Fresh Faves: Batch 239

Archchair Committee

These Fresh Faves were picked by our readers over the weekend, and are reviewed this week by Fresh On The Net Founder and BBC Radio 6 Music presenter Tom Robinson. You can hear all these tracks in a single Soundcloud playlist here.

It feels like an age since my last turn reviewing Fresh Faves here at Fresh On The Net and when you’re out of practice reviewing ten songs takes the best part of a day.

We were helped enormously this week by a flurry of fellow artists who dropped by the Listening Post on Sunday afternoon to listen and choose their favourites, which helped make these ten finalists a genuinely democratic reflection of everyone’s collective tastes.

You know who you are – thanks so much to all of you.

ARMCHAIR COMMITTEE – Virginia Creeper

What a great start. Any recording artist worth their salt will tell you how hard it is to create a sound this big on record. “Big” in this case doesn’t mean the overrated wall of noise made famous by Phil Spector and co – but the wide-open spaciousness of a Zeppelin or Audioslave. Virginia Creeper sounds immense, helped by immaculate clear production, the low-strung growling bass pedalling on bottom C, and three musicians who know exactly what they – and each other – are doing.

Equally hard to pull off  is this kind of slow tempo located around the resting human heart rate of 60bpm – yet this track sits smack in time and grooves like a bastard. Armchair Committee‘s hat trick is completed by a set of genuinely arresting lyrics that command attention from the opening words “Sorry your crony’s dead” – delivered in a haunting and assured falsetto. Spooky, powerful and thoughtful – Virginia Creeper is a great calling card from last year’s album Half as Gold, But Twice as Grand – while the followup is nearing completion even as you read this.

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BRASS KNUCKLE BRASS BAND – Green Light

Green Light is the brand new single by Lorde – from a highly anticipated second album that hasn’t even been released yet. For an Australian brass band to jump in and cover it is a bold and original move. They collectively hit the four golden T’s of horn playing: tone, timing, tuning and texture: serious players all. And the Brass Knuckle Brass Band also have a killer rhythm section – what’s not to like? The all-star panel of readers who dropped by our Listening Post this weekend certainly voted for it in their droves.

But the fact that this record is a cover cuts both ways. Yes the sheer cheek of it brings a feelgood grin – and the current buzz around Lorde is bound to bring BKBB some extra attention too. This time last week none of us had heard of the band yet here we are halfway round the planet talking about them right now. On the other hand a genuinely great cover version – such Mad World, Hurt or Hallelujah – can be appreciated in its own right without reference to the original.

And that’s why, for me, this isn’t a genuinely great cover version. It’s pleasant, different, and for those familiar with Lorde and all her works it has a knowing nudge-wink appeal. Yet without the interest of lyrics to sustain it and a linear surprise-free arrangement, I found my cursor hovering over the “next” button after the first couple of minutes. So two cheers for this. They’re clearly a quality band, but you can bet that a stonking 3:40 instrumental of their own composition would pack a far more brass-knuckled punch that this simple homage to New Zealand’s finest.

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ENSEMBLE ft. DONNA MACIOCIA – Silence

The 1987 Aids slogan SILENCE=DEATH has had many echoes down the decades. Silence is quite literally a killer – thanks to the famous Stiff Upper Lip, suicide is still the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. So do we need to talk more openly about mental health? Christ yes. My own personal history includes a nervous breakdown aged 16, two suicide attempts, six years in a therapeutic communityand ten years of psychotherapy in my thirties. Even today, at 66, depression is still a struggle at times.

Ensemble is a Scottish project to help combat mental health stigma through music. This track Silence comes from an eponymous EP produced by Andy Monaghan (Frightened Rabbit), billed as “a chance to share a few songs with you in the hope of starting more conversations.” It’s a great sounding record. The production and vocal performance by Donna Maciocia here are exemplary, and it’s no surprise this was picked as a favourite by so many readers over the weekend.

Overall it’s a wonderful and worthwhile project. My only reservation is that the lyrics have the literal, over-earnest quality of songs written to an agitprop agenda for a fringe theatre production. They lean more toward describing a situation than to directly expressing an emotion.

“Silence louder than words, Lightness the moment you’re heard. Presence in the quiet of kindness, Patience makes you feel guided…”

Still, I write as a repented sinner: my own career has included its own share of fringe theatre lyrics and agitprop doggerel. Given the collaborative nature of this project – reflecting the lived experience of people who’ve faced this kind of stigma – it’s only right to allow it a little latitude.

Years of trying to change the world through music have taught me the importance of simply getting out there and doing *something* rather than nothing at all. Also that if anyone’s arrogant enough to think they can do better, it behoves them to get out there and do exactly that – rather than sit bitching on the sideliness. As the old Aids activists used to say: ACTION = LIFE.

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FOGGY CITY ORPHAN – Cheer Up

Excuse my French, but this is fucking irresistible – my record of the week by a country mile comes from Glasgow’s Foggy City Orphan. The gang vocals are sung with such a sneer you can almost smell the testosterone. Their frontman too has the louche insolent swagger of a true heir to a long, dishonourable line stretching from Pelle Almqvist to Pete Docherty, Ian Brown to Mark E Smith, Ian McCullough to Jim Morrison and beyond.

It’s incredibly hard to make a record sound this effortless: the production overflows with nuanced detail and dynamics – from the opening 808 beats to the bridges of atonal guitar mayhem. Far too much music today is a dull retread of tropes we’ve heard a thousand times before over past five decades. Yet, like Iggy Pop’s best work, Cheer Up manages to synthesise rock’n’roll’s basic ingredients into something fresh and vital without ever departing from its animal essence.

One small niggle: this record has a natural end at 2:30 which would have left casual listeners reaching for the “replay” button. There’s really no need for a song this great to be 4:25 long – and there are good arithmetical arguments why it shouldn’t. Every week we hear 100-200 new tunes here at Fresh On The Net and 25-50 of them are usually pretty good. However my BBC Introducing Mixtape shows on 6 Music are just one hour long.

So if those tunes are all 4:25 or longer, only 13 artists will make it onto the radio that week: do the maths. Whereas if all the tracks were 2:30 or less, we could fit some 24 artists into that same programme. Of course we do play longform music too – but it’s always a tradeoff. At the end of the day, if two equally great songs are competing for a last free slot, the shorter track will usually win.

Think on.

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GLASS WINGS – Jana From Barcelona

Jana From Barcelona marks a confident debut from Glass Wings – the project of Belfast songwriter Stephen Jones. In my experience all successful artists have invariably started out playing covers, slowly mastering whatever style of music inspired them to pick up an instrument in the first place. That soon leads on to first attempts at creating songs of their own. Again these are usually in a similar vein to their heroes – which is why the early Stones owed so much to Chuck Berry and the Clash started out like an angry British version of The Ramones.

These are still early days and Mr Jones’s singing, playing and songwriting certainly promise well – particularly the chorus melody. We can expect very much stronger work from Glass Wings in the next half year or so, but for now this still sounds like 80s pastiche to me. The process of finding one’s own unique artistic voice requires time and persistence. For Jarvis Cocker it took ten years – Ed Sheeran managed it in just four – and the Beatles in three.

That said, originality isn’t everything. For all my jaded carping this first outing for Glass Wings picked up loads of votes at the weekend. And on Jana From Barcelona Stephen’s sheer joy at having created the classic sounds and song structures he loves can be heard in every note.

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JEANES – Trees Hug Bees

Fresh On The Net’s moderators are a team of unpaid volunteers spread across the UK, Germany, Ireland and Spain. Ranging in age from 16 to 66 from bloggers and musicians to enthusiatic civilians, they share a mission to promote new, interesting music in a world still dominated by Simon Cowell and the Radio 1 playlist. So in the interests of disclosure Russ Jeanes is one of our musician moderators. Over the years our Listening Post has also featured tunes by Benji Tranter, Louis Barabbas, Robjn, Forest & Dove, Steff Lane and Johnno “Snippet” Casson.

It’s important to stress that every one of the above had already been featured on my BBC radio shows before I ever thought of inviting them to moderate at Fresh On The Net. They’re moderators because we like their music, not the other way around. Russ first arrived in our lives three years ago with his composition Simple Jayne – a charming ode to lost innocence sung by Parisian vocalist Catherine Hershey accompanied by blackbirds.

Nobody out there sounds quite like Russ Jeanes – a family man and filmmaker creating perfectly poised musical collaborations over the internet from a cottage in the Yorkshire woods. The taste of honey is almost tangible on Trees Hug Bees – a top rated tune on last weekend’s Listening Post – sung this time by Léa Decan, with guitar by Scott Fraser and strings by Tom Sidebottom. It’s taken from the forthcoming Jeanes EP, telling “stories of sleeping fields, breathing trees & drunken bees” – an exercise in economy and delicate understatement. Pure pastoral nectar from the heart of Northern England – accept no substitute.

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MIDNIGHT GARDENER – Foothills

According to the Urban Dictionary website a Midnight Gardener is one who passes out or falls over in foliage after consuming large large amounts of intoxicating liquor. It’s also the solo project of a Berlin-based artist called Samu Kuukka, and this deeply atmsopheric track seems to share the same addictive properties as said liquor. At five minutes it’s more of an immersive journey than an instant radio playlist contender – longform music designed to be heard and felt as much as listened to.

Does it matter that Foothills follows a well trodden path first pioneered by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush – or that those spooky Darth Vader vocals don’t appear to say or mean anything at all? Not a bit of it. I found myself returning to this tune again and again – as did listener after listener who picked it as a favourite track from our shortlist of 25 extremely strong contenders. Created by Midnight Gardener with panache and expertise, this is a soundscape that refreshes the parts other musical offerings cannot reach this week. Best to simply lie back and enjoy it.

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ORGAN TREE – Self Defense

As Billy from First World Pros commented at the weekend, most people’s reactions to this track were “just yes”. The cartoon Japanese lady and baby voices seemed to spread a big silly involuntary grin spreading over most of our faces while the words “Oh – go on then!” formed soundlessly in our minds. While harmonically pretty slight, Self Defense offer a pleasant, upbeat listening experience every bit as irresistible as Foggy City Orphan’s track this week. Unfortunately it also shares Cheer Up’s shortcoming of outstaying its welcome, and by four minutes into the tune the novelty has worn decidedly thin.

In the case of FCO you can understand a cracking live band being keen to record the full length stage arrangement that goes down so well at gigs. But Stockholm artist Organ Tree is more likely a simple victim of Digital Recording Syndrome – the temptation to extend our loops off to the right without adding enough new elements to sustain listeners’ interest. Once again there’s a natural stop point (at 3:25) that would have made an ideal finish. The gratuitous 46 seconds tagged onto the end dilute the track’s impact rather than adding to it. As Brian Eno once noted: “I wish almost all songs were shorter”.

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SIOBHAN WILSON – Whatever Helps

Matthew Young – the trailblazing founder of Edinburgh’s Song, By Toad label has an unerring ear for modern sensibilities and lo-fi DIY tunes that resonate with fans and tastemakers alike. When he sent Glasgow’s Lush Purr to our inbox last month I fast-tracked it for my BBC Introducing Mixtape on a single listen. When he forwarded the Whatever Helps by new signing Siobhan Wilson this week, it won the hearts of our moderation team and readers alike. It comes from her debut album There Are No Saints which SBT will be releasing in July.

Quite apart from Siobhan’s minimal, understated writing and delivery, the hidden genius of this track lies in its canny production of an essentially solo performer. After all, if you simply capture the single voice and guitar heard at live gigs, the results often sound thin and one-dimensional. If you add all the extra textures, harmonies and additional musicians said performer always heard in their head, then a gulf opens up between the record fans fall in love with – and the solo gigs they subsequently witness after the money runs out

Chris McCrory has solved the problem by building his central sound around Siobhan’s distorted electric guitar part, underpinnned by a pulsing kick drum in time with the tremelo on her amp. Her vocals are double tracked for sonic width while a few ethereal textures add depth and development far in the background. And spot the subtle details such as the vocal reverb suddenly deepening at 1:58 – creating a brief sonic “event” without adding a single additional element to the mix. In future – with the additional impact of volume and sheer physical presence – this song will still sound exactly like the single to spellbound audiences wherever Siobhan performs.

If you like this track as much as we do it’s well worth reading Matthew’s warm and informative release notes on the Bandcamp pre-order page.

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THISISDA – Control, Shift

To declare an interest, London-born Bristol-based rapper ThisIsDA has appeared multiple times on the BBC Introducing Mixtape and already played a live 6 Music session on my Saturday night show there. I love the integrity of what he does, his life affirming attitude to music and social action – and the way he constantly seeks to break new ground with his music.

This is perhaps his most radical musical departure to date – reflective, loping and offkilter – made in collaboration with gutarist and producer Jakuta. The sound is simultaneously dense and spacious, slowly developed and built up in layers, with ideas and audio files traded back and forth between the two. Guest vocals were added from youthful newcomer Gaidaa Ali – singing scat on the outro – and Fenne Lilly no less, who doubled up the main vocal on chorus two.

The title hook was supplied by a sudden software malfunction on the recording software, while the jazz clarinet arrived almost as an accidental afterthought. ThisisDA discovered busker Luke Eira playing in front of Banksy’s “Well Hung Lover” on Frogmore Street in the small hours of one morning and invited him to drop by the studio for a session – instantly creating Control, Shift’s defining atmosphere.

The lyrical mood is lowkey and introspective and though we’re told the song touches on police brutality, the references are reasonably veiled – Fuck Tha Police it ain’t. Overall this latest single is a surprising – and slightly unsettling – listen. Having heard it a dozen times now I still haven’t got my head around it, but that’s no bad thing. All truly innovative music tends to land the listener a little way outside their comfort zone before reeling them in. Consider me hooked.

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Banksy: Well-Hung Lover

PS from TR: If you’ve submitted a track that hasn’t been picked for the Listening Post, our team has definitely listened to it and there’s no need to send it again: feel free to send us an even stronger track another week. The same goes if you were picked for the Listening Post but didn’t feature in our Fresh Faves.

But if we’ve recently featured you in our Fresh Faves – or on my BBC Introducing Mixtape – please wait three months before sending us another track, so we have space to help other deserving artists… For more info see Robinson Has A Good Old Moan.

Tom Robinson

London-based broadcaster & songwriter, born 1950. His best known songs are 2-4-6-8 Motorway, Glad To Be Gay and War Baby; he has also co-written songs with Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Dan Hartman and Manu Katché. Read More...

4 Comments

  1. James Edge

    Loved ThisisDA, off for another listen..

  2. Thank you so much for the wonderul review of my music Tom:) I will print it, cut it out and show it to anyone and everyone I see from this day forward. I can’t thank you enough. The listening post is such a wonderful thing, thank you to everyone who takes the time to listen and to vote every week. I am so proud to have my music sat alongside such great songs, and such talented artists. I listen to ‘Dear God’ and ‘ Glorified Demons’ by Siobhan Wilson all the time, I discovered her via the listening post, and to hear my music in the company of people like Siobhan is beyond fantastic!

  3. bloody brill all ’round

    great reviews Tom and lovely music

    win-win

  4. Steve Harris

    Truly great reviews and despite all the variety a Fresh Faves where there isn’t a track I wouldn’t enjoy hearing again, which isn’t always the case. I was deeply impressed by Jeanes, mesmerised by Siobhan Wilson (I seem to enjoy everything Song, by Toad puts out), and intrigued by ThisIsDA’s latest especially.

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