It was one of those typically English summer evenings when the air was thick with roses and the sky burnt a pink horizon. There might have even been a fox screeching somewhere. I was sitting in front of the television sipping a gin & tonic as the sun went down over Glastonbury. Or it could have been Reading, hardly matters, I do festivals like most other middle-aged people do. Sitting comfortably. 1975 took to the stage and I remember thinking: Now there’s a band of 4 scrawny kids from Birmingham playing just the kind of infectious rock’n’pop that will end up directly on to the pages of this blog. So here it is, 1975 with their biggest hit “Girls”. That night spent in front of a sea of festival flags coincided with me finishing “31 Songs” by Nick Hornby, a book of essays based on his favourite songs. The book is kind of like this blog, except way better. (National Book Critics Circle Award winning better in fact.) In the beginning of the book he makes it clear he does not want to write about songs as memories. No walks down memory lane about what he was doing when Rod Stewart was asking if he was sexy on the radio. (Kids, look it up, it’s a song. I was in Italy and it was the summer of ’79.) Whereas I definitely don’t filter the songs here through memories either, reading “31 Songs” made me realise I definitely filter a lot of songs through a decade. Ironic as Matt Healy & Co are called 1975 but seriously, does anyone else hear Howard Jones on “Girls?” Or do I have a box of 80s crayons and I just keep colouring in?
London is grey. It’s gritty and grainy and broken windows on tiny alleyways. It’s worn off glamour and better days. But London is also a sound. It’s Sam Smith, John Neman and Disclosure. It’s Rudimental, Dizzy Rascal and Naughty Boy. And coming this November, it’s also Mary J Blige. The queen of R&B has descended. We are not worthy. This past summer Mary spent a month on Abbey Road working with Sam Roman, Sam Smith, Emeli Sande and other London scene luminaries, the result of which is The London Sessions album. To say that I’m waiting for this album like I’m waiting for the moon to rise, is an understatement. Mary J Blige is a diamond.The guest vocals she did on Disclosure’s F for You, were not guest vocals. She owned that song. At 43 and with over a decade of hits behind her, Mary could just sit on her laurels and wave her 9 Grammy Awards at London’s face. Instead she has gleaned on that one thing that makes London special, something us Londoners are very proud of. Our free spirit. “The music (in the UK) is free the way it used to be in the States. Artists are just free to do what they love. Listening to the radio you can hear the freedom.” Therapy, the first release from The London Sessions is co-written by Sam Smith, but the heart of it quite clearly beats to the sound of London’s own lost wild child, Amy Winehouse.
Sometimes first listens are disorientating. Our brains are programmed to fit things into boxes, data flick through past refrences, index categories by source, path and genre. But when none of that applies, its like watching an emperor in his new clothes. He says he is wearing them but your mind is computing… did I just see what I thought I did? That pretty much describes my relationship with Grimes. I admire her for her versatily. I envy her fabulously surreal mind. Yet at the same time, I am baffled by the sonic chaos. The weird and wonderful Claire Elise Boucher, 26 year old artist from Montreal, manages to sound like a Japanese Kabuki singer on Nightmusic and a synthpop engenue on Oblivion. What the mind does not completely understand is completely irresistible. So I go back and take another data hit. And again. And again. Its tickling the brain cells. Sticking onto the white matter, crawling under the skin. There is no straight path from verse bridge to chorus, then repeat. It takes a step, then floats, then body grooves in dark corners. It’s odd. It’s original. And even though “Go” is probably Grimes’s most obviously commercial single to date, (and originally written for and rejected by Rhianna) it does not comfortably fit into high rotation on drivetime. That’s what makes me admire her the most.
I don’t remember most of the episode nor the events leading up to it. All I remember is Adam Driver sitting on a bench somewhere in New York (or was it even him?) as the dusk was settling on the horizon. I was recently binge watching “Girls”, and as much as I liked the series, what I really walked away with was a song. Lena Dunham had asked twin duo Tegan and Sara to cover the Rolling Stones ballad “Fool to Cry” for the show. To be fair, I had no idea it was a Stones cover until I did some digging around. (“Girls” soundtracks are a slam dunk of brilliance by the way with Robyn, Fleet Foxes, Icona Pop, Jake Bugg… all masterminded by music supervisor Manish Ravel who’s a real wizard in setting music to mood.) I don’t know if it says more about Mick & Keith (Fool to Cry was originally recorded for the Rolling Stones 1976 album “Black and Blue”) or the brilliance of Tegan and Sara, but the sweet simple melody fell like soothing rain at the end of quite a heart-rending episode. The melting harmonies, the light guitar, the weary lyrics of apprehension, all end up as a surprisingly consoling piece of music. Like a deep exhale after a long day. Or a warm hug after an even longer year.
I cannot sleep. Kate Bush is wading a dream. Slow motion worlds falling. Transcending. Love floating. Tears hiding. Memories rising. Future shifting. Softly, softly, feet don’t touch the ground. I close my eyes and I keep falling. Falling with the music drifting. I know all about snow. Stinging my face. Out of the grayness. Coming at me as I spin. And my mother is there, waiting. The music repeats in circles. Stirring undercurrents like engines. Repeating like the heart. I almost catch it…and then lose it again. Then I feel it reverberating. Dimming, fading…gone.
Kate Bush cannot be explained. She defies words. Convention does not apply. Tomorrow she returns live on stage after 35 years. This is what happened to me when I plunged in to “Snowflake”, the opening track on 50 Words for Snow. In the middle of the night, I could not sleep. Then I listened. Your words may not be the same as mine. And there lies the beautiful mystery. She always knows where you want to go.
One thing La Roux decidedly isn’t is young, foolish and green (it’s a touching lyric in her new single Let me Down Gently). It was five years ago La Roux won a Grammy, had world-wide hits with In For The Kill and Bulletproof and was a red-headed Annie Lennox re-incarnate with an 80s new wave quiff and a sound to match. Then it all went silent. For f-i-v-e years. It’s a touch of self mocking irony the new album is called Trouble in Paradise. For La Roux it seemed to be a case of be careful what you wish for. After the success of the hit filled debut album, Elly split with her songwriting partner, (the other part of La Roux, Ben Langmaid) suffered debilitating panic attacks and lost her ability to sing. As she says in an interview with the Guardian: “I thought my career was over.” Whatever those troubles were, they seem a long-lost memory now. Elly Jackson is back! And she is just as seductively Annie, although a bit softer in the emotionally charged Let Me Down Gently. The tone is muted, but the spirit is as blazing as the red bullet of hair charging through the foggy moors in the elegant video. I heard someone describe Let me Down gently as forlorn, but I don’t hear the sadness. Only courage in the face of inevitability. He has already decided to leave.
Maybe you remember a couple of years ago when Foster The People had a monster of a summer hit with Pumped Up Kicks, a naggingly catchy pop breeze that took over the airwaves from LA to London and round the world again. (I remember a particularly hot summer night dancing around to it on repeat, and yes, there may have been some vino involved.) Well, I have just found this year’s Pumped Up Kicks and it comes courtesy of the Australian space cadets Empire of the Sun. Such is the greatness of their feel good electro tunes, that I don’t even care they’ve come up with some Captain Fantastic type names and pretend to be from some planet where they seem to spend most of their time hammering out swanky head-gear and fighting off an evil King of Shadows to save the world. (The new album has some cockamamie premise of lost jewels and animal spirit priests, or some such nonsense. Concept albums and theatrics make me yawn whilst simultaneously rolling my eyes.) However, the lead single “Alive” makes me want to live on that planet where I can shout into the light blue electric “Love you every minute cause you make me feel so alive…alive!” whilst dodging sun rays reflecting off Luke Steel’s impressive steel crown. Oh, it’s beautiful there. The horizon is as wide and blue as the sea. There’s a whole album of this happiness, of these euphoric and glitzy electro floor fillers. “I don’t wanna be so complicated” Luke Steel sings on “Concert Pitch” and I think that pretty much sums it up. “Ice On The Dune” album is full of happy pop, made for long summer nights and even longer summer holidays. Someone called this a Bacardi Breezer of an album. A perfect analogy.
Jamie Cullum is Britain’s biggest selling jazz artist of all time. I was one of the millions seduced by his pop pixie looks and accessible white T-Shirts and jeans demeanour and I saw him live at Royal Albert Hall. He is a demon at the piano. He tickles, slams, bangs and creates runs like I’ve never seen before. But he also holds the quiet in the palm of the audience, inhabits the sound. His new album Momentum is perhaps a bit more poppy than his previous efforts. If you listen carefully you can hear a little Coldplay here, a bit of Rhianna there (“Save Your Soul” has a definite Rhianna-esque eh-eh-eh moment) and even some Ed Sheeran troubadour confessionals at the guitar. But tagged at the end are the real bread and butter of Jamie’s craft, the heart and soul of Momentum, the live Abbey Road sessions. This is my Sunday evenings, kicking back with a glass of red in my hand. Old Cole Porter standard “Love For Sale” travels with a “The Way You Make Me Feel” (Michael Jackson) groove. “Pure Imagination” is a slow dance in the middle of the room. “Sad, Sad World” brings in the beautiful Laura Mvula and my hands involuntarily conduct an invisible emotion. When Jamie hits the “let it fall” notes I notice recoiling back, almost pushing away from the power. The most compelling music has a physical reaction.
I dare you. Play Mika. Listen to any song he has written, and I dare you not to sing it in your head all day. He writes glitterball melody hooks and hits the chorus like a pop marshmallow sledgehammer. He has been compared to Freddie Mercury in showmanship, but the best description I have read was in a BBC review of his latest album “Origin of Love” where they called him a one man Scissor Sisters. He won’t be boxed in. He plays his perky flamboyant persona to pop star perfection. Why he isn’t mentioned in the same breath as some of our biggest pop songwriters I’ll never know. “Origin of Love” has been thin on bona-fide radio hits, for which I blame the corporate programmers rather than the original source. Having said that, here comes the devilish Popular Song which samples a Broadway showtune (Wicked!) and delivers a sucker punch to bullies like only jazz hands could. Or a production number in Glee. Add to this particular witch’s brew teen Nickelodeon star Ariana Grande and a bubbly order of revenge is ready to be served in a popular song. Pun definitely intended.
If there ever was a band that was born to make the rousing anthem for the London 2012 Olympics, Muse was always going to be it. Stadiums were going to vibrate with their wall of sound, sea of hands was going to reach for the skies in unified rapture of sport, music, love and understanding, voices were going to sing in unison across the globe… and then Muse delivered a rock’s answer to Wagner. A pompous and nebulous piece all about “survival and revealing strength in front of human race”, which made it sound less like a celebration of human spirit and more like some small alien dictator rubbing his tentacles together plotting the earth’s demise. So, not so many sing-a-longs then. To be fair, “Survival” as the track was indeed called, was part of Muse’s 6th album The 2nd Law which according to Matt Bellamy was “Christian gangsta-rap jazz odyssey, with some ambient rebellious dubstep and face-melting metal flamenco cowboy psychedelia”. (Say what now?) Remember when Muse was ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ sexy-sleazy-funky and most of all…fun? The fifth release from The 2nd Law, Panic Station is more like it in my book. I’m glad humour is back on the menu, and I’m not even referring to the monster-mash of a video where Bellamy struts in red feathers on the streets of Tokyo and all sorts of comic book creatures plight the horizon, but the music itself has found its hot slammin’ groove again. In a twitter Q&A to promote The 2nd Law, one owl eared fan ( not a derogatory comment about some poor Muse fan, but owls have the sharpest hearing in the animal kingdom) said Panic Station sounds a bit like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, and the band answered the song was a tribute in some way as it reminded them of their youth, which of course Michael Jackson’s music was a part of. So the eclectic influences and the inter-galactic stadium shattering stomp is still there, only now with a singable chorus. And they brought the sexy back, yeah!