Album Review – Angélique Kidjo

Angelique Kidjo -‘Remain In Light.’ (Kravenworks Records)

OK, let’s try and take this record at face value. It’s a record that sees American and European music meet African music, coming together to produce a record that shimmers with infectious rhythms, singalong choruses and a general feeling of euphoria. On those terms alone, this would be a pretty damn good record.

The reality is that face value really doesn’t begin to do justice to this album. Remain In Light is Angelique Kidjo’s version of the Talking Heads’ seminal 1980 album of the same name, which was produced by Brian Eno. The final record of a trilogy he produced with the band, it is still an astonishing record nearly forty years after its release.

See: if the original album drew on West African rhythms, particularly the  Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, then this album actually takes the album back to Africa. Leaving behind her native Begin in the 1980s after a communist dictatorship, Ms. Kidjo found herself in Paris, where she encountered the music of Talking Heads, and recognised that this was music with its roots in Africa, something the Talking Heads were always open about.

Let’s be upfront about it: this is not simply a cover of the original album. It’s an album that takes it by the hand and travels with it to Africa. It’s not admonishing it, rather explaining where its original roots come from. The songs are all re-interpreted, and even if they are in the same order as they appear on the original album, they sound radically different. Album opener ‘Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)’ comes across as a call to arms. The song for which the album is best known ‘Once In A Lifetime‘ is celebratory in tone, and the haunting ‘Listening Wind’ is even more hypnotic than the original, its lyrics even more appropriate in the near forty years since the album was first released.

This is an album that stands in its own right as a key work. With an impressive team on hand, including legendary drummer Tony Allen, her longterm guitarist Dominic James, percussionist Magatte Sow, as well as Blood Orange and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, this is more than a tribute.

Outstanding. A serious contender for album of the year. I’m off to listen to it again.

****1/2

Remain In Light is released on June 8 on Kravenworks Records

 

Stream the album in its entirety ahead of its release over at NPR

Canshaker Pi review

Although Canshaker Pi had been a name on my radar for a while, when I finally sat down and listened to the album, I then did so repeatedly.

My review of the Dutch band’s latest album Naughty Naughty Violence can be read over at God Is In The TV, and why not get yourself in the mood, if you’ve not already heard this track?

Album Review – Blair Dunlop

Blair Dunlop – ‘Notes From An Island.’ (Gilded Wing Records)

Having rather enjoyed his last album, 2016’s Gilded, I was intrigued as to what Blair Dunlop would present listeners on his fourth record. If perhaps I struggled to find something on this release to connect with as much as I did with ‘356’ subsequent listens have revealed the charm that lies within. 

The album opens with one of the strongest tracks, the really rather lovely ‘Spices From The East.’ Sure there aren’t many songwriters who can work the word ‘coalesced’ into a song, but this is a beautifully constructed- and performed song. A song about a couple cooking a meal together could have ended up horribly twee, but there’s more going on behind the scenes here. The spices themselves are a metaphor for Britain’s colonial past, as well as those of others:

‘King Charlemagne sowed the finest seeds in the West

Filled his garden with sprigs of thyme

And the Crusaders, returning from their sullen quests

Opened the routes to a sweeter wine.’

As with much folk music, it reflects on the past to show the connections with the present and encourage us to re-examine our surroundings.

Another highlight is ‘Sweet On You.’ Reflecting on a relationship gone wrong, where he actually realises he prefer’s the girl’s mother, the song’s structure is reminiscent of Richard Thompson (which is high praise indeed, believe you me). He realises that if the girl didn’t like Ry Cooder that the relationship couldn’t work. Doubtless some will accuse him of snobbery for his ‘shame on you with your chart house and your tabloid noise’ though others would argue it’s just about being discerning.

One of his main collaborators on this record is Ed Harcourt, who, as producer, weaves much of the same magic present on his own records here. It’s not a groundbreaking record, but it is one which presents a cosy atmosphere, like being given a warm hug. There are a few occasions when it can get a little naff -‘Feng Shui’ feels a little clumsy and awkward, for instance.

There is impressive use of light and shade in terms of how the album sounds; it is clear that Dunlop puts a lot of thought into his songwriting. These sound and feel like songs that have been patiently crafted and reflected upon. On this evidence, Blair Dunlop is growing into a great songwriter. There may be some more growth to come, but on this evidence he is able to distinguish himself from the masses of singer-songwriter-guitarists, which has never been more necessary than in the present time. I look forward to his next record with interest.

***1/2

Notes From An Island is out now on Gilded Wing Records

Gig Review – Gretchen Peters/Kim Richey

Gretchen Peters/Kim Richey, Edinburgh Queen’s Hall, May 22, 2018

If, as I (respectfully) observed, Gretchen Peters’ latest album should have been sub-titled Eleven tales of heartbreak and loss from the American heartlands, then the evening should have been billed as ‘an evening with two of the finest singer-songwriters America has to offer.’ I guess there’s only so much space on posters, and it was slightly galling to arrive midway through Ms. Richey’s set, thanks to the latest set of roadworks in Edinburgh conspiring to make getting anywhere on time near impossible. Hey ho…

Just accompanied by her acoustic guitar, Kim Richey’s set drew on her latest album, Edgeland (spoiler alert: it’s very good indeed). She get’s a laugh from the audience when she tells us about a four year old God daughter she has in England whose favourite track is ‘Chase Wild Horses’ – which features the line ‘Things I’ve done that I ain’t proud of‘ – ‘you’re four years old! What could you possible have done that you aren’t proud of?!’ She’s collaborated with her friend Chuck Prophet on a couple of songs on the album ‘Pin A Rose’ and ‘Whistle On Occasion’ which get an airing too. Given that she has a full band backing on the album, in lesser hands the performance might have suffered, but she has the flair to make this work.

Walking on stage to perform ‘Arguing With Ghosts,’ the album opener from her latest album Dancing With The Beast, there’s something that strikes the listener as to the magnificent melancholia within her music. It’s not like the bleak melancholia that you hear in, say, Mogwai’s music, but a bittersweet melancholia that reaches the ears even before a single note has been sung. Yes Ms. Peters breaks your heart, but in oh such a lovely way. Going straight into ‘Wichita’ we visit the tale of the twelve year old who gets her revenge on her abusive step-father. This is Greek tragedy as played out in the American heartlands and utterly compelling it is, too.

This is a counterpoint to Peters’ stage presence, which is like those occasions you are given a welcome, warm hug by someone you have never met before. She chuckles, telling us the take of someone who a few nights ago had asked her to sign his copy of the album and commented how sad it was – ‘we’ve already had two deaths!’ she observes, barely three songs in.

As might be expected, most of the songs are drawn from the new record, though there are also nods to Hello Cruel World (‘The Matador’) and Blackbirds (the title track). During ‘Lowlands’ I find myself quietly brushing a tear away, when she sings about no longer talking with her neighbour since they put that sticker on their bumper. Sometimes what you don’t say or just infer is just as powerful as what you do, and this reference to how Trump’s America finds itself utterly divided is stunningly powerful.

She brings on Kim Richey to add vocals for a number of the songs, including particularly affecting versions of ‘Say Grace’ and ‘Dancing With The Beast’. It’s interesting to note how these songs live take on a whole new resonance – and that’s from what are often pretty damn fine collections of songs on record. Yet perhaps the most affecting part of the evening is when by herself, just an acoustic guitar and no microphone she closes with ‘Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea.’ It’s beautifully intimate and a lovely closer to a fine night.

 

Angélique Kidjo vs. Talking Heads

Having been somewhat overwhelmed by submissions (just for a change), I am really glad not to have missed out on this.

 

Angélique Kidjo, the acclaimed singer from Benin, will shortly release her take on the Talking Heads’ seminal 1980 album, Remain In Light. Produced by Brian Eno, the album drew on West African sounds, and featured ‘Once In A Lifetime,’ which would become the band’s first hit in the UK, helped by an innovative video.

Angélique worked with 2015 Grammy Producer of the Year Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Rolling Stones, Beyonce) for her version of ‘Remain in Light,’ which brings the landmark 1980 album by Talking Heads full circle, back to the sounds of West Africa that inspired the original.  It features appearances by Ezra Koenig, Blood Orange, Tony Allen, Antibalas Horns, Angélique’s longtime guitarist Dominic James, and Magatte Sow (percussionist for the Black Panther film score). Visual artist Kerry James Marshall collaborated on the album artwork.

On her own version of the “Once In A Lifetime” video, Angelique said: ” In the 1970s, under the dictatorship in my home country of Benin, it was really difficult to find music to listen to from the rest of the world. When I went into exile in Paris in 1983, I discovered so much new music, and among them was the song “Once In A Lifetime”. Initially, it felt strange to me. People said it was Rock and Roll, but it felt African somehow. When I performed in New York in 1992 at SOB’s, David Byrne was the first American artist to come see my show. Many years later, I discovered that Brian Eno and The Talking Heads had been influenced by Fela Kuti and studied John Miller Chernoff’s book African Rhythm and African Sensibility about the power of African music. “Once In A Lifetime” was released at the start of the Reagan presidency, and you feel the anguish and anger in its lyrics. I feel the same tension in today’s political climate. Bringing “Once In A Lifetime” back to the African continent, with the help of superstar producer Jeff Bhasker, Black Panther’s percussionist Magatte Sow and guitarist Dominic James, feels so right today.”

Angelique’s version of the album is released on June 8. You can see the video for her version of ‘Once In A Lifetime’ below. It was directed by 25 year old Antoine Paley, a student at Luc Besson’s Cité Du Cinema film school.

 

…and as a bonus, the video for ‘Born Under Punches’

Album Review -Brian Eno

Brian Eno – ‘Music For Installations.’

This year, amongst the many significant anniversaries for various albums (The Man Machine, Beggars Banquet, Deserter’s Songs – and a Beatles’ album) is forty years since Brian Eno’s Music For Airports. The first in his four-part ambient series, it wasn’t the first ever ambient album (a discussion for another time) but rather, the first ever album to be intentionally created as ambient music. Its long shadow is cast over this release.

Music For Installations really is what it says on the, uh, tin. Whilst some of this has been available before, over the course of 6CDs, it brings together some of Eno’s work for his Installations since 1985. His acclaimed works have been exhibited all over the globe – from the Venice Biennale and the Marble Palace in St. Petersburg to Beijing’s Ritan Park and the sails of the Sydney Opera House. Rather sheepishly, this writer has yet to see or experience these installations first hand – something I imagine will apply to a significant number of other listeners – the music therefore must stand on its own merits.

Generally speaking, it does. Much of this is previously unreleased, or only released in limited form (it’s the first time any of it has seen the light of day on vinyl). It opens with the gorgeous twenty minute ‘Kazakhstan’ and ‘The Ritan Bells’ which divorced from their original context, give the listener the chance to either be drawn to focus upon the music or drift off. It says much about the quality of Eno’s music that taking it at face value, there is enough substance to provide a worthwhile listening experience. ‘Unnoticed Planet’ is another personal highlight, taken from the sixth CD.

As well as the aforementioned Airports, parallels could be drawn with other Eno works such as Discreet Music and Apollo, though these are single disc recordings. It must be said that the work is great listening in small doses – but even over the course of a whole CD it can be a bit much. There should surely be no questioning the man’s talent and his significant contributions to music over nearly fifty years (that’s very definitely contributions plural, by the way). The phrase ‘for completists only’ usually infers a below-par work; in this case, it’s likely to be more to do with quantity and price rather than quality.

***
Music For Installations is out now on UMC.
Click here to hear ‘Kazakhstan’

Album Review – Gretchen Peters

Gretchen Peters -‘Dancing With The Beast.’ (Proper)

It doesn’t contain the subtitle ‘Eleven tales of heartbreak and loss from the American heartlands’ but it could almost do. However – and here’s the impressive bit – despite the themes that lie within, this is an album that is possible to make a connection with. It’s a very human album, and one that instead of making listeners feel ‘oh I can’t bear this! it’s too depressing’ instead, it’s one of connections.

Those connections can be things like getting older, and finding that you’re getting lost in your hometown, the opening line of the record. ‘The years go by like days. Sometimes the days go by like years. And I don’t know which one I hate the most,” she sings in ‘Arguing with Ghosts,’ the opening track on the album.

This is very much a record from a woman’s perspective, and as a male writer, with all the privilege that still embodies, I mean that as a compliment. She has spoken how the 2017 Women’s March and #MeToo Movement ended up as bookends to her writing time, and the characters inhabit the songs may come from her imagination, but oh, are they real. Additionally, there’s the little matter of the most recent Presidential Election since her last album, which sharpens her perceptions, and indeed, those of us as listeners.

In ‘Wichita’ we have the Greek tragedy of the dumb girl disfigured at birth who is abused by her stepfather and eventually takes matters into her own hands. The title track is sung from the point of view of a woman in a relationship were her interactions with others are being controlled. With such strong writing and performances on the record, there’s barely a dud track. If forced to pick a standout, though, it could well be ‘Truckstop Angel.’ On this song, informed by an article she had read, and an observation at an Alabama truckstop, Peters sings from the persepctive of a truckstop prostitute. The roll of the dice within represents the chance that these women take when they get into a car or truck to have sex with strangers in order to survive.

It’s a beautifully arranged album, and the music provides a perfect foil that could make those words so hard to take on board. In a funny way, the album it begs comparison with is the latest album from Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer. At first glance (listen?) the records may appear poles apart. But they are spectacularly on the money with their assessment of life in the United States at this particular point in history.

A real accomplishment.

****

Dancing With The Beast is released on Proper on May 18.

New from Mogwai

 

A new Mogwai release is always something to be welcomes around at 17 Seconds Towers. The only thing I could afford – and find -and somehow, I only realised this morning that a new track ‘Donuts’ has been released in the last week. It’s taken from the forthcoming film KIN.

Although Mogwai have released several other soundtracks before in their two decades plus, KIN marks the first time that they have soundtracked a feature film.

To find out what Mogwai are up to, you can read an interview with Mogwai mainman Stuart Braithwaite over on the NME website here.

The release date for the film hasn’t been announced yet, but the film is due out on August 31. The sci-fi/crime drama, directed by Jonathan and Josh Baker, stars Jack Reynor, Zoë Kravitz, Carrie Coon, Dennis Quaid and James Franco.

 

Gig Review – Broken Records

Broken Records – Summerhall, Edinburgh, April 26, 2018

Addressing the crowd during this gig, Broken Records frontman Jamie Sutherland tells us that the band’s fourth and latest album What We Might Know was actually made in 2016, and that, therefore, they’ve been sitting on it for a long time. With over a decade having passed since those early gigs and singles prior to signing to 4AD for two albums, they’ve grown older. ‘I never envisaged making a record about approaching middle-age and it’s almost a bitter pill to swallow!’ he tells us.

Of course, that makes it sound like the album and gig are a downer. And they’re so not. If you’ve heard the album, the band sound reinvigorated (no mean feat, considering they didn’t sound tired on any of their records). As this is an album launch, tonight’s sixteen song (count ’em!) set is primarily concerned with the new album. As they rip into ‘Let The Right One In’ it’s so easy to get swept away by the sheer weight of emotion on offer for your aural pleasure. By the time it’s over, Jamie has broken half of the strings on his acoustic guitar. He doesn’t do anything as rockist as replace them for the set.

Curiously, while many bands keep trying to add more and more to their sound as the years go by, Broken Records have actually stripped things right down. The cinematic flourishes which characterised those two 4AD albums at the turn of the decade have gone. When the set finishes with their debut’s opener ‘Nearly Home’ (the only song from that album to get an airing tonight) it gently reminds us just how far they’ve come. Rory Sutherland does still play violin for some of the tracks, but these days he’s far more likely to be playing keyboards on stage.

Bruce Springsteen remains a big influences on Jamie’s writing, minus the bombast, but the band are finding their own type of epic. The single ‘They Won’t Ever Leave Us Alone’ should be lighting up festival stages from Boston to Belarus if there was any justice (we all know that when it comes to music, sadly, there often isn’t). There’s other influences creeping in, too – Jamie tells us that ‘To Be Free’ was an attempt to write a song in the vein of Sam Cooke.

What We Might Now reminds those who may have forgotten just how ruddy great Broken Records are. Live there are so many songs that are just begging to be heard – ‘Open Ground,’ ‘The Inbetween’ and ‘Clarity.’ Our ears ring as we walk off into the night, but truly it was worth it.

 

Album Review – Adam Stafford

Adam Stafford -‘Fire Behind The Curtain.’ (Song, By Toad)

Album dedications don’t usually give you much of an idea about what to expect from an album. Adam Stafford’s new album isn’t your usual album. Even as a teetotaller, it’s easy to be swayed by the description of an album that is described as being ‘dedicated to anyone who has ever been hungover’, but also extends that dedication to the ‘down-and-out, running from themselves, running for their life, trapped in prisons internal and external.’ Eight years in the making, the album covers some intense and emotional ground, and gives the listener not only plenty to listen to, but also to think about.

Having been described elsewhere as ‘a neo-classical album that deals directly with depression,’ it might seem as if this album on paper (never mind on speakers or headphones) might be heavy-going. Let’s dismiss this right away: while it’s not easy-listening muzak, it’s actually an album to fall for without much difficulty, and to enjoy being swept away by. If there seems to be a lot going on here – not just musically, but emotionally, too – it is an inviting album, rather than one that seeks the alienate the listener. The opening track ‘An Abacus Designed To Calculate Infinity’ could suggest math-rock – and while there are indeed hints within, for my money, there is also a link to Virginia Astley’s 1983 pastoral masterpiece From Gardens Where We Feel Secure. It evokes images of beautiful countryside scenes being overtaken by the arrival of the factories during the industrial revolution- a fitting analogy for the struggles of the delay grind as we get older. This is a work that references the likes of American minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, the latter a particularly acknowledged influence on this album. Nowhere more so is this the case than on ‘Zero Disruption’ with its allusion to hallucinations.

Stafford’s skill is such that even during a piece (‘Songs’ feels inaccurate for the music on this record) that’s short, the music can move you close to tears. The album name comes from ‘Strangers Care When You Burn’ which references his own grandfather’s funeral and the point at which the coffin disappears behind the curtain; how he believed that that was the point at which the cremation started. While some rely on lyrics to communicate their feelings and emotions, Stafford’s musical textures paint a thousand words – dismissing toxic masculinity on ‘Museum Of Grinding Dicks,’ or seventeenth century misogyny on ‘The Witch Hunt.’

Stafford has been open about his battles with depression and anxiety, which stretch back to childhood. I sincerely hope that this release affords him some kind of light, because it is a very accomplished album indeed. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Song, By Toad as a label. Whilst there have been a number of excellent releases over that time, this may stand as perhaps the most stunning piece of art to have been released so far on the label.

****1/2

Fire Behind The Curtain is released on May 4.