It’s all about Cambridge Part 2 (and other stuff)

Following on from the previous blog covering lots of local releases, here’s part 2 of ‘It’s all about Cambridge’ with a couple of reviews from further afield, just to show there is a high standard of music outside the area as well as in.

Starting with Haverhill’s finest, and inventors of shed punk, the Umbrella Assassins are back with the second in a trilogy of EPs going out under the title of Kings of Fruit. I’ve watched this trio blossom over the last few years, honing their song writing and heading off into new, experimental territory without losing the vigour and energy that are key to their sound. The latest trio of tracks finds our loveable bandmates ‘in the waiting room of purgatory, trying to atone for their sins.’ I can only assume their sins involve not releasing enough records and not buying me a pint, but I’m sure I can forgive them for that. Opener ‘Trophic Cascade’ has a great fuzzy opening which stretches into an ominous riff and an angry, threatening vocal. ‘Missed the Bus’ is a blast of garage rock with a hint of The Ramones, featuring the joint lead vocals of Steve and Bunge with Garry banging away on the piano. ‘Up in the Early Morning’ is the surprise track, sounding to these ears like an edgier Creedence Clearwater Revival, perhaps more Fenland Rock than Swamp Rock, more River Colne than the Mississippi. It’s another great addition to their ever-growing canon of work.

One of my favourite interviews on The Smelly Flowerpot was one conducted over Zoom in the middle of last year’s pandemic with Martin, Chris and Barbara, collectively known as Tribes of Europe. I could honestly talk with them for hours about what they’ve done over the years and what they’re doing now. I don’t suppose there’s many bands that count members of anarcho-punk band The Poison Girls and 80’s soul band The Vernons among their number. The latest single is another slice of timeless, classic soul pop with a hint of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The song is powered along by a thrusting cello and a keyboard sound that seems to come from the 60s and early 80s simultaneously. Add in a great lead vocal (a la Dusty), heavenly backing vocals with nods to The Ronettes, some spacey vibes and a story relating to a schoolgirl crush on another girl and you have four minutes that pack in more than most bands can manage in a full album. It’s called ‘Rosalind’ and it’s an exuberant and joyful listen.

Another artist who soaks up his influences and re-imagines them is Chris Free of The Sound of Pop Art. Chris has worked under various band guises in the past, but I believe his new EP is his first solo outing. Where TSOPA’s music generally has a summery feel to it, this has more of an autumnal feel, though with the seasons currently as they are it could be late summer or early winter, who knows. There’s some great twangy guitar and cool crooning on the lazy swinging opener ‘Mad Affair’, while the instrumental ‘Reflections’ could be the soundtrack to an imagined 60s TV show about a down at heel private eye in Cambridge with a cover of running a punt hire shop by the river (if it hasn’t already been done). There’s a change of pace with ‘Rosemary Jane’, which sounds like one of those sing-a-long 60s pop song with lots of ‘ooohs’ and aaahs’ that never seem to age.  That the guitar sounds like peak George Harrison adds to that notion. The pace is upped again with the new wavey ‘What’s it Like?’, which is something of a throwback to the kind of music Chris produced with previous band ‘The Users’. More urgent than the previous tracks, asking a series of questions to an unknown companion who obviously lives a different life to the questioner. It’s a wonderfully varied EP which allows Chris to stretch out and explore different sounds from TSOPA. In terms of scope and feel, it charts similar musical territory as the great Vic Godard.

Tony Jenkins must be one of the busiest musicians around Cambridge. Apart from his work with Lizard Brain and collaboration with Victorian Tin leader Christian Gustaffson, as Kammahav, he’s also the singer in his own band, The New Fools (the name taken from a line in a Bob Dylan song), who have been pretty prolific over the last few years. Introductions out of the way, I can now tell you The New Fools have a new single out called ‘Murry Wilson’. Bizarrely, due to various circumstances, this is actually half of the band with Christian helping out. It’s pure indie pop with bouncing bass, chiming guitars and Tony’s pleading vocal and lyrics, which often reference other artists and songs- indeed, Murry Wilson was the father of the Wilson brothers who gained worldwide fame as The Beach Boys. As it’s over a month since this was released, we must be due another release featuring Tony soon…

Naomi Randall’s ‘Trippin on my Tepid Heels’ was one of my favourite albums of last year and she has a new EP out called ‘Very Nearly Nocturnes and Gnomic Verse’. And yes, it’s another release of rare beauty. Five tracks loosely connected by themes relating to the process of going to sleep. As you might expect given the EPs title and theme, the songs have a similar dreamy, psych folk feel to last year’s album though the tracks are more focussed this time round. The acoustic guitar or piano led songs have gorgeous, hazy, woozy backing vocals with wind instruments floating in on the ether, sometimes drifting serenely by and other times gently threatening to overpower the song. Even the introduction of electric guitar is subtly done so as not to disturb the equilibrium. The lead vocals are often multi tracked with lines overlapping each other, the overall effect giving the impression of drifting in and out of consciousness. Or as if some nocturnal siren is gently beckoning you to into an inviting and warm but dark void where all is peaceful and calm, clearing your mind of all the days clutter in the process. You can resist for only so long before you become intoxicated and its musical charm wraps itself around you and pulls you in. The lyrics compliment the feeling, with lines inviting you to a ‘land unconscious’, eulogizing about the heart singing when dreaming of dawn or the notion of keeping sleep in a jar. And what’s wrong with that?

I may have mentioned this once or twice before, but Cambridge Calling Volume 5 is still available on all the usual platforms, as well as German Shepherd Records Bandcamp page, with all proceeds going to a local charity. By an amazing coincidence, all the above artists have appeared on one of the Cambridge Calling Volumes, showing the diversity and strength in depth of the music scene in the area. Coincidences come thick and fast on this blog as Collars, who appear on Volume 5, have a new EP out. It’s almost as if this has all been planned. ‘Everything Present 1’ features five glorious slices of idiosyncratic indie pop by a duo who have managed to forge a distinctive sound and image in the short time they’ve been together. Kane plays guitar and drums (simultaneously when playing live, on a specially adapted kit) while Danielle sings and plays keyboards. There are changes of tempo and tone aplenty, ‘Jeremiah’ being a prime example, shifting effortlessly from indie piano ballad to something that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Postcard Records compilation with its quirky, funky guitar. ‘Gemini’ does a similar thing with its shift from indie folk tinged opening to it’s fast paced, sing along outro. The final track features what sounds like a ukulele, toy keyboard sound and another catchy chorus. An excellent debut release.

And now, completely unrelated to Cambridge, there’s something wonderful and sad from Santa Sprees, a new album called ‘Fanfare for Tonsils’. Wonderful because any new music from this Anglo-Japanese husband and wife duo is a sheer delight, but sad because one half of the duo, Anthony Dolphin, was diagnosed with cancer late last year. Following a rather gloomy looking prognosis, Anthony accordingly took this as a sign to continue their singular musical quest anew, hence the latest (but hopefully not the last) opus, rolling out at 34 tracks. Far better writers than I have described at length what the Santa Sprees music is like so, rather than write a standard review, I’m going to throw a few phrases together that sprung to mind when listening to the album… Unfiltered but expertly channelled. Banishing banality from pop. Surreally real and really surreal, like Lewis Carroll wrestling with Tom Waits. Wobbly and warbly. Taking the worms eye view while everyone is taking the birds eye view. Precisely shambolic/shambolically precise. Four sides of a triangle. Post Avant Spectral Psych. Dark humour with a big wet sponge and a side order of cough candy. Tickles and tortures all the sweet spots. Sometimes jerky and disoriented, sometimes precise and thought provoking. Foot tapping and makes me smile. Life and death through a kaleidoscope. Poetic and poignant, heart breaking and liberating. Do yourselves a favour and dive into this, or any other, Santa Sprees album for a refreshingly different take on life and death.

More reviews in a couple of weeks, but first a rarity on these pages of late for a variety of reasons- a gig review. Yes, a real, live, sitting down watching people play on stage kind of review. Another rarity- a Sunday afternoon gig review. A new initiative from those wonderful people at The Hunter Club in Bury St Edmunds and new(ish) kids on the block, Delicate Management, this was their first (of many, I hope) Sunday afternoon events. I could have been forgiven for thinking I’d stumbled into the final of some alternative folk version of The Voice, such was the quality of singing on offer from the four acts who played. Opener Josie Edie May is a mere twenty years old, though her song writing has the maturity, confidence and intelligence of a seasoned writer. A set split into two, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar before switching to piano, was as impressive for the playing and lyrical content as it was for her singing, which at times has a breathy style, with little rises and falls, similar to Lisa Hanigan. Though there’s no music released to date, I hear there’s enough songs written to fill several albums once she gets in the studio. Well worth looking out for.

Second up at The Hunter Club was Elly Tree, someone I know to be a few years older than Josie (not that age is a consideration when it comes to making great music), largely because our pre and post gig chats covered the likes of John Peel’s Perfumed Garden, Dusty Springfield and The Fall. Now there’s a thought- Dusty fronting The Fall in a great gig in the sky. Or The Fall covering ‘Son of a Preacher Man’. Sadly, we’ll never know. I believe Elly Tree normally perform as a three piece, but for this performance it was just Elly and her baritone ukulele. Each track was performed with the glee and passion of an artist in their element after an enforced pause in performing. The playing was varied, everything from gentle picking to energetic, punky strum was drawn from her trusty uke while the voice had that same unbridled joy for singing that could be heard every time Mama Cass Elliot sang. The between song banter was humorous and interesting, covering such song subjects as neurological abnormalities and making a coat from the velvety petals of wallflowers. I now need to check out their studio releases.

Following Elly was Belinda Gillett, someone I first heard on a streamed performance last year to raise money for The Hunter Club. It’s fair to say, I was blown away by her voice, to the extent I thought she couldn’t be performing live as it was so perfectly pitched and effortless. I duly tracked down some recordings to listen to and further live performances on YouTube, which served to show just how special she is. Generally, she accompanies herself on acoustic guitar but, due to an incident involving a Doberman while out jogging, she has a broken elbow and was unable to play guitar. With minimal time to rehearse, up stepped Matt Carter aka Matt Reaction to support Belinda on acoustic. Fortunately, Matt being something of an uber fan, this didn’t present an unsurmountable challenge. As mentioned, it’s sometimes difficult to believe that wonderful voice comes from such a relaxed and effortless performance. The range is incredible- when she lowers to a near whisper, it’s the only sound you want to hear in the room but when she fully releases, there is no space in the room for any other sound, such is its emotive power as it reaches out and fills every corner. I can only liken it to a large church organ given full throttle in small room. Visually she’s quite enchanting too, losing herself in the performance while the hand that’s free and not strapped up, having no guitar to strum, weaves little shapes and patterns in the air or plays imaginary guitar in unison with the strum of Matt. Her EP from earlier this year highlights every aspect of that voice and word is there’s an album in the pipeline too. I’m not overstating things when I say, for this reviewer, her voice is up there with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny and Emmylou Harris.

Last on stage at a perfectly reasonable hour of 4.30pm (plenty of time to get home and make the kids tea- Sunday afternoon gigs are the way forward) were Elizabeth and Jameson, featuring the harmonies, violin, accordion and guitar of Hannah and Griff. Musically, they bring elements of country, folk and bluegrass to the mix, these backing the rich, Welsh tones of Griff and the sweater voiced Hannah, who compliment each other perfectly. The vocal interplay reminded me at times of another great husband/wife duo, My Darling Clementine. They played several tracks from their recent album, which I was delighted to hear had a theme running through it, being based on stories, characters and life in Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast. They engaged with the audience well, recounting tales about the background to the songs, and sung and played beautifully, dotting the originals with a couple of unexpected covers (Bowie’s ‘As the World Falls Down’ from Labyrinth and The Beatle’s ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’), involving some willing audience participation. This was top quality song writing performed by artists at the top of their game.

All in all, not too shabby a way to spend a Sunday afternoon. For more info on what’s on at The Hunter Club, including The Bury Sound Final and their 10th Anniversary all day celebration, go to the link below. More reviews in a couple of weeks or so. X

New Music Reviews November 2020

Umbrella Assassins, instigators of the local phenomenon known as Shed Punk, have a new EP due for release on November 20th called ‘King of Fruit Vol 1’. Since slimming down to a three piece and joining German Shepherd Records, Steve, Garry and Bunge have been pretty prolific, not that they were slouches prior to this. The slimming down and subsequent re-jigging of roles in the band seems to have worked to their advantage, pushing them into exploring new ideas and seeing a great leap forward in the quality of song writing. Describing their music as Shed Punk possibly does it a disservice as, though it has roots in punk and is largely recorded in a garden shed, there are elements of garage, heavy psychedelia and the occasional dollop of Eastern mysticism in the music. The three tracks on the EP are awash with raw fuzzy guitars, heavy bass lines and jet-propelled drums topped off with a growling and passionate in-your face vocal delivery. The first two songs have a primal Stooges attack allied with some Sabbath like changes of pace while ‘Strange Smoke’ starts off relatively sedately in comparison, though the insistent riff still gives the song a driving energy in a Doors like manner. I very much look forward to Vol 2 in the New Year, not to mention sharing a tin or two with them down the shed when the opportunity arises.

Also available now is the new single from Swiss based Andy Jossi and US based Krissy Vanderwoude, working as The Churchhill Garden. Whereas previous efforts have been firmly in the dream pop/shoe gaze arena, this time the guitars still shimmer and shine, but with an added urgency and drive. Similarly, Krissy’s vocals match this energy, giving an overall feel of classic mid to late 80’s indie pop. It’s the latest in an impressive run of singles produced by Andy over the last few years.

Vernons Future have a new single out- Waiting at the Station/B Movie. Apparently, the band have a history going back to Liverpool in the early 80’s and it’s probably fair to say that era and geographical location have left an imprint on what they’re producing now- which is certainly a good thing. Guitars and keyboards vie for centre stage while prominent bass lines circle to keep things pumping along. The first track is insistently catchy while the second has a laser guided sharpness and sci fi references that fit the song’s title perfectly.

There’s a certain irony in the new release from The Speed of Sound, another band that have been quietly releasing (as in ignored by mainstream radio?) for many years. The irony being that lead track ‘Radio Safe’, a jibe at the dull playlisted banality of commercial radio, is one of the most accessible and catchy records they’ve released. For a band based in the North West of England, there’s always been a touch of US Punk/New Wave about them, especially in the vocal delivery of John Armstrong, which falls somewhere between Joey Ramone and Lou Reed. Despite being acoustically driven, it bursts out the speakers and its barbs against not just radio, but the large media organisations that feed them, hit the spot. ‘No Kicks’ is equally vital, an energetic romp with the lyrics sung by Ann-Marie Crowley bemoaning a lack of action that leads to a night of boredom. Cracking stuff.

Where do you start with Tim Holehouse? Though he’s been involved in countless releases over the last 20 odd years, both solo and as a member of various bands, I have to admit I’m rather late in discovering his unique talents. I first heard his music when Ian Perry of Aaahh!!! Real Records sent over Tim’s ‘Come’ album from last year, a release that made my top five for 2019. On Tim’s Bandcamp page he states that his music has its roots in the delta blues. That may well be true, but it also takes in everything from punk to heavy metal to prog to folk, all done with his own individual stamp all over it. His latest album, entitled ‘Lost’ takes several other diversions, including electronic music and trip hop. His distinctive voice, what could be described as a melodic rumble sitting somewhere between Bill Callahan and Kurt Wagner of Lambchop, is well to the fore though he shares vocal duties with a range of male and female singers that compliment rather than detract from his own singing. Tim is someone who thrives on playing live, gigging around 300 times a year gives him a focus, a purpose and great joy. I can only imagine what the pause in being able to gig due to the current world situation has done for his health. A cursory glance at the list of song titles will probably give some clues to this – ‘Lost’, ‘Trapped’, ‘Insomnia’, ‘Twitch’, ‘Polar’- all have themes of mental health and dealing with these situations running through them. Recorded during lockdown, it is at times powerful, raw, claustrophobic, thought provoking and stirring. To give you an idea of the variety and invention in the music, just listen to the opening title track. It kind of circumnavigates the world musically, starting with something akin to tribal drumming of indigenous North American Indians and ending with some Far Eastern exotica. Track two is piano based with bluesy slide guitar, track three includes some rapping over ambient sounds and a solid beat that stealthily, unnervingly creeps up on you. And so it goes with the rest of the album. As with his gigging, presenting the idea of a restless soul never wanting to stay still for long, so it is with his music- always stretching out and looking to discover new ways of channelling the words and ideas in his head. Check it out via the link below.

Another artist I’ve only recently come across (as a solo performer), and coincidentally another one who has used the period of lockdown and the lack of gigs to record an album, is Tensheds. I have to say, there’s been some wonderful music released during the many months where gigs haven’t been possible and this is another. Maybe there’s something in the ‘tortured artist’ theory- take away their ability to gig and communicate directly with a live audience and it’ll feed an urge to produce some wonderful music. Perversely, it’s one of the few positives of the whole situation.  Reading up on the artist that is Tensheds (love the name by the way), you realise here’s another musician with a varied and unique talent, taking in classical music training and a background that includes punk. I guess it’s a little surprising this album, called ‘The Days of My Confinement’ is almost entirely piano based. To carry off an album with such limited instrumentation (the odd guitar, other keyboards and the odd string embellishment make fleeting appearances) obviously relies on a number of things including great song writing, an engaging voice and a certain inventiveness. There’s plenty of drama and romanticism in the songs, partly down to the playing but also down to the singing. His voice has the breathless, raspy emotion of a Springsteen, Tom Waits or Bill Fay on many tracks, though there’s a tenderness that matches the delicate playing on others and a number of almost jolly sing-alongs that help the album rise and fall in tempo and feel. This all adds depth and an ebb and flow to the album that carries the listener on a rollercoaster ride. The piano playing contributes massively to this- sometimes the classical training bleeds through, other times a gentle, heart breaking tinkle while there’s also some stirring playing a la Roy Bittan of the E Street Band. Whether an album of piano based singer/song writing is your thing or not, you’d be missing out greatly if you didn’t check this album out.

Finally, the debut single from Cambridgeshire based duo, Collars, called Heart Beats. I was impressed when I first saw them perform in an on-line all-dayer in support of The Hunter Club, a rather wonderful venue in Bury St Edmunds. This first release confirms the promise of that performance and gives me the urge to see them live. Kane plays guitars and drums (at the same time) while Danielle sings and adds the odd keyboard flourish. The single, released on their own label, is a choppy guitar driven track that frequently changes pace and features a delicious organ solo and an unexpected stop/start barely half way through. Florence Welch and White Stripes are both mentioned on their Facebook page and though you could loosely say their sound is late 90s/early noughties indie, there’s plenty in the music and vocals to separate it from those comparisons and stamp its own identity.