Category: Album of the Month

February AOTM: Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams

Whilst most of us are waiting for 2021 to show a flicker of light, you could argue that music hasn’t let us down so far. After kicking of the year off with Bicep’s ‘Isles’ February has delivered another treat; ‘Collaped In Sunbeams’, the debuit Album from Arlo Parks. For transparency, I wasn’t too sure about this album or how to approach it. The cynic in me was slightly concerned about the hype. 

Much has already been written about the creation, but if you have missed the many articles here’s a top-line recap: Around a year ago Arlo Park embarked on writing her debut album as Covid hit. Instead of being whisked away to a glamorous recording studio in LA, New York or London Arlo and her writing partner hunkered down in a B&B in Hoxton and created much of this album as the world seemed to be falling apart. It seems that her focus could not be shaken and the results were fruitful.

As we all worked through 2020 we were treated with the first 5 tracks from the album; Eugine, Black Dog, Hurt, Green Eyes and Caroline.  Black Dog, a chillingly honest song about her friends depression landed on many (including our) Top Ten year end lists for tracks of the year. As David pointed out in our 2020 year end podcast, there was a lot of expectation and hype around her album. 

The album as a combined finished article is very approachable. From the spoken word intro into “Hurt’ Arlo quickly lets you into her world. Her honest lyrics are matched by her likeable vocals of the West London songstress. The pop sounding ‘Collapsed’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Caroline’ flow into each other and are pleasing on the ears whilst lyrically telling stories more in the vein of a poet than a pop star. She weaves stories into songs with ease, making you feel the album is closer to a conversation with a friend than a collection of songs. This is apparent as you move onto ‘Black Dog’, ‘Green Eyes’ and then ‘Just Go’ which feels like a summer jam on the outside and ever so familiar song about relationships to us all (at that age) when we think about our late teens and early 20’s. 

We often speak on this blog and our podcast about album pace. I’d argue this album has been mapped very well. Some reviews have questioned ‘Violet’, and have suggested it perhaps is one of the albums weaker songs. I think the opposite. The Portishead-esk track reminds us not to rest on our laurels and arguably is a nod to some of her less predictable influences such as Radiohead. After a quick break from the expected you’re quickly pulled into the well known ‘Eugene’. It reminds me of Lily Allen. Not just for the vocal presentation and similar West London accents but also ability to welcome you into the story that Arlo tells and Allen previously did on some of her work. This for me carries through to ‘Bluish’ and ‘Porta 400’. 

Like many debutant albums ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ oozes with vulnerability. It reminds me of so many conversations with friends at that time in my life. As a person in my 40’s I can relate to her as her songs remind me of so many things when I was a similar age to her. I think perhaps that’s the magic; her and the allowance into her world. 

It’s hard to read any article that doesn’t focus on the age of Arlo Parks which I struggle with. Many have arguably written their best work at this age; though perhaps this is the point. Is Arlo Parks going to be one of the greats? There is little doubt that poetic lyrics and welcoming vocals are ahead of many of her peers in a similar age group. 

The album is easy to listen to, and has been on constantly in our house. It flows nicely and doesn’t seem to offend any of our ears. I often catch my Hayley and the kids humming along. 

Any hype that this album has received is well earned in my opinion. Will she be one of the greats? I truly hope she can carry on the trajectory she has started on. But she has a lifetime of songs still to write and in the meantime this album has a fair bit of tread on it for me. There are many miles left in it before I’ll be needing the next model. 

FEBRUARY – Bicep – Isles

How do you make an album of memorable dance music when there’s no dancefloor to experience it on? As someone that’s spent much of their life on and around dancefloors since their teenage years, no year feels more alien than this for this reason. I have not danced in public since March and it has never been easy wrapping my head around that. It’s not a problem that northern Irish duo Bicep set out to wrestle with when they took the majority of 2019 off to make Isles, but it’s become the conundrum for most dancefloor-focused music and producers over the past year as the industry grapples with an existential event that could change culture as we know it. Despite this undercurrent of doom, there have been some notably incredible electronic music albums released since March – amongst them Kelly Lee Owens, more than one by Four Tet, Caribou, Roisin Murphy, and Romare – so it’s not the case the Bicep’s second album is a potential outlier, it’s just that it’s so hotly anticipated, such was the euphoria and afterglow that greeted their self-titled debut in 2017. Can anything ever really live up to the hype?

Usually January brings a level of excitement as you scan for new albums, new tours, gigs, and festival dates. This isn’t a usual January. In fact all the hope we felt in the autumn of 2020, with the new year being a chance to kiss the difficult days and grim news cycle goodbye in 2021, seems a distant memory. Gigs that felt a welcome chance to anticipate old joys once more, now just another date pushed back, and the new year feels a cruel repeat of last one. So bringing Isles as an album of the month, its ethos pitched so obviously against the prevailing times, felt less a gamble, more just a twisted joke. Sometimes release dates also force the hand (there’s nothing so unromantic as podcast record dates and time to familiarise yourself with an album enough to make sense of it) and so in the end it was the most obvious option. Despite my reticence of picking an album which felt so against the times, it became clear at first listen I’d overthought the entire thing, and really this was a welcome balm that instantly lifted my mind out of a lot of the low-level shit that occupies it in lockdown life. I can’t put into words how good that feels, or how needed it is.

Hype can suffocate an album, but when listening to Isles the first time, it feels almost perfectly pitched to the current experience of imagined dancefloors, as we all await the real ones. Not because it lacks any potency, or moments of magic that don’t make you wish you were in a sweaty basement with a red light in the corner and a wall of speakers between you and the DJ. Even on first listen, it seems to be an album that sits just as well for ‘home’ listening (headphones, for optimal experience please) as it would sound when – we all hope – we finally get to see it reverberating around a room full of people. Alongside this, its magic also lies in its ability to shapeshift and flit between genres whilst still sounding like one coherent work. This is not a simple feat to achieve. Many impressively produced electronic albums either start impressively, only to slide into ‘ten club bangers’ territory, or just slowly disintegrate by trying to hard to be something they’re not: a messy, incoherent, overambitious failure. Isles isn’t one of these records. In fact, as it flits between changes of pace, time signatures and atmospherics, it manages to pull off being every bit as impressive as its forbear, arguably a more complete album.

Electronic music – and I say it as someone that’s been enveloped by it since my late teens, and dabbled as a promoter, producer, journalist since pretty much my mid-20s until now – is a bewildering scene that is so rich that it’s almost impossible to take in its outer reaches, even for those professionally involved. Even with scenes – house, techno, drum’n’bass – there’s such an ecosystem that being at the centre of it is a 24/7 dedication. Yet when you talk about albums and artists and sounds that manage to break out of that sweaty underground, it has felt – as least to me – that the older I have got, the more homogenous things at the top have felt. Where are the new equivalents and the inventiveness of Leftfield, Orbital, Chemical Brothers, LTJ Bukem, Carl Cox, Dave Clarke, the KLF, and Underworld? Acts that can make captivating music that didn’t just fill clubs but took over stadiums and the top 40 (even as – of course – so much incredible music was still underground and at the fringes)? Perhaps it’s my age, yes, but also the global domination of ‘tech house’ (it’s not tech house, it’s business techno) and EDM feels like while all the money has gone to the top of the pile, a lot of the creativity seems to have been leached from it. Which is why the likes of Bicep are to be celebrated. They do not make music from a template, and it doesn’t really sound like a lot of other music around, certainly not that by a single artist. Isles may not break new ground, but such is the scope for sonic richness in their sound, that there is a lot of mileage to go yet before they need to think about reinvention.

We first encountered Bicep on the blog in 2017 when Nolan posted what would later be singles from their debut, and he brought Bicep as album of the month in Feb 2018. It came on a wave of hype then, just as its successor does, but it feels like it justifies it. The hype is not theirs, after all, and from all that you read of Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson – perhaps because of their well-told background as bloggers-turned-DJs-turned-producers – they seem altogether not cut from the same cloth as the private-jet-setting, glitter-cannoned, deep-v-necked ‘techno’ crew whose company they keep in the charts and at festivals. Calling out ‘plague rave DJs‘, talking about how Brexit will hit artists’ ability to tour in the EU, or talking about their perfectionism in even choosing their logo and artwork (self-designed), it’s clear they aren’t just ciphers, but ravers that have much of the love and reverence for the scene that their fans do, too. They understand the culture, and their success is very much their own, so it feels like the connection to the dancefloor, those elements that grab the listener, is very real and unmanufactured.

When I first heard them, back on Will Saul’s Aus Music label with Ejeca in 2012, despite a chunk of their subsequent production leaning towards house, they stood out with their insistence on not existing solely four-four. And this thread runs through their music to the present day: it is definitely not house, nor is it techno, and for that reason I’m attracted. For me, the lineage is back right to the rave era, such is the breakbeat influence, but also through other very British scenes of UK Garage, jungle and breaks. Their music is very much modern, but there’s an undeniable link to the grittier, illegal raves as there is to Orbital or Leftfield. I certainly want to believe the tale that much of the sounds that have made them so successful came from the loss of a hard drive that contained a chunk of new house tracks that inspired them to change tack, and ultimately led to the first album’s more uncommon sound. It’s not quite Sub Sub’s Ancoats studio burning down, but sometimes it’s serendipity that makes the story all the more alluring.

So what is a first impression of ‘Isles’? For an album that’s only been out for a few days, it’s hard to form much more than broad-brush reactions. Of course, a few of the tracks from it – the percussive, elastic bleeps of Atlas, the lush, almost orchestral melodies and chopped up vocals of Apricots, and the garage-evoking Saku – have already given us a taste, but really for any album, its about – at least for us on this blog – the whole. What does the listening experience of Isles feel like when it’s still bright and new? There is real life, vibrancy and brightness throughout: even as the familiarity of the existing tracks leap out, Cazenove, nestled in between this trio, stands out just as purposefully, its ‘intelligent d’n’b’ percussive leanings wrapped within wistful melodies and vox pads. Similarly, Sundial, towards the end of the album, will evoke rushes of nostalgia for those of a certain age with its rotating chord patterns, as if pitched for the sunrise moment as the morning breaks and you realise you’ve danced your way through the night, unsure how you’ll get home. Following it, Fir gets as close to trance (cough) as the album dares (less of a surprise when you realise the pair frequented Belfast mecca Shine in the throes of the big-room house and trance scene in the early noughties) with its choral pads, flanged percs and echoing leads. Album closer Hawk is Bicep at their best: bending rasping notes amid swirling, breathy vocals into a cut of pure energy that has me hairs standing up and my eyes misting over with a mix of nostalgia, elation and sadness. Perfect alchemy that shows exactly why they command such dedicated followings.

Amongst the more urgent tracks, there are relative departures that add texture and allow time for breath. Lido is one of these relative departures: a warm, beatless cut that centres around a piano motif, rich pads and choral vocals, perhaps pointing towards an after-party once the club madness has subsided. X and Rever too, following Lido, prolong the release of energy from the album’s opening and closing frenetic pace, and show that its possible to take a line from A to B that’s not a simple and lazy procession of bangers. No album can honestly keep up that pace and remain focused or enjoyable, and it’s a chance to flex some creative fibres, that also make the tracks that bookend this middle section more powerful in comparison. X cascades metallic notes and an urgent tension despite its relatively downtempo nature, and Rever, almost feeling like an extension of its predecessor, again trades in indistinct words and rumbling leads that focus onto the melody. In fact, one theme running through the album, is that, despite voices on many of the tracks, its only Saku where words are discernible, elsewhere used as another melody, instrument or feel: part of the music rather than at the forefront. Likewise the snare hits that never land on drum sounds, more a rim or filtered out hit that gives all Bicep’s work on Isles a clearer sonic precision.

So, as arresting as it is, will Isles take Bicep up another level? With night-time culture so under threat, it’s hard to predict what the scene will look like in a few months, let alone a year. But without somewhere to dance, Bicep have made an album that will get you close to that feeling, even if you have to close your eyes to do it. Because while home listening is never going to come close to the club (the pair actually hired out Corsica Studios for a day to ensure the new tracks sounded right on a properly tuned system) I’d argue that this is an album that can still bring on those emotions whether you’re running to it, walking, on a bus, or just sitting at home, headphones on. The music has a power and potency that connects, and it’s why I’m sure it’ll still sound as fresh after 50 listens as it does after just a few.

JANUARY: McCartney III

Saying that I’m a bit of a Beatles fan is like saying the Pope is a bit of a Catholic. They have been the guiding musical lights of my life. I think The Beatles were a kind of miracle, the greatest creative expression of that burst of working class energy that blossomed in post war Britain. They didn’t just change the course of music, they changed the course of culture and society. I was 10 when Lennon was shot – I remember being really upset, but I also remember that no one else my age really knew who he was. By the time I was in my early teens, I was a subscriber to Beatles Monthly. This, at the time, did not make me cool. It made me square and weird. Everyone else was listening to Duran Duran. I once saved up weeks of paper round money to buy a brick from the original Cavern Club (they were being sold off for charity).

Now here I am decades later, and nothing has really changed. The Cavern brick is framed on my wall. My daughter is called Astrid, not just because we loved the name, but also because of Astrid Kircherr, the Hamburg photographer who was so influential in shaping the band’s look. I have a cat called Ringo. My house is groaning with Beatles nonsense. I vowed to stop buying stupid Beatles tat, but my friends still buy me stuff and honestly, it’s always welcome. Astrid got me a Beatles calendar for Xmas. Of course she did.

Paul was always my favourite Beatle. Partly, I think, when I was young, his songs were the most melodic and warm hearted and easy to engage with. But partly, also, I never really had any truck with the idea that Lennon was the artist and poet, and that Paul was just the tuneful cheesemonger of the band. It was obvious to me that McCartney was the most versatile Beatle. Pastoral ballad? Mother Nature’s Son. Musical hall? When I’m 64. A song about death and loneliness written when he was only 22? Eleanor Rigby. Howling rock n roll, Little Richard style? I’m Down. Giant pop chorus? Hey Jude. Song that literally gave birth to heavy metal? Helter Skelter. Any real Beatles fan could see he was the engine of the band as well as one of its two geniuses. Sgt Pepper? Paul’s idea. Side 2 of Abbey Road? Paul put that together. It’s always a little secret when you meet another big Beatles fan – you both immediately check that you both agree Paul is your favourite Beatle. It nearly always is. John is for the part-timers.

Solo Paul was a different matter. As a teen, I lapped up the albums of the time – Tug of War, Pipes of Peace, and plenty of the Wings stuff, but in all honesty, a lot of those albums have not aged well. One or two good tunes aside, there is a lot of guff on them, and it’s the kind of guff that has haunted his reputation ever since 1970. It was telling that when we all started listening to this new album, that Joey was surprised to hear McCartney rocking out – had he been listening to Queens of the Stone Age, Joey asked? The answer, is, of course, is that it’s the other way round, but I also get that to the casual listener, McCartney’s reputation as a rocker has been lost under decades of Mull of Kintyre and Ebony and Ivory and Frog Chorus.

So yes, his solo work has certainly been a mixed bag. But there are real gems in there. Ram is, I think, his best album and one of the best solo Beatles albums. But McCartney I and II have both got really special places in my heart. They’re both totally solo efforts, with McCartney playing every instrument – as we find him doing here on III. McCartney I is a homespun and folky joy, and McCartney II is genuinely nuts – experimental and electronic and a great reminder that Macca has been a great boundary pusher throughout his life.

I’d heard rumours recently that this new album was a genuine revelation, but I was very, very nervous of suggesting McC III as our album of the month. Macca means too much to me, and I know he means an awful lot less to the rest of you, and means nothing at all to at least one of you! In all honesty, I was worried that it’d be ok but nothing more, and we’d spend the podcast ripping apart my greatest musical idol. Maybe that is what will happen, I don’t know. But this album has floored me. I never ever expected Macca to ever make another song that I really cared about, and certainly not (nearly) a whole album of them. I have listened to this album constantly since it came out. It has wrapped its arms around me and it’s now going to be part of my life forever. It’s the greatest musical surprise of the year.

So let’s talk about what works for me. Firstly, he’s relaxed and he’s himself and it just sounds honest and joyful. I’ve struggled even with the lauded albums of the last 20 years (Egypt Station, Chaos and Creation…) – to me, they sound like a shit hot producer has overproduced some slightly workaday McCartney material. None of them have really stayed with me. I think the lack of producer has completely liberated him. He didn’t even know he was making an album. You can literally hear him in the studio messing around on these songs. And bloody hell, what a musician he is – the drumming on the opening jam! The octave harmonies on Find My Way (and the harpsichord), the crunching guitars on Slidin, the crazy loops of vocals on Deep Deep Feeling.

What I also love is that he’s showing his full range – folk ballad (When Winter Comes), hard rockers (Lavatory Lil, Slidin’), pop song genius (Find My Way), slow tempo melody (Pretty Boys), hell even a song that – as Joey points out – sound like it has a Mac Miller RnB vibe (Deep Down). It’s an extraordinary range he’s showing. The album’s centrepiece, Deep Deep Feeling, goes even further, an astonishing 8 minute delve into tape loops, gorgeous soulful vocal experiments that feels raw and beautiful, and for me, justifies every second of its length. I do wonder if that song might divide opinion big time – it’ll be interesting to discuss.

The other surprising strength is his voice. I remember hearing him sing at the 2012 Olympics and being sad that his voice was clearly ‘going’. Well, he’s no longer trying to hide that. He’s 78. He’s an old man, and his voice sounds gruff and aged, but to me, at least, it’s an integral part of the album’s charm. It was when I was listening to Women & Wives that it hit me – this is very similar to the Johnny Cash albums he made at the end of his life with legendary Def Jam producer Rick Rubin. This is an old man wearing his age on his sleeve. You can hear it in the stoic lyrics of Pretty Boys – he was once one of those boys a long time ago. Not anymore.

Not everything works, let’s be really honest. His lyrics are a mixed bag, and I probably like them a lot more than the rest of you, but I can see that if you’re not digging all 8 minutes of Deep Deep Feeling, you might find them a bit cloying. The Kiss of Venus is a very ordinary song, and the one stinker on the album for me is Seize The Day – a naff sub-Beatles pub tune with bloody awful lyrics about being nice and something about eskimos. It’s a reminder that he’s never that far away from Mull of Kintyre if you’re not careful with Macca. But for me, that’s the only song I actively dislike. There is joy and musical interest to be found in every other tune, though I do also agree the opening jam could lose a minute or two.

I’m fully aware I’m writing as a fan of a man who has defined my life. I can’t imagine what this album feels like to a casual listener, or someone who’s not that bothered about The Beatles (also, what is WRONG with you?!). But I hope there is something in there for everyone, even if you don’t have quite the response I’ve had. Think this could be a really interesting discussion, anyway!

I wonder if this is his swan song. It certainly feels like a last race round the block – a chance for him to flex his musical muscles and remind everyone of his range. Or maybe, even better, this is just what Macca does when he’s locked down – write better songs than anyone else can. The comparison with Bowie’s Blackstar is interesting – obviously Blackstar is a much darker, existential record. That’s partly because Bowie was facing death and he knew it and that’s what he was writing about. But also, Bowie is a more existential soul. Macca is an optimist who believes that things are ‘getting better all the time’. Maybe this is what’s inside him at this age – a man who still wants to be there for you, who still delights in nature and the simple life, but also feels the pain of ageing and being in love. A lot of those kind of things aren’t very cool anymore, if they ever were, but I don’t think he cares about any of that now. He’s done everything. He’s written everything. He’s just the most famous musician in the whole world, jamming around in his studio for fun, and somehow out pops an incredibly coherent album, a last little musical present from the master. I couldn’t be happier about it.

AOTM October 2020 – Sufjan Stevens ‘The Ascension’

Sufjan Stevens' Sprawling The Ascension Seeks Solace in Pessimism | Review  | Consequence of Sound

Well, this is going to be an interesting Album of the Month.

Each one of us on the blog/pod has a history with Sufjan Stevens. Some longer than others, some with more passion than others. But that doesn’t mean that we agree on all things Sufjan. Quite the opposite it appears. And if there was a Sufjan album to force a wedge between our personal preferences … then this is it.

My history with Sufjan was a little delayed given the wave of adoration that followed ‘Illinois’. Apparently I was a little slow on the uptake. Illinois was released in 2005 (gulp). I didn’t get to it until around 2009. I can mark the time well as my wife was pregnant with my first child and we (over) played it to death. She didn’t have the greatest pregnancy and now can’t listen to the album as it is so synonymous with feeling sick and bloated. Not Sufjan’s fault but still. I then bought the Age of Adz the day after my daughter was born. This album marked a seismic change in instrumentation from Sufjan … one that came with a very mixed (and in the case of David, surprisingly aggressive) reaction. I loved it, but hey, I’d just had a little girl. I would have loved most things.

Then came a silly Xmas album in 2012 … and then in 2015 we chose Carrie and Lowell (C&L) as album of the month. And I think we all agreed it’s close to perfection. As albums that I love to cry along to go, it’s right up there with Put Your Back N 2 it by Perfume Genius. It’s deeply personal, beautifully sparse, hypnotically produced and perfectly written.

A bunch of oddities have been released between then and now. But The Ascension is Mr. Steven’s first proper album since then. Much to David’s shock, the album is ‘Electro Sufjan’ again. But I would state that it is a very different proposition to Age of Adz. Age of Adz was full of pomp and theatrical posturing. I get why some hated it. I didn’t and that’s cool.

I think this album is at least as personal and introspective as C&L. Sufjan was moving from New York to the countryside of America and didn’t have access to his banjos, guitars and traditional range of instruments. He has said that he was limited to what he could plug into his computer. For me, this album does feel like he was ‘constrained’. But I am not sure if this is in a bad way. It’s a very different Sufjan Stevens we hear on this album and I am ok with that. Some have suggested it sounds like he’s ‘trying to hard’. I think this album sounds like he’s ‘trying’, i.e. this doesn’t feel 100% natural and feels less than 100% comfortable … but I am ok with this. I think I am getting into this vulnerability.

Let’s talk about its length. It’s long! 80 minutes. Exactly 100% longer than my preferred album length. There are some long old tracks on it too. The longest, America (12 mins) was the 1st single so it’s not like we didn’t have warning. He also shared Sugar ahead of the release date which clocks in at 7+ mins. He also shared a 15 strong track list for the album. So I guess this has to be considered as a ‘double album’ which isn’t usually a good thing.

You have to make a commitment to this album. I think it only makes sense when you do. I’ve practically listened to nothing else for a whole week. And I have been rewarded. I don’t ‘love’ this yet. But I am loving listening to it. As each track starts, I know that I like each one. There are no tracks here that I would remove. This is true for very few albums. Some tracks i like. Some I love. I think a few of my all time fave Sufjan tracks are on this album. He’s a great song writer and he’s doing something very different. I think we should respect that and applaud it.

Sufjan Steven’s is one of the few artists that when he’s reviewed, lazy critics don’t simply list a bunch of people he sounds like … cause he doesn’t. Other people sound like him. However, there are moments where for the 1st time I’ve thought … oh … he’s doing a Thom Yorke thing there (Ativan) or a Caribou drum production thing (I want to die happy and a few others). I don’t think he’s mastered the electronic craft yet and is therefore referencing others but again … I’m cool with that.

There are a few moments where someone should have tapped him on the shoulder and said ‘that’s enough Sufjan’ (i) America should be an 8 minute track, the last 4 minutes? Sorry but no (ii) Ativan should be 4 mins for the same reason.

So. At this point in time. I am very glad this is in my life. I am glad he’s done what he’s done. Oh, and Video Games is such a surprise. Where did that come from? Single of the year? (I can hear all of your screaming at me for suggesting that one).

Commit to it. Give it some space and time. It does deserve it.

September AOTM: Sault – Untitled (Black Is)

Throughout lockdown I searched high and low for new music and in general struggled to find something that blew my mind. This was until Sault released ‘Untitled (Black Is)’.  Over 3 months since the first listen it is still fresh as the first listen and I’m excited to present it to you as this month’s album of the month.

Who are Sault and where have they come from? In short, nobody really knows. It’s written that they’re a collective most likely from London and they’re on the Forever Living Origionals imprint. Cleo Sol is thought to be in the band, so is Kid Sister and Inflo. In the last 18 months they have released 3 full albums that are all thriller and no filler. Their sound in my humble opinion is incredible. It firmly falls into my wheelhouse. They cover a wide spectrum of sounds with soul firmly at the heart of everything they do. 

Like their first two releases, our album of the month Untitled (Black Is) came out of nowhere. The first time the world heard it was on the Giles Peterson show. He rated it so highly that he played the entire album on its’ first play in June. They posted on their social media upon the digital release “We present our first ‘Untitled’ album to mark a moment in time where we as Black People, and of Black Origin are fighting for our lives. RIP George Floyd and all those who have suffered from police brutality and systemic racism. Change is happening…We are focused.”

Focused is an understatement. From the initial ‘Out the Lies’, followed by ‘Stop Dem’, ‘Hard Life’, and ‘Don’t Shoot Guns Down’ the scene is set for the majestic ‘Wildfires’; which exudes inspiration and determination amongst deep frustration as the first half of the album swiftly pulls you in. As Sault swerve through the multi genre effort you’re continually impressed with each new sound whilst purveying the consistent message of black unity. As the album nears it’s end the message moves from frustration to hope.

Sault have released an album of heart felt, thought provoking songs that inspire and for some hopefully educate. At face value I would wonder if an album that moves through psychedelic soul, dub, reggae and spoken word within minutes of each other would work? This album does this on numerous occasions without flinching. We often talk about albums and their programming. It is 56 minutes long, 20 tracks deep with a mixture of songs and interludes. I struggle to find a track that doesn’t belong.

This album was the first in months that I was truly blown away by. Since the pre-lockdown release of RTJ4. I write this on the day that Sault announced the follow up to Untitled is imminent. More of their musical magic is on the way and I for one can’t wait!

AUGUST: Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind

This blog is about music. What we like. What we listen to. What we want others to hear about. But perhaps it’s also an advertisement of who we are, too. So this is a post about the next – striking, interesting, challenging – album of the month, but it’s also a bit more than that. 

As Camus said, life is a sum of all your choices, and as human beings we are often predisposed to taking the easy route. Whether that’s professionally, personally, in our cultural spaces, online, we often surround ourselves with things that look and sound like us, subconsciously or otherwise. As a white, straight middle-class and middle-aged guy, my cultural tastes aren’t completely blinkered, but it’s fair to say that a lot of the music I like is by people that are quite like me. But recent events have certainly made me look at that more closely and what I move towards naturally, and so it’s a chance to think about what I listen to, what I watch, and what that says about me and who I am. It’s a conversation we should all be having with ourselves.  

When we think about music, and what we’ve written about on this blog, I’ve looked at my choices of music, especially albums of the month I’ve nominated (around 30 since we started) and it’s been a sobering how vanilla I’ve been. Yes, I love hip-hop, I like disco, soul, r’n’b, electronic music – all genres and scenes that are built on or by people of colour. And many things I love in those scenes and that I listen to, love, recommend, highlight are by those artists. Off the top of my head: Prince, Sampha, Donna Summer, Sylvester, Gwen MacRae, Michael Kiwanuka, N.E.R.D., Little Simz, Farley Jackmaster Funk, De La Soul, Loletta Holloway, Derrick May, Frankie Knuckles, Honey Dijon, Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder, Jocelyn Brown, Whitney Houston, Dizzee, Tribe, Beyonce, Bobby Womack, Carl Cox, Chaka Khan… this list is actually huge when I look at it in my collection. But…. In this blog, it’s only Michael Kiwanuka (twice), N.E.R.D. and Sampha that I’ve nominated as my pick, against a much wider and diverse range of artists that have been nominated. And, here we are. 

I therefore could’ve chosen some easy hits: albums I knew I’d have liked by artists I already knew (I’ve nominated Roisin, Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, John Grant after all). And when Everything Everything had an album out this month, it was an obvious choice. But then what would I be saying with that? What would we be opening our minds to? What challenge would that be? I realised that making unconscious, simple choices is what structural inequality is built on. No, choosing an album by people that look like me is hardly equivalent to saying ‘All Lives Matter’, but it’s important to question choices and do something you wouldn’t normally do. 

This what brought me to Yves Tumor. They’re an artist that I knew almost nothing of, bar some appearances on ‘albums to watch’ or ‘this is out this year’ lists for 2020, but I wasn’t familiar with their music. Which is why it’s a good choice because it’s fresh, and something to approach without any context for us, unusual as it is. Heaven of a Tortured Mind is actually Yves’ fourth album, and it’s the creation of Shane Bowie (though even that isn’t ‘confirmed’ as their name). Reading into their music history it’s just part of a narrative of a rootless, shapeshifting journey from Tennessee to perhaps Berlin, or LA, or Italy (again, no one is ever sure where they’re living, and that’s how they want it). But first and foremost, musically, it’s absolutely not playing to the crowd or expectation. It’s been a while since I’ve heard an album that doesn’t really sound – as a whole – like anything else I have heard. Of course there are touchstones in many of the tracks and familiar links to artists we know, but it’s something different.

Listening to it a few times, despite the inability to pin down any one genre, there is real groove and melody to Heaven To A Tortured Mind. In amongst the noise, the echo, reverb, distortion, the detuned notes and general off-kilter-ness of it all, it’s clear that Tumor is a musician, and a talented one. But it comes in a box that is murky and unvarnished, and takes some time to go from first impression to working out how you feel about the album. And yet there are some absolutely accessible and memorable tracks that get to you immediately. The soaring brass and heavy percussive march of Gospel For A New Century, Kerosene!’s trading of Tumor and Diana Gordon’s vocals with rasping guitar licks that trade Prince as much as they do lyrically with words of desire and lust. Hasdallen Lights melds strings and low, funk bass, while Romanticist’s languid groove and shuffling percussion burn like the ashen embers of modern R’n’B, at once merging into Dream Palette’s almost punky shout. There’s so much genre-twisting, yet in isolation what seems like a collection of loose tracks, somehow takes on a more obvious form as a single, linear journey, finishing with the quasi-70s soul licks of A Greater Love. It’s as intriguing as it is confounding. And after a good number of listens, it’s still not entirely clear what to make of it. But searching for new musical horizons isn’t meant to be smooth or simple. 

And while this isn’t instantly accessible, chart-intended music, it is also the most accessible of the quartet of albums so far. Stretching out through ambient, industrial, noise-making and only sparingly using vocals, Tumor was far more suited to Warp’s aesthetic on previous work, where 9 or 10-minute tracks were as common as 3-minute efforts. This latest appears another evolution, intended or otherwise, to tentatively embrace convention, even if it’s small steps. And for all the influences and supposed touchstones (think Prince, of course, 70s soul, 90s shoegaze and industrial sounds, TV On The Radio, as well as contemporaries such as Moses Sumney’s inventive soundscapes or even Tame Impala’s psychedelic, feedback laden guitars) they feel very much Yves’s own universe. The other take I instantly had of the album is that there’s so many great hooks and melodies that I could see every one of the tracks as the backing to a great hip-hop tune, also always a good sign of pretty brilliant musicianship.

Then there are the videos. Since Yves Tumour came to being, the visual impact has been as important as the sonic. If you only watched Gospel For A New Century, with its lucifer figure, writing semi-naked bodies, with Hades reimagined as a sort of dystopian nightclub, that would only half describe its first time sensual assault. Throughout their career, the visual aspect has been a striking accompaniment to the music. 2019’s Lifetime had Tumor as a beaded, chokered, horned being, then sporting a Mohican. Licking An Orchid was a discomforting infra-red lament with juddering camerawork. In one of their more conventional works, Noid has them as an arrested black person on the street, an enduring and powerful image, but is just as striking as their more otherworldly imagery. In every aspect of their creative life, it feels like it’s an aspect them assume total control of. Perhaps its because the rest of their life remains much of a mystery. Famously aloof – conducting video interviews only showing the top of their head, then switching the camera off, or refusing to confirm where they’re living or working – they’d rather focus on artistry than themselves. But having worked under a raft of pseudonyms, life may be easier when you have nothing to focus on but the creative. 

What’s abundantly clear is there aren’t many around like them, not least at the forefront of music. And this can only be celebrated, even if what Yves Tumor’s meant to be and what their music is meant to mean remains deliberately ambiguous, intentionally unlinear. Gone with physical music’s domination are the days of what we can expect, what genres people should make, and how an album should be constructed. But with music so obsessed with the single, the shuffle, the 3-minute quantised, compressed pop commodity or hip-hop banger, it’s good to know that not everyone subscribes to this. If everything Tumor does isn’t easily digestible, then let’s celebrate that. 

JULY: What’s Your Pleasure – Jessie Ware

Let’s just get one thing out of the way. Disco is one of the finest forms of pop music. I don’t even want to hear an argument otherwise. But it gets a bad rap. The old ‘disco sucks’ chant still rings in the ears after all these years.

(Cue excuse to repost my own recent disco mix that begins with the ‘disco sucks’ chant https://soundcloud.com/mondopop/disco-demolition)

It’s light. It lacks depth. It’s silly. It’s throwaway. It’s too female, it’s too gay. It’s not the ‘real’ music of boys with guitars (thanks Men on the Internet for your views).

Obviously, this is a view of such reductive idiocy, it’s barely worth debating. if you can’t find the genius in a Roisin Murphy or a Robyn album, then maybe you don’t even like music. If you aren’t moved by ‘I Feel Love’, then maybe you don’t even have a pulse.

Actually, that’s what I like most in a disco track: emotion. Not just to want to dance, but to feel *moved*. And boy, is there plenty of that on this latest offering from our Jessie. Spoiler alert: I ABSOLUTELY FUCKING LOVE THIS ALBUM.

I loved Jessie Ware’s first album, Devotion, which cut a classy nu-soul vibe that felt like a Sade throwback. But I lost my way with her a little, and found her second and third a bit lacklustre, and treading the same path.

I chose this album without hearing it for the AOTM on the back of some really stellar reviews, and from Gay Twitter (or at least, Gay Twitter that I follow anyway…) losing their shit on how good it is.

They weren’t wrong. This is a major reboot which finds Jessie W rejuvenated and raring to go. Working with former Simian Mobile Disco stalwart James Ford, they mine the musical past in search of nuggets, and they nearly always come up with gold.

The most obvious influence is Italo-Disco and House of the 80s (and I LOVE that shit). The title track could be a lost classic. But it’s enormous fun hearing all the influences that went into the melting pot of this record. Opener Spotlight is a smooth opener that could easily be late Kylie. Ooh La La is total Nile Rodgers-era Duran Duran. Soul Control and Read My Lips are 80s soul-disco in a Gwen Guthrie ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But The Rent’ style.

And then the other obvious shadow on this album. No, not Roisin, it’s not as left field as that: I’m talking about Robyn. And I’m thinking specifically about her last album, Honey (a former AOTM wasn’t it?). Check out Save A Kiss – it could easily sit on that record:

The big questions is – do all these influences turn into something new? Does it feel as fresh and as contemporary as Robyn manages to sound? Honestly – well maybe not quite. It’s certainly lyrically pretty obvious and at times quite trite, which fits the vibe but doesn’t offer that emotional connection that Robyn so often does in her work.

But it doesn’t feel like a throwback record either. I was thinking of Daft Punk’s behemoth, Random Access Memory. Having deconstructed disco and funk in their early work, that album felt more like a more simple homage. I know it divided critics but I LOVE it. This album reminds me of that a little, in that it feels like a love letter to that music, while being very much its own universe.

Of course, the real test will be – will I stick this on at a party? And will I still be listening to it in a year? I don’t know yet, but I’d take a guess that I will be.

What’s Your Pleasure? Mine’s certainly this album.

JUNE: RTJ4

Cometh the hour, cometh the album.
Sometimes a record captures a moment in time so perfectly, it becomes a symbol of that moment. I honestly believe that RTJ4 might be one of those records.

I don’t want to be a big review like we normally do, I’d rather we used this as a kicking off point for discussion – this is a ‘free album’ month after all, and we’ll get back to the proper AOTM for July.

But…I was thinking a lot about what Brother Nolan said on our live chat the other week, that he thought it was one of RTJ’s weaker releases. I don’t know about that. I know that I’ve listened to this RTJ’s album more than any other that has come out. BY MILES. Now, maybe it’s the times we’re living in, maybe it feels like even more of a reflection. But this is a lean, mean beast. Clocking in at 39 mins and 11 tracks, it’s the length of an album from the 1960s, not a hip hop album in 2020, which, let’s face it, is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS TOO FUCKING LONG.

That brevity seems to give the Killer Mike and El-P a laser focus, and honestly, I don’t think there’s a wasted moment on this record. No, not every track is out there political. Yes, the conceit of them as two outlaws on the run (referenced on the opening and closing tracks) is a little obvious and they don’t go anywhere with it. Yes, Ooh La La is a total throwback tune (but come on, WHAT a tune).

But seriously, there are four or five cuts on here that are essential to anyone at any time. Guests are used really well – like, they bring something to the table every time. Pharell’s collab (along with a great cameo from Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha) on JUST is as good a thing as he’s done in a long time – what a fucking smart track that is, expressing something complex and angry at the same time, . And a banger too. PULLING THE PIN is straight out astonishing, the addition of Mavis Staples voice adding so much pain and anguish to the track. And the Gangsta Boo tune WALKING IN THE SNOW is, to my mind, as good a track as they have ever made. It’s so angry and articulate and it smacked me sideways when I first heard it.

Basically, I love it. I can’t stop listening to it. It’s gonna be one of my albums of the year. Over to you, brothers…

AOTM (May 2020) – Mac Miller ‘Circles’

Hi Brothers. Another lockdown AOTM. However, lockdown has nothing to do with why I chose this album by Mac Miller. This album was released in early Feb. so for me, it’s history pre-dates ‘all-of-this’ / ‘what-with-one-thing-and-another’ / insert your favourite ‘lock-down-euphemism’.

I could have chosen less risky AOTM options but figured that we all know what the Strokes sound like. Therefore I chose Circles by Mac Miller. Again, I cannot claim to be a an expert in this artist. I came to this early in 2020 when surfing through Meta-album-of-the-year sites. This album kept on showing up in the upper reaches of their meta-review scores. Also, it seemed to be one where the listener scores were very similar to the critics reviews which always makes me pay attention. So, without any further fannying around I downloaded the album, got stuck in and found myself listening to this loads.

I found it a rewarding album to listen to in full and in parts when time was limited. Tracks started to stick in my mind and the the tracks started to open themselves open. When you first listen to it I can feel really pleasant and accessible, it will make you smile and feel pretty good about life. However, I would be surprised if at some point (early on) you didn’t think it was a little dispensable … but I do think it deserves a little more attention. There’s obviously a big chunk of melancholy driving this album. I noticed that when the tracks started to unfold on repeated listens a comfortable but uncomfortable feeling started to creep over me.

It was this odd feeling that made me go back and read the reviews of the album. I think I am glad that I listened first and then read the reviews later. It turns out that this is a posthumous release. Mac Miller died in 2018 of an apparently accidental overdose. The Guardian described him as a capable but derivative frat-rapper (didn’t even know frat-rap was a thing) who started to experiment on later albums with a softer approach. He was a mult-instrumentlist who collaborated with the LA instrumental hip-hop crowd (Flying Lotus et al.). He was also in a long standing relationship with Ariana Grande, the end of which sparked his turn in musical direction.

He released a critically acclaimed album ‘Swimming’ in 2018 before his death. He left a significant amount of material that was developed by Jon Brion (friend, producer, composer) with the blessing of his family. Jon has kept the feel of Swimming (which he co-produced) on this album. Sparse, gentle, elegant and spacious production allows this album to flow around what turns out to be some beautiful lyrical content.

I rate this album. I keep coming back to it. It seemed perfect on the cold, dark commutes into Manchester … and on the cold, dark commutes home. It’s great music to cook to. It has a low-F-bomb-count. Low enough that Stacey’s never noticed so it gets plenty of air-time in our house. It also felt like the perfect album when it was 23 degrees last weekend. I think this will stay with me for a long time. I can hear loads of influences but nothing that I think is over-bearing. There are moments of Neptunes-esque and Neptunes-quality production that make me smile. It’s a lovely little thing. I hope you enjoy it.

April Album of The Month: Rapsody – Eve

 

Welcome to April and an album that was very hard to get my hands on. In-fact there was only one place on the entire internet where I could order it; and it didn’t go to print for another 4 months after the digital release. I need to highlight that this is becoming very common within Hip Hop; digital only albums which has resulted in us meeting some really good albums…. I digress…..

 

Rapsody has been making waves within not only Hip Hop but also the music industry in general over the last 5 years. Backed by super producer 9th Wonder’s Jamla Team and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Records, Rapsody is hands down one of the hot commodities in Hip Hop. I must admit I was a little late to the party with Rapsody. It wasn’t until I heard ‘Power’ from her last album that I started to pay attention. Since then she has appeared on many of my favourite songs over the last 18 months often stealing songs where she guest appears. Why do I like her? She’s an MC’s MC. She moulds her deep southern routes with impressive word play and honesty.

 

The concept of her latest effort ‘Eve’ is a nod to 16 of her female heroes which is firstly highlighted in the song titles and also lyrically throughout. Now, that being said, as a middle aged white male this is obviously right in my wheel house. Joking aside this album is banging!

 

Rapsody starts the album with ‘Nina’, such a statement song. Lyrically she goes in straight away, and really sets the pace for the album. Throughout the song and throughout the album Rapsody touches on personal experience and her view on being a black female not only the music industry but more so in present day America. Track by track Rapsody winds through her latest album changing the pace and tone track by track.

 

Joining rhapsody on the album there is a wide range of guests from new to old. Man of the moment J.Cole joins Rapsody along with the likes of GZA, Dangelo, Queen Latifah and Leikeli47 to name a few. Each guest well picked for each individual track.

 

I think there’s something for you all on this album. I think it’s accessible for Brother Guy, it’s got pure hip hop for Brother Joey and lyrically it will keep Brother David on his toes. As I’m introducing you to this album I’m going to avoid my personal highlights as I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

 

I also need to stress that after this you need to take some time and visit ALL of her albums on Spotify as they’re pretty remarkable.