Category: Album of the Month

MAY: No Shape by PERFUME GENIUS

Firstly, the hugest of apologies for the lateness of this month. It’s been a bit of month, so please forgive me.

So, onto PERFUME GENIUS. I had half-remembered that his previous album, Too Bright, had featured as an AOTM on these pages, but looking back through, perhaps that didn’t happen. Certainly, for a few of us, that album was a first real introduction to him (Joey, I know you’ve loved him for ages). And perhaps for some of us, he’s still a mystery.

If Too Bright was a progression from his interesting but sometimes noodly earlier work, No Shape is a giant leap forward into a whole new cosmos, a world of widescreen emotion, of huge songs, aching torch songs and whopping choruses. It is, whisper it, a pop album. And I say that with the hugest respect. Making interesting arthouse pop is one thing – constructing a whole album of cracking songs with amazing hooks and heartstring-tugging sequences is something else. Yes, I love this album. Yes, I REALLY love this album.

It’s not often I play an album 10 times in a row over a course of 3 days. It’s not often that I know straight away that I will playing this album for years to come. It’s not often that I rewind a few of the songs and play them again and again. I can’t think of the last album that had five songs in a row that were all so good, I was almost overwhelmed (Track 2: Slip Away to Track 6: Wreath).

So what is in this crazy alchemy that works so well. It’s not a radical departure from Too Bright in many ways – that bold camp vision of leftfield, celebratory gay pop music is still intact; it’s just bolder, brighter, sunnier. But what has really changed for me is the songwriting. The hooks, the melodies, the whole production – it’s next level shit.

I’ve been at a rather hippyish wedding of an old uni friend in Somerset. She suggested we all bring guitars and instruments down for a sing-song, which we duly did. Alex (Batesmith) brought a book of pop tunes, that had many a 90s classic in there. The biggest hit, singalong wise, of the rather bleary late night, was, surprisingly enough, Erasure’s A Little Respect. The next day, driving back on the long drive up to Leeds in sheet rain, we stuck on the Erasure song, and we were stunned by how good it was. We ended up listening to nearly the whole of their greatest hits. Fuck me, they knew how to write a pop song. If people rightly laud the Pet Shop Boys, why aren’t Erasure mentioned in the same breath? I wonder if they felt a bit too brash and less cool. But in songwriting terms, they wrote about 10 stone cold pop classics.

Why am I mentioning them? Well, there is something of their love of melody, of finding rich emotion in the camp candyfloss of pop tunes, that is right here in this album. Indeed, some of the chord changes are even reminiscent of ABBA. Again, I come to praise, not to bury. Of course, there is also some darker elements, some more oddbeat, slow burn peculiar songs of weird intensity, like Choir and quite a bit of the album’s second half. But I defy anyone not to play Wreath or Just Like Love, and not just smile at the sheer, indefatigable joy of pop music, in all its garish glory.

Perfume by name, Genius by nature.

April: Interplanetary Class Classics – The Moonlandingz

So, we come to April’s Album of the Month.  There aren’t many bands which start life as  songs on a concept album but that’s what we have here.  Sheffield’s Eccentronic Research Council released Johnny Rocket, Narcissist & Music Machine… I’m Your Biggest Fan in 2015 which slipped in an introduction to a fictional outfit called The Moonlandingz.  Fronted by Johnny Rocket (aka Lias Saoudi from Fat White Family), the story of the band’s rise and a fan’s obsession with the lead singer was narrated throughout by none other than Maxine Peake.  From there, the The Moonlandingz project gathered pace as Sean Lennon got on board to take care of production duties (this was post-Lennon witnessing a Fat White Family show at South by South-West in 2014, from which he bestowed the six piece with the accolade of their being one of the best live bands he’d ever seen).  Describing themselves as a semi-fictional outsider Ouija pop group, singles spawned: Sweet Saturn Mine which had already appeared on the Johnny Rocket album (promotional video starring the aforementioned Maxine Peake) and a precursor to the album collection at the back end of 2016 Black Hanz.

But it was to be the utterly gorgeous, swooping, majestic single, The Strangle of Anna, which piqued my interest.  I’m a sucker for wall of sound era ballideering and there’s something magnetic and beguiling about this most sumptuous of serenades that just drew me in and made me pick this album for this month.  I’m a fan of the criminally underrated Slow Club as well, and lead singer Rebecca Taylor contributes beautifully here.  Elsewhere, the album itself is a peculiar beast and it’s never what you expect although there is a glam rock, dark and dirty core which The Strangle of Anna aside, it doesn’t tend to veer particularly from.  There’s political commentary in the form of I.D.S. but I’ll be honest, the clever hook concerning forty-thousand years of Job Club could and should have been expanded on.  It feels like a smart idea not taken any further which, given the times we’re in at the moment, is guilty of being an open goal missed.

It’s a consistent record which doesn’t have many down points for me.  I love a bit of filth and up pops Randy Jones from the Village People to star in a twisted T-Rex tale which neatly summarises that pretty much every man from Stevie Wonder to the Sleaford Mods has a “Glory Hole”.  It’s a lipstick smeared, grubby tribute to the back passage and is basically a celebratory four minutes of nasty camp brilliance which you need a shower after enjoying that little bit too much.

A a footnote, not even an appearance at the end by categorically the worst singer I have ever witnessed in real life could tarnish my enjoyment of this album.  The warblings of Sean Lennon’s mum are unmistakable on This Cities Undone and she doesn’t manage to wreck proceedings (unlike the infamous live performance of Memphis Tennessee with Chuck Berry and husband John).  I would love to be one of the people who didn’t slate Yoko Ono but she was horrific at The Park at Glastonbury in 2014.  I thought I’d pop along to make my own mind up (because, y’know, there’s not much worse than an uninformed opinion) but she screamed and caterwauled through a 40 minute set, leaving with a mildly threatening “I love you…” as she wandered off at the end.  So I wasn’t expecting much when I heard she would be making a contribution here and at least they left it to its conclusion where she couldn’t do much damage to this relatively short but interesting collection.

March: Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Gone

History tells me that at times it’s a bit risky recommending an artist or album that comes already with great expectations and hype. I must admit, that I may be flying a bit close to the flame with this month’s pick.

If you’ve missed all the yearend lists with Loyle Carner’s name all over them I’ll give you a slight intro. Loyle Carner is from Croydon and makes pretty honest hip hop. After releasing two heavily supported singles ‘No CD’ and ‘Aint Nothin Changed’ he released his debut album ‘Yesterday’s Gone’ in January.

Loyle Carner is a story teller. One that has already reached beyond hip hop fans. In a recent interview he said that Common is a big influence and it’s understandable. I’d argue for a 20 year old he has surpassed many of his peers for content and insight. I’d argue he’s better than common was at 20.

I can bang on about how honest he is, or how much of a great story teller he is, but the key theme for me is that he’s nailed what many in hip hop artist struggle to do for an entire album: talk about what you know and do it well. Actually I’ll take that further, all artists struggle to do over an entire album.

I’m going to leave this to you to get stuck into and choose what you think are the stand out tracks. I hope you get into this album as much as I have over the last month.

Is this a hip hop classic? I’m not sure. Is this a stand out hip hop album that will be a runner for the Mercury? I think it’s got a good chance.

 

FEBRUARY: Sampha – Process

I first heard Sampha’s “who IS this?!” talents on this very blog, back in 2014, on “Wonder Where We Land?”. It wasn’t an album I really thought was my thing, and even on fifth listen, let alone first, it felt too odd, too patchwork, to take hold. But it did, and it was the incredible “Gon Stay” that pulled me in. But that, despite coming back to the album over the next two years, was all I encountered of the South Londoner until now. Having encountered “Process”, I feel a little foolish for this now.

But if it’s a debut album that’s taken a while to land, then it’s every bit the reward for being teased out. And while it’s a cliche, it’s more than just about the music here, as mesmerising as it is. These days we crave ‘story’, but the tale behind a work for an artist that’s worked with the likes of Drake, Solange, Frank Ocean and Kanye is one worth touching on, because it frames the album like an unseen assistant, a shadow over the lyrics and music that can’t be ignored. The Morden resident was a nascent musician as a child, but his adult life has been pockmarked by tragedy, his existence moving from single parent – his father Joe died of lung cancer in 1998 – to orphaned son, as his mother passed away from the same disease in 2015 in between his second EP and the album’s release.

It’s easy to talk of emotion and candour in music, such is the ubiquity of artists on social media, baring their souls (in 140 characters at a time) but Process feels exactly as that single word befits: a young man coming to terms with his place in the world as he comes to terms with love, life and loss in modern, isolating city life. His own health scares also sit behind the words of the record, and time and again the emotions are front and centre, with that incredible voice not slotting into others’ productions, but acting as another instrument in itself, and sounding the most powerful and piercing that it has yet. “Blood On Me” is a beautiful record, its staccato beats echoing modern hip-hop, but the piano’s chords carry punch, and the words speak of a man spinning close to the edge of control.

In fact, the feeling is one of boundary-free music, with Sampha’s soul pouring out unrestrained, even as the clever time signatures of “Kora Sings” or the simple arrangements of “Take Me Inside” cascade into multi-tracked synth and vox like a burst of of colour, despite the darkness of many of the lyrics. The pace may often be slow, but the energy and heft is always there, and even at first listen it’s a beguiling proposition. And for all the tales of suffering and anguish, the truth is that beneath all of it is a hugely talented musician.

The reviews are stellar, because the album has all the makings of a modern classic. A man whose career has been stop-start, halted by tragic episodes that may be the making of him. From all the heartache often comes the best music, and this is a stunning piece of work from a new British artist we should cherish.

JANUARY: Agnes Obel – Citizen of Glass

I cannot claim any long-standing relationship with Ms. Obel’s music. One evening in late November I switched 6 Music and caught the back-end of a live session. It was the voices I heard that sparked my interest initially. I think I only heard about 90 seconds but after a bit of ‘Ask Jeeves’ (Q:does that still exist?… A:I don’t know, Google it?) I was introduced to Ms. Obel’s music. Citizen of Glass was not out but there were a few tracks on Spotify and I loved each and everyone.

As referenced previously in my wittering, I don’t get as much time to listen to music as I used to / would like. I do listen to music in the evenings but my evenings are not as long as they used to be. Following the daily bedtime battle and the realisation that child-2 will probably be awake for 3 hours in roughly 2.5 hrs we like to keep the evenings calm. I like to read but am useless at reading when listening to some music. I struggle with a lot of music with lyrics when reading. Over the course of a few years this has significantly changed my listening habits. My evening music has become calmer and more instrumental. I listen to a lot of (cringe) ‘Modern Classical’ ‘Neo-Classical’ (puke) and other terms for music with strings that nobody knows what to call. Musicians (composers?) such as Olafur Arnalds, Max Richter, Johann Johannsson and Julian Barwick have become the main-stay of what I actually listen to. However, I’ve not shared any of this on the blog which is stupid really as it is what I listen to and this blog is supposed to be about sharing new music and what we’re currently listening to.

Which brings me to Citizen of Glass by Agnes Obel. Ms. Obel is a Danish singer / songwriter. A bit of time on ‘Ask Jeeves’ suggests numerous genres for her music – classical, folk, pop, experimental among others. The main point for me is that her music is calming and beautiful. There are no beats. There will be no-cool-down-with-the-kids points available for referencing this album, unless of course the kids are listening to music like this which could well be happening given my proximity to ‘cool’.

The album is cinematic and sweeping. It has a rhythm to its sequence and provides a progression through the tracks but also a gentle return to its starting point. By this I mean that listening on repeat is a rewarding experience. There are 10 tracks in all, 8 vocal and 2 instrumentals. The instrumentals (for me) do not feel like filler and have stand out qualities that set them apart as rewarding entities in their own right. The instrumentation is 100% acoustic / orchestral – lost of piano (though this is her album where she consciously steps away from reliance on the piano), strings, harpsichord, harp, spintet, celsta (…. I’m not selling this am I?) and of course her voice. I’ve not checked all the vocal credits but she provides her own backing vocals and harmonies. She even duets with herself on ‘Familiar’ where she provides a ‘male’ counterpoint to her beautiful ‘female’ vocal.

As with many albums the greatest rewards come on repeat listens when you have the ability to concentrate on the music rather than as background music. I hope that you guys get as much from this as I have. I appreciate that this may not be ‘your usual thing’ but hey, it may well be and you’ve just not been blogging about it like me.

 

DECEMBER: We Got It From Here… – A Tribe Called Quest

Ach, so late on this one. Soooooo sorry.

I mean, there’s not much to say in a weird way, is there? After an EIGHTEEN YEAR gap, and after losing one of the group’s cornerstones and founder members, Phife Dawg, and without much of a contribution from Ali Shaheed, who would be have been surprised if ATCQ would have returned with something a bit tired, a bit old, a bit derivative.

Instead, they rock up with one of the albums of the year and add a genuine new chapter to an already glittering career. Like Bowie’s Blackstar, this album is one you’d be happy to put next to their finest like their debut or Midnight Marauders.

Let’s be clear: they’re not totally reinventing themselves, and there is something enjoyably familiar about hearing that ATCQ sound. But what makes this such a thrilling listen is to hear Q-Tip and the crew sounds so vital, so passionate, so playful and so political.

It’s almost an embarrassment of riches. The first four or five songs are all stone cold classics, and almost every contribution brings out the best in everyone – the tracks with Andre 3000, Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak are all total standouts. It also rewards repeated plays, and each time I find a new track that I’ve overlooked.

If there’s a criticism, it’s maybe that with it’s a touch overlong, and with the loss of 2 or 3 tracks, it would have been flawless. But actually, there’s not really a track I dislike intensely, and I love nearly all of it.

Welcome back ATCQ. The world missed you. The world needs you.

November: Jagwar Ma – Every Now and Then

So here’s November’s offering and I confess to be coming into this review from a fairly biased starting position.  I love what Jagwar Ma do and have done since seeing them in the John Peel tent on a Saturday lunchtime at 2013’s Glastonbury with my other half and the blog’s Guy Hornsby.  To sum any band up is tricky: they’re original but they steal.  They have their own sound but it’s interspersed with little nuggets taken from elsewhere.  They’re the embodiment of an oxymoron but boy does it work.  Consequently, they’re incredibly easy to connect with, especially if you’re someone who’s easily swayed by a band shamelessly throwing back to mid-90s baggy psych one minute (Man I Need)  and bringing trance-era vibes the next (Four).. Gabriel Winterfield and Jono Ma are  consummate musical magpies, all about the loops and repetition, like so much electronic music that it’s wonderful to disappear into… so with much of that 2013 set it felt almost illegal to be having that much fun on a Saturday afternoon.

That brings us to Every Now and Then which, I’ll be honest, I didn’t really want to review because I’d be buying this album anyway and sometimes it’s tricky to be objective with something you’ve been looking forward to for so long.  But here we are and I’ve had this album for about a month or so now (having caught them live again at the Brudenell Social Club in the meantime).  Again, where Jagwar Ma just do it so well is they’re amazing with taking tropes and little hooks of other sometimes timeless tunes and textures and weaving them into their own songs.  In Say What You Feel, it’s pure Beach Boys harmony and melody thrown in but it’s not immediately obvious that’s what they’re doing as it’s swirling around gorgeous twists of reverse track and backing vocals.  They’re taking what they kicked off with the debut Howlin’ and expanding it, making the soundscapes wider and richer (I know many albums are but it’s one hell of a headphone listen).

The album’s first single, OB1 is pretty much a stepping stone between the debut and this new collection of songs but it’s one where it almost feels like they’re plagiarising themselves it’s so close to The Throw in feel, for instance.  But with them being who they are, it’s a head nod, an acknowledgement and then straight into an immediately accessible belt-out chorus.  I can’t help thinking that if they were a guitar band as opposed to synth dance they’d be quite at home doing the arena tour circuit with refrains like that in their locker.

It took me a few listens to put my finger on it but there’s a moment in Loose Ends which is pure Beetlebum by Blur and another example of where they’re the magpies I’ve been pointing towards.  The song where the album’s title comes from is beautifully crafted, layered and produced; it’s as good as anything the band have done and is so wonderfully hypnotic.

Every Now and Then is a fine example of a band having found their niche and are now exploring the sound that they’ve created.  They’re evolving at a steady pace and they continue to be not only a fine live act (you really should try to catch them if they’re playing near you).  This second album is the sound of a band stretching their legs and hitting their stride.