Films, Books and Music Round-up – 2018 (Q1)

A round up of some of the films, books and music that I’ve (mostly) enjoyed so far this year.

Films

Darkest Hour: Oscar winning performance by Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in a film focusing on his early days as Prime Minister during WWII.

Early Man: Latest Ardman stop motion animation based around when the Stone Age met the Bronze Age. Lots of gags for adults as well as kids.

Makala: Great documentary following a charcoal burner in Democratic Republic of Congo as he hussles to make a better life for his wife and children.

Sweet Country: Very good, hard-hitting (in all respects) Australian western, exploring racism in the Western Territory. Based on true events.

You Were Never Really Here: Joaquin Phoenix gives a great performance as a war veteran who routinely uses violence to rescue young girls from prostitution. Then he finds himself caught up in something much deeper than he thought. Another great film from Lynn Ramsay.

Books (Fiction)

Ascension by Gregory Dowling: Very good murder mystery with a good helping of political intrigue. Set in Venice in the mid 18th century.

Die of Shame by Mark Billingham: Excellent crime thriller in which the action centres around a self-help group of addicts. Decidedly different, and a real page turner.

Distress Signals by Catherine Ryan Howard: Crime thriller set around a cruise shipping company. Critically acclaimed, but some of the plotlines are rather preposterous.

The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer: Very good crime thriller. A crime reporter who is very closely tracking a serial killer explores the lengths she would go to in order to get a scoop as their lives become intertwined..

Books (Non-fiction)

Wild Tales by Graham Nash: Biographies are normally narcissistic, but this one takes the biscuit. The first part is interesting (about his early career including the Hollies), but then the book mostly drones on about the dysfunctional nature of Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young), and drugs, covering ground that he’s been documented before elsewhere.

Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen: Frank appraisal of the life and times of Springsteen and some of the people of America that often get overlooked. Even if you don’t like Springsteen’s music, it’s worth reading.

Music

Whyte Horses “Empty Words”: The mighty psych-poppers are back. Their first album was very good indeed, and this one is even better. Dom Thomas is a genius!

Hookworms “Microshift”: Hookworms add a dance spin to their previously raucous sound. Shades of LCD Soundsystem, in places, only much better.

Hollie Cook “Vessel of Love”: New label, but same old Hollie Cook, sounding better than ever as she works her way through 10 original reggae songs, all neatly produced by Youth (of Killing Joke fame).

Johann Johannsson “Englaborn and Variations”: A fitting epitaph to the sublime Johannsson’s life. Includes a re-mastering of debut album “Englaborn” and several variations of some tracks, either by Johannsson himself, or by others, such as A Winged Victory For The Sullen.

Nils Frahm “All Melody”: Frahm celebrates his new studio in Berlin with a blend of the classical and the modern, going for a bigger more expansive sound than usual. He also captures some of the sounds of the new studio along the way.

Loma “Loma”: Quite a low-key album (no pun intended), with shades of Low and even a bit of Clinic. This one’s a real grower that rewards repeated plays.

Field Music “Open Here”: If Talking Heads had been British, this is what they would have sounded like. This time around the brothers Brewis are trying to make sense of the Britain we now live in, in their own inimitable pop/funk style.

Albums of the Year 2017

Carrying on from last year, here’s my idiosyncratic round up of this year’s album releases that have given me the greatest listening pleasure. The list is ordered alphabetically. Feel free to add your own suggestions/lists in the comments.

AK/DK – “Patterns/Harmonics”: Think Clinic meets Suicide and you’ll be somewhere close to the Brighton group’s sound. First heard on Steve Lamacq’s Roundtable, where it deservedly received glowing universal praise. https://akdk.bandcamp.com/album/patterns-harmonics

William Bell – “This Where I Live”: The old soul master returned to his spiritual home at Stax and delivered a great (Grammy winning) album of contemporary soul classics. He was also the highlight of this year’s SummerTyne Festival for me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Re9BrElbrQ

Michael Chapman – “50”: 50 years in, Michael Chapman records yet another fine album with young Gunn (Steve) in tow. A brilliant guitarist, well worth catching live, Chapman continues to move forward, pleasing himself by doing the things he wants to do and playing the music that he wants to play. (I’d really like to hear him work with dbh.) https://soundcloud.com/paradise-of-bachelors/09-rosh-pina

dbh – “Mass”: The third album from Manchester’s dbh contains some exquisite guitar playing, echoing shades of Bert Jansch and Vini Reilly. The album blends in easterns influences too on tracks like “Light Pools” and “Blues II” (maybe the influence of Davy Graham?) A welcome space of tranquility in these mad times. https://threadrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/mass

Damien Dempsey – “Soulsun”: I’d read a lot about Damien Dempsey, but never really heard anything until this year. He’s much more than a traditional Irish folk singer, being happy to incorporate influences from other genres, including reggae. The thing I really like about “Soulsun” is that it has a sound that’s so much more expansive than traditional folk music. https://soundcloud.com/damien-dempsey-official/sets/soulsun-1

Darren Hayman – “Thankful Villages Vol. 2”: I love this project in which Hayman has travelled around the thankful villages of England (where all the soldiers came back alive from WWI), and in each of them has tried to capture some essence of the village in music. He also recorded videos in each of the villages http://thankful-villages.co.uk/

Hurray For The Riff Raff – “The Navigator”: In which Alynda Lee Segarra deals head on with some of the issues of colonization, refugees and gentrification. It shows that there are still some musicians out there making serious protest music, and doing it in style. Essential listening. https://www.npr.org/event/music/540576452/hurray-for-the-riff-raff-live-in-concert-newport-folk-2017

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – “The Nashville Sound”: Country, rock and soul at its contemporary finest. Isbell remains one of the finest songwriters there is, and with the 400 Unit is one of the best live acts around. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djUh1eHdepE

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings – “Soul of a Woman”: Sharon Jones was a real force of nature, and “Soul of a Woman” is a fitting (albeit poignant) celebration of a career cut short by Jones’ untimely death this year. There’s a lot of deeper soul and gospel here, which shows what a great singer Jones was, and what a tight band The Dap Kings are. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Ru-McU1zig

Steven Kemner – “Gradation Movements”: A late arrival, and teh limited edition handmade edition features the best packaging of the year. Five beautiful ambient/drone instrumental pieces. Perfect for chilling out. https://stevenkemner.bandcamp.com/album/gradation-movements

Memory Drawings – “The Nearest Exit”: Wonderfully evocative instrumentals from the Anglo-American band, combining strings with hammered dulcimer. There is also a (digital) album of remixes that comes with the download. https://memorydrawings.bandcamp.com/album/the-nearest-exit

Hannah Peel – “Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia”: A concept album about a fictional female astronaut’s journey into space. Peel brilliantly realises it by bringing together synthesizers with a 33 piece colliery brass band.  Older listeners will hear shades of 2001, but there’s way more to it than that. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VzoUJ-8_u0

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – “The French Press”: Short and sweet outing from the Australian four piece that raised their profile this year. Jangly guitars, spiky tunes, shades of The Go-Betweens: what’s not to like? https://soundcloud.com/rollingblackoutscoastalfever/french-press

Nadine Shah – “Holiday Destination”: Ranks alongside “The Navigator” as one of the most important albums of 2017, unafraid to tackle the contemporary woes of the Western world head on. Hard hitting and visceral, Tom Robinson made this his album of the year. Essentail listening. https://nadineshah.bandcamp.com/album/holiday-destination

Songhoy Blues – “Resistance”: Another album of defiance from Mali’s Songhoy Blues. Born during a civil war, they focus their energies on making music that matters taking their influence from desert blues and the Malian Songhai traditions and turning it into a contemporary African rock-based sound. https://songhoyblues.bandcamp.com/

Omar Souleyman – “To Syria With Love”: The legendary Syrian “weddding singer” is back, and this time with added techno beats. Don’t let that put you off though, this is still terrific music, made for dancing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXQbgO1vJjA

Footnote: Most of the albums were found through a combination of Uncut magazine, BBC Radio 6 Music, Bandcamp (often in combination with A Closer Listen), Clash Music Magazine and Soundcloud.

Music in 2017 – Half-term Report

Given that we’ve just passed the midway point of 2017, it’s time for a personal look back on what’s happened in my world of music.

Live Music

Live gigs have included trips to Newcastle to see King Creosote at The Sage, and the always excellent Michael Chapman and Ehud Banai at The Cluny. Much closer to home, the legendary Wiz Jones came to the local folk club, with the added bonus of Maggie Holland doing a few songs in the open floor spot. We caught The Stranglers supported by Ruts DC at the Alhambra in Dunfermline. Both bands are still going strong, and putting on great shows. A few of us also made the annual pilgrimage to Dundee for the Saturday of Almost Blue 2017 (June 30th – July 2nd), so technically it was really part of the second half of the year. There were lots of very good performances including the welcome return of Dr Brown and the Groove Cats, plus a couple of new names (to me): Riley James from the USA via Glasgow and Song For You from Dundee.

Recorded Music

On the album front, there has been plenty worth talking about. The decision of the UK to leave the EU, and the election of Donald Trump haven’t yet made a full impact on recorded music, although plenty of people have passed comment during their live shows. The one major exception is Hurray For The Riff Raff’s excellent album, “The Navigator”, which I expect to feature in many album of the year lists.

It was good to see the return of a few old favourites. William Bell went back to his spiritual home at Stax Records and delivered the Grammy-winning “This is Where I Live”, while Grandaddy ended their own recording hiatus with the widely acclaimed “Last Place”. There was also a welcome re-issue of Ethio-Jazz pioneer Mukatu Astatke’s “Mulatu of Ethiopia”, and Michael Chapman celebrated 50 years of recording with the appropriately entitled “50”, working alongside comparatively new guitar-slinger Steve Gunn.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit released another great album of country/Americana/rock (“The Nashville Sound”). In related genres Valerie June (country/folk/blues) and Nadia Reid (folk/rock/Americana) both turned in second albums that surpassed the standards of their highly-rated debuts, with “The Order of Time” and “Preservation”, respectively. The second offering from Ibibio Sound Machine, “UYAI”, was also a thing of great beauty, reflecting the band’s roots in London and Nigeria.

Several other albums also deserve mention. “Thankful Villages Vol. 2” is the second installment of Darren Hayman’s pop-leaning pastoral songs written whilst visiting all the Thankful Villages of England. “Existential Beast” saw Mirande Lee Richards’ bringing more elements of psych-rock into her folk/pop tunes. Sinkane revisited his roots on the joyful “Life and Livin’ It” and Rick Tomlinson combined elements of prog-rock, folk, and world music in a captivating way on “Phases of Daylight”.

The one genre that I’ve probably listened most to, though, is contemporary classical music (including solo piano). In particular, I’m talking about music from Max Richter (“Three Worlds: Music From Wolf Works”), Stefano Guzzetti (“Alone (Night Music for Piano Solo”), Sophie Hutchings (“Yonder”) and Levi Patel (“Affinity”). All very good indeed.

There’s lots more to look forward to in the second half of the year too, with BBE Music’s “John Armstrong Presents Afrobeat Brasil” and the forthcoming Lost Horizons album “Ojalà” both catching my eye (ear?) so far.

Albums of the Year 2016

In recent weeks, the annual lists of top albums of 2016 have been circulating. Working on the principle “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”, here’s a personal roundup of my favourite albums of the year. It’s broadly representative of the stuff I’ve been listening to in 2016, mostly found through a combination of Uncut magazine, BBC Radio 6 Music, and Soundcloud.

The list is ordered alphabetically. Feel free to add your own suggestions/lists in the comments. (Note: Michael Kiwanuka’s “Love & Hate” now added to the list.)

  • Pete Astor “Spilt Milk”. Clean crisp pop guitar. What’s not to like? Especially when it comes on white vinyl. (Also available on cassette!)
  • Bon Iver “22, A Million”. A bit less insular than his last album, which is perhaps why it’s more accessible to a wider audience.
  • David Bowie “Blackstar”. The old master re-invented himself for one last time in a sort of jazz-lite version with a bit of drum & bass.
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Skeleton Tree”. You have to see the documentary “One More Time With Feeling” to really understand the humanity, love and laughter that went into the making of this album. It still has the dark, anguished streaks that are characteristic of Bad Seeds albums.
  • Wild Billy Childish & CTMF “SQ 1“. Prolific artist cum musician releases yet another cracking album. Raw and raucous, and rollicking good fun.
  • Field Music “Commontime”. Great album, great band. I just wish I’d seen them with the orchestral arrangements. Always interesting in a David Byrne type of way.
  • Le Gros Ballon “Cinefoumatic”. The Italian Duo with a French name. Bright and breezy instrumental pop with a cinematic slant. Sound of the Summer 2016 for me. (Digital only via bandcamp).
  • Nora Jones “Day Breaks”. Great singer, great songs with elements of gospel, soul and jazz.
  • Damian Jurado “Visions of Us on the Land”. The singer/songwriter’s final album in his trilogy. Sits at the point where folk meets indie and pop.
  • Michael Kiwanuka “Love & Hate”. If I had to pick just one album of the year, this would be it. He really comes of age with this album: really good songs, big arrangements, great production (Danger Mouse). He was also the best live gig I saw in 2016.
  • Junior Meyvant “Floating Harmonies””. Iceland is a really happening place at the moment (playlist). This one has more of a soulful bent than most of them.
  • Johnny Moped “It’s a Real Cool Baby“. Raw, rock and roll. Took a while to make, but well worth the wait.
  • Nine Below Zero “13 Shades of Blue”. Thirteen covers of songs that come within the broad remit of “blues”, all done in a big band style. First rate stuff.
  • Agnes Obel “Citizen of Glass”. I really like her voice, and the orchestral-style arrangements. The title is also very contemporary.
  • The Rolling Stones “Blue & Lonesome”. Back to their blues roots, and made in just three days. Great stuff.
  • Shearwater “Jet Plane and Oxbow”. Big-sounding rock album tackling some of the issues facing America, and Texas in particular, where frontman, and all-round nice guy, Jonathan Meiburg is based.
  • Paul Simon “Stranger to Stranger”. Old dog returns with new tricks. Not your typical singer/songwriter album, it’s almost like a cross-section of all the sounds he’s produced over the years, with a deep sense of rhythm running through it.
  • St Paul & The Broken Bones “Sea of Noise”. Seven piece soul/rhythm’n’blues band with roots in Muscle Shoals. New songs with an old feel.
  • Teenage Fanclub “Here”. Despite now being widely spread across the globe, they came up with an album that manages to sound both typical and contemporary.
  • Rokia Traore “Ne So”. The great Malian singer tackling the issues that have been affecting her homeland in recent years.
  • Jason Van Wyk “Attachment” (Digital version available on Bandcamp). Lots of contemporary classical keyboard music. Most relaxing album of the year. A good one to practise yoga to.
  • Whyte Horses “Pop or Not”. One that’s hard to categorise–mostly pop, or rock with a bit of psych. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, and there’s plenty of  great music to enjoy on this one, which was Piccadilly Records’ album of the year. The version that was recorded with the children from St Bart’s School is also great . Whyte Horses front man Dom Thomas wants to make all their live shows an engaging audio-visual experience. I’m looking forward to that!