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Review 9: Murmurations


Nominated by Martin Carroll

Another debut album, that’s the third this month. I don’t think I need to worry about being careful with R.E.M’s feelings though – this was where 85 million album sales began.

R.E.M take me back a bit further than Hunky Dory. My friend this time, at 6th form college, was considerably more fierce. She always wore the same jumper, albeit an expensive, designer jumper, and R.E.M were on her revisionist ‘must listen’ list of bands, along with Husker Du and Sonic Youth. She was so disappointed when the Georgia band hit the mainstream with Green.

Happily for this review, I’ve no memories of enforced appreciation of Murmur, and come to it fresh. And happily for me, I loved it.

It’s a great listen, with a range of interesting and mature songs. I need to accept that I can’t understand what Michael Stipe is singing. There’s the odd word that leaps out clearly – often the track’s title – Radio Free Europe… Catapult… ‘Standing too soon, shoulders high in the room’ … which I was really pleased I worked out (and what an awkward image that creates).

If you read the lyrics, they make wonderful clever sense, but I wonder how many times I’d need to listen to hear them.

But that really doesn’t matter – its a great soundscape, you get the feeling of the song and can just sing along, maybe with the wrong words. Has every R.E.M fan got a different version of each song? ‘But I thought it said…?’ It could come to blows.

But, debut or not, there’s no damning with faint praise for Murmur. An auspicious beginning for a great band.

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Review 8: Acoustic versions inspire devotion


Jessie Ware
Nominated by Kirsty Asquith

The Gold Edition of Jessie Ware’s debut album reveals her talent more than the standard one. The ‘live from London’ acoustic versions of songs including Devotion, Wildest Moments and Running are a real bonus.

They sound different, almost beyond recognition in places, and prove Ware can sing, very nicely indeed. She’s been likened to Adele (a friend) and Sade, and I think there’s a bit of Lisa Stansfield in there too.

And listening to the stripped-back tracks made me appreciate the produced versions better. Soul inspired music for the end of the night.

One doubt I can’t shake off – the lyrics seemed a bit simple and clunky in places.

‘You’ll be my night light, there when I go to sleep’.

Ping! A child’s bedroom appears in my mind’s eye, softly lit maybe, but I couldn’t make it go away. The ‘shadow man’ she sings about pops to the kitchen for some warm milk, resigned to reading another bed-time story.

Perhaps I was listening too closely for this review. Just let Jessie Ware wash over  you, and it gets better and better.

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Review 7: Living on solid air


Solid Air
John Martyn
Nominated by Clive Featherstone

You shouldn’t listen to Solid Air while you’re doing the ironing. It demands your full attention, and it definitely improves after a glass of wine.

This folk-jazz album is one of the most critically acclaimed British records of the early 1970s and the guitar playing is fantastic, but I struggled to really enjoy it as a whole, even after the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Can I say it was good, but that I didn’t really like it?

Let’s be clear – it’s not him, it’s me. He’s an electrifying guitarist and singer, who blurred the boundaries between folk, jazz, rock and blues. The recorder was the peak of my musical accomplishment. What do I know?

I wanted to shout ‘stop mumbling!’.  I got annoyed when a well-formed song dissolved into a dubby free-form … something. I almost really enjoyed a lot of it – much of the music was brilliant – but the vocals kept tripping me up. Where are you going? Come back, that was good!

I always like to know where the exits are, and I guess I like to know where songs are going too. This album needs more time, and probably more red wine, to reveal its form and fire escapes to me. I’d recommend you try it.

As an aside, the album cover is an example of schlieren photography, which demonstrates the ‘solid’ nature of air. I think I can grasp that.

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Review 6: I’m not the only one


In the Lonely Hour
Sam Smith
Nominated by Aoife Nowell

Sam Smith has endured more than a lonely hour, judging by his debut album. It’s been a lonely eternity for him, very bitter-sweet and simply beautiful in places.

Always wanting and waiting, confused and defeated, but keeping on. I can see why he’s got lots of teenaged fans. The lyrics are grasping for a romantic paradise that’s always out of reach.

But this isn’t packaged angst pop. Smith is a good songwriter who’s testing his amazing soul voice.

Money on my Mind, Stay with Me, Like I Can and La La La  (I’m covering  my ears like a kid) are big, passionate songs.

Some tracks take me back to the 80s, when I was a teenager into pop. Slap bass and sophisticated funk soul was music for ‘older’ people then, so it automatically sounds ‘older’ now. How can I de-programme myself and hear those sounds for the first time?

I prefer it when voices like Smith’s keep it simple, steering clear of ‘over-souling’ which squeezes lots of notes into each syllable.

Which brings me to my favourite song on this favourite album, I’m not the Only One, which is simply perfect. Piano, a persistent back-beat tying it together, and brilliant lyrics.

You say I’m crazy, 
’cause you don’t think I know what you’ve done
But, when you call me baby, 
I know that I’m not the only one.

Sam’s lonely but his songs are truthful and it’s worth keeping him company.

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Review 5: Everything’s hunky dory


Hunky Dory
David Bowie
Nominated by Neil Hallows

David Bowie’s Life on Mars? has become bound to time travel, thanks to the synonymous TV series.

And the album it came from, Hunky Dory, has thrown me back nearly 25 years too.

I didn’t think that I knew Queen Bitch and The Bewlay Brothers, tracks on the more challenging B-side. But I did. They took me back to my first weeks at university and my then new friend, the wonderful Eleanor Parker. She’d been in a play about Myra Hindley in her A-level drama course, and she loved David Bowie (He was new to me, apart from the scary Ashes to Ashes video of 1980. ‘We all know Major Tom’s a junkie…’ gulp, I didn’t).

The Queen Bitch is ‘In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat’. It’s the ‘bipperty-bopperty hat’ that I can see and hear Eleanor singing. So full of energy – you’d all love her. We’ve lost touch, so big hugs to you Ms Parker if you happen to Google your name and find this.

That’s the power of music. Two bars and you can be zipped back to a time, place or person, whether you like it or not.

But back to Bowie. This album is packed with big songs, Life on Mars?, Changes and Oh! You Pretty Things… are ‘best of’ must-haves. The chorus to Pretty Things is so catchy, it’s one of my very favourite little bits of music.

Do these seem better songs than the rest of the album because they are so familiar, or because they are actually quite amazing, compared with anything? Discuss…

There’s no duff tracks on Hunky Dory, Bowie’s fourth album, though and for me lots of pop references. Song for Bob Dylan is funny – a homage, or a parody? He certainly mimics the singing style. Is there a bit of the Kinks in Kooks? (‘Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads ‘Cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s Dads’.  Lovely). And some Velvet Underground in Andy Warhol?

It’s funny to think that I didn’t quite exist when this record was released in the summer of 1971. It doesn’t seem old enough. I guess time travel keeps you young.

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Review 4: I’ve been Tango’d!


La Historia del Tango (Disc 1)
Astor Piazzolla

Nominated by Juan Ganduglia

Astor Piazzolla is so big in Argentina there’s an airport named after him. He revolutionised tango in the 1950s, bringing in new instruments and musical structures, to create Tango Nuevo.

(Last Tango in Paris? Tango and Cash? I don’t know anything about tango and I’m a little adrift without lyrics to write about, but I’ll give it my best shot.)

On Strictly Come Dancing, the Argentine Tango is all about sexual frustration and fierce expressions. There are many more emotions and feelings here – joy, sadness, hope and excitement – and the pace is less, hmm, melodramatic?

This music is jazzy and free-form, without being free-form jazz. It could be a film soundtrack, a backdrop for scenes of love, escape and danger.

To pick a few tracks:
Caliente is lively and cheery, getting faster and faster, like a merry-go-round, which then slows to a halt.

Resurection del Angel is a mournful mood that gradually picks up and decides the day isn’t so bad after all.

And Adios Nonino starts as the jazziest of the lot, before melting into a lovely romantic ripple of piano and violins.

I’ve been well and truly tango’d!

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Review 3: No-one’s perfect


Graffiti on the Bridge
The Stereophonics
Nominated by Christine Fielden 

I’ll start at the end with this album. The final track, No-One’s Perfect, opens with:

If I could, you know I would
I’d give up and be free.

This sparse song was written with the music, rather than the lyrics, at the forefront apparently. It’s funny how songs can do that, how words that are an afterthought can inadvertently say something ‘just right’, in this case about people’s struggles with their demons.

If that sounds a bit downbeat,  then buck up, the rest of the album isn’t. Album number eight from the Stereophonics has its serious moment but it rocks.

The opener, We Share the Same Sun, is a gutsy winner, and Violins and Tambourines is like Graeme in the MoneySupermarket ad – truly epic. The five-minute running time seems to stretch and soar to the proportions of a Bond theme, in a good way.

It all compelled me to sing along, loudly and with feeling, straightaway.

I’ve never been won over by lead singer Kelly Jones’ distinctive voice – I’ve enjoyed the singles, but I’ve held back from really ‘liking’ the band. There’s lots in this record to change my mind.

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Review 2: Bad girls do it well


Nominated by Tom Bishop 

‘Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well … live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.’

It’s the infectious and slightly scary hook from the brilliant Bad Girls, on Mantangi, the fourth album by British-Tamil rapper-songwriter-artist-director Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam.

Her voice is strangely cute, and she sounds a bit ‘London’, like a much more talented version of Lily Allen, with fangs. She’s much more successful than I realised (ok, I’d never heard of her – she’s facing a million-dollar lawsuit from the NFL for making a gesture in the half-time performance at the 2012 Super Bowl. Who knew? ) and probably among younger and hipper souls than me.

This is a great album, with its jumble of rap, world music, distortions, and very broken down middle eights. It’s energising and very, very danceable.

And don’t underestimate the power. M.I.A is sexy (Watch out! Parental Advisory Lyrics!) without being submissive. She’s in charge.

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Review 1: One more cup of coffee for the road


Bob Dylan
Nominated by David Angell

My first contact with Bob Dylan was when I scratched my Dad’s copy of Blood on the Tracks. It was 1975, I was four. How did I know I’d ruined a masterpiece?

I’ve listened to bits of Bob since but today was my first encounter with Desire, his 17th album, from the following year. The biggest song? Hurricane – which I did recognise – a powering protest song about the wrongful imprisonment of boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter that made me angry, as it should.

But it’s also a good example of what is great about this album, which is the instruments and the orchestration. Forget The Times They are a Changin’ acoustics, this is bouzouki, accordion, mandolin, violin, congas, piano, all layered tracks and crescendos.

And the beautiful women singers Emmylou Harris and Ronee Blakley do much more than accompany, especially Emmylou on my favourite track, One More Cup of Coffee.

There’s a flavour of Mexico too, with Spanish guitar alongside the harmonica. He’s gone a bit cowboy. Dylan’s having fun. He’s sharing, and the collaborations pay off.

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Music was my first love …

Music was my first love, and it will be my last.
Music of the future, and music of the past.

To live without my music, would be impossible to do.
In this world of troubles, my music pulls me through…

STOP! Fine principles but that’s not me, it never was.

I’ve been a careless, vicarious music fan, latching on to the likes and loves of best friends and boyfriends (and the music died with the relationships).

I enjoy it music. I find it moving, exciting, fun. It is good for you, without a doubt. And I love singing along – damn, I’m good at that. But left to my own devices, I can just forget to listen to it.

It’s got a bit worse since my MS diagnosis. Maybe I’m thinking ‘I can’t be seen to be enjoying something, not now. Got to keep the chronic-illness-victim facade intact. Must be serious’. How puritanical. How noble. How utterly wrong.

Or sometimes I don’t want to listen to something that might make me cry. There’s been a lot of emotions swilling around and they’ve been liable to spill out on the slightest chord change.  And I need to keep distractions to a minimum if I’m feeling cognitively challenged and music can feel like uncomfortable noise.

But that’s changing in September. Music’s coming back, with a vengeance, because #Ichallengems by listening to a different album every day of the month, and reviewing it.

I’m inviting colleagues, and anyone else who knows me, to suggest their favourite album. If I’m not already a fan, I’ll give it a go and publish my efforts here.

The final word goes to Vanilla Ice… ‘All right stop, collaborate and listen…’

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