grace with trebles eye, / turn must push on through. / I , I won’t lose. / I’ll tear up our love… Blood moon rising above… / Lover remember / repurpose fear within / along heated lines. / Can’t hear if you are fine. / I’m strong enough, / I’m strong enough…” The picture never becomes entirely clear. Perhaps it’s something which is felt over time… or in a pull-back. Too many congregating factors which rip a hole in the side of strength. Too many furious stitchings-up.

Bay Area baroque popper Spellling delivers a clearer message, somewhere between the fulsome protest of Loud Women and the abstracted one which Penelope favours, but hovering with purpose in a place of her own. You’d think you’d know what’s coming with a song called ‘Boys from School’ – either girl-group coo left as it is or flipped over to express rage at classroom and playground sexism. Spelling touches briefly on the latter (“I hate the boys at school / They never play the rules,”) but she has bigger fish to fry.

It’s not just the boy-runts who are failing her as a person. Admittedly, there’s a hint at dealing with disinterest and thwarted desire with “the body is the law and I’m only human after all / Wanted to bе the one that you need…”. But mostly it’s the whole institution that’s failing her as she drifts, purposefully, through its corridors while gradually disconnecting from its expectations and requirements. “Take me to the Lord before the boredom takes me over.” she hiss-whispers. “I am waiting on his move. I’m going under the floor. / What am I waiting for? / Floating down the hall / through all the voices, through all the walls. / Thought you could be the one to set me free.”

As a song, it’s in keeping with the genre-fluid approach that Spellling’s shown before: it’s a theatrical, near-orchestral shape-changer incorporating gusts of New Orleans funeral jazz, Kate Bush keenings, blended-in Chinese motifs, glam-prog riffs and chilly synthpop flourishes while always keeping to the pace and poise of trip hop soul. As a manifesto, it’s playful but forceful – an out-and-out rejection of being shaped, not just from the outside but also by pressures coming from the inside. “Tomorrow I turn sixteen years and I don’t want to grow older” sings Spellling, a black Pippi Longstocking; turning a retreat, rejection and revolt against adult expectation into a biting political resistance, ‘Tin Drum’-style. She’s called this a “step back into my younger self, my teenage self to voice my angst, desires and disillusionments,” and she’s taking this all the way, unfinished edges and all.

There’s ambiguity here, for certain, but she wields it with deliberate intent. Shut out the sun until I’m small again,” she demands, embracing the need for aloneness and self-reliance. “I’m way too tired to climb out of bed. / Four walls is all I need of friends.” Yet there’s also no self-pity here, and she’s always completely clear and centred. “I’m meaner than you think, and I’m not afraid of how lonely it’s going to be./ If I change my mind I’ll go walking outside, / just to see how the law is in place still.” Blending ambitious art-pop with a dose of that original black-girl wokeness, it’s a prologue to further choice and action; a kind of witchy taking-stock. It’s very rewarding.

Loud Women: ‘Reclaim These Streets’
Loud Women (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 14th May 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Resonate, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify

Loud Women online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp, Instagram        

Penelope Trappes: ‘Blood Moon’
Houndstooth Label (no catalogue number or barcode)
Format/other format item type
Released: 17th May 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Deezer, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, Napster

Penelope Trappes online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Vimeo, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Amazon Music, Napster, Qobuz  

Spellling: ‘Boys at School’
Sacred Bones Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Streaming/download single
Released: 11th May 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Deezer, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music

Spellling online:
Homepage, Facebook, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Amazon Music   

 


March 2021 – single & track reviews – Dope Sagittarius’ ‘Define Love’; Makandi’s ‘Dum Dum’; BassLord’s ‘Elephant Talk’

19 Mar

Dope Sagittarius: 'Define Love'Backed by cloudy saxophone and slow-jam beat, Dope Sagittarius – a.k.a. Luqman Brown and various New York cohorts – are meditating on meaning and commitment. Their previous fistful of punky Afro/electro/funk numbers hasn’t been noted for its love songs; and while ‘Define Love’ might indeed be a love jam, and an unexpected one, it’s also a subtly introverted one, a song of return and re-evaluation, a big change of course. Luqman himself was temporarily felled by a stroke in between recording this and bringing it to the world, and had to spend a year learning how to walk, talk and live again. That might not have anything to do with how the song came about, but it has a heck of lot to do with how we frame it now.

Timing provides a chance to make changes, and plenty about ‘Define Love’ places it as a way of adjusting matters of the heart, of focus. “How to define love? that moment? that flame?” muses Luqman, while making it clear (via plenty of gospel confessional) that defining it in the past was an unmet challenge. “I made many mistakes and done so many wrongs. / I beg you’ll forgive me for my ignorant shortfalls / and now I’m living anew, conscious of what came before. / Girl, I’m coming to you again, trying to stand tall.”) Classic prodigal smoochery aside, this is mostly about righteousness, doing the right thing, being courageous. “It seems I stealed away to safer harbours and safer lands. / Love is treacherous, so dangerous, unfair – / so ride with caution and try to play fair.”


The video revels in sinous jazz chiaruscuro; the song itself simmers delicately but decisively in a deep vat of sophisticated New York black broth, drawing not just on jazz and soul but also on the musculature of the Black Rock Collective and on Afro-American classical (the last via saxophonist Mica Gaugh). It peaks with a pealing, meditative slowhand solo from fusion guitar giant Ronny Drayton, a gift from his last years before lymphoma took him from us in 2020. As with so much black pop, there’s more than just the surface meaning here, and this is coming at us during a time when we’ve all been sorely tested by pandemic and bereavement; by questions about how we conduct our lives, unthinking, unquestioning, maybe unproductive and full of worthless, passive choices. Live and contribute while you can.

Makandi’s ‘Dum Dum’ lives very much for the moment, and its sincerity is of a much more clipped, matter-of-fact kind. Musically, this is deep house with a riffling blue-seas tropicalia tinge; fluttering synth melodies like inquisitive hummingbirds; a relaxed cool-mood/wise-child female vocal.

A flicker of lyric lets us know what’s going on. This is about a no-strings hook-up as natural as an incoming tide; a gentle warning-off; a temporary joining. She comes like a glamorous thief in the night. A hand softly, sensuously scratches your back. You collude without questioning. You gain from it.

Some of the fans tuning in to King Crimson’s 1981 resurrection had their cages thoroughly rattled to hear that the new, leaner version of the former grand English prog giants appeared to have gone urban New York and funky. There always was more than a touch of go-go dancing to ‘Elephant Talk’; its effervescent minimalist cyclings and Adrian Belew’s post-Talking Heads yelp given some more meat and waggle by Tony Levin’s monstrous itchy-rubbery Stick basslines. Forty years later, this BassLord cover (all layered bass guitars bar the drum track and voice) allows a fresh group of people to rediscover ‘Elephant Talk’ without the baggage.

As much YouTube video joker as he is virtuoso, Basslord waggles and glares at us, and lectures us like a neurotic affronted shock jock. Cameos from Ganesh, newscaster and op-ed loudmouths set against swirling squadrons of busily working hands, third eyes, skimpy shorts and a pair of giant tropical hardwood earrings prove that we’re in a different, fruitier and more indulgent world from the clipped post-punk era into which Belew and co. first brought the song; although BassLord’s linking of Belew’s whimsical yap about rhetoric and word babble to the current world of online news fakery, video hucksters and rabid opinionators reminds us of the turbulence and aggression that’s barely even hiding beneath the window-dressing.

Otherwise, it’s pretty true to the original version… and why shouldn’t it be? Those exorbitant multi-stopped bass riffs (simultaneously galumphingly funky and faux-prissy) are ageless and compelling, a grand applecart-kicking romp both then and now. Enjoy.

Dope Sagittarius: ‘Define Love’
Buddhabug Records (no catalogue number)
Download/streaming single
Released: 19th March 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, YouTube, Vimeo, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify Amazon Music

Dope Sagittarius online:
Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music

Makandi: ‘Dum Dum’
Epic Tones Records, ETR276S (no barcode)
download-only single
Released: 19th March 2021

Get/stream it from:
Epic Tones store, Soundcloud, ‎Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, Beatport

Makandi online:
Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, Beatport

BassLord: ‘Elephant Talk’
self-released (no catalogue number)
video/download single
Released: 19th March 2021

Get/stream it from:
YouTube, Spotify

BassLord online:
Facebook, Soundcloud, YouTube, Spotify, Instagram

 

October 2020 – single & track reviews – Yeslah’s ‘Trancefixion’; Treasure Gnomes’ ‘Messages’ (featuring Lachi); GMTA’s ‘Forbidden Moments’

9 Oct

Staring boldly out of a welter of digital rotoscoping, Yeslah is a virtual aidoru with teeth – a fierce-girl pop star as a living cartoon, a self-declared “animated rap-bitch queen, hell-bent on summoning the return of the female power, and to every female her power”. Just how much of this is really sensual ghost-in-the-machine and how much of it is just a particularly dedicated image filter is up for questioning (well, not so much, really); but ‘Trancefixion’ is a terrifically assured blend of assertion and body-positive narcissism. Literally a wake-up-in-the-morning-and-masturbate-over-how-great-you-are disco pumper.

There’s more to it than that. Bounding through a massive confection of four-on-the-floor beats, porny come-ons, bustling synth-soul brass, winddowns and speed-ups, Yeslah grabs as much as she can in terms of image control and self-summoned goddess frenzy (“I get decked out and I hit the streets. / Nowhere to go but I like to be seen. / I’ve got glitter in my eyes and my fish-net tights, / period blood dripping down my thigh,”) while simultaneously embracing what seems to be a full-on identity meltdown (“I wake up and I don’t belong / I look in the mirror like there’s something wrong / There’s someone smiling from behind my face / I see stars when I masturbate.. / I’m a princess trapped in a video game / I might be a hologram but I’m no slave… / Boys and girls inside a machine, / I start to see the cameras, they can’t see me.”).

Nothing’s in conflict, though. Everything’s rapped with the same level of slinky, sexual assurance. Yeslah spits (no holds barred) about pussy power and being “older than love”; is equally cheerful and arrogant about her bi-appeal; goes cross-eyed, disassociative and Baudrillardian about her fluctuating image and her virtual presence. Other women have been here before – Nikki Minaj, Madonna, Peaches and Megan Thee Stallion to name a few – but I don’t think anyone’s flung themselves quite as gleefully into the maskwork as Yeslah has. “In dreams I am always appearer,’ she raps, during the breakdown. “Reflected, my body is clearer.” Clarity in confusion. The extended mix offers extra crystallinity – not New Age chimes and twinkles, but more like some club nutter playing serious maracca-shake with a giant pair of chandeliers. It’s all about the subtlety here.

Following this blast of hyper-pop, ‘Messages’ is more down-to-earth: New York singer Lachi teaming up with London DJ/producer/songwriter Treasure Gnomes following a bit of mutual bonding over aggrieved texts and voicemails sent to exes, or to gonna-be exes – “you got me on that hang-up, call-back, sayin’ things that nobody ought to hear.” While ‘Trancefixion’ takes everything (from musical changes to violently altered perspectives) in its lubricious stride, ‘Messages’ hops from mood to mood, accelerates, blows up; follows the dynamics of a building monologue when what were once sad love-diary notes and held-in thoughts become full-on outcries.

Lachi is magnificent throughout – starting off soft and buzzing, (“I saw you talking with your friends and I wonder do you ever mention me? / But what could you really know? / when you don’t take the time to pay attention, though?”) rising through broken R&B rhythms and gut-grunts (both skeptical or wounded), and through swelling protest to full-diva wail with nary a moment that she isn’t controlling and shaping what she has to say, even as the surges and counter-emotions play with her. Treasure Gnomes backs it up with beats switching from sparse and breezy to machine-gun dance bursts, and with malleable synth-strokes like cartoon whale-song, while Lachi tumbles and rebounds from feeling to feeling. “I see the way that you glance at me, but I don’t mean shit on the gram to you,” she accuses, before making confessions about sleepless nights and haunted lovesick meals alone. 

With today’s power plays, entitlements and manipulations being so easily spotted, so easily buried under public scorn, it’s a tougher job to make obsession seem dignified. ‘Messages’ manages it, though; never sullying itself with whines or vindictiveness even as its fever mounts. “I’m aware that it’s crazy – I need you to hear me,” Lachi sings at one point, confessing and asserting. Later, during a musical lull, she’ll reveal “I’m no longer up at all hours, I’m finding my energy.” One chorus later, she’ll be back at the love-call; but although she’s currently stuck, there are signs that she won’t be stuck permanently. They’re there to be picked up. It’s in the tone. At some point soon, those message are going to stop, and they’ll be missed. 

On ‘Forbidden Moments’, the spare, moody, ominous pop of Dutch duo GMTA plays us out by etching a picture of illicit mutual fascination: the pull of temptation and seduction where it isn’t allowed. A drum machine beat like a watching camera, slightly out-of-sync with what it’s supposed to be watching. Dark-toned electric piano and the drag of bass. And the voice, mournfully romantic but stony with constrained intent… “Forbidden moments with your hungry eyes. / Secretly moving my hands on your thighs – / Mind says stop, but lips contradicting… / Forbidden moments, share what’s not mine, / the feeling of guilt and tears in your eyes. / Heart wants love, but body’s conflicting.”

A different kind of horny, then. A different kind of romance. Caught under the gaze of guilt and God (if not a jealous spouse) and the clench of northern European propriety. The strain is there – just there – in the grain of the voice. Like many a tragic crooner before him, he’s enjoying the ache, but he’s masking it with a studied cool.

Or is he? It’s cracking. He bursts out with “but don’t you feel that we could be something else? / and don’t you think that we should be somewhere else? / and don’t you feel like we should be running / and we should be hiding away?” There’s not a change in the sustained forebodingness of the music behind him. It runs on. It fades out. No answer, just a heavy question, finally raised. “We are something of each other – / there are only lines to cross…” Out of shot, decisions will be made.

Yeslah: ‘Trancefixion’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
9th October 2020

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Spotify, Amazon Music

Yeslah online:
Facebook, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, YouTube, Spotify, Instagram   

Treasure Gnomes ‘Messages’ (featuring Lachi)
Be Yourself Music (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
8th October 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, Beatport

Treasure Gnomes online:
Twitter, Soundcloud, Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Beatport  

Lachi online:
Homepage, Facebook, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Pandora, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Beatport

GMTA: ‘Forbidden Thoughts’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
9th October 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

GMTA online:
Homepage, Facebook, Soundcloud, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Instagram 

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