When you reach a certain stage in your life you can see from here to there. Maybe it’s a road that stretches out in front of you as a straight line, maybe it opens up to you as one of the Great Plains,but there’s no denying it, the horizon, it keeps getting bigger. You can’t fight it nor can you change it. It just is what it is and I know how it goes. There’ll be more phone calls in the middle of the night, there’ll be more goodbyes. There’ll be more tough decisions and more days when you have no idea how you ended up here at all. And when you look back the only thought you have is; What was I thinking? I was so in over my head.
But here we are, there’s nothing to it. Don’t think you’re special, don’t think it hasn’t all happened before. And if I get any notions you know what I do? I crank it up high. I fill it up to the brim. I polish my discarded dancing shoes. It goes something like this: To the left – step one, step two, and together. To the other side, do it with me now…step one, step two and …together. And then I press restart.
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?
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.
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!
I can’t stand Dave Matthews (the band). It seems to be mandatory to mention Dave Matthews when talking about Phillip Phillips, or maybe that was only during Phil’s tenure at Idol last year, but nevertheless, I have never been able to stand Dave Matthews with his nasally rasp (is it just me but does he sound menacing to anyone else?). Funny then, given all the comparisons, I don’t have the same problem with Phillip Phillips. I love Phillip Phillips. I love the fact he stuck to his guns on Idol and wore his grey T-Shirts with pride. I love how he just stood there in the spotlight every week turning each song on its head so many times it came out as a Phillip Phillips original, and I love the place where the music comes from. Deeply rooted in the fertile soil of a land called Meant To Be, the sound is re-assuring, steadfast and so grounded. Under the starry skies, in the glow of paper lanterns, on barefoot surrounded by fireflies, something so absolute in an existence where nothing is certain is like a warm hug where none have been coming round your way for a long, long time. Phillip is about to set out on tour with Matchbox Twenty later this month, and if I was anywhere near the eastern seaboard, I would beg, steal or borrow to get a ticket. As much as I like Man On The Moon, I would do anything to hear it live.
When Alicia’s new album slips from the piano intro into the first track, Brand New Me, it does so like a trickling river. And the river keeps rippling over the rocks, defiantly but gently. It’s a whispered word meant to be heard. The ripple flows into a quiet storm of newfound self-possession, in a breath of an echo, a string cuts loose to a brand new kinda free. Long ago four young men said it best in three simple words; Let It Be. As far as feminist anthems go, it’s dignified and graceful, and at the very core of it, so beautiful and plaintive I don’t know what else to do with it but admire in wordless wonder. Co-written by Britain’s Pop Queen of the Year Emeli Sande (most albums sold in the UK in 2012 as well as prominent role in both, the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics) it sounds like Alicia has found a kindred spirit in Emeli. Both are stunning singers and sophisticated songwriters, rare specimens of class in a gawdy parade of chart princesses. Brand New Me plays a befitting opener for a new year and new promises, for the 52 weeks, 12 months and 365 days and ways to say, I love this song.