Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Cambridge Folk Festival 2008

So another year, another Cambridge Folk Festival.


BBC Radio 2 has decent coverage (as always) buy alas no TV coverage confirmed as yet. Probably something on BBC Four next week. Anyway, some great artists this year including some of my personal favourites: Eliza Carthy (also appearing as part of The Imagined Village), Seth Lakeman, Laura Marling, Richard Hawley (standing in at the last minute for John Hiatt), and Devon Sproule. As ever, not all folk but all acoustic :)

2008 Music Chart - July

A quiet month with six website reviews. New albums from Elliott Brood, Seth Lakeman, Sarah Perrotta, XX Teens, Catherine MacLellan and ARMS.

Nothing is moving Ghosts from number one spot with the much missed IWACS second. Sigur Rós have moved to third with Cave & The Seeds and Goldfrapp dropping down. I dropped the disappointing Narrow Stairs to fourteenth.

The ARMS album is firmly stuck at the bottom and is likely to stay there.
  1. Ghosts I-IV - Nine Inch Nails
  2. I Want You To Know That There Is Always Hope - I Was A Cub Scout
  3. Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust - Sigur Rós
  4. Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
  5. Seventh Tree - Goldfrapp
  6. Third - Portishead
  7. Consolers Of The Lonely - The Raconteurs
  8. Mountain Meadows - Elliott Brood
  9. Accelerate - R.E.M.
  10. We Started Nothing - The Ting Tings
  11. Church Bell Blues - Catherine MacLellan
  12. The Seldom Seen Kid - Elbow
  13. The Age Of The Understatement - The Last Shadow Puppets
  14. Silent Cry - Feeder
  15. Narrow Stairs - Death Cab For Cutie
  16. Songs In A&E - Spiritualized
  17. In Rainbows - Radiohead
  18. Alas, I Cannot Swim - Laura Marling
  19. Welcome To Goon Island - XX Teens
  20. Attack & Release - The Black Keys
  21. Liejacker - Thea Gilmore
  22. Do You Like Rock Music - British Sea Power
  23. Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings - Counting Crows
  24. Midnight Boom - The Kills
  25. Elliot Minor - Elliot Minor
  26. Poor Man's Heaven - Seth Lakeman
  27. You Cross My Path - The Charlatans
  28. @#%&*! Smilers - Aimee Mann
  29. The Slip - Nine Inch Nails
  30. The Hollow Of Morning - Gemma Hayes
  31. Little Voice - Sara Bareilles
  32. The Well - Sarah Perrotta
  33. Saturnalia - The Gutter Twins
  34. Neptune - The Duke Spirit
  35. Viva La Vida - Coldplay
  36. This Gift - Sons & Daughters
  37. Kids Aflame - ARMS

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Elliott Brood - Mountain Meadows Album Review (2008)

A review for Elliott Brood are another great find for me. I really like this album and the band's approach to music.

Mountain Meadows is the second album from Canadian alternative country trio Elliott Brood. Following 2005's impressive, but largely unnoticed debut Ambassador, the band have developed their sound while staying close to their traditional roots. The album has been described as 'hardcore country', conjuring up images of Hayseed Dixie and their obsession with Motorhead. That is something of a misnomer as Elliott Brood's music is much more interesting.

Mountain Meadows is an astonishing mix of old fashioned approach and new musical arrangements. This is clear from the start as the beautiful instrumentation of Springsteen-esque opener 'Fingers And Tongues' makes way for Mark Sasso's wonderful rasping vocals. By the end of the song he is practically screaming as the frantic guitar strumming brings the song to a close. From here the album weaves through numerous music styles but all within the same country/folk/indie framework. 'Write It All Down For You' fuses delicate guitars with dramatic banging drums and "hey hey hey" vocals to create a contrast. Add in Sasso's voice and there is now a three way split. Somehow it all works together. Compare this to the exquisite 'The Valley Town', a light and breezy story with its foot tapping rhythm, and you almost have a different band. Even the odd vocal distortion when Sasso lets go is part of the charm.

There are very few faults here but most arrive when the band are getting too comfortable. The country stomp, odd vocal structure and vibrant guitars of 'T-Bill' and the more conventional banjo riff and harmonica of 'Without Again' are fine but 'Woodward Avenue' sounds like a bad hoe down. Given all that has come before, it sounds overdone and the added trumpet gets in the way. This is all forgiven as occasionally the band bring it all together in style. 'Garden River' is about as complete as it gets, a full-on country rock epic pulling no punches. By the time they hit the chorus, the band are really going for it - a tremendous noise for a three piece. It descends in the mid-section but recovers and picks up again for the end. Album closer 'Miss You Now' is the nearest to this high point, starting off like a Faces cover with Stewart in his prime, before introducing a series of relentless shouty pop moments over stomping guitars and drums. If anything, as the longest song on the album, this threatens to outstay its welcome.

The main driving force of Mountain Meadows is not only strength and depth but the constant variation. 'Notes' captures Rosh Ritter at his engaging best before bringing in a curious up-down melody and old time piano. '31 years' is a gorgeous piece of campfire storytelling with a dark edge; the musical control is outstanding. But the real surprise is 'The Body' which has a similar melancholy feel, fairly average for the first three minutes until it starts again with some train/plane sampling and female vocals. Likewise, after a messy start, 'Chuckwagon' is a menacing guitar led instrumental (aside from the occasional distant cry). It could not be more different.

Elliott Brood has made a great album - easily accessible, varied and interesting without being mainstream. The band manage to create a unique blend of traditional roots and modern song writing, all wrapped up in a brilliant sound. An excellent second album.

-- CS (for 2008)

Monday, 28 July 2008

Live From Abbey Road (Show 5, Series 2 - 25/07/2008)

Looking at the line-up for this weeks Live From Abbey Road show, I wasn't hopeful. The Hoosiers are one of my least favourite bands of the moment and I have only heard a few Manu Chao songs and I didn't like any of them. The Black Keys however are incredible. But you have to take the rough with the smooth and unfortunately the warning signs proved correct yet again.

The set:

The Hoosiers
  • Goodbye Mr. A
  • Run Rabbit Run
  • We Didn't Start The Fire
The Black Keys
  • I Got Mine
  • Here I Am, I Always Am
  • Same Old Thing
Manu Chao
  • Bongo Bong / Mr. Bobby
  • Bienvenida A Tijuana
  • Politik Kills / Rainin In Paradize
The Hoosiers talked about the origin of their name and how they formed, and how their natural sound often gets mistaken for chirpy pop. After a confusing intro attempting to explain the song, they performed their biggest hit Goodbye Mr. A - a decent enough chirpy pop (sorry) song. Then, after another explanation it was Run Rabbit Run, a well meaning song about women how always fall for the wrong men. The meaning was lost under horrible falsetto vocals and then wailing at the end. But the biggest let down of all was the third song choice - a cover of Billy Joel's We Didn't Light The Fire. Lead singer Sparkes tried to ease us into the song gently by reminding us that when dealing with cover versions, always give the song what it needs, which in most cases doesn't mean an eight minute guitar solo. So instead they add a huge over the top brass section to the end of what starts off as a decent cover. It promises to be a great reinterpretation with softer vocals but lacking the urgency of the original. And then it quickly goes wrong. Even a clever attempt to get political by changing the word 'Russians' to 'we are' in 'Russians in Afghanistan' doesn't help. Overall a dull and pointless set.

The Black Keys on the other hand were astonishing. Like Ray Lamontagne merged with The White Stripes, the duo pump out guitars and drums like no one else (except The White Stripes of course). Starting with the blistering I Got Mine and then the Captain Beefheart cover Here I Am I Always Am, given a striped down treatment. Same Old Thing was just as good - brimming with energy and showing the dynamic between the two musicians. There is a great interview conducted in the Abbey Road echo chamber. Dan Auerbach tells us that it is where The Beatles came to smoke joints. Patrick Carney, unsure if they can say that, corrects it and says it is where they came to east ham sandwiches because the sound of chewing was much better. An incite into a band's mentality if every there was one.

French-Spanish singer and activist Manu Chao is an acquired taste but a legend in world music. He thinks that bars are the best place to try new songs and doesn't like the concept of rehearsal because his memory has been destroyed by cigarettes . Improvisation is the key. THat would explain the mistimed ending of the horrible Bongo Bong / Mr. Bobby - sounding like Jack Johnson rapping. Bienvenida A Tijuana is much better - a more traditional Spanish song, but still a bit dull. The big political number was the nauseating Politik Kills / Rainin In Paradize. You cannot deny that his heart is in the right place but it is an awful song, badly arranged with obvious heavy lyrics. Shame.

So The Black Keys were great. Maybe the show's producers are running out of bands. After the Suzanne Vega disappointment last week, Live From Abbey Road still has a lot to prove. Come on this the most famous studio in the world. Get some world class talent to perform world class songs.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Music Piracy

As this is supposed to be a music review site, I don't normally get involved in news about the music industry but the subject of music file-sharing has come up again and I want to add my two pence, at it were.

This story is on the BBC website. The main focus is on a deal between the music industry and ISP providers to tell people that they are sharing music illegally. As if they don't know! Apparently teenagers (unfairly singled out imo) have an average of 800 stolen songs on their mp3 players. This is the key here. Stolen. It doesn't matter if someone else has posted the music, if you take it from a site, from someone who isn't authorised to do so, it is theft.

This part of the story is amazing:

One BBC News website user Mark, from Hampshire, said he downloaded and shared files illegally and argued customers were "getting their own back".

In an e-mail, he said: "I used to run half a dozen record shops in the 80s and saw how far the fat cats of the record industry would go, in milking customers and retailers dry with more hyped rubbish."

"Why should I yet again pay for, say, the Beatles' White Album at full whack? I already bought it on LP, eight-track, cassette, and CD! This is those customers getting their own back."

"So will this make me sharing a CD with my next-door neighbour over the fence illegal?" he added.

I cannot believe that this guy thinks he is some kind of music vigilante in some well deserved fight against artists. And he really doesn't know the answer to the last question? It is quite simple, if you buy a CD, it is yours to own and listen to. Every CD you buy (typically) has the following text stamped on it: "Unauthorised copying, broadcasting, public performance , hiring or rental is prohibited". Okay so some of that is open to interpretation if you get picky but since 'rental' can take place without any fee, the answer to the question is most definitely "No, it is ALREADY illegal". One copy, one person. It is that simple. If he plays it in his garden and his neighbour hears it, it is illegal. You can't even copy your own CD and put it on your mp3 player! I am constantly amazed at this law and the fact that most people don't know it.

As a music fan, this is something that is very close to my heart. Yes we all 'borrow' music from time to time but doing so on a mass scale and then promoting that practice by uploading music to file sharing sites is destroying the industry. I have just heard a guy on the radio claiming that he always downloads music illegally. One example was a CD that he owned on vinyl, which broke, then on CD, which he lost. So he has already given the artist the money so he download it for free. Right? He then went on to say that bands like R.E.M. have loads of money anyway and music is now just a hobby. At this point I wanted to take a sledgehammer to my radio. He claimed that because he didn't share the music with anyone else he isn't a pirate. Sharing involves two people. He is.

As the next caller on the radio show said, it is ignorant lazy and abhorrent people (my words, not his) like this who are killing art for the rest of us. And music is art. The artists (mostly) spend huge amounts of time and (mostly) use considerable effort and talent to make music. They do it because us mere mortals cannot. And I refuse to believe that anyone will download an album to 'see what it it is like' before handing over their cash. When you have it in your possession most won't buy a 'proper' legal copy. Then they will say "But I don't listen to it that much" or "I only like one or two tracks". Now that you can buy individual tracks, this is no excuse. It's bullshit.

Just to end this little rant, there is talk of compensating artists in an attempt to offset the monies lost from music piracy. So everyone with broadband and/or a mobile phone will pay an extra 20-30 quid a month for their service to pay for idiots who steal music. I agree that we need to sort this problem out but this is the maddest idea I have heard for a long time. In this changing age of technology, industry and the law needs to be one step ahead of criminals and that is difficult. Like with all fraud, you need to have acceptable losses. Charging everyone for other people's indiscretions is not the answer.

It is time people understand the law, whether we agree with it or not. Ignorance or hypocrisy aside, you cannot be a music fan if you steal what you claim to love.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Pitchfork apologise to Black Kids with Pugs

The title says it all really. The Pitchfork review of the new Black Kids album Partie Traumatic, which I am avoiding for now, has been replaced with two adorable pug dogs saying sorry.

The review is here.

So they allegedly helped hype the band in the first place then slammed the album? People are saying that the 3.3/10 review was originally a 0/10 as the screenshot shows.

Pitchfork say that the 0/10 was a typo and the editor, who is credited with the review (if you can call it that), changed it to 3.3.

Anyway, this makes an important point. So what if some internet review site gives an album a low score. Ok they hyped them up based on an initial EP but the band couldn't follow it up with a decent album. You don't just score high because you somehow feel obligated to. Do you? And are Pitchfork really THAT important to make a fuss about?

XX Teens - Welcome To Goon Island Album Review (2008)

I was asked to review the new XX Teens (post to follow) album Welcome To Goon Island for The Music Magazine. The first thing I noticed about the album was the lack of the song 'How To Reduce Your Chances Of Being A Terror Victim' - the song that first introduced me to the band. The video is here:

The album is a wonderful sprawling mess of thoughts and ideas. It is far from predictable but strangely it was exactly what I expected. An album full of tracks like How To Reduce Your Chances Of Being A Terror Victim would have been a bit tedious but its omission is noticeable but also commendable.

Here it is...

Back in February 2008 London's XX Teens released the brilliant and innovative single 'How To Reduce The Chances Of Being A Terror Victim'. This was followed by a number of sessions in which the band performed the song. It looked like a defining moment in the infancy of a dynamic new art-school band. So big things are expected from the debut album 'Welcome To Goon Island'. Scanning down the track listing, 'How To Reduce The Chances Of Being A Terror Victim' is nowhere to be seen. Even before the first listen, the signs are not good.

'Welcome To Goon Island' is a wonderful sprawling mess of thoughts and ideas. Opener 'The Way We Were' quickly throws off the dreamy waterfall strings for a much more comfortable tin pot and guitar stomp. The combined vocals of Rich Cash and Anthony Silvester form a great combination, forming a mix of Mark E Smith (The Fall) and Tom Meighan (Kasabian). After the odd start, it is an otherwise ordinary 'love' song with some great lyrics: "Everything was made for us, from the sun down to the dust" and "You need a professional. Someone to rescue you...but not me". 'B 54' brings in the strangeness. It sounds more like an Arab Strap song, part sung, part spoken to create a strange storytelling effect. The drums and guitars, however, are incredible. What the whole thing is about is anyone's guess but it plays out like part of Dante's The Divine Comedy. Lines like "The amputee! She's got five legs, six legs and a croissant" suggest that it got lost in translation.

Moving swiftly on 'Round' is a slow plodding collection of drums, electronics and annoying high pitch laughing before a another lyrical adventure, this time about Micah the Prophet (described as Micah the Morashtite - not only misspelled, as it should be Morasthite, but also incorrect. The word Morasthite is the Book Of Micah and not the Prophet). Mere technicalities aside, it is another arty ramble set to sparse alien instrumentation. There is some interesting guitar work after a brief burst of bird song but the ending is horrible. The inspiringly titled 'Ba (Ba-Ba Ba)' (maybe a tribute to 'Abacab' by Genesis?) recalls an alcohol fuelled reminiscence and sounds like the band got Mark Ronson in at the last minute to produce - "Oh just add a brass section, it will be fine". So the musical arrangement does not work at all. And the line " heart's all soaked in wine" should be left to Norah Jones.

The same warning signs flash at the start of 'Onkarawa' but it quickly settles down. Cash's lazy droll is interrupted by a combination of delicate backing and then furious guitars during the line: "Cos when I try to speak efficiently my brains, my brains, my brains explode". Then it all goes a bit psychedelic. The whole song is framed by shouting from Silvester. Great stuff. Quickly through the pointless 'Interlude', 'Only You' is a great short punchy pop song - predictably ragged around the edges but a genuine tune. In contrast 'My Favourite Hat' pulls us back to weirdsville. This is a real confused mess of ideas with overwhelming drums and too much electronic nonsense. Continuing the inconsistency, 'Darlin'' is really great. This time the trumpets work and the steel drums are a nice touch. Lyrically, however, this is hopelessly pretentious. Any song that features the band name should be reserved for rap or novelty pop singles, not innovative bands who want to be taken seriously. But there are some great lines: "Oh I never get drunk with a pen in my hand. I try to teach you but you don't understand" shows that there are poets in there somewhere. And the song has the best ending on the album.

Into the final part of 'Welcome To Goon Island' and 'Sun Comes Up' is a sitar infused but frenetic Beatles-esque slice of psychedelic irony. It is hard to believe that this is to be taken completely seriously. And it feels a bit half-arsed. On an album that is quite short even by modern standards, extending this by five minutes would not seem unreasonable. 'For Brian Haw' has its heart in the right place and closes the album with a profound political statement, not just protesting but honouring the protester. The electronically injected backing track is excellent, like the soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic horror movie. After three minutes we get a two minute monologue from the man himself which is startlingly effective.

The omission of 'How To Reduce The Chances Of Being A Terror Victim' is not the problem with 'Welcome To Goon Island'. Even though it is noticeable, it is also commendable. Too many new bands just make a debut album full of early singles and EPs, giving fans nothing new. XX Teens are being described as 'vivid', 'interesting', 'expansive' and 'far-reaching' and that they will 'bring a bit of depth and Technicolor joy into the drab current musical landscape'. You cannot disagree with the last claim but the key word here is 'bit'. The band chip away at the foundations of music without using a sledgehammer; they run up to doors, knock and run away when they should just blow them apart with dynamite. It is arty without being groundbreaking; rarely predictable but entirely what is expected. But if you are going to create challenging and engaging music then 'Welcome To Goon Island' is a great start.
-- CS (for The Music Magazine 2008)

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Ebay by Weird Al Yankovic

Ok first of all this guy is genius. No contest. Some people try to mix comedy and music and no one does it as well as Weird Al.

This is his Ebay parody set to The Backstreet Boys. There seem to be several videos of this song. This is the best.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Jack McManus - You Think I Don't Care

I don't normally review this sort of thing but the promo was sent to me by The Music Magazine.

It's an ok single, as radio-friendly pop goes and I took the opportunity to speak out on the subject of Brit School, McManus being a recent graduate. I have nothing against the institution per say but it is responsible for churning out pop artists rather than decent song writers. Anyway I didn't want to single out McManus or make an example of him - but I make a fair point.

The review:

Brit School has a lot to answer for. As an institution it is a fantastic idea - an opportunity for emerging talented musicians to hone their skills, share views and experiences with peers, and create 'art'. But the school's output leans heavily toward off-the-shelf pop music, rather than independent spirit, and is responsible for the likes of Amy MacDonald, The Kooks, Katie Melua and more recently Adele. These graduates have one thing in common: their music is described as accessible which often means safe and predictable, radio-friendly or worse 'commercial'. Jack McManus, unfortunately, has joined this group.

His debut single 'Bang On The Piano' has a natural quirky charm, even if it does sound horribly close to 'The Feeling'. 'You Think I Don't Care' is an attempt to get a bit more serious; to strive for some credibility. The result is a song which is all about the chorus. After a slightly downbeat opening of plodding guitars and spurious percussion, McManus starts the melancholy tale of how he is feeling sorry for himself and he wishes he could talk to people. It is about as close as he gets to wallowing in self pity as the music picks up for the hook, bringing in more instrumentation and vocal emotion. It is the only redeeming feature of an otherwise average pop song, even if it trails off at the end. Quickly into the second verse, the lyrics do not get any better: the trite "I want you close, but give me just a little room" is followed by the obscure "I'll leave the engine running; that is what I do" before the chorus again. So far, so formulaic. But McManus breaks the rules slightly and after a wording change he neatly slides into a dour segment about messing up before an agonisingly guitar ridden but entirely predictable third chorus. Then it fades.

Jack McManus is clearly still learning his trade. He is a decent musician lost in this new world of Radio 2 pseudo-pop. And this is the big problem. A new breed of singer songwriters are trying to make their own music but are continually steered in a different direction; a safer, more comfortable direction of easy listening and record sales. Music is now about pleasing people and making money. Bring back the art.
-- CS (for The Music Magazine 2008)

Live From Abbey Road (Show 4, Series 2 - 18/07/2008)

This week was Panic At The Disco, David Gray and Suzanne Vega. Mixed feelings about this weeks show. About half way through it was looking like the best of the series so far but then a strange thing happened. I was really looking forward to Suzanne Vega who is one of the most important musicians of my generation (thirty somethings) and for reasons I don't understand, the best artist to feature turned into a real disappointment. I guess the weight of expectation was too much.


Panic At The Disco
  • Nine In The Afternoon
  • I Write Sins Not Tragedies
  • The Weight
David Gray
  • You're The World To Me
  • Breathe
  • The Other Side
Suzanne Vega
  • Tom's Diner
  • Luka
Panic At The Disco were very good. Unlike some of the other young bands they had more of a natural demeanour instead of arrogance. Again they looked like a proper live band in a studio environment and they were not overwhelmed by the location. Apparently they mixed their last album at Abbey Road. Anyway the young American band gave two decent renditions: the warbley vocals and emo-pop of Nine In The Afternoon then the superb I Write Sins Not Tragedies - a great vocal arrangement like Coheed & Cambria without the ferocious intensity. The band talked openly about their current learning process and how mistakes are made because they are still learning. Bands these days are expected to be as perfect as much earlier bands who were successful later in life. Their third song, curiously, was a cover of The Weight. As the singer says at the end, it felt a bit slow and clunky. The vocals were excellent though.

I have a soft spot for David Gray thanks to a Glastonbury festival experience I had. It was just one of the perfect moments when the rain stopped, the sun was setting and time stood still. I have been a fan ever since. He is very honest and has been unfairly criticised for moaning about how one album and one song can make your career. So it was too much to ask for a Babylon. He talked about life after White Ladder and how having a hit record doesn't mean you can do it again. You have to work for it all the time. Instead Gray kicked off with the excellent You're The World To Me. The band positioning was interesting, all facing in to each other. Gray performed standing on a tartan rug presumably so that his stomping feet wouldn't mess up the amps. The more intimate Breathe was amazing - again Gray faced two other band members and the dynamic deep guitars worked well. He gave a quick explanation of the song conception beforehand: of two Iranians who came to his house to talk about human injustice and the torture and murder of dissidents. It worked brilliantly. Gray finished with The Other Side, from simple piano to full band and frantic ending. He says that his lack of belief turns the song into a desperate plea.
Now to Suzanne Vega. She talked about how she considers herself a writer above anything else, a writer of poetry but not a poet. She introduced Tom's Diner as the song which invented the mp3 - the guys perfecting the technology used the original a cappela version to test the mp3 format. So she performed a more modern arrangement with full band - it has quite a strange dub / electronic feel. Then she performed Luka, a classic song. Vega explained that it was designed not be be dour or cheerful but matter-of-fact, like a child would regard the experience of being abused. The song was recorded and refined many times before they got it right. And then...the show ends.

Yes, the show ends after two Suzanne Vega songs as if they ran out of time. It left me completely stunned. I would like to know why such a great musician was given the least time and only two songs. Such a big shame.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

New Radiohead video - House Of Cards

The new video uses no cameras or lights...just a lot of lasers.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Catherine MacLellan - Church Bell Blues Album Review (2008)

Another review for See it here :)

I really liked this album and I think that MacLellan is a genuine talent.

Church Bell Blues is the second album from Canadian roots singer and guitarist Catherine MacLellan. Lying somewhere between folk and country but staying firmly on the right side of both, it is a stirring collection of songs with seemingly sparse arrangements and delicate instrumentation. Everything is held together by MacLellan's astonishing voice, piercing through the music. The smart but simple production is added by co-musician James Phillips. This is a perfect example of how artist and producer have developed a relationship and understanding over time - Phillips was in MacLellan's former band The New Drifts and worked on her solo debut Dark Dream Midnight. It is this dynamic that forms the core of the album. The guitars are turned up a notch so that every rasp and vibration is retained, adding a stark reality like recapturing every subsequent live performance. But MacLellan's gorgeous voice is left to glide unhindered with crisp clarity. The mark of a great producer is the ability to give the music space to breathe.

The album is packed with wonderful songs. From the dark chords and melancholy searching lyrics of opener 'Dreams Dissolve' and 'There You Are' to the bluesy guitars and sultry vocals of the title track and excellent 'Brave Love', there are plenty of gems. 'The Long Way Home' has a beautiful vocal melody - male and female voices blending together and the duel guitars of 'Emily's Song' combine perfectly. 'River valley Plains' chronicles the environmental plight facing the planet, all wrapped up in an emotive road trip: "One hundred fifty years we'll throw our garbage, shed out tears into the river that once ran clear through these lands". The electric guitar makes another rare appearance for the upbeat jangle 'Too Easy', a song about living up to your expectations and the realisation that nothing is for free: "...Never thought I'd have to face up to the hard truth. Cold as stone, knocked me from my throne. All my life it was given to me, should've known it was too easy". Instead of a predictable guitar solo there is a wordless vocal solo that actually works. 'January Song' is so stripped down that it is almost a cappella. And closing track 'Long Time' brings another peerless vocal performance.

Church Bell Blues is an understated and pure album of heartfelt songs and captured moments, as modern as it is old-fashioned. It knows exactly what it is and never deviates from a straight line. This is the only negative criticism that is slowly expelled after a few listens when the individuality begins to emerge from vast ocean. Songs like 'Stronger' could get lost under the waves unless you take the time to appreciate the brilliant guitar work. Likewise 'Snow Day' only serves to conjure up images within a simple story while doing nothing new musically. It is only when you stop scratching the surface that you find the quality. No trick is ever overused and subtly changed if repeated.

Catherine MacLellan clearly understands and respects her musical heritage handed down by her family. Her father Gene taught her the art of song writing from a young age and this lineage is clear to see. And unlike many of her contemporaries, she puts as much emphasis on the stories being told. Some artists have music in their blood.
-- CS (for, July 2008)

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Live From Abbey Road (Show 3, Series 2 - 11/07/2008)

A very interesting and much better Live From Abbey Road show this week featuring Welsh indie-rock stalwarts Stereophonics, pop songstress Colbie Caillat and the legend that is Joan Armatrading. So I was expecting great things from everyone involved.

The set:

  • Dakota
  • It Means Nothing
  • My Friends
Colbie Caillat
  • Bubbly
  • Realize
  • Battle
Joan Amatrading
  • Tall In The Saddle
  • A Woman In Love
  • Love And Affection
A slight departure from the norm this week as all three artists got three songs.

I used to be a huge Stereophonics fan, back when Kelly Jones and the boys made genuine heartfelt post-Britpop indie rock. Now that Jones has gone from wide-eyed indie kid to hardened rock superstar, things have changed. The Stereophonics set was very modern which is a great shame as a new version of 'Local Boy In A Photograph' would have been a great tribute and acknowledgement of where the band were and what they are doing. But they kicked off with the rocky Dakota, with Jones in top form and the band clearly enjoying the live set up, before one of the best current songs from Pull The Pin, It Means Nothing, written in response of the 7/7 London attacks while the band were in the US. As Jones says, it is not so much a political song as it is a social 'people' song. They closed with a fairly ordinary version of My Friends.

Colbie Caillat is a bit of an enigma. She talked about her fame and stardom (even though most people have never heard of her) and influences including Lauren Hill and Bob Marley, but also predictably John Mayer (quoted by every up and coming singer anywhere). Then about having to learn the guitar to write songs and changing her attitude to make things happen instead of just waiting for fame to find her. She looked very uneasy and nervous during the guitar led Bubbly, a great pop tune, before losing the guitar for Realize. It did nothing for her fragile credibility to hold her headphones on with both hands as if she was crooning a verse for We Are The World. That aside, the whimsical ballad was pleasant enough. Her very good band looked far more at ease than she did. The guitar solo at the end of Battle was the best thing about it.

The best was saved for last with the mighty Joan Armatrading. I was expecting a set of new songs from a new album (you can't blame me after last week - thanks Crow) but she started with the dramatic blues fuelled Tall In The Saddle. Her voice is amazing and as she says in her interview, she also considers herself a fine guitarist. This was highly evident here. As the song turned into a frantic jam session, there was a bizarre moment of voice over and interview right in the middle of the song, focusing on her guitar! It spoiled the song somewhat but broke the formula nicely. A Woman In Love sounded more conventional but was the most modern song, from 2007, before an incredible semi-acoustic Love And Affection complete with sax break. It's a shame there wasn't enough time for Drop The Pilot but this was a rare treat. Armatrading says she still loves singing the song and wouldn't deny fans in a gig. Highlight of the series so far.

So a great show. Next week is Suzanne Vega. Yay!

Monday, 14 July 2008

Sarah Perrotta - The Well Album Review 2008

This is a 'short style' review, my first for and a slight departure from my normal track by track examination / ramble through an album. I find that these sort of reviews work if there are several running themes through the songs or if I'm trying to cut down the word count :) Even though the review is quite harsh, I gave the album a generous 6/10 because most of it is good but with frequent annoyances.

Anyway here it is...

America has a great tradition of piano playing singer songwriters. Sarah Perrotta definitely fits this stereotype - earnest and passionate lyrics set to emotional piano-led music with added strings. On paper it has all been done before so the key is to mix things up to generate new and interesting directions. 'The Well' is Perrotta's first solo release and the album is a mixed bag of sounds, themes and ideas, not just across the album but usually within each song.

'The Well' is a wonderfully crafted combination of formula and melting pot. Almost every song has at its core a Coldplay-esque piano or bass loop, like the impressive 'Fishes' and most notably in the excellent 'Steel', like a slowed down 'God Put A Smile Upon Your Face'. Even the lyrics are typically Martin-like: "I can hear the whole world humming and inside my heart is drumming. Has the world gone mad? Is it all so bad?". Perrotta throws everything into her wavering high pitched vocal delivery which is often striking but always breathy. Electric guitars only feature prominently in the occasional well-placed solo but the use of accordion on two songs: 'Out Of Grace' and 'Carry You Home' is misjudged.

But most of 'The Well' lacks distinct melody. 'Fishes' wanders through metaphoric lyrics without sounding flat or monotone, thanks to Perrotta's vocal gymnastics and some neat piano, but ultimately it lacks a tune. The same can be said of the sultry but rambling 'Make Me Real'. And 'The Storm' is ethereally elegant but far too long. That said, the intricate arrangements add depth and beauty to 'Rooftops', for example, and the start of 'Before The Fall'. When it doesn't work, the songs become over-egged cakes. Another huge annoyance is the sporadic use of wordless vocals plaguing many of the early songs particularly at the end of 'Rooftops' and 'Before The Fall'. 'Country' is a well-intentioned attempt at politicising the album, even if the lyrics are horribly obvious, but the old-fashioned mock-upbeat feel that works on the less serious 'Into Bloom' lets it down.

Much of 'The Well' works but there is a lot that doesn't. It is not inconsistent. Far from it; the album is consistently confused, with too many ideas and not enough songs. Opener 'Out Of Grace' jumps around like a caffeine-induced wasp, ruining a great core arrangement. And the good ideas start to run dry in the second half of the album. Both 'Midnight Lullaby' and 'Carry You Home' are so slow and quaint they quickly become agonisingly boring. Sarah Perrotta has been compared to Tori Amos and Fiona Apple which is doing them a disservice. She clearly has talent, even if her voice is an acquired taste, but she needs to think less and focus more.

-- CS (for - July 2008)

You can find the published article in all its glory here.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Seth Lakeman - Poor Man's Heaven

A review for The Music Magazine of Set Lakeman's new album. More consistent than Freedom Fields but just as predictable and safe. This time with added maritime disasters and redness.

Here is the review:

There are two words destined to strike fear into any hardened music fan: contemporary folk. To many devotees, the sacred art of folk music is not to be messed with. Eliza Carthy tried it on her magnificent Red/Rice to mixed reviews and Kate Rusby deftly weaves modern life with tales of Old England. But that is about it. It is a desperate cliché but folk is never at the top of people's favourite genres because of out-dated stereotypes and poor image. Seth Lakeman is a musician who has both the respect of a musical heritage and the courage to bring it into the modern age. Like previous album 'Freedom Fields', 'Poor Man's Heaven' is full of earnest song writing but very few surprises.

The album opens with the stirring drum stomp of 'The Hurlers', which sounds so seeped in Cornish tradition that, like the stone circle myth the song represents, it could be centuries old. Lakeman's voice is not old fashioned but the way he sings is. When the violins come in at the chorus, we are suddenly reminded of where we are. 'Feather In A Storm' has a very different feel, tinged with dark Southern-rock guitars. This will not please the purists. There is a running theme of maritime disasters and these feature heavily in many songs on the album.

'Crimson Dawn' is back to more traditional storytelling. "That fateful night I woke to hear the sound. Like a gunshot; both windows shaking loud" is a great attention grabbing first verse (and last). Compared to the precision of the first few songs, the instrumentation on 'Blood Red Sky' (more redness) feels messy and clumsy. The distant vocal crooning sounds over-produced and misplaced. The maritime stories continue with 'Solomon Browne', Lakeman's retelling of the Penlee lifeboat tragedy when men died trying to save the Union Star, a cargo ship stuck in heavy seas. It is sad that such a meaningful well-intentioned song is one of the shortest on the album. It deserves much more - something similar to the epic 'Nautical Disaster' by 'The Tragically Hip'. But the simple arrangement and Lakeman's commanding vocals create a wonderful tribute.

The redness is revisited with 'Cherry Red Girl', a strange tale soaked in metaphor: "Pick a fruit from her fine wardrobe. In oriental pearl and the whole double row" is one of many spurious lines. The chorus glides along with simple repetition. 'I'll Haunt You' is incredibly bland and ordinary - it sounds like a goth-metal band doing part of an acoustic session. Conversely 'Race To Be King' is the truest sounding song on the album, all frantic gypsy violins and vocals. Again, the sea is the subject, this time about the lure and futility of whale hunting. Lakeman's talented band (including his brother Sean) add some excellent backing vocals. The song ends with a cliff-hanger: "There fired a shot along our deck and down one side. It cracked our mast and swept in fast. Our bird she cried".

The title track is a curious beast, another fusion of styles and sounds. The arrangement feels a bit too much like a nursery rhyme but it just about holds together. A great violin / vocal ending adds some much needed class but it should be a few minutes of self-indulgence longer. 'Greed And Gold is the nearest a song gets to a ballad. It stands out as far too slow even when the chorus attempts to add some pace. But 'Sound Of A Drum' closes things in style. It is another slow piece yet it works thanks to dramatic guitars and vocals and another well placed, if short, guitar break.

'Poor Man's Heaven' sticks to what Seth Lakeman knows best, somewhere between folk and modern pop. Much of the musical drama comes from a sharp blast of violin which is effective most of the time but quickly becomes an overused trick. His voice, however, is a constant instrument of strength and wonder - emotion without theatre and passion without fervour. The music works better when it is a subdued backing track, adding depth and character rather than sudden cries for attention. The album never strays from the winning formula. It also never takes risks. Purists and fans will be satisfied for now at least.
-- CS (for The Music Magazine 2008)

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Live From Abbey Road (Show 2, Series 2 - 04/07/2008)

The second show in the series features Sheryl Crow, Hard-Fi and Diana Krall. Again not an inspiring line-up but I watched with an open objective mind. But ultimately I was disappointed simply because most of the music was just so dull.

The set:

Sheryl Crow
  • Shine Over Babylon
  • Love Is Free
  • Now That You're Gone
  • Tied Up Too Tight
  • We Need Love
Diana Krall
  • Exactly Like You
  • I'll String Along With You
  • Let's Face The Music And Dance
Sheryl Crow was blatantly plugging her new album. All three of her songs were from 'Detours' and nowhere near the best thing she has done. Her heart might now be in the right place but the music is empty and predictable. She talked before about her initial stardom and how it was a dismal time for music (she quotes Madonna and Paula Abdul in this claim). How ironic. The only song that impressed was the upbeat Love Is Free - the first song to really feel live despite high vocal production. The big boring chorus and meaningful, yet predictable, lyrics of Shine Over Babylon and the wobbly Now That You're Gone were uninspired.

The big let down was Hard-Fi. Like Dashboard Confessional they were relegated to the middle slot who only get two songs. Tied Up Too Tight was ok but We Need Love reminds us what a promising band they were and how their sound has changed for the worse. You got the impression that they swaggered in trying to act cool, swearing for attention and dismissing The Beatles in favour of The Rolling Stones. They did concede that Abbey Road has a 'vibe' but the damage was already done.

Diana Krall was very good. She is an amazing pianist and singer even if she does sing other people's songs. Her philosophy of 'try first, then listen back' may seem basic but is great advice. Her clean music works much better in the clean studio format and remains 'live' through the production. The rework of 'Let's Face The Music And Dance' was expected but also brilliant. She is not entirely my cup of tea but a nice surprise in an otherwise dull show.

Monday, 7 July 2008

The Lines - Memory Span Album Review (2008)

I was sent a very interesting album to review for The Music Magazine. 'The Lines' are (or were) a post-punk guitar band from London in the last seventies and early eighties. They released a few singles and EPs and only two albums as their sound developed from punchy punk to goth-dub. It is a strange and compelling transition. I really like the whole of the Cold Snap! EP which captures the band at their early best but later songs like 'Part II' and 'House Of Cracks' are just as good.

Anyway, here it is...
"Follow you, follow me. Build a library, make history, solve a mystery", sings Rico Conning on 'Don't Need Surgery'. It is prophetic song writing as 'The Lines' are a real mystery. One of these bands with a cult following and fans desperately hoping that no one else discovers their big secret. 'Memory Span' is a huge compilation of everything 'The Lines' released plus a few unreleased demos. The album shows the development of the band through several line-up changes and an evolving sound from 1978 to 1983. At times they have an incredible dynamic - the fusion of Forty's bass and a myriad of guitar sounds from Conning, later joined by Linehan, and Cash's seemingly random drumming. Singer Conning occasionally sounds like Peter Perritt ('The Only Ones') which is no bad thing.

The highlights of the first part of the compilation are the disjointed guitars and sultry vocals of first single 'White Night' and the driving bass and drums of 'Not Through Windows'. The playful vocals of the 'Blisstability' demo concluding with Conning asking "Where's my Aspirin? Where's it happening?" is the best unreleased track.

The 'Cool Snap! EP' forms the middle of 'Memory Span' and is home to the best songs. 'Don't Need Surgery' is the first sign of real song writing ability. Wonderful guitars and vocals very reminiscent of early R.E.M. '2 Split Seconds' has the same intertwine of guitars with added drums, as is the more upbeat gothic-punk of 'False Alarm'. 'Background' is a poetic bass driven ramble about alienation and change: "It's a new situation in a given space. All the old preparations for a different race", topped with a jangly ending. 'Cool Snap' could be an early 'Cure' instrumental with spurious percussion and a great guitar melody. The trombone mid section and outro is a bit mad but the whole thing works brilliantly. The EP captures the changing times of the summer of 1980 and a changing band.

Moving further into the 1980s, the single 'Nerve Pylon' is the first sign of a new sound with added electronic production and has Conning trying, with limited success, Ian Brown style 'big vocals'. Likewise 'Over The Brow' is an interesting song, less punchy punk and more dub influenced with brass and huge expansive vocals. 'Transit' continues the same approach and at nearly six minutes 'Part II' is a sprawling trippy semi-instrumental. Conning's vocals add to the haze like Ian Curtis on a bad day.

Instead of sounding like a band in decline, the gargantuan 'House Of Cracks' tries to capture the earlier sound. Conning's lyrics would suggest otherwise: "I say listen to the wailing. This train is derailing. Oh my, the brakes are failing..." before screaming incoherently. The song finally settles down after an explosive opening and a protracted sample of rainfall. It is a beguiling mix. Conning is particularly dour: "What shall we do with the drunken sailor? Slap him around and tell him he's a failure", echoed by the desperate horror-movie ending. Conversely 'Old Town' is a spacious collection of noises and shouting set to a bass line - less of a song and more an idea.

'Barbican' takes the band full circle and it is early guitarist Phillips who takes centre stage. Strangely it is the album closer instead of being coupled with 'White Night', reminding us of where the band started.

Why 'The Lines' did not find the same commercial success as their contemporaries is the big mystery. It is claimed that the band never went on tour or did interviews; a very different musical world back in the early 80s without the glare of the media spotlight, thousands of television and radio channels and the internet. Although 'Memory Span' is definitely music of its time, it works today as a complete history of an evolving band who deserved more than cult status. In the current climate of trying to sound retro yet different, many of the songs would be comfortable along side the likes of 'The Pigeon Detectives' and 'Massive Attack'. After twenty five years, the secret is finally out.

-- CS (for The Music Magazine July 2008)

Mogwai - The Sun Smells Too Loud review

My thoughts on the new Mogwai 'single' from The Music Magazine.

In September 2008, supreme Scottish instrumentalists [b]'Mogwai'[/b] release their sixth album 'The Hawk Is Howling' and [b]'The Sun Smells Too Loud'[/b] is a preview track from the album.

The song starts in familiar style with plodding guitars and drums churning out a melody. Then delicate chord changes and electronic tweaks bring in a startling hazy summers day riff. It is business as usual for the first three minutes before a heavier, more clumsy mid-section of keyboards takes over. For the second half, everything blends together before what is essentially a reworking of the first with added melody. Instead of building to a climax, music is stripped away for the downbeat outro.

'The Sun Smells Too Loud' is a great taster for the new album if only to tell us that in two years not much has changed. But it is far from 'Mogwai' at their majestic best. The song certainly doesn't have the menacing ferocity of 'Mr. Beast' or the subtle beauty of 'Happy Songs For Happy People'. At nearly seven minutes, it is unlikely to be a single, but may suffer the indignity of a radio edit. Only time will tell. Roll on September.
-- CS (for The Music Magazine 2008)

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Nick Cave Night on BBC Four

On Friday 4th July, BBC Four dedicated a night of music programmes to Nick Cave and his band The Bad Seeds. They performed a lively set as LSO St. Lukes in London to a small audience in the intimate setting.

The show is here plus an interview and some exclusive videos.

The set list:
  • Dig!!!, Lazarus, Dig!!!
  • Red Right Hand
  • Midnight Man
  • Deanna
  • God Is In The House
  • Today's Lesson
  • Get Ready For Love
  • The Lyre Of Orpheus
  • The Ship Song
  • The Mercy Seat
  • We Call Upon The Author
  • Stagger Lee
Cave said before the show in a very brief interview that before a gig he is nervous and cannot understand how he gets the energy and excitement for a set. He then pays the Bad Seeds a wonderful compliment by saying that they are a 'defibrillator for the soul'.

And it is a very energetic set. Predictably many of the songs were from current album Dig!!!, Lazarus, Dig!!! and with such a well stocked back catalogue every fan was never going to be happy. But...the only song from the brilliant No More Shall We Part was God Is In The House, there was nothing from The Boatman's Call and two strange choices from The Lyre Of Orpheus/Abattoir Blues. But this is was designed to be a noisy, and at times, dirty set kicking off with a very messy version of Dig!!!, Lazarus, Dig!!! The three early songs: Deanna, The Ship Song and The Mercy Seat were ok but the reworking of Red Right Hand (despite the mess up at the end when he comes back with the wrong verse but recovers for a spine-tingling end), We Call Upon The Author (complete with electronics and Warren Ellis singing backing vocals from the floor while trying to play a bizarre pedal contraption) and the finale torrent of expletives Stagger Lee stole the show.

At many points, Cave engages the audience as only he can - sometimes getting up close and personal with the front tables and over-excited punters dancing embarrassingly. They call out requests and he checks the set list. "No it's not on the list", he says to one and "That's on the list" and then complains: "so many songs". Another request gets the response: "we can't play that. I hate to admit it but it's too hard". His serious demeanour reveals playful banter. The great version of The Lyre Of Orpheus has Cave getting "Oh Mama" back from the crowd who miss their timing but it is a great interactive experience.

A great show. I wish I had been there.

Friday, 4 July 2008

New Mogwai single - The Sun Smells Too Loud

As a preview for the new album The Hawk Is Howling (out in September 2008), Scottish instrumentalists Mogwai have released The Sun Smells Too Loud for free.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

ARMS - Kids Aflame review

A review for The Music Magazine - another album this time.

ARMS is Todd Goldstein (guitarist from Harlem Shakes) and the album is basically a reissue of an earlier EP with a few more tracks added. There are a few good tracks including the single Whirring, Construction and Shitty Little Disco but most of it is a bit average. Shame.

Here is the review:

There are many bands who are actually just one person and ARMS is one of those bands. Todd Goldstein is a singer and multi-instrumentalist who makes challenging and interesting guitar based music from his bedroom in Brooklyn, NY. He is one of these introspective songwriters for which art is a cathartic experience.

Kids Aflame opens with 'Sabretooth Typist', a short introduction of choral vocals and rubber band guitars, before launching into first single 'Whirring'. After a promising start of jangling guitars and drums, Goldstein's delicious vocals arrive - this is what Damon Albarn would sound like if he could sing like Tom Smith (Editors) and Richard Hawley at the same time. From here the song loses momentum before starting again, this time with added subtle backing vocals. He has a way with words: "It's the season for smashing glasses; cast our shadows on tall fences", he muses dreamily. Instead of drifting away, the music builds to a frenzied climax of layered guitars and drums.

'Construction' is much less busy. Again Goldstein delivers a wonderful vocal performance, tinged with dark overtones. The music matches him perfectly, echoing the same melancholy feel with creepy guitars, deep strings and some well placed handclaps. The agoraphobic nature of the song is present in the lyrics: "This isn't what we planned you know, we stay inside on Sunday morning sleeping through construction and the pounding of the rain". The last part of the song gets unnecessarily frantic which is a shame.

The title track has the horrible feeling of a Jack Johnson b-side; all tropical acoustic guitars, finger clicking and wordless vocals. The whole arrangement doesn't work with far too much added into the mix. 'Tiger Tamer' is clearly an earlier song which has Goldstein doing an impression of 'They Might Be Giants' doing a 'Pixies' cover. It is controlled and precise for the first 30 seconds then loses all structure. Again the outro is way over-the-top.

The appropriately named 'Sad, Sad, Sad' continues the lull. It is one of those songs which creates an uneasy atmosphere from the juxtaposition of upbeat music and downbeat lyrics, again about agoraphobia and depression in the wake of fame: "Days alone are the days you dread the most. Counting down the hours in caffeine and morning shows. It's not for lack of funds, you're bathing in your money and your drugs but you can't hate everyone". It is challenging stuff but spread a little thick. The song nearly grinds to a halt before a predictably noisy ending.

'Shitty Little Disco', the name given to the previous ARMS EP, is a wonderful return to form and captures 'The Velvet Underground' at their best. The gliding electronic strings add a perfect lift under more excellent guitar work. Unfortunately 'The Frozen Lake' is a distorted mess. Thankfully it is also short. 'Fall' is also a difficult fragment of a song, somewhere between a dream and reality.

The vocals on 'John The Escalator' are indistinguishable from those at the start of the album. Another earlier song, Goldstein sounds thin and listless and is overwhelmed by the music. The vocal mix is all wrong. Eyeball, in which Goldstein muses about the existence of eyes, shows that the album is running out of ideas. The Italian guitars are a neat touch but the song's relentless plod, and reliance on more wordlessness starts to get annoying. The addition of female backing vocals at least breaks the monotony.

'Pocket' tries desperately to inject some fuel into the dying fire. But it remains more of the same. The multi-vocals become confused and unfocused and the brass-led mid-section sounds out of place. It only really works at the end. Final track 'Ana M' is agonisingly slow. Again the introduction of female vocals adds depth but breaks the personal nature of the song. Lines like: "I took me seven years of pictures. You look the same in every single one" reveal the genius of Goldstein's talent. But it is too little and too late.

ARMS is one man fighting to find his own identity. Fans who bought the 'Shitty Little Disco EP' will be disappointed with 'Kids Aflame' as there is very little added to make the full album. It is very inconsistent, full of clear influences and wandering directions which never quite finds a comfortable place. But maybe that is the effect Todd Goldstein is going for - capturing his uneasy life in his music. It is commendable that this is the work of one person but when compared to 'We Can Create' by Maps for instance, it pales in comparison. Goldstein also plays guitar in 'Harlem Shakes'. ARMS may be a necessary cathartic distraction but he should stick to his day job.

-- CS (for The Music Magazine 2008)

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Live From Abbey Road (Show 1, Series 2 - 27/06/2008)

With the temporary demise of the only decent music show on television, Later…with Jools Holland, I thought I would write about another. Live From Abbey Road is now back on More4 (one of Channel 4’s more artsy siblings) for a second series. I must admit that I missed the first shows which showcased the likes of Paul Simon, Massive Attack, Primal Scream, Kasabian and The Zutons.

The first episode in series two features three artists: Mary J. Blige, Dashboard Confessional and James Blunt. On paper this isn’t a very inspiring line up but the show surprised me.

It is worth talking about the format of the show. It is the antithesis of Later. There is no host, no audience and no voiceovers. The artists perform separately and never meet each other. The ‘live’ recordings take place in the studio, more like a recording session than a gig. And the musicians talk about their music.

The set list for Friday’s show is:

Mary J. Blige
  • Just Fine
  • Come To Me
  • Family Affair
Dashboard Confessional
  • Where There‘s Gold
  • Hands Down
James Blunt
  • Same Mistake
  • I‘ll Take Everything
  • 1973
The show starts with a introduction from each artist, in this case we have some world-weary philosophising from Mary J Blige, mystical wonderings from Dashboard’s front man Chris Carrabba and typical wide-eyed innocence from James Blunt.

First up, Mary J. ‘Just Fine’ is nothing unexpected but ‘Come To Me’ (also from latest offering ‘Growing Pains’) is a softer ballad which starts well - strings, piano and harmonies - but then descends into Whitney-esque wailing. Earlier song ‘Family Affair’ just doesn’t work at all now that Blige has grown up and is now more worldly wise.

Dashboard Confessional, sadly, only get two songs to perform. They kick off with the simple duel guitars and voices of ‘Where There‘s Gold‘, which Carrabba declares at the end as not as fun as he remembers, and then the fuller emo of ‘Hands Down‘. This works much better.

But it is James Blunt who is the real surprise. His band do a wonderful job of telling us all how great he is and talk about him fondly. That’s not much of a surprise but his performances are. ‘Same Mistake’ is excellent and flawless. There is such emotion and passion in his vocals and despite the clinical surroundings of studio, headphones and a rigid process, it is a genuine and heartfelt rendition. ‘I’ll Take Everything’ is also very good - an average song but a solid performance. If anything, the final song ‘1973’ is a little too precise and rigid. All three songs are from All The Lost Souls, the album Blunt wrote initially in isolation and then refined and recorded with a band. The band dynamic really shows.

In between the music, the artists talk about the songs which is a revealing insight into their mentalities and processes. The drummer from DC has pictures of his family on the drums so he can take his family on the road, for instance, and Carrabba talks about how his ‘art’ comes to him when he least expects it or wants it to. He is clearly overwhelmed by the occasion and the ‘magic’ of the studios, as he puts it. This affects the performances which is a shame. Mary J. has been through much in her life and constantly reminds us. But her music is now more relevant and personal than ever, reinforcing her status as one of the world’s best R&B stars. Blunt talks briefly about the difference between being in the music industry and being a musician, his 1970s influences and working with a band. It is all a bit sycophantic but credible enough to not be too disingenuous.

What is interesting about the studio format is the silence at the end of each recording. The end of ‘Same Mistake’ is spine chilling as Blunt tries to hold back the emotion he wouldn’t have if he was in front of a crowd. Blige is the same after ‘Come To Me’. It is unique and compelling. This is a double-edged sword. The ‘live’ tag of the show is really misleading as each song plays out like a recording session and not a session. So everything is far too polished. It looks (and sounds) at times like a final mastered song playing over footage of the recording, perfectly lip-synched. The big screen TV in the studio is a nice touch but gets annoying after a while. And if you can cope with the AD breaks, there is a ‘coming up…’ section before each and then after, a nice caption reminds you of who you were watching five minutes ago. This may seem petty but the show’s demeanour suggests a mature audience who don’t need to be dumbed down and know the artists well.

Live From Abbey Road is an interesting new show and totally different from anything else, not that there is much to choose from. I still say bring back The White Room but for now, this will have to do…