The Willy that stands the tallest, Mr Mason resurfaces as part of the relatively (and disappointingly) quiet promotion of his excellent third album, Carry On.
“When you talk me down, I go down…When you lift me up, I jump”
If ‘Talk Me Down’ makes Mason - once billed ‘the next Bob Dylan’ - out to be only as strong as his fans, it seems sadly ironic that it comes at a slight trough in his sporadic but usually enthusiastically received output. For instance, last time I saw him in concert, there was a notable absence of his usual effortless(ly ramshackle) showmanship and its roundly warm response - case in point, everyone cheering when he burped midway through a song in Bristol’s Thekla at the beginning of the album’s tour some months earlier. Instead, in March he seemed slightly frumpier and more downtrodden, as if the tour was gradually shedding the warm following he’s grown used to over the last decade, since the massive success of ‘Oxygen’ in 2004. Songs like ‘Talk Me Down’ teetered on the edge of melancholia, the positivism that previously imbued his own Bourbon-swilled notes tinged with a hint of distance - like he was singing of a fainter hope. And the crowd at Exeter’s Phoenix seemed alien compared to the habitual glowing chorus of singalongers: for the first time in my experience of Willy Mason shows, no one (except yours truly) hollered the essential “ME!!” that breaks up the last verse of his debut’s namesake - ode to his cat ‘Where The Humans Eat’.
While coverage and (presumably) sales of the album remain modest, the solemn tone of Exeter’s show hopefully attests less to a declining fanbase and more to the gradual decline of cultural responsiveness (and joy) that takes place as you pass further into the dark lands of the West Country. Whether or not the label (Polydor subsidiary Fiction) remain anxious to keep him, there’s hope yet for the fans.
This is certainly how you’d expect to feel upon re-listening to this fourth single. Doing what he does best here, it distills subtle elements of yee-haw Americana proper into a dreamy pop plod: campfire refrains, the clickety-clack of stomp-box-type rootin’ tootin’ percussion and Willy Mason’s own honey-rich, cedar-thick voice all subdued into crisp clarity by producer Dan Carey (also of M.I.A., Hot Chip).
”…it’s just a passing phase”
When I spoke to him about the album in December, although he was noncommittal about details, he seemed confident about continuing to make music. At Willy Mason’s lumbering pace, it’s likely to be some years before we hear the results of this, so make the best of what remains of this album’s tour - follow the hickville mantra of its second single ‘I Got Gold’ and bury every scrap you find for the long, Mason-less winter that no-doubt awaits us.
”…it’s just another page, My book will have it’s day”
Rain Cymbals collates musical highlights from May and beyond into a sonic journey from San Fran through LA, Turkey, Armenia and back to New York, all via an intricately and inexplicably (un)related collage of soundbites. This time find Drive squaring off with Ali G, Worms and documentary clips about the Ottoman diaspora in early 20thC NY. Yeah.
The first in a series of boombastic, reggae fantastic podcasts. This month find new tracks from Boards of Canada, Rustie and Hookworms, mixed in with some oldies and a variety of audio montage spanning Thunderbirds, Frankie Knuckles and Alan Partridge, as well as a sneak preview of our interview with Drenge. YESS IT’S AN EXTENDER!
To get this blog-ball rolling, here’s a loose sort of digest of the past couple of weeks in tracks from the genre fringes of crossover dance and electronic music - cuz that’s what we likes:
Artists have long since tried to dispel that persistent conservative myth separating ‘synthesised’ music from ‘analogue’ music - a symptom present in everyone from excusably aged jazzers to NME-acolytes who see Jake Bugg as a return to nature. If you believed half of their spiel, you’d think the electric guitar was an Andean crop brought back to Europe by Sir Francis Drake and Marshall amps were as timeless a construct as a mortar and pestle. Anything that bleeps is often dismissed by those camps as unoriginal, gimmicky and, crucially, artificial - as if Hendrix’ wah-pedalling pre-dated Stockhausen, and classic rock’s bluesy chug was set in stone before Steve Reich pioneered sampling and phasing techniques in the ’60s.
Nothing ground-breaking has happened in electronic music or elsewhere recently, but the mere fact of crossover kings Daft Punk claiming that electronic dance music is “not moving an inch" warrants a look at (or at least is an excuse to pile together) some choice cuts from the past few weeks, full of vocal hook-textures, nu jazz-isms and, err, prog trap music.
What’s this? Proper instruments wot dun by a producer?
Of course, this is nothing nu(-jazz). It’s interesting that the otherwise innovative, classically-trained house guru Floating Points (elsewhere wonky, squelchy and lusciously bassy) chooses to front his label’s new compilation with a track that sounds like it could have been released fifteen years ago on eclectic indie-giant Ninja Tune, to which he’s also signed. It isn’t that we’re complaining - anything that sounds like Every Day-era Cinematic Orchestra ticks all our boxes - and this groove tails out beautifully into a shimmering plane of strings before it crescendos into what sounds like, well, Floating Points doing nu-jazz. It’s just that it seems to be somewhat backwards in a time where most of the more jazz-tronic, folk-tronic cats are going the other way. Take Ninja Tune labelmate Bonobo for example, whose recent work seems to surrender the chiming and plucking to predominantly polished beats (although his latest number errs a bit towards the car-advertronica of sophomore Days To Come). And Four Tet’s twinkling cymbals have long been relegated to the pile while he churns out blistering warehouse techno - you’d forget he’d ever remixed Born Ruffians and Super Furry Animals. Why bring the brass back to the fore? Are we seeing a similar sort of throwback to electronica’s golden age paralleled by NME’s frantic obsession with heralding a series of throwaway copycats as the saviours of rock music? Is Floating Points gonna do a Jonny Greenwood and soundtrack some oscar-bait? Is electronic music dead? No, probably not.
If FP’s new number seems uncannily like DeLorean-ing back to the turn of the millenium - the era of Aphex Twin dominating MTV, terrible UK Garage and panic-inducing Ministry of Sound adverts - it’s little compared to Disclosure, who are spearheading the re-mainstreaming of 90s house to a now exorbitant level. I won’t say too much other than bloody good on ‘em for somehow paving the way for a deep house record to reach number one on the UK singles chart. You can’t deny the boys know how to work a pop hook round crisp retro electronics. If it seems a throwback to the 90s it’s probably because it evokes a golden age of crossover dance hits with proper pop vocals.
But Eliza Doolittle? They haven’t even got an album out yet but you can already imagine the next guest vocalist being Alexandra Burke, Chipmunk or, god forbid, some faux-folky James Twunt like that also-James James Morrison. If you’re going to ape a decade, Disclosure, don’t adopt its worst trends.
What was that about producers going jazz? Well, breaking news (yesterday): the international chief saviour of electronica, Flying Lotus, is invoking the spirit of his great auntie Alice Coltrane by writing a jazz album. Unlike Mr Floaty Points though, it’s unlikely that this will be standard fare for the spasmodic LA producer, who sequences like a pilled up maenad on a broken washing machine - his third album Cosmogramma apparently leaving everyone but the countless critics who extolled it to the stars somewhat confused (or maybe that was just me). Until we get to hear anything from that bold step, here’s some FlyLo-produced Mac Miller - there’s a jazzer if I ever saw one.
Okay, here’s the elephant in the room - who’da thunk that Daft Punk would record a whole album with live instruments and guest musicians (bar a custom synth and vintage vocoders)? Everything’s backwards if the most successful international electronic pop duo, like, ever, are ditching the digital - even “retreating from technology”, one article puts it. But they’ve hardly done a Bon Iver - it’s not like, head in hands at the state of dance music, they put the robot helmets down and resorted to Georgian chanting and banjos. Even Bon Iver relied on overdubbing the crap out of his stellar debut, despite it being recorded in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere (I bet he was still on tumblr though, the cad). No, Daft Punk always relied on retro-futurist aesthetics in their music (they’re robots, innit). They sound-tracked Tron for god’s sake, which is about as retro as the future gets. And the mass appeal of their debut, Homework, partly stemmed from that overt attention to the almost-kitsch cutesy bleep-bloop of their synths. Add robot voices with French accents (I’m not sure vocoders ever sounded futuristic) and you have yourself some bona fide funky familiarity - pioneering electronic music by looking over their sequinned, chrome shoulders. Let’s hope Random Access Memories yields something new by denying the technological frontier so explicitly. According to Pharrell, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened ever, and the robots are just putting on a front for music made from the heart. (“Wow I love that, I can’t believe I’m on it”, says the man whose pupils threaten to dilate past his Ray-Bans.) Pioneering game-changer ahead? Or maybe it will just be a suitably polished, star-studded future-disco record. Suits me either way.
Listen to ‘Get Lucky (ft. Pharrell Williams & Nile Rogers) here.
Find James Blake’s emotive humanness (producers are people too) here, where his new music video’s aesthetics sledge-hammer it home with all those earthly (and unearthly) signifiers - forests, close-ups in bed, the lonely cabin on the rock. “Time passes in a constant state”, Blake ruminates philosophically to a montage of seasons passing that plays uncomfortably like that bit from one of those Twilight films. If we weren’t getting the literary vibes enough, our metaphysical poet wanders outside where dozens of Edgar Allen Poe-type ghouls float around in some sort of netherworld capoeira.
In fairness, if you want a masterclass in the grey area between classic singer-songwriting and innovative electronic music, James is your man (not Blunt, not Morrison). There was a time when it seemed too good to be true for the Enfield bean-pole to do post-dubstep as well as piano-based soul, and even after ‘Limit To Your Love’, there was quite a defined juxtaposition between warbling-James and knob-twiddling-James (piano and vocal Joni Mitchell covers released alongside instrumental EPs on R&S). But the incredible second album, Overgrown, and its eponymous third single, show James at his most confident in fusing the human voice with electronics.
Here, at 2:54, he seems to extend the knack he’s long had for finding hooks in mid-verse R&B phrases by unexpectedly reducing one of the more soulful phrases of his verse to the swelling rush of the background arrangement that plays the track out into spine-tingling strings - a cloudy filter trims the consonance off his words, “And I wouldn’t understand but I would try to play along”, sliding them naturally into an a-vocal loop, with stirring melodic longevity. It’s nothing exceptionally new - a similar trick bolsters the lead single from this very album, ‘Retrograde' - but it nevertheless works the Blake magic in one deft stroke. Vocals lead the way, there is still a narrative, a tradition of confessionals and balladry, but they neither need juxtaposing as traditionally as over basic pop song structure, nor cutting up, repeating or layering as explicitly as on his debut. It no longer sounds novel to hear both sides of Blake weaving in and out of your ears - perhaps he’s done it! Perhaps the analogue/digital myth can rest in peace for at least a week.
Admittedly, the new Rustie isn’t really trap in any sense of the word, but it’s plenty prog. A bit of a counterpoint to everything else featured here, Rustie’s music continues to heavily rely on the sparkling, effervescent potential of unashamedly synthesised sound - a great lover of warm presets and cartoonish builds (both of which you’ll find in hover-trolley-loads here), his N64-powered space-club music (still flying the Zelda flag) continues to aim for the stars, rather than the earth. This one re-treads the shimmering-trance hook ground of his debut’s highlights, ‘Hover Traps' and 'Ultra Thizz’, with a surprise get-low sub bass worm. It’s a beaut. Unfortunately Side B goes a bit 2D with a double-triple-quadruple build leading to a drop that rings a little too euro-trance for comfort.