Dave’s Chart Update August 30

So, after considerable difficulty Hannah Lou Clark has finally equalled the record for the most successful debut appearance ever on my chart as ‘Cowboy Joe’ returns to No 1 for its seventh week, with Lissie’s ‘Hollywood’ dropping to No 2 after two weeks at the top. ‘Cowboy Joe’ and ‘Hollywood’ are both losing chart points, so the odds of either being No 1 next week are pretty low. That would seem to open up a bit of a dilemma for me as the obvious song to replace them is Ray BLK and Stormzy’s ‘My Hood’, which has climbed to No 3 this week (overtaking both ‘Stop Desire’ and ‘Broken Oars’). As you all know, ‘My Hood’ is a superb song, and I’d ordinarily be delighted with it at No 1, but for some reason it has disappeared from Spotify this week. When a previous artist decided to withdraw her songs from Spotify, I immediately banned her from my chart! (Hello, Taylor). I’m not going to do the same with Ray BLK, and I still need to talk about this in more detail, but it might be germane to point out that without Spotify, I would never have heard of her or this song. So the evil, monolithic enslaver of popular music creators might not be all bad after all, perhaps.

There are some significant moves towards the top end of the chart from The Kills and ‘Impossible Tracks’ (unsurprisingly, from No 32 to No 21), The Naked and Famous (also unsurprisingly, from No 41 to No 29) and Bear’s Den (as ‘Red Earth and Pouring Rain’ jumps 31 places to No 38), while all of those songs might eventually be usurped by Snow Ghosts who have the highest new entry at No 32 with ‘Vetiver’. Well, ‘Vetiver’ might not usurp ‘Impossible Tracks’, in truth. Meanwhile ‘Heartbreak Hi’ at No 51 is a highly impressive Top 100 debut for Avec Sans, and not too far behind that is a rather suprisingly high new entry for Katy Perry and ‘Rise’. I am not one of those snobs who has a problem with Perry – I actually think she is bloody good at what she does, and some of her songs are pretty much pop perfection (take ‘Firework’ and ‘Roar’ as obvious examples). She can hammer out a top notch ballad (‘Unconditional’) and had a startling No 1 in my chart early in 2014 with ‘Dark Horse’, her collaboration with Juicy J. ‘Rise’ has appeared at a slightly odd time, as it had been linked with NBC’s coverage of the Olympics in the States. Perry has talked about the song’s ability to “inspire us to heal, unite, and rise together”, and the video has a montage of great American performances from the past to further motivate us all. Montages always remind me of ‘Team America World Police’ though, and somehow smaller, more personal acts of courage in the Olympics move me more than more obvious American displays of overemotion in my mind… so with that bunch of cynicism out of the way, I can probably say that ‘Rise’ is going to benefit from not being attached to the Olympics at all as far as I am concerned, and it will stand or fall in my chart on its strengths as a song, pure and simple.

Two more songs I have not mentioned so far deserve a bit of focus this week. First up we have The Invisible, a three piece from London led by Dave Okumu, and including Tom Herbert and Leo Taylor. The band are ‘genre-bending’ apparently (their Wikipedia page lists no fewer than six different genres of music including ‘downtempo’ and ‘synthpop’), and their third album ‘Patience’ includes current chart hit ‘So Well’. This is a lovely melancholic piece of music, with breathy vocals contributed by Jessie Ware – after a few listens it actually gets quite haunting, with its theme (so common in music it seems) of nobody ever really knowing anyone else. Fortunately we have the perfect antidote to all that sadness in Arkells, whose new single ‘Drake’s Dad’, the first release from their fourth album ‘Morning Report’ is new in the Top 100 at No 92 this week. Arkells are best known (to me anyway) for their 2014 hit ‘Leather Jacket’, and ‘Drake’s Dad’ bounces along with a similarly enthusiastic tale of a rather off the wall road trip. It’s all a true story too, apparently – and yes, the ‘Drake’s Dad’ of the title is actually Drake’s Dad – or Dennis Graham who ‘couldn’t have been nicer’ according to the band. How the band bumped into him in a bar in Beale Street, Memphis is not explained. You could be forgiven for thinking that Arkells are all about a bit of a laugh, but then you’ve not heard the next single from ‘Morning Report’. ‘My Heart’s Always Yours’ is a big, ballsy rock ballad that flows over a top notch tune, and is the kind of song that might just push you up to the next level. It is going to be big, I think.

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Dave’s Heatseekers Chart Update August 28

Snow Ghosts have wrested the No 1 spot back from Bear’s Den and ‘Gabriel’, as ‘Vetiver’ celebrates its last week of Heatseekers eligibility. ‘Gabriel’ also slips behind the superb ‘Heartbreak Hi’, a slice of electropop genius from Avec Sans – their album is out and I will be reviewing it next week. ‘Heartbreak Hi’ is also entering the main chart this week, so ‘Gabriel’ has a fair chance of returning to No 1, but it has a few rather impressive potential challengers to overcome.

First up we have ‘The 17th’, the new single from The Courteeners and the first release from their fifth album ‘Mapping The Rendezvous’ which comes out in October. I have liked The Courteeners for years, but it appears that I have liked them because of one song – ‘Not Nineteen Forever’, which is now 8 years old. They have released a couple of other decent singles – ‘Are You In Love With A Notion’ probably the best – but I’ve never heard them produce anything quite like ‘The 17th’. This is a major extended piece which builds gradually into a tale of lost opportunity and disappointment. “Everyone can hear you but nobody’s listening – I wanna be someone but haven’t got the discipline” the lyrics tell us, before fading into a refrain of “we’re having such a good time”, phrased in such a way that you know the protagonist in the song isn’t really having anything of the sort. It’s a quite superb song, and will be a major chart contender. The new album might be very interesting indeed.

Next up are Foreign Fields, a duo from Wisconsin – Eric Hillman and Brian Holl. The band describe their music as ‘electronic folk’, and they have been around since 2011 with one album to their name already in 2012’s ‘Anywhere But Where I Am’. Their second album ‘Take Cover’ appears in October, and there are a variety of taster songs around the internet at the moment including ‘Dry’, ‘Tangier’ and ‘I’. The song that has introduced me to them is the current Heatseekers No 12, ‘I Killed You In The Morning’. The band describe this as their second song in a series about the five stages of grief, and it has been beautifully illustrated with a video shot with the Indie-Ballet Collaborative. It’s a moving, gentle, thoughtful piece of music from a band who clearly have depth and substance to their approach to their art. I am seriously impressed with ‘I Killed You In The Morning’ and the album is highly anticipated.

Who else should we mention? Well, Metallica are back, swearing their way through some typical monster riffs in ‘Hardwired’, and Banks keeps on teasing us with excellent songs from her forthcoming album – to add to current Singles Chart entry ‘Fuck With Myself’ and ‘Gemini Feed’ (the first song I can recall with “passive aggressive” in the lyrics) we now have another cracker in ‘Mind Games’. But to maintain the theme of bands-I-like-because-of-one-song, let’s say hello to Autoheart. If you have not heard of Autoheart, then you might have heard of their previous manifestation as The Gadsdens. They have been around since 2007, and most famously released the epic piano driven indie anthem ‘The Sailor Song’ in 2009. This is quite possibly my favourite song of all time, and it remains a classical piece of musical and lyrical brilliance. Why The Gadsdens turned into Autoheart in 2011 remains unclear – Autoheart released ‘Punch’ in 2013 (‘The Sailor Song’ being one of the tracks) and are now on their way back with their new album ‘I Can Build A Fire’. Lead single ‘Oxford Blood’ has entered the Heatseekers Chart at No 20 this week, and it is massively promising. Lead singer Joey Gadsden teams with a lovely backing vocal from Anne Haight on a song that he apparently had sat on for several months before sharing it with the rest of the band. Any band who can produce something as exceptional as ‘The Sailor Song’ clearly have the ability to continue to make excellent music, so we will take a listen to ‘I Can Build A Fire’ this week too.

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Black Foxxes – I’m Not Well Album Review

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One of the tips for aspiring writers that I recall well is that you should never use expletives for emphasis. It implies a lack of the right sort of vocabulary to properly convey your message. So I am not going to tell you that ‘I’m Not Well’, the debut album from Exeter three piece Black Foxxes is fucking awesome. I am sure I can give you the right sense of its brilliance in a more literate way.

Black Foxxes are a fascinating band. The membership came together in 2013 when drummer Ant Thornton joined forces with vocalist and guitarist Mark Holley and bassist Tris Jane. The trio are far from your average indie rock personalities. Each of the band’s members seems to suffer from anxieties and insecurities, including around such fundamentals as playing live, and the band derives its spirit and its meaning from the mutual support that they give each other. ‘I’m Not Well’ has echoes of such emotions running throughout its fabric. This is gutsy, powerful, melodic rock of an exceptional kind, but with a real heart and soul that is instantly apparent when you listen. The title track and album opener ‘I’m Not Well’ you will already be familiar with, and I have written about it in glowing terms before. The song opens quietly over gentle guitar and Holley’s ruminative vocal before it explodes into furious life just over half way through. Then after Holley has let rip, ‘I’m Not Well’ collapses into a melancholic coda. It’s a superb song, and is heading towards the Top 10 in my singles chart as we speak.

This fusion of blitzing rock and introspective thought is the driving force within ‘I’m Not Well’. The two best songs behind the title track both follow this pattern. ‘Whatever Lets You Cope’ is gorgeous and thoughtfully developed, while ‘Rivers’ is a moving, twisting rock ballad. Holley tells of how the support from his colleagues has enabled him to bring forward such ideas – and we are very grateful for this. ‘Rivers’, a superb extended work is absolutely heartbreaking. Then we have other examples of excellence in first single ‘Husk’, the pacey, metal-esque ‘How We Rust’, and the powerfully building ‘Bronte’ (great title too). You would expect the pace and the power to dip somewhere, and ‘Waking Up’ and ‘Home’ represent a slight lull in the general quality, but we do get a great finish. ‘Slow Jams Forever’ melds powerchords and moments of quiet calm, and ‘Pines’, taken from the band’s first EP drives the album to its conclusion with moments of sheer brutal power.

This is a superb effort. Everything works – the band’s tight, aggressive and melodic music, Holley’s excellent vocal, the clear passion and depth of feeling that lies within these songs. On this evidence Black Foxxes are one of the finds of the year – and you absolutely have the sense that they will go on developing, exploring and creating new and exciting variations on their formidable theme. So, in summary – ‘I’m Not Well’… it’s fucking awesome, isn’t it?

****½

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Dave’s Chart Update August 22nd

No major changes at the top of the Singles Chart this week, although curiously Lissie has held on to the top spot despite losing ranking points, while Hannah Lou Clark is still at No 2 despite gaining points again. It is not inconceivable that ‘Cowboy Joe’ could vault back to No 1 next week, particularly as I can’t quite see either ‘Stop Desire’ or ‘Broken Oars’ being quite strong enough to make the top spot. There are a variety of strong songs climbing the chart towards the Top 10, including Agnes Obel and ‘Familiar’ which has gained the most chart points for the second week in a row. A climb of 64 – 27 – 18 is very impressive and ‘Familiar’ already looks set to better Obel’s previous top chart hit, ‘Love Is Dead’ which peaked at No 9. But I will tell you now which song currently climbing the chart will get to No 1. ‘Impossible Tracks’, climbing this week from No 48 to No 32 and already The Kills’ highest charting hit (by a mile) just gets better and better every time I hear it, with its pounding guitar line and its lyrical tale of dangerous, unremitting love. Superb stuff.

The Kills have benefited in the album chart as well, as ‘Ash & Ice’ has climbed to a new peak of No 4, 8 weeks after the album’s release. Albums of course do tend to benefit from massive singles, but it is interesting to note that the highest placed single to date released from any of the current Top 8 albums is Christine and the Queens’ current No 11 hit ‘Tilted’. Yes, that’s right – there has not been a single Top 10 hit from any of the current Top 8 albums. Most remarkable of all, the new album chart No 1 is Snow Ghosts and ‘A Wrecking’, which came out last year and about which I wrote in glowing terms a couple of weeks ago. Snow Ghosts celebrate their first Top 100 single this week as ‘Dawn’ makes a quiet entrance at No 92 – not the kind of single you’d expect to be the trigger for an album to reach No 1. Well, it isn’t, of course – the current Heatseekers No 2 ‘Vetiver’ and primary trigger for my Snow Ghosts discovery reaches the singles chart next week and will be a much bigger hit than ‘Dawn’. Neither are on ‘A Wrecking’ though. You might think it has been a very long time since an album reached No 1 without any singles at all charting from it – but you’d be wrong. It happened only last year, when Iron Maiden achieved the feat through the simple measure of not actually releasing any singles from ‘The Book Of Souls’.

Right, some other snippets of chart news. Two of this year’s biggest singles have dropped off the Top 100 this week – ‘Come Alive’ from the Jezabels and ‘How’ from Daughter. We are due to see Daughter in late October – and our chances of seeing the Jezabels live appear rather better than at the start of the year as we have had the excellent news that keyboardist Heather Shannon’s cancer treatment has gone well enough for the band to have relaunched the world tour in support of ‘Synthia’ that had to be cancelled earlier in the year. At the present time The Jezabels are due to tour Australia and North America, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I did wonder earlier this evening what I would go for as my favourite song of the year so far… you might have thought that ‘Come Alive’ would be the one, but actually… ‘Through The Cellar Door’ would be top of the pile at present I think.

 

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Laurel – The Social Gig Review

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‘Spellbinding’ – that’s the word.

This is going to be a very biased review. I absolutely love Laurel Arnell-Cullen’s music. I have written many times about her on this blog before, but for any newcomers, she first came to my attention in late 2014 when the gorgeous electro-pop ‘Shells’ reached No 2 in my chart. She achieved the not inconsiderable feat of beating Lapsley to my Music Futures Award that year, and has gone on to have spectacular success in my chart with a string of superb songs. She has a chameleon like quality to her style – ranging from the trip hop stylings of ‘Memorials’ through last year’s best song, the beautiful string backed ‘Blue Blood’ to the bluesy ‘Life Worth Living’, all Top 5 hits – but every song features her stunning, utterly characteristic vocal. Only one other artist has had four Top 5 singles in my chart over the last 2 years – Meg Myers (with ‘Desire’, ‘The Morning After’, ‘Go’ and ‘Lemon Eyes’) and even Myers can’t match the eight weeks that ‘Blue Blood’ spent at No 1 last summer.

So, I have been looking forward to seeing Laurel live for ages, and we were delighted to see her at The Social, the tiniest venue we have been to this year. It is a basement room under a pub, long and narrow with room for maybe 50 people – it seemed unlikely that ‘Blue Blood”s 24 piece string orchestra were going to fit in, and so Laurel played the set entirely solo, accompanying herself on guitar. I commented in my review of Speech Debelle’s set a couple of weeks ago about the irritating tendency people attending gigs have of chatting away, even when the headline act is playing. It appears that there is a way to prevent that though. You just need a voice like Laurel’s voice.

She has, without a doubt got the most beautiful voice I think I have ever heard – soulful, bluesy, husky at times with a quite wonderful crack beneath her higher register. She is utterly spellbinding when she sings. You could literally hear a pin drop – there was not a sound in the entire place from any of the audience. She is an excellent musician too, and we were completely captivated throughout her entire set. There were plenty of new songs on show – Laurel is still working towards the release of her debut album – but given the electro nature of ‘Shells’ and ‘Memorials’ these were unlikely to be on the set list for this show at least. A couple of particular mentions, for set opener ‘All Star’ and for ‘Alright’ which apparently she wrote a couple of days ago.

Laurel is delightful company too – cheerful and personable, making fun of her own inability to tune her guitar and chat at the same time. She clearly revels in playing live, and looked taken aback by the spell she had cast on everyone, and the rapturous reception for her songs. The set closed in grand style with ‘Life Worth Living’ and with her current single ‘San Francisco’, which got a bit of a noise boost on the guitar compared to the recorded version. I’d have loved to hear her try an acoustic version of ‘Blue Blood’ – but never mind. I was very happy to leave with a copy of the set list (thanks Laurel!) with musical notation, lyrics and Pikachu on the back! This was a superb set from one of the country’s greatest musicians.

So, the final question that I have posed on multiple occasions since I first heard ‘Shells’. Why is this woman not a superstar? She has the perfect voice, she writes superb songs, she has imaginative ideas with her production, and I expect her album will be outstanding. And she looks great too – always important in the modern music business, however much you think it shouldn’t matter. I can usually figure out why acts haven’t made the major breakthrough, but with Laurel, I am completely stumped. Maybe it just needs that one killer song – I thought ‘Blue Blood’ was going to crack it for her, to be honest. It’s kind of depressing to think that some talentless wannabe will be pushed as the ‘Next Big Thing’ after the upcoming series of ‘X Factor’ has run its course, while Laurel will doubtless be working away gigging at small venues, writing her gorgeous music and still waiting for her break. Well, this is why I write this blog – and if I can do anything in my writing to help publicise this superb artist and bring her the success she deserves, I will feel that my work is done.

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Dave’s Chart Update August 14

So, here’s a shocker. After 4 weeks at No 2 and seemingly losing chart points last week, Lissie’s ‘Hollywood’ has rebounded to earn its first week at No 1. Hannah Lou Clark’s ‘Cowboy Joe’ drops to No 2 after six weeks on top, and is not the most successful debut hit of all time after all. Unless it rebounds itself next week. ‘Hollywood’ is something of a ‘triumph over adversity’ song, with a real theme of learning from pain, which fits quite well with some of the events we have seen in the Olympics. That last line “You don’t own me” is an absolute killer, particularly because I still can’t quite work out if it is real defiance or a cry in the dark. Increasingly the former, actually. Now we really do need to try and find out why Lissie does not play this song in her live show – she is a superb artist and it seems a bit churlish to not see her for that reason only. So if anyone knows her, can you steer her in the direction of this blog please? I’ll tweet her too and see if she lets me know.

The big guns are massing meanwhile behind Sara Hartman’s wonderful pop hit ‘Satellite’ at No 3 and Tegan and Sara’s ‘Stop Desire’ at No 4. We were expecting big things of course from Ray BLK and Stormzy, who leap to No 6 with ‘My Hood’, and from Adele whose ‘Remedy’ has hit the Top 10 as well this week. Rather less expected was the superb success for Nieves and ‘Broken Oars’, which has enjoyed a very impressive move from No 12 to No 5. Now, I like a good heartbreaker, but ‘Broken Oars’ is possibly the most desolate, devastatingly tragic song I have heard in years. “We can’t live like this – the telly, the curtains, our union in bits” – it kind of gets worse from there. The whole landscape of the song is stunningly evocative, and Brendan Dafters’ strong accent is the perfect accompaniment. It’s utterly brilliant. One question – why ‘Nieves’?

So, what else is going on? Well, after last week’s surprise highest new entry for Demi Lovato (‘Body Say’ drops this week, just to make the point) I have tweaked the process for determining the entry position for the new songs to give those likely Top 40 hits a bit of a boost. They have been circulating on the Heatseekers Chart for three or four weeks after all. There are a few songs which have directly benefitted from this move, notably ‘Impossible Tracks’ from The Kills (a glorious love song, even if “I was carried away… I was moving too fast on impossible tracks” also has some echoes this week) which is the highest new entry at No 48. Banks and ‘Fuck With Myself’ at No 52 is another very solid debut, and there is a first chart hit for Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes, whose riotous hardcore track ‘Snake Eyes’ arrives at No 70. Carter’s vocal sounds very reminiscent of Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner to me.

And in massive contrast, I don’t think I should leave the Singles Chart this week without admitting to probably my biggest guilty pleasure of all. And I have a few – Girls Aloud (particularly ‘Call The Shots’), ‘Broken Strings’, Amy McDonald (seriously, she’s great – what has happened to her?) – but you cannot beat a bit of Britney, can you? Yes, Britney Spears has come slinking back into chart action with ‘Make Me…’, featuring a rap from G-Eazy, and it is well up to scratch. Her dramatic personal problems and some of her odd decisions have made her an easy target for mickey-taking, and my own view is that the quality of some of her music (and of her vocal) has been underestimated as a result. I can take or leave ‘Baby One More Time’ and its near identical twin ‘Oops I Did It Again’, but the Spears discography also includes such monumental songs as the wonderful pure pop ‘Born To Make You Happy’, the unbelievably uncool ‘I’m Not A Girl (Not Yet A Woman)’, the criminally ignored ‘Perfume’ and her best song, the outstanding ballad ‘Everytime’ (complete with gut-wrenching video). ‘Make Me…’ might not be in that class, but after she seemed to be sinking into Las Vegas residence hell a la Celine Dion at around the time of the release of ‘Britney Jean’, this is a return to form with a bit of an urban edge to it. Her ninth album is expected later this year.

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Dave’s Heatseekers Chart Update August 13th

There are a lot of very strong songs massing behind Snow Ghosts and The Kills in the Heatseekers Chart this week. Top of the challengers is ‘Kismet Kill’, the lead single from Haley Bonar’s fifth album ‘Impossible Dream’ which itself debuts at No 2 in the Album Chart this week. Bonar, whose music has been described as ‘alternate country’ has been around for ages – her first recorded work appeared in 2001 – but it was the title track from her 2014 album ‘Last War’ that brought her to my attention. At her best Bonar merges low fi fuzzy guitar with punchy rhythms, and ‘Kismet Kill’ is a good example. Second single ‘I Can Change’ offers a different pace and has also entered the Heatseekers Chart this week, at No 25. Then we have a band who really could make the breakthrough into the big league this year in Phantogram. Already climbing the Singles Chart very rapidly with ‘You Don’t Get Me High Anymore’, their new single ‘Run Run Blood’ has moved from No 13 to No 4 on the Heatseekers Chart. Their musical ability has never been in doubt, and their major 2014 hit ‘Fall In Love’ is testament to that, but Phantogram have now merged in lyrics with a sharp cutting edge, duelling electronica and a healthy slice of attitude. Their new album ‘Three’, due out later this year features some stunning cover artwork, by the way – look out for it.

A couple more songs to namecheck – firstly Paerish, whose superb debut single ‘Undone’ made such an impact in my chart last year have reappeared with new single ‘Party’s Over Biff’. Paerish are a French four piece from Paris, in case you didn’t know – who the ‘Biff’ is in the title of ‘Party’s Over Biff’ is unclear, but this is a famous line from Back To The Future Part II, so maybe that’s got something to do with it. Then we have one of the best examples of EMD-leaning electro-indie I have heard in ages in Avec Sans’ debut single ‘Heartbreak Hi’. This is the title track from their already released debut album. The band, consisting of vocalist Alice Fox and instrumentalist Jack St James have been around since 2013 and have sparked their reputation with some ferocious live shows. And then finally a song which perfectly illustrates the peril of trying to review an album based on one listen. Bear’s Den write songs that grow and sneak around your mind until you can’t stop hearing them – and ‘Gabriel’, which has entered the Heatseekers Chart at No 20 is a perfect example. It is also an exceptional song lyrically – as Andrew Davie explores something of a secret inner self (the ‘Gabriel’ of the title’) and its influence on a journey of self discovery. When I first heard it, I wasn’t convinced. Now, I think it’s fabulous – a sure major climber next week.

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Dave’s Chart Update August 7th

There is a very significant record looming for Hannah Lou Clark, who is enjoying her sixth week at No 1 with the wondrous ‘Cowboy Joe’. As I have mentioned before, this is Clark’s debut hit, and while debut hits reaching No 1 are not unusual, a debut hit spending as long as this at No 1 is distinctly unusual. The most successful debut hit ever is Foxes’ ‘Youth’, which spent 9 weeks at No 1 in late 2013 and early 2014. But then this wasn’t really a debut hit – Foxes had already had a No 1 earlier in 2013 courtesy of her featured vocal on Zedd’s future Grammy winner ‘Clarity’. The longest run at No 1 for an artist’s very first chart appearance was Nicolette Larson’s ‘Lotta Love’, which spent 7 weeks at No 1 in early 1979. You may well have never heard of this song, or its singer – ‘Lotta Love’ is a classic seventies AOR American hit, complete with mushy saxophone, and hasn’t aged terribly well, to be honest. Larson’s beautifully hoarse vocal still tingles though – she was never able to follow up this major hit, and tragically died in 1997 at the age of just 45, with various prescription medications being implicated. Two more weeks will see Clark break Larson’s record – and with the various Top 10 contenders seemingly conking out, and with Adele and Ray BLK the most obvious threats, I’d guess it is odds on that ‘Cowboy Joe’ will still be on top in a fortnight’s time.

A couple of artists who I’ve not discussed before merit a mention this week. Firstly Maren Morris has this week’s highest climber, as ’80’s Mercedes’ jumps an impressive 30 places from No 88 to No 58. This is the follow up to ‘Rich’, the lead single from Morris’ fourth album ‘Hero’ – ‘Rich’ is an entertainingly humorous song which is still bumbling around the lower reaches of the Top 100, but ’80’s Mercedes’ seems to have that something extra which country records need to cross over into the mainstream. Morris’ excellent vocal and the brilliant singalong chorus are a big help. Morris released her first album aged just 15, by the way. I commented a few weeks ago on my slightly fluctuating relationship with hip hop – my relationship with country music is a lot more straightforward. I don’t get it, basically – every song sounds the same with twangy guitars and lyrics about pickups and dusty roads and picket fences, and girls with double barrelled first names. But every so often something decent emerges from the mire, and Morris has got that pop styling to add to her country roots, and I guess that’s why she works for me. My favourite ever country song? Big respect to Bobby Gentry’s ‘Ode To Billie Joe’, but it has to be the Charlie Daniels Band and ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’.

Then we have a bit of a surprise for the highest new entry as the major new singles from Agnes Obel and Frances are beaten by ‘Body Say’, the ultra-slinky new single from Demi Lovato. Here’s a singer who has really made very little impression on my chart, her 2011 blockbuster ‘Skyscraper’ aside (this went Top 10). ‘Skyscraper’ of course ended up being murdered by X Factor winner Sam Bailey, certainly not the greatest act of GBH committed by said TV show (hello Matt Cardle) but well up there. Lovato has trodden the well worn path from child star via the Disney Channel into pop star, and has also done a bit of a Christina / Britney and turned up the sexiness on her 2015 album ‘Confident’. Lead single ‘Cool For The Summer’ more than hinted at a same sex encounter, and ‘Body Say’ kicks the wattage up further with its risque lyrics and with Lovato sprawling around wearing not a lot on the cover. It’s actually a good song if you can see past all that stuff, but as for being the highest new entry of a group that not only includes Obel and Frances, but also The Naked And Famous and ScHoolboy Q – well, even my chart behaves strangely sometimes.

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Shura and Speech Debelle – Moth Club, Hackney Gig Review

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We do get to some interesting places in our gigging exploits around the capital. Hackney is becoming a familiar sight, but this was our first ever visit to the Moth Club, which appears to have been preserved in a time capsule since around 1975. The plaques on the walls listing members of the Stoke Newington Rotary Club speak of a bygone era, and the sparkly function room could have been straight out of Del Boy’s Nag’s Head. You wonder how a place like this ends up staging such good contemporary music. Today was a bit different though – as this was a benefit gig for Shelter, and my wife had won us the chance to buy tickets in a ballot. I know we are seeing Shura at a much bigger venue later this year, at the O2 Forum in Kentish Town, but seeing her play what was billed ‘an acoustic set’ in an intimate setting seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

DSC_0293We got a bit of a bonus too with the support act. It is a little ironic on the day when the Mercury Music Prize nominees were announced that the 2009 winner Speech Debelle was here supporting Shura, and singing tracks from her new EP ‘Breathe’. Debelle has rather disappeared from view since ‘Freedom Of Speech’, the follow up to that Mercury Prize winner ‘Speech Therapy’ emerged to mixed reviews in 2012. ‘Breathe’ is her first recording for 4 years, and the songs fizz and buzz with plenty of energy and verve, particularly ‘Running’ which Debelle turns into a bit of a singalong. Some of the slightly clunkier lyrical ideas which perturbed some reviewers on ‘Freedom Of Speech’ are still present, however – I was not entirely convinced by ‘No War No Peace’ for example. I did enjoy Debelle’s set – the backing with a violin and cello is distinctly different to your normal hip-hop, and the climax of ‘Sun Dog’, the set closer with the strings reaching an almost rock pitch is excellent. And respect to Debelle for calling out the irritatingly large number of audience members who seem to think it’s OK to chat all the way through the support act’s set. It’s disrespectful to the artists, and to those of us who are trying to listen.

It’s been an excellent year for Shura. She is about to chalk up her 5th Top 30 single in my chart with ‘What’s It Gonna Be’, her debut album ‘Nothing’s Real’ went Top 3 in my chart (and reached No 13 in the official UK chart for those who think that’s more important), and she has a pretty solid live reputation too (there is an excellent performance of ‘Touch’ on ‘Later’ as one example). She dealt with the ‘acoustic set’ plan pretty definitively by not bothering with it: instead we had full on Shura superbness, her bouncy synths matching perfectly with her slick backing band. Before we even got into the big hits I was well impressed at the start with ‘Nothing’s Real’, the title track from her album and one I wasn’t particularly taken by when I first heard it. Live it takes on a verve and a power which sparks into the rest of the set – it was sufficiently lively (and the Moth Club sufficiently stifling) to force Shura to ditch her trademark beanie hat (although she did manage to keep her coat on throughout, somehow).

The only slightly off beat note in the set came with ‘2Shy’, one of my very favourite songs of last year. For some reason Shura decided to fiddle around with the arrangements and we were treated to a slightly trippy start and then a guitar rock-out finish instead of the smoothly delicious pop melody of the original version. But then according to the setlist we were listening to ‘Too Shy’ rather than ‘2Shy’ so that probably explains it. Pretty much everything else worked perfectly though. ‘What’s It Gonna Be’ has made a big enough public impression to be nominated for the Popjustice ‘Twenty Quid’ Award (don’t ask) and was a riproaring singalong, ‘Make It Up’ added a gentler, more mellow note and ‘Touch’ was all class – but the absolute highlight was ‘Indecision’. This bass heavy, electro-pop-dance standout could have been written specifically for a live audience, and it went down a predictable storm. The set closed in pretty solid fashion too – ‘White Light’ has never been top of my list of Shura songs, but again this is exactly right for a live show, and Shura stretched the conclusion into a synth bashing cacophany. Just the right way to finish.

It will be very interesting to see how Shura tweaks her set for her show at the O2 Forum. A much larger venue will remove a little of the intimacy we had tonight, and it would be good to see her play for a little longer. Whether the swirling excellence of ‘The Space Tapes’ will work live is very difficult to say – as a mid set pause it might work very well – but I think we can be assured that as exhilarating as ‘Indecision’ and ‘White Light’ were tonight, they will be even better in a larger venue.

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Introducing… Snow Ghosts

snow ghostsMusic – you’ve got to love it, haven’t you? There’s nothing quite like it for throwing something new and unexpected at you and for making you revise your opinions. A few weeks ago I described The Duke Spirit as ‘the best band you’ve never heard of’. It would appear however that I was wrong about that. After today, it is quite clear – indisputably and definitively clear – that Snow Ghosts are actually the best band you have never heard of.

Snow Ghosts started life as a duo back in 2008. Ross Tones and Hannah Cartwright met through a shared love of traditional folklore and experimental electronic music, and the fusion of the two is the real hallmark of Snow Ghosts and their music. After some initial EP releases, their debut album ‘A Small Murmuration’ appeared in 2013. The album heralded the melding of Tones’ electronica with Cartwright’s haunting folk vocal, and with hints of dubstep and trip hop floating in the mixture. The reviews were solid, but to add an further element Snow Ghosts expanded into a trio with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Oliver Knowles in 2014. The first result of the trio’s collaboration is ‘A Wrecking’, released in February of last year, and an album I listened to for the first time today for reasons that will become obvious shortly.

a wrecking‘A Wrecking’ is a quite extraordinary work – and I use the term ‘work’ deliberately. There are some albums that sit at an almost orchestral, symphonic level – as if some kind of amalgam of the contemporary and the classical has taken place. You find yourself listening to the album as an entire suite of music, rather than a selection of individual tracks sequenced together. The band who perhaps most exemplify that style of recording are Radiohead – my immediate thought when I listened to ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ was that this felt less like their ninth studio album and more like their fifth or sixth symphony. Lanterns on the Lake were nearly there with ‘Beings’. And Snow Ghosts are there with ‘A Wrecking’. This is in some senses a concept album, built around the wreck of a ship somewhere in the vast ocean. Other elements of wreckage creep into the mix though, as the band describe in a fascinating piece written about the album in Clash Magazine. The music is exceptional – a searing, twisting blend of industrial electronica, spiralling strings and spine shivering vocals from Cartwright. Her voice has a clear folk influence, but there are times on ‘A Wrecking’ where she comes on like a haunted, howling banshee – as if all the evils of the world have been visited upon her.

The band use her vocal quite sparingly in some senses – at times it becomes another instrument, as in the terrifying ‘On Knives’. I loved the way that the drums are also infrequently heard – when they do start to pulse in, as in ‘Circles Out Of Salt’ and the majestic ‘The Fleet’ the effect becomes even more dramatic. There’s a stunningly scary torch song in ‘Take A Life’. ‘Lament’ is exactly that – a pure, classic Gaelic anthem of heartbreak set to strings and accordion, which then is captured by the throbbing bass synths of ‘Bowline’. ‘Drought’ has evocative lyrical imagery – the singer has drunk the entire ocean but is still thirsty. Snow Ghosts’ influences must include the trip hop movement of Massive Attack and Portishead I would assume, but there’s other stuff in there too – the stark instrumental ‘The Wreck’, which marks the mid point of the album sounds like the electro weirdness of ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ era Depeche Mode merged with the gentle, soothing melodies of OMD’s ‘Sealand’. This is music to marvel at. The tone is unremittingly bleak and desperate, although there are tiny chinks of light among the ruins – the gentle treble keys in ‘Bowline’ being an example. But that sense of tragedy simply adds to the magnificent power of the whole album. I thought ‘The Wrecking’ was quite brilliant.

It is an album that you probably need to play from start to finish – although if you want to try a song or two as a Snow Ghosts primer, try ‘Take A Life’ or ‘Bowline’. Or – even better – try the song that introduced me to Snow Ghosts in the first place. ‘Vetiver’ is their current single, and this is another scorching song. Built around pounding electro which cuts out half way through before swirling back into life, with Cartwright’s voice cutting through the music, ‘Vetiver’ is a lyrical masterpiece. Poetry made into pure contemporary music. “I build myself a small cocoon to stop my heart from craving you – of sandalwood and vetiver, of silkworm spit and mother’s hair” sings Cartwright, before adding “These days, when you wear my skin – I somehow feel overdressed”. Those chilling beats and ominous words echo through your mind as you listen and wonder. ‘Vetiver’ is going to be massive in my chart, and you are going to be hearing a lot more of Snow Ghosts in the next few months.

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