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

Favourite Releases of 2020

Sorry I’ve been a bit quiet of late, but there’s been good reason for this as most of my free time in December was spent listening to dozens of albums and putting together a ‘Best of 2020’ show for The Smelly Flowerpot on Cambridge 105 Radio. Readers of an earlier blog will know that I paused the show in September, mainly due to the challenges in trying to put together a radio show in a house occupied by four children and a dog that have little respect for the recording process. Hence the increased activity on the blog since then- you don’t hear their screaming over make-up, the arguments over the missing remote control or the dogs tail thudding against the door in my typing. Anyway, due to the enthusiasm shown by the good people at Cambridge 105 Radio and the power of chocolate to mute children, I have managed to put together a 2 hour show featuring 1 single, 1 retrospective, an EP and 22 albums that have particularly grabbed me this year. I’ll caveat those selections by saying they’ve all featured on the show or the blog over the last year and are therefore all by artists that, with the odd exception, don’t get regular playlisting on national radio. This isn’t because they’re not worthy- quite the opposite- but more due to the fact it’s such a crowded market that only a fraction of music released will ever get playlisted on national radio. This is often due to having the right backers or marketing and a huge slice of luck. The whole ethos of The Smelly Flowerpot is to support those artists wherever I can. Consequently, relatively more well known artists like Bill Callahan, Flaming Lips and Bob Dylan won’t be considered for the list despite releasing wonderful albums.

By the time I’ve finished writing this blog entry, the show will have been broadcast and repeated (Christmas night and December 28th), but I will post a link to the Mixcloud upload at the bottom of this entry so you can listen at your leisure. Below you’ll find a run down of the tracks and a hint of what to expect from each. I trust you’ll find something in there that tickles your fancy…

Single of the Year: The Broken Orchestra feat TinB- Someone Just Pressed Pause

I’ve followed this band for several years now and managed to catch them live at Humber St Sesh Festival a couple of years ago. Dusky beats with layered keyboards which skitter and swell as they gradually build. The lyric is a spoken one which eloquently and powerfully deals with the effects of the pandemic, recognising the negative aspects while encouraging people to take the opportunity to do something positive. The show features an edited version, but check out the bands Bandcamp page for the full version.

Also, rather brilliant: Black Country, North Road- Science Fair. Discordant, anxious, tense, thrilling, mind warping, unsettling and riveting don’t even come close to describing this. I can’t wait for the debut album in 2021.

Anthology of the Year: The Distractions- Nobody’s Perfect 2020

I first fell in love with The Distractions in 1979, catching them live in 1980 at The Welly Club in Hull, then again in 2012 at The Kings Arms in Salford. There aren’t many bands who leave it 32 years between first and second album releases. That first album, Nobody’s Perfect, was released in 1980 to critical acclaim and relatively few sales. Until now, it had never received a digital release but thankfully that’s been put right. The release features the album in its original form plus an updated mix (one of the few complaints about the original was the production) by latter day Distraction and head of Occultation Records, Nick Halliwell. Also gathered together are the singles and EPs from the original band plus a number of demo’s and unreleased tracks. It’s a collection of beautifully imagined sixties pop songs given a post punk pop makeover. The track played on the show, ‘Looking for a Ghost’ having echoes of The Beach Boys in its layered harmonies. Other excellent collections well worth a mention are Phil Rambow’s ‘Rebel Kind- Anthology 1972-2020’ which collects his original albums from the 70’s plus tracks recorded with the likes of Brian Eno, Mick Ronson and Kirsty MacColl as well as some more recent releases which show he hasn’t lost any of his abilities as a singer/songwriter. ‘The Colossal Youth- 40th Anniversary Edition’ by Young Marble Giants is another welcome anthology of singles and EPs as well as the titular album.

EP of the Year: McCookerybook and Rotifer- Equal Parts

This wasn’t quite long enough to class as an album but it would have been a tragedy to leave it out, hence it has a section all of its own. It’s been reviewed in an earlier blog, but suffice to say, this is a joy to listen to from start to finish. Full of enthusiasm, warmth and quality performing and writing, it exudes charm with the odd hidden barb under the surface. Imagine a collaboration between an anglicised Doris Day and an Austrian Lee Hazlewood and you won’t be far off the mark.

Albums of the Year

Before I crack on with the 22 albums that made the show, let me mention a few albums that made my short list, making the task of narrowing it down to 22 nigh on impossible. These are all worth checking out and I’m sure I’ll look at this list over the coming months and think ‘How did I manage to leave this off the show?’. In no particular order:

Global Charming- Mediocre, Brutal. Quirky post punk with Beefheartian guitars from Dutch band. Songs about the mundanity of life never sounded so good.

Anton Barbeau- Manbird. No-one does psych pop like Anton. This one comes across like a life’s travelogue with plenty of avian analogies.

Dislocation Dance- Discombobulation. Welcome return of 80’s soul/funk band to help raise funds to treat singer Ian Runacre’s son, who has a serious brain condition.

The Lounge Bar Orchestra- Pilot Episodes. Imaginary themes/soundtracks to shows on Ousewater TV, as written by the mysterious Reg Omeroyd in the 70’s.

Tensheds- Days of My Confinement. Dramatic piano led songs by classically trained artist, recorded at home during lockdown.

Pavey Ark- Close Your Eyes and Think of Nothing. Do exactly that and wallow in the yearning, acoustic driven songs backed with beautiful string arrangements.

Steve Cobby- СТИВИ. The latest in a run of impressive albums mixing a variety of genres from the mix master himself. Jazzy, proggy, post rocky, trip hoppy, entirely Cobby.

Tim Holehouse- Lost. Takes another left turn, introducing beats, rap, hip hop and electronica as he chronicles the struggles of coping without being on the road and gigging.

Jinder- The Silver Age. Beautifully sung ruminations of joy and pain with characteristically varied, stirring and lush backing.

The New Fools- Mershmellow. Too long to be an EP, too short to be an album, but still very impressive. Lots of nods to musical heroes.

Moff Skellington/The Bordellos. Not a duo, but two artists who have been ultra-prolific during 2020 (not to mention previous years). Difficult to pick an album each from the myriad to chose from, so when you get time, visit their respective Bandcamp pages and dive in randomly. I’m confident you won’t have heard anything like them.

The albums that made the show

22. Lexytron- Something Blue. Lexytron is Manchester born, part English, Greek and Persian and now living in New Zealand. This, her debut album, is full of vibrant and catchy pop/rock songs with one foot on the dance floor. Dealing with love, loss and lust, it’s an invigorating affair.

21. Tidal Rave- Heart Screams. Another debut from another NZ based band, this one a six-piece including three female songwriter/singer/guitarists. Densely interwoven guitars, an insistent rhythm section and organ battle constantly to produce a punchy garage rock sound which is lent variety by changes of pace and the use of four different vocalists.

20. Lewsberg- In This House. Another Dutch band with a debut album. Deceptive in that the strident guitars, which quickly settle into a groove on each song, and mainly spoken lyrics hide a quirky catchiness. Post punky in the main with hints of Lou Reed and Jonathan Richman.

19. Stuart Moxham and Louis Phillipe- The Devil Laughs. Two great musicians with excellent CVs team up to produce a delightful album of quality song writing and performing. The pair complement each other beautifully with Louis adding stylish flourishes to fill out the otherwise subtle beauty of Stuart’s songs. Louis adds a couple of gems of his own. Some lovely harmonies and sweeping strings help give this a timeless feel.

18. Santa Sprees- Sum Total of Insolent Blank. Here, the Anglo-Japanese duo present an album that is as epic in length as it is in scope. Full of lo fi gems with tracks that barely get started before cheerily waving goodbye to fully fledged folky pop songs which sweep you along with their infectiousness. And singer Anthony Dolphin sounds weirdly like a pre fame Tyrannosaurus Rex era Marc Bolan, which is clearly a good thing.

17. Rosie Abbott- Magnified. The Nottingham based singer/song-writer/multi-instrumentalist/producer and sock puppet maker takes another leap forward with her third solo album. Her love of 60’s bands such as The Beatles and The Kinks shines through on her melodic songs which often take little unexpected twists and turns on their sonic journey. Lyrics that are clearly personal make her all the more loveable.

16. Polypores- Azure. Released on the excellent Castles in Space label (possibly the best source of new electronic and ambient music around), Polypores is the work of one Stephen Buckley, who has been releasing his brand of synthesiser-based music for several years and umpteen releases. As the album and song titles suggest, this is a soundtrack to drifting through the world’s oceans evoking the awe and wonder of everything that inhabits it or has been consumed by it.

15. The Sound of Pop Art- To Dream the Most Fabulous Dream. Cambridge’s great pop dreamers return with an expanded palette of contagious and vibrant songs that add funk, acid jazz, soul and film soundtracks to their summery pop. Chris Free, Sara Onyett and friends have produced their best set of songs to date- irresistible and infectious, they’re a reminder of the days when charts were filled with such music.

14. Annie Dressner- Coffee at the Corner Bar. American born, Cambridge based, Annie’s latest album is another largely acoustic indie-folk-pop affair. Produced by hubby Paul Goodwin, Annie’s disarming, conversational style of singing draws the listener into her often nostalgic and personal songs. With additional instrumentation fleshing out and adding impetus to some songs, it’s a varied and warmly rewarding set of songs

13. Moonstrips- It Was a Different World When We Started. Though this is an album of live tracks and studio sessions (with embellishments!), it hangs together surprisingly well. There’s more variety than on the previous album, though Barney’s breathless sax and the mix of hallucinatory psychedelia and post punk guitars are never far away. The tracks recorded live support my belief that they’re one of the best live bands in Cambridge.

12. 2 Lost Souls- …the very last City. This is the second full length album from veterans of the music scene, Ian Moss and Paul Rosenfeld. With the frequently acerbic lyrics of Ian backed by the searing guitar playing of Paul, this is a thrilling ride. Perhaps less of an ‘outsider’ sound than other artists Ian has collaborated with, the music is a blend of effects laden blues and rock music which is faintly reminiscent of Peter Buck’s playing on REM’s Monster.

11. Harold Nono- We’re Nearly Home. Harold Nono is one of several mysterious enigmas who release intriguing and interesting music through Bearsuit Records, based in Edinburgh. Difficult to pigeonhole, this album is a dynamic and experimental mix of imagined soundtracks, industrial noise, electronic and ambient music that challenges as much as it satisfies. Never less than interesting and frequently magnificent through it’s 40 odd minute roller coaster ride.

10. John Howard- To the Left of the Moon’s Reflection. John Howard released the long-lost classic ‘Kid in a Big World’ back in the seventies and has been on a creative renaissance over the past decade. This album is possibly the best of his career. Beautifully flowing, largely piano based compositions with biographical lyrics by an artist who, decades into a stop/start career, appears to be completely at ease with his current life and situation. There’s a wealth of experience and stories to be told, something which comes across with humour and candour in his songs as well as in the interview he gave me earlier in the year.

9. Issac Navaro- Nijua. Issac, based in Dumfries, has been a fixture on German Shepherd Records since they first started, with six releases during that period. The latest album, who’s title was apparently suggested by a 7 year old, is a heady and potent mix of post rock, ambient and electronic music which reference the likes of sci-fi writers, Dutch footballers and moon landings. In among the lush layers of synths and insistent beats there are some delicious piano melodies and, on one track, a rare vocal. I read somewhere that this could be the last album from Issac, which would be a crying shame.

8. Danny Short- Pastimes. Danny has been quietly self-releasing music on CDRs and through his Bandcamp page for the last decade or so and it’s always a delight when one is popped through the letterbox. I first heard him through Stephen Doyle’s excellent show on Salford City Radio and probably have a dozen or so releases now. Though he majors on quality 60’s influenced songs full of energy, intensity, vitality and killer choruses, he often pops several tracks of a more experimental nature on each release. Though, as the title suggests, this is a collection of reworked tracks from his past, it’s brilliant from start to finish.

7. Becci Wallace- Present Tense. Scottish singer/songwriter Becci has produced her best work to date on ‘Present Tense’. Her intensely intimate lyrics deal with a variety of subjects from parenthood and love to grief and mental health, dealing with each subject with trademark candour and no little humour. That she matches each of these with a compelling and complimentary musical backing is mighty impressive. From minimalist piano backing to lush instrumentation and trip hoppy beats, there’s a beating heart to each track which grabs your attention, at times provoking a range of emotional responses.

6. Umbrella Assassins- Humanity. These guys have been gradually building an impressive repertoire of songs since they slimmed to a three piece and, roles in the band re-assigned, the creative juices not so much flowed as flooded out. ‘Humanity’ features many tracks in their chosen genre of ‘Shed-Punk’ though this only hints at what they do. There’s a primal energy and a vocal delivery which pummels you into submission on some songs and a fuzzy psychedelia on others, but there’s also an inventiveness on display which hint at possible future directions. Sing-alongs and a glorious Hendrix style whig out complete an impressive assault on the senses.

5. Tom Skelly- Slackhead. Listen to Tom’s excellent debut album of largely folk blues acoustic songs and then listen to this and you’ll see just how far his sound and song writing has developed in the intervening 7 years. The progression is impressive. Musically it can be a challenging but ultimately rewarding listen, sometimes within the same song. Acoustic strums can be interrupted by bursts of treated keyboards, stuttering beats, distorted guitars or an echoing glockenspiel. Equally, Tom’s vocals match the musical accompaniment, veering from a gentle folky croon to a howl of anguish with several stops in between. This being his third self-produced album in two years, you get the feeling his wanderlust of musical adventure has some way to go.

4. Naomi Randall- Tepid on My Trippin’ Heels. This release from Cambridge based Naomi comes seven years after her previous album, hence the album title, jokingly suggested by a friend. It mixes several strains of folk (traditional, freak, pastoral, psychedelic) to mesmerising and beguiling effect with some lovely instrumental flourishes. There’s an ethereal beauty to some songs, especially those with minimal backing, while others draw you in with their ability to relate tales and snippets of stories which capture the imagination. Naomi’s voice is captivating, an attractive mix of folkie with a dreamy hippy quality. On her Bandcamp page (and on the sleeve of the album), she suggests the success or failure of the album should be left to the listener’s judgement. This listener judges it a resounding success.

3. Aksak Maboul- Figures 1 & 2. This double album by a Belgian band who have been performing on and off for over 40 years is a revelation. An ever-changing line up (at one point featuring former members of Henry’s Cow) centred around founding member Marc Hollander has now settled with the addition of his wife, Veronique Vincent, on vocals. This magnificent, experimental double album requires multiple listens to even come close to revealing all its delights, despite the presence of some real ear worms. Compulsive rhythms from around the world are the back drop for a dizzying selection of jazzy, avant-garde and prog songs featuring the excellent guitar and keyboard playing of Marc. The lyrics, written and sung mainly in French by Veronique, deal with the dynamics between male and female and how things have perhaps not progressed as they should have over the years. Utterly wonderful.

2. Plantman- Days of the Rocks. By my reckoning, this is Plantman’s fourth album. It’s also my favourite, which is saying something as all the previous releases are excellent. Songwriter, singer and guitarist Matt Randall, along with some musician friends from the Southend area, has put together a set of songs that are so intimate and heart-warming in a squeeze-your-hand, tug-at-your-heart sense that they should come with a ‘Beware- Contains Human Emotions’ sticker. Listening to his vocals is like dipping in to a private conversation as he uses his present stage of life to reflect and better understand people and events from the past. He also has a real knack of setting his lyrics to a musical style that enriches and nourishes those words, adding further emotional heft as guitars are gently strummed with minimal adornments or as the sound is fleshed out with soaring lead guitar and heavenly harmonies. Maybe there’s something in the air around Southend way.

1. The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus- Songs of Yearning/Nocturnes. Not one, but two albums, released simultaneously by a band that have been ignoring fashions and occasionally delivering albums as and when the time is right. I was smitten by ‘Beauty Will Save the World’ their album from 2016 which set me on a trail to discover more of their music. Though I find these albums inseparable in terms of quality, it’s rare that I listen to them together, mood dictating which one I might want to listen to at any one time. Elements of folk, ambient music, Eastern European religious themes, chants, hymns and occasional bursts of (relatively speaking) turbulence weave together like very little else I’ve heard to produce music of rare transcendental beauty. Though they sound nothing like them, the feeling I get when listening to these albums is similar to when I first heard the likes of Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’, Nick Drake’s albums or Joni Mitchell’s ‘Hissing of Summer Lawns’- like hearing something unlike anything I’d heard before. For a much more eloquent and expansive review of the albums than my attempts, try the following piece by Dave Cantrell of Stereo Embers magazine:

Though it’s been an extremely difficult year for obvious reasons, the one thing that’s been a positive for me is music. Its healing power is undeniable and the way many musicians have used the down time to write and release music or be creative in playing live has been an inspiration. Especially when you bear in mind the vast majority don’t make a living from it. May 2021 bring an upturn in fortunes for all musicians and may it give music lovers everywhere the opportunity to show their appreciation. I hope you enjoy this selection of my favourites from 2020. Much love and best wishes, Dave 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.