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Music fan by instinct

Interview – Alexander O’Neal

Alexander O’Neal photographed by Vincent Cole, 2017

For someone who’s been doing press all day, Alexander O’Neal sounds remarkably upbeat and chipper when I call him. He’s getting ready for an eight date UK tour. ‘I’m good, my brother, how are you?’

Wow. Very well thanks. O’Neal has the ability – shown throughout our conversation – of making you feel that he’s 100% giving you his attention, that he is interested in talking to you and that he’s genuinely passionate about what he’s doing. He never comes across as arrogant, and into his sixties, he certainly isn’t running out of energy. Fey peely wally indie bands, I hope you are taking note.

He’s promoting the tour, so I start off by asking him about what we can expect. ‘If it’s your first time coming [to an Alexander O’Neal show], you’re gonna get a lot of soul!’ he says, excitedly. Having played a lot in Britain over the deacdes (his first hit here was the ballad ‘If You Were Here Tonight,’ from his first, self-titled album, in 1986).  It should be understood that he does not see his shows as purely demonstrating himself. ‘Fans grow up with – my relationship my fans is very dear to me! It’s an opportunity to give something back to my fans,’ he adds.

At this point, I blow my cool, and gabble something excitedly about how I’ve been a fan since I saw him do ‘If You Were Here Tonight’ as a nine year old on Top Of The Pops. He seems genuinely touched by this, thanking me.

He’s never stopped working, of course. After the debut, came his second album Hearsay, which was absolutely huge. Building upon his debut, it added the then emerging New Jack Swing sound, and produced six hits (seven if you include the fact that ‘Fake’ was remixed as ‘Fake ’88’ and became an even bigger hit the following year). It went triple platinum in the UK, and he still holds the record for an African-American performer for selling out six nights straight at Wembley Arena in the eighties. Last year he reworked Hearsay for its thirtieth anniversary with Manchester funk band Mamma Freedom. Of the new versions he says, cheerfully ‘It’s a lot more raw!’

The was produced by Jimmy Jammy and Terry Lewis, who as producers created what came to be known as the Minneapolis Sound (though born in Mississippi, O’Neal relocated to Minneapolis in his early twenties), and amongst a long list of credits, produced Janet Jackson’s breakthrough (and groundbreaking) Control. ‘We had a great time around Minneapolis in the 1980s,’ reflects O’Neal.  I ask who came up with the concept for Hearsay – nine songs set around a party and his observations on the people there, complete with dialogue. ‘We gave the concept to each other,’ he says generously. They would work together on two more albums -1988’s criminally underrated Christmas album My Gift To You and 1991’s All True Man. ‘We keep in constant contact,’ he says of the duo, as well as being contact with labelmate Cherelle, with whom he had several hit duets, including ‘Saturday Love’ and ‘Never Knew Love Like This,’ the latter taken from the Hearsay album.

There was a stream of albums across the 1990s and 2000s, and still a few more entries on the UK singles and album charts. His last album, Five Questions: The Journey was released in 2010. He’s now working on his eleventh studio album. A new album Resurrected will be out before the end of the year, which he’s been working on with Mamma Freedom again. ‘Once I finish the tour, I’m looking to see what’s next.’ He’s clearly pretty excited about the forthcoming album -‘I try to keep reinventing my career’ – and he’s understandably proud that he’s still singing his old songs in the same key, at an age when many singers are having to adjust.

Though slightly cagey about where he lives now, an article in the Manchester Evening News towards the end of last year said that he had moved to Manchester and was loving it, finding that Manchester and Minneapolis have the same pace of life. He’s loving wortking with the musicians there. Questioned as to who he would like to work with in the future, there’s clearly a long list, but amongst those names he gives me are Patti Labelle and Rick Astley. The latter is from the north-west of England after all…

As I wrap up my interview with the soul legend, I ask him what, if push comes to shove is his favourite album of all time. He doesn’t miss a beat. ‘Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On!’ he says. ‘He turned out his most memorable album – after what everyone at Motown thought! [As an album] it transcends colour.’

Telling him that I’ll be seeing him on the tour, he quietly says’ well, come and say hello.’ And reading around a little more, it turns out we even share the same birthday.

 

Track of the day #54: Adam Stafford

Photo credit: David P. Scott

Edinburgh’s Song, By Toad Records continue to be frustratingly brilliant. Their next release will be Adam Stafford’s neoclassical album Fire Behind The Curtain.

The album, which was made over eight years, is born out of the experiences of living with severe depression, and is dedicated by its creator to ‘anyone who has ever been hungover, down-and out, running from themselves, running for their life, trapped in prisons internal and external.’ Amongst the inspirations for the album is American minimalist composer Steve Reich (who I urge you to check out, alongside his fellow national Philip Glass).

Of this track, Adam Stafford says: ” ‘Zero Disruption’ is my attempt at putting the influence of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint to bed. It was devised as an exercise in playing between the notes and layering jerky guitar figures in a staccato style. The voices are meant to sound like alarms going off, and the track as a whole is based on panic and auditory hallucinations.” 

Thankfully the track does not induce panic attacks or anxiety in this listener (who has wrestled with these conditions for many years). The video, directed by Adam Shrimpton and Rose Cleary has been described as being Wacaday meeting early [David] Lynch.

Fire Behind The Curtain is released on May 4 by Song, By Toad.

 

 

 

 

Track of the day #53: Jamie Bacon

This arrived in the inbox a few days ago. Released today, I held back on publishing until it was actually released.

Jamie Bacon originally hails from Wick in the north of Scotland. Now based in the Central Belt (he doesn’t specify), this is a song which draws on rock and folk, with that strand of Scots melancholy that is found in the likes of Frightened Rabbit, early Biffy Clyro, Idlewild and R.M. Hubbert.  The song talks of the issue of feeling isolated living so far north, and the feeling of being a prisoner in your hometown. A mighty fine song, in fact.

This is a live version of the track, released through Meraki records. You can stream it on all usual services, including bandcamp and buy it. (For the record, and to support the cause, I did.)

 

The return of Belly!

The last time Belly released an album was their second and final album, King. That was 1995, when I was in my final year of school. Tanya Donnelly and co. called time the following year – and she started a solo career with the brilliant (and criminally underrated) Lovesongs For Underdogs album. I’d fallen for the band with the release of the brilliant ‘Feed The Tree’ single, which was actually a Top 40 hit in Britain, and led their debut album, Star, to be pretty damn successful in the UK.

Anyhow…May 4 will see the release of Dove, the band’s third album. The first track from the album is entitled ‘Shiny One’ which you can watch below.  As well as Tanya Donnelly (guitar, vocals) Belly is Tom Gorman (guitar), Chris Gorman (drums), and Gail Greenwood (bass). They will be playing live in the UK and North America over the next few months – click here for live dates.

Chris Gorman had this to say about the video is a press release:

” I purchased a crow mask from Archie McFee a few years ago for a Halloween party that had an “enchanted forest” theme. I’m a lazy and dull human being [sic] so I just wore the mask and street clothes. In the party photos everyone looked magical and “enchanted” but I looked disturbing and wrong. I always wanted to do something with that.

After moving to a house surrounded by woods I started capitalizing on the space for Belly stuff, like the woodshed photo shoot, or the Hushabye Mountain photo series. When it became clear that we were calling the album DOVE and the suggestion that we produce our own video the masks were my first and only idea. I sent a brief pitch to the band saying “hey guys, what if we shoot a video and we all have bird heads?” The response was overwhelmingly affirmative. I purchased 3 more heads.

Due to scheduling I had to shoot each band member on their own – we used my garage as a studio space and the woods around my home for the ‘critter in the woods’ stuff and tree related b-roll.

I worked very closely with my good friend Jack McKenna as we processed the clips and together we arrived at an Andy Warhol layered silkscreen look that really seemed to match the hallucinogenic vibe and retro groove of the song. I have to give a ton of credit to Jack for pulling it all together.”

Album Review – Joan Baez

Joan Baez -‘Whistle Down The Wind.’

This album, from the legendary Joan Baez, is her first in a decade. She’s 77 now, for what it’s worth, but this album confirms that her legend status, is well-earned. She didn’t write any of the songs here – but it shouldn’t be dismissed as simply being a covers record. She’s gone to songwriters and songs who mean something to her. Through her interpretation she decisively takes ownership.

Two of those songwriters are Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. The album’s title track, and indeed, opening track, originally appeared on Waits’ 1992 album Bone Machine. Baez doesn’t have Waits’ gruffness – but that shouldn’t be seen as the songs being watered down. Her voice may have moved from Soprano to alto over the years, though it’s less of the shift that occurred to Joni Mitchell or Marianne Faithful. She takes a line like ‘been here since Eisenhower/and I’ve outlived even he’ and makes it apply to her; next year will mark sixty years since she turned professional with a performance at the Newport Folk Festival. That comes from a second Waits and Brennan song, the survivors anthem ‘Last Leaf,’ originally on Waits’ Bad As Me.

Perhaps the most poignant song on the record is her cover of Zoe Mulford’s ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace.’ The song references the horrific event in 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, when a man opened fire on a prayer meeting at a church meeting, killing nine. With Trump in the White House, and American gun laws proving stubborn to change, it resonates deeply, after yet more school shootings. This connects so well with what Baez has done throughout her entire career – she has used her voice to campaign for the oppressed, marching with Martin Luther King for the Civil Rights movement, campaigning against the Vietnam War, and supporting the Dixie Chicks when they faced a hideous backlash against their stance during the second world war.

This is not an album that lambasts listeners, nor is it resigned resignation. Despite it all, Baez still seems to have hope.  With songs written by artists as seemingly diverse as Anohni (‘Another World’) and Mary Chapin Carpenter (‘The Things That We Are Made Of), Baez still weaves together the different strands and influences to make her own way.

Baez has said that this is her final album and tour. If so, it’s a shame – but she will retire on a high, with grace and integrity, and remaining important. Respect is due.

****

Whistle Down The Wind is out now on Proper Recordings.

Amazing new video from Josh T. Pearson!

Photo credit Eliot Lee Hazel

The last time I encountered Josh T. Pearson, he was setting me ears ringing in Edinburgh last August, fronting a reformed Lift To Experience (it was brilliant, and you can read about it here).

He has recently announced his second solo album, entitled The Straight Hits, which will be released on April 13 on Mute. Having unveiled ‘Straight To The Top!’ a couple of weeks ago, he now unveils a fantastic video. Pedro Carvalho, a 21-year-old Brazilian graphic designer, who graduated from design school last year, called three friends: João Santos Ponciano, Laura Athayde and Marcos Vinícius, The animation took around four weeks to complete and is utterly worth it!

 

 

Album Review – The Breeders

Breeders -‘All Nerve.’ (4AD).

When the ‘Good morning!’ on the album’s first single ‘Wait In The Car’ reaches your ears, it feels like a re-awakening. The Breeders are back with their first album in ten years, and it’s something to celebrate. Given that it’s only the fifth Breeders album in 28 years, it feels like An. Event.

Back in the late 1980s, Pixies bassist Kim Deal set up The Breeders as a side-project with Tanya Donnelly (then of fellow Boston band Throwing Muses) and with the release of 1990’s Pod it was seen as the indie supergroup. By 1993, Donnelly was fronting Belly and the Pixies had split up. The Breeders’ second album Last Splash led by the hit single ‘Cannonball’ saw The Breeders become a big success on their own terms and in their own right. Crucially, it was when Kim’s twin sister Kelley joined the band – and All Nerve sees the twins re-united with the Last Splash rhythm section of bassist Josephine Whiggs and drummer Jim Macpherson for the first time on record since the mid 1990s.

We all know the world has changed in the ten years since The Breeders released their fourth album Mountain Battles (their third album, Title TK was released in 2002), But it’s so damn reassuring to have them back. Sure the links with other bands (and there are a heap to go and enjoy) contributed to coverage – but there remains a distinctive Breeders sound and feel. The undercurrent of menace that never engulfs, the subtlety of sound that makes Steve Albini the perfect person to work with (he first helmed Pod in 1990 and he’s back here on several tracks) and the way that they understand an album needs quality, not quantity – it’s barely more than half an hour long.

Ahead of the album’s release, the tracks released indicated that we were in for a treat. In addition, other highlights are ‘Metagoth,’ ‘Space Woman’ and ‘Dawn: Making An Effort.’ Signed to 4AD – one of the coolest independent labels ever – The Breeders have had deserved commercial success in addition to critical acclaim over the decades. They aren’t necessarily going to appeal to everyone- but that’s the non-listeners’ loss.

Sure, it may have been ten years, but it’s another success. It’s a reminder of why The Breeders are so highly rated, and holds its own against their previous albums and EPs. It’s an album you want to play again before it’s even finished, before revisiting their other albums.

In short: a triumph.

****1/2

All Nerve is out now on 4AD

 

Album Review – Tracey Thorn

 

Tracey Thorn – ‘Record’ (Unmade Road/Caroline International)

Fanfares should be sounded! This is Tracey Thorn’s first album of new material in seven years. Now coming up to nearly forty years of music making, in her autobiography Bedsit Disco Queen, Tracey Thorn observes that she has been ‘described as an indie darling, a middle-of-the-road nobody and a disco diva.’ Ms. Thorn is one of a kind, having managed to be so many different things to so many different people, and ‘disco diva’ might well be the lazily applied label which applies here. Yes, it’s her drawing on dance influences – amongst others. (For the record: she has never been a ‘nobody’ in my ears or eyes, or indeed, in many others’.)

Record opens with the appropriately, uh, majestic ‘Queen.’ A song that manages to be both for the head and the feet, it manages to be reflective yet upbeat. Thorn has always been a reflective songwriter – but she’s understood that that doesn’t have to equate to barely accompanying herself on an acoustic guitar. Hell, a lot of this feels like good POP music.

The album was conceived by Thorn as a record that would be listened to in the daytime, possibly on the move rather than being one for the bedroom. A case in point would be ‘Guitar.’ Not only is it impressive to rhyme ‘kissed’ with ‘catalyst’ but this tale of a girl taught to play ‘Teenager In Love’ would have been played out as a guitar-led track in lesser hands. It has the yearning for lost innocence served up in a perfect pop style.

For all the perfect pop singles on here, the album’s centrepiece is the nine-minute ‘Sister.’ It’s described as being a song about female solidarity and defiance for the dance floor. When Thorn sings ‘…and I fight like a girl’ it is no admission of weakness but rather one of female togetherness. It also features Warpaint’s rhythm section, and backing vocals from Corinne Bailey Rae.

This year marks thirty years since Tracey Thorn had, then, one of the biggest hits of her career as one half of Everything But The Girl with a cover of Danny Whitten’s ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It.’ She has described this album as being ‘nine feminist bangers.’ That’s pretty much an accurate description – and no bad thing. It’s clear that she is comfortable changing styles and reinventing herself. This is an album that is a triumph and as the album reaches its end, it seems so natural to start again…

****

Record is released by Caroline International on March 2.

 

Track of the day #52: Young Fathers

Young Fathers photographed by Julia Noni.

It’s only just over a week until the third Young Fathers album, Young Sugar, is released. Ahead of it, the band have unveiled a third track from the album, entitled ‘Toy.’ It rushes along with the same infectious urgency as ‘Only God Knows’  and yet sounds very little like it. It’s one of the most anticipated albums of the year around 17 Seconds Towers, so here is a taster.

Enjoy…

EP review – Ride

Ride -‘Tomorrow’s Shore’ EP (Wichita)
Last year Ride released their fifth album Weather Diaries. It was their first album in 22 years, since Tarantula, which was released as the band dissolved. Now the band have issued a new four-track EP, Tomorrow’s Shore – in which they continue to work their magic.

It’s pretty fitting that this should be an EP. After all, released around their debut LP there were four stunning EPs (Ride, Play, Fall and Today Forever) which were – and remain – stunning releases in their own right. By the end of 1994 pretty much everyone on their original record label, Creation, had been eclipsed by the arrival of new labelmates Oasis – but tellingly, they too released singles (usually four track ones) that formed complete packages.
Nearly a year on, a listen to Weather Diaries confirms that it really was a return to form, to the essence of their first two albums – but moving forward, rather than trying to cling to past glories. Tomorrow’s Shore stands on its own terms, whilst forming a companion piece.
Partly this may be the decision to work with both Alan Moulder (who produced their first two albums Nowhere and Going Blank Again) and Erol Alkan again. It makes for an extremely satisfying listening experience.
Opening with ‘Pulsar’ it striking that while the term shoegazing was coined because of bands staring at their feet (because of all the foot pedals, duh), this seems to be music that reaches for the stars. Even if lyrically it talks of returning home from another star. It’s fuzzed-up and fabulous, and explains the astronaut on the cover.
‘Keep It Surreal’ is reminiscent of New Order’s first two LPs. ‘Cold Water People’ is perhaps the weakest of the four tracks, not helped by the early part of the track sounding deliberately – and unnecessarily- out of tune. It does get better (and back in tune) in the second half of the track.
The EP closes with ‘Catch You Dreaming.’ A few plays of this track reveals it to be a Ride epic in the vein of ‘Leave Them All Behind’ ‘Vapour Trail’ or ‘Today.’ It’s got perhaps the perfect shoegazing title, and it’s something to lose yourself in. One of the best tracks of the year so far, in fact.
It’s worth finding the twenty minutes to appreciate this release. On this evidence, Ride have the ability to carry on making great music, and it’s a comeback that continues to be worth it. Let’s hope we hear more from them soon.
****
Tomorrow’s Shore is out now on Wichita