Client is dead; long live Northern Kind!

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Take a large helping of electronica, add more than a hint of retro, a dash of attitude, and then bestow on the combination a northern accent. The result might have been Client, Sarah Blackwood’s project for the last 5 years—were it not for the fact that Client have proved themselves an increasingly boring and inept outfit, their last two albums (particularly this year’s Command) stultifyingly bad and a major disappointment to those who, like myself, feel that Blackwood still has one of the finest voices in pop. Nay, nay and thrice nay, the result now has to be Northern Kind, a duo who’ve been active for a couple of years, and whose second album, WIRED:, was released last month.

But let’s rewind to their first album, 53°N, which dates from 2007. It’s an extremely impressive debut, both capturing perfectly the synthpop sound of the early 1980s (think Erasure) as well as sounding thoroughly modern; it’s not simply an exercise in nostalgia. Having mentioned Blackwood already, i should point out that Northern Kind’s singer, Sarah Heeley, has a voice of similar range but different demeanour; while Blackwood is like a female Ralf Hütter (that’s a compliment), Heeley has a gentle vibrato that nicely shades her singing, and prevents her sounding aloof. The first few tracks of 53°N get the ball rolling, but it’s not until track four, “Millionaire”, that the album really takes off, the musical scope and horizons seeming to expand instantly. The tempo isn’t that fast, but an incessant, gymnastic bassline pushes the song along relentlessly, supplemented with assorted synth melodies, electronic drums all over the place (think Pigeon Street), and some really great singing from Heeley. “Thoughts of You” at first sounds remarkably close to early Client (that’s also a compliment), although far more melodic, and the chorus is nothing like them, poignant and softly melancholic (Client, like so many, mistake cynicism for melancholy). These two are the standout tracks; of the rest, “Home” is a great song, bringing to mind mid-’80s Pet Shop Boys (think Actually), Heeley even sounding rather like Neil Tennant. Also notable is “Sometimes”, a hard-hitting song, with abrasive sawtooths cutting the air in and around the lyrics; “Loser”, after it, is similar but more up-tempo and lyrically aggressive. It’s a splendid first album, effectively presenting Northern Kind’s credentials—and at this point one must mention the duo’s synth-smith, Matt Culpin, who’s clearly responsible in no small point for their distinctive sound. Read more

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Choral Evensong – Eve of Ascension Day (Lincoln Cathedral): music by Patrick Gowers and Messiaen

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Tonight is the eve of the feast of Ascension Day, so today’s broadcast of Choral Evensong explored this theme, coming from Lincoln Cathedral.

The anthem was Patrick GowersViri Galilaei, and regular readers of this blog will know of my love for this piece, having written about it on a number of occasions. It’s a superlative work, beginning shrouded in mystery and obscurity (and listen out for what sounds like the use of a highly appropriate zimbelstern stop tinkling away above the voices); at the first, rather soft, mention of the word “Alleluia”, the whole tone of the anthem shifts, quickly building up to a coruscating series of loud Alleluias from the whole choir. A toccata paves the way for the work’s climax, a vast but brisk chorale punctuated at each cadence with further Alleluias—it’s difficult to listen without tears forming, joy is etched into every note of this piece. The choir performs this challenging piece superbly, clearly enjoying themselves, as well they should; it’s pleasing to see that Gowers’ anthem has finally supplanted (or, at least, provided an alternative to) Finzi’s over-performed God is gone up. Read more

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When worlds collide: the dazzling, bi-polar explorations of Hecq’s Steeltongued

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It’s perhaps not too fanciful to say that music today has two ‘poles’: one characterised by the presence of beats (in whatever form), the other by their absence. Occupying each end of an impossibly wide continuum, these poles have both had their creative bars set extremely high, from the intricate, rhythmically irregular convulsions of Ryoji Ikeda and Autechre to the lush, elliptical driftscapes of Aphex Twin and Biosphere. Aesthetically, there would appear to be a infinitude of differences between the two—they could even, in fact, be called opposites—and it’s no doubt a symptom of this that most artists are emphatically one or the other; i did, after all, describe them as ‘poles’, and indeed the decision of whether or not an emphasised pulse is to be a feature of an album is arguably one of the most fundamental, even defining decisions for any musician. It’s not surprising, therefore, that examples of artists combining these contrary poles in their work are rare. Alva Noto’s collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto (particularly Insen) bring skittering glitched beats into a softly drifting context; Aphex Twin’s career has visited both poles, although never within a single album; and most recently, Autechre’s Quaristice project saw them to some extent attempting to forge a synthesis of the two. The attempt to combine pulsed and unpulsed musics would seem to be akin to pouring oil into water; the two can sit happily together, but never actually blend. Often, the result becomes a kind of aural illusion, the listener able to focus on one element or the other, but never both at once, suggesting some kind of fundamental incongruity. That is, until now.

For six years, and as many albums, sound artist Ben Lukas Boysen, better known as Hecq, has focussed on beats, creating in my view some of the very best beat-oriented music ever made (if anyone does, Hecq puts the ‘I’ in IDM)—A Dried Youth must rank as one of the most assured, successful debut albums by any artist. But from his second album (2004’s Scatterheart) onward, on tracks such as “Madison I” and “Midnight Generator”, he began significantly to deviate away from the glitching pulses into more amorphous territory, digitally stained ambient miniatures that do not simply sit cheek by jowl with the beats, but surround, penetrate and interconnect them, bonding the album together like electronic glue. Subsequent albums Bad Karma and 0000 continued to drop hints at Hecq’s ambient interest, hints that were abruptly writ large in last year’s Night Falls. Unexpectedly—and quite courageously—the album is almost entirely absent of beats, occupied by generously-sized quasi-watercolours, their canvases daubed in nocturnal ambient hues, at times (“Nightfalls”, “Red Sky”) touching on orchestral and choral textures. Sonically dark it may be, but laden with a profound and joyous light, the album was a clear statement of intent from Hecq, an assertion of the importance and value of beat-absent music in his output; and above all, it posed the tantalising question: what next? Read more

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Mix Tape #11 : Joy

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A very belated Happy Easter to you all! Following a hectic Easter weekend, and a few days spent in Cambridge, here’s a new mix tape for Eastertide, the theme being joy.

To start, a wonderful jazz-folk fusion number from Yellowjackets; Greenhouse is an album i’ve loved for years, and “Freda” is one of its most exciting tracks. It’s followed by the last movement from one of Michael Tippett‘s earliest mature compositions; strident and full of momentum, it briefly allows a moment or two of wistful reflection before culminating in an elated dance. Freezepop‘s latest album remains their one consistent release, and “Ninja of Love” is one of its most infectious songs. Continuing the pace like a runaway train is the opening track from Squarepusher‘s brilliant 2006 album Hello Everything, “Hello Meow”, filled with retro synths and riffs. Each album by Deerhoof has its share of instrumentals, and “Rainbow Silhouette Of The Milky Rain” bludgeons its experimental way along in rip-roaring fashion. The mix now enters a gentler mode, beginning with Imogen Heap‘s ravishing track “Just For Now”, all glorious (if realistic) optimism. And then Björk, who has surely composed some of the most unreservedly happy songs ever; “All Is Full Of Love” is here given extra treatment in the form of beats and strings, becoming if anything, more ecstatic than the original version. The “Communion” from Tournemire‘s Easter music shows him at his mystical best, placing the plainsong themes into complex, shimmering chords that hover and float in rapture. Julee Cruise, bless her, only knows extremes: her music is either abjectly mournful (“The Dying Swan”) or caught up in ecstasy, as she is here, in one of her most well-known songs. Read more

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Office of Tenebræ (Westminster Cathedral)

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This afternoon’s broadcast of what is usually Choral Evensong, was fittingly transformed for Holy Week into the service of Tenebræ, from Westminster Cathedral. Tenebræ is something of a curiosity, the legacy of a rather odd Holy Week practice of transferring the usual morning offices of Matins and Lauds to the evening before; the practice only continues today, if at all, on Wednesday, thus preserving the unique liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Having experienced a service of Tenebræ myself (it was included in Tewkesbury’s Musica Deo Sacra festival a couple of years back), i can testify to its beauty, and also to its symbolic power in this most black week of the year—especially the ceremonial snuffing out of candles. It’s an extremely long service; indeed, a quick glance in my copy of the Liber Usualis reveals that the combined offices contain no fewer than 16 antiphons, 13 psalms, nine lessons, nine responsories and two canticles. Clearly, this is far too long for an hour-long broadcast (typically, it would take around three hours), so today’s service was a kind of “Diet Tenebræ”, drastically slimmed down, using a selection from the complete liturgy. Read more

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Hoping against hope: the soft, exquisite sorrow of Daisy Chapman

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What is it, i’ve often wondered, that makes melancholy such rich, fertile inspiration for art? Perhaps because in its impossibly deep, dark furrows—in the troughs of our experience—there simply is nothing else an artist can do, but (in whatever guise) sing. Art, after all, captures what words alone cannot; it goes beyond them and taps into something more honest, that must be expressed; E. E. Cummings alludes to this idea in one his poems, powerfully distancing it from mere speech: “wild (at our first) beasts uttered human words | —our second coming made stones sing like birds—”. Yet there is also, i would venture, something essentially optimistic, something hopeful in the very act of turning such black honesty into art: the fact that an artist sings, rather than—like most—simply curling up or lashing out, betrays more at the heart of it all; Cummings again, in the final two lines from his finest poem, says it best: “where everything’s nothing | —arise, my soul;and sing”. And from just such a place, doing just that is Daisy Chapman. Read more

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Frail, impassioned and allusive: Polly Scattergood

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Of late, i’ve been revelling in new releases from a number of British female singers, all of whom deserve much wider appreciation. First up is the superbly-named Polly Scattergood, whose self-titled debut album was released early last month. Scattergood—her real name—is an alumnus of the BRIT School, an inconsistent institution that has churned out numerous successful musicians, from the talented (Imogen Heap) to the banal (Katie Melua/Adele) to the disturbingly talentless (Amy Winehouse). Thankfully, Scattergood is very much at the Imogen Heap end of the spectrum, her songs often very unconventional, her voice capable of both aching fragility and disconcerting caprice.

Despite being a debut, the naïveté suggested by Polly Scattergood’s voice isn’t particularly noticeable throughout the album’s 10 tracks; it’s a confident, assured debut. On the other hand, lack of experience has its own kind of freedom, and this is perhaps best demonstrated on the surprisingly lengthy opener, “I Hate The Way”. Beginning with great delicacy, Scattergood’s voice extremely close-miced, it treads a path that worryingly suggests a ghastly emo track is to ensue: “I hate the way I bleed each time you kiss me”. Yet what follows is nothing of the kind, an increasingly fraught and insistent elegy, one that follows a nicely unconventional structure; at the middle 8, the song opens out into beatless gurgles beneath an angelic countermelody, while the coda abruptly descends into a surly, obsessive and deeply insecure monologue about wanting to gain the beloved’s attention away from “all those other girls”. It’s an impressive, deeply honest track, and also something of a statement of intent: baring the soul in an unconventional manner is to be expected. Read more

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