Friday, 30 July 2010

Marina and the Diamonds

There is clearly something in the water that trickles down those Welsh valleys that produces more singers than I’ve had hot dinners. Dame Shirley Bassey and Thomas the Jones became international stars eons ago and even now the well, to stretch an analogy, has not dried up. Since then we have marvelled at ‘Voice of an Angel’ Charlotte Church, had fragile chanteuse Duffy (retired?) grace us with her presence and now we have Marina Diamandis.

Born to a Greek father and Welsh mother in Abergavenny in the decade of big hair and shoulder pads, she is the latest in a line of Welsh musicians to entertain us with those Celtic vowels. Under the stage name of Marina and the Diamonds, she and her band played an entrancing set on the John Peel Stage at Glastonbury this year and as a consequence, I have been listening to her debut album, ‘The Family Jewels’.

From what I gather, the ‘The Diamonds’ bit of her name is not her backing band but represents her fans, so says she, presumably in the same manner as Lady Gaga’s ‘Little Monsters’. Accordingly, the musicians she plays with form a somewhat fluid community but certainly the guys who played at Glasto were an exceptionally tight little keyboard-led ensemble who underpinned her rather quirky songs with real panache. I’d keep hold of them, if I were you, Marina.

Those of you who read these missives will, no doubt, be pleased to see the return of the Music Obsessive Influences Pie-Chart from which you will gather that Marina’s vocal style is towards the idiosyncratic end of the spectrum being possessed of a pleasingly rich contralto (or possibly mezzo-soprano, what do I know?) with an indefinable touch of the Greek about it which can soar into the heights and back quite effortlessly.

The songs on the album are probably best described as hook-laden pop tunes with overtones of Sparks and Lene Lovitch. In fact, with all this quirkiness going on it is all too easy to believe that it is all a front to catch the media eye and this may be so especially as her songs are designed to give a feelgood vibe. Nevertheless, there is a darker side lurking in the lyrics which gives a glimpse into a potential depth of talent that is not so apparent at first hearing. Certainly, I found the studio versions of the songs slightly less immediate than the live versions I had witnessed on stage and that bodes well. She is clearly an artist that thrives in a live environment where the performance and relationship with the audience allows her to add nuances to the content and add value to the experience.

I shall be intrigued to see where her career takes her. Take a look at her Glastonbury set-closer, ‘Guilty’, a song that seems innocuous enough, but then goes on growing in the mind until you are completely hooked and see what you think. Now, where did I put that bottled Welsh spring water?

Friday, 23 July 2010

Allison Crowe - Spiral

As I have already reported, Allison Crowe’s new album, ‘Spiral’ plonked through my letterbox all the way from Canada a while back. I’ve had a week or two to assimilate it so it’s time to post a few comments.

My first impression on opening the package was of the unusual nature of the digipak that contains the CD. It is one of the best I’ve ever seen. The design of the pak, which opens out to reveal the disc, is beautifully conceived and contains a montage of part embossed and wonderfully colourful images around the main disc holder. Unusually, and so much better is the way that the user does not need to drag the disc out of a tight cardboard sleeve, thus scratching it forever, but can merely remove it from a slotted base after all the flaps have been folded back.

So, full marks for packaging but what about the content? Allison is known for the largely piano based output of her previous albums like the acoustic ‘Little Light’ released in 1998, but this time she has gathered her small but select touring band around her and the effect is to fill out her sound in quite a delicate way.

As has become standard for Allison’s albums there is a majority of original material with one or two covers of others’ songs. In this instance, she has covered Leonard Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel No 2’ and Annie Lennox’s ‘Why’ and for me these are the highlights. It takes a certain type of artist to take another’s song and have the insight to reinterpret it in a way that makes you see another side to the song. There has been a good amount of discussion about the subject of covers in this blog in recent months and commentators have contributed a whole list of cover versions from a variety of artists where they feel that this object has been achieved. Certainly it is a subject that seems to provoke a lot of debate amongst musicians and listeners alike. In the case of Allison Crowe I do not need to make a case as her record of covering songs by Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and other big hitters in the song writing fraternity proves.

This album shows yet again what a sensitive interpreter she is. ‘Why’ in particular is a tour de force performance giving the song a spine tingling sheen. And this is where I find myself wondering what direction her career might take. Left to me, I’d say that in view of her special talent, she should reorganise the content of her albums and increase the number of covers. This sounds like her own material is sub-standard, but that is not true, it is just that she may find playing to her obvious strengths may benefit her in the longer term, but that’s just my opinion.

In any event, this is another fine album and comes with an unconditional recommendation.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Glastonbury Festival 2010 - Part 2

Viewing Glastonbury on the TV is a bit like looking at it through the wrong end of a telescope. Despite the hours of footage broadcast by the BBC with all its digital channels you really only get to see someone else’s edited highlights. Nevertheless, a TV viewer probably still gets to see more acts than a person actually on site, so I suppose it’s not for me to complain.

As I opined in part 1, I felt a little underwhelmed this year. The headline bands were OK but I never did understand the attraction of Gorillaz and as a stand in for U2 (and I’m not a fan of U2 at all), they were mildly disappointing. Muse was the best of the bunch bringing a sense of bravado to Saturday night and then there was Stevie Wonder. To me, Wonder falls into the same category as Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones in that their best work was done in the late 60s and early 70s and they’ve spent the last 40-odd years trying hard not to tarnish that work and largely failing. As the years have passed, I’ve tried to watch as many of the older generation of musicians as possible because you always get the feeling that it might be your last chance and this year I tried to like Stevie Wonder. Admittedly, his set was an endless and impressive list of hit songs but it wasn’t until he did ‘For Once in my Life’ that I really connected with him. There is just something compelling about his early Motown singles that still touch me where much of his later output doesn’t. The musical arrangement was pure Motown and the spirit of the Funk Brothers hovered over the performance like an old long lost friend. A gem of a moment in a workmanlike set.

So who were my personal favourites? This year I have tried to pick three acts that I don’t really know much about. So no accolades for Florence and the Machine, Rodrigo Y Gabriela or Scissor Sisters (despite Kylie turning up for a brief few minutes) – all of whom were excellent, but have been applauded in past years.

Instead, in third place comes Shakira who, according to rumour, is the best selling female singer in the world after…Susan Boyle. Dressed in surprisingly demure attire, she wiggled her way through a largely enjoyable set which not only pleased her audience but seemed to fill her to overflowing with the spirit of Glastonbury. For such a major star to appear so humbled and grateful was quite heart-warming. Sometimes this world can be a wonderful place; you just need to know where to look.

In second place is a band that I know next to nothing about and they are Editors. I found singer Tom Smith, who appends a memorably cavernous voice to the tortured style of a Morrissey/Ian Curtis hybrid, a fascinating front man. Whilst being a standard Indie band at their core they embellish the template with sparkling synthesisers and a variety of song styles which move them into an area that is more gothic and less jangly. An interesting set and a band I may well research a bit further.

My winner this year is another band of which I know next to nothing and they are Faithless which has quite surprised me. As a rule, I am not a fan of Rap finding it a bit ‘lazy’ technically but the sheer musicality of their performance won me over. The combination of dance grooves and pop/rock dynamics was riveting. Whether I follow this up, I don’t know but for an hour or so on a sunny Sunday afternoon it was perfect.

So that’s it for another year. Special mentions must also go to Ellie Goulding, Pet Shop Boys, Marina and the Diamonds and Corinne Bailey Rae who all entertained but just missed out on the prizes. Will next year be another classic?  Only Star Trek knows.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Glastonbury Festival 2010 - Part 1

Isn’t it the Star Trek movies that people always assert are better if they are even numbered, starting with Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan and pants if odd numbered? I only ask because I’m beginning to think that the Glastonbury Festivals are following a similar alternating path. The 2007 shindig was great, the 2008 event disappointing and last year’s 2009 festival probably one of my all time favourites.

So you can see where I’m going with this. Despite the fact that the weather was completely alien to your average Glastonbury goer – sun and clear blue skies the whole three days – this year’s Glastonbury just didn’t really do it for me. None of the headliners, which included Gorillaz, Muse and Stevie Wonder, held me spellbound despite their obvious credentials and a few high spots and compared to last year, I felt the line-ups generally were a bit lacking.

Not that there was anything wrong with the composition of the artists’ roster. As usual, the Eavis family did a great job in mixing up genres and generations so that we had the likes of Willie Nelson and Ray Davies rubbing shoulders with Groove Armada, Snoop Dog and Dizzee Rascal, but frankly it was always going to be difficult trying to match last year’s headlining trio of Neil Young, Blur and The Boss, especially after U2 had to pull out.

Nevertheless, there is one aspect that remains a constant and it is the reason why I tune in year after year. It is that the Glastonbury Festival seems to have a direct link to its hippy roots of the late 60s and early 70s and the abiding spirit of peace love and good-natured openness never fails to infiltrate performers and public alike. Every act, irrespective of their age, style or, let’s be honest, ability, plays to a huge and appreciative audience and everybody appears to have a good time. The cynic may say that the audience should, after all they’re paying for it, but what about the artists? There is more to this than meets the eye.

Even hardened big name performers who are no stranger to playing in front of gargantuan crowds seem to succumb to the Glastonbury spirit and come over all emotional. I saw it in Bruce Springsteen’s eyes last year and it was Shakira’s turn this year. Somehow, the atmosphere seems to take them by surprise and it is this powerful emotional feeling that still pervades, even in these days of rampant commercialism, that makes the Glastonbury Festival the best in the world. In a nutshell, it is always Glastonbury itself that is the star of the show and this acts as a great leveller between artist and audience.

But enough of this new age musing, what you are all waiting for is this year’s Music Obsessive Top Three Acts but I have to say that I am struggling here and may plead for additional time in front of the BBC iPlayer before I make my decision. But never fear - it will appear here soon.

Friday, 2 July 2010

England Lose World Cup...Again

So England exits yet another World Cup at the hands of the Germans and on the back of the poorest showing since 1958. I can’t see us winning a major tournament ever again. But it wasn’t always like this.

When I was at junior school a lifetime ago, I was already a convert to our national sport, football, or soccer as the Yanks insist on calling it (correctly, I might add) and played it every spare minute of every day, but nothing had prepared me for the sort of playground politics that come with being a fan.

‘So what team do you support then?’ was the question that threw me, as giving the wrong answer could be fatal and the truth was, I didn’t support anyone. Luckily, the following Saturday saw the staging of the 1963 FA Cup Final when Manchester United stuffed Leicester City 3-1. I’d actually heard of Man U and as they were clearly winners, they would do for me. Thus it came to pass that a home counties boy who’d never travelled north past Luton let alone to the far north-west of the country became a Man U supporter for no other reason that they were there and I’ve followed them ever since.

So by 1966 when I would sit goggle eyed in front of our flickering black & white TV watching the World Cup games, it was United’s Bobby Charlton and Nobby Styles that I cheered on (in lieu of my true hero at United, Dennis Law, but he was Scottish). One of my fondest memories is Bobby’s thunderbolt goal against Mexico in the Group stage, a goal that still looks amazing today. Just have a look at that mazy run and catapult shot that bulges the net before the goalkeeper has time to reach it.

There was much comment at the time about Alf Ramsey’s assertion that Martin Peters was a player ten years ahead of his time. Actually if he had truly been ten years ahead of his time, he would’ve sported long greasy hair and wide lapels, but we’ll let that pass. In truth, Alf had picked the wrong man. Hindsight shows that it was Nobby Styles that was genuinely ahead of his time by his relentless harassing of the opposition and his willingness to stick the boot in. Watching those games from the 1960s, it is obvious that players had slightly more time and space to play. These days, the opposition close you down relentlessly, but not so then – except for Nobby who gained a reputation for doing just that with terrier-like tenacity.

Alf’s theory about Peters was that he had the ability to ‘ghost’ into shooting positions so late that he was never picked up – a trait that few possessed. But actually Geoff Hurst could do that as well, as his goal against Argentina in the bad-tempered quarter-final shows. This is actually my goal of the ’66 tournament and a memory that will never fade. It made me gasp at the time and still looks good today. The skill with which, Hurst glides in at the near post, unmarked, and just lets the ball skim over his head with enough purchase to guide it into the far corner of the goal is just awe-inspiring. Such delicacy in what was an ugly and spiteful game.