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"Noughts & Crosses" by Levi Washington

Review

Thankfully after managing to catch up with Levi Washington's weekly singles release campaign with "On The Wrong Side Of The Sunshine" last week (I was several days late with "Soph" the previous one), thanks to a timely heads up from the artist himself, I am delighted to start the week by telling you about "Noughts & Crosses", his offering for the next seven days (it's becoming an interesting variant on a sort of weekly Advent calendar now).

Once again (I bet you have already spotted the pattern), it's a shift in tone as well as sound for the new week. Frankly, I doubt if even the most avid Levi fan could process too many songs with the bleakness of "On The Wrong Side Of The Sunshine" in a row and with the run up to a festive period now underway, the collective capacity for too much of that side of life is limited: one track is great: it showed Levi's values, desire to chronicle the depths of despair and his ability to do so authentically and sympathetically. Two however & I think we might all be in danger in following the protagonist into darker places.

"Noughts & Crosses", musically at least, is yet another of Levi's fascinating hybrids, wherein he takes elements from a variety of the musical styles he plays so well & melds them into something entirely of its own nature. There are regular flashes of guitar pitched somewhere between Ernie Isley & Lenny Kravitz: little curled up, funky riffs which tease us with promises of extending themselves for the first two minutes before rewarding our patience by heading off into a glorious solo. The rest of the music isn't especially like either of those artists: it's a dense take on contemporary R&B with those nods to vintage soul and rock giving an edge and character.

As I say, the arrangement and mix are pretty compact, with really only the guitar cutting itself a path through. The vocals sit squarely in the midst of the sound and while this gives the whole an admirable sense of cohesion and unity, the lyrics take a few plays to begin to decipher. But it's time well spent in my opinion & since it's very danceable, you can try doing a bit of that too while replaying it.

As far as I can tell, the song appears to be a sort of companion piece to "Soph" with parallel advice to a young woman seeking to chart her way through the shoals of life: the consequent and natural ups and downs and presumably the duality of experiences implied by the song's title. There may even be a bit of angel/devil dichotomy going on. Once again, the emphasis seems to be upon empathy and that's certainly a very major thread (quite possibly the single most important one) which binds together this series of releases which otherwise would perhaps seem intimidatingly diverse & unconnected.

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'Mermaid' EP by Paradise of the Titans

Review

When, about a month ago, I reviewed the inaugural live performance of Ian Todd's excellent new album "Seven Signs of a Soul" at the Tin, I did mention in strong terms how impressed I was by support act Paradise of the Titans.

A large part of what I do in reviewing local music is to introduce myself to great new artists whom I hadn't previously heard so I can not only pass the good news onto you, but revel in their talent myself. Inevitably, it takes a stroke of luck such as catching an artist I'd not heard before supporting one I knew rather better (and over the years this route has introduced me to many subsequent favourites) and under such circumstances I have no compunction about holding my hands up when I come late to a particular musician or band.

In this case, after the gig, I checked out the most recent Paradise of the Titans release, the ‘Mermaid' EP and so enjoyed it that I feel I ought to share it with you, however belatedly it that might turn out to be compared with my intended usual response time: in fact I gather it won't be long before I can tell you about their latest EP which I gather is currently being recorded.

As with my live review, I say "their" when some of the time the band is really a solo act for Alice Weston, the brains and creative talent behind the band name. In fact I had really to check this aspect out with her as I was a little confused, seeing just her onstage yet the online description is as a duo. In fact it's even more complicated than that. I think we can safely put the central core of Paradise of the Titans down as being Alice with her bringing onboard collaborators as appropriate. The EP thus features Sarah Scouller on keyboards & I am advised that for the next release (plus associated live performances), Alice is joined by a drummer and a synth player, making them, for a time at least, a trio.

Regrettably, as far as I'm concerned, reviewing later than others means they use all the best descriptions first and I end up trying to find new angles rather than simply repeat others' articulation. However, when publications as prestigious as LouderThanWar have reviewed a record, that in itself tells you the regard in which it is held: and their assessment is glowing

I know those reading reviews appreciate having some sort of signpost towards what I'm talking about, but as many previous reviews have stated, I do have a penchant for elusive artists who are too slippery (as a true mermaid must be) to pin to a single genre category. When you can't even easily establish the size of the band, such qualities are enhanced.

I guess Alice must have influences (I am fairly happy in spotting some aspects of Kate Bush in her live performance style as I said last time) but musically I can't definitely state what they could be. I honestly don't think it matters: we need to take this very idiosyncratic music purely on its own terms and rejoice yet again that in the current vibrant creative pot which exists in Coventry and Warwickshire music, we have someone wholly unique. That's what really excites me.

You can't easily dissect who Alice & crew create the actual songs, let alone work out precisely what she is trying to tell us: at one level this simply drives us back to repeated listens to try to decode it (no bad thing for a musician) but even so, I think the overall effect is more impressionistic than figurative.

Alice seems to revel in various aspects of the other worldly & transcendental. A lot of her work (including visuals) seems extra-terrestrial in inspiration, yet here she evokes the mysteries & mythos of The Deep (I understand that her next EP will bring in robots). Clearly such beings will not necessarily share our languages nor aesthetics and so it's wholly appropriate that precision of meaning remain elusive. There are a lot of mysteries involved in Alice's work & I think she is challenging us as much to explore them as necessarily solving them.

The title track, which leads the EP off, is a solemn piece which appears to have been transmitted upwards from the sea bed, through the waters & not only emanating from creatures not speaking English, but distorted and mutated by the element it is travelling through (the vocals would appear reversed to achieve this effect in part). It has a dignity and sadness which possibly speaks for aeons of seeing wrecks & loss. The keyboard sounds would seem to be created from vintage machines and although this normally means making a song sound 1980s/90s which can be very distracting in some cases, with Paradise of the Titans you just get them used tastefully to tell the story in hand without at all sounding like an exercise in nostalgia.

Track two, "Rainmaker" is another aquatic themed track, though this time we are out of the ocean & feeling the water from above us. Again the combination of ethereal (I have held off using the term until now but it has to be deployed at some stage in a Paradise of the Titans review) voices and minimalistic keyboard sounds (I assume portraying droplets) have a n exquisite effect: there is sun glinting through the rain, though the latter still serves as a curtain to filter the words between what can be understood & something just out of comprehension.

"Walkman"  makes much more overt the slightly eastern tints I perceived in "Rainmaker": here you get much more obviously oriental instrumental sounds: you can imagine yourself wandering around underneath the cherry trees and if you again can't quite understand what Alice is singing about: how could you expect to if in an exotic land whose language you know little of?

Final track "Boudica" fits the others in terms of emotional landscape: I'm not at all sure where she is on this one (a cave seems a distinct possibility)though water could well be involved again, nor what the title means in the context of the song: which brings us neatly round to my central point: it doesn't matter. With Paradise of the Titans I don't want to have a perfect, objective "understanding" of the songs: but I do much appreciate being led on a journey a little out of my comfort zone and experience on which I am invited to figure things out for myself & to draw my own conclusions.

As I say, a unique voice, a unique talent & one I'm delighted to have serendipitously encountered. I look forwards to sharing the new EP with you as soon as it's out.

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"Don't Stop. Live A Lot" by Dave Pepper

Review

Following the raunch of his most recent release from earlier in the month, "Rub Rub Grind", Dave Pepper is back with his new single "Don't Stop. Live A Lot" which came out today.

Just as his last song was in distinct contrast to its own predecessor, "I Need More Time", so this one takes a different course again: in fact it's interesting how Dave seems to be sharing an idea with Levi Washington at present in putting out frequent singles with very contrasting themes (though neither is quite up to Dave's old bandmate Daffod'i'll in terms of prolific releasing at the moment). Whereas Levi of course is also exploring a range of styles within his sequence, Dave is generally re-exploring his sounds of forty years ago as detailed in my previous reviews.  "Don't Stop. Live A Lot" certainly falls within that strategy, though by itself it's certainly no bland exercise in nostalgia nor retro for the sake of retro. Inspired by the excitement  of 1970s/early 80s Peppermusic, this is no pastiche of it. Rather Dave draws elements together which probably are best described as being there in his music during that broad time period but not necessarily at the same time. Hence there are snarly guitar hints of early 1970s hard rock spliced with keyboard playing which evokes his I and Courtiers of Fashion days. Taken as a whole, the feel sits somewhere in the territory of more poppy punk and post-punk.

That then is the music (and it's catchy for sure: you get the benefits of the experience of writing of someone who's been honing this for over four decades). The title pretty much speaks for the lyrics and I suppose it is a sort of companion piece to "Rub Rub Grind" in that it speaks to us of seizing the moment and making the most of life (and possibly both in their own ways also complement "I Need More Time" in respect of how to find a way to chart yourself through the vicissitudes of life and loss), though certainly not necessarily in the very specific way of that track. It is also I suspect likely to get a bit more airplay given it's less "adult" content.

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"On The Wrong Side Of The Sunshine" by Levi Washington

Review

Having been too slow in my response to last week's Levi Washington single "Soph", thanks in part to a heads up from the artist himself (thank you Levi), I'm able to greet "On The Wrong Side Of The Sunshine" as he releases it.

As you might expect by now, it has a distinct sound to "Soph" and once again, the emotional emphasis has shifted. I suppose that one might make a case for suggesting that Levi partially prepared us for today's song as "Soph" was rather a sad story, though the leap is substantial as "On The Wrong Side Of The Sunshine" is not so much sad as bleak, dealing with the theme of "…..hanging on by a thread and cursing the thread you hang on…".

As he is advancing towards the festive season week by week with these songs, I think it's fair to say that he has made a wise choice by sharing this song now and not say in the third week of December. It would certainly cause a stir then, but it would pretty much put a dampener on a supposed time of celebration already haunted by COVID19 etc.

Not that it comes across as any sort of barrel of laughs in the last week of November: you simply can't get round its essential existential angst, delivered by Levi in a vocal sound which has clearly been shaped to distance, or frankly alienate himself and the listener from the more enjoyable aspects of life. It's all a far cry from the warmth of how he sings on say "Shelter" or "My Own Way": imagine in your head perhaps the sound Peter Gabriel has often gone for, but with additional yelps of pain embellishing it.

The instrumental backing for this is pretty sparse (though there is a curious guitar part a little deep in the mix which occasionally chirrups in a way somewhat reminiscent of that ubiquitous "sleigh bell" sound I suspect we're going to be hearing far too much of very soon. This may be Levi's injection of a bit of dark humour to leaven the song, or just my imagination, but it certainly helps add an interesting layer of irony). Otherwise the sound tends towards Pink Floyd at their most Roger Waters-shaped gloomy (think ‘The Final Cut' era).

It's not an easy nor comfortable listen: as the man himself says "…enjoy if possible…" and possibly enjoyment is a tough ask, but one can surely appreciate and respect what he is trying to say. The subjects of despair and potential self harm are not easy ones to write about, especially in a "popular" context, but they exist and Levi obviously feels that he has a moral obligation to tackle the subjects and not just turn a blind eye to them: at the very least this song acknowledges the suffering of others and pays them the respect of neither ignoring them nor stigmatising them. He may not possess answers to the issues, but he doesn't flinch from demonstrating his support either.

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