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"Smile" by Avidfan

Review

It was back in June that I introduced you to the debut single of Avidfan (the nom de musique of King of the Alps/Special Brew/Some Kinda Earthquake/Big Decision/Eight Miles High bass player and prolific "Hot Music Live Presents" featured instrumentalist Simon Ward). That one was called "Always Be Coventry" and if you neither heard the song nor read our review, you probably can work out its subject. You ought to try both though.

This time, I can tell you about the follow up "Smile" which came out today to mark World Singing Day. Which is something I wouldn't otherwise have been aware of I'm afraid.

This song once again is based upon a jazzy bass part (I'd say that as his band playing roles tend to give him less scope for this sort of thing, being Avidfan occasionally is really allowing Simon to access his inner Mingus. Which he is clearly enjoying.) but something a bit more relaxed and carefree, compared with its predecessor which in hindsight had something of an intensity. Not that that is intended as a negative criticism: Simon is a hugely positive advocate of his home city and, keen blood donor as he is, when he gives, no doubt the proceeds are a certain shade of blue. I think we can respect his keenness to extol what he so fervently believes in.

This time I think the depth of sincerity is still there, only this time he's expressing something different & adapting his mode accordingly. Whereas "Always Be Coventry" was site specific (it's hard to imagine heavy sales to anyone aside of Coventry ex-pats outside the city), this one addresses broader values. The theme seems to be around decent mental health & psychological well being with a manifesto encouraging happiness: not the worst idea at any time and especially in these uncertain and unsettling times.

Not someone who seems terribly keen to put himself forward as a vocalist, Simon performed "Always Be Coventry" by himself in a recitative style which clearly he felt comfortable with and was perfectly suited to the story in hand. This time round, he gets closer to orthodox singing with a mantra around smiling being possibly contagious and possibly our salvation, but also drops in a repeated sample by Vincent Price (ok using a noted horror film actor for what I've just described sounds at first counter intuitive but it's from "The Great Mouse Detective" so that's alright) and that works very nicely indeed.

In fact one of the joys of "Smile" is taking what Simon no doubt intends: an extremely focused and simple idea which he conveys effectively and then plunging down into the subtleties of the production. The sample is for example given the odd dub treatment among its reiterations. The bass propels the track as we'd expect, but then you notice a simple guitar chiming away and something (I know not what) being played backwards: again for that dubwise grooviness. By then it's lodged in your brain: again presumably the intention. Simon wants smiling to become contagious: "Smile" itself is infectious.

As before, there is a witty & humane video which complements and re-emphasises the music which you can find at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFEwuYFnjRU

This also heavily references a tagging campaign in Coventry which drew both positive and negative reactions and which was the original inspiration for "Smile'.

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‘After the Fire' by Blue Moon Birds

Review

I hope that you enjoyed the Maz Corry song "In This Living" on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Five'?  I'd like to think that you also read my review (back in January) of its original home on her album ‘Postcards Home'?

If so, you may have noticed that she created that record with the (necessarily remote at that time) help of Simon Kemp.

Now, the two of them have decided that since they are for all intents and purposes a functioning writing and performing duo, that they ought to release their music under a collective name. Hence, though Maz tells me that they consider ‘Postcards Home' to be their debut (despite coming out solely under her name), for its follow-up, ‘After the Fire' (now available for your pleasure) they have decided on the name Blue Moon Birds.

The genesis of this collection of ten new original songs cannot be more different to its predecessor. This one was forged in true folk organic style by following in the illustrious footsteps of Traffic and Led Zeppelin (please don't argue with me that the latter weren't a folk band because they were in my opinion) and "getting it together in the country": composing and recording at Mellowcroft (great name) in Wales over four days with power from a generator as it's not on any grid.

You can imagine the impact of such an intense and rootsy approach on the quality and tone of the outcoming music and as such it certainly offers a distinct complement to their previous set. Equally, the concentrated window of composition gives the whole a freshness comparable to the dew I imagine their encountering on the adjacent mountainsides each morning.

The space they worked in has excellent acoustics and while all the album sounds like it was recorded with as live and spontaneous set up as possible, one track in particular they nailed in a single fully live take. (To be honest I was intending to leave it up to you to see if you could hear which one it might be, but since they've indicated that it was "More Than I Could Dare to Dream Of" on the album, that isn't much of a challenge….)

Interestingly, that track sits in the middle of the album, which perhaps makes sense as it is a very gentle and uber-ethereal one, but what makes it particularly impressive is how they had the confidence to go for this one for the purely live take: it's restrained to perhaps the most I've ever heard a song being restrained: as it progresses, expected notes are delivered later and later than our expectations and I really admire their trust in each other to do this… every moment has the potential for the fragility of the song to break completely and this tension adds much to the superb overall effect. Maz sings not just languorously, but from such an apparent distance that you might imagine she was up the mountain for the performance.

Generally, the trademarks of approach noticeable on ‘Postcards Home' characterise this new collection also. The previously mentioned etherealness, haunting melodies and so much space you could hardly believe. Given their admirable commitment to minimalism and allowing what they do to resonate the more through lack of drowning in extra instruments or production, you might think defining the sound would be tricky, but there is sufficient evidence to confirm their folk and blues roots and I do appreciate how (for example) they can fully evoke the latter with just brief licks. Classy stuff delivered by virtuoso performances.

The other tracks, not being live, tend to indicate why they were not so by extra instrumentation dubbed on : as you might imagine, not one note more than they felt the track called for, so which if they are relatively fuller than "More Than I Could Dare to Dream Of" , it's only a marginal degree so. "Like Lovers Should" even features a guest in the form of James Schofield to form an exquisite duet.

To introduce the rest of the album, the tracks are called  "The River Song", "Sleepless Nights", "Phantom", "Hold On To Hope", "The Way That  You Love", "Paradise", "Hold Out Your Hand" and "Lily's Song".

I have no idea if the band are contemplating a single, nor which might get selected for radio play, but I have an inkling that "Phantom" might be worthy of a selection: again it's very sparse but grooves along in a sultry fashion with Maz's excellent vocals sit atop of little more than a "Come Together" sort of New Orleans bassline and some percussion.

"Paradise" in contrast is much more jazz inflected (with Maz apparently overdubbing extra vocal harmonies) and adds to what the previous album had already showed to us: they may love folk and blues but are quite happy to explore other waters and in a collection this size, the variety strengthens the whole as a listening experience ("Hold Out Your Hand" is pure country)

That said, as I played the album, I was thinking to myself about how I'd envisage myself (or any other potential listener) experiencing this music in order to get the most out of it. I'd personally like to hear it live, but under the strict proviso that it was in an intimate setting with as much insulation as possible from talking, glasses chinking etc. You really don't need distractions from getting the maximum immersion in this tranquil music. At home, again it's an intimate set of pieces: both in terms of the music which I've already tried to describe for you, but also in the nature of the words. Best to play it by yourself when all is quiet or even better with the company of someone dear to you.

I used the adjective "exquisite" above and as a rule I try to avoid repeating descriptions in a single review, but I think in this case the word can apply to the whole of ‘After the Fire'. Maz & Simon have crafted a really strong collection (I admire how they created some many high quality tracks in such a short space of time, especially when these days the EP seems the go to length of multi track releases) and it thoroughly deserves your close attention: and if you see the name Blue Moon Birds (hopefully) playing live near you, you won't now have to blink in incomprehension but you'll have some idea of what you'll hear if you pop along.

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"HIGHHIGHHIGH" by Euan Blackman

Review

Just over a month since we told you about his "Sinking" single, Euan Blackman will be releasing his third one "HIGHHIGHHIGH" tomorrow (Friday). I'm not sure whether it will eventually join its predecessor on an eventual EP, but at the moment I'm not sure that is too important: let's enjoy it on its own considerable merits.

As with the recent "Señorita" single from Rheo Uno, here we have a track whose creator rates it as a personal favourite, and as with that case, I think we should take note and ponder why that might be so.

In tone, the song falls somewhere between "Sinking" and its own predecessor "24 Hours 7 Days" with an ambiguous mixture of the jauntiness of the former and the more intense introspection of the latter, it took me a few plays to try to gather what mood Euan was in. I think on reflection that he seems happy, but in a very laid back and underplayed way. He seems to take solace and pleasure from the small experiences of life and I suspect as much, if not more, by "being" rather than "doing".

This sophisticated & subtle touch is greatly to his credit and well worth pursuing. If people don't quite get what you are aiming at first time, then hopefully they'll not only listen again, but feel that much more rewarded once they've delved deeper into the song and pleased with themselves for engaging with it and deriving meaning from it.

Wholly Euan's own work (though once again Charlie Braddick mixed and mastered it), the guitar part sounds like it originated in a non-standard tuning (like "Sinking") and this conveys a melody which apparently he has had for  over twelve months and which it seems he took his time to set precisely the right lyrics to.

There is a fascinating video which I imagine contains images of things with Euan himself finds uplifting and which has a lo-fi approach which echoes nicely the self deprecation and wistfulness of the song. You can check this out at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EX1ZMoPwNhk

Once again, it's these qualities which bring me back to what I said last time, when I detected "..a very "English" light touch on both the intensity of the lyrics and the pastorality of the music…." and I think Euan reinforces this here. The subject matter and the way he expresses himself tend to the quintessentially "English" in style. I wonder if he listened much to fellow Warwickshire artist Nick Drake as he grew up? He certainly shares some of his aesthetic as well as an approach to playing guitar.

Maybe the convergence of all these elements serve to explain his own happiness with what he's created. He certainly can feel pleased with the melodicism and how his playing delivers it. However add in lyrics he clearly spent much time and care working on (which must produce a sense of personal achievement) and that overall sense of having nailed a mood and sense of place and being, then you can understand why he might feel that this might be his track which most approaches his own vision of what he trying to achieve.

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‘Protest Songs 1924-2012' by The Specials

Review

Fresh out from The Specials is a new album called ‘Protest Songs 1924-2012'.  It was conceived impulsively and in reaction to their frustration at not being able to work together as they wished (they had convened in February 2020 to begin planning a new album and within a week members had started falling victim to COVID19). They took into account the general "paranoia and mass unrest" and then the specific protests sparked by the George Floyd murder and decided to respond to what they saw & felt around them with an "interim project, for our sanity as much as anything else" (I get the distinct feeling that it was cathartic for them in working out their contemporary feelings) and so was born the project of covering protest songs of the last century.

Despite the colossal weight of evidence of forty years, (too) many people feel happiest labelling the band as a "ska band". In fact even the briefest glance at their work would tell you that they moved away from this immediately after their first album (in the words of Jerry Dammers: "ska was just a launching point. I didn't want us to end up like Bad Manners"). Certainly the band has returned to ska sporadically in that period (there's a bit on ‘Encore', their previous release). However if you want a more accurate description of the band since its inception, then "protest band" fits much better. Maybe this was always what they needed to do (despite all the great original protest songs they have written: again not least on ‘Encore').

The second point I'd like to make about the album in general is to hark back to how educational bands like this one have always been to the likes of me: we'd discover new artists through our favourite artists covering them, talking about them or especially playing them over the PA before & during gigs (quite apart from The Specials in this respect, I learned so much from people like the Clash and Elvis Costello, perhaps not uncoincidentally both early collaborators with the Specials).

Quite a lot (around 50) of protest songs were considered, but the dozen which emerged from the process of selection have tended to avoid the best known: quite possibly only The Wailers' "Get Up, Stand Up" will be immediately familiar. Of the others, some with a blast of instant hindsight make obvious connections: the Staple Singers, or Big Bill Broonzy for example (and it's great to hear the band tackle the blues: a form bassist Horace Panter is so well known for playing in outside the group). Others are, as I said, pure education. We all know "Wild Thing" & you may know it was written by Chip Taylor. Like me though, you probably didn't have any inkling of his 2012 track "Fuck All the Perfect People". We also get two songs written by Malvina Reynolds (who wrote the well known folk song "Little Boxes") plus contributions from both Leonard Cohen and the Mothers of Invention. To me, most intriguing was a radical reworking of the 1980 Talking Heads track "Listening Wind": certainly not what I'd  have thought of as a protest song until this recording revealed it to me. It's also of course linked through the person of David Byrne to the superb 1983 Fun Boy Three album ‘Waiting' on which he acted as producer. (A second FB3 connection is a live (from the 2019 Coventry Cathedral gigs) version of "The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum)" which concludes the album, along with one of "We Sell Hope", both also on ‘Encore' and which fit really well into the album's overall theme).

This is no ska album & frankly the band sound liberated from that weight of expectation.  If the Wailers song (sung with characteristic passion by Lynval Golding) and the reggae-ish arrangement on the Talking Heads song (hats off to guest vocalist Hannah Hu) head in that direction very slightly, then it's because in both cases it's the right sound to convey the messages. Otherwise, we get many chances for the excellent musicians to flex their skills and interests in service of the songs. There are moments of barely constrained anger and others of deep beauty and pathos.

Over the years Terry Hall's voice has developed (no doubt the very many genres he has now sung in have helped along with physical processes) and he is in his element here. I'm not sure any rendition of a Leonard Cohen song would have worked this well back in 1980. If the petulant punk style he brought with him from Squad in 1978 has long since gone, then the sense of disillusion has not: all his accumulated experience since then seems only to have informed it more. I'm delighted to see that the band's mission statement for the album is "Still Pissed Off".

This really brings us back to where I started: this is a band who look at the world and tell it like it is: however uncomfortable that might be. The option of taking the easy route and pandering to expectations is one they have never taken. Every step they have taken challenged such things and they are still doing it.  It's with something of a sigh of weariness that I ploughed through the perhaps inevitable online posts from alleged Specials fans along the lines of "I've bought every Specials record but I ain't buying this one" (note this sort of thing appeared in depressingly significant numbers before the album had been played in public let alone released). A sort of 2021 version of the "love the music, hate the politics" nonsense of forty years ago from racists who thought they were fans of the band. If after all this time, you don't get what they are about, it's a little sad. There has even been a  precedent for this album back in 1980 when they confused some people by covering Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" as a b-side to the "Do Nothing" single For me, covers album though it is, it does sum them up nicely.

It must be galling not to be properly understood (even a very complimentary Sunday Times review thought that ‘Encore' was called ‘Reward': not many marks for paying attention there) despite the clarity with which they express themselves. ‘Protest Songs 1924-2012' could not be clearer as to where the band stand and frankly if you don't stand with them on these issues then you are probably part of a problem. You even get their philosophy served up in the form of great music & I'll finish by emphasising that despite the depth of the feelings expressed, the band display optimism: not only is "We Sell Hope" a good point to end on, but even the most powerful of numbers include the uplifting: not least the Staples' opener (and single) "Freedom Highway" or the defiant Wailers song which makes it clear that success in the struggle is not only wished for but anticipated. Interim it may be, but stopgap it certainly is not.

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