FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: A CHRISTMAS COMMERCIAL
It’s that time of year again. The Christmas TV ad is back in abundance offering nice warm feelings in exchange for shifting stock. Whether you blank that biggish screen in your living room or not, there is no escape as you’ll find them online and across social media too. Though one who considers viewing metrics to be as accurate as the contents of a Donald Trump tweet, I was still staggered by the number of YouTube views already garnered by the big retail players for their Christmas Oscar nominations. People do seek out and watch them then! Take Coca Cola for example; its 2020 2:30 long epic comes with Hollywood production values and foreign language versions, but thankfully the big lit-up truck is still there at the denouement. We do love the truck.
Then there are the songs. Checking the new M&S Christmas Food ad it seems that Olivia Colman has reigned over the mixing desk as Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” soundtrack is scarcely audible beneath her scrumptious voice-over. Anyhow, shouldn’t she be out there selling us mustard? M&S Clothing meanwhile has retained House of Pain’s “Jump Around” to accompany its 30 sec Pyjamas sequel to last year’s Jumpers ad. Perhaps the working-from-home wear it promotes is this year’s new little black dress. McDonald’s has got into the act by reviving the four-chord pop tradition with Becky Hill’s cover of Alphaville’s 1984 hit, “Forever Young”. This will probably sell by the pallet-load but the former semi-finalist on The Voice UK has a far better record out in “Space”; a pop song in a classic mould, impeccably sung and specially arranged acoustically here.
Finally, as I struggle to find a tenuous way to link all this to this week’s remaining song selection, I should mention John Lewis, the arbiter of all Christmas ads past and present. This year’s animated effort is sugared by its soundtrack of the brilliant Celeste singing her own original song, “A Little Love”. While its sentimentality is somewhat removed from the fine balladry we have heard from her to date, it should give Celeste a whole new audience as she readies the release of her debut album next year. You’re probably humming along already but, if not, you’ll find it HERE.
So, on to a different kind of commercial. In the spirit of giving at Christmas, I present you, not with gold rings, but five songs from acts who may not make an advertising exec’s shortlist for Christmas 2021. But don’t let that worry you; they are all more than worthy of your attention right now. Each could also do with more than a little love and seasonal sales too. South-London based artiste and producer Laura Groves, originally hails from West Yorkshire. Despite her now chiefly urban inspirations, there is something of the airy expense of the moors and Pennine Hill country that seems to inform her music too. Recently signed to Bella Union, Groves has a new EP, A Private Road, due for release on 4 December and has recently shared the lead song, “Infinite Wisdom”.
The accompanying video is a collaboration between Laura Groves’ home video footage shot during lockdown and visual artist Sophie le Roux who edited it and added animation. It was a case of necessity being the mother of invention, to quote that old proverb, yet in another sense a reflection of the self-produced nature of the record and celebration of the collaborative process, however distanced. The song itself drifts along a dream wave of softly, textured synthesised sounds and organic instrumentation bonded by Groves’ caressing tones as she moves fluently through the vocal register.
Danish-born, Glasgow based artist songstress, Hannah Fredsgaard-Jones, has adopted the curiously affecting moniker of Asthmatic Harp. On her recently released EP, Things We Learned to Live With, she brings an eclectic and nuanced approach to the crowded arena of neo-folk. The five songs on the EP each take on a personality of their own. “Limbo” is based on a poem by Manchester queer writer and performer Roma Havers whom she first met when they both performed at a Spoken Word event in the basement of a Nottingham pub. Inspired by ‘the emotion and rhythm of Roma’s poem’, Fredsgaard-Jones quickly set it to music.
One of the joys of this captivating song is the interaction between the vocal melody and the clarinet that counterpoints so playfully. As the singer commented, “To my mind ‘Limbo’ balances on a knife edge between ‘I need you’ and ‘I don’t need you’. I wanted the music to reflect that bittersweet feeling and capture the dizzying limbo between comfort and pain in a break-up between lovers”. Fredsgaard-Jones finds inspiration for songs in unexpected happenings during all kinds of everyday situations. It’s something that gives grounding to her songwriting while her imagination simply flies.
Another artiste who employs interplay, this time between looped vocal lines, is York-based songwriter and guitarist, Nicolas Lewis. Originally from Stockport and a graduate from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Lewis draws on a rich musical heritage, ranging from theatre to Brazilian choro music. He put out his first solo EP, Hide and Seek Mode, back in April and is working on a follow-up before the end of the year. His song, “Orbit You” is a bit of a stand-alone thing: “It didn’t seem to fit with the other projects I’m doing, but I really like the feel of it so I put it out on its own!” he explained.
The single note sung verses work really well alongside the complex interchanges in the chorus to create a mesmeric effect. The song is built in layers from a simple fingerpicked riff and graced with subtle instrumental effects. Lewis says he creates a backing track first and puts it on his phone and listens to it for a few days. “The lyrics always seem to just come naturally if I do that” Lewis added. “With ‘Orbit You’, I think the lyrics came partly from a book of Norse folk tales I was reading around the same time as writing the music. I wasn’t conscious of this but I think the imagery and ambience of the stories mixed up with my own day-to-day life and these are the lyrics that came out.”
Toronto songwriter Tamara Lindeman who trades as The Weather Station has announced her new album, Ignorance, due on 5 February. Alongside she has unveiled a new single, “Tried To Tell You”, accompanied by a fascinating video that takes the home office into the great outdoors and portrays a sad reflection on the inner self. The simple, straight rhythm of the song supports its more lavish string sections while Lindeman’s particular vocal is equally adept at delivering smoky low swoops as bright high flourishes. The narrative is as much about climate change as turning away from love as she evokes a sense of natural world denial and indifference.
“Tried To Tell You” is about “reaching out to someone; a specific person, or maybe every person, who is tamping down their wildest and most passionate self in service of some self (and world?) destructive order,” explains Lindeman. She directed the video which was shot behind the house where she grew up, underpinning the artiste’s own bond with nature she finds lacking in others. The awkward-looking mirror suit she wears in the video might not be quite the kit for country living yet it’s an interesting device that reflects the real landscape but also the artificiality we dangerously settle for.
From nature to the wide open sea; back in July we highlighted the striking debut album on Bella Union, Forever Blue, by A.A. Williams. I’ll leave you this week with her engrossing cover of “Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans”. Condensing the original 9-minute epic from The Smashing Pumpkins, A.A. Williams opts for a minimal combination of piano and vocal that really elevates the song’s lyrics.
It will be included on Songs From Isolation, a 9-track album of cover versions due out on 12 February. The project began at the start of the UK’s first wave lockdown in March. Taking songs suggested by fans, she created a series of videos presenting the tracks with stripped-down instrumentation, recorded and filmed from her home in North London. I am especially looking forward to her take on The Moody Blues classic, “Knights in White Satin”.