Artists at a glance
SONS OF SOUTHERN ULSTER
THE HOWL & THE HUM
So we are nearly halfway through 2018 and still the three most powerful countries on the planet continue to be run by paranoid megalomaniacs. Meanwhile apparently considerable bargaining power remains in the hands of a dictator with a poker face that looks more like a joker face [and vice versa] whose people are too poor to switch their lights on and whose alleged nuclear arsenal is currently buried under a mudslide. And they think we’re the mad ones! What these people need is more [and better] music to soothe their tortured souls and frayed nerves … maybe!
Granted, this week’s Listening Post offered a selection of mad tunes (owch!) and here at the People’s Republic of Pop Potential, ten of the twenty-five recruits have navigated the dirt tracks, overcome the assault courses and emerged ready to rescue the planet through the power of new music. So as this week’s duty officer it falls to me to introduce the latest nominees for the Nobel Pop Prize. Thankfully it’s a strong field.
ARWEN – Set On Fire
To be successful as a solo artist in any era it helps hugely to have a voice that is instantly recognisable and Arwen has just such a voice. Her distinct pronunciations and striking timbre mark her out immediately. Set On Fire complements her uniqueness by offering a fairly minimal backdrop of long organ chords, single synth notes, bubbling and busy bassline and consistent beat. When she adds a rap in the mid-section she sounds more obviously English. This adds a further contrast to her more elusive singing style. The track is very definitely all about her voice and so it should be (a voice to break the most stubborn opposition to our peace drive).
Arwen is a 23 year old singer-songwriter from Birmingham. Her website talks about her music as Electronic Pop with British Contemporary Vocals which seems a short but reasonable summary. She is also a multi-instrumentalist and, more recently, has got into production. With such an individual vocal style and character this all bodes well for her independence. Given the right opportunities it will be exciting to see how she develops as an artist over the next few years. I hope this platform helps.
BAERD – Crete
A laid-back start sees the vocals come straight in over strummed guitar before quickly adding harmony and additional layers. It is folky but there is an air of Thom Yorke in the melody and in its use of what us classical types call the harmonic minor scale. The quiet guitar-led interlude that follows the first two verses however could almost be Genesis in Steve Hackett era. When the vocals rejoin the mix the song goes in a different direction with a three-note descending figure whose context is controlled by changes of chord as synths swoop over the guitar and cymbals sizzle here and there [or should that be hither and zither?].
This methodology is original and determinedly creative in a way that defies all the usual structures of the pop song. The point is reinforced as a further change of mood and tempo teases out an edgier, louder vocal response which is tracked and powered up into an energetic hook. We end up with something akin to an Alt Folk (P)operetta. These guys will surely be among the brains of our planet-saving regiment. According to their press kit, the songs are inspired by the hillsides in South Dakota seen on a camping holiday. Crete is however based on the Greek Mythological tale of King Minos who hid in his labyrinth to hide his shame. Our peacekeeping force has found its historian!
Singer-songwriter Isaiah Beard is clearly the leader of the pack (hence the name Baerd). The press kit refers to his ‘… penchant for rationalizing the irrational; hiding complex emotions during stressful situations using walls of outward intellectualism’ before going on to talk of envisioning a future in which he no longer has the need for “intellectual bullshit”. This may sound quite British but Baerd are from Boston [Massachusetts, not Lincolnshire!] and the song was recorded in Idaho.
It is refreshing and reassuring to hear a song that packs so many ideas into a relatively small space and adopts a structure that is a long way from the conventional verse-chorus template of most Popular Music. I thoroughly recommend this if you have yet to hear it.
CLOTH – Demo Love
After an initial intro of chugging bass and guitar lightly spiced with quiet chants, we discover it was just a tease and the real intro is a mid-tempo celebration of guitar jangle and resonance. However, like an operatic overture, we get to hear how these intros turn out to be a taster for the ensuing tale. In this case that’s a tale of appealing instrumental interplay adorned with sometimes wordless and generally understated vocal interjections that threaten to burst into song but never really do. They are low in the mix too which is presumably an intended effect as they battle to come up for air from beneath the waves of instrumental colour. The upshot is a highly listenable slice of sun-kissed psychedelic alt pop. If this is peace in our time it is achieved by a combination of soothing sonic suggestion and intelligent incubation of ideas.
Cloth is a particularly fine name for a band and the concept of Demo Love is both slightly ambiguous and yet quite heartwarming [if that isn’t too great a paradox]. Their online presence is sketchy but, according to a review on Podcart, they are a Glasgow-based trio (two women, one man) and they, quite accurately, describe Demo Love as an alternative ballad with ‘… a vocal that washes over you like morning sunlight and tenacious folk-strum all parcelled in a lush ambience’. I’m sure the use of the word is purely coincidental but Lush [the band, that is] makes for a good reference point for their enigmatic inventive style. Certainly Cloth have a foot in the dream pop camp.
More stargazing than shoegazing though, this floats onto centre stage like a firm but fluffy cloud. Let their serene sounds rain softly down.
FREYR – Over My Head
Freyr’s Soundcloud page describes him as a ‘… Swedish/Icelandic singer-songwriter with a passion for acoustic music’ and Over My Head lives up to that statement, offering a simplicity of approach that works because of the mesmerising melancholic beauty of the song. He has a definite pop voice that is youthful and yearning while his guitar playing is tasteful and delicate. Peace most definitely reigns. In terms of pop diplomacy Freyr appeals to our better nature with the honesty of his songwriting and it would take a tougher soul than mine to deny him.
Freyr Flodgren, as he is actually called, is clearly wasting no time in spreading his wings. A quick look at his live schedule reveals he is getting out and about and winning plaudits from artists and media alike. I’m intrigued that another Listening Post and Mixtape favourite Nic Evennett has covered one of his songs. Last week Freyr was in Berlin playing the Insel Sessions. The previous week he was performing in Stockholm. He has also visited the UK and played a series of dates around London and the South East.
Freyr has collaborated with other artists; in particular Brother North. His own music is thoughtful, sensitive and highly contemporary. Hopefully this will prove to be another useful platform for him as he turns his travels into a lasting legacy of success.
HIPPO – Wireless
By strange and happy coincidence, the last time Hippo emerged at the Listening Post it coincided with it being my turn to write up the Fresh Faves reviews and now here we are in the same situation once more. On that occasion Gromet was my favourite from a very strong selection and Wireless, which is taken from their same eponymously titled EP, is in similar territory, starting with stabbing sax notes before developing into a syncopated unison and then stretching out into Jazz Futurist instrumental play linked with live electronics. Such second nature solidarity can only be good for our diplomatic drive.
Hippo are from Bristol and while there is still relatively little information about them on social media they do have a Facebook page which tells us they are getting out and playing live dates. They are a trio of sax, synth and drums and what particularly grabbed me then and now is how they manage to use electronics without losing their funky instinctive improvisatory looseness and spontaneity, but they also do so without lapsing into showiness or self-indulgence. This shows both admirable self-discipline and great awareness. It also makes us appreciate the impressive but concise solo play all the more as it enhances the thematic cohesiveness that makes them so listenable and exciting.
At a time when contemporary jazz has been given a massive shot of adrenaline across several continents thanks to a group of innovative artists including but by no means limited to Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Shabakah Hutchings [and The Comet is Coming], Sheila Maurice-Grey, Femi and Seun Kuti, Moses Boyd and others, Hippo have come along at what may prove to be just the right time to join this expanding party.
JC STEWART – Medicine
JC Stewart has a very pop-oriented voice but one that is also appealingly gritty. He handles the dynamic range of this powerful ballad with consummate ease. Medicine is anthemic, dominated by a big chorus bathed in vocal harmonies and piano chords around which JC is able to add agreeable flourishes. It’s a track made for mainstream radio. Passionate but positive; just what our peace objective needs. If he was already established, this would be A-Listed on Heart FM. (Trust me on this! My wife listens to little else in the car!)
Looking at the information on JC Stewart’s Facebook page the song is clearly picking up the plaudits already from the likes of Bitter Sweet Symphony and Official Cool FM. His home town is listed as Magherafelt in County Derry but his current location is Belfast. He also has management and a label (Awal) so presumably there’s a decent infrastructure supporting his career ambitions which is good news.
L-SPACE – Old Machines
Well they may make music inspired by old machines, but this sounds most definitely like it was created with the aid of new ones. A soft ethereal female voice floats atop slim strands of synth, sonic ambience and plenty of echo. On the one hand it has a futuristic dreaminess made all the more enigmatic by contrapuntal vocal overlaps and half-chords that melt into different half-chords without ever fully establishing a stable harmonic base. Yet there is an undercurrent of churchiness about it too, evoking memories of organs and choirs resonating with the open acoustics of sixteenth century architecture [not that I’m claiming to be nostalgic for the sixteenth century. I’m no time traveller!]. This should soothe the souls of warriors and boost our non-aggressive stance.
L-space’s Soundcloud page promises to retain little on it by way of material, instead directing audiences to their Bandcamp and Spotify pages. That, of course, is cool if you want to purchase any of their fine music [and well you may after hearing Old Machines]. But for information purposes they do also have a Facebook page which reveals that they are a quartet (50/50 women & men) from Glasgow who are playing regular live dates. They list their influences as Mogwai, Radiohead and Philip Glass (among others) and say they write about the future; all of which explains the rich dreamy textures and fluid, otherworldly soundscapes
Old Machines is a welcome example of originality both in terms of its musical construction and its structural make-up. It is exquisite and exotic too; a winning formula all round.
RADIOSAURUS – Better Alone
Better Alone has an unusual intro. It kicks off with a laid-back guitar riff played on the two upper strings (like U2’s The Edge in early years but with a lot less reverb), but almost immediately this equilibrium is interrupted [in a good way obviously] by the drama and demanding passion of the lead vocal which is full on, throaty and emotional. The ensuing track retains a stately tempo and builds through a rock solid rhythm section and layers of melodic guitar while the vocal continues in the same pleading, uncompromising fashion. This will be the determinedly persuasive voice in our diplomatic corps.
Radiosaurus hail from Plymouth and describe their sound as ‘Stoner Rock and Dirty Grunge but in a cool way’. Does that not sound quite cool anyway?! I can certainly hear some Smashing Pumpkins and Queens of the Stone Age influences lurking in their midst. But I also feel there is a Britishness about them that points to a long tradition of alternative rock.
Better Alone is strong and immediate. It strikes a great balance between thoughtful, even understated [at times] musicianship and highly charged vocals. It also offers plenty of melodic content. Thumbs up all round then.
SONS OF SOUTHERN ULSTER – The Pop Inn
The intro to The Pop Inn reminds me of the Pixies both in terms of the suspended guitar chords playing fluidly with the bass and drums, and in terms of the spoken word commentary (i.e. Monkey Gone To Heaven). But unlike the Pixies this one doesn’t give way to a big anthemic chorus. Instead vocal melodies appear and disappear, low in the mix, while it is the spoken word that grows in intensity. Meanwhile the timbres and textures go through a continuous series of contrasts. It’s a highly effective and original approach that highlights their story telling skills and lends their post-punk influenced music a compelling electricity throughout. In our pop-inspired peace campaign, theirs is a message conveying a perfect mix of passion and rationale.
Slightly confusingly, Sons Of Southern Ulster seem to switch between being a duo and a quartet. In either guise these are experienced heads and they have fashioned their own genre that tells tales of life in “small-town Ireland” (Tony Clayton-Lea & Louise Bruton, gig review) in a folk-influenced manner where ‘Neil O’Brien sold dead men’s suits’ and a hard-bitten aunt diddled her favourite nephew before seeing her days out in a home. They even manage to work ‘Teardrop Explodes and Chips’ into their stream-of-consciousness-stye prose!
This is all presented amid a guitar-driven alternative pop/rock style. Their album Foundry Folk Songs sounds like a must-listen for the weeks ahead. They have been compared to any number of bands including the Velvets and even The Fall. I would have to hear more to be able to judge but The Pop Inn certainly suggests a flair for melodic and harmonically fluid composing and an abundance of bristling energy.
Put that together with their poignant but [dry] humourous poetic talents and it is no wonder that Sons Of Southern Ulster are gathering fans and momentum far and wide. I somehow overlooked this when casting my own votes this week so I am grateful to the others who didn’t make that same mistake. #Outstanding.
THE HOWL & THE HUM – Murder
An eerie mistiness characterises the opening sections of Murder. The single-note guitar twang and poignant pauses between phrases creates a Western-like image of dusk descending upon a dusty town as tobacco-chewing townsfolk stand and stare from outside the saloon. All of this chimes, in the sense of aura at least, with their own description of their music as ‘… Bond themes …’ which ‘… combine dark hypnotic pop with post-punk influences, pierced with lyrics that make you call your mum the next morning’. In our push for peace I envisage The Howl & The Hum being best placed to make things happen quietly and behind the scenes.
The Howl & The Hum have had glowing reviews from Clash magazine and from one Tom Robinson [no less] who called them ‘… a seriously great band from whom you will be hearing a great deal …’.
On the strength of Murder it is easy to see why. This is atmospheric and enigmatic music that compels the listener to go back for more. Having also seen rave reviews of their live sets my appetite is sufficiently whetted. For all these reasons I hope Tom has called it right on the issue of our hearing a great deal more from them.
So that’s it for another week then. We may not find the formula for world peace through pop just yet but at least we have ten top tunes to enjoy. Have a great week everybody and see you all at the Listening Post again soon. Neil xxxx
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.