"Ultramess" by Bar PandoraReview
I'm not sure I often discuss in these pages the potential problem an artist might need to address in terms of responding to success: I hope I do a great deal more than I have to date.
I mention this because the musician who probably left jaws dropping most in 2021/2 in terms not just of sheer originality & quality but also because she more or less emerged with little or no fanfare, taking us by surprise & grabbing our attention instantly, was Bar Pandora.
She released a single "Lover" followed by three more ("Dear Man", "Vice Vice Vice" and "Look At Me", all of which were later gathered together on her eponymous debut EP along with "Two Colours" (which also can be found upon ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Nine'): that's a relatively scanty five tracks on which already a significant reputation has been built, augmented by the complementary appreciation of her live performances. (I know of at least one well known local musical figure seething with frustration not to have caught her yet).
The weight of expectation must lie heavy on people in her situation in terms of following up initial success & with today's release of her new single "Ultramess", we can see how she has dealt with it.
Bar Pandora (aka Charlie Tophill) exudes certain qualities: not just the creativity in her music, but a calm & objective awareness of the context in which she operates, but even so I find it hard to imagine that she fully anticipated the scale of her success to date: it must have been something of an interesting challenge to balance her own innate sense of what she needed to write next with external expectations.
Charlie seems to have engaged in another intense series of compositional & recording sessions so I'd predict that like the earlier songs, we are witnessing here the first of a series of releases & I think she is spot on in her strategy: whether by intuition, deliberation or chance (or bits of all three commingled). The regular but spaced sharing of her powerful songs has enabled each to gain attention & be savoured and so the relative small number is of little importance in building an audience sense of who Bar Pandora might be ("founded on feminism and fizzy sweets" is helpful.. up to a point). It also really assists quality control & leaving her growing fanbase eager for more.
What she appears to have done is to adhere to what gained our respect in the first place & instead of compromising in any respect, has just stayed with the route of artistic integrity, confident presumably that if we respected her for that before, we are good to continue in that respect.
In recent weeks I've touched on the fascinating trend of current Coventry & Warwickshire artists to bestride the worlds both of innovation & accessibility without obvious compromise in either direction, and Bar Pandora epitomises this stance.
Working again with junglist Simply Dread, "Ultramess" does I think show signs of an artist confident within her own musical skin & where she's going: that much may have been encouraged by the year's worth of praise. The cool delivery we are already so used to seems even cooler: not so much detached (there is a constant human warmth in there), but at a pace of her own choosing & with a hint of a smile on her lips as she sings: the countenance of one who knows exactly what she wants to do.
The sound too is evolving: there is a great deal of clarity: the vocals maybe emerging a touch from the relative comfort blanket of the mix & elements more easily discerned. What I particularly liked were the "bonkers" sounds inserted: so reminiscent of the sort of thing dub pioneers like King Tubby or Mikey Dread would do (like introduce babies' squeaky toys & plaster them with echo). Charlie is talking a lot of emotional sense or truth, but setting it against an arrangement with plentiful examples of playfulness appeals greatly to me. "It's not quite a love song…it's more an ode to the wilful ignorance that leads us to love, and the chaos that follows" she tells us & that sort of feeling of blissfulness (or the blissfulness which one imagines regardless of evidence to the contrary) co-existing with the evocation of a more chaotic state is part of what "Ultramess" is (I think the title offers a few pointers in the right direction).
It's great to see Bar Pandora doing so well, but as a reviewer, once she starts attracting attention from more lofty publications, you do feel a little deferential to their opinions or ways of describing her (especially when they express them better than I could) so The Times calling her music "..simultaneously off-kilter and melodious"" is something I'm more than happy to reprint, because it's true. They also call it "cathartic" and frankly that captures the theme of the song spot on.
Generally other reviewers seem to be labelling Charlie as "alt-pop" and while not wanting to seem out of step with a consensus I certainly can't argue with, she just doesn't seem the sort of artist to be constrained by genre & I'd have thought she'd be against being labelled (though for practical reasons I suppose most artists need to grit their teeth on the matter to some degree or other). As I say, she is in tune with sufficiently broad appeal sensibilities to make the "pop" bit seem appropriate & I guess the more avant garde aspects can be embraced by the prefix "alt" (it's pretty wide isn't it?)
However even national newspapers will need to form an orderly queue behind me in terms of respect & appreciation for Bar Pandora. The bar itself was raised high last year, but I think she'll kick on in 2023 & reach yet more heights: "Ultramess" signposts that.