Atlantic Ballroom – Waldeck (Dope Noir 2018) – A Music Now Review

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Electro Swing seems to have been mooted for some time as being the next big thing but so far hasn’t had the lasting commercial clout that it promised, despite the odd hit which have had the smack of novelty about them.  Acts like Caro Emerald, Caravan Palace and Yolanda Be Cool have been flying the flag for this fusion of jazz and  swing with modern music  The BBC did not help matters by imposing on us in 2015 an Electro Swing track as the UK entry for the Eurovision Song contest which ended up near the bottom of the scoreboard in 24th place and probably put paid to any “cool” factor suggested by the best examples of this musical style.  There are certainly strong elements of Electro Swing in this new album release by Austrian musician Waldeck, his fifth studio album in a career which has spanned 22 years since his first EP release “Northern Lights.”

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 Klaus Waldeck

I had never heard of Waldeck before being contacted regarding the release of “Atlantic Ballroom” on Dope Noir Records last month.  I was asked about the possibility of a review and I thought I’d take a listen to see if it could be the album to revitalise my Music Now Section which I have neglected as the amount of new music I am listening to is diminishing.  It didn’t take long to see that it really does fit into the reviewsrevues brief and to ignore it would be missing out on a good thing.  This is a successful marriage of electronic dance music and trip hop elements with jazz, blues, swing and latin influences.  I’ve actually always been a bit of a sucker for retro music presented in a modern style.  In fact, one of the first singles I ever bought was “Looks Looks Looks” by Sparks which had the feel of forties swing in a quirky rock song and since then Manhattan Transfer, Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, Kid Creole, Madonna’s “I’m Breathless” album and , Caro Emerald amongst others have all ensured that this kind of mix is never too far from my music playlists.  It can be cheesy, it can be cool, but the very best combines the two, doesn’t take itself that seriously and would lift the mood of any dance floor.  I can’t help thinking that Waldeck is only one guest appearance on “Strictly” or having music used in a TV ad campaign away from really breaking into the big time.

 The ace up Klaus Waldeck’s sleeve here is the featured singer who appears on half of the twelve tracks, Patrizia Ferrara, half Sicilian, half Austrian chanteuse who drips coolness onto her tracks in vocals recall some great blues and jazz artists.  There’s also three largely instrumental tracks, two songs featuring long-time collaborator vocalist Joy Malcolm (formerly from Incognito) and one featuring fellow Austrian Big John Whitfield.

waldeck3Patrizia Ferrara

On the piano led opener “Rough Landing” Ferrara’s vocals are conveyed with the  cool style and sass not seen since the under-rated Lina’s 2001 track “Playa No More”.  There’s also a feel of The Propellerheads work with Shirley Bassey and their  “History Repeating”.  Good instrumental solos reinforce this track’s  jazz credibility and the whole thing sets out the store for the album, even if not one of the stand-outs.

 I really have come to like the 2 and a half minute instrumental  “Uno Dos.. Heissenberg”.  It holds its sixties credentials high and feels like a forgotten theme tune from a 60’s ITC Entertainment show- “Man In A Suitcase” meets “Austin Powers” with its downright grooviness merged with ethereal voices.  This is a track I would have liked to have gone on longer building to some massive crescendo of Carnaby Street influenced style, as it is it just tends to fizzle out.  The 60s feel continues for “Keep The Fire Burning” with vocalist Joy Malcolm turning out a Stax-type track with stabbing  brass and Hammond organ flourishes.  Although I do like this track it is the one which perhaps feel a little out of step with what else is on the album. 

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Patrizia Ferrara returns with four tracks which contain some of the real highspots of the album, getting under the skin with a Billie Holiday style vocal on a track with a real Cab Calloway feel in “Stay Put”, a slinky Henry Mancini “Pink Pantherish” intro to “Quicksand”which is a classy and well-structured song that again recalls Holiday and also in the phrasing some of the recent Doris Day stuff especially her 2011 track “Heaven Tonight”.  “Illusions” ups the Latin feel and with its distorted electric guitar and bass licks has a feel of 80’s Jazz-Funk over the bossa-nova style rhythms.  Best of all is the almost Charleston feel of “Never Let You Go” which sounds the most like a potential hit single on here.  The lyrics don’t matter but there is a lovely vocal performance which has shades of Peggy Lee at her perkiest.  With “Me No Americano” being such a big hit a couple of years back and also Caro Emerald establishing a world-wide reputation with a similar sound that there is still great commercial potential lurking here.

 The second instrumental is let down by that over-used sound gimmick of the scratched record.  I’m of the age where crackles were always a huge disappointment on a vinyl album and yet we still seem to have to listen to it in a digital format.  There’s not much going on in “Puerto Rico” other than the title repeated but its Latin grooves has more than a touch of Camila Cabello’s recent chart-topper “Havana”.  In this format it doesn’t hold my attention as much as many of the other tracks.  More successful, even if equally familiar in its sound is the Latin swing of “Quando” which has a feel of Rosemary Clooney and is imbued with a great sense of warmth which makes the combination of Latin rhythms and European oompah band seem a valid proposition.

 “Bring My Baby Back Home” seems the most novelty like with its “King of The Swingers” feel merged with Scatman John and his lunatic but highly likeable “Scatman’s World”.  There’s also a touch of LunchMoney Lewis and his recent hit “Bills”.  It won’t be long before you are “dub-dibby-dibby-dub-dub-ing” along and recreating the Charleston and Black Bottom dance at the Office Christmas party.  If this all sounds too cheesy it has an optimistic cheeriness which has won me over.

 The cheesiness is short-lived as “Waltz For Nathalie” is a mature instrumental  which brings to mind Swing Out Sister’s “Kaelidoscope Affair”, which I have always loved.  This has a strikingly mournful ending which feels like a suggestion of darkness looming on the horizon, noticeable on an album with such little darkness and so much optimism, but fear not as it eases into the handclapping uplift of “Freedom” the second of the two Joy Malcolm helmed tracks which feels like a club anthem with effective electro-swing touches.

One of the phrases I feel I’ve used quite often in this review is “brings to mind”.  That would suggest that “Atlantic Ballroom” is not the most original of albums but it is the wealth and variety of these “bring to minds” which makes it a compelling listen.  Waldeck has synthesized a lot of musical history into these twelve tracks and produced an album which feels positive and invigorating.  With so much Top 40 stuff now sounding the same (am I sounding like my father again?) it is good to see releases which challenge the status quo of electronic dance music and tropical vibes to offer something which feels different and fresh and yet reassuringly familiar.   

 

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Atlantic Ballroom is currently available to buy from Amazon in the UK for £16.04 new, used from £9,65 and as a download for £7.99.  It is also available to stream from Spotify in the UK.

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After The Love Has Gone – A Tribute To Maurice White

It does seem we are losing a lot of musical legends recently.  Yesterday we heard the sad news of the death of founding member of Earth Wind and Fire, Maurice White.  It has been announced that he has died at the age of 74 after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s Disease.  Readers of my 100 Essential CD countdown will know how much I have loved Earth Wind & Fire over the years and how highly I rate their 1977 album “All N All” and their 1996 best of compilation “Let’s Groove“.  Maurice has been responsible over the years for a great body of work including my all time favourite single “Fantasy” which he produced and co-wrote.

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Even back in the 70’s Maurice didn’t really look like a pop star but squeeze him into a tight brightly coloured  spangly one piece suit and he became as cool as you like.  One of my musical regrets is that I never saw Maurice and EW&F perform live in their heyday.  The shows were always a grand spectacle and put back the showmanship in live performance which at the time was becoming overblown by stadium rock acts and on the other side of the coin minimalist punk performances.  Earth Wind and Fire ensured that disco was cool and their music still fills dance floors today.

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Maurice’s song-writing and production work also benefited artists such as Deniece Williams, Jennifer Holliday and the Emotions.  He was a major talent in the music business for many years and will be greatly missed.

Chris Rizak over on the SoulTracks site in his obituary states “his influence on popular music is difficult to overstate. As a songwriter, producer, arranger and singer, he was elite. As a visionary who wholeheartedly believed in the power of music to tell truths, help lives and transform society, he was one of a kind”. I think that just about sums Maurice White up perfectly.

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To remember this man I have chosen a video which comes from the big selling 1979 album “I Am” on which he turns in a superb lead vocal performance and is one of the great Earth Wind & Fire ballads

Maurice White ( 1941- 2016) Rest in peace

 

This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)- My Tribute to Natalie Cole

I am interrupting the countdown of my reviewsrevues Top 10 books of the year because yesterday evening we had the very sad news of the death of Natalie Cole.  Anyone who has read my 100 Essential CD reviews will know that I am a big fan of the Cole family, both father and daughter, and now daughter, like father, has passed away much too young at the age of 65.

It was back in Christmas 1975 that I received a present I had been itching for ever since I had heard Natalie’s joyful debut single “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” on the radio, her first album “Inseparable”.  It was one of the first albums I ever owned and I played it until it wore out.  That was 40 years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since (the words of that debut single prophetic).  Of course over those years there have been ups and downs – there was a period in the late 70s-early 80’s when her material was just not that good.  This was a time when Natalie was dogged with her own personal demons and addictions, which she bravely set out in her candid autobiography “Angel On My Shoulder”.  But the career comeback happened in 1988 with the sublime “Everlasting” and soared to her career highlight, the Grammy Award winning Record Of The Year “Unforgettable – With Love” recorded as a tribute to her father in 1991.

Since then (some 24 years) Natalie has proved herself as one of the great song stylists of all time and all of her albums have been a treat.  For me she was certainly up there with Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Aretha Franklin as she straddled all musical types and imbued every song she sang with great warmth and style.  Her most recent album ( Natalie Cole En Espanol- 2014) features songs sung in Spanish and it is well worth a listen.  I cherish the two occasions I saw her live (once at Hammersmith Apollo when “Pink Cadillac” had broken big and once at the Royal Albert Hall with her “Unforgettable” show.)  I think despite the lengthy career she was very under-rated as a performer and it is time to acknowledge her as one of the all time greats.  If you want to find out more please read the reviews of my two favourite albums, read “Angel On My Shoulder” or just watch the video of the song that started it all off for me.

Review of “Everlasting“- Natalie Cole

Review of “Unforgettable..With Love“- Natalie Cole

Natalie Cole (1950-2015) – Rest In Peace.

Adele – 25 (2015) – A Music Now Review

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Current UK Chart Position -1

Current US Chart Position – 1

 

One thing is certain.  There will be a lot of people opening parcels containing this CD on Christmas Day.  Released in November this has already become the music phenomenon of the year.  It had a lot to live up to.  Just before its release Billboard, the official USA chart compilers produced a list of the most successful albums of all time and there at number one was our British girl Adele with this album’s predecessor “21”.  If I tell you the rest of the Top 5 you can see what an extraordinary achievement this is (5: Born In The USA – Bruce Springsteen 4: Fearless – Taylor Swift 3: Thriller- Michael Jackson 2: The Sound Of Music Soundtrack and 1: our very own Adele Adkins).  In the UK it is credited as being the 4th biggest selling album of all time (behind 3: Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles 2: Gold- Abba 1: Greatest Hits – Queen).  This makes it the second biggest selling studio album in the UK ever!  How do you follow statistics like that.  Well, Adele, as we all know took some time off and had a baby, she did, however find time to record the Bond Theme “Skyfall” – an Oscar Winner and just this week voted the Best Bond Theme of All Time in the ITV programme “Britain’s Favourite Bond Song”.  She never needed to record again and I am sure there were times (as she implied when recently interviewed by Graham Norton for “Adele at The BBC” that just not bothering to follow up such a monumental achievement kept crossing her mind).  But after almost a four year wait out came “25” and the all-time records began falling and the statistics started mounting up.

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The quickest album ever to achieve sales of two million in the UK – “21” took 13 weeks to achieve this.  The follow-up has taken in the region of 29 days.  Over 800,000 of these were sold in the first week- the biggest first week sale ever.  The first weekend sales added up to 124 copies every minute.  On its first day of release it garnered a total of 46% of the total UK album sales.I n the US during its first week it shifted 3.38 million units.  The album is number 1 in virtually every album chart in the western world and the lead-off single “Hello”, with its 27.7 million online views in the first 24 hours of its appearance is one of the biggest selling singles of the year in most markets.  I could probably fill a couple of thousand more words with sales figures but I would probably only be entertaining myself.  So, with statistics like this I’m sure Adele is hanging onto my every word to see what I think of this album and is no doubt thrilled by its inclusion on reviewsrevues.com!

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This is Adele’s third studio album.  I have all three in my collection but I would not say I was an out and out Adele fan.  I thought her first album was a very strong debut, that her second deserves a five star rating and that “25” is every bit as good as “21”.  However, it always takes a while for her music to really grab me.  I’m not going wild from first listen.  It took quite a while for her debut hit “Chasing Pavements” to make an impression on me.  I’m not alone in that as it hung around the Singles Charts for ages (25 weeks) peaking at number 2 (US#21).  Her fourth single “Make You Feel My Love” (#4), a cover of a Bob Dylan song shows just how good a song stylist Adele can be.  She cites her musical influences as Ella Fitzgerald  ,Etta James and Roberta Flack, claiming that listening to these artists taught her how to sing and you can tell as she manages to turn this Dylan tune into something very different and very important.  By the second album I was feeling the Adele magic more and for me she had less to prove.  The lead single “Rolling In The Deep” (UK#2, US#1), “Rumour Has It”(US#16) and the track “He Won’t Go” all showed that this was an artist who had matured vocally and professionally.  It was however, a career-changing performance on the Brits of a stripped down sound performing the torch-song “Someone Like You” (UK#1, US#1) which really pushed her onto another level.  Adele also claims good timing helped her US career with a “Saturday Night Live” performance when everyone was watching because Sarah Palin was taking part.  This track catapaulted Adele into super-stardom and was many people’s motives for buying “21”.  The three consecutive UK singles of “Make You Feel My Love” (70 weeks), “Rolling In The Deep” (66 weeks) and “Someone Like You” (78 weeks) saw a chart run of 214 weeks which is considerably more than a lot of significant artists’ chart careers.

 

“25” opens with the lead single, the monumentally selling “Hello”.  I’m actually a little cool towards this track.  It veers a little too much towards the shouty- I think there are at least another three tracks on this CD that I like better.  If you’re a big “Hello” fan and still haven’t bought this album (just where have you been?) I think you may find there are better examples of classic Adele within.  You don’t have to wait too long for these are two of them are up next.  “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” is quite a funky, catchy track co-written with Max Martin and Shellback.  It’s almost perky and singalong in the way that Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” was singalong.  You find yourself anticipating the hooks.  “I Miss You” written by Adele with Paul Epworth has a dramatic, swirling vocal beginning and the whole thing reeks of drama from those hard-hitting “Rumour Has It” (also produced and co-written by Epworth) drums to Adele’s big vocal in the chorus. It has a 90’s club feel to it.  “Million Years Ago” looks like it could very well end up the track this album is remembered for.  Co-written and produced by Greg Kurstin who joins Epworth in having three tracks on this album (Epworth produced 2 tracks on “21”). Kurstin is a new collaborator on “25” and this is his best track, a really attractive song that for me reminds me a little of Astrud Gilberto for some reason.  It’s mellow,  poignantly nostalgic, well-structured and just delightful.  These three tracks will certainly enrich Adele’s lasting reputation.  The rest of the tracks are of a good, consistent standard, there’s not a duff track on here, the track which at the moment registers the least impression upon me is “Water On The Bridge”, the other Adkins/Kurstin track, but that might be that it hasn’t grabbed me yet and I’m a bit distracted by the ethereal backing vocal and Adele’s phrasing on the word “bridge”, but given a few more listens they might just be the aspects that appeal.

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I can’t imagine how nervous Adele must have been as the release date for this album drew closer.  How would we compare it to what had gone previously and would it sell.  How thrilled she must have been by the last few weeks and the response she has got.  What is it about Adele that is appealing to so many people?  Is it the vulnerability? Her heartbreaks we can all identify with? The cool way she handles promotion? Her likeability? The “common touch”? What is that causes people all around the world to buy into her career?  She’s certainly no pop puppet and refreshingly in the music industry today is determined to do things her way.  It was back in 2009 that then Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote to her saying; with the troubles that the country’s in financially, you’re a light at the end of the tunnel.” Just think what she has done for the country’s exports since then.

Adele has done well to keep an air of mystery about her throughout the career madness.  I think that the more we get to know her over the coming years the more the world will love her.  She provided one of the telly highlights of the year in “Adele At The BBC” when she donned prosthetic make-up to disguise herself amongst other Adele soundalikes auditioning for a TV show.  She is likely to be the most important music artist of this decade.

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For the video I’ve chosen a live performance from The Church Studios of “When We Were Young” another track which, if released as a single is destined for the top of the charts.  This clip has been viewed well over 50 million times already!

 

 

And if you missed it, here is my Xmas gift to you – Adele joining in with Graham Norton and the other wannabe Adele’s – the highlight of “Adele At The BBC”.

 

 

Adele’s “25” is released on XL Recordings and is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £9.89 and used from £7.87.  It can be downloaded for £7.99.  In the US expect to pay around $11.88, used from $6.98 and as a download for $10.99.  Adele has decided not to allow the album to be streamed on Spotify at present.  I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this – If you can’t find a copy of this CD you are not looking very hard!!

 

 

Benjamin Clementine- At Least For Now (Virgin Emi 2015) – A Music Now Review

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Current UK Chart Position – 37

When I had the idea of including new CDs into my mix of reviews I was a little concerned.  My 100 Essential thread is not a problem, these are tried and tested CDs which I know well – some dating back decades.  But how would I fare covering new music?  I do listen to new releases but my enthusiasm tends to now be for music’s back catalogue.  But in the short time I have been choosing new items for review I have been pleasantly surprised, firstly with American artist Lindsey Webster and her slick soul stylings but also with the reinvigoration of Elvis Presley.  But with this debut album from this twenty-six year old British-French artist I am more than impressed I am blown away.

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I had never heard of Benjamin Clementine until the announcement a week or so ago of the Mercury Prize for the Best Album Of The Year and I am sure I am not alone as this, but word is spreading as this week, spurred by the Mercury success this album has made its first appearance in the UK Top 40 at number 37.  This is going to be a word of mouth release, a slow burner, which should, if there is any justice, see Clementine as one of the big breakthrough stars of 2016.

I’m not a Mercury Prize type of guy.  I’m usually aware of what wins it but it doesn’t normally get me rushing to find out more about the winner.  Of the eleven that were shortlisted this year only Roisin Murphy has ever made it onto my Spotify playlist.  It has been in existence for the last twenty-three years and in that time I have only owned two previous winning albums – 1994’s “Elegant Slumming” by M People and 2005’s “I Am A Bird Now” by Antony & The Johnsons (the second of these is relevant to this choice).   I liked both these albums at the time but they have not remained on my shelves.  (Adele has never won the Mercury Prize, despite being the best selling British artist of this period and both of her albums being nominated.  In fact, Adele has missed out in more ways than one as I would have been reviewing her album rather than seeking out this had she not decided to stop her album from being available for streaming – so her loss is Mr Clementine’s gain.  Although, perhaps not really, as I have just ordered both CDs from Amazon.)

When I listen to streamed tracks on Spotify I’m on the lookout for specific tracks good enough for me to add to my playlists- with this album every track was good enough, which made me decide I had to actually own it.  I think my generation, those of us who still remember vinyl, were very hot on categorising the music we listened to.  Is it rock, pop, jazz, soul etc?  Boundaries have shifted in recent years and this album defies any categorisation.  If you are looking for a point of reference, however, to see whether it’s your cup of tea, here are some names – a less commercial John Legend, Gregory Porter (minus the balaclava), Noel Coward, classical composer Philip Glass, Belgian chanteur Jacques Brel, the aforementioned Antony & The Johnsons, but for me the closest artist (and have you noticed what a range of performers I’ve already mentioned) to the kind of sound Benjamin Clementine is making with this album is Nina Simone.  It manages to incorporate all of these influences and yet is like nothing you would have heard before.

Benjamin Clementine is twenty-six years old and grew up in Edmonton, North London.  Anglo-French with Ghanian heritage, he grew up in a strictly religious household where he listened to Classic FM a lot (you can certainly tell this as his music is embued with a classical sensibility).  A family dispute as a teenager left him homeless and with mental health issues.  A move to Paris saw him living rough, staying in hostels when he could and busking to survive.  Composing music whenever he could he eventually was discovered by an agent, developed a cult following in Paris and returned to the UK.  He claims to have written at least 500 songs with a large number of them being lost because of his circumstances.  On this album we have fourteen extremely impressive examples of songwriting, full of ideas and twists and turns together with one track which is repeated as a studio and live performance.

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You can tell you are listening to the sounds of a man who has lived outside the mainstream – as you can when you listen to other artists such as Gregory Porter, Bill Withers and Terry Callier, but here the pain seems rawer and the edge seems closer.  Listening to Clementine is not, however, in anyway depressing.  This is uplifting music for the most part, even when the lyrics are dark. The orchestration and the voice which can go from abject misery, to hope, to playfulness in a few bars is almost spiritual in its effect on the listener .

Vocally, he can resemble Antony Hegarty of Antony & The Johnsons and this act has been obviously influential but if you combine this with the piano style you get much closer to the sound and feel of Nina Simone.   The rolling piano sound of “Adios” reminds me of tracks such as “Mississippi Goddam” and the expression and many colours of the voice also suggest Simone.  In fact, “Adios” alone is rich in influences.  It has a Gallic/European feel and a real sense of the dramatic.  Mid-way through there’s a spoken section about Angels, then an angelic operatic interval before coming back to the main song.  The whole thing is bonkers but very effective.

The modern classical influences are also much in evidence.  Clementine is a big fan of Erik Satie, but the driving repetitive refrains are also very reminiscent of minimalist American composer Philip Glass.  This can be picked up on “Adios” , “Condolence” and “Cornerstone”.  The Noel Coward reference comes through the old-fashioned Britishness which runs through the lyrics and some of the titles- “Winston Churchill’s Boy”, “Then I Heard A Bachelor Cry” and witticisms such as (in “Nemesis”)

“If chewing was to show you how much I cared I’d probably be wearing dentures by now.”

In a music business where most 26 year olds are singing about going to a club and raising your glass this is like a breath of fresh air.

One of the things I love is the way many of the tracks build, strings and piano combine beautifully and are topped off by those vocals which are first class in terms of range, emotion and phrasing. There’s often a shift mid-way through the track which is certainly unpredictable and often striking.  It’s also remarkably catchy after a couple of listens, “London” sounds like a hit single, with a cool hook for a chorus, “St Clementine On Tea And Croissant” combines a couple of chants which will get firmly into your head.  This is a plea to be left alone and has more than the hint of bullying around it.  On the CD this is combined with primitive percussion (someone hitting part of their body?) and comes across like a menacing playground rhyme.

In a life where pain has been faced it is always great to come across hope and these are the lyrics which stick most firmly in my mind…………………………..

In “Winston Churchill’s boy”; “One day this boy will be fine/You better watch out now that day might be today”.  In the sublime Condolence; “Out of absolutely nothing, I, Benjaimin, I was born/so that when I become something one day I’ll remember I came from absolutely nothing”.  “Quiver A Little”, a song at one moment so grandiose in its theatricality it could be from “Phantom Of The Opera” with its stage laughter and the next moment strikingly intimate advises us, when hurt by others to “just quiver a little, then burst to laughter (and get back to your  stride)”.  (This song also contains the best use of mild swear words I can remember hearing).

You will feel you have been put somewhat through the wringer emotion-wise listening to this CD.  “The People and I” is one of those songs that can make your eyes well up with tears without really knowing why.  There’s just an inherent sadness within it, even though it perks up to a mid-tempo last third.  I know there have been comparisons to Edith Piaf and it’s this pulling on the heartstrings which probably explain this.

For the video clip I have chosen a live performance of two songs from the album.  “Condolence” and “St. Clementine on Tea And Croissants”.  Performed with just a piano, the setting alone is worth a view because it is filmed in the magnificent St Genevieve Library in Paris.  This will give you a flavour of the artist, but on the CD the orchestral arrangements give it an added dimension.

If you like to be in the start of something big, give Benjamin Clementine a listen.  This might just very well be, in my opinion, the most important British album since Amy Winehouse’s “Back To Black”.

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“At Least For Now” is available from Amazon in two editions.  I listened to the special limited version which has a couple of extra tracks for £11.99, the standard edition is available for £7.99.  It is available as a download for £8.99 and can be streamed from Spotify.  In the US site it is $9.99, $7.99 for download.

If I Can Dream – Elvis Presley & The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (2015) – A Music Now Review

musicnowCurrently sitting at the summit of the UK Top 40 album charts is this extraordinary album which I, together with a considerable proportion of the population have been listening to over the last couple of weeks.  Extraordinary, in terms of remit as this resurrects Elvis, nearly 40 years dead, with new orchestral arrangements of fourteen of his songs and extraordinary in terms of achievement as his 12th number 1 album cements his position as the biggest male solo artist, bringing him level with Madonna and three behind the Beatles.  Extraordinary  also in terms of longevity, it is now 59 years since his first number 1 album.  Is it, however, extraordinary in terms of musical content?  This is what I wanted to find out…..

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I’ve never been a big Elvis fan.  I think the timing was wrong.  My parents favoured the music of the 40’s and were busy bringing up children so they missed out on the rock and roll era.  My sisters and I began our record buying in the 60’s and favoured the British sounds and Motown singles that were dominating the charts.  As a result I didn’t grow up around Elvis’ music, so do not have the lifelong devotion towards him shared by those slightly older and younger than me. By the time Elvis died I was in those sneering early teenage years when everything had to be cool and relevant and I didn’t perceive Elvis to be either.  I also thought he was elderly – which seems an extraordinary thing to think of someone of 42, but that’s the weird time perception of youth.    My sole memory of the music of Elvis is a copy of his sheet music for 1969’s “In The Ghetto” which was bought by my oldest sister in her hippy phase which involved walking around with a guitar strapped to her back.  We did use to have to listen to her version of this song, which involved her singing it whilst doing the odd bit of chordless strumming.  I can still hear her drama-laden vibrant strum between the “In The Ghetto” and “as her young man dies”.  In fact I hear it even when it’s not on Elvis’ version.  I hear it on the version of this CD with the Royal Philharmonic accompanying his vocals, so imprinted is it on my memory.  It did teach me I never wanted to play the guitar and when it was no longer such a fashion accessory my sister quietly abandoned it too, although the sheet music hung around for some years “just in case”.

I was fascinated as to just what these orchestral rearrangements would add to the music of Elvis Presley.  Ex-wife Priscilla (and executive producer of the project) has stated  “ He would have loved to play with such a prestigious symphony orchestra.” And  ;

“This is an album that Elvis always really wanted to do and he would have been so pleased to know his fans are still there and they continue to love his music… The most talented team put this album together and helped us all realize an unfulfilled dream.”

 There is obviously the market there and this just cannot be diehard Elvis collectors putting it up there amongst the big sellers of the year.  These are people rediscovering or even finding Elvis for the first time and choosing to purchase these orchestral versions.  With Classic FM being the fastest growing radio station in the country perhaps we’ve got more used to listening to orchestral music and so this whole concept it appealing to the pop, rock, casual music listener and classical music fan.  If this is so, then it is a stroke of marketing genius.

But is it any good?  First of all it would depend on how you view the whole concept of remaking a dead artist’s back catalogue.  It would also depend on how you would view an orchestra being introduced onto some tracks where an orchestra hadn’t been before.  In the old days it was called “sweetening” and it was often the difference between an R&B track and an artist like Pat Boone’s cover of the same track, which was “sweetened” by lush strings and choral voices.  If you can remember the difference between Fats Domino’s version of “Aint That A Shame” and Boone’s chart-topping cover you might feel wary of tracks like “Steamroller Blues” which I am sure would not have had an orchestral feel.  It would also depend on how you feel about the pairing of the dead with the living.  This was a technique which was eerie and sublime when Natalie Cole did it with her father but has been over-used of late to become somewhat macabre- Barry Manilow in 2014 put out “My Dream Duets” – a whole album dedicated to such pairings which felt, ultimately, disturbing.  On this CD it’s used for just one track as Michael Bublé “duets” with The King on “Fever”.

So what was I imagining before the first listen?  Big arrangements, lush orchestrations.  A couple of the songs have big sounds already – “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and “American Trilogy” for example.  I imagined that these new versions would see them soaring into the stratosphere.  On the whole, that doesn’t really happen.  A couple of the songs you would need to know quite well to perceive much difference from the original.

The most successful of the musical marriages between these unlikely partners is for me the first track “Burning Love”.  A neo-classical introduction opens this brilliantly before Elvis’ familiar vocal kicks in.  This has a really big sound with cascading, soaring strings and the driving rhythms of the original.  This could be a hit single over again and may just be an improvement on the 1972 UK#7, US#2 hit.  I did think if the rest of the album kept up this standard it would be a thrilling proposition.  We in Europe do not mind a bit of meddling with our Elvis – witness his 18th number 1 UK single  “A Little Less Conversation” from 2002 originally recorded for a 1968 movie and re-mixed in a pairing with Dutch DJ  JXL which turned a pacy lesser-known rocking song into a dance track.

I also really like a couple of the other tracks- “Love Me Tender” once again has a beautiful introduction and the arrangement enhances the inherent simplicity of this song, although maybe I’m just getting slushy and sentimental and would now favour this in its original version.  I’ve always felt it’s dragged a bit as a song but the orchestra seems to flesh it out a bit and because of that it works.  It’s also a big thumbs-up for a song I was not at all familiar with “And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind”, an early Neil Diamond song which is lovely.  “Fever” will  please the legions of Bublé fans, although maybe I’ve heard too many versions of this song.  I do think the choice of songs is quite clever, there’s no meddling with the rock and roll classics, it’s either the ballads or later tracks.  Some are less familiar (“Steam Roller Blues”) and some (“Bridge Over Troubled Water” “How Great Thou Art”) are songs that could take the additional orchestrations.  I do think, overall, the new arrangements are more subtle than I was expecting them to be.  Is that a good thing?  Not absolutely sure…..

Of course, there can be no real changes to tempo without affecting the voice and it is the original vocal tracks that are being used.  Occasionally living artists have gone down the orchestral path – apparently Sting and Elvis Costello have both dabbled with this but then they, being living, are able to adjust their vocal performances.  This is perhaps best illustrated by Chaka Khan whose vocals on her 2004 album “Classikhan” with the London Symphony Orchestra were performed with such gusto that it would have had the percussion players weeping in submission!  The team working with this project would not have had that luxury.

So is the project a success?  Well, it had me listening to and enjoying an Elvis Presley album, which is not something I would have often done.  The fans on Amazon are certainly giving it the thumbs up with 314 out of 366 of current reviewers giving it 5 stars and only 19 not on board with the project rating it 1 or 2 stars.  The new versions of the more well-known tracks are unlikely to supercede the originals (although “Burning Love” certainly does it for me) but the balance of these with lesser known and good solid songs ripe for extra orchestration makes the whole thing highly worthwhile and the words “cheap” and “cash-in” never entered my head.  I think I agree with Priscilla Presley.  This is a respectful, well-executed project which is deservedly going to be in a lot of people’s Christmas stockings this year.

 

fourstars

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“If I Can Dream” is released on RCA records and is currently available in the UK on Amazon from £9.99 and as a download for £8.09.  It is also available to stream on Spotify.  The US version is released on Legacy with a moody black and white cover (seen above)  and can be purchased from $10.99.

Lindsey Webster – You Change (2015) -A Music Now Review

musicnow

This is the first of a new thread.  Music Now Reviews will be a fortnightly feature focusing on what I have been listening to…………….

The other day I received my ballot paper for the Soul Tracks Awards 2015.  This is something I joined a few years ago at http://www.soultracks.com/  and champions the independent soul artist and labels which are still putting out some very high standard mainstream soul music, away from the dominant sounds of Hip-Hop and Dance music which tend to be the R&B influenced music which crosses over to the Pop Charts.

As these are often American releases on small labels and tend to be ignored largely by UK radio there are usually very few nominations that I have heard of.  This year, however, due to the wonders of Spotify, a little bit of detective work found all bar one of the Best Album nominees.  So, rather than just voting for what I knew,  I have over the last few days been listening to those nominated to decide who would get my vote.  And really I am quite inspired that there is a wide range of good quality soul music being produced.  For a time there was a tunelessness and wavering vocals in R&B music as a result of the vast success of artists such as Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey which never really engaged with me.  In a world where most Pop music heard on the radio is begin to sound generic and very similar (is it my age?) it was good to hear these Best album nominations were sounding very different and even within an album release there was a much greater range of styles of tracks than would have been the case five or so years ago.

So after listening to these albums, which one got my vote? Well, there were a couple of very strong contenders but, as no doubt you will have worked out from the title of this post the one that did it for me was by Lindsey Webster, an artist who I have never heard of before receiving the nominations.  I have needed to do some research, as the downside of listening on Spotify is that you do not get the sort of information that you would have got from the CD inserts (and that is often a paltry amount and often pretty illegible compared to the old LP sleeve notes- showing my age again).

youchange

New Yorker Lindsey is a former cello player who turned to singing and whose album is released by Atlanta Records.  This is her second album following her first self-titled CD released in 2013.  The first thing that is going to grab you is the voice, a rich smokey voice which for me is reminiscent of the great Dusty Springfield, but also references many top quality female vocalists – Sade, Anita Baker, Carole King, Lisa Stansfield amongst them whilst having an individuality which is so rare in these days of so many sounding the same.

Songs are well structured and all written by Lindsey alongside Keith Slattery.  This is a woman who understands music and song-writing which suggests a lengthy career is ahead of her.  All in all, it’s a set of very good songs, beautifully sung and well produced.  What more could we ask for?  For someone who spends more time listening to old music than new music this is a revelation –the quality of the vocals of the 70’s, the well structured soul songs of the 80’s with a feel which is very 2015.  This girl could be big, and hopefully she doesn’t have to do a big club banger to get people buying.  Occasionally, an artist can break through with sheer quality – I’m thinking here of early Norah Jones and Rumer even Adele.  Given the right push this could be the sound of late 2015.

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“Fool Me Once” the opening track has plenty of body, a solid verse and chorus structure and the freedom to end in a cool instrumental section, setting up a groove which might explain the Sade comparisons.  These are songs of both the joy of love (“I Found You”, “Open Up,” and “In Love)” and heartbreak (“Fool Me Once”, “Lost One”) providing a good balance .  Lindsey does not take the victim role – like the best songs on Amy Winehouse’s “Back To Black” the woman causes the problems herself.  On the lovely track “Bleed” Lindsey confesses;

Oh lord, I can’t believe
What I’ve done to his heart
I made it bleed
I’ve been, been living a lie
And I never meant to hurt
Or make him cry

I have learned the hard way
That the lesson’s harder than the pain

This piano-led track has a feel of the very best of Alicia Keys. The track “In Love” reminds me of the type of song Dusty did with The Pet Shop Boys (eg: “Nothing Can Be Proved”).  There’s also touches of Swing Out Sister and a good dance tune in “I’m Strong”.  I’m making these comparisons purely because I want fans of these artists to go and seek this CD out – because Lindsey is very much her own artist . I was delighted to opt for this album as the Best Independent Soul Album and also voted for her in her nomination as Best Newcomer . I can no longer urge you to vote as the ballot has closed (results due on Dec 7)  but she seems to me the kind of artist that we embrace here in the UK and is worthy of your attention.

fourstars

 (although with repeated listens this may very well be a five star release)

The other album I really enjoyed was “Tales Of Milk And Honey” by The Foreign Exchange, a solid mix of great vocals, slick disco-funk tunes.  “Color And Sound” by Alabama Shakes was an album which certainly took risks with musical styles which veered from Soul, Funk to Rock and Heavy Metal.  I really liked some of it and applaud the concept but sometimes I did feel my fingers sneaking into my ears!  The full list of nominees were:

Alabama Shakes – “Color and Sound”

Brandon Williams – “XII”

Jeff Bradshaw – “Home”

Kenny Lattimore – “Anatomy of A Love Song”

Lindsey Webster – “You Change”

Lizz Wright – “Freedom and Surrender”

Portia Monique – “Portia Monique”

Teedra Moses – “Cognac and Conversation”

Terri Lyne Carrington – “The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul”

The Foreign Exchange – “Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey” The Internet – “Ego Death”

The Rebirth – “Being Through The Eyes of a Child”

Tyrese – “Black Rose”

Various Artists – “Bespeak Love”

I voted as mentioned above Lindsey Webster for Best Album and Best Newcomer, Foreign Exchange for Best Group, Kenny Lattimore for Best Male Artist, Lizz Wright for Best Female Artist and Alabama Shakes for Best Single “Gimme All Your Love”

 

 

“ You Change” by Lindsey Webster is currently available to download from Amazon for £6.49 and US listeners can download for $6.99.  It is also available to stream from Spotify