Album Review – Ardentjohn

Ardentjohn – ‘Malin Head.’ (Adulation)

So, it’s technically summer, although in the British Isles, that’s always a bit of a gamble if you’re hoping to get decent weather. Still it gives us something to talk about, right? And while Metronomy may have delivered the track of the summer in ‘Salted Caramel Ice Cream,’ before long, the nights will be noticeably drawing in, and it will need a suitable soundtrack of Scottish melancholia.

Well, never fear, your next dose of magnificent Scottish melancholia is here. Opening with ‘Magic Everywhere’ the soundtrack is bittersweet, that feeling that things are coming to an end, or at least, not standing still, as long as you might like. And all you can do is revel in the beauty of the sunset, or you might cry. Well, hell, you might just cry anyway. It’s been a long day.

The strength of the opener is such that the title track and ‘I Wasn’t There’ (the latter with a Doves meets Coral feel, for those of you who can still remember 2002), can take a few listens before they gel as much. But like many great albums, this is one where repeated listens reap the benefits within.

Comparisons with Mogwai might not immediately be accurate or entirely spot on, but the ‘gwai can capture an emotion in a way that has a similar feel to this record. And it’s that feel that is also evident in the likes of Frightened Rabbit (sigh), The Blue Nile or Meursault. It’s those acts that show the power of sadness and somehow make it a truly beautiful thing. This is evidenced on tracks like ‘Longing To Fly’ with its repeated refrain of ‘no I won’t be afraid.’ Sometimes it’s all so, well, pretty, like on ‘Daydreaming.’ It’s just such an impressive whole as an album.

Spend forty-five minutes with this album, and the chances are those minutes will be repeated many times over…

****

Malin Head is released by Adulation on July 12.

Album review – Hackney Colliery Band

Hackney Colliery Band – Collaborations: Volume One

It’s now twenty years since the Fast Show with its mockery of the jazz scene ‘Niiiice.’ etc etc. But if that’s affecting how you view jazz, never mind or listen to it, then you need to get a different take on it.

Of course, the big name over the last twelve months has been Kamasi Washington, whose album Heaven And Earth did well in the rock press end of year polls, and there’s been a fair bit of focus on British jazz groups too – Sons Of Kemet and Ezra Collective- that makes it seem jazz is being covered in a way not seen since Courtney Pine released his acclaimed Journey To The Urge Within.

So let’s focus on the Hackney Colliery Band. This year they made their Glastonbury debut and celebrate their tenth anniversary. This album is an exciting mix of jazz styles that is accessible and welcoming, without ever stopping being special.

The first music to do the rounds was the single ‘Netsanet’ featuring Mulatu Astatke. This is an exploration of Mulatu’s trademark Ethio-jazz, which he pretty much invented. The album opens with ‘Mm Mm’ featuring Angélique Kidjo, who was once described as Africa’s premier diva.

The longest track within is ‘Climbing Up My Own Life Until I Die.’ A spoken word collaboration it can be extremely hard work (this listener would prefer it as an instrumental), but it still fits into the album.

Sure there have been Nirvana and Prodigy covers in the past, but this sees the Hackney Colliery Band step into the light, with collaborations but no compromise. A thrill from start to finish.

Collaborations Volume One is out now

Forthcoming from Karine Polwart

Karine Polwart will release her new album Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook on August 2. The album features eleven songs which were written by Scottish artists performed in her own style.

While she’s generally considered to work in a folk idiom, these songs generally come from the rock scene over the last fifty years (though Gerry Rafferty and John Martyn would be considered to have had a connection with the folk scene). The album tracklisting is as follows:

The Whole Of The Moon (originally performed by The Waterboys)

From Rags To Riches (The Blue Nile)

Dignity (Deacon Blue)

Since Yesterday (Strawberry Switchblade)

Swim Until You Can’t See Land (Frightened Rabbit)

Chance (Big Country)

The Mother We Share (Chvrches)

Don’t Want To Know (John Martyn)

Whatever’s Written In Your Heart (Gerry Rafferty)

Machines (Biffy Clyro)

Women Of The World (Ivor Cutler)

The album was recorded at Chem 19, the studio owned and operated by the Delgados, where numerous Scottish artists (and firm favourites of 17 Seconds), including the likes of Franz Ferdinand, Mogwai and Arab Strap have recorded.

There will also be live dates around November:

14 November ABERDEEN Music Hall
15 November PERTH Concert Hall
16 November EDINBURGH Usher Hall
27 November LONDON Barbican

Some of the tracks are available to listen to already:

‘Women Of The World’ by Ivor Cutler has been covered by other artists including YACHT and Jim O’ Rourke.

‘Dignity’ by Deacon Blue is one of those songs that has become a classic, despite only being a small hit at the time. The album artwork references their debut, Raintown.

The album opens with Karine’s version of the Waterboys ‘The Whole Of The Moon.’ Radically different from theirs (no trumpets here), the prettiness of the essence of the song comes through.

Finally, Big Country’s heartbreaking ‘Chance’ is handled gently, dealing with concerns that are still very vivid in the minds of many people in this part of the world.

Gig review – Lauren MacColl

Photo credit: Somhairle MacDonald

Lauren MacColl – Edinburgh Queen’s Hall, June 26, 2019

There’s been some brilliant folk music that’s been played over at 17 Seconds Towers over the last wee while, but the two outstanding albums are Jenna Reid’s Working Hands, and Lauren MacColl’s The Seer.

The latter is a ten-track album that is music based on the life and prophecies of the Brahan Seer. Known as Coinneach Odhar or Kenneth Mackenzie, his prophecies may have been strange, but they included the Highland Clearances, the Caledonan Canal and Culloden (the last battle fought on British Soil). While there are those who question whether he existed at all, there are others who see him as Scotland’s Nostradamus.

Lauren MacColl has written this album, which draws on ancient legend and Scots fiddle playing, and tonight delivers it to a delighted crowd, to present us with something that feels fresh and current. No aural tartan tat here. As well as her accomplished fiddle, she is joined by Mairearad Greeb (accordion, pipes), Megan Henderson (fiddle, piano, vocals), Signy Jakobsdottir (percussion), Anna Massie (guitar) and Rachel Newton (harp, viola, vocals).

The album is a beautiful recording, but live the forty five minutes and ten songs become something else. There’s striking imagery courtesy of Somhairle MacDonald, but the intensity and sheer connection between the six musicians on stage is something not just to hear but to see. It very much stands as a piece in its own right, but the final two pieces ‘An Unkindness Of Ravens’ and ‘Lady Isabella’ are stunningly beautiful. Theres no wish to make notes on what’s happening, but instead just to listen and appreciate it. The standing ovation was utterly deserved, and I’ve played the album every day since…

Album Review – Meursault

Meursault – ‘Crow Hill.’ (Common Grounds Records)

On his latest album, Neil Pennycook recites the phone book for forty-five minutes and takes us the listeners on an emotional rollercoaster.

Ok, a slight exaggeration, but there’s something about this act that really does pull you in grab and hold of you emotionally. Over five albums and now more than a decade, the music has developed but the essence of what made Meursault so compelling remains. It connects with that epic Scottish melancholy that goes back centuries (and no doubt will go forward that way, too). At times it surges and becomes unashamedly anthemic, as well as freaking out 17 Seconds Towers’ cat (who is quite jumpy at the best of times, but I’ve never witnessed an album impacting on him like this before, either).

It’s a loosely conceptual album, thankfully not excessively, prog-rock like. Twelve songs that take place over a single day in the fictional town of Crow Hill. The second track ‘Strong-armed Son’ encapsulates what the whole album sounds like, bringing together the gamut of emotions that occur over the whole album, building to a massive climax.

A few years back, I saw Neil supporting Lift To Experience where he played his version of ‘I Heard My Mother Praying For Me’ by Hank Williams. In the hands of Neil and co. it feels like a hymn, as does ‘Nekhla Dog.’ This review’s taken a while to write as I had to try and get into the album and get beneath it, but each successive listen (and there have been quite a few, believe me) show that this is one of their strongest records yet.

So on the second album ‘back’ (and fifth in total) Neil and co. are back doing what they do best. When Neil quit basketball to become a songwriter it was sports’ loss but music’s gain, and I think he’d do well at writing a novel or soundtracking a film on this evidence.

Crow Hill is out now on Common Grounds Records

New from New Model Army

Ok, so it’s been rather quiet round here for the last couple of weeks. No excuses, other than that I have been feeling utterly exhausted.

So thanks to New Model Army for stirring my from my stupor. They have a new album out on August 23, entitled From Here. The first track to be released from the sessions (which took place on the tiny Norwegian album of Giske) is entitled ‘End Of Days.’ And this track reminds me why I fell for New Model Army, a band who inspire fierce loyalty and a devoted following (whatever daft things the music press may or may not have focused on). The albums was written in just two months and recorded in nine days. For a band due to celebrate their fortieth anniversary next year, they are still sounding remarkably fresh and urgent.

There’s a small ‘teaser’ video doing the rounds which whets the appetite still further…

…and there will be a tour (see the band’s website for details), which includes a date in 17 Seconds’ hometown of Edinburgh. You can also pre-order the album here. The artwork was done by the band’s long-term collaborator, the legendary Joolz Denby (a personal hero).

Album Review – Divine Comedy

Divine Comedy – Office Politics (Divine Comedy Records)

Ever wondered why the Divine Comedy are so adored? Office Politics probably has the answers.

It flows – mixing songs together that are so different on paper that in other hands they would be a mess. Witness the way that the glam influenced ‘Infernal Machines’ is followed by the South American jazz of ‘You’ll Never Work In This Town Again.’ If you ever thought that Neil Hannon and co. simply just aped Noel Coward then think again.

There’s so much here that’s up with his best work – the single ‘Norman and Norma’ is one of his story songs, about the couple whose marriage seems to stagnate after their three daughters leave home, until it’s surprisingly rekindled by getting involved in Battle re-enactments. I’m really not sure of any other artists who would come up with a song on such a theme – and make it so catchy. Or ‘Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company’ – the imagined theme for a TV show about minimalist composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich running a furniture removal company in 1960s New York City. What’s so impressive about this is how it really does sound like Messrs Glass and Reich… yet unmistakably the Divine Comedy. Go figure.

At sixteen tracks (thirty-one on the deluxe edition, with its demos of Hannon’s stage adaptation of Swallows and Amazons) there’s a lot to take in, and it’s not an album to simply put on in the background. Do yourself and the album justice by paying proper attention. Mr. Hannon continues to amaze, and some of those hits they are best known for are now a couple of decades ago…

This may well be the only time that Office Politics has been something to submerge yourself in rather than stay out of.

****1/2

Office Politics is out now on Divine Comedy Records

Forthcoming from the Divine Comedy

There’s many curious other alternative worlds, one of which is the one where the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon remained obsessed with shoegazing music, and didn’t explore the wonderful world of the last twenty-five years. We do truly live in the best of all possible worlds.

Their new album Office Politics is out this Friday, perhaps the first time that anyone will say that office politics are best avoided, and the latest single to be released is ‘Norman and Norma’ of which Mr. Hannon says: ‘”At some point I wrote the words Norman And Norma in my notebook. I don’t know why. I suppose I just liked the sound of the words. I’ve always been interested in the Normans (the conquest people). Perhaps that had something to do with it. Then I remember getting out of bed one morning singing something like the chorus. It’s always scary when you write an opening line like – Norman and Norma got married in Cromer, April 1983 – and you realise you’re going to have tell their whole story.”

It’s gorgeous, as is the video, which you can see below.

The album tracklisting is as follows:

1. Queuejumper
2. Office Politics
3. Norman And Norma
4. Absolutely Obsolete
5. Infernal Machines
6. You’ll Never Work In This Town Again
7. Psychological Evaluation
8. The Synthesiser Service Centre Super Summer Sale
9. The Life and Soul Of The Party
10. A Feather In Your Cap
11. I’m A Stranger Here
12. Dark Days Are Here Again
13. Philip And Steve’s Furniture Removal Company
14. ‘Opportunity’ Knox
15. After The Lord Mayor’s Show
16. When The Working Day Is Done

The video for ‘Queuejumper’ was released in April:

There will also be a tour of the British Isles in October 2019:

Sun 6th Dublin, Bord Gais Energy Theatre
Mon 7th Belfast, Ulster Hall
Tue 8th Cork, Opera House
Thu 10th Glasgow, Old Fruitmarket
Fri 11th Birmingham, O2 Institute
Sat 12th Oxford, O2 Academy 1 (sold out)
Mon 14th Bristol, O2 Academy
Tue 15th Leeds, Metropolitan University (Leeds Beckett University)
Wed 16th Brighton, Dome
Thu 17th London, Eventim Apollo
Fri 18th Manchester, Albert Hall (sold out)

The return of…Playing House

Hooray! I’ve been championing previous Playing House releases back in 2016 and 2017, and it’s great to finally have some new music from them.

‘Not Good’ is a change of direction from those first two EPs, with more of an electronic flavour, but as always, the urge to listen to the track again before it has even finished playing is there once again. When Mel Patman sings ‘tell me where you been hiding?’ the urge to yell ‘well, I’ve been waiting for you, too!’

Playing House openly identify as queer, feminist, body positive and readily support such causes, playing at queer spaces and charity events. (That’s the PR man talking, but he’s absolutely spot on!) Through their music conform and express ideas of love, identity , politics, as well as growing up and living outside of the heteronormative. Given the politics of the US and the UK at the moment, this is needed more than ever.

In the words of Mel herself ‘“Not Good is a surrealist look at the absurdity of the ambivalence to all things not good. “It’s a song that could only be written in the surreal reality that we’re living in right now, in the middle of the destruction of the planet, consumerism, inequalities, sexism, increased anxiety and depression. The song takes a pop at ambivalence, watching everything go wrong and doing nothing. It’s also about how those abuses take place in relationships. It was written following a really damaging relationship where there was gaslighting and manipulation but I couldn’t leave. Sometimes the safest thing is ambivalence when you are not permitted the power by people or society to change things. I wanted to write something that is both truthful and empowering.”

I’ve long been convinced that Playing House deserve to be playing massive venues, and hopefully this single will make that one step closer. Welcome back!

Album Review – Rev Magnetic

Rev Magnetic – ‘Versus Universe’ (Rock Action)

Rev Magnetic is the new band lead by the legendary Luke Sutherland, Scottish writer and musician. Versus Universe has been on my to do pile for reviews for sometime now, and I’ve put off writing it so far not because it isn’t a good record – it is – but because the 48 minutes within are so intense and otherworldly (not quite Trout Mask Replica, but not so far off in terms of being way out, if not musically) that I’ve been trying to get my head round it.

It is what would have once been described as a headphones album – the music within requires your attention, and there’s no point having it on in the background whilst getting on with the drudgery of day to day life. That way it starts to let you get a handle on it. Because, make no mistake, it is a beautiful record. Sutherland has been a frequent collaborator with Mogwai – it comes out on their Rock Action label – and that makes sense, too. Amongst others, the press release mentions Abba (I guess for the sublime pop within), Vaughan Williams (for the pastoral bits) and Stravinsky (for the utterly mental bits). While the phrase ‘our music is actually really hard to categorize’ is press releases is enough to drive most writers mad, this is an occasion when it’s hard to disagree.

This record was trailed by ‘Yonder’ and ‘The Gloaming’, both of which are very different tracks and yet give a good starting point for getting into this record. This record will take a lot of time to live with – and that may put it out of the reach of many – but those who do will find it rewarding down the line.

****

Versus Universe is out now on Rock Action