Artists at a glance
MARTHA BEAN MUSIC
ACRYLIC – I’ve Got Too Many Friends
Starting out our playlist is I’ve Got Too Many Friends from ACRYLIC, a group hailing from Edinburgh and Glasgow. The song’s arrangement is timeless: a compelling lead vocal, here a baritone, and melodic guitar share center stage, spinning phrases in a kind of call and response. The guitar playing is reminiscent of Joy Division, Interpol and The Smiths – good company, to be sure. In order to make such a duet possible, in order for it to be effective and go off without a hitch, the rest of the band has to be spot on, adding meaningful flourishes, filling in the rest of the picture. The rhythm section of ACRYLIC does this impeccably.
Songwriter Andreas Christodoulidis writes that the lyrics describe “a rift developing in a relationship… the naive idea that sex will resolve your issues at that stage, even though you know it will in fact be a colourless and sad affair.” With this reflection in mind, you realize the words the narrator repeats most often, “Suddenly I’m where I need to be” are untrue. They are not where they need to be. The title of the song is probably a lie as well – the narrator most likely does not have friends or, at least, they feel unable to confide in others. After listening to the song and reading Christodoulidis’s prose, you can’t help but commiserate with his narrator.
EMILY BREEZE – Ego Death
Emily Breeze is a new artist from Bristol, though Emily, her bandmates and their producer, Stew Jackson, are anything but green. Emily herself was the frontwoman of Candy Darling, and Jackson, whose production work is integral to Ego Death, has worked with everyone from Tom Waits to Patti Smith to Massive Attack.
Emily and company cite movie music as an influence, and cinematic gestures are on display here. Such slick, show business-style music is perfect for Emily’s character who, as you may have guessed from the title, is egotistical. We get to hear this charlatan’s delusional monologue, which appears to be a string of seemingly unrelated self-aggrandizement. Usually, a lack of context impairs or obscures meaning, here the disjointed lines expose truth. “The older I get, the more dangerous I become”, “I’m very conscientious about my carbon footprint”, “I am exploding with empathy”- and the line that takes the cake and won me over – “I have an impeccable credit rating”. This kind of witty, forceful writing is rare and brilliant, and Emily delivers it in a way uniquely her own. While the truly excellent and endearing Jonathan Richman laughs at his own jokes, Emily intones her lugubrious lines the way her character would. She is not laughing. She is completely, one hundred percent serious. She is confident. She is smug. Truly, in the case of Emily Breeze, the songwriter and performer, the older she gets, the more dangerous she becomes.
IRINA – Your Broken Girl
Irina is a singer-songwriter based in London. In 2017, she won the UK Songwriting Competition in the “Under 18s” category; she was also a finalist in the categories of “Singer-Songwriters” and “Love Songs”. Adding to her list of accomplishments, she’s been featured on BBC Introducing.
Your Broken Girl stands in stark contrast to the recording studio feats exhibited on this playlist. There are few production fingerprints, and the resulting transparency allows the musicians to come into focus. These performers, influenced by blues, funk and jazz, give life to Irina’s words with masterful comping and extemporized lines. Irina herself matches their musicianship, she has an incredible control over her entire range, which is vast. She transitions seamlessly from falsetto to chest voice and back again, which is one of the most difficult things for a singer of any style of music. Her vibrato calls to mind the legendary Nina Simone, while her sense of humor is in line with Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman. She sings: “Maybe you’re a sadist or you’re just a little dim. You cannot bear being alone, you want to make me grim.”
MARMALADE. – Spin On
Marmalade comes to us from the environs surrounding Liverpool. The group formed in 2016 and, over the past few years, has opened for a number of established acts including Takotsubo Men and ZAPPATiKA (A Frank Zappa tribute outfit that often includes members of Zappa’s bands.)
Spin On is unabashedly and gloriously psychedelic rock. You have jazz (fusion) clean guitars, fuzz leads, a possessed lead singer, and a rhythm section that effortlessly guides the group back and forth between time signatures. Prominent in the recording, and integral to its character, is an analog delay (or an emulation of one) – it is as much an instrument as the voice and lends a sense of unease and confusion. The lyrics bring to mind psychedelic rock pioneer Arthur Lee, of the group Love, while the vocal delivery recalls the Door’s Jim Morrison. Marmalade’s narrator tells us again and again of their longing to learn how “to dehumanize.” Eventually, they come to terms both with their inability to learn as well as the inability of those around them to dehumanize, anesthetize, and tranquilize them.
MARTHA BEAN MUSIC – When I Hold You In My Arms
Martha Bean is a songwriter from Leicester whose debut, When Shadows Return To The Sea, was released to critical acclaim in 2014. Reviews of that album drew comparisons to Grizzly Bear and (the incredible) Nick Drake. Her latest single, the intimate and heartfelt When I Hold You In My Arms seems, to my ears, to be in the hallowed songwriting tradition of Broadway or Tin Pan Alley. There are classic, sophisticated harmonic changes that are not often found in folk. You can imagine this song being the centerpiece of a musical, the number that brings down the house. Bean’s singing is worthy of a curtain call, certainly.
In the book Home by Marilynne Robinson, the elderly Reverend Robert Boughton asks his son Jack to put his hand on his father’s chest: “You feel that heart in there? My life became your life, like lighting one candle from another. Isn’t that a mystery?” Robinson’s book describes the latter stages of parenthood in uniquely beautiful ways. Bean’s When I Hold You In My Arms describes the anticipated first stages of parenthood, though, in truth, Bean is already mothering. (Bean writes that the song is “about our little baby bean, due February 2019.” ) Much to our own hurt, it’s uncommon for modern art to contain even hints of goodness or kindness, anything that might nourish us. Such estimable and mature virtues are on display here.
MOAK_TP – Barbershop
MOAK comes to us from London. Last year, the spoken word and hip hop artist was nominated for Best Poet of the Year by UK Entertainment Awards. Just a few weeks ago, MOAK released his debut EP This Is US, which, according to the artist “encapsulates the current experience and feelings of black people and the ethos behind why black lives matter.”
The production of Barbershop, by Steve Roe, deserves attention. The time signature is, to my ears, 2/4, which lends this track a regal air. Such rhythmic motion is perfectly complemented by descending fourths played by a trumpet. (Historically, brass instruments announced royalty with intervals of perfect fourths and fifths). This all makes Barbershop majestic; it’s chamber hip hop. How often do you use “majestic” to describe pop music? Hats off to Steve and MOAK. (For those of you who are more firmly in an alternative pop tradition: the music bears a resemblances to Wilco’s I Am Trying To Break Your Heart and Radiohead’s Kid A.)
It would be hard for any artist to rise to the challenge of this production (Can you imagine being asked to write words for a J Dilla produced track?) but MOAK does just that, and in an interesting way that recalls prophetic tradition. His “Where a clip and a blade are no longer weapons but rather instruments” recalls the prophet Isaiah’s words: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks.” I’ll leave you with MOAK’s most beautiful line, which, again, is reminiscent of the restorative visions of the Hebrew prophets: “Everyone leaves with the blessings they asked for”.
ROMEO CLUB – Wine Addled Hand
Romeo Club is a new project by CMYK and YLLW. The group isn’t disclosing much about itself, at least not in prose, opting instead to let a series of images speak for them, including a video they released for Wine Addled Hand, the song featured here. Prominent in their imagery is a disembodied golden forearm. Upon watching their video, I realized that the forearm is part of another of the project’s central images, a statue (now armless) that looks vaguely like Michelangelo’s David, though in a less triumphal pose. If you’re looking for layers of meaning in these or other images, which include a robed (ecclesiastical?) man and a woman in a gown, you might be missing the point. Just as Philip Glass and Robert Wilson picked words for the sounds of their phonemes for their opera, Einstein on the Beach, Romeo Club asks you to revel in the aesthetics of solitary objects – here, statues – placed in a void.
The imagery of the band matches its music and lyrics, though, as with the images themselves, the connection is more aesthetic than logical. The singer’s baritone recalls Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. There are programmed drums that alternate between an even, rolling rhythm and a syncopated, funk-inspired pattern. The latter sets the groundwork for a brilliant synth counterpoint. The narrator here is a romantic hero who babbles nonsense. They are straight out of a Goethe tale, self-obsessed, self-absorbed. We aren’t privy to their downfall but we can only imagine it’s on the horizon.
SAM WICKENS – Falling
Sam Wickens hails from Northern Ireland. In 2017 he worked with Tony Visonti who, if you don’t know, produced some of your favorite records, including the entire Berlin Trilogy (David Bowie’s Low, Heroes, and Lodger). The collaboration, documented by SkyArts, led to Wickens working with Stuart Copeland, Nitin Sawhney and others.
Falling, written by Wickens and Sean McAuley, features a compelling musical juxtaposition. We have vocals, devoid of any processing, enveloped in quantized (so, grid-based or rigidly regular) electronics. We should pause here to duly consider and praise the restraint that led to this pairing. It is incredibly rare to hear a bare, human voice in the midst of electronic music. But here it is, and the backdrop of the buzzing electronics provides a foil for Wickens voice, which soars, especially in the chorus. The vibrato Wickens employs for his falsetto gives the impression of weeping. This effect, far from vapid, is incredibly moving, full of pathos. It recalls Bowie’s rendition of Wild Is The Wind. The singing is theatrical, absolutely – but in a way that brings the audience closer.
SANDTIMER – 209
Sandtimer hails from London. Originally a two-piece, consisting of Robert Sword and Simon Thomas, who studied piano and oceanography, respectively, the group has expanded to include Rachel Thomas, Sophie Sword, and Alex Jackson. Sandtimer performs regularly; they’ve toured western Canada and northern Europe. The group describes itself as “Folk rock with a twist… actually no, it’s fairly straightforward.” With these words, the group is being somewhat coy as its songwriting and arranging are both masterful and exciting; 209 might be my favorite song on the playlist. Musically and melodically, the song recalls Songs: Ohia’s Two Blue Lights, which shares a similar harmonic progression, and the folk arranging of Alasdair Roberts.
209 begins with a lilting strumming pattern and a single major chord. For the first several seconds of the song (four measures for you musicians) this pattern and the sunny major chord continue, giving the impression that all is copacetic, the horizon promises no hurtles. Those seconds of security are a feint. The lowest voice in the accompaniment descends by a step and disorients us. That’s just a start, the descent continues. The music acts as a kind of cyclical reminder of unpleasantness – just when you think you’re in the clear, it meets you. The weathered narrator, based on their words, has come to grips with the changes and chances of this life – a noble sentiment in line with this noble piece of songcraft.
WREKIT88 – If You Knew Us (Aquae Surlis)
WREKIT88 is a collaboration between Welsh songwriters Chris and Neil, whose stated goal is to bring far flung vocalists, of different traditions, into their art. The group has been featured many times on BBC Introducing and has garnered a significant online audience.
True to their aim, and expanding upon it, If You Knew Us (Aquae Sulis) combines exceedingly different musical elements: melismatic singing that sounds like prayer, hip hop, jazz, funk, spoken word and singing that echoes the hallowed seventies Motown tradition of Steve Wonder and his peers. All this is brought together and, surprisingly, it coheres. The gifted spoken word artist spins his weird tale, reminiscent of beat poetry, in the midst of the orchestration: an improvising saxophone and hip hop drums converge and interact in a way that highlights the connections between hip hop and jazz; the vocalizing of the Motown-esque singer recalls the earlier prayer and subtly illustrates the commonality of all song. These connections, of course, do not mean that traditions are reducible to their parts, or that all music is one language, but that the impetus for art springs from impulses common to all.
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.