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.

FEBRUARY – Bicep – Isles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bicep – Atlas

As Nolan’s mentioned, we’ve had some new Bicep in our lives for a while and that’s a prelude to a new album in January. Three tracks – Apricot, Saku and Atlas – this is the latter and (just) my favourite of the three, but really they’re all superb cuts that gets me excited about the new album. Of course, they just make me want to get onto a dark dancefloor, so it’s tinged with sadness too, but I think that’s just life right now. Those first few parties are going to be incredible, so that’s the light at the end of my tunnel.

MAY – Tracey Thorn – Record

Sometimes an album of the month is a leap in the dark (some work, some don’t, like N.E.R.D., yikes) and sometimes you have one that you desperately want to do but the timing is wrong, and when it comes to your shot, someone’s bloody bought it. NOT THIS TIME. So I’m rather chuffed to be able to still present Tracey Thorn’s new solo album: Record.

There’s a lot to say here, and a lot of history for me, so I’ll try and be brief, but probably fail. While never being a properly committed EBTG fan (more fool me), Tracey Thorn’s solo work has found a way into my heart ever since her first recent album, Into The Woods, back in 2007 (technically her second, but A Distant Shore was released in 1982!). She’d obviously found me via work where her vocals (Massive Attack) or her songwriting (Missing) made it onto the dancefloor, but seeing a solo album was still a bit of surprise, especially away from her work with husband Ben Watt.

But it wasn’t just good: Out Of The Woods was outstanding. Pop hooks and electronic tinges that became less of a surprise when you realise that it was produced by Ewan Pearson, but this wasn’t another set of dance tracks with Thorn’s ethereal vocals ghosting over them, but a series of wonderful, sparky songs that drew on Thorn’s own life, loves and experiences, and that leapt out from the page. A career renaissance, of sorts perhaps, or a new chapter that I loved from the start. To state this by example, Grand Canyon is still one of my favourite electronic pop records of the last two decades. And there were some amazing remixes too, of course.

Come 2010 and its follow-up Love And Its Opposite, was, while less of the surprise of its forebear, is still a earnestly beautiful album. Less sparky, more mournful, tracking love and loss in middle age with elan and panache. Sorrow never too deep, joy never false, confirming Thorn as a brilliant songwriter and musician all over again. Of course, Pearson made sure it sounded as fantastic as Out Of The Woods. There was even a quirky but utterly lovely Christmas album – Tinsel and Lights – in 2012 that captured the reality (good and bad, laid bare) of what the festive period means in this modern age, and is the only recent Christmas effort that I ever play. Joy still makes me shed a tear on a regular basis.

Fast forward to 2018, and a lot, it’s fair to say, has changed since 1982, even 2007. Because while Thorn’s still writing music, there’s much more to her than simply a musical renaissance woman and borderline national treasure. A column for the New Statesman, feminist activist, author and campaigner: even following her introspective Twitter feed doesn’t really cover everything, but it’s through this wider persona that I developed a bona fide intellectual crush on her. Her brilliant memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen, dovetailed wonderfully with Watt’s own poignant books on his own near-death and illustrious parents, and marked her out as much more than just a pop memoirist, but a woman with something to say. And in the era of #MeToo, it’s arguable to say that Record has arrived at an almost perfect confluence of so many parts of the last few decades of her life. The fact that I’m a 43-year old that grew up not log after Thorn’s generation makes all of the subjects and reference points seem all the more close to home, but really, it’s a statement, almost a manifesto for living in the modern world.

Put simply, I think it’s one of the best pop records of the last decade. And it’s much more than simply an album. Thorn’s openly confronted the misogyny of being lazily labelled a ‘quirky’ (and that is the the lightest in a grim litany of terminology she faces on a weekly basis) woman, and given many great interviews that explains the context of making it.  Described as ‘feminist bangers’, it’s the best way to summarise the album’s spirit. From Queen’s opening, bleepy, breezy laments, through first single Sister‘s feminist call (“And I fight like a girl”) to arms, it’s an utterly modern palette of beautiful pop music, seen through the eyes of a woman who’s seen many of life’s highs and lows (the steely and world-weary “What year is it? The same old shit”) but come out determinedly swinging. I’m only a new parent now, but listening to Go is a punch in the heart delivered in a velvet glove. And while the songs – sprinkled with Pearson’s disco stardust again – are musically polished and melodically gorgeous, its the lyrics that are arguably the strong point here. Its also is no surprise there’s been gigantic remixes already that are a must for house fans, but they’re an added bonus to the whole experience.

Let none of that take away from the fact that there’s few albums around this decade that have combined great songwriting, fantastic tunesmithery and political and social relevance like this one. I can only hope you can get what I have out of it.