Hurricane #1 – Find What You Love and Let It Kill You

Sixteen years after Hurricane #1 called it a day, Alex Lowe is back with a brand new album and a brand new line up.

Signed to Alan McGee’s Creation Records after forming in 1996, they released their self-titled debut album Hurricane #1 in 1997. Those of you in the know will remember the big hitting singles “Step into My World” (which reached number 29 in the UK singles chart) and the gorgeous “Only The Strongest Will Survive”, taken from their 1999 second album of the same name, and which scored them their biggest single by getting to number 19 in the charts .

Things were looking good for the band, but that same year they decided to call it a day. Guitarist Andy Bell (who joined Hurricane #1 after leaving shoegazing favourites Ride) left and joined the band Gay Dad for a short time before becoming a member of a little known group called Oasis. Singer Alex Lowe forged a solo career and has released several albums before reforming Hurricane #1 last year. He has also been battling cancer and wrote the new album whilst undergoing treatment in hospital.

Andy Bell isn’t in the new line up as Ride reformed last year so Alex takes up not only his previous role as lead singer, but also lyricist for the new album Find What You Love and Let It Kill You, released on 20 November through Tapete Records.

When you are wired up to chemo and radio therapy, the last thing you want to do is wallow in it and feel sorry for yourself so I had the idea that the album should be happy and not too darkAlex Lowe

As a fan of the band from way back when, I was keen to hear their new offering and have played it through several times to get a feel of what it’s all about. It’s un-mistakably Hurricane #1 as Alex has a very distinctive voice and I knew straight away who I was listening to. I do think you can tell that Andy Bell is missing from the record though, mainly because there isn’t as much lengthy guitar work on it as there has been on the previous albums. But that’s totally the point as Alex says he wanted “an organic album, back to basics type of sound, nothing fancy, just good tunes played in a good Rock “n” Roll manner”.

You will find Andy Bell on one album track though: on lead single “Think of the Sunshine” he lends a wonderful bit of backwards guitar to the proceedings. Alex also painted the artwork for the album so this has been something of a labour of love to produce.

The opening track “Best is Yet to Come” starts the album with a purpose and as we continue on with “Crash” which is a louder more energetic number. There are also some more stripped back songs on the album with “Feel Me Now Again” being a gentle, acoustic number and possibly (with the exception of the lead single) this the stand-out track for me.

I can totally understand what this album should be about, and as someone who has always enjoyed their music I was very much looking forward to listening to this record. However, and I hate to say it, it feels to me like there is something missing. And I guess that something would be Bell. I purposefully listened to some older tracks alongside the new album and found that the guitar work of Bell, his lyrics and the sound isn’t quite the same. This was to be expected though, and I should say that what has been produced is still an album well worth listening to. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with moving onwards in a new direction and I think Lowe should be proud of his accomplishment. Will the old fans like it? Yes, I would think they, like me, will be interested to hear what this new version of the band sounds like. Will it win any new fans? Quite possibly, and only time will tell on that one.

If I had one complaint about this album, it’s that it’s not quite long enough for my liking. Clocking in at around 35 minutes, I would’ve liked just a little bit more time with the band as 16 years has been a long wait. But, all in all, I’d say the wait has been worth it as this is new era of Hurricane #1 and I hope that this record will showcase that.

Cheatahs – Mythologies

In its first incarnation, shoegazing was barely a genre. It wasn’t a well-defined sound, and scarcely existed as a scene outside its own bubble. The term was part descriptor, part insult. Now it’s undergoing a great renaissance: Nowhere is 25, feted, and rebooted by a reunited Ride, and enough time has even passed for a follow-up to Loveless to squeeze its way out of Kevin Shields’ brain.

There’s a sense that Shoegazing is now more tangibly represented than in the past, when even bands associated with the scene were quickly disassociating themselves, stopping when they’d had enough. Moose were shoegazing until they clearly weren’t, Lush likewise. Ride tried on new footwear with varying degrees of success, while Slowdive morphed into Mojave 3.

Modern acolytes of the form are doing more than ever with the very idea of what shoegazing was, is, and could be.

Take Mythologies, for example. With its aposite name inspired by a collection of Roland Barthes essays about semiotics and myth, it offers riddles wrapped in mysteries, and hints at connections from past to future: an extracorporeal existence between the bounds of magic and reality.

Throughout, it takes shoegazing staples – distortion, texture, echoes, reverb – and combines them with percussive breaks and stops. It’s as if every flowing chord progression has to be halted in case it becomes too comfortable. The whole album is a journey of unknown origin, uncertain direction, along unmarked waypoints.

Opening track “Red Lakes (Sternstunden)” begins with vocals that sound backwards as well as forwards, and ends with snatches of German. Its title references the concept of a great moment, a decisive pivot in history. You consider whether this screams arrogance, before recalling the astrological interpretation of sternstunden as events dictated by the movements of the stars, the celestial workings beyond our grasp or control. “All connected in an infinite age” might be the first line of “In Flux” (distortion renders it difficult to catch), the track suggesting a greater knowledge than we possess. “Let us compare mythologies”, starts “Hey Sen”, before morphing into “Deli Rome”, itself flowering briefly through layer upon layer of reverb and more hard to make out vocals over a gently pulsing beat. There’s not much hook to hang on here, more a feeling of alchemic experimentation in layering.

“Colorado” pulls us further into the noise-well, down into the dense depths where everything is uniform, all unique properties subsumed into a wall of sound. Until the second half, where everything falls away. Pushing through the event horizon you reach a world of light patterns. Your brain tries to make sense of it as it would a dream; the resulting sound is the tantalising “Su-Pra”, which dissolves even as you strain to contain it. Then a moment of clarity as “Seven Sisters” wraps its tendrils around you. A moment of bliss is felt before you’re tossed into another confusing place and time: “Murasaki” is sung in English and Japanese, reflecting the work of the song’s inspiration, Murasaki Shikibu, who combined Chinese histories, narrative poetry and contemporary Japanese prose in works such as The Tale of Genji, perhaps the first novel, the first modern novel, or the first great novel. Perhaps all of the above. According to eleventh century court custom, dialogue is delivered in the form of poetry, sometimes by modifying famous works, often with barely disguised subtexts.

Semiotics is defined as “the study of meaning-making, the study of sign processes and meaningful communication”. Mythologies seems bent on testing the fundamental importance of both meaning and communication by offering as few clear signals as possible. Nothing is certain, especially intention. The influence of Cheatahs’ “gallery-based improvisational noise shows” is revealed in the way Mythologies gathers its pieces together without specific direction and then looks upon the assembly and suggests emergent meaning.

That’s not to say there aren’t obvious tunes and straightforward belters anywhere in Mythologies. “Channel View” wanders off towards brilliantly catchy college rock, “Freak Waves” hammers riff after riff with wild abandon, “Seven Sisters” is a sonic sundae, and “Mysteci” is the perfect wind-down your brain needs after an album’s worth of chaotic uncertainty.

And after the wind-down, of course, there’s more: as “Reverie Bravo” breaks briefly into drone-backed chant there’s time enough for one more celestial observation:

It will reach the apogee then it’s over

Whenever, or wherever that may be, who can say?

Ryan Adams – 1989

I wasn’t even sure I was going to review 1989. Having originally written my copy in the style of Paul Morley channeling Lester Bangs, I was on the verge of hitting the big red “Publish” button when Father John Misty appeared in a vision before me doing Jemaine Clement doing David Bowie from the 70s doing Jareth the goblin king telling me to “wait a minute mister posting man”.

So if any of what I’ve written sounds a little confused, well that’s because I am. Before even starting I tied myself in knots wondering how best to approach this review: do I treat it as interpretations of songs, not all of which I already know? Do I familiarise myself with Taylor Swift’s originals and play a game of comparisons? Do I take it very seriously, or as a jolly jape or playful homage?

I don’t want to get bogged down in the minutiae of what’s different, what’s new, what’s unchanged, what’s better, what’s worse, what’s richer, what’s poorer. Happily, this means I largely get to dodge the “mansplaining” minefield that some critics have haplessly happened into, scoring points for Adams on account of his fragile alt-americana man status (good), over Swift’s position as pop icon (bad, ldo).

Of course, it’s almost impossible to imagine 1989 as a set of pristine Ryan Adams concoctions; it’s hard not to be familiar at least in passing with one or more songs from 1989. But that’s ok: Unlike some people I am pretty pop-friendly; unlike some people I don’t have an innate dislike of Taylor Swift; unlike some people I don’t hate that Adams has chosen to undertake this project.

Even more specifically, I don’t hate “Shake It Off”. I’ve heard it, but not so much that I want to unhear it. (I just don’t seem to live in a world where I’m forced, against my will, to listen to other people’s music choices 24/7). I keep a fuzzy version of the song somewhere in the south-by-southwest parlor-by-living-room of my mental palace, and I can just about remember how to get there from my Eames chair in the library, from where I’m savouring Adams’ stripped back version.

It’s tempting to mention “Wonderwall” at this point, but although the end result of Adams’ interpretation of both tracks is lower-key, the Oasis track was not, let’s face it, a stomper. Aside from the intimate vibe, the best substitution was perhaps Liam’s more in-yer-face vocals (albeit vulnerable than his usual) with something less certain of itself. Here, a single block keeps the beat while Ryan cracks his voice, cranking up the intensity through the bars but never blowing up, or even really threatening to. It’s not better or an improvement, it doesn’t add authenticity to plastic pop, it’s just different. And at this point I neither know nor care how seriously I’m expected to take it.

Speaking of “Wonderwall”, here’s “Bad Blood”.

It’s interesting how Adams can make a cover of “Bad Blood” start off sounding like a song by someone else that he’s already covered. I’ll skip some of the logic, but what this essentially means is that Ryan Adams can take pretty much anything and create from it the sound of, well, the sound of Ryan Adams covering a thing. You see, what’s great about his version of “Bad Blood” is that it’s the kind of Ryan Adams track that you might find on any of his albums (apart from the ones where he does the heavy rock thing), particularly the ones that lead make reviewers use the phrase “return to form”. So that’s all good then. Except the flip-side is that he’s in danger of squeezing all these disparate sources into this universal cover-o-matic machine, and often the results are less varied than their source. As shaky as my knowledge of the original 1989 is, I have a feeling the sheen is less homogenous than Adams sometimes makes it seem.

Another effect of this big squeeze is a compression of sounds: “Style”, for example, wants to rock you, but while it sounds meaty enough, there’s a suspicion that some of it might be mechanically reclaimed.

Better is Adam’s take on “All You Had To Do Was Stay”, which is rendered as 80s soft-rock, somewhere between a John Hughes brat pack soundtrack and a Tango In The Night demo tape.

Wildest Dreams gets similar treatment, only minus the big chorus, making it passable, missable, sounding somewhere just shy of finished. I Know Places, on the other hand, is intriguing and wonderful. Initially shimmering surf-rock chords, it’s got a chorus you could sing all day. Thematically and sonically it’s not a million miles from Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know. (Seriously, work with me here…).

“Out of the Woods” provides the album’s other outstanding moment of Adamsing. It’s lengthy (but not quite Strawberry Wine lengthy), strummy (fairly Strawberry Wine strummy) and intimate and personal. It’s sweet and enchanting and almost justifies the whole project on its own.

The problem with 1989, perhaps, is that it seems like a perfect idea at first, but that doesn’t sustain for a whole album. Cherry-picking a selection of tracks wouldn’t have made the same cultural statement, whatever it may be, but it might have resulted in a stronger, more cohesive work. Maybe 1989 is just top-heavy with thumping hits, and meanders to its close, and that’s why so many of its better moments come early on. Or maybe listening in reverse track order could make you fall in love with the second half before ennui sets in. Either way it’s worth taking a moment to consider that one measure of any set of songs is their malleability: if you strip away the layers do they still work? Can you dress them differently and have them work in new ways? That so many of these songs can bear that effort and hold up should perhaps be enough to convince: whatever your views on the production or personality of the original, there are tunes a-plenty there, even if the style is not to your taste.

What Adams has created with 1989 is an album of two halves: one doesn’t linger in the memory especially well, not even fuzzily; the other is pure gold dust. In other words, 1989 is ultimately just another Ryan Adams album.

Various Artists – This is England ’90 – Original Soundtrack

One of the remarkable things about many of the songs on the This is England 90 soundtrack is how fresh they sound. Not so much because so much time has passed, but more because their time had passed so much. Or so we thought in the late ’90s and early noughties: first everything was pushed aside for the bright lights and political handshakes of Britpop, then we were buried under landfill indie. In the last decade or so, though, old bands have reformed and recorded new material, and new artists have stretched never-the-twain boundaries that once felt so strong.

What’s going on tonight? Is there a discotheque?

Or am I just old and nostalgic? Has watching Shaun Ryder on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and warming to his gruffness and charms bridged a generational gap between then and now? I didn’t see The Stone Roses play Spike Island, but I did see them play the Sziget (translation: “Island”) festival, Budapest in 2012. It was exciting, of course it was, so much so that Ian Brown could have had an off day (as if…) and I wouldn’t have cared. But I was enjoying it as a late thirty-something with a small part of his mind on hoping not to have to wait too long for a train back to the city afterwards, and with 20+ years of Stone Roses listening to fall back on to fill any auditory gaps in the live performance.

Still, there’s no diminishing the glory of the opening bars of “Fool’s Gold”, no matter how much time passes; a preceding snatch of dialogue from the series sets it up perfectly. And no matter that it’s only the single edit, it remains the apotheosis of that glorious indie/dance melting pot. The odd snippet of dialogue are one of the ways This is England ’90 manages to rise above the normal retro-compilation crowd. And it needs to, because the compilation industry has been making hay with some of this material for a long time. “There She Goes”, for example, is no stranger to the compilers, or indeed advertisers, and “classics” radio stations. The problem with these songs is that you don’t really ever need to consciously choose to listen to them: someone will do that for you at some point. See also: Beats International, Adamski, 10CC (the one track here that I am mostly skipping most of the time), and to a lesser extent Happy Mondays. “Come Home”, by James, on the other hand, gets a pass for its appearance on the legendary but flawed Happy Daze compilation.

The album’s running order means “Step On” gives way, jarringly at first, to “Underwood”, the first of three Ludovico Einaudi pieces on the soundtrack. In their every bar they are the essence of twenty-first century soundtrack: sparse melancholy, simple construction, and more moments when This is England reminds you that life isn’t all larks and funny Bez dances. It’s the modern way of signalling misery: keening strings are out, suspense, anticipation, quiet dread are in.

There’s just enough time to for it all to sink in: this is basically still the 80s in all but name. And then you’re into Kiko Bun’s cover of Toots and The Maytals’ “54-56” and the across-decades sampling “Dub Be Good To Me” crash in…

It also demonstrates another win for This is England ’90: even if you can find most of these tracks on plenty of compilations, you probably won’t find one with all of them on. You might, however, find a playlist or two somewhere on some streaming service that comes close: something curated; something with feeling and love, even if it is just the e-talking. Which is maybe how you get “Cubik” by 808 State alongside Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without A Face”, next to a final Einaudi composition.

And then at the end, there’s “God Song”, a rumbling, pounding new track by Toydrum. It’s fitting that it should close the soundtrack to what Meadows has hinted marks the end of This is England, given songwriter Gavin Clark’s longtime influence on Meadows’ art. After Clark’s death earlier this year, Meadows wrote:

He’s penned at least one unforgettable song for pretty much everything I’ve ever made and his latest, as yet unreleased songs, are his greatest and have once again become the emotional heartbeat of my latest project.

It’s a final reminder that this is not so much a nostalgic genre piece as a time capsule. The clever trick is that in some way it’s all our soundtracks, whether you were at The Hacienda or just mentally in madchester. For me, tracks by The Stone Roses, James, The Las kick off all sorts of reminiscences. My indie birth certificate puts me slightly after this time – 1991 was where it all kicked off – and I was very much in the indie guitar camp, looking across at the daft dance crowd. If the likes of 808 State, Adamski and The Scientist crept in, it might only have been through some random compilation backdoor – the sort of album where the compilers either had diversity targets or a preternatural desire to demonstrate their cool chops. Here they’re together for all the right reasons.

Static in Verona – Odd Anthem

While listening to any song I sometimes have this weird inability to figure out which exact other song it sounds like or reminds me of. Other times I’m left stranded between knowing a song reminds me of another artist, and recalling the name. On the one hand, this can make musical small talk a pretty draining affair from my perspective, with endless head-scratching, finger-clicking and “you know, they had that other song, about the thing. It was like ten years ago”. (It was probably more like 20 years ago. Or last month).

On the other hand, it does mean I’m sometimes prevented from offering a reductionist family tree of literally all the music I’ve ever listened to, in which there’s a place for everyone, and everyone knows their place. Better still, largely untethered and floating around in its own reality my brain is free to make loose-hinged associations based on whatever criteria it chooses. Which is how it occurred to me that “Heavy Hands”, the second track on Odd Anthem, reminds me simultaneously of “Chewing Gum Weekend” by The Charlatans and “I Am The Walrus” by, well, you know who I assume. In the case of Chewing Gum Weekend, it’s all in a vocal melody that pops up here and there, just a few notes is all. I’m not so sure about the Walrus link, though: it came, and it went, but it was definitely there.

The point of this unnecessarily long introduction, should there be one, might be this: Static in Verona may be the work of one man – Chicago musician Rob Merz – but Odd Anthem, his third album, conjures up so much more than you might imagine from that. It is an album that really pushes away at the fabric of its indie-pop tent, gathering in a vast range of sounds and feelings. You know that time when you got cornered at a party talking to guy one but it turned out they were by far the most interesting person in the whole place? No, probably not, because life doesn’t offer gimmes, but if it had happened, it would be like discovering Static in Verona for the first time.

The evidence: “Shudder To Think” kicks a prepared piano into the gutter for a Grandaddy-esque twinkle of electronica behind the verse, drops in (by coincidence, not design) the name of an Elliott Smith track, before really hitting its stride with a big booming ace of a chorus. A couple of tracks later I’m listening to “Then a Hush” and thinking about where I’ve heard a vocal like this before. Is there something Death Cab For Cutie about it in the verse, if not the chorus? It doesn’t sound like DCFC, really, or particularly remind me of them, but now I’m thinking about them. Maybe it’s something in that upper range of indie vocal styles that isn’t for everyone, but is for those of us who can go with it as long as it’s not joined by uber-masculine rockisms. Whatever it is, it’s sending my brain off again in all these manic directions, and it feels just wonderful. The fact that the chanted title in the lyric prefaces (ironically) a layered chorus in which the various components scroll by, parallax style, only reinforces the sensation.

Right after that “Forgetful” works similar magic, but I have no specific reductionist parallels for that one: it’s just another track on this album that comes alive during a great chorus.

Maybe it’s Merz’s approach to recording this album – a more relaxed method, allowing fragments and ideas to assemble themselves in the studio rather than laying complete structures before going in to record – that gives it this free association feel. It starts with opening track “Anyone Anymore” (Wannadies, since you ask), and also crops up in “Wait, Wait” (shades of Nada Surf?). “Even Tomorrow Feels Like Yesterday”, the first of the album’s closing comedown one-two that gives you back just enough breathing space to hit the repeat button, is screaming some name at me, if only I could figure out which.

Not that Odd Anthem feels like a tribute to, or pastiche of, some indie hall of fame. Far from it: what it does, and does so well, is remind you of what you already love, while at the same time giving you something new to add to the list.

Odd Anthem is, if you’ll excuse the obvious album title callback, the sound of one man trying to out-anthem himself. And winning at it.

Odd Anthem is available now, from Bandcamp, on a name your price basis.

Arctic Monkeys – AM

Five albums in, and The Arctic Monkeys are no longer the cheeky new scamps on the block (although I couldn’t help noticing that they recently still passed for what the dailymash considers to be “young persons music”) invading a nation’s musical conscious from underneath and within. Back in 2006 a guerilla gigs and internet releases campaign resulted in the fastest ever selling debut British album. Clearly, many believed the hype: should that belief hold firm this far down the line?

AM sees them going all slinky and west coast; as un-Sheffield as you could imagine. But that’s ok. In fact it’s a healthy progression: the question of what to moan about when you’ve actually made it and can’t moan about not having made it yet has beaten many an artist before them. The Arctic Monkeys’ response is to replace grubby and dirty with something that’s shiny and glossy. It’s still dirty, but from the sleaze of the night before, not the grime and regret of the morning after. Perhaps Alex Turner’s assorted non-Arctic projects (Last Shadow Puppets, film soundtracks) are a fast-track away from getting stuck in that rut.

The tracks that crawled out before the album’s release (“Do I Wanna Know?”, “R U Mine?”, “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”) each ask a question. All could be answered a youthful thrustful lustfulness? Excuse me, but it’s all getting too much for this all man. It’s all the leather and latex swinging around in here – a feeling that carries over into the glam crunch and stomp of “Snap Out Of It” and “I Want it All”. ‘Space age / country girl / stone cold / miracle’, Alex Turner sings, as if thumbing through his 70s rock thesaurus (The Jeff Becktionary?). Meanwhile, “Arabella’s got a seventies head… she’s made of outer space, and her lips are like the galaxy’s edge” (turns out Turner also owns a space rocktionary), and while he doesn’t come right out and say it, it’s clear she’s also Turner’s cherry pie.

The slower moments on AM are seductive alright. A twin-set pops up mid-album: on “Mad Sounds”, Turner grows a meaty pair of sideburns, and croons to the photo of Richard Hawley he keeps in a locket, while “No. 1 Party Anthem” features calls of “Come on come on come on” with all the enthusiasm of a sad-eyed romantic. It’s no party, and no anthem, but a pursuit, through the clubs and VIP lounges and “drunken monlogues, confused because it’s not like i’m falling in love. I just want you to do me no good, and you look like you could.”

AM ends with “I Wanna Be Yours”, and lines borrowed from John Cooper-Clarke:

I wanna be your vacuum cleaner / ford cortina / leccy meter…

One of the joys of The Arctic Monkeys has always been the way Turner’s phrasing and vocal lines entwine with the melody, refusing to be constrained, always running, spilling over. On AM, this flow abounds, even if at times the lines appear to bleed into each other, while the sound has opened up and cleaned up. It’s not the 10/10 clusterbomb of an album the NME seems to think it is, but it’s by no means a mid-career lull either.

(As an aside, this review was written two years ago when AM was released, but I never quite got round to publishing it at the time. Having read it, perhaps you’re thinking “yeah, I get that”.)

Leon Bridges – Coming Home

I am always on the lookout for new artists regardless of genre, and have to say that I do enjoy hearing that little hint of something that could become something great. I can remember exactly when and where I was when I first heard Leon Bridges, and I can also remember that I dug out a piece of paper to write his name down as I needed to research who I was listening to.

Zane Lowe played the song “Coming Home” on his Radio One show one evening in October last year and I just happened to hear it while I was sitting in a hotel room in London. I had only put the radio on to hear the new Fall Out Boy single, but I was met with this beautiful, soulful voice and knew straight away that this was going to be something that I would like.

Upon returning home, I tried to track down who this person was so I could see if there was an album available, but it turned out that only two demo songs existed on SoundCloud at that time. It appeared, however, that the exposure on Radio One had led to more people like myself trying to find out more about this artist as there was lots of sharing of these two songs happening on Twitter. I liked “Coming Home” so much that in my end of year blog for 2014, I stated that Leon would be an artist to watch out for in 2015. It looks like I was right.

So, who is Leon and what type of music does he play? I guess you could call him a retro throwback to the 1960s. His voice is reminiscent of the great Sam Cooke and despite only being 25 years old, he is bringing the old style soul to the masses on his debut album Coming Home. The album has been met with high praise indeed with the sweet sounds from this Texan native harking back to a more simple era – one that he’s not afraid to embrace.

Coming Home was recorded using retro equipment, which adds to the overall sound that he’s trying to achieve. You might think that this is just a new artist trying to copy his influences in order to make it into the charts, but this album isn’t like that: Leon clearly knows the style he wishes to emulate, but rather than just copying it, he has made something that is his own and given it a new feel.

Stand out songs for me include the gorgeous title track, and “Better Man”, a song in which he is going to swim the Mississippi for his girl. Its rather upbeat style should have you tapping your feet along to it. The ten tracks on this debut deal with romance in a truly nostalgic style: you can hear the doo-wops in the background and the elements of blues soaked gospel on the closing track “River” will leave you wanting to hear more.

I think I was proved right on the fact that Leon is an artist to check out this year, but the question I guess should be does he have more to give in the future? I would certainly hope so. This is a great debut album and has come along to raise the profile of old style soulful R&B and bring it to a whole new audience. I am very much looking forward to hearing what comes next from this talented newcomer.

Recommended.

Mark Morriss – The Taste of Mark Morriss

If I am totally honest and upfront about it, this is actually a review I said I wouldn’t write. I always like to think of myself as completely unbiased when it comes to writing about an album or a song. If I don’t like something I will say so, no matter who the artist in question is. I do, however, find this a little harder when the person I’m writing about is someone I’m a big fan of.

So when I knew one of my favourites was releasing a new album, I was in two minds about whether I could do a good job or not. I mean, what if I didn’t like the album? Would it make me change my mind on their previous work? It was a bit of a quandary until I decided that if nothing else, it would help me put my thoughts on the album into perspective.

Step forward Mr Mark Morriss, lead singer of the Bluetones, solo artist and the tidiest man in rock. Allegedly. The album in question is his third solo studio release entitled The Taste of Mark Morriss. A pretty clever title indeed when you discover that this is an entire album of cover versions. It’s a selection of songs that have been chosen as those that have not only inspired him, but also helped to shape the direction in which his musical career has taken.

The thing that struck me about the album and the journey it takes through the selected tracks is that it feels a bit like a love letter to someone.

On the first cursory glance, the track listing features quite a few songs that I recognise, but also a few that I have never heard of before. Fans have already been treated to some live versions of a couple of tracks when Mark has been touring so I kind of assumed I knew what I would be listening to on the album. But no, I was wrong.

Sticking with the whole being honest thing, I have to admit, it did take me a few listens to get into this album. It didn’t hit me on the first listen, but I am happy to say that after some non-stop playing and allowing it to get under my skin, I have found quite a lot of beauty hidden away in these tracks. These aren’t just your average, straight down the line covers of songs. What Mark has done (and what he is particularly good at) is taking them and adding just enough of his own spin to make them sound true enough to the original, but with that added Morriss touch. And that’s the thing that makes this record different to other typical cover versions.

The album opens with “This Pullover” which was originally a hit for Jess Conrad back in 1961. Incidentally, the original was voted one of the worst songs ever so why Mark would choose to cover it, I’m not sure. But hey, it has all the soundings of the sixties and is inoffensive enough to have a certain charm about it so I was quite happy to keep listening. Next up is “Rock and Roll Woman” by Buffalo Springfield. Having heard this performed live previously and owning the original song, I knew that this was going to be a fine version and I wasn’t wrong. It’s spot on and sounds pretty damn great.

I guess the most recognisable tracks for most people might be “Self Control” by Laura Branigan and “Love Comes Quickly” by the Pet Shop Boys. Both are originally big 80’s synth numbers, which have been subtly tweaked by Mr Morriss. The former doesn’t have the same powerful ’80s sound (although we still have some synthesised backing going on), but we have an added guitar at the chorus to make the song sound pleasingly refreshing and modern. The same can be said for the latter track. In fact, as someone who has always been a fan of the Pet Shop Boys, I actually prefer this version to the original. Mark’s voice seems to sit with it perfectly and you could be fooled into thinking it’s actually one of his own songs.

Part way though the track listing we come to a Madonna song that for some reason was never featured on her greatest hits album. Not sure why as “Angel” is one of the only Madonna songs I actually like. It has previously been covered by Darren Hayes who stuck pretty close to the original, fast moving, electro 80’s pop sound when he released it. Having heard Mark sing this at a gig as a stripped back guitar version, I thought the album track would be in the same vain. Surprisingly though it’s not. It features some interesting guitar work and instead of the upbeat sound of the original, it’s slower and comes across as a darker, very sad sounding song. Perhaps almost with a sense of longing about it. This is the track that took me multiple listens to get into, probably because I like the original so much, but now I think I finally get it.

One of the other stand out tracks is “Duchess” which is a Scott Walker song. Once again, I have heard this live and have the original so I was pleased to note that it sticks very closely to Scott’s version. I think from listening to it you can tell that Mark is a fan of Scott Walker and that there is a certain amount of pride in singing one of your hero’s songs which is pretty evident here. Well, to me anyway.

Another big choice is the inclusion of a Sisters of Mercy song. “Lucretia (My Reflection)” doesn’t feature the heavy industrial sound of the original, but has something of a lighter touch and feel about it with a bit of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells thrown in for good measure. It could have gone horribly wrong as it sounds like it shouldn’t really work, but actually, it’s a very nice surprise to hear.

The thing that struck me about the album and the journey it takes through the selected tracks is that it feels a bit like a love letter to someone. I am no doubt way off on my analysis of that (and of course it’s just my opinion), but Mark has said before that he doesn’t write love songs in the conventional sense so perhaps using other people’s songs has enabled him to sing about love in the “usual” way for once. If nothing else though, it showcases how much talent he has as a singer and performer.

This album could be received in several ways I guess. Fans of Mark, like myself, will no doubt listen to it with great enthusiasm and enjoy finding out what kind of music makes our hero tick. Fans of the original artists might have a listen and will hopefully discover someone who appreciates the original tracks so much that he wants to breathe some new life into them and get them heard in a new forum.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with that at all. Taking on the music that you love and trying to emulate and do it justice is a natural route for an artist to take. But to take it and add to it just enough to make it yours is a very special thing indeed. Not many people can pull off taking a classic song and making it their own: this album is proof that Mr Morriss without a doubt can do just that. Highly Recommended.

Thee Cee Cees – Solution Songs

You know what the music industry needs?  A political super-group. Yep, you heard me right. Well, in Thee Concerned Citizens we appear to have found exactly that. Formed in order to “bring down the government using rock and roll” their debut album Solution Songs was released in time for this year’s general election.  Clearly they are not a band who are afraid to step into the spotlight. But does this album back up their claims? Actually, yes it does. And it does a lot more to boot.

Featuring a line-up that looks incredibly impressive on paper, these are seasoned musicians who have some damn fine credentials on their collective CV.  We have singer/songwriter Chris T-T taking up the position of vocalist, alongside Bluetones guitarist Adam Devlin, Billy Brentford from Thee Faction, Steve Barnard (drummer for The Alarm), Andy Lewis (Paul Weller’s bassist), Kerry Schultz, Darren Hayman and Bruce Soord (The Pineapple Thief) to complete the set.  Add into the mix the string section from The Manic Street Preachers and I think you’ll agree this is intriguing already.

Describing themselves as “A Revolutionary Socialist Stiff ’78-style R’n’B band to promote class consciousness”, their aim is very apparent – to promote Socialism in the medium they know best:  music.

The message is clear, but more than that, what they have produced is an album of gorgeous sounding, high energy, cracking tunes which will stick in your head and your consciousness long after you’ve finished listening to the album. And it’s worked.

I have been recommending this album to anyone and everyone who’ll listen (and those that don’t) because it’s got me well and truly hooked.  I love the honesty of this record and the thought provoking lyrics have done their job incredibly well.  It is heavily political, but that’s the point.  I mean, the track listing should give away the purpose of this record with titles such as “Deft Left”, “Soapbox”, and “Better Than Wages”.  And let’s not miss off the song title of the year, which goes to the marvellous “Iain Duncan Smith’s Weeping Haemorrhoids”, a quirky instrumental which brings a bit of humour to the situation very nicely.

I am not someone who is overtly political in nature, but I do love music and am willing to listen to pretty much anything that comes up on my radar.  As I was already a fan of a few of the noted ensemble, I was keen to listen to this album to see what it was all about.  What Thee Cee Cees have achieved with this record is to bring to my attention (and hopefully to many other peoples as well) is that there is a place for politics in music and it’s a bit more that just being about protest songs.  I mean, this album is called Solution Songs for a start which shows that they are asking us to think about the message, open our eyes and then do something about it ourselves by arming us with the knowledge. Food for thought right there.

But even if you don’t take the message on board, it’s still a great album full of punk rock, sing-a-long tunes which embrace the working classes and get you moving your feet.  A highly infectious effort which I’ll certainly be playing for a long time to come.

If pop music is art, then let it be a hammer, not a mirror.  An artist accepting a bourgeois society is complicit

Play it loud to help the cause, comrade.

I asked Adam Devlin to give me a quick soundbite to wrap this up and he said this:

The only crumb of comfort from David Cameron’s victory is that it pretty much guarantees a second Cee Cees album

I’m looking forward to it already.

Solution Songs is available on Blang Records.  Buy your copy here

Visit the website here http://theeceecees.org/

Modest Mouse – Strangers To Ourselves

It’s been eight long years since indie rock band Modest Mouse’s last album, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank. For those eight long years, fans of the band have wondered not only whether they would record another album, but also, can they keep it going with their brand of philosophical but catchy and enigmatic rock. The band answered these questions when they released their sixth album, Strangers To Ourselves on March 17th.

Our first taste of the album presented itself in first single “Lampshades On Fire”. A straight-forward but intricate epic, it is one of the most anticipated tracks of recent memory, and it doesn’t disappoint. Everyone likes a song they can hum to, and here the bridge gives them an eloquent, “ba-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da we’re all going, we’re all going to Hell”. It’s a great song with diverse instrumentation and sporadic changes, starting with an organ and exploding into a full-force indie rock party anthem. Sure, it’s no “The World At Large”, but Modest Mouse has shown the ability over the years to excel at both sweet fuzzed out indie and loud party jams.

One of the highlights of Strangers to Ourselves is the Talking Heads-esque “The Ground Walks With Time In A Box”. At over six minutes in length, it somehow takes advantage of every second, with a frenetic pace and driving guitar. Another standout is the haunting “Of Course We Know”. It’s a slow builder with fuzzed out vocals and gorgeous harmonies.

The album begins, however, with the title song, a rather quaint and quiet offering, featuring a violin. It could pass off as the slow dance number at a hipster wedding.

Strangers To Ourselves is a solid album and definitely worth a spin. However, if you were hoping all that time off was put to creating a genuine masterpiece or even something of a departure from their usual sound, you would be disappointed. Listening to the record feels like listening to any other of Modest Mouse’s most recent records: a little bit of outlandishness, a little bit of quiet indie fare.

Big Data – 2.0

Big Data released the critically acclaimed single “Dangerous” featuring electro-rock band Joywave in early 2014. The album 2.0 was finally released yesterday after over a year of teasing songs. It features an all-star cast of collaborations: Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, Twin Shadow, Kimbra, and Bear Hands among others.

Big Data, an electronic music project helmed by producer Alan Wilkis, uses flashy electronics with a dark thematic tone. Lyrically, Big Data portrays a world in which we are being followed; this paranoia is most evident on the best song of the record, “Snowed In”, an opus about NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Featuring Rivers Cuomo on vocals, it is key to both facets of Big Data’s approach that recur on the album: it has fierce, pounding synths and builds up to a flighty, radio-friendly chorus.

“Dangerous” is another highlight. It’s an anthem as claustrophobic as Rodwell’s classic “Somebody’s Watching Me”, but it speaks to something larger than just being watched: it’s about being watched by an entity, whether it be governmental or corporate. In an age where data collecting is a norm, many people are asking, “What do they want from me?”

“Sick For Me” features Bear Hands, another up and coming alt rock act who themselves had a minor hit last year with “Giants”. It starts off with a pulsating beat reminiscent of Peter Schilling. Rarely does synth-rock find the golden mean between pounding, but beautiful electronic music and accessibility. Whenever an act achieves this, musically it’s a revelation.

White Sea, aka Morgan Kibby, a former collaborator with M83, has a star turn in “The Business of Emotion”, which was released as the second single from the album. It is beautiful and is about preying on the emotions of others for personal or financial gain. It has an absolutely bombastic beat and is brimming with soul and compassion.

So what to make of all this paranoia? Although one can argue that it’s a silly concept, 2.0 brings depth to what is usually a skin-deep enterprise. Some people will embrace the message, others will just shrug their shoulders. The beauty in this album is that it is so good, you can ignore the big ideas if they don’t suit you.

The Bright Light Social Hour – Space Is Still The Place

The Bright Light Social Hour have been rocking Texas in some shape or form since 2002. The members met as college students at Southwestern University. They released a few EPs followed by a self-titled debut album that garnered numerous local awards, including Band of the Year at the SXSW Austin Awards. On the back of momentum from their debut they ended up playing over 400 shows across North America.

Their much-anticipated second album, Space Is Still The Place was released on March 10th. It’s a concept album of sorts that depicts their native southern United States in the future, inspired by the economic downturn of 2008.

The album’s first single, “Infinite Cities”, is an extremely impressive piece of music – one of the best alternative songs of the year so far. Unlike the rest of the album, it shines in its simplicity. It has a ferocious chorus, and its direct approach, featuring an epic guitar hook that will stay in your head for days on end, is reminiscent of the eloquent stylings of Mutemath.

“The Moon” begins much like a Pink Floyd song, with a heart-beat, albeit a fast one. It begins slowly, but at about the minute-and-a-half mark it picks up with some guitar flashes and a much quicker beat, but continues with fuzzy vocals and without any traditional song structure.

“Aperture” starts with a bang but then fades off with a Mars Volta-esque breakdown that ruins any momentum the song had. Sometimes, this harsh attempt to be different wears heavy on the ear drums.

Track two, “Slipstream”, begins with a tantalizing bass line. It prominently features a blues-style guitar solo, that comes in and out of the song. If Stevie Ray Vaughn had a space opera it would sound like this. Of course, Bright Light Social Hour wants to remind you that they are weird, and the song buzzes out with a weird sound tantamount to a spaceship hovering.

Space Is Still The Place has grand ambitions, and there are certainly some highlights. But it takes the spacious ideas of Meddle-era Pink Floyd and tries to meld them within the framework of modern rock. It comes off, however, as a semi-talented band who dabbled a little bit too much into psychedelic drugs. It’s a cautionary tale to any would-be rocker: don’t take the brown acid, and don’t try to lift off to space unless you back it up with an exceptional concept and exemplary songwriting.