After a couple of weeks away I am back to hopefully post a little more regularly than recently. And we will kick off with a Heatseekers Chart which has undergone something of a change over the last month. The string of superb songs that dominated the list (‘The Spoils’, ‘Loss’, ‘Light Me Up’ and ‘To The Hilt’ particularly) have all crossed over into the Singles Chart, and we are left with just one song in the list that I am currently predicting will make the Top 10 in the Singles Chart.
But despite that the chart has a familiar feel to it, with Gabrielle Aplin at No 1 and Laurel at No 2 (and No 11). Let’s start with Aplin, who I suspect is still familiar to most of you as a result of her cover of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘The Power Of Love’, featured on her debut album ‘English Rain’ and as used by John Lewis in one of their famous Christmas advertisements. If the adverts themselves are generally memorable, the use of one of your songs to soundtrack the advert is starting to be treated rather negatively. Singers are now being spoken about as being ‘John Lewised’ – the latest victim being Emily Middlemas in the current (terrible) series of X Factor. The other thing you will know Aplin from is her song ‘Salvation’ – even if you don’t know the song, you will have heard the very iconic piano intro used a million times as incidental music on TV. A musical history built around a John Lewis advert and incidental music does not sound the most promising of CV’s, to be frank.
But I think Aplin is brilliant. She dominated my chart in the summer of 2014 when ‘Salvation’ and ‘Alive’ spent 14 weeks at No 1 between them. Ten of those were for ‘Alive’ but ‘Salvation’ had two separate runs on top, either side of the five week stay at No 1 by Coldplay’s ‘A Sky Full Of Stars’. They were the year’s No 1 and No 2 songs, and they are both outstanding, superbly played and beautifully sung. ‘English Rain’ was actually a very sweet album with these bursts of emotional power, but Aplin had a shot at semi-reinventing herself as a bit of a rock chick in 2015. The title track from her second album ‘Light Up The Dark’ spent four weeks at No 2 in my chart, but that was I suspect based on reputation more than the song’s strength. Follow up single ‘Sweet Nothing’ did reach the Top 20 but the album overall was a bit of a disappointment. At this point one could see Aplin’s career slithering into some kind of abeyance, but she has bounced back with the excellent new single ‘Miss You’. This is neither as guitar driven as ‘Light Up The Dark’ or as pure teenager-sweet as the songs on ‘English Rain’. It feels like a stab at a proper adult piece of comtemporary pop music, somewhere in Adele / Ingrid Michaelson territory, and it works really well. It did take a little while to grow on me, admittedly, but Aplin has included some neat changes of pace and her vocal is as pure and gorgeous as ever. I think it is a winner and a very promising sign of what will hopefully be a step forward on her forthcoming third album.
Now, I would really love to be able to review the first album from Laurel, who (as I said when I reviewed a live show back in August) has the most beautiful voice I have ever heard. But Laurel is taking her time to put the album together. I don’t think she is short of a song or two, because my charts have seen something of a Laurel invasion in the last four months or so. ‘San Francisco’ became her first single to miss my Top 10, peaking at No 11 in September, but ‘Hurricane’ is heading rapidly towards the Top 10 (it is currently at No 17 with a bullet, as they used to say), and she also has two songs in the Heatseekers Chart. ‘Maybe Baby’, at No 2 is a bluesy, soulful number – and ‘Too Far’, newly arrived at No 11 is also a bluesy soulful number. In fact all of Laurel’s current songs are bluesy and soulful, highlight her beautiful voice, are largely guitar backed, sparsely produced and barely last three minutes. She has spoken of the change in her musical style over the last year or so – when we saw her live she accompanied herself on guitar, with no band or other instrumentation. She has very much switched to an acoustic style – and I’m slightly torn about this. On the one hand, her voice does take centre stage and I will keep saying it – her voice is a thing of pure beauty. But on the other hand, there was some exceptionally promising production and a trip hop feel to songs like ‘Shells’ and ‘Memorials’, her first two singles to hit my chart. And her magnum opus, the exceptional ‘Blue Blood’ was backed by a 16 piece string orchestra. I just wonder if Laurel is going down a bit of a blind alley with her current music. The new songs are very good – don’t get me wrong – it’s hard to get to No 2 in the Heatseekers Chart with a bad song – but I just wonder if they could be better.
I’m torn in a third way because I have a slight issue with most debut albums released by artists who have spent a couple of years highlighting their songs via EP and single releases. I think far too many such artists fall victim to the temptation to load all of those possibly overfamiliar songs onto the debut album, which then rather lacks surprises. For example, Lapsley’s debut album ‘Long Way Home’ included songs such as ‘Painter’ and ‘Station’, which had actually been in circulation for a year or more. I was impressed when Wolf Alice took the brave decision to leave ‘Blush’ and ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’ off their debut album ‘My Love Is Cool’ last year – I think the album was all the better for it. I think Laurel is going to follow the example of Wolf Alice rather than Lapsley and release a debut album of relatively new material when it finally does arrive next spring. I should applaud this – but Laurel, your three best songs are ‘Shells’, ‘Memorials’ and ‘Blue Blood’ – and it would be a real pity if they were confined to the vaults and not played again live. Just my opinion.
Adele climbs to No 3 with a typically professional Adele ballad in ‘Water Under The Bridge’, and The Cinematic Orchestra at No 4 are another example of how incidental music can kick start your career. Everyone in the world will know the simple plaintive piano intro of their most famous song ‘To Build A Home’. If you can’t think of it, check it out on YouTube – I guarantee within three notes you will say “Oh, that one!” ‘To Believe’, their current single is a bit of a grower and is climbing the Heatseekers Chart as it does so. Other songs to look out for are Gnash’s collaboration with Johnny Yukon, ‘Home’ (currently at No 37 but should be much higher): the latest piece of evidence that when Little Mix go ballady and emotional it works far better than pappy pop, ‘Nothing Else Matters’ which jumps to No 16; and two songs featuring Aquilo which have also done well this week. His own single ‘Sorry’ climbs from No 45 to No 17, and he is also the featured vocalist on Enigma’s new single ‘Amen’ which is a new entry at No 22 this week. This song comes from Enigma’s eighth studio album ‘The Fall Of A Rebel Angel’. Now, those of you of a less youthful vintage will know about Enigma. A ‘musical project’ rather than a band, their debut album ‘MCMXC a.D’ was a worldwide hit in 1990, sparked by the multimillion selling ‘Sadeness’, a Gregorian chant set to an electro backbeat. It’s also the song with possibly the sexiest moment in recorded musical history in it too – listen to the girl breathing at the musical break about two thirds of the way through and you’ll hear what I mean! ‘Amen’ sounds very Enigma-ish, if that’s a word – I’ve not heard a great deal of their music in the last fifteen years but this is pretty good stuff, and Aquilo’s vocal matches the song very well. Promising, I’d say – I need to listen to the album.
Finally, here’s something really different. Car Seat Headrest is one of the worst names for a band I can recall (I’m not overly keen on Frightened Rabbit either by the way), and they have a somewhat odd history even for the modern internet era. The band essentially is Will Toledo, a 24 year old from Leesburg in Virginia, and took their name from Toledo’s habit of recording his vocals in the back of a car for privacy. Toledo took to the internet with huge enthusiasm and has released no fewer than ten original albums, mostly via DIY site Bandcamp. Albums 1, 2, 3 and 4 (named ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’ and ‘4’) appeared at a rate of one a month. Toledo has slowed down, now releases his work on a regular label (Matador) and has formed a band to tour with him. You kind of wonder about the sort of quality control that an artist who releases ten albums in six years utilises – but on the evidence of Car Seat Headrest’s debut Heatseeker track ‘Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales’ I’m not sure Toledo is doing too much wrong. This is a fascinating extended piece, lasting over six minutes, and is about post party blues and that crucial decision about whether you chance driving or not. “Turn off the engine, get out of the car – and start to walk” advises Toledo. The ‘killer whales’ refer to ‘Blackfish’, an angry documentary about the plight of killer whales in captivity (the film itself was inspired when SeaWorld captive orca Tilikum killed his trainer Dawn Brancheau apparently because she wore her hair in a ponytail, one of the more dubious explanations for the conduct of a captive animal that I have ever heard). ‘Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales’ is taken from album No 10, and no, it’s not called ’10’, it is called ‘Teens Of Denial’. With other tracks sporting titles such as ‘(Joe Gets Kicked out of School for Using) Drugs with Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)’ and ‘The Ballad of the Costa Concordia’ this has to be well worth a listen.