Happy Easter everyone! I can’t quite believe we’re three months in to 2018 already… What I thought I’d do this year is to talk about the top few new albums that have really been making an impression on me each quarter. So, here’s the first instalment!
Album of the quarter:
RAE MORRIS – Someone Out There
If Rae Morris hasn’t made the album of the year already, she’s set the bar bloody high for the rest of them. Someone Out There takes very little time to get into if you give it the attention it deserves but there’s enough substance to keep listeners interested.
Much of that is down to the first-class production, by Morris’ chief co-songwriter, long-term collaborator and now-partner Fryars (and MyRiot). Slick synths and crisp, deep piano tracks define the mood of the songs but never sound sludgy or overpower Morris’ vocals. The singles Atletico (The Only One) and Do It are sublimely-crafted for radio play.
But where Someone Out There really comes of age is in its deeper cuts. Tracks 5-11 contain not one weak or filler number, and most are real gems. A rarity in modern pop, Morris clearly understands the benefits of changes of pace and crescendos – she knows her non-singles aren’t going to be on club playlists so allows herself the creativity to really build up the instrumentation and vocals without having to worry about introducing a danceable beat from the start lasting all the way through.
This is exemplified in penultimate tune Rose Garden which builds up to a mass of infernally catchy synth swooshes over Morris’ rising vocals before everything cuts out for a second and the strongest track and percussion return for a few calming bars as if to let you catch your breath before the stunning final track Dancing With Character.
Wait for the Rain is an epic piece of songwriting, Physical Form would give any sentient being goosebumps from the first press of the ivory, Dip My Toe is a more straightforward dance track musically, and more in-your-face lyrically too. A lot has been made about the impact Morris and Fryars’ relationship may or may not have had on the creation of the record, one smoking gun perhaps being Lower The Tone which starts touchingly, and progresses into a freaky, sexy shuffle. Some critics didn’t like the title track (one even called it “wet”) but I think it’s brilliant. The piano works superbly, and for the album the more downbeat and doubting yet hopeful tone is spot on as like so many of the other tracks it builds up through the verses. The multi-tracked vocals on the chorus hit the spot too.
The result overall is one of the most expressive collections of electronic songs I’ve ever heard – I’m talking up there with Charli XCX’s True Romance, the underrated album of the decade.
That’s not to say the album’s perfect. No great album is. I’m still not sure what I think about opening track Push Me to My Limit. It’s a brilliant exhibition of Morris’ tender vocals – but it does seem a bit bare when you play the album on repeat and get back to the start again after the stirring Dancing With Character.
For me, the album’s one song too short (a symptom of its quality perhaps), but you feel that while most of the non-singles push towards four minutes, they could be even more potent in three and a half – for example Physical Form goes on for too long and starts to go just ever-so-slightly Vic Reeves club singer style towards the end. There are maybe two lines that chime just slightly out of place (see the “pour me a drink” verse in Wait for the Rain) and the opening and closing verses of Lower The Tone could really do without the distorted second vocal track. But the fact these tiny things are notable speaks volumes for the LP as a whole. They are all incredibly minor criticisms of what is a truly superb album.
Based on the strength of the singles, I wrote at the start of the year for Concrete that Someone Out There was one of the albums I was most looking forward to in 2018. When the year ends it will absolutely rank as such.
But where I imagined an album of carefree singles, Someone Out There goes in a totally different and deeper direction after the pure-pop blasts of Atletico, Do It and even the slow, swirling first single Reborn, complete with an almost video-game style backing. Someone Out There challenges head-on the perception that the skip-button-happy Spotify generation are rendering the album obsolete. There’s not one track here I ever pass over. Morris and Fryars have created a masterpiece.
GEORGE EZRA – Staying at Tamara’s
Staying at Tamara’s is the joyful second collection from George Ezra, and a real step forward in style. Single Paradise is a bit more produced than a lot of his previous stuff, and as a fan of Cassy O’ and Stand By Your Gun this made me even more excited for the new record.
Any album that starts with a total earworm is on to a winner, and once Pretty Shining People gets into gear after some signature Ezra finger-picking, it does just that and gets into your head from the first listen. Don’t Matter Now is just as peppy. Get Away is a more retro-sounding, even ska-influenced offering with some urgent guitar and percussion on the chorus and calmer verses – with perhaps the most complete set of lyrics Ezra has written to date.
At first, I didn’t really see the hype about Shotgun, even though Ezra describes it as one of his favourites and lots of fans have followed suit. Just because someone had the intelligence to put the bass high in parts and add a lick of saxophone doesn’t make it a good song. However, I’m pleased to report it was very much a grower, and there are a few very clever lyrics despite the silliness and painfully vanilla chorus.
Thankfully, All My Love comes with a very clever chorus, even if the first verse inexplicably made me momentarily think of Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick! (It’s the way he delivers “From the Eiffel Tower to those deep lagoons”…) Nevertheless, this song is a great example of Ezra’s brand of bluesy soul and could be a real standard. Ezra’s nuanced songwriting behind the everyman façade is something the late Mr Dury would surely appreciate.
The starting couple of verses of Sugarcoat are embarrassing – the words “once upon a time in South Africa” are never, NEVER a good way to start a song unless you purposely want to sound like a middle class white boy just back from his gap yahhhh ‘finding himself’. He pulls it back though, and with the first chorus it develops into quite a cute song, with the comfortable lyrical hark back to the globetrotting tropes of Wanted on Voyage.
Ezra also delivers some clever wordplay on another highlight, the beautifully tender Hold My Girl – a bit quieter and less produced than the first half of the record it may be, but it’s a superb piece of writing. Saviour features First Aid Kit, and the unlikely pairing pays off. The pared back Only a Human is deeper and darker than anything Ezra’s ever done before – although it’s not a million miles from his favourite themes of introspection and complete with the uplifting Ezra ending.
As you can tell by now, the lyrics on this record are mostly superb, in places more meaningful and with more odd wordplay than previously. Written partly alone in Norfolk, and partly at the home of the mysterious Tamara in Barcelona – this album nonetheless provides a real progression of Ezra’s work. Going straight into the charts at #1 this week, Ezra’s slightly middle-class creative process has been vindicated and it’s been worth the long wait since 2014’s Wanted on Voyage.
This is also a step forward musically for Ezra and his co-writer, the unsung hero Joel Pott. The backing vocalists are more prominent and diverse, and there’s more brass in appropriate places without it becoming an orchestral album. There are also more singalong, dance-infused tracks. Columbia realise that the novelty of Ezra’s voice is now not enough. He needs more. And Staying at Tamara’s provides that.
YOUNG FATHERS – Cocoa Sugar
Young Fathers have built on their previous critical successes to create another thought provoking album addressing issues close to home and further away. Only this time, their pop sensibilities have led to an LP which will accelerate their chipping away at the musical mainstream with more actual singing and more songs you go away humming under your breath.
An easier listen in some places than others, the top tracks range from the very listenable In My View and Lord to the smooth, catchy Tremolo. The vocals on the melancholic pair of See How and Picking You are beautiful. Toy is more urgent. The best songs Border Girl and Holy Ghost discuss migration and religion, and also include some signature rap. An excellent album of myriad themes and styles, each Young Fathers album has been progressively better and Cocoa Sugar continues this trend. For more detail, read my review here.
EP of the Quarter:
PEACH CLUB – Cherry Baby
The five-track Cherry Baby EP contains by far the most melodic, listenable set of songs Norwich riot grrrls Peach Club have released so far. I’m not a fan of opener Venus. Despite the angry music, the lyrics are too fluffy and euphemistic and just don’t match up to the direct, angry rest of their back catalogue, and the titular metaphor is weak – it’s an interesting new strand of writing, though. The other four tracks, however, are superb. Bad Bitch is Peach Club at their brilliant best, unapologetic, in-your-face and anthemic, it includes some extremely clever and nuanced lyrics and musical constructions.
Oh My God is the band’s best song yet, a short, sharp and hilarious rebuke to the idea of women being judged for letting their hair down (“tough shit baby!”) The title track and Death Becomes Her are interesting story songs, another new style of writing for the band. Cherry Baby contains some brilliant imagery and Death Becomes Her includes some more superb guitar and a more relatable version of the themes of Cherry Baby.
More good news for Peach Club fans is that according to their social media the band are now in the studio recording new music for summer. See what I thought of the EP’s songs when they were played live here.
Single of the Quarter:
ABAY – Lucid Peel
Former Blackmail and KEN mastermind Aydo Abay and Juli guitarist Jonas Pfetzing have released the second track from their project’s second full album (out on the 1st June) Love and Distortion, the follow up to 2016’s Everything’s Amazing and Nobody Is Happy. Six-and-a-half minutes long, Lucid Peel can be separated into two halves. The first features Abay’s superb vocals, as he sings about an ethereal morning. After everything calms down, we then get a barrage of sweet guitar from Pfetzing and drums from Johannes Juschzak, building up over the course of the last three minutes. I’d have liked the bass a bit higher in the mix but nonetheless, Lucid Peel can only be described as an epic – and a superb entrée to the album.
Read some more detailed thoughts and information about the single and album here.
This year we have an embarrassment of riches to look forward to musically. Later in the month, two John Howard LPs will be released by the You Are The Cosmos label. The Hidden Beauty is a compilation of early tracks from the first period of Howard’s career including B-Sides and lesser-known material. Also coming is a reissue of the legendary first album Kid in a Big World, on vinyl for the first time since its initial CBS pressing in 1973. You can preorder the LPs, out on the 20th April, from a variety of online outlets or direct from the label here.
By the end of 2018 we should have the second album from German indie legends PICTURES. Most of the tracks are nearly ready to go and they are putting the final touches to them according to the band, and the two they played on tour in January, Little Girl and You’re Dreaming. I’m also reliably informed there will also be a band arrangement of acoustic favourite Roll Up to the Hill. Elsewhere in Germany, as well as ABAY’s Love and Distortion to see in June (which will probably make next quarter’s list…), excitement has been stirred up on social media for a fourth album by Aydo Abay’s side-project KEN, their first in over five years and also with a new lineup after the sad death of bassist Guido Lucas. Initial sessions have already taken place for this.
Paul Weller’s next album, the acoustic True Meanings has been slated for a September release. Weller has played two songs from the album intermittently in the acoustic portion of his recent tours of Europe, the US, Ireland and Britain. What Would He Say is sounding excellent, receiving its debut at the Concert for Corbyn in Brighton with Danny Thompson. Gravity has been in Weller’s repertoire for many years and a studio release is long awaited. The rest of the album is unknown, but Weller has been writing a lot acoustically later, after penning Bottle and The Ballad of Jimmy McCabe from the Jawbone film soundtrack. His touring band will all be involved in the new album, including drummer-cum-guitarist and singer Steve Pilgrim who has played a significant part in the acoustic encores on tour, singing verses of well known tunes like English Rose and Wild Wood. Hopefully a tour will accompany the album, perhaps in a similar ‘solo’ format to the revered Days of Speed tour from the early 2000s?
The Magic City Trio will release their album Amerikana Arkana on Kailua Recordings on the 20th April (review coming soon) while something else I’ve already heard is Spearmint’s single Senseless (A Stranger) which is released on wiaiwya as part of their final 7” single series and has already been sent out to those who preordered ahead of the 7th April release date. Spoiler: it’s brilliant! A dance backing, with snatches of Shirley Lee’s typically considered and funny spoken lyrics over the top equals a real winner. Listen to the B-Side The Music They Love Us To Hate (a political tune rooted in current affairs which has grown on me since listening to them both together) here and read what Lee had to say about the single to me here. Downloads and copies of the frosted 7″ record (a thing of beauty I must say), limited to a run of 400, are still available to non-subscribers here.