BBC – Music – Review of Various Artists

Here are some dance and song forms you’ve probably never heard of before. The Analog Africa label continues its inspirational crate-digging mission, filling up this two-CD set with a surfeit of rare African-influenced Colombian exotica, the ingredients explained and documented in a 60-page booklet.

This collection is a result of Analog Africa’s founder Samy Ben Redjeb’s extensive vinyl archaeology trip in the city of Barranquilla. The period covered might be from 1960 to 1985, but some of the cuts sound even older, bearing the sonic qualities of the 1950s.

In reality, the bulk of the selections come from the 1970s. Even though these might be noticeably archaic in nature, the set is mastered for maximum crunchy punch, its winding basslines blooding noses on the dancefloor.

Lesser-known types of Colombian music featured include Palenque, Terapia, Puya, Gaita, Mapalé and Chandé. There are even a few examples of Colombian Afrobeat. The selections are steeped in guitar fuzz (thoughtfully reined-in compared to surrounding instruments), governed by agile basslines and bursting with subtly-echoed call-and-response vocals, sometimes sonorous but mostly yelped. Güiro gourds are vigorously scraped throughout.

Most of the artists will be unfamiliar names to most listeners, but Calixto Ochoa, Sonora Dinamita and Alfredo Gutiérrez might be known to some. The concept of Colombian Afrobeat is particularly specialised, and Wganda Kenya represent the sound with a lusty pulse on El Caterete.

Calixto Ochoa y Los Papaupas fill Lumbalu with fluttery accordion, topped by crisp trumpet and snaking clarinet. Conjunto Son San contribute one of the best vocal spreads with Cumbia San Pablera.

The clarinet is centre stage again on La Veterana by Peyo Torres. The tunes by J. Alvear and Juan Piña are the best examples of quaint exotica. The first, Cumbia Cincelejana, has very pleasing vocal harmonies; the second, La Nena, features dinky electric organ and a deeply swampy sound, like an orchestra arriving from an adjacent chamber.

The quality is supreme throughout, with every track destined to fill a dancefloor with abandoned gyrations. The sounds of these 32 gems are at once hardcore and accessible, sating the needs of both pedal and mental extremities.

BBC – Music – Review of The Avett Brothers

This North Carolina band enjoyed an unexpected breakthrough after the man with the Midas touch, Rick Rubin, came on board to produce their 2009 album I and Love and You, culminating in a celebrated performance at the 2011 Grammy Awards.

The Avett Brothers took their time honing its successor, and it shows in the beautifully crafted songs in this flowing, unusually integrated record; it feels like an natural whole, rather than a collection of tracks conceived in isolation.

Rubin is again at the helm, and you imagine it’s his restraining hand that prevents their neat ballad constructions and sparing arrangements from spilling over either into anodyne country smoothness or self-consciously jagged rock.

Even when they plough in heavy with electric guitar, feedback and a fierce beat on the sinister sounding Paul Newman vs. The Demons, they retain a pleasing Buddy Holly jingle jangle. While the relentlessly jaunty banjo-driven sing-along Live and Die has such an unaffected freshness, it adroitly avoids the studied frenzy that sometimes makes their transatlantic spiritual cousins Mumford & Sons hard to love.

Full of vulnerability and understated melancholia, the band cleverly creates an illusion of simplicity that highlights the yearning lead vocals and powerful harmonies of Seth and Scott Avett. And this album’s essential character remains unshaken, even when Seth plunges strident electric guitar into Pretty Girl From Michigan.

The vigorous percussion of Lenny Castro and Benmont Tench’s assorted keyboards add further weight and variety, but there’s nothing overbearing or intrusive about any of it, even as a seemingly basic country song February Seven subtly grows into a minor epic and a welter of brass builds atmospherically behind the absurdly infectious Down With the Shine.

A telling undercurrent of sorrow underpins an album that works on several levels – not least in the involving lyrics (“The homophobic gentlemen built barricades / But their efforts couldn’t stop me” – Geraldine) amid stories of loss, wanderlust and mortality.

But ultimately it’s The Avett Brothers’ innate ability to deliver killer tunes and present them in an engaging fashion that connects them to a vintage pedigree of classic American artists, from Crosby, Stills & Nash and Neil Young onwards, that seduces you from track one.

BBC – Music – Review of Darren Hayman & The Long Parliament

In these bleak economic times the concept of eccentricity seems just about the UK’s remaining viable export. But even in its natural habitat of the music world, the eccentric’s stocks are running low.

Today, the hungry public have to subsist on the stand-alone work of previous generational underdog heroes such as Mr Childish, Mr Cope and Mr Cocker, topped up by the occasional outlandish declaration from Mr Lydon or the Manc curmudgeon they call Mr Smith. Where are the future national treasures to inspire our children?

In an era when facial hair and tweed can pass for eccentric, Darren Hayman has been ploughing his own artistic furrow for over 15 years, first with Hefner and then with increasingly more conceptual solo projects. The Violence is the closing chapter of a triptych of works in which Essex is Hayman’s muse.

Tackling new towns and the rural wilds on Pram Town and Essex Arms respectively, Hayman now completes this impressive work by chronicling the violent persecution of women instigated by notorious Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins during the civil war of the 17th century.

Impossible Times suggests a breezy folk album is to unfold; yet as The Violence progresses Hayman successfully creates a sense of tension and fear that sets him worlds apart from the gap-year faux-skiffle soundtracking TV adverts.

For Hayman, the landscape is a foreboding place policed by the corrupt and the crackpot. His evocation of it on We Are Not Evil manages to recall Ivor Cutler, the dark pastoral of early 70s ‘wyrd folk’ exponents and British Sea Power, who similarly wander away from pop’s tried and tested B roads and into the dark hills and woodlands.

It in these shadowy corners of England, where secrets remain buried alongside the skeletons of the war’s fallen, that Hayman summons the elegiac sounds of songs such A Coffin for King Charles, a Crown for Cromwell and a Pit for the People and the sparse The She-Cavaliers.

Understated and thoughtful, The Violence is a true folk record that should rightfully see Hayman recognised as the national treasure that he clearly is.

BBC – Music – Review of Bobby Brown

Bobby Brown was a textbook example of the boyband bad boy. Before Donnie Wahlberg, Robbie Williams and Brian Harvey, Brown spicily non-conformed in New Edition, the band he had co-founded when he was nine years old.

Three years after their biggest hit, 1983’s Candy Girl, Brown released his debut solo album, King of Stage. It was a solid, if unremarkable, album and although it spawned a US R&B No.1 with Girlfriend, it had no lasting success. Brown, an artist with a considerable ego, wanted more. And he certainly achieved it with his second album, Don’t Be Cruel.

With L.A. Reid and Babyface producing and Teddy Riley mixing, Don’t Be Cruel is a perfect time capsule of what new jack swing, the bright, clattering fusion of R&B and hip hop, sounded like.

With the album’s choral introduction, Brown elevated himself beyond the realms of the boyband he’d escaped from. This was producers and artist working closely together to create something for the audience who had grown up with Brown.

The title track, a big hit in its radio edit, is the lengthy seven-and-a-half minute album opener that introduces Brown as a cross between Alexander O’Neal and Prince. It takes the R&B love song and updates it perfectly.

The album then follows a path of super-soppy ballads and hard-hitting funk. The flinty, bad-tempered super hit, My Prerogative, became Brown’s signature song, topping the US charts and hitting the UK top 10.

Don’t Be Cruel often sounds like a demonstration recording for the latest technology of 1988, and it is left to the listener to wonder what the classic soul of a song like Roni might have sounded like if it had been recorded a decade or so earlier.

Show-stopping ballad Take It Slow sounds not unlike a high-period Whitney Houston tearjerker. It’s good to hear the rigidity of the drum programs stopping for a moment, which remains this album’s biggest anachronism in the 21st century.

New jack swing’s relentless, thundering beat just hasn’t aged well. But the songs on Don’t Be Cruel are great, and this was premium R&B delivered with all the swagger, sincerity and braggadocio commensurate with Brown’s notoriety.

BBC – Music – Review of One Direction

X Factor producers do love a contrived “journey” arc, don’t they? But whatever in-show narrative One Direction could’ve had, it’s post-show where things get interesting.

In less than two years, they’ve gone from the X Factor stage to the pencil cases of the nation to the Guinness World Records. So, amidst their ubiquity, second album Take Me Home almost serves as a reminder that music is their day job.

With Simon Cowell’s beady eye on the lucrative American market, the overall tone marries sun-kissed US skater-pop with British charm. Their now-familiar bouncy, boyish, lad-pop is the starting point of Take Me Home, one foot rooted in what they’re good at while they dip a toe elsewhere: slightly dancier (C’Mon, C’Mon); marginally quirkier (Heart Attack); vaguely rockier (Rock Me, obviously).

But in pursuit of the flavour of the moment/credibility/dollar signs (perhaps all three?), One Direction all but hand their identity over to Ed Sheeran wholesale on his two offerings as songwriter (Little Things and Over Again), his distinctiveness on an entirely separate plane to the rest of Take Me Home. Perhaps surprisingly, the 1D machine would chug along perfectly well without his input.

They know their fanbase, and they’re giving them what they want: every song prescribes a generous dose of the warm ‘n’ fuzzies, each lyric is precision-crafted to tell each fan that it’s intended for them and them alone. Even the song titles – Summer Love, Live While We’re Young, Last First Kiss – read like the names of Sweet Valley High novels.

But it works. Despite Take Me Home’s boardroom-defined objectives, the music itself is of a notable quality. Polished and dependable, despite its safety there are some show-stopping pop anthems present, with the instantaneous chorus of C’Mon C’Mon perhaps the best thing 1D have put their name to.

Whether they could sculpt another record from the same blueprints is unlikely, at least not without leaping feet-first into pure parody. But 1D have a strong platform from which to develop – perhaps the intention, as inevitably the “mature” third album will follow.

For now, Take Me Home takes the One Direction brand, reinforces it nicely, and as far as their fans’ needs are concerned, ticks every single box.

BBC – Music – Review of Amy Winehouse

In her tragically short career, Amy Winehouse filmed and recorded many sessions for the BBC. Enough to ensure that this release – available as a single CD and DVD set, and as a box-set comprising three DVDs and one CD – stands as an alternative Best Of, showcasing her skills as a live performer.

In case anyone was left in any doubt, the CD featuring 14 performances proves, again, that we have lost the pre-eminent vocal talent of her generation. Compiled from performances at festivals and recordings specifically for TV and radio dating from 2004 to 2009, these gems also prove that Winehouse’s voice did not decline gradually, even as addictions were taking control of her life and taking their toll on her fragile body.

The two finest tracks here date from 2009. Just Friends is performed in that late-60s rocksteady reggae style that she and her excellent band perfected. It’s followed by a stripped-down take on Love Is a Losing Game, in which Amy picks through the rubble of broken love like a child through a bombsite, but with an entirely adult sense of timing and emphasis that evinces her growing power as an interpretive vocalist.

These recordings contrast perfectly with the grandstanding, acid-jazzish performances from 2004, when she was still young and carefree enough to want to show off. By 2009, her only desire was to serve the emotional devastation of her words.

The set ends with an intimate 2006 version of To Know Him Is to Love Him, The Teddy Bears’ classic that provided one of the inspirations for the modernised girl-group soul of Back to Black. From Amy’s mouth, a teen melodrama becomes a quietly wracked testament to her masochistic relationship with love – a trait that played every bit as much of a part in her downfall as drugs or booze.

It is beautiful and bereft and hard to listen to with easy joy – as are much of the best of these essential recordings.

BBC – Music – Review of Example

“Always gonna live like it’s my last day,” vows Elliot “Example” Gleave repeatedly on Come Taste the Rainbow, the opening track of his fourth album.

And if this set is representative of said lifestyle, we must conclude that our hero will spend most of his final hours regretfully reflecting on his excessive drink and drug habits and settling scores against ex-partners. All to a banging stadium-rave-rock-grime-house-synth-techno-metal-pop sing-along soundtrack. What a way to go.

You’d imagine Gleave would be a little more upbeat considering last year’s Playing in the Shadows peaked at No.1 and spawned back-to-back chart-topping singles. But Perfect Replacement and Close Enemies are bitter ripostes to exes, while One Way Mirror makes the startling accusation, “You were frosty to me like I was Nixon”.

Yet ultimately, to misquote Shakespeare in Example’s trademark not-quite-poetic manner, you might think the lad doth protest too much. Such dark lyrical tropes have served him well in the past, and even the blokey-but-sensitive shtick of his lovably clunky, WTF rhymes are part of a well-honed musical formula.

But credit where it’s due – he provides something for everyone. Different elements to pull out for umpteen different remixes? Tick. Bits the girls can sing and the blokes can shout along to? Tick. Brooding rap section to keep it “real”? Tick.

A few beefy rock riffs? Skream and Benga-assisted grimey techno squawks? Icy synth stabs and trancey beats for the ravers? Tick, tick, tick, and presumably, boom as the crowd goes wild. All that’s missing, strangely but mercifully, is a bit of grotesque Auto-Tune. With it, he’d fill up his 2012 pop bingo card with ease.

Yet underneath it all, songs like Say Nothing, Queen of Your Dreams and the title track are curiously reminiscent not of his hip hop roots or vintage dance music, but soaring 80s soft rock, albeit spattered with a gob full of glottal stops. As such, how can it fail?

“I need to make a fresh start,” he frets on Snakeskin.  Nonsense. You’re doing just fine, and you know it.

BBC – Music – Review of Vishal-Shekhar

There was a time when the arrival of a Karan Johar film generated a ripple of excitement amongst Bollywood music fans. A new release meant a fresh soundtrack with songs guaranteed to brighten up any Indian wedding, party or family celebration.

Sadly, those days may be coming to an end if Student of the Year is anything to go by. A predictable collection of songs devoid of creative compositions, if this album were an exam, its composers, Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani, would just scrape a pass.

As the principal of the production, it’s surprising Johar didn’t ask the music duo to go back to the drawing board and come up with something more memorable. Years after release, songs from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham remain popular today; but you’d be hard pushed to find an unforgettable number here.

The Disco Song, a high energy reboot of Nazia Hassan’s Disco Deewane, is the closest one gets to A grade. It’s catchy, but mainly for the nostalgic inclusion of samples of Hassan’s unique voice. Fortunately, Benny Dayal and Sunidhi Chauhan’s vocals blend well with the late singer’s distinctive sound.

Ishq Wala Love sees the mood switch from dance to romance, with Neeti Mohan, Salim Merchant and Ravijiani lending their talents to this soft love ballad that veers dangerously close to cheesiness. Upping the tempo, Kukkad brings a Bhangra pop flavour, while Vele stands out for its Panjabi slang popular amongst India’s new carefree, affluent generation.

Radha may begin in semi-classical mode, but a few seconds in and Ghoshal’s Hinglish vocals take you by surprise, urging you to put on your disco heels but stay desi at heart. Dancing shoes will also come in handy for Mashup of the Year, a decent mix of the best bits from each song.

Billed as Bollywood’s answer to Glee, Johar’s flash college campus romance is obviously aimed at hip, young Indians, but that doesn’t stop Student of the Year sounding like a poor prom. Vishal and Shekhar would have been better off creating an evergreen soundtrack in the mould of Grease, with songs to appeal across generations. Class dismissed.

BBC – Music – Review of Trevor Moss & Hannah-Lou

We don’t do next-door very well in pop journalism. If we’re celebrating the back streets of Liverpool, it’s probably because they’re the roads that once led to Shea Stadium. Which is a strange thing, because small-scale, local and intimate music can be just as affecting as anything you’ll hear at 50,000 decibels.

Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou make a good case for a change. This is a married couple with a song about allotments and a history of playing in village halls at places like Dilton, Wiltshire (the parish councils take a bit of handling, apparently).

And actually, they have a whole other history, too, of record label showcases and support slots on high-profile tours with their 00s indie/bluegrass band Indigo Moss.

Leaving the conventional biz behind, though, they have pared their music down to a perfectly simple thing: two guitars and two voices. And what this cottage industry delivers is the kind of unpolished virtuosity that makes a tambourine sound like a technological intrusion.

Led by Hannah-Lou’s airy, plaintive soprano, the harmonies are as well drilled, syllable for syllable, as any 60s girl group. And with the strings strummed and finger-picked on restrained arrangements of sparky folk-pop melodies, it would take an icy heart not to warm just a little.

The duo’s third album is something of a holiday journal, recorded over 10 days on a four-track cassette recorder in a barn in rural France. Still, these are postcards from abroad that might get you resolving to give the Pays de la Loire a miss next year.

There’s a good dose of cloth-cap nostalgia, and plenty of pleasing visual imagery – as well as building up an archive of grassroots musicians recorded at folk club nights, the couple have ventured into some rather lovely homespun documentary filmmaking.

But there is also seriously dark reflection amongst the catchy tunes – making this a 35-minute album with soulful complications to its neighbourly spirit.