Black Market Glamour (CD)
Ron and Russell Mael had a baby and they named it… no, not really. But if you take the bippity-boppity hat that every great Sparks record ought to wear, add the lamé jacket that Hunter-Ronson draped across the first Ellen Foley LP, and then offer Bruce Springsteen his choice of David Bowie’s old trousers, you know what to wear while you listen to this album.
Debutante is Arizona-born Brennan’s very sensibly titled debut album, but all other expectations should be left at the door. It’s a powerful listen, the kind of glorious pop pantechnicon that makes a mockery of every word you’ve ever heard that includes the phrase “a singer-songwriter.” Yeah she sings, yeah she writes songs. But most of all, she’s a performer, and Debutante performs.
The opening “Good Morning and Goodnight” sets the scene, a firestorm of a hook built around the kind of melody that Sparks used to have such a handle on, then embedded into a production that makes you wish every record could sound this loud… this triumphant… this dramatic. And this measured.
Even with every emotion set on stun, lyrically, vocally and musically, Brennan skips blithely around the accusations of overkill that normally accompany this kind of dynamic. Every song gets precisely the amount of welly it deserves, be it the soaring balladeering of “Dear Arthur”; the Jam-like swagger of “Madame Pompadour”; the glorious “Peggy Sue” percussives of “I Want You Back”; the “wow, remember when Blur were brilliant” mischief of “Harmony Lies”….
And while “Father McKenzie” might have a title (and a few later puns) straight out of “Eleanor Rigby,” it feels like one of those glorious little pop songs with which Graham Gouldman used to pepper the charts. And if that’s not an accomplishment that few people can lay claim to, then that’s how ridiculously enjoyable this album is.
Oh, and don’t forget the Turtles harmonies, either.
A crash course in the history of pop, then? Kinda sorta, but so much more than that. Rather, Debutante is one of those records that you suddenly realize you’ve been wanting to hear forever.
In places, yes, it’s grown-up glam in the same gorgeous (and gorgeously moving) fashion as Bowie’s …hours….
In others, it’s the sound of the sixties seen through the prism of too many broken promises… angry Motown, maybe, or broken-hearted Brill.
But in others, it’s all the delights and dreams that flocked to replace those first shattered hopes, and that’s the mood that explodes from Debutante. Celebrate the past, but soar with the present. Yes, Debutante bristles with so many shared heritages that you can spot a listener’s personal preferences by the acts and albums they compare it with.
But more than all of that, it is thrillingly original, astonishingly delivered, and pot-holed with more magical moments than a lot of people fit into an entire career.
Dodson and Fogg
Wisdom Twins CD/download
Ah, but that’s a gorgeous introduction, a soft acoustic ballad called “She Watches the Birds,” and it’s punctuated by bird song as well. Messrs Dodson and Fogg are scarcely the least prolific one-man duo on the stereos of today (this is what, their tenth album since 2012?), but the work rate has not dulled the sheer quality of mainman Chris Wade’s output.
In fact, if anything, it has only sharpened it. Discussing the album’s birth, mere weeks, it seems, after the magnificent Roaming, Wade exclaimed “This album seemed to leap out of me like a mad ferret of some sort looking for scotch eggs.” And if that doesn’t intrigue you, nothing will.
That said, Walk On is at least a little restrained when compared to past Dodson & Fogg offerings - it’s a solo show throughout, with Wade writing every note, playing every instrument and singing every word (presumably apart from the birdsong), and the overall effect is of a private concert in your own front room.
But that is not to say it’s a laid back affair. True, acoustics are the rule of the day, but Wade’s pacing nevertheless feels like an oncoming storm, every song brewing up its own shift in mood - “No One on the Phone” is an early career-best stand-out, while “Their Eyes,” just shy of the halfway mark, is a slinky little monster that melds funky bass, spectral trumpet and the kind of sinister vocal that leaves you listening with one eye glancing over your shoulder.
A few musical ghosts pass through. Deliberately or not, “She Watches the Birds” has a hint of the David Bowie/“Lady Stardust”s about its intro, while the almost countryfied “It Feels Like A Dream” could have graced any of Brinsley Schwarz’s better albums.
But again, such reflections are only passing through, to be kicked into play by the marvelously muddy guitars that gurgle and glug around “Grab Your Soul,” a Crazy Horsey rocker which is followed, one beautifully bitter ballad later, by the even darker dislocation of “Ruptured,” a slow burning instrumental soundscape split amidships by one of the most intense psych guitar solos you’re going to hear all year.
“Walk On” closes the album with more caustic axe work and a wonderfully malevolent moodiness, but really, it’s telling you to walk back to the beginning and play the whole thing again. For the second time this year, Dodson and Fogg have hit a new peak. Where on earth can they go next?
The Luck of Eden Hall
The Acceleration of Time
Head Spin (CD)
Another band that just seems to get better with every new release, Chicago’s Luck of Eden Hall’s latest is a majestically sprawling leviathan - two slabs of vinyl that kick off with a song called “Slow”… which is, of course, anything but. Nailed by spacey organ and insistent riffery, it tips its hat to the band’s traditional corralling in the proggy-psych bag, but quickly kicks its way out of that as well, because you could as easily align the Luck with a missing link betwixt Big Star and Blur, as raise any of the more familiar old canards.
This is especially apparent on the frantic “Blown to Kingdom Come”… which is as tumultuous as its title… while the delightfully titled “A Procession of Marshmallows” is the kind of chiming instrumental that makes you want to do something cinematically heroic (probably involving mountain climbing), while the audience cheers the screen. And there’s not a marshmallow in sight.
There are, however, more movie references, as “Channel 50 Creature Feature” steps indeed out of the same kind of mindset that has you sitting up all night watching old time horror B’s, all churning guitars and smash’n’grab percussion; while “You Asked About Water On Mars” finally allows some Floydian atmospheres into the room, before sending massed guitars out to chase them away, because there’s a toytown melody just itching to take a bow.
It’s a weird little piece to be sure, and three minutes goes by much too quickly (the acceleration of time indeed). But everything awaiting on the other side is just as enthralling as what’s gone before, from the sweetly harmonic “Only Robots Can Search The Deep Ocean Floor” to the frenetically well-named “Another High Speed Blowout.”
And all leading up to a closing salvo that is as powerful as any Eden Hall have ever unleashed - the gently escalating bolero that is “White Caps in the Wind”; the supremely calming “The Saints are Quiet Above Us”; and, finally, “A Man of Conservative Style,” which sounds like three great pop songs playing at once, and each is one of your favorites.
It’s an ambitious album, but you expected that - Eden Hall waxings are seldom anything less. But (again, as usual), the ambition knows exactly how it needs to be fulfilled, and across four sides and fifteen songs, one suspects that the band may soon need to change their name. There’s no luck whatsoever involved in this record; this is the Brilliance of Eden Hall.
A New Mirrored You
Garden of Dreams, (CD/vinyl)
The much-anticipated follow-up to last year’s stellar New Start,A New Mirrored You is, if anything, an even newer start, a pulsating collection of almost painfully contagious songs and atmospheres (the title track will infest your dreams for hours), within which Z’s darkly unaffected vocals hang like memories you can’t quite wrap your thoughts around.
Pinpointing one of the most obvious forefathers, “Emblem XXVII” and “Troubadour” move along the same musical lines as those affecting little ballads at which the pre-Meddle Floydso affectingly excelled; while it’s probably not stating the obvious to say “Psychedelic Church” sounds exactly like you’d hope it would.
Elsewhere, though, thoughts of Anthony Phillips’ more esoteric offerings rise up, as if the geese ran into several ghosts (“The Book of Battles” is especially redolent), all to ensure that there’s little here that you can take for granted; A New Mirrored You abounds with the unexpected, whether it be the eerie flourishes that dance around “Lady Mediterrànea,” the stately wash that floats around “Deep In The Forest,” the propulsive energies that so deceptively drive “Screen Lady” … and so on.
A taut and timeless album, then, A New Mirrored You is not an album to play while you’re dong something else… you’ll miss way too much if you do so. Give it your time and attention, though, and your nights will have a whole new soundtrack.
Mega Dodo (CD/10-inch vinyl)
On the eve of its long-awaited republication, Jonny Trunk’s encyclopedia of old library music album art gets a wholly unexpected boost with this - an album whose very presence seems to reach back to those glorious days when musicians would gather under the oddest names they could muster, to record music that would then be sold on to movies and TV, commercials and jingles… anything and everything that could possibly require a slice of skillful mood setting music, without having to worry about superstar egos.
It’s not a thankless world. The Pretty Things, Brian Eno and half of Van Der Graaf Generator are among the myriad names who dipped musical toes into that world, and if we look back over the past couple of decades of rock, the likes of Saint Etienne, Death by Chocolate and Eno (again) could be said to have maintained the mood when the inclination hit them.
And so to Maplekey, the debut album by a French act whose name rather nicely translates as the super lobster, and which is… every great soundtrack that has yet to find a movie. Every great commercial that has yet to sell you anything. Every great theme that awaits an action hero.
Electronic dream pop shot through cinematic prisms; breathlessly harmonic, brilliantly realized, eight tracks that not only go for baroque, they sweep past it too, to create a magical mound of the very same good times that Pandora Burgess promises on “Mister Corn” - a song so irrepressibly gorgeous that it’s the height of a sixties summer every time you hear it.
Which, if you have any sense, will be a lot.
Esoteric (3 CDs/1 DVD)
And talking of Anthony Phillips, which we were a couple of reviews back… Esoteric’s on-going deluxe reawakening of his back catalog arrives at his third album “proper,” the sometimes divisive, but give-it-a-listen-regardless Sides.
It was, of course, the Rupert Holmes successor to Wise After The Event, which means that anybody awaiting a true follow-up to The Geese and the Ghost was still to be catered for. But between the album that was, and the out-takes that surrounded it, this wonderfully clamshell-boxed package opens fresh doors and windows into the experience and, no less than last time around, we can approach the album with newly-opened eyes.
Plus, and it really has to be said, anybody who didn’t like the opening “Um and Aargh” clearly has porridge for brains.
Nine tracks on the original album (plus the b-side “Souvenirs”) are heard here in remastered, remixed and surround sounded form; then a dozen alternate takes and instrumentals filling up the final disc, nine of them reprising the album again, and two revealing cuts that didn’t make the finished thing.
It’s not, compared to either Geese or Event, an especially generous helping, particularly as the same selection appeared on the album’s 2010 reissue, and the bulk of them add little to the overall show.
But Sides itself merits the attention, both across the original vinyl’s predominantly poppy first side, and its more expansive flip - “Magdalen” and “Nightmare” both rank among Phillips’ most accomplished performances, at least in terms of traditional prog, and their instrumental/alternative doppelgangers allow sharp ears to highlight some quite sublime elements that may have been missed the first time around.
Likewise, there’s a sharp pop consciousness bubbling across the earlier tracks, with the single mix of “Um and Aargh” an especially delightful excursion into Phillips’ early eighties mindset. Which is not necessarily a place that fans of his more recent (or, come to that, earlier) works will be wanting to visit… it’s a long way from Sides to Private Parts and Pieces, after all. But take the trip anyway. There’s a lot more to look at than you probably recall.