Posted in Album of the Month, Music chat, New Albums, New Tunes

AOTM: ‘Life on Earth’ by Hurray for the Riff Raff

This is actually the 2nd time that I’ve introduced the This is Not Happening family to Hurray for the Riff Raff. In 2017, I chose ‘Pa’lante’ as my track of the year, and wow what a track that is. Check it and the stunning video out here. Since its release, this track has become an Anthem for Puerto Ricans the world over. The album that it came from, ‘The Navigator’, received significant critical acclaim and attention and announced Alynda Mariposa Segarra to a much wider audience than they had previously.

But let’s pause a second to understand how Hurray for the Riff Raff got to this point. Whilst I don’t want to get caught into a detailed history of their life, the backstory is important to understand them and this album. Alynda grew up in the Bronx, estranged from her birth parents she grew up with her aunt and uncle in a 14th floor, claustrophobic flat. She has Puerto Rican heritage which we’ll come back to shortly as this is another touchpoint in understanding them as an artist. Alynda has spoken openly about her teenage realisation of how small she is (5ft 2) and how little space she took up in the world. She reflects on finding the punk scene, the music, the clothes, the hair and the make up and wearing them as a kind of armour to protect her from the realities of her life in New York. At age 17 Alynda ran away from home.

Alynda found like-minded ‘run-away-kids’ as she describes them, on the road whilst travelling the length and breadth of the country riding freight trains. This is a time that in some interviews she makes sound like an amazingly poetic bohemian existence and in others, a dangerous time where survival was the most important daily task. It was at this time that they started to play in bands, learn instruments and write music.

Alynda finally settled in New Orleans and started to record self released music in 2007. The genre of this music is best described using the catchall of ‘Americana’ – fusing traditional American folk with notes of protest, punk and more traditional blue grass instrumentation and style. Their first label-released album was in 2011 with 3 others following between then and 2014. Alynda speaks of a dissatisfaction with the lack of representation of her Nu Rican heritage in her music which perhaps explains the 3 year gap before the release of the Navigator. And we’re back to where we started. The Navigator is a proper rock album, a love letter to her New York experience and the Puerto Rican diaspora.

Despite the critical acclaim and attention, there has been a 5 year gap between the Navigator and the AOTM ‘Life on Earth’. That 5 years is demonstrated in a not-insignificant shift in the sound of this new album. This is also their first release on Nonesuch Records. It feels like the album sounds as it does, at least partly due to the relationship between Alynda and the producer Brad Cook (Bon Iver, War on Drugs, Sharon Van Etten and many more). This partnership works. Alynda has spoken in interviews about the encouragement that they received from Brad to explore and to release previously held beliefs about what they were as an artists. If you fancy reading a little more about Mr. Cook this Pitchfork interview is a good read ‘Is Brad Cook your favourite indie band’s secret weapon?’ The production is both low-fi / low-key but also feels very polished at the same time. Alynda’s voice sounds amazing on every track, as much to do with her incredible voice but still, it has been recorded beautifully.

In a podcast that I will link later in this write-up, the podcast host uses a lovely turn of phrase ‘I hear the energy of … in this album’. This is a phrase I will shamelessly steal (now and undoubtedly in the future too). I think it’s a lovely way of saying ‘I can hear the energy of these artists without the any single track, or the album as a whole, ever sounding exactly like them’. For me, I hear the energy of 70’s New York, Lou Reed, U.S. Girls, Patti Smith, Blondie, Stevie Nicks, Arcade Fire, Japanese Breakfast, Violent Femmes.

So what is this album? It’s a ‘tight as a drum’ 11 tracks, 40 mins of fiendishly catchy, guitar driven (but richly instrumented) 3-4 minute tracks. There is some seriously radio friendly vibes on this album but its SO not a sell out pop album. This is a pandemic album, I am not sure if it fits the ‘lockdown’ album tag, but i think it speaks strongly to the paranoia and claustrophobia of the last 2 years. The lyrical themes are world weary, often dark, rarely truly uplifting except for the album closing ‘Saga’ which while it is uplifting its about choosing to thrive rather than simply survive. To sing so beautifully about such dark themes in a pop song reminds me of U.S. Girls and Japanese Breakfast at their best. The thrive vs. survive motif really reminds of the sentiment of last years ‘Jubilee’ by Japanese Breakfast and I am very happy about this.

Alynda describes this album’s sound as ‘Nature Punk’. And I think I get that. It has a lot of natural, acoustic sounds. There are a few synths providing atmospheric drone to a number of tracks but otherwise this is an album of acoustic guitars, pianos, simple drum kits, all sorts of percussion and even woodwind and some lovely horns popping up here and there. The result, overall, is that this is a very percussive album. One of the reasons I described their backstory is because I can hear the rhythm of the freight train living in many of these tracks. That chug, chug sound of the tracks can be found on some tracks in an acoustic guitar and in others the percussive use of the piano. The street performing run-away-kid-band background can be heard in the really simple kick drum and snare drumming … I don’t think there is a single cymbal on the whole album?

In terms of standout tracks … well there’s not a weak track on the album. No, they’re not all radio friendly indie bangers. There are beat-less, self reflective tracks that break up the ‘poppier’ tracks. But ‘Pierced Arrows’ is the obvious stand out single …

… but ‘Pointed at the Sun’, ‘Rhododendron’ and ‘Saga’ are not far behind in terms of radio-friendly memorability. ‘Rhododendron’ is my favourite track but I also love ‘Precious Cargo’ which explores the migrant / refugee experience and what awaits them when they arrive in the US.

I think this album is so accessible. It’s so easy to listen to and easy to consume multiple times in one sitting. There are of course layers, really engaging with the lyrics helps to open a new layer to the album. However, as always, learning more about the artist helps you to really get into the layers that lie below. With this mind, and because I am more of a listener than a reader, I am linking a few podcasts below that if you’re that way inclined, will help you to get even more out of this album.

I hope you enjoy the album as much as I am enjoying it. If this isn’t in my 2022 top 10 then it will have been a great year of music. But I suspect this will be right up there, it feels like it’s been hand crafted just for me.

Some things to listen to;

The following is a straight up, great chat between 2 guys about this album, it’s an interesting take on the record – Blind Tiger Record Club Podcast

This is an interesting interview with Alynda recorded in March this year, following the launch of the album – Launch Left Podcast

This one is a great listen, recorded back in May 2020, this is an interview on Radio Menea, a podcast about music from Latinx artists. The conversation covers a lot of background from Alynda’s life that sets the scene for the conversation on the Navigator but there are nods to the music that we hear now on Life on Earth – Radio Menea Podcast

Now this one is a little different. This is an interview with Alynda from a podcast called Living in This Queer Body that is described as ‘a podcast about barriers to embodiment and how our collective body stories can be bring us back to ourselves’. It’s not a straight up and down chat about music, it’s a spiritual discussion about the human condition … I found this one to be the most revealing in understanding Alynda as a human and an artist – Living in This Queer Body Podcast

Posted in Album of the Month

AOTM – March – Metronomy – Small World

It’s about time, really. 21 episodes in and I’d been waiting for a new Metronomy album to arrive so we could finally cover it on the podcast. Disclosure: there’s no point in pretending otherwise, but I’ve been an unashamed fan since the blog started in the dim and distant 2010s, and in my mind, they’re a band that should fit right into the middle of our sprawling Venn diagram, so I was surprised to find out that Joey and Nolan weren’t nearly as familiar with them as I thought. Challenge accepted: at least as with many things, I have Pop Being David for company here. But I still wavered, with February’s avalanche of great new music from the likes of pod favourite Mitski, psych rock Animal Collective, Trentemoller as as well as heralded new year picks from Bonobo and Yard Act. In the end though, I couldn’t pass this up. I’d have kicked myself. And when I second guess myself I end up in the Talvin Zone ™.

My love affair with Joe Mount’s musical outfit began as it did for many, back in 2011 with their third album: The English Riviera. Its the record that really ‘broke’ the band, with its wry take on life and love in the English south coast and Mount’s home town of Totnes in Devon. Along with headline-grabbing singles The Bay and The Look came tales of small-town ennui, love, loss and introspection, all played out on a canvas of synths, crisp percussion, guitar licks and funk bass, and I was smitten. Yes, they were clearly a pop outfit, but they crept into the far more interesting territory of ‘alternative’ British pop music that had something to say, and an intriguing way to say it. For all the chart-ready vibrancy of the singles, there also sat musical beauty and character from the likes of Some Written’s soft tones, sultry funk of We Broke Free and the kaleidoscopic closer Love Underlined. It marked out a step up for the four-piece, whose line-up had been reworked and for whom Mount, as the driving force was proving his rare talents as – in my eyes at least – one of the country’s best singer-songwriter-producers.

I have very specific memories of the album too. I came to love it in the slightly surreal surroundings of Monaco. Having ligged onto a trip to the Grand Prix weekend with friends David and Will that worked in the feeder GP2 series, I was listening to its unfurling eleven tracks on the actual Riviera. I feel that Joe Mount would’ve enjoyed that irony (hi Joe, if you’re reading). So I’m always treated to both a really vivid recollection of the surroundings I was in, and a hark back to the start of my love affair with the band. I’ve not been back to Monaco since, but then I don’t need to. I just fire up the strings in that opening and I’m there. That led me to their underrated predecessor, Nights Out, which had its own idiosyncratic attraction, less so to the bedroom debut guitar/synth mish-mash Pip Paine (Pay The £5000 You Owe), but from which a lineage through to their later albums could still be traced. I gorged on the lot. I had found a band that I could love in the same universe at Hot Chip and LCD, one that took a more mainstream template and bent it to their own shape.

Before 2022, David actually chose their last album – the excellent Metronomy Forever – as one of our monthly picks in the ‘before times’ of 2019, but it’s a surprise searching back through the archives that it appears the only time we’ve done it, (though I’m convinced we did pick the English Riviera back in the proto-blog days of Posterous, at least as something we all listened to). It’s been a joy waiting for each album to come out, from the 60s-pop window of Love Letters, through the out and out punch of Summer 08‘s window to the pre-English Riviera years, through to the precursor to Small World, the more sprawling and interesting Metronomy Forever. Every one of them has brought new songs to love, new skills to marvel at, and an ever-growing adoration for Mount’s skills. All the while he’s been behind Metronomy’s success, he’s a modest but brilliant producer whose work’s been part of output by everyone from Robyn to thecocknbullkid and remixing everyone from Gorillaz, Goldfrapp and Lady Gaga, while being a big element in the supergroup of production talent on early pod favourite Jessie Ware’s ‘What’s Your Pleasure’?

Enter: Small World. Timing is everything, and many great albums from artists we love have missed the window for an AOTM: Caribou, Roisin Murphy, in recent times stood out here. So I have gambled somewhat on giving ourselves a compressed sixteen days from release to record, with this post coming only ten days in. We’ve had some albums for ten times that before now. But we’ve already had a taster in the shape of two excellent singles – Things Will Be Fine and It’s Good To Be Back (check the videos that top and tail this post) – to grace the start of 2022. An album of 9 songs over thirty-five minutes should be easy to gorge on. I just hope that it won’t be too short a time to hit that magic mark where you really fall for a record. After all, I showed with The Weather Station that it’s easy to be unsure when we record and to have changed your mind by the time we put the episode’s out. A very first world problem.

But I needn’t have worried, because Small World is an absolute joy, stripping back the layers while extolling the simple pleasures in life after the great reset we all felt. But it is also a marked departure. Musically, it’s still clearly tres Metronomy but there are some significant, if intriguing changes to the normal synth-pop template. The main one of these is the synths: they’re not absent, but very much on the fringes, something that feels unheard of for the band, and that may risk rubbing lots of fans right up the wrong way.

In fact, on the record sleeve – and I gloried in the vinyl here, something I’ve started most days working from home with in the background – Mount stated that the idea was to have none on the record, only piano and hammond organ. And a brilliant quote on their Instagram that’s both serious and self-deprecating that sums up the band in many ways: “I thought I’d like to do something musical, that isn’t very electronic…. someone taking themselves a bit seriously and thinking they should do a Nashville record. It’s almost a midlife crisis”. It’s funny because it just is, but also because Joe Mount is entering mid life. And while it doesn’t quite work out as synth-free, piano and acoustic guitars are very much a running motif of the album, from the cascading melody in the slow-burn opener Life and Death.

The tone is set from the off as one of change: middle age, family, introspection, anxiety, growing old. All things we’ve seen many times from artists that have gone from loose-limbed twenty-somethings to 40-somethings, looking back on their youth and forward into the future, but for Mount, whose musical character has been so steeped in pop and its youthful slant, this is something that comes with risk. And it’s album that’s much more personal, as he admitted in a recent excellent interview with DIY mag. “I’ve always thought that pop music is for teenagers, and I’ve always thought that I make pop music. So if what I do doesn’t interest those people, then I’m not doing very well.

In Life and Death, there’s a bleakness to the lyrics that runs through the album at times, as Mount, far more than before, shifts from love, loss, parties and an ironic twist on English life to move himself towards the centre of the action: “It was fun what I did /
Got a job, had some kids / See you in the abyss”
, both perhaps a personal state of mind but also a reference to the two years the album took shape in, one where we all got more accustomed to both life and death itself. Not perhaps the sound of a content man, but it’s never quite clear with Metronomy how much is for lyrical effect and how much is real, because his relocation to the country and his first purpose-built studio has found him far more balanced with the life of a parent pop star than he’s sounded in years.

Trying to ascertain the feel for a new album is tricky. It takes time and investment, and there’s a (pleasing) bump in the road with Small World where, after the opener, the two singles then come in succession. Taken in isolation – they are almost the two tracks most out of step with the album’s palette. But when they sit in the first side of the 9 tracks, they actually take on a different hue. Things Will Be Fine’s nod to teenage angst (caused by the film that shocked many in this country, Raymond Briggs’ harrowing When The Wind Blows) can’t stay in the darkness too long: “I might save the day, i might change the world… Things will be fine. It also referred to a mantra Mount was telling his children through the last two years, blending real life into the band’s more oblique metaphors of the past, and accompanied by a brilliant video that harks back to each of the band at 15). And its breezy guitar strums very much out of the 60s pop mould push things along, in a way that wouldn’t feel out of place on Love Letters. It’s Good To Be Back’s infectious lightness also is hard to avoid (along with the brilliant, strange video, a medium the band have always enjoyed to great effect since The Look). It’s the song that stuck in my head through January, but it’s after this opening salvo where things get interesting. It’s not diminishing those tracks, but ultimately, the lead singles will always feel a little incongruous when you’ve gorged on them before the album arrives.

It may be reductive to paint Small World’s change in tone as reducing the band’s strengths (and some have crudely done that) but I’ve found the album to be a continually rewarding and engaging experience, and it’s down to the subtle shifts in direction and style throughout that provide this again and again. There’s an argument that I definitely acknowledge, that when you strip away the synths and the bounce of so many of their previous tracks, that there’s potential exposure of some lyrical lack of adventure that Metronomy have been painted with the past. I see that. But it’s also doing a disservice to the beauty of the melodies and the near-perfection arrangements in this record too. Plenty of great pop music doesn’t need to be profound or lyrically mesmerising. Simply saying ‘this isn’t like Salted Caramel Ice Cream‘ is just stating a fact. To me, either you love Metronomy in all their forms or perhaps you rethink what your musical directions are. I mean, this is hardly Kid A here. Many of these songs could slot into an existing album without much effort, it’s just the whole narrative that feels different. But as much as many of their albums to date, this feels fully formed and whole.

Continuing the A-side (sorry, mp3 crew), Loneliness on the Run’s 90s-esque intro of plucked bass makes me think of Weezer and the yesteryear US-garage indie scene, but soars into a different space from its harmonies, adding a sprinkle of light in a starry melody in the break. Even as it moves along, there are unmistakably familiar splashes in each song. And vocal harmonies are a BIG, beautiful part of the record, elevating what feel like more formulaic tracks to something much more beautiful. If pianos are one motif, then acoustic guitars and harmonies are very much the other two in the triumvirate of what Small World does differently.

In the middle of it all, sits my album favourite: Love Factory. There’s a real 70s/80s AOR vibe on it, with its vocal interplay – not hard to see the lineage from Mount’s love of the likes of Steely Dan to this moment – and its treatment of love as something perhaps less romantic and spontaneous but ‘churned out’. There’s irony here – as the protagonist tries to show his usefulness in the face of the ‘factory’ production line – but the melody carries the song along on a cloud. Lyrically, it’s perhaps the simplest and most straightforward of the album but Mount’s talked about the song being ‘relentless’ here, with its looped melody and listing verses. But the fuzz guitar and circular piano phrases have had me woken up in the night singing its notes. That is hard to reject.

Lost My Mind is an interesting curveball, even as it shares some familiarity. The literal and metaphorical losing of one’s mind in the pandemic: ‘how friends of ours in quite different situations were just in apartments, on their own, feeling very isolated and out of touch‘ was another quite personal statement from Mount. But the music really evoked something specific in me. I felt a real Bowie energy here, with a sprinkling of Eno in the strange choral/vox synth chords, before the piano wig-out that closed the song. It really is hard to shake that feel, so I am fascinated if any of the group’s Bowie antennae felt similarly tweaked. At the other end of the pendulum, Right On Time (complete with a suitably daft skydiving video) urges us to try and ‘enjoy the sunshine’, even as we all sat in Covid-gloom. That even while things were scary and sad, there are simple pleasures we can take in.

The album closes with two more intriguing tracks. The first is a rare guest on the album outside the Metronomy universe: Hold Me Tonight sees Porridge Radio’s Dana Margolin join into what is arguably the most straightforward love song on the record. A tale of desperation and hope, unrequited love as Mount’s verses. It’s a relatively breezy 90s-esque indie pop jangler until Margolin’s striking vocals enter at the halfway mark: ‘so you found the courage / do you regret it yet / it’s not what you wanted / but I guess it’s off your chest’. I think it’s a fascinating dynamic where the male vocal is higher than the female, and less powerful, playing with the balance on literal and metaphorical levels. And a song that was a totally different slant, almost binned and then resurrected when Mount sent it to Dana for her input, turning it into a desolate and unexpected response. It’s a masterstroke of serendipity. I’ve listened to it so many times – and as someone that’s not really come across much of Porridge Radio – and I can’t quite place who the vocal makes me recall. I’d want to say Robert Smith but that doesn’t feel quite right. But it’s a definitely welcoming development and one of the standout tracks.

Closer I Have Seen Enough I first thought was a bleak tale of a failed marriage – we can watch the flowerbeds rising / Each year our children grow / I will sit with you in silence /
As we watch our favourite show
” – but it’s much less specific than that, of course echoing the pandemic, but also again urging us to enjoy the small, simple things in life. For a song that’s quite slow and maudlin, it’s quite the sleight of hand, actually having such a positive message. It’s also odd that it was originally planned to be sung in French. Mais non.

In living with this album almost endlessly for the last ten days, I’m naturally concerned that I’m going to be prejudiced not only by my own gasping adoration for the band, but also a need to step back and try and gain some perspective away from the churn of dozens (twenty now? more?) of listens that have made me love it more. But I could easily burn it out, and by the time we record (in a week) be sick of it. Or at least see it lose its lustre and perhaps edge closer to some of the ‘yeah, it’s lovely but….’ critical responses. But right now, it’s an album I can’t put down. And having waited three years since its predecessor, and seen such a departure, it feels much more like one whose ‘woah’ softens with each listen, and by now, just feels as Metronomy as ever. It also makes me wonder where their next album will go, and feel already excited about that.

I wonder what the others will make of it. I suspect I may be flying a lone flag here. I know brother @davidhallison is a big fan of the band, and should really like this, but I’m not so sure. And as the record approaches, it always gets more shaky when it’s a band you adore. Is it – as it has from others first reactions – ‘not Metronomy enough’? And for @misterstory and @nolankane706, perhaps too much of a departure from all those Metronomy bangers of the past? But I really do think this is an album – and that’s what we’re here for aren’t we? – that works as well as any of their previous ones as an entity. It is quintessentially English, has a theme, is perfectly short, and taut, arranged beautifully, and makes me want to go for another listen again and again (even if I have to turn the record over, at least I’m getting out of my chair). I may not convince everyone of this. But perhaps I don’t have to. I’m happy with it. Things will be fine.

Posted in Album of the Month, Music chat, New Albums, podcast

Skin by Joy Crookes

If you’ve been reading the blog or listening to the pod then you’ll know that I love a debut. I’ve always been fascinated by the raw honesty of a debut and the breadth of ideas that they often bring. They’re often the culmination of everything that has happened to an artist up until that point. I think it was a Galagher who said something like ‘it takes you whole life to write your debut album … then the record company want another one 12 months later’. For Joy Crookes that ‘whole life’ was 22 years when she wrote and recorded this special debut album. However, ‘Skin’ is far from her first rodeo with 3 EPs and 13 singles recorded and released since 2016.

Joy Crookes was born in Lambeth and raised in Elephant and Castle, and moved to Ladbrooke Grove in South London when she was 14. During these teen years she taught herself the guitar and piano and started writing music, ‘I didn’t know then that this could be a proper job’. Joy went the You Tube route to self publish covers and then her own original music in what is now quite a common rites of musical passage.

In Oct. 2021 she released ‘Skin’. It’s 13 tracks, 42 minutes and is (all puns fully intended) … an absolute joy to listen to. Sorry. Whilst the album would mostly likely be described as nu-soul or something similar, the styles on show are vast, pop, soul, jazz, trip-hop shades of punk and even a track that feels like it could be a Bond soundtrack contender (To Lose Someone). The album feels really personal in a way that many records don’t, even when an artist in sharing their innermost turmoil. This feels like proper soul music, channeling her young (but old) soul. 

In some ways it feels very much like a debut album; there’s loads of ideas thrown into the mix, she’s obviously exploring a rich soundscape that she didn’t have access to on previous recordings and there’s a brash confidence in the way that she struts and spins through the album. However, Skin totally lacks the naivety that many debuts (including ones that I love) suffer from. As we found with Arlo Parks this time last year, the signposts for her future output are numerous. She really could go anywhere on the next album … if of course Sony let her.

So, hold on tight … cause … we need to talk about Amy. My skin is crawling from even raising the topic of Amy Winehouse as it’s the worst lazy criticism possible. But, I am sorry, there are valid comparisons. But when I make these comparisons, I mean them as the biggest compliment to both artists. I loved Frank. It’s right up there on my list of faulted but adored debut albums. I properly fell in love with Amy Winehouse when I heard Frank. I felt like I knew her. ‘Skin’ has exactly the same kind of raw personality as Frank. They are both at times heart breaking and at the next moment amusing and jubilant. The broad, lush, widescreen soundscape that is employed on Skin is at times reminiscent of Back to Black. Both artists sound nostalgic and futuristic at the same time. When I say this album reminds me of Amy Winehouse I mean it reminds me of all of the things that I love about Amy Winehouse.

Lyrically, this album is a monster. Joy Crookes is a STRONG songwriter. This album really demonstrates her talent across what are quite different tracks in terms of style and subject matter. Relationships, gender politics, family shit, politics, and London are all in the mix. She writes about all of them in a personal manner that never looks the other way, is heartfelt and often well humoured. There are 1 or 2 tracks where the standard slips a little (Wild Jasmine being the track that comes to mind) but the album is strong enough as a body of work to keep momentum.

If this album was released earlier … even a month or two  … I think it would have featured pretty high in my 2021top 10. It’s so easy to recommend to people. Thank you Joy, I’m genuinely excited to see what you do next.

Posted in Album of the Month, New Albums, New Tunes

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.

Posted in Album of the Month

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.

Posted in Album of the Month, New Albums, New Tunes

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.

Posted in Music chat

Not quite albums of the month…. the ones that got away.

It may seem like there’s always a nailed-on candidate for our albums of the month. But there’s all sorts of reasons that an album may not be chosen as AOTM. Way before we did the podcast, we were still having the same discussions and dilemmas. So why would it get derailed? Sometimes it’s as simple as the fact that we’ve already got it and have rinsed it before it could be chosen – Caribou’s Suddenly and Roisin Murphy’s Roisin Machine are both good examples of this last year – or sometimes there’s a veto from in the camp. Or it simply falls at the wrong time: your album’s released in March, you have June, and by the time your choice comes around, its old news.

I think we can all agree that should time be taken again for Roisin, we’d have chosen her over Sufjan 99 times out of 100. Hindsight is an easy out. But we loved it so much it sometimes feels like taking the less worn path (though Sufjan is hardly unlikely) is a better choice than choosing something everyone will love. Other times while one – or more – of us loves it, it’s pretty clear that it would be likely hated by the other. I know what I’ll be playing still in a year.

With Ep11 and April’s AOTM in question, this is a great example of that dilemma. @misterstory put me onto Menneskekollektivet by Lost Girls, a strange, ethereal collection of 5 tracks from Norwegians Jenny Hval and Havard Volden, that he brought to my attention as one of the 4 ‘new tracks’ up with Episode 10. 11 minutes of hypnotic music that’s part spoken word, part dancefloor chug, then in between meanders into the areas in between. I was half-captivated, half confused by it, but it definitely stuck in my head. And it pointed me to the album, which was just as off the wall, but just as beautiful. While it was in the mix for April, we also knew that it really wouldn’t be a ‘David’ album, and we weren’t sure it was a Nolan one either, and so it went to the cutting room floor. Which is odd as the album we chose – Genesis Owusu‘s Smiling With No Teeth – was just as ‘out there’ in many I(but different) ways. But it just seemed to be an album which would be a choice that would land with the four of us better. Having said that, we chose Macca, and look how that turned out for Ep7!

Going a bit deeper into the album than even Joey has so far, Love Lovers is probably the standout of the 5 tracks (total: 44 minutes for, yes, only five tracks). A tribal beat that morphs into techno, as Hval’s spoken words then wailing notes and Volden’s chords drive the melody, until it breaks out into an epic peak. Carried By Invisible Bodies also weaves around, its chords de- and re-tuned throughout, a sort of woozy, disorienting melody that I’m still not sure if I’d ever have the cojones to play out anywhere. It definitely skirts the fine line between musical genius and pretentiousness, and no doubt knows that. But the artist background of Hval (and this being considered an accessible counterpoint to her solo work!) makes this less of a surprise when you delve deeper.


We could probably do a whole series of albums that never quite made it to a chosen each month – we don’t by any means have just those 12 albums in our lives each year – but this one definitely stood out. For every choice there’s always one that ends up on the floor. If I had time again, I’d have chosen Everything Everything’s Reanimator because – no diss to Yves Tumor, my EP3 choice – I’m still playing it, all the time. In fact it’s turned into one of my favourite albums of the last 6 months. In music as in life, you live and learn.

Posted in Music chat, New Albums, New Tunes

Some albums I’ve been loving …

Rhye – 'Home' review: The disco dancefloor calls, but will Rhye pick up? |  The Forty-Five
Michael Milosh, aka Rhye.

A short but functional post today. We only get to review one Album of the Month but of course listen to so much more. I thought I’d share a few of the new albums that have been a big part of my life in the last month or two;

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to guess what albums are going to feature in the end of year round ups, even as early as January. ‘Home’ by Rhye probably won’t be troubling too many of these lists. It’s too nice. It’s too gentle. It’s nowhere near cool enough. But I love it and everyone that I have recommended it to has loved it too, regardless of their usual musical tastes. Listen without prejudice and enjoy.

Next is ‘Deacon’ by serpentwithfeet which is an ambient R&B celebration of big gay love and sex. I am not sure there’s much more to be said. It’s a beautiful, perfectly crafted selection of 11 tracks. Each has something to say on their own but also as part of the wider story. Pull the lyrics up when you listen, revel in the frankness of the stories told.

Finally, is ‘Menneskekollektivet’ by Lost Girls a collaboration between 2 Norwegian artists; Jenny Hval and Havard Volden. Here you’ll find 5 tracks, 46 minutes worth of surprisingly accessible, experimental electronica textured with spoken word, vocal melody and harmony, guitars and at time chuggy beats. Sometimes odd, always fascinating. I know Guy is enjoying this one and he may also post on this album too. I think this album is very much worth investing some time into.

Posted in Music chat, New Tunes, Playlists, podcast, Tracks of the Month

Podcast: Secret Santa Track Selection for Guy

Listeners to the This Is Not Happening Podcast will be familiar with our standard format. The 1st half of each Pod is dedicated to an ‘Album of the Month’ (AOTM), the 2nd half of each Pod is dedicated to ‘Tracks of the Month’ (TOTM). Each pod we have a different theme for TOTM. We’ve had ‘new tracks’ and ‘favourite disco track’ but in Episode 10 (coming soon) we chose a new approach. We would draw straws, Secret Santa style, to find a new track for a specific member of the This Is Not Happening crew.

The track that we were selecting could be literally anything. An old classic. A hidden gem. Something brand-spanking-new that they’d never heard. Just in case we selected something that they already new we agreed to create a 4 track playlist so that we had a few back-ups. I was drawn to play Secret Santa to Guy. At first I thought this was a good thing and that my job would be relatively easy. And then i didn’t sleep for 2 weeks worrying about this selection.

Ahead of the podcast being released into the wild. I thought I’d share the long list from which I carved out my 4 track long list and my track selection.

You’ll find a pretty broad range of track selections here. Some of them I could have selected for Nolan, a couple I could have selected for David but I had good reason to believe that many, if not all, fitted into the overlap in the Venn Diagram of Guy and Joseph. The 2x 12 minute tracks were strictly for Guy!

I hope you enjoy my musical gift to Guy. I am sure he won’t mind you borrowing it.