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?
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.
“There’s no point writing about music, all you have to do is listen.” A quote I should’ve known before I wrote the worst music review EVER according to Jared (read it here) who then went on to eighty-six community colleges and my knowledge of music in general. Rather than engaging in tit for tat with Mr J. (I have no idea why he is so harsh on Community Colleges, I have never attended one but what’s wrong with some higher education, no matter where it’s from?) it got me thinking. What do I really know about music besides the way it makes me feel? Reading recent reviews on Gossip’s fifth studio album ” A Joyful Noise”, it seems most critics agree it’s the beginning of the end for a band that should’ve become massive in the fierce magnetism of their rrriot girl Beth Ditto, but who have fizzled in the pop hands of British producing team Xenomania. And there I thought (ironically titled) “Move In The Right Direction” was a fun alt pop throwback to a classic Madonna vibe. And it makes me dance in my chair, even though I really should be working. So, I will continue writing about music, no matter how pointless, otherwise I would just have to down tools, pack up my gear and turn off the lights, but I may give that reviewing malarkey a rest. In this day and age when every tom, dick and harry (myself included) can play critic, I would just rather turn up the dial and boogie. Besides, why so serious, guys? What’s wrong with a bit of joyful noise?
I love the extravagant gestures. The dressing up as Verdi (in full period costume) for the opening night of the first Rufus Wainwright opera “Prima Donna” and the note-for-note recreation of Judy’s (Garland) famous 1961 Garnegie Hall concert. Then there’s the fabulous melodrama; the flick of the hair, the languidly crossed legs, the sharp self-deprecating quips. Rufus is like rich, effluvious Marmite oozing sticky salt beads on your breakfast plate, you either love him or he is an acquired taste. All the grandstanding aside, to me he writes beautiful, complicated, luxurious and exuberant pop songs with the nonchalant ease usually reserved only for the very talented, beautiful or rich. (Not to say he isn’t all three). And then there’s the delivery. The secrets of the universe could be found somewhere in the fragile folds of “Do It Again“, so vulnerable and pleading it is not interpreting a song, it is inhabiting a song. Out of the Game has a much lighter touch, a breezy West Coast “warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air” feel about it. It is best played echoing through the house on a sunny afternoon, shoeless and careless with a large glass of white in one hand and an imaginary microphone in another; all together now, get ready to join in…. “Look at you, look at you, look at you– (at the top of your lungs go for it!! ) SUCKERS!!!”