Friday, 26 November 2010

KT Tunstall - Tiger Suit

Ever bought an album and wondered why you did? I am having that feeling about KT Tunstall’s ‘Tiger Suit’, her latest offering.

Like most people, I first got to know her when she burst onto ‘Later with Jools Holland’ doing the stomping ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’ back in 2005 but it wasn’t until I heard ‘Suddenly I See’ followed by the fabulous ‘Another Place to Fall’ that I was interested enough to buy her debut album, ‘Eye to the Telescope’. At the time I thought it a bit patchy and one of those albums that had two or three crackers in amongst some pleasant if not inspiring material. Accordingly, I failed to buy its follow up ‘Drastic Plastic’ when it turned up in 2007.

Since then I’ve not really thought about KT but recent reviews of ‘Tiger Suit’ made me curious to know what she is up to now. So it was that I found myself owning a copy after a bit of an impulse buying spree in HMV a few weeks ago and have been listening to it on and off ever since. And this is where I start to think about what my motives were. Once again, there is nothing much wrong with ‘Tiger Suit’ but somehow it doesn’t quite grab me despite having some nice moments.

This time around, KT has gone for a slightly less folksy sound and opted instead for a series of electronica environments into which to pour her almost traditional sounding songs. This has had the effect of modernising her sound without detracting from her Celtic roots and the stomp evident in ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’ is still to be heard on tracks like ‘Push That Knot Away’ but in a more dancey and less folksy way.

One thing that becomes apparent is that she likes to hang on to a single chord. This she often does for so long that when the chord change finally comes you are so grateful for the harmonic shift that it sounds just heavenly, like reaching an oasis after a 25 mile crawl across sun baked sands. But you can pull this trick once too often.

In fact, the album starts very well indeed with probably the best cut, ‘Uummannaq Song’ which sports a gorgeous chorus over wailing primal backing vocals. Next up ‘Glamour Puss’ is almost as good, but after that the focus falls away a bit and by the end of the album my attention has wandered a little. This seems to sum up KT Tunstall for me – one or two really good songs surrounded by OK but not outstanding album mates. Perhaps in future, I should get to listen to her albums and cherry pick the best?  I'm not so sure as already this album is growing on me.  Perhaps it just needs a bit more time?  We'll see.

Here's KT on Jools Holland - see what you think.  And check out the fab guitarist - it's Charlotte Hatherley...AGAIN  (ex-Ash, Client, Bat for Lashes, sometime solo artist and now with KT Tunstall.  Blimey, she gets around.)

Friday, 19 November 2010

The Return of Duffy

There’s nothing like opening your mouth to prove you’re a liar. As soon as I suggest that, let’s say, Duffy has vanished off the face of the earth, never to be seen again, then, blow me down, there she is, large as life on ‘Later with Jools Holland’, warbling a few new songs from her forthcoming album, ‘Endlessly’. In fact in the same show was The Ting Tings, also back after a period of nothingness, with their new single, ‘Hands’. You just can’t win.

But when you start thinking about it, this business of when and how to release product onto the market, is one steeped in difficulty. It seems to me that as an artist with a long term career, you are in constant danger of falling into one of two Deep Dark Wells.

Deep Dark Well One is labelled, ‘Not you again, can’t you just leave me alone? I’ve only just got used to your last album and can’t really find the cash just now’. Normally, I like to savour an album for a bit, especially if it is particularly good, and get to know every nuance and inflection. This generally takes a bit of time and the last thing you want is to find that yet another album is on the shelves begging for your attention. Record companies are particularly bad at pushing artists into seizing the moment and releasing a load of half-baked songs onto a public that are lapping up the current stuff. I know that the Beach Boys used to release about 4 LPs a year but frankly, I couldn’t cope with this.

Deep Dark Well Two is labelled, ‘Who? Where the hell have you been for the last 5/10/15 years? Sorry but I’ve moved on and have a huge roster of new artists to devote my limited time to’. This is always a bit sad, but go away and hide for long periods and you really can’t expect your public to be waiting around like a stood-up date for very long. Life’s too short and there is always another band to come along and fill your shoes. Unless you are a mega-star you really cannot get away with not producing anything for decades, can you Kate?

So what’s the solution? With the benefit of 40-odd years of buying and following bands, my considered opinion is that an album every eighteen months to two years is about the right balance and if an artist could see their way clear to releasing a new song, say as a download or EP in the middle of the fallow period just to say, ‘I’m still here’, that would be grand. This approach has several benefits. First, it allows the artist to write and refine some decent material rather than filling up with rejects from the previous effort and second, it gives the buyer a bit of a breather.

On this basis and assuming that new albums from Duffy and The Ting Tings will not be available until late 2010 or early 2011, they might just have left it a shade too long, methinks.

Friday, 12 November 2010

TV Themes

Like all media, music has had to move with the times. Much of what we now consider ‘classical’ music was often commercially motivated or was written for specific audiences – mainly the church and those that fancied a bit of a dance at their next Grand Ball (DJ Mozart, anyone?) Later those commissions came from film makers, first silent accompaniment and then soundtracks.

So with the advent of the cathode ray tube, music found itself being commissioned by programme makers either as an incidental background, or more specifically as an opening theme. TV theme tunes, despite being short and sweet (barely 2 minutes to cover the credits) have since taken on a life of their own and many are remembered with nostalgic affection. To create a brief, yet memorable theme that actually reflects the content of the ensuing programme is no mean feat, so as a tribute to the many composers of TV themes, here are my personal ‘six of the best’ choices.

Hawaii Five-O (Morton Stevens) – arguably the best TV theme ever. It brims over with a joie de vivre that is hard to ignore. Like all of the best TV themes it has since de-coupled itself from Hawaii Five-O, the TV programme, and is generally known as a great tune in its own right yet it still retains that alluring vision of sun and sea. ‘Book him, Danno!’

Mission: Impossible (Lalo Schifrin) – another massive theme tune and probably the only one written in the singularly lumpy rhythm of 5/4. Again, this theme now has a life of its own and is synonymous with derring-do in all its forms. It has become a staple for all programme makers who deploy it in the sort of situations that require a bit of tension and excitement.

The World at War (Carl Davis) – This strangely asymmetrical, yet grimly compelling melody, together with the stark images it overlays, lands an almighty emotional punch. I defy anyone not to be moved by its poignant grandeur, especially that gut-wrenching final chord. Interestingly, this theme has not broken free. If ever there was a permanent link between programme and theme, this is it. Quite haunting.

Dr Who (Ron Grainer arr. Delia Derbyshire) – who would’ve thought that this theme, cobbled together from taped samples of signal generators and home-made sound-effects would turn out to be probably the best known piece of electronic music? A masterpiece of arrangement by Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic workshop. And made in 1963 without a box of digital tech in sight!

The Virginian (Percy Faith) – A waltz has never quite had as much momentum as this western theme by the late Percy Faith. You can’t help but be swept along by its galloping beat and visions of the great windswept western frontier. Knocks other contenders like ‘Bonanza’ into a ten-gallon hat.

YouTube won't let me embed it here so click here to hear.

Jeeves and Wooster (Anne Dudley) – A fabulous pastiche of 1920s jazz/swing by pop keyboardist Anne Dudley (Art of Noise). To replicate the style of the roaring twenties is one thing but to make it sound as recklessly foolish yet endearingly familiar as the Wodehouse novels themselves is a real achievement. Try not humming this for days after hearing it.  Again, YouTube won't let me embed the moving picture version so this static one will have to do.  After all, it's all about the music!

I haven’t even scratched the surface here. Morse, The Sweeney, Batman, The Avengers, The X files…the list goes on and on. Which goes to show how we have taken these small, yet perfectly formed tunes to our hearts.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Worst of Times

Sometimes, when I’m sitting here thinking about what the hell am I going to write next, if I am very lucky, someone comes along and gives me an idea. And in this instance it is just as well that they did or my next post would’ve been a blank screen - very artistic, I’m sure, but not really in the true spirit of a blog. So I am deeply indebted to Luminous Muse whose post ‘Guilty Pleasures: 70s Songs I Hate to Love’ has set in train a series of thoughts about pants music generally rather than specifically.

I’ve already covered my Guilty Pleasures in a series of posts some time back, so I thought rather than wheel out my list of Hate-to-Love songs yet again, I’d nominate my contender for the worst period in rock’s history and spookily it, too, comes from the 1970s – the decade that fashion forgot. My nomination for ‘Worst Period of Rock…Ever’ is the five year period 1973 – 1978.

The reasons why can be summed up in three words: Glam, Disco and Smart-Arses. It should be remembered that up to about 1973 everything had been going swimmingly from the Rock ‘n’ Roll explosion of the 1950s through the 1960s Beat Boom to Psychedelia and the beginnings of Progressive.

But by 1974 it had all gone wrong. Glam had ousted my beloved Prog and got it firmly on the run. Of course, Prog really only had itself to blame as it had disintegrated into self-indulgent noodling and we were drowning in pixies, but if only it knew what it was letting in... Whilst Glam had its upside, just, in Bowie and Roxy, the remainder was just the worst 1950s pastiche claptrap imaginable. Mud, Rubettes, Showaddywaddy, Sweet, Wizzard (Roy Wood what WERE you thinking?) were all as guilty as hell. Aged 18, music to me was a serious business and this lot were just taking the p…

Disco was almost as bad (with the possible exception of Chic). By the mid 1970s the likes of KC and the Sunshine Band, Sylvester, Heatwave, Donna Summer and Odyssey, were gearing up to batter our ears with stuff that only clubbers understood but the worst offender in this category was the person who invented the 12-inch single. If I ever get my hands on them…well, don’t worry, I’ll think of something. If Disco wasn’t bad enough over 3 minutes it was indescribably tedious over 10 long minutes of melody-free monotonous rhythm.

So for people like me, there was only one area left and unfortunately it was inhabited by the Smart-Arses as represented by the unholy trinity of Steely Dan, Supertramp and 10CC. I will put my hand up and admit to liking the first three 10CC albums but I never really took to either Supertramp or Steely Dan who were just far too clever by half. Thank God for Abba!

Never has one music lover been so relieved than when the Punk revolution swept away all this dross and replaced it with badly played, raucous yet passionate short sharp songs. Luckily this racket didn’t outstay its welcome but its lasting legacy was to open the door to a whole New Wave of artists from Blondie to XTC and by the end of the 1970s music was back on track. Phew!