Album of the Month November – Mano Le Tough: At the Moment

Mano Le Tough, Irish-born Niall Mannion’s career within Dance music has been one that all young music fans dream of. Initially stepping into the realm of dance music after toying with indie music in his teens he was quickly discovered (within minutes) of posting his first tracks on myspace by indie disco stalwart Tensnake in 2007. Soon after he moved to Berlin and quickly built a musical and DJ led following that most would dream of. Combing through his back catalogue, though at times limited, quality his always prevailed and so has his reputation.  This from Pampa Records sums up their artist to a tee: living alongside sought after personal singles, two full length albums, and remixes for, among others, The Pet Shop Boys, Roisin Murphy, Caribou and Erol Alkan, Mano became one of Europe’s most in-demand DJs, with headline performances across the continent’s dancefloors and the world’s biggest music festivals. Since early 2020, however, he’s been at home, attempting to channel inspiration from eighteen months without live music, amid the anxiety of a global pandemic’.

Any self proclaimed forward thinking dance music wanker like myself will point out that Mano Le Tough is one of the most consistent producers when creating adventurous dance records. In short the hipster dance geeks think he’s pretty special. His 2014 Boiler Room set is one of my most listened to DJ mixes. He has a slew of others that I regularly revisit. He’s a DJ that anyone serious about dance music should see at least once in their life, though this should not be a precursor to this album as this album takes you on  journey that at times would create dance floor moments but is more moulded to more laid back situations with a rear view on the dancefloor.

Last year we discussed on the podcast about music that was being made in lockdown and what the music would sound like. Like last months’ album, we’re starting to see the fruits ripened from 18 months of isolation. Largely hashed out in early 2020 from demos and new ideas you get the feel that this is an album of calmness away from the constant travel and DJing in the worlds best clubs every weekend. Mannion has mentioned in a couple interviews that not having his foot in a club every weekend let him to push himself beyond the traditional 4/4 structure that the majority of his previous releases always came back to. One interesting point is that Mannion is often overlooked for both his vocals and indie tinged tracks within dance music, which both shine throughout this album. 

We talk a lot about album order and the sequencing of tracks. After the masterclass of Billie Eillish, this too isn’t far away from perfection, though this is more like a perfectly arranged mixtape and less an overall piece of work. The length is hefty, 50 minutes and 12 minutes long. Although I can hear brother Joseph knocking his head on his kitchen table in Chorley at the length, I firmly believe that this won’t be an issue for him as the flow of this album is seamless. For Joey, the deep guitar lead dance feels will undoubtedly sit perfectly in his wheel house.

‘Aye Aye Mi Mi’ may be one of my tracks of the year and I suspect it’s got something in it for us all. I imagine dropping this in a back room somewhere with all four of us in attendance. I can imagine David doing a funny dance to it, Joey giving me his ‘what is this’ bass face, and Guy popping up his head whilst chewing the ear off of someone to swiftly lift his fist in approval. It’s an all-rounder that sits well in most places at most times.

From the psychedelic trip hop of ‘Moment to Change’ to the optimistic dreaminess of ‘Fado Fado’ and ‘Short Cuts’ and deep tinged dance bangers like ‘Pompeii’ and ‘So Many So Silent’ there’s more than enough to peak any music fans interest and keep them interested throughout the 50 minutes. Trying to pinpoint what this album is will be something that I think all of us will struggle to pigeonhole within a genre.

Although there have been similar albums within the realm of this album released recently, most notably new efforts by the Joy Orbison and Darkside, this album has connected with me the most. Perhaps the well woven slowdown sounds have moulded perfectly with the autumnal / early winter feels that I’m adapting to. That combined with the feeling that the likes of Caribou, LCD Soundsystem and Four Tet are all cut from the same cloth makes this album irresistible.

When explaining this album, it’s hard to pinpoint. Is it dance, is it indie, is it ambient, is there a point in categorising it? Whilst writing this I’m trying to get my head around why I love this album so much? ‘No Road Without a Turn’ perhaps sums it up best for me. It’s unexpected, full of emotion, it constantly evolves throughout. Both the song and the album, is something that everyone should have in their lives.

OCTOBER: Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish

This album is currently or has been number one in over 20 countries. Eilish is genuine, bona fide A list pop star – she sits alongside the Taylor Swifts and Lady Gagas at the top table. Her clothes, her love life, her age, her gender, her fanbase, her lyrics and her career in general have all been dissected over and over again by the press and also by her fans. This is an album about what that feels like. Perhaps that’s not so strange – plenty of of pop stars have sung about life in the fast lane. But what is strange is what Happier Than Ever represents. Eilish is a pop star who makes pop music. You all know I’ll defend the P word to my death. But what extraordinarily INTERESTING place pop music has gone in the last decade or so. Sure, it’s been heading that way for quite a while – but it’s certainly a long way from the Pussycat Dolls and Girls Aloud to this album. It’s the total antidote to those artists. It’s not manufactured, there is no ‘persona’ that Eilish appears to hide behind, and the entire album is not written by a team of crack songwriters, with a list of producers as long as the tracklist. The whole thing, from songwriting to production, was made by Eilish and her producer brother, Finneas. Not a single other musician plays on the entire album.

So if it’s not pop in the old-fashioned sense, then what is it? Well – Happier Than Ever is intimate, downbeat, incredibly personal, political, angry, frustrated, passionate, world-weary, poetic, sexy, goofy and funny. And that’s just off the top of my head. It’s also as tightly constructed as a piece of Swiss watch-making, and it has the best sequencing of any album I’ve heard this year. I’ve tried to find flaws, but dammit, I’m having to look very hard. In short, it is FUCKING AMAZING.

What’s really interesting is what a rich, satisfying listen this is despite the aural palette of the album not really being that wide. Songs tend to come in two flavours – the first is somewhere between synth ballad and pastoral folk (Getting Older, Billie Bossa Nova, Everybody Dies) and sultry, stripped-back grooves with a hint of darkness and even foreboding (I Didn’t Change My Number, Lost Cause, Oxycontin). It’s hardly an upbeat album, but it certainly feels like a more mature and emotionally diverse offering than her first record, brilliant though her debut was by anyone’s standards. So why does this palette work so well on this record? Because it’s a journey. Because each song is a perfect, self-contained composition that’s been crafted beautifully – but then sequenced on a record that takes us through a giant walk through Eilish’s life right now.

We kick off with Getting Older, a rumination on what she’s about to explore through the album – how she can see herself growing, where she’s finding self doubt, trying to process the things that have already happened to her – and then suddenly ending with the bullet of the last extraordinary couplet –

I’ve had some trauma, did things I didn’t wanna
Was too afraid to tell ya, but now, I think it’s time

And then she does. A toxic (former?) relationship in I Didn’t Change My Number – which she returns to in the title track Happier Than Ever; a secret new relationship on Billie Bossa Nova that’s then referenced again in the incredible NDA, then a beautiful act of self-love and hope in My Future (one of the highlights on the album for me). On we go through lust (Oxycontin), before we really get into the meet of the record – Eilish confronting the abuse that is endemic in the industry. She touches on this repeatedly in Goldwing and the angry, brilliant Your Power. I’m trying to imagine a pop album 10 or 20 years ago that could have a track like Everybody Dies, a song that genuinely explores the fear of death. Sound of the Underground it ain’t.

And then there’s the album’s mid point, a moment turns the question right at the listener on Not My Responsibility do you know me? Really know me? Of course we don’t, despite her sharing herself right in front of us. She lays it out. This is what it feels like to be judged constantly. Would you like me to be quiet? There are plenty of artists exploring the notions of what its like to a woman in this universe, but honestly, I don’t think anyone is working at this level. That’s another thing we should discuss – the lyrics. They’re consistently brilliant, sharp, funny – they elevate the already gorgeously constructed melodies into a miniature portrait of entire story, time and time again.

So how come this downbeat, at times almost folky album doesn’t come over like Taylor Swift’s Folklore? I think the simple answer is that Eilish isn’t using the genre as a crutch to create something slightly artificial. Swift – who I actually really like – always feels like she’s calculated her every more down to the last carefully arranged artfully hung woollen cardigan. Eilish feels like this is the music that’s in her head and has come out of her mouth. The lack of gap between her work and the listener is surely one of the reasons this works so well.

Finally, a word on the production. It’s genius. Those hypnotic synths, that slightly narcotic quality to the washed-out electronic sounds. And then Billie’s voice itself – so close to your ears, it’s like she’s whispering into them. I wonder if she’s used that same crazy Binaural head mic that Perfume Genius used on No Shape. It reminds me hugely of that intimacy mixed with very emotional electronica. God it’s good.

Something to share as we think about our response to this record….For some reason, YouTube’s not allowing me to embed any of the songs from album – but it is allowing to embed this extraordinary conversation below – ‘When Billie Met Stormzy’. Apart from it being a total joy to watch two such engaging stars who clearly have such a love for each other’s work (in particularly, Stormzy fanboying over Eilish is just gorgeous), it’s fascinating to see two artists recognise the other’s care and craft in their work. They’re not where they are by accident. They’re both so talented, they’re almost freakishly so by normal human standards. So it’s easy to think that Eilish might not be the real thing because she’s so young or that she’s secretly propped up a production team. The opposite is of course true, as this interview reminds us – she got signed when she was 14 because she is just INSANELY talented.

Happier Than Ever is, by surely anyone’s definition, one of the albums of the year. Indeed, it might well be my album of the year. I mean, what else could really be this well-realised, this articulate, this full of incredible song, giant hooks, intimate whispers?

Man, I’m overheated, can’t be defeated
Can’t be deleted, can’t un-believe it.

We’d better believe it. Bille Eilish is here to stay for a long time. This is only the next step on her journey, but what a fucking step it is.

AOTM September: LoneLady – Former Things

Album choices emerge for all sorts of reasons. Timings of releases, life and plans intervening, how you react to a particular piece of music, the vagaries of record dates v release dates. Some months I am struggling for a choice, like with Genesis Owusu where I had to trawl around the internet in mild desperation (though that didn’t turn out badly). Other months I’ve either had an album in mind for a while or, if I’m lucky, a few. Sometimes the mechanics of the choice aren’t really important but it feels like a significant part of why I got here this time round. 

This month started as a choice between LoneLady’s ‘Former Things‘ and Lou Hayter’s Private Sunshine. The latter was very much a summer record, and while one I really loved listening to, I wasn’t sure it had a lot of emotional or musical depth to it. This isn’t being unfair or unkind either, as it was a slice of great modern dancefloor pop. I tend to want something with some more chops when I know we’re going to dive deep into it here. Being away in July and August I also wanted to have something lined up so I wasn’t thrashing around way too late in the day, for my sake as much as others. But, of course, I still ended up – and still am, to an extent – in very unenjoyable mental patterns of questioning my choice, even after I’d ordered the CDs. This is partly due to Lump’s album coming out and me enjoying it so much, and then also Museum Of Love after it. But mainly it’s the case because while I really loved this album, I started to worry a lot about whether any of the rest of you would. Because it’s not in any way a straight-up warm, engaging listen in the way Jubilee was, so the comparison already felt stark and I have agonised more than is strictly helpful over that. But I realised that when I’ve second-guessed myself too much – hi Talvin, or indeed PSB – I’ve ended up going on something that’s not based on an original decision and regretted it. Plus if I love something, then I need to give much less of a shit about what others think, even if there’s a risk of a savaging. 

So what drove this choice? I’d had LoneLady – Mancunian Julie Campbell’s one-person outfit – on my radar since (There Is) No Logic surfaced in March this year. It really was love at first sight and one of my favourite singles of the year. Once the album followed, it already felt like a complete sweet spot for me: female vocals and solo artist, guitars, synths, drum machines, a feel of the post-industrial music of our youths, be it Manchester’s seminal bands or the more synth-driven sounds of Sheffield. For every time I think of New Order or Joy Division, I also think of the Human League. Would that first impression last? For me, it did, but I realised at the outset it wasn’t going to be something wrapping us up in soft wool and keeping us warm in the autumn nights. 

An interesting question to ask is: ‘would I have chosen Former Things’ if I’d heard Hinterland before it? I’m not sure what difference it would have made, but while there’s clearly a lineage, there’s quite a difference between that and the new record. It is definitely worth visiting, just to understand the step forward here. Hinterland really had guitar at its centre, but for Former Things it’s much more of a texture than its main instrument. But there’s as much similarity as difference, and it’s definitely a case that there’s progression here, which Campbell has talked about in the months before and after the release. Campbell relocated to London in 2016 with a residency – and studio space – at Somerset House which exposed her to an array of synths beyond her childhood favourite Yamaha keyboard. It started out as a plan to make ‘a techno record’ but it’s really wider than that, even if the dancefloor feel is strong. 

Compared to Campbell’s previous work I then referenced, it’s clear this is a step in a different direction. So much more synth driven, from the opening bars of the Catcher, with its jerky, machine-gun drums and notes, and paranoid, discordant lyrics that echoed regret  be it from the loss of childhood simplicity and emotion or the fear for existence: “O youthful wonder / it was all inside when I was a child / why does it fall so far away’? This was not an album that presented the listener with an easy experience. But it was – to me at least – enticing, a sort of attraction to the discomfort, so much in the same way that post-punk bands had in my younger days. Runnings towards this, as anyone that knows me, is a real contradiction given my avoidance of discomfort in many situations. But here we are. 

There’s a bleakness and starkness about the album that I could see as unwelcoming, but it’s also something that chimes with me. Despite my sunny disposition, I spend way too much time worrying about the world, its politics, my family, our future, and so this album felt like a strange sort of balm that my thoughts were being brought so clearly and often to a slice of someone’s creativity. When we think about Jubilee and *that podcast*, I see some synchronicity here. No Logic’s melodies, its metallic stabs and crisp percussion giving it a  foreboding: ‘dislocation, misdirection, only chaos and confusion’. I’m sure Adam Curtis is a fan. He would love Threats, probably the most extreme end of the menace that Former Things exhibits. It drips with paranoia and edginess, its industrial feel and avoidance of groove in favour of stuttering notes and bass squelches, it’s a stark, near-future world of suffering that leaps out: “I was a loyal sentinel / I could not leave my outpost / trapped in a dread condition / I did not heed the warning” as if Campbell is a helpless cog in the machine. This, if were not clear before, is not a summer BBQ album! 

But to just categorise all of Former Things in this vein is to not give it its due. There’s light and dark, groove and rhythm, movement and flow. The title track almost feels like an outlier, and certainly is musically, with its acoustic strums, strings and popping keys but like many of the albums we’ve encountered lately, the lyrics do not align with the music. Talk of ‘I used to see magic in everything / but that has gone away from me / I can’t find the remedy’. It looks back, like much of the album, to the innocence of childhood, or at least the reference of it. Campbell has talked much about how Hinterland’s use metaphor has moved into much more open lyrics that focus on her internal anxiety, angst, fear and worry. In many ways it’s a very private world laid bare for the listener. 

And yet if you sit with the album more than a few listens, there’s some musical riches. Time Time Time’s jerky late-night dancefloor moves and almost startling piano chords are majestic, and a track where the guitar sits like an 80s relic, slightly off-key and sat back into the mix. Fear Colours has a new-York electro vibe that I love, its synthesised vocals evoking Arthur Baker’s work and chords making me think of Technique, tracing that musical lineage back to the bands of Manchester past. Treasure is another favourite, a track that highlights something musically important for me: Campbell’s voice as an instrument. It echoes the fear, anxiety, propelling the songs along as the phrasing often cuts off notes and keeps in line with the feel of the song. It’s a really interesting device that I think adds to the feel of the whole album and comes up time and again. Terminal Ground closes with a cascade of dry notes, angry stabs and brash drums, as if it can’t let the listener rest, a stripped back track that nods to LoneLady’s previous albums and the surroundings they emerged from, in Manchester’s crumbling, post-industrial suburbs.  

And while it’s another refreshing 40-minute special in length, the tracks are more elongated here. 8 tracks mean an average of five minutes, rather than Jubilee’s two extra tracks for that month. But with such an electronic feel, a four-four sensibility, it doesn’t feel like you’re waiting for the tracks to finish much of the time. Such is the restrained energy and menace that you aren’t really allowed to settle. It doesn’t fly by in the way Genesis Owusu, or Japanese Breakfast or Arlo Parks did, but it’s not trying to. It’s such a different prospect to so much of what we have done before us, it was a compelling choice for that alone, even if I’m really risking it here. 

So this is a challenging listen, but one that I feel would be lazy to categorise as eight angular tracks that are designed to throw the listener off and put them outside a wall. It brings you in if you give it time.

AOTM – July – ‘Jubilee’ by Japanese Breakfast

Japanese Breakfast - Jubilee | Reviews | DIY

Jubilee is Japanese Breakfast, (a.k.a. Michelle Zauner … and her band’s), 3rd album. I’ve never got my head around is it a band or is an artist but from now on I will refer to Japanese Breakfast as ‘her’ as Zauner is clearly the driving creative force behind Japanese Breakfast.

I nearly chose her 2nd album, ‘Soft sounds from another planet’ as album of the month back in 2017. If I had, you guys would have said ‘it’s ok … but it’s nothing special’ and I probably would have never considered double dipping and choosing her again. So all in all, I am glad I didn’t and I get the chance to introduce you to Jubilee instead. Soft Sounds was a solid, consistent 12 tracks of shoegazey niceness with occasional flourishes that caught you by surprise but were soon gone. Jubilee is almost the exact opposite. On Jubilee, the flourishes are to the fore, the melancholia is still there but it’s wearing better clothes and it has adopted a few new personas. It’s a brighter, poppier, classier affair with massive mainstream chops but don’t assume that’s it’s all surface.

For those that don’t know, much of Zauner’s creative career has been defined by her relationship with and the loss of her mother. Her music was and still is deeply touched by this experience. Her book ‘Crying in H Mart: A Memoir’ is a deeply personal reflection on the pain of growing up, losing her mother and … Korean food. It made no.2 in the NY Times Non Fiction Bestseller List in April 2021. The fact that this album is called Jubilee is massive. It points the way and hints at what to expect and represents a significant metamorphosis, musically and seemingly personally for Japanese Breakfast. There is a 40 minute podcast interview with Michelle Zauner by actor Minnie Driver that I would strongly recommend listening to that explores this in much mored detail and with a very delicate touch – https://open.spotify.com/episode/3LWPCfflisFbPsQqdvRBtd – be warned, I found it very moving but I do think it frames the album beautifully.

Back to the music, Jubilee is a 10 track, 37 minute album. Thank you Michelle. Great start.

Paprika, the opening track literally marches in, heralding the opening of the album with military snares and heralding horns. It’s a proud statement of arrival, perhaps of re-birth following her loss and grieving process? Perhaps I am reading too much into that but it seems beyond coincidence.

Lyrically the album is SOOOO strong and Paprika has some of my favourite lyrics;

How’s it feel to be at the center of magic
To linger in tones and words?
I opened the floodgates and found no water, no current, no river, no rush
How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers
To captivate every heart?
Projecting your visions to strangers who feel it, who listen, who linger on every wor
d’

Through the remaining 9 tracks Zauner introduces us to Synth-Pop, British sounding 90’s Indie (Belle and Sebastian, perhaps even Camera Obscura?), haunting stadium ready ballads and even a nod to her shoegazing back catalogue. It would have been easy for the variety of styles and influences to result in a messy, patchy album. However, this isn’t the case. There is a thread, a spine running through the tight running time and I think perfect track sequencing. For me, the thread or spine is the genuine emotion, the feels, that drive each track. I believe every word and I feel every note. The brighter, poppier uptempo tracks are some of the most emotionally and significant. That significance comes from top notch, classy song writing.

For this 1st time ever, I feel strongly enough about each song to want to walk through the nine tracks that follow Paprika one by one;

Track 2 ‘Be Sweet‘ is pure pop perfection. One of the strongest tracks by any artist this year. It was my entry point into the album when it was released back in February. It was on a long list that I created with Guy and should have been my selection when we chose tracks for each other a few months ago. It’s a bit 80’s, it’s a bit cool, it’s lyrically intelligent and I love that propulsive bass driving the track forward.

Track 3 ‘Kokomo, IN’ trades, funky 80’s pop for 90’s British indie. An acoustic guitar gives way to harsh string plucks and then to dramatic sweeping string accompaniment. It’s melodramatic, moody and most definitely ‘pretty’. It’s sits next to ‘Be Sweet’ perfectly despite it’s decade-difference in reference points.

Track 4 ‘Slide Tackle’ has been highlighted as one of the weaker tracks in a few reviews … I don’t get it. It’s one of my favourite tracks. It opens like a track from Twin Shadow’s debut album. It’s as if ‘Be Sweet’ and ‘Kokomo, IN’ had a baby together … and that baby played the saxophone?

Track 5 ‘Posing in Bondage’ surprise surprise, Joey love’s the dark one about death. I think this is a beautiful track. It’s the first down-tempo, ballard (ish) track. Spending some time with the album’s lyrics reveals, surprisingly, that there are a lot less lyrics than you might think! When written down, the lyrics look sparse but when woven into the fabric of the track they take on heft, Posing In Bondage is a great example of this in action and one of my favourite tracks. The killer line for me in this track is much discussed in the Minnie Driver podcast …

‘When the world divides into two people
Those who have felt pain and those who have yet to

Track 6 ‘Sit’ considering that Zauner is often described as a shoegaze artist, there isn’t a lot of it on this album. The exception is ‘Sit’. It’s got a droney, fuzzy guitar that sits (pardon the pun) just behind a very non-shoegazey vocal that sits higher in the mix than you’d expect. Its not a standout track but I think mostly because it’s on such a strong album. I’m in no way offended by it and enjoy it as a simpler pleasure.

Track 7 ‘Savage Good Boy’ … and we’re back to brighter, poppier sounds and melodies. It’s a well humoured, gender-role subverting, piece of perfect pop that is hard to ignore. It show cases Zauner’s ability to tell complex stories, simply and with impact.

I want to make the money ’til there’s no more to be made
And we will be so wealthy I’m absolved from questioning
That all my bad behaviour was just a necessary strain
They’re the stakes in the race to win

It’s hard to think of catchier song about mankind driving itself into the apocalypse. If you can think of one please let me know.

Track 8 ‘Hell’ – another track that focuses on the theme of loss but done with beautiful pop melodies, lovely backing vocals, Bontempi-like synth flourishes and a big dose of horns. It flies by in two and half minutes but the oddly Morrissey-esque lyrics stick in the mind for much longer.

Track 9 – ‘Tactics’ – Zauner is at her vocally-breathiest, over a string driven, charismatic track. The opening swoon of strings should come as a surprise given the orchestration of the rest of the album but it doesn’t. Once again, the fluidity of the album’s movement from style to style is impressive. I assume this to be a big old lovesick love song to her husband and quite beautiful it is too.

Track 10 – ‘Posing for Cars‘ – If Paprika was a literal fanfare to start the album, then Posing for Cars is a definite ‘farewell wave goodbye’ to close and highlights the perfect sequencing of tracks on this album. It is a well considered finale that builds and grows in a stadium rock stylee, the first nearly 3 mins being free of percussion. But as the song grows it introduces strings, bass guitar and finally a screeching lead guitar solo that feels odd and perfectly in keeping all at the same time. The track is double the length of most of the tracks and for me closes out the album perfectly.

The critical response to this album has been largely very positive with a MetaCritic score of 88% with plenty of 100% reviews. Whilst I don’t think it’s perfect, I do think it is special. It’s very easy to consume and connect with. Its available on many levels. It can be background music, music to work to but I think best consumed when you can give it the attention that I think it deserves. I would be very surprised if I end up listening to any other album as much as this. This will feature highly in my 2021 top 10.

AOTM June: Skyzoo – All the Brilliant Things

At best we will choose a hip hop album for our album of the month yearly, and it’s for good reason. Hip Hop is at times hard to approach, and hard to find time to listen to away from your kids as 4 middle aged fathers.

For me there’s more of an issue. I remember when I first heard the likes of Nas, Common (Sence) and Rakim. Each song was a lyric twisting journey into their world. As time passes I find it harder to find MC’s that blow me away with their word play. I often wonder is why latter generations of MC’s are less focussed on this? Does it matter anymore? The genre of Hip Hop is a bit confusing these days. I find it hard to understand how much of the hip hop that ‘the kids’ like these days is listenable. Misogyny, violence and criminality seem to be more prevalent than ever.

I came across Skyzoo in 2014 through his collaboration with his New York collaborator weight Torae. Instantly I was a fan. His word play and commentary put him amongst the hip hop heavy weights that I love. The more you listen to his lyrics the more layers to his lyrics you discover. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 90’s made him a student of some of the greats such as Biggie to Jay-Z and it shows. He has an uncanny ability to bring you into his world and keep you there. I was hooked and instantly delved into previous releases which included a heralded mixtape produced by 9th Wonder, followed by his debut album on 9th’s Jamal records (home of Rapsody amongst others) and later releases on two of my favourite labels; Duck Down Records and Mello Music.

You can find music from Skyzoo over the last 20 years, but the last 10 have seen him at his best. Releasing at least an album a year, it’s hard to find any weak piece of work among them. It’s understandable why he’s become one of the most respected underground MC’s around the globe. From working with boom bap super producer Apollo Brown to hip hop general Pete Rock, Skyzoo’s output is diverse and more-ish.

So this brings us to his latest effort, ‘All the Brilliant Things’. Like last month’s St Vincent album, it comes with a theme. This is an album about the gentrification of Brooklyn. Not only highlighting the change but also the world Skyzoo has grown up in, why he loves it, the memories, the stories and the dreams.

My notes for this album have been extensive. I was lost for words, how do you encapsulate the plethora of Skyzoo and what he does to this album? Lucky I read an interview with him where he described it perfectly. He said ‘My music has always been a combination of a few things: storytelling, motive, and intention’. That narrative rings true with another Brooklyn native that I love, Spike Lee. In fact there are cross overs throughout between the two. Perhaps I’ve seen too many Spike Lee movies.

I love hip hop albums that set the scene for the album on the first track and ‘Free Jewellery’ does it to a tee. Skyzoo dives in from the start. Weaving, layering, and provoking thoughts with each line. Amongst the journey he dips his toes into the irony of the critic’s interpretations his world whilst at the same time gentrifying it themselves.

‘So don’t mistake me, yo, I don’t do this for Complex

Nor a Pitchfork or any other facade

Where the culture is determined while chugging a PBR

And telling you how to represent all of the shit that you made

While they move in your building with their roommates’

‘Culture-ish’ is another remarkable track. Full of recollections…

‘I was buying art, my friends was buying dope.

I went and made friends with rappers that was buying both’

….was the line that caught my ears, but every line in the song is spotless. I’ve spent so much time getting my head around the layers of lyrics. He reminds me of Jay-Z on Reasonable Doubt. From Brooklyn or not, you’re pulled into his world (then and now) as you sit ring side in Skyzoo’s world in Brooklyn.

There are lyrics throughout outlining changing worlds. In line with the theme, but not blatantly. ‘The Scrimmage’ looks into money and how it’s made, old and new and it’s ruthlessness. I love the track lyrically, but when the track finishes with a clip of two people talking about being removed from their neighbourhood, it makes you listen again…. Because he was talking about it the whole time.

Hip Hop was born in the Bronx, but since its inception the New York boroughs all battled to own the top spot. Brooklyn arguably has a strong claim for the top spot. Jay-Z, Biggie, Sean Price, Yasin Bey (Mos Def), the list goes on. That mixed with exceptional graffiti artists and their influence on me is the reason Brooklyn has always facinated me. That fascination of Brooklyn for me and so many others may just kill where that fascination comes from; it’s soul. This album concept is well overdue.  ‘Bed-Stuy Is Burning’ is not only the stand out track on the album but one of the best hip hop songs that has been released in recent memory as Skyzoo delves into the world he loves and how it’s crumbling at his feet.

‘To whom it may concern, don’t let this happen to you

True to what you heard, they want this back like a loop

They gave you a curb and kept you back on the stoop

And now what they prefer is to help you pack when you move’

There are few reviews on this album, but many podcast interviews with Skyzoo. From a fan point of view some say it’s his best lyrically rounded album while some say it’s too long and the beats could be better on many tracks. I don’t disagree with either to a point. Personally I think that this is an album that when digested the four of us will use as a reference point for many albums in the future as this in its’ bones has the feels. The song by song justification and the ability to continually discover with each listen. Its’ long term importance to all of us is unseen but on different levels this album is important to all four of us and is worth everyone digesting. I’ve stayed in New York three times for work, once in Brooklyn. I’ll take Brooklyn and day of the week. It’s mind kind of place. It’s cool. Like east London is cool. The hipsters came in and made it cool for the middle classes. But at what cost? This album is about that cost. About a changing neighbourhood. This message transcends globally.

One of most common narratives on the blog and on the podcast is album length. ‘All the Brilliant Things’ is 14 songs long and just over 55 minutes which is standard for a hip hop album. At first I considered that the album could drop the middle three or fours tracks, but lyrically they’re growers and some of the best on the album.

The more I listen to this album the more I discover. Will it be perfect to the lesser hip hop fans? I’m not sure. I love it because it’s out and out hip hop that also delivers on a social commentary that we should all digest.

JUNE AOTM: Daddy’s Home – St Vincent

St Vincent aka Annie Clark, has been a major part of my musical landscape for the last decade. I latched on to her first album, Marry Me, in 2007, and immediately loved its slightly wonky sensibilities wrapped up in brilliant songs, and it’s been a mostly highly rewarding experience seeing her career and her ambitions grow with every album. She’s now pretty close to being a bonafide star – certainly an indie star anyway – and I saw that first hand as she effortlessly and brilliantly headlined the End of the Road festival a couple of years back. My wife, Caroline, absolutely adores her too – maybe even more than me – so she’s an artist who has been played to death in our house over the years.

But I’ve long ago come to realise that she’s a Marmite artist. Many friends to whom I’ve recommended her have come back with a blank look on their faces – they don’t ‘get’ her at all. I do kind of understand it – her sound can be very angular and jagged, and she wields her incredible guitar playing (more on that later) like a weapon. She’s wilfully, unapologetically arty, and it can often feel like she’s hiding herself behind a series of different personas. She can make obtuse decisions – like starting an album as brilliant as Strange Mercy with a track as hard to listen to as Chloe in the Afternoon. She seems to delight in setting fire to her previous incarnation, and I can see that might feel frustrating to an artist you’re trying to invest. Me, I fucking love her. I love trying to find the real Annie hiding, sometimes in plain sight, in her songs. I love the way she paints a picture with a song. Just try and listen to Year of the Tiger (also on Strange Mercy). It’s like a little movie.

Funnily enough, me and Annie’s first real musical differences came on her biggest album to date, the behemoth that was Masseduction. Recorded with hot shot producer Jack Antonoff, he of Lorde, Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift album fame, it was a radical departure to the angular, electronic indie rock of her previous work. It was unapologetically pop with a capital P, with more nods to Kylie and Robyn than her indie peers. It was a critical and sales hit, along with single Los Ageless, and opened her up to a new audience (and led to those festival headlining moments). Friends who don’t like Annie C have complained they find her a bit cold. I never felt that at all until Masseduction. It just didn’t connect with me. It felt a little calculated, and it was – well, just a lot less original than anything she’d done until that point. She was trampling on much more familiar territory and I just couldn’t get as excited.

So when I heard that Annie was channeling 70s rock and Bowie on the new album, then frankly, I was chomping at the bit. I wanted to hear something more organic, something more emotionally connected. And I wanted to hear that incredible guitar back up high in the mix. We should mention her guitar playing for a minute. If you haven’t seen her life, it’s hard to quite grasp how good she is. She’s Prince-level good. She’s UNBELIEVABLE. I think she’s probably the most talented guitar player of her generation.

Pay Your Way in Pain did nothing to dampen my excitement. What a fucking song it is. And what an opening track it is on the album. It’s a proper rock song, and it sets up that mixture of emotional pain and retro irony quite beautifully. And then the came the new look for the record. Blonde wig, leather jacket. All very playful, all very Annie Clark. But also this extraordinary backstory about her father’s incarceration (which by the way she has NEVER mentioned up until this point!). Daddy’s Home? Nudge nudge wink wink. And then came the 5 star reviews, and lots of them.

So what did I feel when I started to listen to the whole album. Initially, I was just so, so happy. I loved it almost immediately. It was exactly what I was hoping for. Perhaps more downbeat and slow than I was expecting, but it seemed to wear its heart on its sleeve as much as you could ever hope from a musician who’s often been careful to cover her tracks.

The big surprise was that this was also made with Jack Antonoff. Who’d have thought it? In fact, the two of them recorded quite a lot of the album between them. Did Antonoff allow Clark to find that musical voice she was looking for, did he just give her that freedom? Or was there still something a little bit calculated about it? That was the only nagging thing I had in my head now and again as I listened.

And then…the backlash started. I must say, in the interests of balance, that it’s hardly that much of a backlash – as of today, it still has a whopping 86 on Metacritic. But there were a couple of extraordinary reviews – one from Pitchfork that seemed to damn it with faint praise, as well a much more damning piece on Slate that argued that this was her worst album, comparing her unfavourably to fellow pop chameleons Prince and Bowie. Both of those articles contain some pretty unbelievable accusations (Pitchfork – it’s racially insensitive for St V to mention Nina Simone alongside white artists. Slate – she’s actually never been that good a lyricist. That latter one made me laugh out loud. ARE YOU FUCKING JOKING ME, MATE?).

The whiff of double standards on female musicians, particularly singular artists with their own vision, hangs heavy in the air. And I don’t think that for a second that Annie Clark is asking to be compared to Prince or Bowie. But let’s leave some of the stupidity of some of the worst comments, and ask the tricky question – have they got a point? Is this album the real deal, or is it a kind of well-executed pastiche of a kind of mythical musical past? I suspect that as a collective, we’re going to end up on different sides of that question. I can’t wait for the pod!

My own experience is this. There are a few obvious big, brilliant belters – Pay Your Way, Down, Melting of the Sun. Down might be my favourite song on the album. And some have called The Melting of the Sun a bit clunky. I think it’s utterly glorious – a straight down the line love letter to those who’ve paved the way for her. And the analogy of the patriarchy melting like the sun is delicious.

But actually, on repeat listening, it’s not the 70s pastiche, or the sitar playing (though I LOVE the sitar playing!) or the Bowie schtick that’s sticking with me. It’s the songwriting. And it’s the smaller songs that have come to be amongst my favourites. Down and Out Downtown is just beautiful, At The Holiday Party is sad and compassionate, Somebody Like Me feels like Annie reckoning with herself and her personas in a really moving way. And right in the centre, the extraordinary Live in the Dream. Yes, it owes a hell of debt to Pink Floyd, and also to Bowie’s Diamond Dogs in lyrical theme, but I just can’t get enough of it. I’ve listened to that one track to death and I find it genuinely moving.

There are odd things about the album that jar a little. I think the sequencing is odd – I’d have put Live in the Dream later in the album, maybe pulled Down further up. For me, the title track, Daddy’s Home, is the album’s weak spot, and it’s a shame it’s sequenced as Track 3. I think this the one time that the nudge-nudge sexy/existential pain 70s vibe just doesn’t quite work. She’s hiding behind the song and it’s not telling us anything about the real story of her father’s incarceration. It feels a little cheap to use that as a sell. That’s a shame.

But the rest of the album? I’m not seeing a persona. I’m seeing a real human being singing about real human things – disappointment, love, dead-end careers, loneliness, the death of a friend. The things that Annie Clark’s detractors accuse her of – being angular, being difficult, hiding behind a persona – I honestly don’t think that’s true of this album, title track aside. In the end, the songs speak loud and clear. And if you’ll excuse me now, I’m just going to play it again…

Episode 10 – The Weather Station – Ignorance

Ep 15 – Lonelady – Former Things This Is Not Happening – An Album Of The Month Podcast

Episode 15 of This Is Not Happening heads to the north west of England with Manchester artist Lonelady's third album, Former Things. After the heart-on-sleeve shogazey pop of Japanese Breakfast's Jubilee, Julie Campbell's solo guitar/drums/synth template brings 8 tracks of post-punk, electronic fusion, with Guy at the helm! In the second half of the episode, we stay in Manchester, each bringing a track from the city's fabled music history to the table. Our shortlist is here, and Guy's longlist lives here. Stick around and see what we thought of the picks:Guy  – Zoe Abalone – Vortex David – Paris Angels – Perfume Joey – Pip Milett – Hard LifeNolan  – Mr Scruff v Cyberpunks – A Space Disco Remix September's album of the month and all our new tracks, playlists, and chat from the past decade or more can be found on our blog at http://www.thisisnothappening.net, which runs alongside the podcast choices and much, much more. Head down there and hopefully you'll like what we're talking about and if you do, we'd love to hear from you on the socials (links below).Episode #16 comes in the shape of Billie Eilish's new album Happier Than Ever as David bring his pop-beingness back to the fore. That next episode will be landing before the end of October.This Is Not Happening:Created by Joey, Nolan, Guy and David.Produced and Edited by Guy and Nolan.Twitter: @thisisnothapngInstagram: @thisisnothappeningpodEmail: thisisnothappeningpodcast@gmail.comReviews: http://www.ratethispodcast.com/thisisnothappening
  1. Ep 15 – Lonelady – Former Things
  2. Ep 14 – Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
  3. Ep 13 – Skyzoo – All The Brilliant Things
  4. This Is Not Happening – Season 2 Trailer
  5. Ep 12 – St Vincent – Daddy's Home

Episode 10 of This Is Not Happening finds us sticking with female artists but switching from the UK to Canada with the Weather Station’s Ignorance.  Tamara Lindeman’s group released its 5th album in 2021, and it marks another progression from folk-tinged songwriting to full-blown grown-up pop that touched on so many of our big influences. We all went on a journey with this, with Joey at the helm. We also put together an ‘inspired by’ playlist to sit with the album

In the second part of the show, we jumped off the deep end by picking a new track, secret santa-style for each other! Here’s the longlist, but the four we chose are:

David – Nolan chose: Brother Ali – Sensitive.
Guy – Joey chose: Howlin’ – Bind
Joey – David chose: Charlotte Adigery – Bear With Me (And I’ll Stand Bare Before You) 
Nolan – Guy chose: Vagabon – Water Me Down (Pancy Remix)

April’s album of the month and all our playlists, new music and discussions from the past decade or more can be found on our blog at www.thisisnothappening.net, which runs alongside the podcast choices and much, much more. So check them out so to see what we ‘re talking about and if you like it, we’d love to hear from you. Socials are below. 

Episode #11 will be digging into the kaleidoscopic debut from Genesis Owusu: Smiling With No Teeth . An Australian-Ghanaian whose melting-pot influences have created one of the most fascinating and memorable albums of the year. Coming to you before the end of May.

This Is Not Happening:
Created by JoeyNolanGuy and David.
Produced and Edited by Guy and Nolan.
Twitter: @thisisnothapng
Instagram: @thisisnothappeningpod
Email: thisisnothappeningpodcast@gmail.com
Reviews: www.ratethispodcast.com/thisisnothappening

May AOTM – Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth

Genesis Owusu’s Gold Chains.

Where to begin, with an album that’s such a multi-layered, sonically ambitious, lyrically dense and deep affair? That is, mind-bogglingly, a debut? From an artist that 3 months ago, I’d never even heard of ?(more fool me) How did we get here with May’s album of the month, and This Is Not Happening’s 11th episode? Ten days ago, it wasn’t even my month to pick.

I was down for June, but @davidhallison‘s love for St Vincent meant we switched it up – as we have before – and instead of a month to choose an album I had a week, at a stretch. This is enough to induce seven days of anxiety, let alone having stung myself with Yves Tumor in Episode 3: an album that the critics loved, that I picked out of a big big hat, wanting to wilfully choose something I wouldn’t usually go for. In the end, I just didn’t love it, even though there were some uncut gems on there. So I sifted through over a hundred new albums released since January, trying to find something that stood out to me. I struggled, not wanting to simply pick something random. I even entertained a classic album, deciding that really, if I couldn’t find new music, perhaps I should have a word with myself.

Something made me go back to Smiling With No Teeth, the debut from Ghanaian/Australian artist Genesis Owusu. It turns out I’d read an article on him back in March and that must’ve been a subconscious call-back. How could you not remember – even in the recesses of your mind – someone who proclaims ‘I’m Prince, if he were a rapper in 2020s Australia‘? I can’t have been totally convinced. Perhaps it was my mind telling me that ‘I don’t ‘do hip-hop’. Of course, once I listened to the album, it was clearly not a hip hop album. In fact it is the first album in a long time I’ve really found impossible to pigeonhole, even a dozen listens in. Fifteen tracks, almost an hour (Joey would have to do another lap of his ‘album walk’) and my first impression? I was baffled, a bit overwhelmed. But, most importantly, I also wanted to come back.

And that’s the happenstance way I’ve come to gradually live with this astonishing album. One that opens with the electro ripple of On The Move, hitting you with an Afrika Bambaataa-shaped sledgehammer. Even from the first few listens, what started as bewildering collection of musically inventive, but attention-grabbing tracks, something gets you. It has that undefinable ability that good albums do: to start taking shape and working its way into your subconscious right from the start. Then you hit The Other Black Dog, with its relentless, cycling energy and edge, ‘a tale of black dogs with golden leashes‘ and you start to get an inkling of a theme as you’re still trying to wrap your head around it as a whole. ‘Oh, depression’, you think, like Arlo. But what you’ll slowly realise is that it’s much more complex than that. Because the ‘Black Dog’ isn’t just depression, on an album that touches on some heavy themes: it’s a reclaiming of a racist term often used as a racial slur against Kofi Owusu-Ansah throughout his life. Its double meaning gives it extra resonance once you grasp that. You can read many things about the artist and his music, (and you should, because he is a person who is magnetic when he talks about his craft) but I always want a few tilts at the album before I started gaining context, to simply take in the music, without prejudgement.

Genesis Owusu – The Other Black Dog

Because, before you start to get to exist with the lyrics, the music leaves quite the early impression. It’s hard to see a genre that’s not covered: the aforementioned electro and pulsing beats, then Centrefold’s silky r’n’b that nods at everything from Frank Ocean to The Internet via Outkast, paired with Waitin’ On Ya, with its vocoded, 90s-esque stylings that felt the strongest connection to Super Rich Kids, and I Don’t Need You’s scuzzy guitar-vocal interplay that feels every inch a modern pop record. Drown, which is as if lifted from an 80s teen classic soundtrack, its rasping guitars and pulsing synth bass notes, lifted by guitarists Kirin J Callinan’s vocals. By the end of ‘side one’ (because it really does feels like a ‘proper’ album in that respect’, I felt like I’d gone on a car chase through the last 40 years of my musical existence. There was a lot to unpack. And yet, as you feel you have a handle on the most modern of ‘urban pop’ (is that even a thing?) albums, it takes a darker turn.

The ‘side two’ of Smiling With No Teeth, even without the lyrical connections, turns south. Gold Chains‘ echoes vintage N.E.R.D. but drips with metaphor ‘When it looks so gold, but it feels so cold inside these chains‘, subverting the macho hip-hop culture and appearance with a frail soul. The album’s title track swaggers along a pared-back Rhodes and harmonies, all Frank Ocean again, but with a bleakness attached, while I Don’t See Colour, with its congas and toms that feel all throwback 2000s Timbaland/Pharrell doesn’t disguise any more, with the lyrics starting to come so to the front of the mix that it’s impossible to ignore: “When you see the black man, its riots and terror
But when I talk about slavery, you weren’t there, how convenient
“. And as the album progresses, the music sits further and further back, leaving you no escape from the message: its hooked you in, and now you’re going to listen. Because this is an album that takes the messages of black consciousness, racism, oppression, and burns the lived experience into the listener’s brain. You will not escape, because you cannot.

Black Dogs punk feel shouts straight-up racism and painful, paranoid memories of everyday aggressions. Whip Cracker takes it up ever further notches, pared back to only a kick drum and unconcealed anger: “Whip your hands / whip your ass / Whip your man’s whip / This ain’t the 50s, you ain’t talkin’ shit / Know your place, know your role / ‘Fore you get tripped / You ain’t no masters / Your place has been flipped‘, and when the guitar and bass rides in, it sounds like Prince, but with Killer Mike’s flow injected. A subversion not even across two songs, but in the middle of one. And this is, remember, a 23-year old man with so much material to work from, because – starkly, and unadorned – this is the reality for black people everywhere. And his statement, and its power, is something visceral to behold amongst the musical alchemy.

Genesis Owusu – Gold Chains

There is some respite, with Easy‘s familiar-sounding 80s patterns, and A Song About Fishing may sound like a closing credits track, but the fishless lake is Owusu’s existence casting itself into a life without happiness. This is the beauty of the album in one perfect example: hooks and melodies to love, with a lyrical message as bleak as anything can get. If No Looking Back sounds like an anachronism, it is. Originally the album closer, its 60s-soul was felt way too positive and sugar-coated to really end the record, which is why Bye Bye exists: an edgy, but 80s-soul and funk-flecked nugget that slips in bleakness aplenty: “How do I breathe with my hands on my own throat?”.

It’s often the case I go – as many do – on a journey with any album. But this in an odyssey. A fable. Even as you try to consume the album’s kaleidoscopic nature, its melodic whirlwind, its length, it takes investment to start to see the dust settle. It’s a good half a dozen listens before songs start to emerge from the storm, and when that happens, it’s a beautiful experience, because you can’t but admire the talent on display. And as with the album’s narrative, there’s a story behind its creation: from mainly working across EPs and singles with beats and computers, Owusu wanted a looser ‘jammed’ feel to the album, so enlisted a collection of brilliant musicians – Callinan on guitar, World Champion’s Julian Sudek on drums, and Andrew Klippel, label Ourness’ founder on keys and house producer Touch Sensitive on bass – and went through six days of mammoth sessions where inspirations were played to the band, and songs were sketched out from the jams and lyrics worked on. Plucked from the best of 50+ hours, out of which the songs emerged. It’s a hugely ambitious method, and one that, without the talent and filter to make it work – both from the superlative talents of the group of musicians to thread it together and its leader to distil that into its final form – could’ve easily resulted in an overblown, confused effort that sunk without trace. But once you read about Genesis Owusu’s life, inspirations and hear him talk about what his music means to him, once again, Smiling…. seems more and more likely as a result.

The music is only half the story. As a first-generation immigrant into a country with a troubled racial history, his inspirations came from a palette of video games – lauded Xbox title Jet Set Radio Future melted my brain‘ as a kid – hip-hop – Lupe Fiasco’s wordplay and namechecking Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly as his favourite album (and an obvious thematic touchstone) – and a desire for identity. A kid who decided rather than assimilate, to be his own person, mixing african prints with streetwear (and copping the abuse for it), living with that conflict from the outside world. With this backdrop, the album is something that draws from all of it. I’m an interview he recently stated: “all my favourite songs aren’t singles, so making an album was massively important, and I’d wanted put all of who I am into it“.

But Owusu didn’t want it just to be about the music: working in multiple media, with fashion, song, art, video. They’re all “tools for expression, of me to the fullest extent”. Music is really important but it’s “just the soundtrack, when I’m “trying to make the whole movie”. An all-encompassing artistic vision at this age and stage of a career that its hard not to be wowed by, supported by some striking videos to the album. Playing out the dual-Black Dog metaphors : with depression the ‘internal’ spectre and racism it’s ‘external’ partner, they’re sometimes wrapped up further in a break-up or love song theme, sitting at times as a character within that structure, a three-layer approach that demands time and dedication but reaps big rewards. The whole album is an exercise in taking musically dazzling methods then wrapping the lyrics into it so seamlessly, that it takes considered effort – and in this case, my actual reading of so much of the lyrics – to really get under that surface. But it’s stealth, a trojan horse effort that serves as a double-whammy when those words truly hit.

Genesis Owusu – Whip Cracker

And they are an uncomfortable listen, but they are vital. I can’t possibly identify with much of that lived experience, but the energy, the anger, the rage that drips from the verses is impossible to ignore. Cast against the soul majesty of Sault, or Arlo Parks’ odes to angst-ridden teenage existence as a person of colour, and even RTJ’s nihilistic brutalism, this feels like it trumps even that. There is no sugar-coating, no desire to. But the unfiltered nature is as powerful as anything around it: “They passed the time / She gave her lies / He gave his life / Paid the price / In flashing lights / To gain his rights” in Easy. Dealing with the black dog as depression – something I can connect to far more – whether as a comment on gang culture clichés or the alpha-male assumptions of his appearance: “All my friends are hurting, but we dance it off, laugh it off / Scars inside our shoes but we just tap it off, clap it off” in The Other Black Dog, or “My other half that I swore I ain’t miss / Toxic, hundred percent batshit / Took my hand and started holding me down / Flicked thе crown, and said / You’ve got to let me drown“. It’s hard not to feel its impact in that shape-shifting flow.

Owusu talked of making the album he wanted to, free from any self-imposed expectation, with a desire to diverge from the soul/funk beats’n’drums hip-hop of his EPs, and its both admirable that – with all his confessed tumult – he can have the lack of ego and conviction to do that. Also that he can take all these ingredients and still come up with a work of such contrast and confidence as Smiling With No Teeth is, almost in a musical and cultural world of his own making. It feels like an album that could be only made on debut – that time when an artist can come to something with a vision that’s full of energy and unrestricted by critical expectation, or relative worry – but given its fully-formed vision, it’s hard not to wonder at the potential that lies in Genesis Owusu’s music. The message. The hooks. The colour of the palette. And tapping into something vital. Something that’s not just a reaction to the BLM-affected time we live in (in a recent podcast he was asked if that affected how he made the album and calmly explained that this has been a comment on his whole life) but the aggressions that pockmark a young black man’s life, character, mental health, outlook and future. This is, at it’s core, a deeply personal album, with focus and craft stupefying for someone in their early 20s. The justice will be if the album gets acclaim that it deserves when it can’t yet be toured or promoted in the usual way.

And to think I almost didn’t choose it.

April AOTM – ‘Ignorance’ by The Weather Station

Ignorance | The Weather Station

It’s my turn for Album of the Month and as usual, I’ve not found my selection an easy choice. I’ve selected Ignorance by The Weather Station, the 5th full length album from 36 year old, Canadian Tamara Linderman. I wasn’t aware of her music before the single ‘Robber’ was released late in 2020. Her early albums fit neatly into the ‘singer / songwriter’ folk genre but with each successive release her sound develops in complexity and the band becomes bigger along with the sound. A journey that delivers ‘Ignorance’, which is hard to define by genre but it seems that many still refer to her as a folk artist. This feels like an old label that doesn’t fit this album. But on the other hand, does it really matter?

My hesitation in choosing this album was 100% down to the hype. Last month we discussed Arlo Park’s ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ a new, young artist from the UK managing the burden of expectation of being called ‘the voice of a generation’. The hype around ‘Ignorance’ is of a different kind; to come so early in 2021 but to be touted as a contender for ‘album of the year’. It’s a simple, undeniable fact that this changes your listening experience … at least it does for me. I vividly remember my first experience of this album. I had heard Robber, loved it and then saw an early review massively praising the album. I got on it straight away, and loved it. It was a 9/10 for me. I told the crew this was to be my Album of the Month. Can you tell there is a ‘but’ coming? But then, despite its luxuriant scope, scale and shockingly beautiful soundscape, I failed to connect to it emotionally. Which is odd as it ticks SO many of my boxes. The lyrical context and content being one of them. But it still failed to truly dent me emotionally. I found it a little cold and I stopped listening to it as a result.

So why have I chosen it? I’ve chosen it as I’ve gone on such a roller coaster with this album that I thought it would be an interesting choice for discussion with my friends who I know will have an opinion. I have connected more with this album over time. I think it demands close attention, it does sound best in headphones (I know, I know everything does) but I’d argue this is a different album in headphones. It’s so ‘pleasant’ on a surface level that it can be a perfect background music for life but I think due to the fragility or Tamara’s vocals and lyrics, a different level of appreciation can be achieved through a focused, concentrated listen.

So, on to the music? This a 40 minute, 10 track album. Hallelujah! Thank you Tamara. It is SO dense (I mean this in the ‘good way’) that overstepping the 10 track mark might have been problematic. There are a couple of 5 minute tracks but generally we’re in the 3-4 minute track mark … so this must be pop music right? I think the answer to that is ‘yes’ you could go ‘art pop’ if you wanted people to snigger behind your back but I am going with ‘pop music’ and I’m ok with that. ‘Side A’ (by which i mean tracks 1-6) is upbeat and rhythmically driven giving way to a more melancholic ‘Side B’. Regardless of the tone of the tracks there are tons of melodic, rhythmic and lyrical hooks. Let’s get into a few of them.

‘Robber’ … wow. What a way to open an album. There’s an albums worth of motifs, trills, frills, strings, woodwind and spiky yet intriguing ideas in one track (and of course we all know I love a big organ). It’s a surprisingly anxious, urgent and threatening track to start an album with and I think you could argue that it could have closed the album? It constantly threatens to veer off into jazz noise but never quite carries through on the threat.

The album then opens up into 9 more tracks that, while they rarely play with the oddness and complexity of ‘Robber’, there’s a hell of a lot going on. How many influences can you hear in this album? Are they deliberate? Stevie Nicks, Kate Bush, Springsteen (Atlantic / Tried to Tell You) and a host of other 80’s radio rock smeared with synths (I can genuinely hear shades of Dire Straits!) but then also the strings and hints of 80’s ‘sophisti-pop’ chucked in for good measure. David will love the disco-tinged-drive of ‘Parking Lot’ and I think we’ll all appreciate the magical backing vocals on ‘Loss’.

There is loads to love about this album; pop hooks with scope, scale, ambition and complexity. An artist playing with a wide sound palette and clearing enjoying the process and the results. I am still yet to fully connect with it emotionally but I can feel that this building slowly over time.

Some questions that I think might be interesting to discuss;

What is hell is this (and as always, does that even matter)?

How do hyperbolic critical reviews impact your experience of an album?

What influences do you hear in it?

What do you think might be preventing my emotional connection (reading a wide range of reviews – I am not the only one)

March 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.