Category: Reviews

Record review: Paul Weller ‘True Meanings’

PAUL WELLER True Meanings [Parlophone] He’s always been a hard worker, but still: these feel like prolific times for Weller. Working in continuous collaboration seems to fire him up, as…

PAUL WELLER
True Meanings [Parlophone]

He’s always been a hard worker, but still: these feel like prolific times for Weller. Working in continuous collaboration seems to fire him up, as this is his third album in 20 months. It’s a song from the first of those, ‘The Ballad Of Jimmy McCabe’ from his Jawbone soundtrack, which revealed a slight return to Weller’s folk balladeer side, after years of experimenting with the cutting up of rock this way and that. 

It was composing, a few years back, ‘Gravity’ – the lush, orchestrated, melancholic centre of True Meanings – that gave Weller the determination to construct an album in a far more bucolic style. ‘Gravity’ truly is a stunning, delicate 150 seconds of music, with an immaculate and precise string arrangement courtesy of decade-long sideman Andy Crofts. This sideman/woman influence is repeatedly important to this, his 14th solo album, as fairly demonstrated on bubbling opener ‘The Soul Searchers’: a modern string arrangement by the avant-garde musician Hannah Peel, multiple contributions from Villagers’ Conor O’ Brien, and an old-school Hammond solo by Rod Argent.

The album settles in well. Jazzer ‘Mayfly’ has a deft bluesy guitar solo from the former Jam guitarist Steve Brookes to enliven proceedings, whilst ‘Old Castles’ has a soul-stirring strings-assisted group arrangement that recalls his Heliocentric days back in the year 2000. ‘What Would He Say?’ is a lounge-shuffler that seems directed at the importance of keeping positive when bitterness is the easier option. It’s also the sole “The Moons track” on the album, as it unites bassist Crofts with Ben Gordelier on drums and Tom Heel on his Rhodes piano. Though the flugel horn solo means you aren’t mistaken who’s in charge!

‘Aspects’ is a serious piece of rumination, a Buddhist-like realisation of beauty/God coming from within. It’s a nod to Leonard Cohen and Cat Stevens, minor-chord patterns facing off with choral harmonies and swooping string lines. It also is, to put it bluntly, gorgeous, and worth the entry price alone. As the second half of the album begins there’s a couple of Erland Cooper [of prog-folkies Erland and the Carnival] collaborations that don’t quite hit the mark, and the album briefly drifts. Nothing to worry about though: here’s folk royalty Danny Thompson and Martin Carthy to breathe life into the ornate melody of ‘Come Along’, with Peel producing a fine Robert Kirby-style orchestral adjunction to some already heavily emotive moments in sound.

The last section of the album is a full of discovery, too. ‘Books’ adds sitar, Tampoura and Noel Gallagher on, er, pump organ to send us eastwards on a kaleidoscopic journey, whilst ‘Movin On’ has a lovely soaring vocal performance from the main man, who clearly still cares about what he has to deliver. ‘May Love Travel With You’ brings things around again: voice, guitar, and some widescreen Disney orchestration. Weller soundtracking your kids bedtime? Why not, he knows quite a bit about parenting. Closer ‘White Horses’ brings back Cooper, Argent and Gallagher for a finale that seals the deal: a fable about generosity directed at a younger audience, it’s a touching finish to an album that surprises throughout.

It was interesting to hear Weller dismiss last year’s well-received A Kind Revolution as merely “alright” in a recent issue of Mojo. Perhaps he knew how good the follow-up was going to be, and felt a moment of guilt. Maybe he was right though: whilst everyone has a different take on what the best Weller album/period is, True Meanings makes a robust case for being his best since his last 22 Dreams/Wake Up The Nation-era highpoint. Certainly there’s little doubt it will score high in many end of year polls.

Phil Istine

Live photo of Weller/Crofts by David Jackson

 

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Album review: Gerald Claridge

GERALD CLARIDGE Frisson [self-released] Claridge is a prominent face of the Northants folk scene, who has played with many cohorts in many guises over the years. A cursory glance around…

GERALD CLARIDGE
Frisson [self-released]

Claridge is a prominent face of the Northants folk scene, who has played with many cohorts in many guises over the years. A cursory glance around Discogs shows how he once made a folk-rock album way back in 1975 [with Nick Salomon, no less] as Oddsocks, makes reference to a private press solo album from 1990, and shows him as part of Tickled Pink during the noughties. He plays in a professional Ceilidh band as of now, and has seen fit to release another solo album of his own songs.

It is fortunate enough for us that he has recorded and released Frisson, for the Northampton singer has a deft touch with melody and arrangement that has not withered with age. Yes this is a ‘thin’ record [low production values, keyboard strings, some drum machines in place of actual drums] but it matter not a tot when you’re listening in. On Frisson we witness Claridge’s joie de vivre writ large; his folk spirit of bonhomie rising above any restrictions of time and finance. ‘So Far So Good’ sets off on the path of optimism, that continues on ‘Upside Down’, and indeed is rarely deviated from. 

‘Plain Clothes’ pays homage to McCartney-esque melody and guitar-picking, whilst ‘Rainy Day’ shows off his celtic soul/Kevin Rowland lilt to maximum effect. The middle of the album brings some light relief, with the nursery rhyme style of ‘Ten A Penny’, and an oompah ode to drinking and farting in a ‘Hot Tub’! Later still we get a tribute to the Beach Boys [‘Sound Of The Ocean’], which is a very un-Northampton thing to do, so much respect for that, Gerald. Squelching keys and clomping hooves introduce the lounge goodness of ‘Good Night’, and Frisson is completed with an instrumental ‘Wedding March’, hauntingly played on church organ by John Miller.

There’s a nice touch in the CD liner notes where Claridge gives a little explanation of the song, making the project feel intimate, the warm comfort blanket to accompany a glass of whiskey at the end of the day. For folk fans this is a “must investigate”.

Phil Istine

Frisson is out now on CD, available from Spiral Archive and Claridge directly

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Book review: Have Guitars…Will Travel Vol 4.

HAVE GUITARS…WILL TRAVEL VOL. 4 [A journey through the music scene in Northampton 1988-96] Derrick A. Thompson [Whyte Tiger Publications] First of all it’s worth crediting author/editor Derrick Thompson for…

HAVE GUITARS…WILL TRAVEL VOL. 4 [A journey through the music scene in Northampton 1988-96]
Derrick A. Thompson [Whyte Tiger Publications]

First of all it’s worth crediting author/editor Derrick Thompson for not only writing and publishing a ShoeTown musical history just once, but actually doing it FOUR times over a ten year period, covering 40 years of provincial heritage. That’s precisely the sort of dedication that makes Northampton and it’s music scene such a special place.

This fourth edition in the well-received series takes the reader chronologically through the activities of many of the local acts plying their trade during the late ’80s and first half of the ’90s. You get the easily recognisable names [The Jazz Butcher, Venus Fly Trap, Peter Murphy/David J/Love & Rockets, Mystic Crew, The Enid] alongside the totally obscure [how many knew Alan Moore had two musical projects in this timeframe, for example]. They all have a story to recall, which they have done with Thompson, who has been sage enough to leave their stories pretty much untouched.

Not only is this book about the comings and goings of local bands, but also of the extended universe of promoters and venues [The Roadmender and Racehorse feature prominently], fanzines [Splinter, Bizarre], and touring acts [Pulp, The Fall, The Stone Roses, Paul Weller, Kirsty McCall, the mythical Spacemen 3].

This edition, New Boots must admit, does begin a little slowly recounting 1988 and ’89, but fully kicks into gear around 1990. From then through to the last page [252, numerology fans]  it becomes very hard to put down, such is the regularly great yarns told of those halcyon days. The book is fairly simply laid out [black and white photos, minimal editing], but the content keeps you wanting to know more about how the scene was then. For those of us who weren’t active in the music scene then it’s an education on top of entertainment. Also it’s pretty amazing to think how many of these musicians are still conjuring up new original music in one form or another in 2018.

Thompson states in the preface that this volume concludes the series, and if so then it’s a fine way to finish. New Boots would argue that he could, nay should, squeeze one more book out, covering 1997-2004. People are nostalgic for things 20 years ago, so why not. Plus it was not until 2004 that social media took off for bands (hello MySpace), and before that the internet was in its infancy and most bands did not have websites. If you mention any band from the late ’90s [e.g. Circa, The Pedestrians, The Fade, etc] the internet simply does not provide you with any info on them. An oral history book would still be very informative for that period.

But in the meantime hunt down this great volume!

Phil Istine

Have Guitars…is available now, via the Spiral Archive [St. Michael’s Rd] and Waterstones [Abington St] shops in Northampton, plus Amazon

 

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Record review: P-Hex ‘Quantum Funkanics’

P-HEX QUANTUM FUNKANICS [King Genius Records] Fuck me, these lot like a good swear, don’t they? Northampton’s baggy-funk conglomerate first emerged from in a basement in the early 1990s, but…

P-HEX
QUANTUM FUNKANICS [King Genius Records]

Fuck me, these lot like a good swear, don’t they?

Northampton’s baggy-funk conglomerate first emerged from in a basement in the early 1990s, but have never until this point saw fit to release an album – instead knocking up demos as they went along. The band, formed by Steve Gordon and Paul Chant under their previous monikor Hex, have always been that less common thing, a purely live band. But once it became clear that Chant was terminally ill, it was felt by all that a full album would be a great tribute to the bassist.

The musical stylings on Quantum Funkanics are a mix of classic ’70s funk, late ’80s dance culture/hip-hop, lashings of ’90s baggy, and a little bit of the Big Beat too. Black Grape is probably the most relevant band comparison to make, but there’s also traces of Talking Heads, Parliament, Big Audio Dynamite, and Pop Will Eat Itself present too.

A lot of the fun, the heart and soul of this album comes from the duel vocal attack of Lindsay Spence [the verses, the raps] and Katie Paton [the choruses/refrains]. Between them they provide a succession of one-liners that either make you think a little deeper, or just elicit a belly laugh. Not knowing which comes next is surely a significant part of the appeal. Twenty plays in and new phrases rear up that previously were missed. Indeed everywhere there’s diamonds to fill your new boots with. Stories of wasters and scoundrels doing their thing could be deemed ‘cartoon-esque’ – but this is Northampton, so most of it is probably true anyway.

And if the words of your scribe weren’t enough to have you heading to purchase, be aware that Alan Moore loves them and wrote the liner notes. And if his nibs is onboard the mothership then you should be too, pronto.

Phil Istine

Quantum Funkanics is out now here

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Record review: Greg Coulson

GREG COULSON What’s New [self-released] Coulson is still only in his mid-20s but he’s crammed an awful lot in so far. He joined local Northampton band Danny Connors and The…

GREG COULSON
What’s New [self-released]

Coulson is still only in his mid-20s but he’s crammed an awful lot in so far. He joined local Northampton band Danny Connors and The Ladders at just 17, he hooked up with Two-Tone legends The Selecter at 19 – and stayed there for five years. He’s toured America, playing both South by SouthWest and Coachella festivals, and he even did a stint in a Burt Bacharach-themed West End show. Even now he’s gone solo, he is still called upon by The Blockheads to fill in on guitar when needed. Talk about paying your dues off early…

Finally the multi-instrumentalist has fulfilled the dream of a debut album. It’s full of vim and blues-funk energy, as demonstrated on the jive-tastic opener ’10/10′ [Adam Gammage’s drums propelling the whole thing to its peaks]. Follow-up ‘Girls’ sees the Flat Pack Horn Co give it some Daptones swing, plus Coulson lets loose on his Hammond to great, Stevie Winwood-esque effect. The pop melody vocal is so spot on it could give most of the Stax singles a run for their money.

‘Stitch Me Up’, a co-write with Danny Connors, is their idea of Stevie Wonder if he roamed The Mounts. The rhythm playing is as steady as a metronomic beat, though the feel of the lead instruments is a little on the wild side. Coulson runs through a ’60s reggae-styled Farfisa solo in the middle – completely changing the feel of things for a minute – before relaunching into that soulful groove chorus. The words are a treat too. It’s a seriously impressive five minutes, and should be the first thing you listen to on the album if in a rush. ‘Love Nest’ is the only really cheesy moment on the album, the ’80s blues-rock sound a tad too close to function band for comfort [nice guitar lines though]. All is quickly forgiven though as the title track roars into view, with it’s modern rock’n’roll feel [Jack White, Black Keys] and great call-and-response chorus. The fuzzy guitar from Staurt Dixon practically launches out of the speakers, such is his enthusiasm. And New Boots isn’t sure if there’s a word that could sufficiently sum up the outrageous Hammond solo.

The second half of the album is more of the same, and the quality never lets up. ‘Someone To Be There’ swaggers over the horizon with a great [or should that be Wonder-ful] soaring chorus in it’s back pocket. ‘End Of The Line’ introduces Coulson’s ability with a Michael Jackson-mimicked falsetto. It’s perhaps the most emotional song on the album, a plea to return to the past glories of love. Indeed it’s a song that seems to effortlessly amalgamate the last 50 years of blues rock into a coherent whole; and that’s no mean feat. ‘Ran Out And Ready’ is a slice of staccato Hammond-funk that would have been issued in 1968 on some obscure mid-Western label. In other words, very special. Great percussion movements on this too, muso fans.

Closer ‘Sick Note’ returns the horns to the fore, and is a fun-if-familiar number to sign off with. And there you have it: 40 minutes of blues-funk bliss from one of its newer exponents. Greg takes on the often unfashionable R&B sound and makes an album with personality, finesse and fine songs. We should all get behind him.

Phil Istine

What’s New? is out now on CD and the usual downloading/streaming sites

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Record review: Lew Bear ‘Love Light Dark And Death’

LEW BEAR Love Light Dark and Death [self-released] If there’s one thing that’s important to Daventry-based singer-songwriter Lew Bear, it’s returning to nature as often as he can. So much…

LEW BEAR
Love Light Dark and Death [self-released]

If there’s one thing that’s important to Daventry-based singer-songwriter Lew Bear, it’s returning to nature as often as he can. So much so, in fact, that several of his previous albums have been recorded in fields, or by streams. But now, with fifth album Love Light Dark And Death, he has decided that it’s time to return back to the studio.

Opening track ‘Devil You Know’ introduces the mood of the whole album with bouncing, crisp guitar strumming, while Lew Bear’s warm vocals are not too different to the cosy blanket you wrapped yourself in as a kid.

‘Going Home’ captures summer in a song, with lyrics such as “I won’t be there alone/in my mind/when I’m going home” bringing imagery of sunny days spent with your closest friends, whilst ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ hits upon a darker target. With acoustic guitars that sound foreboding and ominous, the song is eerily reminiscent of ’40s blues.

Songs like ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘Follow The River’ showcase Lew Bear’s jazz-styled vocals in a lower key, making him sound gloomy and encompassing. The guitar riffs also follow suit with simplistic strumming that boosts the singer’s voice to an even more powerful level. ‘Oh Death’, on the other hand, is deep and haunting, with echoing gongs punctuating the first hand story, from death’s point of view, of what happens to us when we reach the end.

‘Return To The Sea’ and ‘The End Is Never Near’ are album’s highlights, with their slow, calming melodies and soft vocals. ‘Return To The Sea’ is, musically, the perfect mixture of acoustic guitar and poetic lyrics, whilst ‘The End Is Never Near’ documents a love story to last for the ages.

Overall, Love Light Dark And Death is an album that couples folk music with a modern twist, resulting in a clear-cut sound that is neither dated nor out of place within the genre. Lew Bear has talent by the bucket load and he isn’t afraid to use it. This record is unique and warm, with a folk-blues sound that fits perfectly for those sunny Sunday afternoons spent in the countryside with the people you love.

Lucy Wenham

Love Light Dark and Death is out now for streaming, download or on CD

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Record review: Tom Grennan ‘Lighting Matches’

TOM GRENNAN Lighting Matches [Insanity/Sony] There’s something very endearing about the rise and rise of Tom Grennan. Firstly, five years ago he didn’t even play an instrument. Or consider himself…

TOM GRENNAN
Lighting Matches [Insanity/Sony]

There’s something very endearing about the rise and rise of Tom Grennan. Firstly, five years ago he didn’t even play an instrument. Or consider himself much of a singer. And like Richard Ashcroft before him he had a talent for football which almost took him on a different path. But then fate – and Chase & Status – intervened and boom; everyone wanted a piece of him. Confidence grew and he now carries that party-time swagger that thankfully is backed up with the talent.

The Bedford native has a rasping bluesmen voice that defines him as an artist. Musically he has a few different facades, largely reflecting who we works with on each song. Overall you’d probably categorise him as a sort of widescreen indie pop machine. His aim seems effortless and accomplished with a definitive joie de vivre. He’s the Harry Kane of pop! Not that the story of this album is purely one of joy. It’s triumph over adversity, as his words reflect a distressed young soul finding his way in a frightening big world. And who doesn’t relate to that? “I was made out of nothing, you were made out of gold” is one telling phrase on the ballad ‘Lucky Ones’.

Adam Gammage, Danny Connors and Tom Grennan on stage at Bedford Esquires

The album holds great interest for anyone connected to Northampton, as it contains the talents of two local luminaries. Danny Connors plays guitar, provides vocals and co-wrote recent single ‘Barbed Wire’, whilst Adam Gammage plays drums and percussion. They both tour with him too. It’s a terrific match-up, their chemistry clear to anyone from any of their recent live performances. In Fraser T Smith and Dan Grech he’s gone with producers who has crafted humongous hits for Adele, Stormzy, Plan B, Liam Gallagher and Tom Odell [to name just five]. The music is probably closer to a Blossoms though in structure – keeping it pop by focusing on a simple guitar or horn riff, and letting Grennan’s delivery take centre stage.

Almost everywhere you look here you will find gold. Opener ‘Found Out What I’ve Been Looking For’ is a bouncy anthem that will set the festivals alight this summer. ‘Royal Highness’, with its syncopated rhythms and inherent grit, repeats the Ibiza-soul trick that John Newman had going on fairly recently. ‘Barbed Wire’ displays a similar motif, making that retro-soul, horn-inflected sound comeback into the mainstream, just when it had seemed its time had passed. It should come with a warning: this song is likely to cause an outbreak of grinning and kitchen singalongs.

‘Aboard’ has a real maturity to it, Grennan promising not to “fuck around no more”. The band certainly don’t mess about with a tight arrangement that carries enough light and shade drama to make you think he’s a shoe-in for a  future Bond theme. The title track is another catchy yet bravely honest homage to his determination to strive for a better life. If it’s not the next single then heads need to roll somewhere – it will win over a million hearts from the first playback. ‘Sober’ is a touch Hollywood with it’s string parts darting everywhere, but still works out lovely as Grennan’s charm is undeniable. ‘Something in the Water’ was his debut release and reflects his initial soul balladry background. He’s outgrown that format now, but this number still contains the magnetism which bought the world to him.

Lighting Matches is not 100% fireproof though, which is no major surprise for an album that runs to a value-for-money 56 minutes. ‘Run In The Rain’ is Adele-saccharine cliche, ‘Lucky Ones’ can’t decide what it wants to achieve as it plods along alchemy-free [like late-period Oasis], and ‘I Might’ is singer-songwriter mundanity that he should have left on the cutting room floor. There’s always a worry that this collaborative creation-through-committee approach, so prevalent in modern music, might stifle the flow, but Grennan holds it all together even during the weaker moments. And even after all the dancefloor anthems the album puts forth he can leave you emotionally floored at the end, via his X-Factor-style offering ‘Sweet Hallelujah’.

It’s sixteen tracks feel like drinking stops on a big night out. They’ll be exultation and laughter, they’ll be a disagreement or two along the way, moments to think about packing it in. Then they’ll be redemption and hugs at the end. New Boots’ message to Tom is simple: nice one son, the next round is on us.

Words Phil Istine, photos David Jackson

Tom Grennan signing copies of his debut album at Bedford Esquires

 

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Record review: Tim Muddiman ‘Domino Blitz’

TIM MUDDIMAN Domino Blitz [Gun Street] Modern ShoeTown legend Muddiman grew up musically on Elvis first, before a New York electro and reggae phase took hold. In some way that’s…

TIM MUDDIMAN
Domino Blitz [Gun Street]

Modern ShoeTown legend Muddiman grew up musically on Elvis first, before a New York electro and reggae phase took hold. In some way that’s all you need to know in advance to get a grip around this often manic, sometimes debauched, and certainly never serene sophomore album from Muddiman. Once you throw in the knowledge that he has been obsessed by the twin beasts of Cave and Waits in more recent years, and that he shares a stage with Gary Numan for a ‘day job’, and the pieces all fall into place. A record this dense, claustrophobic and littered with ’80s references would only come from a musical magpie devouring these sonic worlds.

Muddiman’s first album, Paradise Runs Deeper from 2016, was a more lo-fi ‘straight’ alt-rock record, with the industrial edges that are still audible on the follow-up. But why try and fit in with the alt-rock world when you clearly have so much to say? And make no mistake, Domino Blitz is big on ideas. There’s a loose thread of a story of rock’n’roll redemption from the characters that inhabit this 21st Century version of the Blitz. It gives a voice to vice, to inner demons, and the battle to win them over.

The album opens, with a nod to Depeche Mode, in fine fettle via the glam stomp of ‘Broken Down Superstar’. It’s tempting to say it recalls Morrissey in his Your Arsenal pomp: tempting even though he is such a toxic touchstone right now, whose very name makes almost everyone wince. But it is accurate! Lead single ‘Get It On’ follows a similar path, adding some terrace anthem shouting bits. The rolling story of reprobates Muddiman eulogises about in the verses is nothing short of a call to arms. A reaction to the corporate takeover, the gentrification of iconic places like Soho. Unite and take over seems the order of the day.

The title track is a slow-burning post-punk electro throb, an apocalyptic theme tune in an album full of dark foreboding about where Western society has led us. ‘Summer Moon’ leaves little room for wriggle with lines like “I am the heroin inside your veins/A warm glow”; all-too-personal sorrow cast over elegiac guitar lines. ‘From the Hills’ is a cascading, 4am country-blues lament, something The Bad Seeds would have gone to town on back in the day. ‘Rat Ballads’ weaves similar magic, adding a cool ’60s jazz touch to the tale of Irish adventures in New York. It lacks a little focus, but that suits the story well one could argue. If that song dropped us off the ship and into the new world, then ‘White Dove’ takes us further south, into the desert badlands where anything can and will happen.

Domino Blitz lists a little musically around ‘Burn the Witches’, though it’s message is all true, railing at anti-immigration rhetoric that leads us to post-Brexit worlds. Where is the love, is all it asks. But the final one-two punch of ‘Clark Gable’ and ‘Out Of This World were worth waiting for; the former an urgent and hypnotic paean to learning from the mistakes of former relationships, and the last song ending on the most positive note possible. Out of the darkness comes truth and light, Muddiman preaches.

This album is magic and medicine, on a personal level for Muddiman and for the blessings of tortured souls throughout the land. If you sail the seven seas on the Domino Blitz and return to land in Northampton, there’s evidently a price to pay and lessons to learn. And, it seems, love to share.

Phil Istine

Domino Blitz is out now

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Record review: Tom Rose & The Heathen Orchestra

TOM ROSE & THE HEATHEN ORCHESTRA TOM ROSE & THE HEATHEN ORCHESTRA [self-released] Orchestral arranger. Bookseller. Gravedigger. As careers go that’s not a bad palette of experience from which to…

TOM ROSE & THE HEATHEN ORCHESTRA
TOM ROSE & THE HEATHEN ORCHESTRA [self-released]

Orchestral arranger. Bookseller. Gravedigger. As careers go that’s not a bad palette of experience from which to paint your tales of humankind. And Tom Rose has done them all. As leader of this Northamptonshire five-piece twisted blues ensemble he’s learnt to weave a consistently absorbing narrative on the freaks and weirdos that walk amongst us.

This twelve-tracker was recorded live last October at Parlour Studios near Kettering, and displays some Hammond-heavy dark forbodings that bring to mind some of the greats of the nu-blues genre: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Tom Waits, Mark Lanegan, Captain Beefheart, The Pogues, with various nods to the original US bluesmen of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. The opening track ‘Keep Your Demons’ is the heaviest thing on here, and is reminiscent of noughties blues trio the 22-20s; and before them, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. It feels like the sky will cave in over it’s three minute duration, which is probably the point. ‘Dance To Hell’ keeps the sweaty intensity up, coming across like a potent rockabilly version of ‘Red Right Hand’. It’s on this song that Roses’ preacher sensibilities come to the fore, with references to ‘demons’ and ‘hell’; the morality theme is later returned to on ‘Bible Morals’. If you’re going to tell stories you might as well make them biblical in scale…

On ‘Clay On Wood’ the voodoo punk spirit that has inhabited Jim Jones for thirty-odd years – most recently with his Righteous Mind – comes to mind. The band is really smoking on this number, cutting loose with joyous abandon. ‘Maggots’ slows things down a bit, bringing some smooth 60s atmospherics to rival Dylan with The Hawks, or perhaps The Doors. The grotesque nature of the song that Rose is chronicling is one to listen in sharply for, you get your just rewards. The album continues in a similar vein over its second half: ‘Falling Over’ and ‘All Of You People’ add some nifty guitar licks to enliven, ‘Garden Designs’ decides to add profanity to the spicy mix, and there’s some excellent garage-punk dynamics on ‘Trouble’s What You Got’.

This record is a spirited success and one you can’t ignore, for it has you by the throat from those opening notes. It has a timeless quality too – it could conceivably be ignored in 2018, only to be hailed as a minor classic by future scribes. One thing is for sure, however; we are much better off having it in our lives than not. Praise be.

Phil Istine

Tom Rose & The Heathen Orchestra is out now

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Record Review: Venus Fly Trap ‘Icon’

VENUS FLY TRAP Icon [Glass Modern] Much like their beloved Dr Who, it’s been a long, strange, bewildering trip for Northampton’s long-term purveyors of dark wave. Formed in 1986 as…

VENUS FLY TRAP
Icon [Glass Modern]

Much like their beloved Dr Who, it’s been a long, strange, bewildering trip for Northampton’s long-term purveyors of dark wave. Formed in 1986 as a trio from the ashes of their other projects by Novak brothers Alex and John, they rose phoenix-like to be a central part of the local scene of the late-80s [and you can read all about those early days in the latest, fourth, instalment of the Have Guitars…Will Travel book series]. Fifteen or so ex-members later and the last three albums have been the work of core duo Alex Novak and Andy Denton. Indeed Icon completes their trilogy that began with Zenith in 2004 and continued with Nemesis in 2011.

This record is probably the strongest of the trio, taking all the ideas explored so far and crystallising them into short, sharp, energised songs. If you are unfamiliar with the music, then imagine a PiL-like band playing Taffey Lewis’ bar in the original Blade Runner film. A sound rooted in the dark wave/electronica sounds that emerged post post-punk, but one that isn’t confined only to that world. Dystopian sci-fi rock from Northampton means everything from Bauhaus to The Cramps, The Stooges to Sisters of Mercy. The VFT sound is instantly recognisable, but never falls into the trap of being too repetitive. Indeed, after the scene-setting instrumental title track that pulses with film dialogue, each of the remaining eight tracks could be pulled off the album and released as a single. The one track that already has been, ‘Vitesse’ [see below], is pure Blitz kids synth-pop with a memorable hook placed above the motorik underbelly, whilst Novak mixes up his automobile and love interest metaphors to great effect.

The love theme continues on the crunchy ‘Voodoo Voodoo’ and the cinematic ‘Flashback’, both which revel in the VFT interest in the psychedelic. The characters within this pair reveal themselves more and more on each playback, as you catch new parts of the story. The middle of the album is dominated by the slightly epic ‘Deadly Nightshade’, which warms of the dangers in human relationships, where you can find “instant karma in the perfumed garden”. The track is the most sonically pleasing on Icon, as it transforms from beatific to angry and back again continually on its six minute journey.

‘Return of the Sidewinder’ kicks off a trio of culturally-referencing tunes. This song, named after a 1968 TV episode, gives nods to fellow Midlands heavyweights: Bauhaus in the lyrics, and The Specials in the ‘Ghost Town’-esque musical pallete of smokey dub reggae. ‘The Genesis Of The Daleks’, meanwhile, was a 1975 Dr Who series, and the Delia Derbyshire-indebted opening gives way to post-punk guitars and throbbing synth patterns. The song is surely a love letter to those childhoods that were both scarred and enlivened by existential television dramas.

‘Puppet’ seems to take the lead from ’50s pulp fiction from Philip K. Dick, but this time taking the music in another direction into dream pop. It’s a tender lullaby – well it would be if the intonation of Novak [“you’re just my puppet”] wasn’t quite so unsettling. Icon finishes with ‘In The Moonlight’: a Paisley Underground-style acid-folk slow waltz with a Hammond organ dominating the canvas, and some superb background harmonies that drifts us ever farther away from the darkwave idea from whence they came. It’s a fitting ending to a formidable album that, if it is to be their swansong, sees them very much go out on a high.

Phil Istine

Icon is out June 29th via Glass Modern

*Interview with frontman Alex Novak*
NB: You’ve said this is the last studio album.
AN: Probably; more than likely. Never say never. It’s just the length of time it takes to write and mix tracks seems to take longer each time. Does the world need another VFT album? We will see…

There’s quite a bit of diversity going on here; musical references to reggae and dream pop, for example.
We never set out to write in one particular style, just see what comes out of various ideas, see where it takes us. Our inspiration comes from many points of reference.

That’s always been a VFT strength – you always look beyond the “dark wave” tag.
VFT certainly has a dark psyche at the core, but we like to layer it or dress up with different costumes. We tap into many influences.

Keeping one band going for over three decades without a break is remarkable. What’s your secret – sheer, bloody-minded drive?
Its had more twists and turns than a rattlesnake, shedding many skins over the years. Change keeps it fresh. We are the Doctor Who of music – transforming a constant metamorphosis.

‘Icon’ is out via Glass – a label who you have history with, via your old band Religious Overdose.
Full circle – my very first release was on Glass. There’s a symmetry to it all. I like Dave Barker the label boss, and the band’s he has released over the years. It feels like home for us.

Will you continue the band as a live concern in future years?
We will see what reaction this album gets, and take it from there…

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