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Coventry, Kenilworth, Leamington Spa, Rugby, Solihull, Warwick, Stratford and Warwickshire

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Introducing Ivy Ash

Feature

It's been a few months since I reviewed "Open Your Eyes" by Bethany Dyson in the magazine  the follow-up to "Just You & Me" which also features on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume 3') but given the circumstances currently afflicting artists, I was not surprised that she had not released anything since late May: if you recollect from previous reviews, you'll  know what a stellar team Bethany works with & it must currently be next to impossible to assemble them in a studio.

However in the best tradition of original artists, she has in fact been working discreetly away at a bit of a career paradigm shift, something which completely caught me wrongfooted & that's what I like.

Bethany has decided on a whole raft of changes, the two most obvious of which are a change of performance name to "Ivy Ash" and a switch of genre to a much more pop orientated style: "channelling my inner Kylie"  as she put it to me. (Ivy also cites Lady Gaga & Gwen Stefani as inspirations and the (redacted) title of her planned first release offers a nod to yet another very well known pop purveyor). The new name is highly significant too (while sounding on the surface good & grounded): for the initial element, picture if you will rapid upward growth & for the second, think more of phoenixes & rebirthing.

Much as I look forwards to reviewing her debut single in this new stage of her career, that remains something for 2021 (I honestly can't recommend anyone attempting to promote such an important sea change right now) but I have had the privilege of hearing it & can prewarn you that it will knock those socks off you when you can do so yourselves.

Created with the finesse & careful craft we have come to expect from Bethany (if the musicians are not those who have been playing with her recently, and the sound suggests they are not, then the quality of this aspect is high as ever) this first offering is remarkably confident & sure footed.

Some things remain the same: the warmth & integrity of the vocals (though they are more processed than before & pitched a little higher maybe) and the overall honesty. So what has changed? Well the subject matter is much lighter & light hearted without a doubt & Bethany/Ivy seems able to be enjoying life rather than commenting on the darker aspects of it. There is a definite air of liberation in the air, but if her phoenix burning has ignited a new flame, then I'm not sure there has necessarily been bridge burning as well: I think the new work fits in with her older material: not necessarily as a continuation, but as a complement: another side of a coin dealing with compassion & humanity & offering different narratives on our condition.

These are exciting times for this artist & I look forward to being able to share with you in greater detail in due course & naturally await Ivy's debut release & live performances. Watch this space: particularly https://ivyashmusic.com

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"Straight Up Genius" by Jack Blackman

Review

Jack Blackman is not only on a rich run of form at the moment (the pandemic seems to be inspiring him to express his feelings through the medium of his artistry), but within his several recent releases he has been demonstrating a more broad set of examples of his influences & interests than perhaps many of us were aware.

Described online as "fast developing into one of the most accomplished and exciting young performers on the roots scene today", I believe that already on the evidence we now have, he has transcended that. While songs such as "Self Isolation Song", "Hard Place to Be", "Empty Beretta" or "Ballad of Clopton House" show the breadth of his writing & performance skills within the general "roots" field, his latest single "Straight Up Genius" kicks right through the barrier which fences genres in & enters territory which owes more to magnificent sixties pop (he cites The Kinks, The Small Faces and The Beach Boys), though of course all those bands to some degree owe their own debts to rootsier music.

Just as exciting is that this song owes its genesis to a cross-media collaboration with the Artful Doodler (and regular readers will know how much I like it when cross fertilisation of artforms takes place). Aided by Adam Barry on Hammond Organ and Wurlitzer, David Vaughan on drums and James Maguire on bass and backing vocals, Jack has created this track for which the Doodler has then crafted an excellent video which you can see at

https://www.facebook.com/jackblackmansongs/videos/850140125788141

 

A cheery, witty  & heartwarming song which the keyboard parts really elevate (I'd love now to hear more collaborations between Jack & Adam), despite the pandemic theme, it generally concerns the experiences of those working from home & no longer feeling motivated to rise from their beds at the conventional hour to do so, yet as with all good songs it actually has a wider meaning & I think that it should continue to resonate long after COVID19 as it actually also tells of those creative types we all know, not temperamentally suited to the nine to five routine & convinced that their own genius will inevitably free them from the constraints of straight life.

What I particularly like is how I could have sworn I already knew the song: it settles instantly into the consciousness & memory and its catchiness is such that I'd hope it gets plenty of airings on radio etc.

As with a couple of recent reviews I have written about completely separate releases where different artists have simultaneously decided to write about "heading home", I find instances of apparent synchronicity between different musicians to be fascinating & in this case, I can't help thinking how "Straight Up Genius" is a sort of companion piece to Luke Concannon's recent "Doing Nothing".

At any rate, how good it is to have the weighty issues we are currently facing dealt  with such good humour & empathy.

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"Heading Home" by The Upsiders

Review

I feel a little sad now we suddenly find ourselves at the penultimate instalment of The Upsiders' "Reconnect" project: today's new single "Heading Home". I've been following the emotional adventures of Kenny since "Worth A Million" came out back in July & it has been impossible not to become emotionally attached to his journey & rooting for him. It will be a strange moment when the saga concludes.

There is also a strange sense of synchronicity working in the local music scene: to be telling you about a song with this title only a month after writing about Rob Halligan's latest  album with such a similar title reminds me of last year when we had a number of artists simultaneously writing about oceans & the sea. It must mean something…

In fact, although both Rob & The Upsiders would have conceived of their songs & titles before COVID19, the concept of journeying & returning home is not unknown in popular music, especially for writers trying to make more profound points, yet they gain extra resonance when the entire global population, artists & audiences alike are being taken on an involuntary journey together.

Kenny's journey was clearly not conceived as a parallel to our current one, yet the idea of exploring emotional highs & lows on a quest for meaningful reconnection to other humans is surely what we are all yearning for at the moment? Paradoxically of course, while the band are trying to warn us about over-reliance on electronic devices for communication & aiming to wean us off them in favour of deeper interactions, it has been electronic media which has been keeping us in touch for many months now. In fact my entire engagement with "Reconnect" has been over the ether (I've not heard any of it live yet) and so has been my sharing of it with you. Ironic eh?

 

So we find Kenny on the final laps now, "Heading Home". Once again the band have stretched their musical sinews & offered us an eighth successive variation in terms of style with the help of producer Matthew Cotterill.  A characteristically perky number (when are they never upbeat at some point in any track?) which in form is somewhere near a Billy Joel style piano led pop ballad, it bounces along with the help of a jaunty bassline (not an instrument which has been as prominent on recent episodes) and drumming and despite the very compelling competition of the previous seven tracks, is probably the most pop orientated of the collection to date & may therefore gain more mainstream airplay: at least I hope it does.

This is not to say that the lyrics are entirely optimistic. As with the songs charting Kenny's lower points, all of which managed to include at least sections of more upbeat music as the band counterpointed moods, again they play with offsetting the tone of the sound with words which still manifest elements of uncertainty, doubt & lack of clarity. It seems that the story has yet more to reveal in its final chapter….

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"Scared" by Chasing Deer

Review

Unsurprisingly, I've not had the chance to review a new Chasing Deer release since their "Bad Decisions" way back in February. Fortunately I can address this deficiency right now as "Scared" comes out on 2nd December (on W5 Records).

The current perennial question for artists must be "how do you record new material" especially if you are a multi member band. In this case, the issue for Chasing Deer is somewhat simplified as the band have experienced some lineup contractions and consists now in the main of keyboard player/vocalist & band founder Rob Hodkinson with the support of Rory Evans on guitar: this presumably aided the creation of "Scared" and indeed I was heartened to hear that  they have been  playing live on the streets of Britain for 120 consecutive days  (if you read to the end of my review of "Bad Decisions", you'll have noticed the gigs they had lined up for a national tour named after that single: it must have been a low blow to have lost all those gigs & of course Chasing Deer have built their very strong identity by their hard work on the live circuit leading to several very prestigious appearances: let's hope they can pick that momentum back up swiftly in the new year). However the good news is that even if you can't catch one of their daily outside performances, Rob has been offering an "On Demand" weekly livestream on a Wednesday evening throughout the emergency on their Facebook page.

The new song (recorded at Tileyard Studios & produced by Paul Whalley) is interesting in that it neatly combines precisely the sort of passionate & emotionally charged approach which the band have always brought to their music with a specific pandemic inspired focus: in fact in hindsight one might almost say that the band's creativity was ideally made for this moment & it not only applies perfectly but also sums up their values concisely in three minutes & fifty seconds. Written by Rob with Nick Bradley, the key lyric is "everybody gets a little bit scared": and compassion & empathy are what they are urging upon us: realise how others are struggling as you may be & reach out to them…..

This is one of the gentlest of their songs, stripped right back to make the message the centre of the song & exposing the emotional heart. Led by Rory's warm acoustic playing, Rob deploys his characteristic powerful vocals, but in a very restrained & frankly vulnerable way, not reaching for some of the levels he deploys on their more dance orientated numbers & this tasteful approach certainly helps enhance the sincerity of what he is trying to say to us.

No Chasing Deer song is ever less than perfectly crafted (and all work really well live: I gather their current informal performances have featured "Scared" & it's going down really nicely), yet even so, I think this one will continue to have a special place in their repertoire once we hopefully have moved on from current circumstances. COVID19 has been appalling on so many levels, yet paradoxically, as with other tragedies throughout history, it is starting to inspire excellent art in response. This is one really strong example.

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"Where The Stars Fall" by Man Made Moon

Review

I'm really pleased today to be able to review the brand new single from Man Made Moon called  "Where The Stars Fall": my first since "Weightless"  in May 2019 (and I'm sure you are familiar with their "Not So Haunted" which appears on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Two').

Quite how Ben Taylor (lead singer and rhythm guitar), Gary Ryan (bass) Ian Black (lead guitar) Nick Mew (guitar) and Colin Bean (drums) managed to convene to create it is mysterious: if they recorded their parts separately then even more kudos for how organically & sympathetically the elements blend. Respect too for the care which has gone into the production.

One thing which never ceases to impress me is how a five piece band with an apparent rock configuration line up tends to produce such delicate & haunting music. "Where The Stars Fall" continues this tradition very strongly & emphasises how "more instruments" doesn't necessarily mean "greater volume" but instead offers more subtle threads of filigree poignancy woven through the arrangement. This naturally requires several special approaches: the band members show admirable taste & restraint in their playing with respect for each other, allowing their colleagues space to play & a production (by Nick Mew) sophisticated enough to allow us to hear all of this (you could actually hear a proverbial pin drop at some points).

As ethereal as much of the work to date, this song floats in mid air, high above the earth (although some of the action it describes takes place at ground level, before lifting off), raising the protagonists above the mundane. There is consequently a wonderful spiritual aspect to the story, appropriate to the season, and one can discern elements of C S Lewis (and Raymond Briggs) in the imagery & tone.

Vocals shimmer in & out of the mix (the choral parts towards the end are an impressive part), ghostly guitars similarly & I enjoyed the unusual pattering drum patterns which seemed to evoke snowfall or creatures lightly traversing it: fully in concert with the superb artwork by Christine Cuddihy.

Watch out for "Where The Stars Fall" as its release is imminent: visiting https://www.manmademoon.co.uk/ should alert you as to when you can acquire it. It's an exquisite song in the very fine tradition of this band & manages very successfully to transcend the worn out vocabulary of seasonal songs. It will lift you up with it, listeners.

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'Christmas Time' EP by Rob Halligan

Review

Rob Halligan is another of our local musicians who could certainly be described as "prolific" in terms of just how much excellent music they are currently managing to create & release despite the constraints upon them. Less than a month after being able to share with you his long awaited album ‘Always Heading Home', here I find myself telling you about another multi track release, in this case a three track EP called simply ‘Christmas Time'.

Containing three songs:  the title track and a versions of "What Child Is This" & "O Come All Ye Faithful", the collection seems to pick up from where its predecessor left off with regards to how it must have been created: Rob plays most instruments & sings (as you might imagine) and is joined by his in-house backing vocal team of Jean & Nikita Halligan while Ewan Cameron provides whistles on the title track.

This back to basics recording approach (the tracks are credited as being recorded "in the Sewing Room") over the past few weeks (the finished recordings were mastered by Chris Hunt) no doubt was driven by a certain amount of necessity, as with a lot of other artists under the present conditions, but Rob, like others, has made a set of virtues out of this.

When you are this good a musician, the quality of self recorded material really does not dip in comparison with what it might otherwise have been: external sessions might have produced different approaches to playing brought by other artists, but those remain speculative in the face of what we are hearing now. I dare say the process probably tends to simplify arrangements, preventing certain specialised parts and overdubs, but I'd argue that any potential loss in that direction is more than compensated with an enhancement of honesty in the final version: and that plays I believe strongly with musicians such as Rob.

"Christmas Time" is probably the stand out track & it works very well on a number of levels. A sort of Celtic folk rocker (with echoes of Big Country to my ears), it is another of Rob's recent "state of play" songs, looking squarely & unflinchingly back at 2020, yet also celebrating family, friendship & support & looking forwards as much as back. The theme of travel also fits in very nicely with what he wrote so much about on ‘Always Heading Home' and maybe if the latter is to be re-released in the future this would make a good bonus track. It's also very catchy & stands considerably taller than many of the deluge of Christmas related songs I imagine will start flooding radio schedules very soon.

"What Child Is This" is a much gentler & acoustic offering, being a sensitive, beautiful reading of the popular Victorian carol which shares a melody with "Greensleeves". I can't say I fully understand how artists (especially those who generally write original material) begin to contemplate covering traditional songs when there are so many potential alternative versions for theirs to be measured against by those who like to do such things.  In Rob's case, he simply goes for what he himself presumably sees in the songs in question & so we get heartfelt renditions where commitment to the words is as manifest as is joy in singing the tune: in this case something rather personal & profound, in the case of "O Come All Ye Faithful" a rousing exhortation to the listener.

This EP is certainly one of the highest quality new Christmas releases for 2020 which you'll be hearing.

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"Look" by Free Galaxy

Review

It's been a little while (I think we might guess why) since I last reviewed Free Galaxy  (whose "Leave Me" appears  on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Two'): in fact it was for their acoustic rendition of    "Everlasting" last December, but the good news is that they are back now (today as it happens)  with "Look".

You couldn't really wish for a greater sonic contrast with that last track: this is right back to amplified & processed (with a touch of tasteful distortion) with that sort of mixture of (popular) melodic sensibility & adrenaline inducing surge that say the Arctic Monkeys are renowned for. Vocals snarl (though they harmonise too!), drums & cymbals hurtle through the piece & just to keep you on your toes, every so often tersely economic guitar jabs slice through.

Probably best heard live when they can let go any volume inhibitions & people can hurl themselves about at will, it still thrills even in the context of this reviewer listening on Spotify & having some respect for his locked down neighbours. This song makes you take notice of itself.

 Ciaran O'Sullivan, Luke Osmond, Harry Rogers and Callum Ward are another of those bands who could well have looked forwards to 2020 as a year to continue building momentum on the back of a growing fanbase & critical reputation: that it could not follow that path closely is a sadness & no doubt great frustration to them (I'm sure much of that comes through in the vibe of "Look"). However it seems like they are not taking it lying down & I'm delighted that they are fighting back with a song this good & a positive attitude. I'd hope gigs will come their way in the Spring & they can pick up where they left off & get their just deserts: this band have a genuinely bright future ahead of them.

Check out the video for "Look" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rb7V7nBTiw

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"Don't You Close Your Eyes" by Kirsty Clarke

Review

Today I can report to you on the new single by Kirsty Clarke, called "Don't You Close Your Eyes" (hopefully you'll have read my review of her "Greatest of Partners" from January and enjoyed "Suicide Mission" on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Three" too).

As with those previously mentioned songs, this new one packs quite an emotional punch but interestingly without feeling it is be necessary to turn the volume too high: this is passion held on a tighter leash & this itself contributes to its power.

The arrangement is her characteristic post punk edgy sound, but endowed with echo & given space for that to work its magic in. Her vocals match the backing: restrained, even anxious at times, breathy & intense to start with & although she lets go a little, thankfully there are no vocal gymnastics to spoil the sense of truthfulness.

This is an object lesson in taste & proving that "less is more" if you have the confidence to go down that route & the integrity to write from the heart & not require bogus emotion to be added in the studio. "Indie Mama" at her best: this artist doesn't write bad songs.

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