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.

New from Courtney Barnett

Having topped the 17 Seconds Festive Fifty in 2015 with ‘Pedestrian At Best‘, Courtney Barnett is due to release her second solo album Tell Me How You Really Feel on May 18.

The most recent track ‘City Looks Pretty’ will be available as a 12″ single on Record Store Day this Saturday.

The two tracks already unveiled are the reflective ‘Need A Little Time’ and the rather uncompromising ‘Nameless, Faceless.’

You can order the album from your local independent record store or her Bandcamp page, and she will also be touring for much of the year. She plays a Scottish date at Glasgow Barrowlands on June 2.

Gig review – Alexander O’Neal

Alexander O’Neal, Glasgow SSE Armadillo, April 6 2018

‘How ya doin’ tonight?’ asks the soul legend as he bounds on stage. Well, apart from having endured the worst support act I have ever seen, I’m pretty excited to be here to see someone whose music I first fell for as a child, and who I even got to interview a few days previously. So, pretty good, thanks.

‘We’re gonna have a party tonight!’ he tells us, and with that he’s into a pretty amazing four strong set of ‘Love Makes No Sense,’ ‘All True Man,’ ‘The Lovers’ and ‘Hearsay.’ While some artists feel the need to push less well known works on their audiences, Mr. O’Neal recognises that his second album, 1987’s Hearsay album, is what he’s best known for. Indeed, this album (re-booted last year as Hearsay30) provides the bulk of his set tonight.

He’s backed by a nine-piece band, including the vocalist Ravena, who takes the place of Cherelle on two of the hits they had as a duo ‘Saturday Love’ and ‘Never Knew Love Like This.’ The crowd are ecstatic, and even when our hero disappears for a couple of songs, they keep the momentum going, not least with a cover of Prince’s ‘I Feel For You.’ ‘If You Were Here Tonight’ his first solo hit keeps him going, but within a couple of a capella notes of ‘Criticize’ (still his biggest UK hit, and nothing wrong with that, by the way) they go mental. It’s a fantastic way to finish the first set. The encore is, of course, ‘Fake’ – an extended version that brings almost everyone to their feet.

Much has been written over the years about O’Neal, but the reality is, he would never have been as big a star as he became without the music. There’s no need to rehash those who he has been (endlessly) compared to along the way: he’s a survivor, a legend and still putting on a show.

Respect is due.

 

Album Review – Broken Records

Broken Records – ‘What We Might Know’ (J Sharp Records)

I first encountered Edinburgh’s Broken Records over a decade ago. They were supporting Emma Pollock at the city’s Cabaret Voltaire venue, and there seemed almost too many of them for the stage – seven at the time. They were absolutely fantastic and I saw them numerous times supporting and headlining. They issued several singles and then signed to 4AD, who issued their first two albums, 2009’s Until The Earth Begins To Part and 2010’s Let Me Come Home. Their third album, Weights & Pulleys was released on their own J Sharp Records in 2014, and now, are after a hiatus they have given What We Might Know, again on their own label.

The album opens with the stirring ‘They Won’t Ever Leave Us Alone’ and ‘Let The Right One In’ which feel like a call to arms. It must be observed that they’ve never sounded so consistently upbeat on record. That’s not to say they’ve sounded miserable for their career, but the euphoria and energy within is infectious, as typified by a track like ‘The Inbetween’ which explodes like a firework display. A slower, more reflective track like ‘Anytime’ still exudes warmth.

Broken Records have sensibly avoided repeating themselves over the years, and there’s new influences that aren’t discernible on earlier recordings, or if so, much more discreetly. ‘Perfect Hollow Love’ and ‘Someday You’ll Remember Me’ sound like New Order meeting Out Of Time-era R.E.M. with a hint of soul, and while still recognisably Broken Records, it is great to hear them investigating new avenues and incorporating them into their music.

While they’ve always had an ‘epic’ sound to proceedings, if you compare this album to their debut, the sweeping strings have moved away. They still sound like a band who should be filling huge venues on a regular basis, but the early description of them sounding like if ‘Nirvana came from Belaruse’ is not accurate of Broken Records 2018.

That night I saw them in 2007, there was a sense that this was a band who were special. Despite lineup changes, the core essence of this wonderful band remains. Come gather round people, wherever you roam, and admit that Broken Records are as good as they’ve ever been, and still deserving of a big(ger) audience. Despite the time between albums, it has been put to good use, and the final effect is of a band who still have a good deal to offer listeners, as well as explorations of their own…

What We Might Know is out now on J Sharp Records

 

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.)