If you’ve never heard the early U2 albums, you may well be mightily impressed by this Hertfordshire outfit who deliver classic big sounding guitar-driven rock with its sights set on arena size venues. The trio, on the other hand, are clearly very familiar with the formative work of Bono and co and have slavishly looked to reproduce it here. Frankly even The Edge might be persuaded he’s actually recorded some of Jon Crosby’s fluttering, soaring, chiming guitar parts himself. Indeed, there are times here that sound as if he’s about to launch into New Year’s Day while his dramatic, passionate vocals are no less closely modelled on Bono’s, right down the way he slips into a rising falsetto.
With Echo & The Bunnymen and Joy Division colours also in evidence, the latter notably so on Ava, there’s no denying they make a blood stirring, emotive sound and they undeniably have an ear for the sort of melody and hooks that have crowds punching the sky. However, with the exception of Defection, the only number here with a chorus you can imagine crowds taking up, what they don’t have are the songs to match the size of the music. There’s nothing wrong with things like Atonement, Resolute and Fallen, but when you so patently set yourself up to draw comparisons with War or The Unforgettable Fire, unless you have songs that can stand alongside Pride or Sunday Bloody Sunday then it’s all just sound and fury. Mike Davies
THE LEN PRICE 3
Nobody Knows (JLM)
The third album from the Medway trio offers absolutely no departures from their previous offerings, so fans can be assured they’ll get the same servings of r&b fuelled 60s garage pop steeped in memories of The Who, The Creation, Small Faces, Beatles and the Kinks, although this time they’ve kept their eye on this side of the Atlantic so there’s no Byrds-style Rickenbackers.
Again clocking in at 13 tracks, they’ve stretched out a little in that this time four numbers go past the three minute mark, chugging closing track The London Institute with its psychedelic freak out mid-section even pushing it to four, but such epics don’t mean they’ve gone in for any muso self-indulgence, the tracks all still lean and melodic with catchy riffs, hooks and choruses.
Opening with Nobody Knows, a vintage slice of raw riff driven Kinksian rock inspired by the suicide of one of his childhood neighbours, Glenn Page’s songs lean heavily on autobiography and personal experience, the most immediate being My Grandad Jim, a song about his grandfather veteran of the D-Day landings that shares its musical DNA with such early Who songs a s I’m A Boy, but also evident in Wigmore Swingers’ account of council estate wife-swapping. The Ray Davies-shaded Lonely’s tale of a bitter former work colleague who took it out on everyone else and Vultures’ observation on family funerals and grasping relatives.
Elsewhere the lazing strumalong Medway Sun is basically his Waterloo Sunset, the organ driven garage r&b Swing Like a Monkey’s taken from the soundtrack of drug deal gone wrong film Pubmonkey and the rowdy, riffing Billy Mason is actually about a real bloke called William Mason, under whom Page’s other grandfather served an apprenticeship, who worked at an aircraft factory in Rochester making Stirling bombers and whose design for a plane with folding wings was , allegedly, ripped off by the air ministry. Not that that’s anything to do with the lyrics which refer to Mason’s interest in spiritualism and an incident in which he was told his missing in action son was still alive.
All of which is interesting, but would mean bugger all if the music didn’t get under your skin and make you want to hunt down the nearest candy striped jacket, drainpipe trousers and pair of brother creepers. Which it most certainly does.
Wired (Third Bar)
A Belfast quarter rather than a person, they trade in urgent indie-electro that rarely gives the listener time to catch breath as a tsunami of drum loops and synths engulfs the ears. You’ll hear traces of Ultravox and Numan alongside more current names like Passion Pit and Does It Offend You, Yeah?, marrying an 80s sound with a modern perspective on numbers such as opening stormer 147, Thanks A Million (a dab of Duran here too), the pulsating Medicine, the bubbling hip hop slanted These Words and the comparatively stadium anthem ballad styled I Will Destroy You.
Packed with strong melodies and crowd friendly hooks and choruses, they’re clearly not afraid of excursions deep into pop territory while Talk With Your Hands has strong rock foundations too. They may need to vary the tempo and tone a little next time round, but this makes for the sort of debut it’s hard to ignore.
Animal Heart (Lojinx)
Although they’ve been playing occasional live dates, it’s now nine years since Scandianavian posters The Cardigans last released an album, four since singer Persson’s last offering from her other band, A Camp. Both remain on recording hiatus as she steps out solo although, not too unsurprisingly, her debut isn’t exactly too far removed from either of them while Dreaming Of Houses and Clip Your Wings go some way to showing that the ABBA influence is still alive and well in Sweden’s musical DNA.
Well crafted electro tinted pop music given an extra sheen with her distinctive, slightly purring breathy vocals it hangs itself around themes of moving forward as well as the usual relationship headaches, varying between the uptempo 80s dance rhythms of Animal Heart, the smooth r&b of Food For The Beast and the skittering beats of Catch Me Crying and moodier ballads like the keyboards backed, gradually soaring Burning Bridges For Fuel which wouldn’t have been out of place on a Carpenters album and the shimmering slow waltzing Silver. Piano accompanied closing track, This Is Heavy Metal even sounds like she’s been working on her show tunes portfolio. It’s a welcome return, whether audience memories are long enough to embrace it remains to be seen.
Brave Mountains (Armellodie)
The blurb describes the French trio’s album as a cocktail of British and American alt-rock, which may be so but there’s a poppier feel to it top, especially on things like the bouncy Burning Land and the catchy Twenty Five where they follow the same accessible radio friendly route bands like Pavement and Sebadoh (both confessed influences) pursued to broaden their audience. Fuzzy guitars, blurry, nasal vocals, back to basics production and arrangements coalesce to produce 10 tracks of, as the PR says, scruffy pop, as engagingly appealing on the raspy bass anchored Nebraska as the lighter, sun-kissed Madonna In Love. On scurrying opening cut Headstrong, Pierre Cristofari aptly sings “it’s the same old story, told a hundred times”. But they tell it well.
To Live Alone In That Long Summer (Monotreme)
Stylistically likened to Mazzy Star, Mojave 3 and American Music Club, the Canadian singer-songwriter trades in soft, fuzzily warm melancholy filtered through a slow-core country haze as he reflects on themes of loneliness, isolation, escape and making connections in a world that moves too fast. Lightly kissed with understated string arrangements, pedal steel and the occasional caress of a vibraphone or harmonica, it waltzes through the heart's yearnings on dreamy melodies and a wistful, regret-stained whisper.
Although You Were Made For All Of This with its twangy guitar break takes the tempo up slightly, it’s generally taken at languid pace throughout, a balmy glow embodying the search for intimacy of the lyrics in things like Lazy Summer, Without Your Light and In The Dark You Can Love This Place. Made to be played with the lights down, reflecting on loves lost or yet to come, the fact he’s such an unknown means it’s unlikely to find a large audience, but those that it touches will be well blessed.
THE BURNING HELL
Something of a cult in Canada, ukulele-playing Mathias Kom’s rated as one of its most underrated songwriters and several of the tracks here certainly bear that out, even if his speak-sing delivery on the opening Grown-Ups wears his Lou Reed influence on its sleeve. He’s a bit of a stylistic acrobat, the second cut, Holidaymakers, being a jaunty summery bounce with a clarinet and an air of Jonathan Richman (and influence that permeates) while the witty Amateur Rappers throbs along on a punky garage rock beat, Realists marries a reggae lurch with a jazzy, sax-soaked New Orleans slow march and Wallflowers dips into gypsy mazurka, mariachi country and cabaret while name-checking Lionel Richie’s Hello and Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. Each song is named after and about a certain type of person, from the slow, jazz bar blues of Travel Writers to the Viking father and son of the seven minute Roadrunnerish rocking Barbarians. And album of character indeed.
THE DAVID LIBERTY BAND
Chains and Bones (Self Released)
The squelchy wah wah guitar of opening track Settling almost had me giving this an instant thumbs down, but there was something about the voice, a folk-stained three octave beast that’s been variously likened to Jackie Leven and Neil Hannon, that prompted perseverance.
Based in Canada, Liberty has a powerful presence with the ability to invest his delivery with plenty of drama and emotion, The Apple and Protest Song both sounding like highlights from some stage musical with the vocal depth and quiver calling to mind PJ Proby or Lance LeGault.
He gets into some hard rock for Head Games and Come By Chance with its distorted guitars while Damn Butterflies suggests Meat Loaf and, by contrast, End of Story is more acoustic troubadour. It’s an uneven, at times dated collection and there’s no disputing that Liberty’s voice takes some getting used to, but there’s enough here to warrant at least making the effort.
The Root Mull Affect (Cherry Red)
Over the past 15 years Alan Wilkes has released ten albums under his musical alter ego (as well as one as Parlour Flames with Bonehead) , each one better than the last, each one veined with wry wit, incisive observations, touching humanity and a 60s English cultural sensibility, summoning comparisons to Ray Davies, Babybird, Cocker and Morrissey but always retaining his individuality.
An eleventh is due later this year, but in the meantime, taking its title from a (non included) childhood tale of strange graffiti, this is a career spanning retrospective compilation featuring some new remixes and a couple of otherwise unavailable recordings.
Opening and closing numbers, A Vision, where he sings about having a Terry Hall haircut back in 1984, working in a mental hospital and Selly Oak, and Judy Wood’s memories of a 1972 childhood, both come from his most recent album, the autobiographical Other People Like Me, as does the electronic beats My Generation. In between he dips into five of the others, including his impossible to find 1998 debut Gone, from which comes a remix of Time For Bed.
A witty variation on the love triangle ("we go to bed but we don't make love because her thoughts are lost to the one above"), Jesus Stole My Girlfriend, the country streaked handclap rhythm march Flatter & Deceive, a sort of sung potted biography, and Dirty Weekend come from Ironing The Soul while The Fall and Rise of Vinny Peculiar’s represented by Playing On The Pier and Man About The House’s gentle mocking of masculinity.
The soft shoe shuffling Davies-like Lazy Bohemians is the sole contribution off Goodbye My Angry Friend with Growing Up With Vinny Peculiar providing Egg Incident where he talks through the story of some egg throwing kids on a council estate and Confessions of a Sperm Donor and its parental implications of IVF.
Everything else is previously unreleased, kicking off with a live acoustic version of the title track of Sometimes I Feel Like A King’s Neil Young-like celebration of finding joy in life’s everyday mundanities. Also live, where’s joined by Smiths rhythm section, Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke, is Everlasting Teenage Bedroom’s touching ironic ode to teen angst and the way it changes its shape as we grow older with the final track being the all new home recording of the spoken, sinister sounding The Hairdressers, a sort of tonsorial Edgar Allen Poe.
Most will interpret 'Peculiar' as odd, but it also means 'special' or 'distinctive' and, as a noun, "exempt from the jurisdiction of the ordinary in whose territory it lies." Sound about right to me.
Tall Tall Shadow (Secret City)
Normally to be found on auto-harp, the Canadian songstress only uses it twice (on the handclapping percussive Promise Not To Think About Love and soaring ballad Never Let Me Go) on this her third album, instead placing emphasis on piano, organ and charango, the latter a sort of South American uke spotlighted as the only instrument on the stark, vocally acrobatic It Can’t Be You. The album also reps a move away from the simple folksiness of her previous work to embrace more complex arrangements (as with the tricky acoustic guitar parts of Five, Four, named for its time signature) and pop sensibilities, although, even on the gradually building title track with its infectious refrain and the driving, pulsing beats of Wired, her voice retains that husky, field and mountains quality that has earned her comparisons to Joni Mitchell.
She’s at her best when she’s digging into the darkness of regret and longing, here powerfully encapsulated in The City Of No Rivers where her Celtic influences (shades of Clannad) rear their head and the bruised heart of the spare Paris Or Amsterdam which features just her voice , pianoette and synth. She certainly doesn’t need big arrangements or orchestral swathes, as evidenced by closing celebratory romantic gospel hued ballad From Now On, stripped back to just piano, Bulat and harmonies from Holly Coish. Having laid the groundwork, this should be the one that takes her into the mainstream.
The Brink (Play It Again Sam)
Fronted by Hayley Mary, the second album from the Australian femme four piece answers the question what would Stevie Nicks sound like with an Aussie accent. They may have extra synth power from Heather Shannon, but the album’s still about melody-based Fleetwood Mac pop rock, packing in air-play friendly numbers such as the title track, The End, Time To Dance , Angels Of Fire and the soaring, jubilant Look Of Love.
They do brooding nicely on the swirling, floaty Psychotherapy but it’s the surging synth and guitar marriage (listen to The End or Got Velvet) that is the lifeblood of the album’s break out appeal, one which should see them finally cracking open the market beyond their surf-lapped native shores.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues (ExtraMile)
One of the best album of 2010, White Crosses was a seething fury of anger lashed to raging American punk. Since which time singer Tom Grabel (who married in 2007 and has a daughter) has come out as a transsexual, is taking hormone treatment to become a woman as has taken the name Laura Jane Grace. Listening back over their albums, you’ll hear plenty of songs connected with dysphoria and sexual identity, but, as per the title, this is the first full on recording to be upfront about it.
While obviously intimately linked to her own experience, obviously so on things like the title track and Tru Trans Soul Rebel, the material also embraces a wider look at isolation and self-discovery with such numbers as Drinking With The Jocks, Paralytic States (like many not sung in the first person) and even the controversy bitingly titled Osama Bin laden As The Crucified Christ. Meanwhile Black Me Out is a blazing attack on the record company execs who sat on their asses rather than promote the band’s last two albums,
The problem, however, is that while she clearly has something to say, even if it’s veined with vitriol as on FuckMyLife666, the lyrics are often drowned out by the sheer welter of the, admittedly, blood-stirring cranked up guitars and drums that drive the hammeringly catchy punk melodies. Only when they take the barrage down slightly, as with Dead Friend’s farewell to, well, a dead friend, and the similarly death themed Two Coffins, a waltzing echoey acoustic song about enduring love, can you distinguish all the words. You certainly get caught up in the overall effect, but if you want to make a point it’s always useful for the audience to make out what you’re saying.
THE NEW MENDICANTS
Into The Lime (One Little Indian)
Following last year’s EP, this is the full length debut from the collaboration between Teenage Fan Club’s Norman Blake and Joe Pernice and Mike Belitsky from The Pernice Brothers. Given their respective backgrounds, you won’t be surprised to find it brimful of jangling Byrdsian guitars, West Coast harmonies and the 60s pop of The Hollies.
It gets off to something of a slightly sluggish start with Sarasota and it seems a little odd to find a track named A Very Sorry Christmas Eve this far ahead (though to be fair it was a single last December), but the arrival of Cruel Annette gets the ball rolling in earnest with crooning harmonies and a toe tapping folksy melody before Follow You Down drops the pace for an acoustic ballad. It’s pleasant, but it’s the ringing guitars you want to hear, so the trio duly oblige with Shouting Match and a dose of vintage McGuinn. Annoyingly then, they slip in two more slow ones with If You Only Knew Her and High On The Skyline (which hints at the classic suburban romantic of Squeeze and The Kinks and comes with a truly sublime chorus), which are undeniably good but it’s like the album keeps shifting from fifth to second gear.
They don’t pick up the tempo again until the final cut, the witty, organ backed psychedelic pop of Lifelike Hair, but that’s by no means to slight the preceding two tracks, the love lost title song with its hints of 60s baroque pop and a fabulous acoustic cover of Sandy Denny’s melancholic By The Time It Gets Dark. It’s frustrating that there’s not more 12 string rushes, but then there’s always next time for that.
NOAH FRANCIS JOHNSON
Life & Times (Last Ten)
Released in February according to the PR and his website, in June last year according to Amazon, either way, produced by Chris Kimsey, renowned for his work with the Stones, this debut album from the Cardiff singer deserves attention. Born in Tiger Bay, Francis has had an eclectic career to say the least. He’s been, among other things, a world disco dancing champion, holder of a Welsh professional boxing belt, a trainee priest (twice) and singer with heavy metal band Ellis, playing on the same bills as Slayer and Metallica. However, now, at 51, he’s found his true calling, singing folk n soul that bears testament to growing up listening to the likes of Sam Cook and Dylan and watching his musician father entertaining Cardiff’s workingmen’s clubs.
It’s his late dad who inspired the poignant Ballroom Blues, a simple song of loving memories etched with Gary Grainger’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar as he recalls his parents dancing, while family death also informs Greyfeather, a song he wrote about a Native American inspired by his daughter bringing in a bird feather and the fact his brother Blue worked on a reservation in Canada. The song ends with the character passing away, just as his brother did three days after Johnson finished it.
Although Try’s tale of struggling against the odds, a ballad you could imagine Rod singing, was also written (about his mother) with his father in mind, it’s not all so personal. Soulful opener piano ballad Say You Love Me and the gospel coloured Holding On are familiar romance and relationship numbers, The Man In The U.F.O (not, it has to be said, the album’s best number) is a semi-spoken playful tale of a spotter and an alien, the mid-tempo piano backed Valentines On Fire a cautionary tale about getting burned by heartless women and, featuring strummed guitar and subtle cello, Child a powerful storysong of a man finding love when he’s caught between the emotional fall out of a mother and daughter .
Both the 70s AOR sounding title track and uptempo piano ballad In My Room (where his dad gets another mention) talk about not giving up and struggling for your dream (“is this all I’m gonna be, I ask myself”) add to the album’s hefty quality, but good though Johnson’s own material is it’s fair to say that the highlight is actually the only cover version, not for the song but for the treatment he brings to Grease classic You’re The One That I Want, astonishingly reinvented here has a slow, burning soul ballad with Johnson, backed by strings and piano, wrenches the emotional core from the song in a way only Cocker and Redding might have. In the present climate, he’s going to find it hard to get the exposure he deserves, but if he can get Jools Holland and Radio 2 behind him then justice may yet prevail.