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The 'Hauntings' EP by Year Without A Summer
It's been nearly a year since we last reviewed a Year Without A Summer release in these pages (and the last couple of years have come close to living up to the band's name) when we told you about their single "What You Taught Me (Baby)".
It's unusual to use a plural pronoun about the band as it is generally thought of as a solo project for Joe Wilson (and indeed the last single featured only his talent) but despite all the music on the new ‘Hauntings' EP (their eighth release) which comes out on 10th September being as lockdown generated as "What You Taught Me (Baby)", this time round he is joined by no fewer than four collaborators, though in fact each of them recorded separately in the safety of their own premises. Tenor sax and bass clarinet player Bill Cameron and drummer/percussionist Chloe Lynch are names you should be able to find in previous "Hot Music Live" articles, though I'm not sure we have mentioned flautist Emma Cwyps Cooper nor trumpeter Melissa Reardon until today. Joe himself sings and plays guitars, bass, percussion and glockenspiel. He also mixed and produced the songs (as well as writing them) while Micky Ciccone played his part in the separate recordings from Coventry, London and Warwickshire.
So let's next reveal what the tracks are called: and the answer is "Spoopy!", "Fly-Tipped Mattress", "Angels at Twilight" and "Decisions, Decisions, Decisions".
So have Year Without A Summer evolved into a full band: what some unimaginative ones might call a "proper" band? Well no, not really. Joe has always added layers of sound (by himself) to songs just as far as he wanted to do to fulfil the track as heard in his head, so it's not true to say that ‘Hauntings' displays a particularly "fuller" set of arrangements: most are as sparse as his songs in the past. The difference is limited to the novelty of the particular instruments added this time around (all of which are acoustic): presumably ones he can't play himself.
EP opener "Spoopy!" is pretty essential YWAS and instantly enriches their canon moving things another jump forwards. What Joe refers to as "..usual jittery anxiety about everything…" is there in spades (he sounds on this one as David Byrne might sound if he lived in Coventry) with the trademark outpouring of words (I have often speculated as to how he not only fits so many lyrics to the music but how on earth he gets them all out so coherently in singing) over a characteristically paranoid arrangement. You might perhaps consider it the outpourings of someone on medication except that he explicitly rules this out in the lyrics… There is, as the title hints, (as well as presumably a bit of wordplay associated with the EP title) some sort of scatological subtext going on (he has "a head full of sewage") which rears its head periodically, but what I think sells "Spoopy!" best is its sheer vivacity: you could easily dance to the song and there is a strange joyousness to the predicament which adds to its oddness. Most intriguing of all is a marvellous trumpet part which gradually asserts itself through the tune, offering a calm counterpoint to the other elements. This song has already had airplay too…..
"Fly-Tipped Mattress" slows the beat right down and if anything is even better than its predecessor. This time it's a flute which adds the extra flavour and makes it all sound a bit late 60s ish underground in style. The main thrust of the song (whose lyrics also supply the EP title) is a sort of bluesy alternative rock one embellished with a sort of Lou Reed sleaze effect (think "Vicious" maybe). Marvellous stuff which I imagine will go down a storm if & when played live. This one too really deserves airplay and maybe a single release?
"Angels at Twilight", which follows, turns the pace down still further and is in complete contrast to what passed before, being an exquisite guitar instrumental and I suppose highlighting Joe's breadth of interest and talents. I can also see how in its own wordless way, it manages to convey a sense of the EP's title, but given the intensity of the other three tracks, maybe this one supplies the greatest surprise of all. It certainly also acts well structurally in giving us a pause to catch our breath between the angst either side of it.
"Decisions Decisions Decisions" closes the EP with a neat bookend complement to "Spoopy!", bringing back the anxieties, which this time round have moved on from the paranoia of feeling trapped in a small space to more global ones of trying to chart a course through the waters of life while being bombarded by input from media of various perspectives and degrees of reliability. Emma's flute is back, offering the complementary voice of calm and reason while Bill's sax vacillates between taking sides with Joe's yelps of stress and harmonising with the flute part.
Joe is terribly worried that he has made some sort of mistake but (perhaps through the reassurance of the flute & sax etc?), thankfully he ends on an optimistic note when "..the sun will shine on you".
If you have never heard a Year Without A Summer record before, this EP could be a useful entry point. In only four tracks there are many of the characteristics to be found on the earlier seven releases: an organic low-fi approach which offers a great deal of authenticity and truth, edgy and barbed music with highly thoughtful and literate lyrics and strange and rather wonderful juxtapositions and dialectics. A lot therefore to engage the mind, yet there is always a pop sensibility at play, most songs are danceable (at least for better dancers than me) and most stick readily in the mind. Little magical details encrust most tracks. There is also (possibly) a thematic continuation with earlier concerns such as 2016's "Ghosthunting with the Happy Mondays" The only thing which seems to be missing are the moths, though perhaps I've just not discovered them yet.
Where ‘Hauntings' perhaps differs from its predecessors, apart from the developed instrumental palette is that in this case, the world we all inhabit manages to elide with that in which Joe's interior dialogues take place. COVID19 is not explicitly cited, but it's hard not to equate communal feelings of anxiety with those being expressed here, even if only partially. Year Without a Summer I think by choice inhabit a plane of their/his own and though the songs don't always indicate a happiness with that state of affairs, nonetheless it seems something he/they can live with. It's nice however that with this EP, the planes have aligned a little.
"Hour Glass" by Ian Todd
Keen readers of this magazine will recollect the February feature of Ian Todd & even keener ones will have spotted his name amongst the details of reviews of releases by Shanghai Hostage, of which band he is a member. You can also find their track "Nomad" on "Hot Music Live Presents Volume Two" & a solo track of Ian's, "Citizens of Nowhere" on Volume Three.
This prolific musician has not been letting lockdown clip his wings and apart from some live streamed performances (to be found on the Facebook pages of "Hot Music Live Presents" and the Coventry Culture Show), he's been creating his latest solo album, being one of those artists fortunate enough to be trapped with recording equipment, being able to use it & not being overly reliant on fellow musicians (though of course Shanghai Hostage recordings have been less easy to do, with the magnificent exception of May's "Mr Motivator" single, created with the participation of just Ian & fellow internee Sophie Hadlum).
These sessions are now on hold awaiting the overdubs by others he needs to finish the album, so he has created an hour long ambient piece, entitled, appropriately "Hour Glass" whose accompanying video (by Fred Cox and Diana Stefanescu of Videoblocks) can be accessed at:
Reviewing ambient music is not something I do often (my last effort in this direction was a live review of Toby Marks & Andrew Heath last April) and whether I have the right vocabulary to approach "Hour Glass" is debateable: Ian deserves better than my throwing clichés about the genre at it. I should imagine that the theme is Ian musing upon the possibly differing perspectives of the passing of time during current circumstances (the video features a titular hour glass as a prominent motif & time lapse shooting is another key feature). Other hints as to his thinking include his tagging the piece as for meditation and his suggestion being "I recommend putting on some headphones or proper speakers and sit back in a relaxing place." I should infer from this that the track is intended to impact upon us: it is not an exercise in composition but an interactive tool to aid our well being & benefit us. With that in mind, I first listened to it as he advised and on a purely subjective level I can report that it certainly worked for me. May it do so also for you. I should be failing as a reviewer if I didn't report too that his other tag is "#hippymusic": which it certainly consistent with the Shanghai Hostage approach where humour & serious points intertwine closely: to particularly humane effect, as we have with "Hour Glass". Moving onto the objective, the track is full of variety & frankly surprises. I imagine it is intended to be a succession of movements reflecting differing periods of time & emotions within the larger framework. Hence musical differences are actually quite dramatic: one of Ian's skills is managing the transitions between them so seamlessly. Traditional more laid back sounds, which is what I was expecting to be honest, sit in there with jazzier episodes & rather to my delight, dubbier sections. It will keep your attention throughout the hour, so don't automatically assume it will send you off into a state of mindless bliss (let alone sleep). This is mindfulness music when we need it most.
We cover so many multi-talented artists in "Hot Music Live": not just musicians but the photographers, visual artists & producers whom they work with. Many of these artists possess fascinating hinterlands too as they possess & ply other skills in often completely different areas. Few however are quite the Renaissance figure that the subject of this feature is.
I do hope that the name Ian Todd is already known to you. If it rings a fainter bell, it may be that you read the credit notes for "Hot Music Live Presents Volume Two" and noticed him as a member of Shanghai Hostage & producer of their music & that of Sophie Hadlum. You may too have spotted his song "Bohemian Hymns"on the HillzFM chart. If so, I hope you voted for him & all the other HMLP artists.
In fact Ian is a most prolific musician with two albums ‘Groaning Up' and ‘Bohemian Hymns' previously released and a third one underway. He is a writer, a performer (on guitar, keyboards, bass, mandolin and he sings too) a producer , a teacher and also a film maker (check out the video he & Sophie made for her recent single "Winter Came Around Too Fast " or the video for his January 2020 single "The Music Box" on his website https://www.mriantodd.com)
What perhaps is most impressive in terms of prolific output is the fact that he has just finished releasing a single every week for the past seven months. In a period when I'm noting the bounteous output of several local artists, this still must set the record.
Listening to all this music, the first thing that strikes me is that it is no surprise that he works so well as part of the multi-genre/no genre Shanghai Hostage. As I suggested in my recent review of their new single "The King" "Like all the artists I love, Shanghai Hostage just go with their hearts & where their muse leads them: they don't seem interested in emulating anyone else & wherever & to whatever they may be hostages, it certainly isn't to the straitjacket of genre labelling. This is just pure, truthful music...". This holds true for Ian as a solo artist just as validly.
Ian too seems to set himself no false constraints nor be bound by the shackles of genre expectations: he goes where his particular inclination takes him from the classical stylings of last month's (instrumental) single (wherein one can see much connectivity with Sophie's solo work) to the massed vocals of the title track of ‘Bohemian Hymns" , the affecting paean to "New Street Station" of 2019 whether led by his guitar, piano, samples or even snare drum shuffles, stripped back or full band arrangements. Personal other favourites include "Red Carousel" "Citizens of Nowhere" or "Parasites" but honestly they all appeal: I just baulked at listing every track he's recorded. Check them out for yourselves: you'll enjoy the process. The term "eclectic" fits him like a glove & few tracks sound anything like each other: which I admire & respect but it might not chime as easily with those parts of the music media who feel more comfortable finding little boxes to force independently minded artists into.
He even has a seasonal single in "Christmas Drum ‘N' Bass" wherein great musicianship meets humour & I think that that this element is a key one for describing what Ian is about: it crops up repeatedly throughout his work both in lyrics & music (and in video: that for "The King" by Shanghai Hostage is a prime example) and reinforces the sense of his writing from the heart.
Other key collaborators apart from Sophie, Beth, Richard et al include Kirk Hastings on saxophone and some harmonies, Emilia Moniszko for her art work and some of his drums are looped courtesy of thelooploft.com. Emilia and Kirk are a part of a company called "Blunt and Brave" who help people , especially creative ones, get their talent in front of people who ought to see it.
Ian's philosophy is summed up thus: "I make music in a unique way for unique people. None of us are perfect, we all have flaws; this is the one thing we all have in common. When you feel like no one relates to you, that's ok, know you're not alone and this music and community proves that". It's really hard not to fully embrace this & certainly applaud it & I believe it is really congruent with what "Hot Music Live" stands for and also I'd think chimes with so many of the artists who appear in the magazine or on volumes of "Hot Music Live Presents"
You can explore Ian's diverse & splendid work via several platforms:
"The King" by Shanghai Hostage
Today I'm really pleased to be reviewing the new, the brand new, single by Shanghai Hostage within minutes of its video being publicly released (it's also coming to Spotify etc soon): I can't always promise this speed of response but you may safely on this occasion link it to my level of enthusiasm for this band: one of the most popular on the Coventry & Warwickshire scene. Hopefully you are already in possession of their very fine song "Nomad" on "Hot Music Live Presents Volume 2" and also their eponymous 2019 debut EP on which it first appeared.
"The King" (for that's its name) also marks the video debut with Shanghai Hostage of drummer Anna Harris. (Though previous drummer Dom McAvera plays on the recording)
Anna joins Shanghai Hostage stalwarts Sophie Hadlum (vocals, clarinet and keyboards), Beth Black (guitar), Ian Todd (guitar) & Richard Brown (bass) and the band have not only recorded this song but a whole new EP's worth of material for release on March 22nd. Their producer (who has done an excellent job) is Ian Whitehead. Look out for my review of that as I'm certainly hotly anticipating it.
Where to start? The music or the video? Both are really great & deserve equal billing, but I think the music perhaps should start.
The band, if pressed, self describe as "multi genre" but musing on their work, I wonder when "multi genre" becomes "no single genre"? Like all the artists I love, Shanghai Hostage just go with their hearts & where their muse leads them: they don't seem interested in emulating anyone else & wherever & to whatever they may be hostages, it certainly isn't to the straitjacket of genre labelling.
This is just pure, truthful music & as funky as another word beginning with the same letter and containing another one later too. No wonder they are so popular: the music is as infectious as you like and will clearly fill the floor when played live. All the band give it some (and more), none more so than Sophie's passionate vocals which go the very hi-energy end of the group's spectrum. The playing provides a platform for this & while just as energetic yet simultaneously offer a sense of cool: which adds to the lyrical effect which concerns observation of some alpha male type: the band are dissecting him & laughing at him as much as describing him. It's hard not to share their joy at what they are doing with their words & their playing. These musicians possess all the right chops, have the taste to deploy them well & form such a tight unit.
A fair bit of the impression the song leaves comes from the hilarious & spirited video which, for the moment, is how you are all going to engage with "The King". There have been several superb videos of songs I've reviewed recently: beautifully shot, evocative & lyrical (not least for Sophie's recent solo single "Winter Came Around Too Fast"), but this takes us back to the glory days of the music video as story. Couched as multiple metaphors, we see the title figure as disco poser (we don't often get urinal use shots in music videos) & literal medieval king. Which is he? Both possibly & certainly both aspects illustrate what they are trying to tell us about him. You'll keep on wanting to play this one. The details are so many & so compelling that I think the only thing for you to do is watch it here:
I can't possibly do justice to it in words & any attempt would probably spoil it for you anyway.
What more can I add about this wonderful band? To me they have it all going for them. Everyone I know loves them & they convert people who hear them for the first time. They play with great skill but also wit, humour & humanity. They have the courage to be themselves & defy categorisation, yet their work is truly accessible & frankly "The King' sounds extremely radio friendly: may they have the great success they deserve with it. Shanghai Hostage say things no one else has thought to say in the way they say them: lots of people have elements of talent but it's how you use it & the ability to use it with wit & discernment which really appeals to me & I suspect those reading this.