FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: AND THE WINNER IS
Confession time. Just as I tend to lap up successive TV talent shows and even the dear old Eurovision Song Contest, I also follow The BRIT Awards most years. OK, it’s usually to rail at nominee stitch-ups and the narrow vision of what constitutes success in popular music. Other than the year when Ben Howard and Laura Marling won, I can’t say I’ve been that nicely surprised by who gets the gongs either. In 2018 though, I did get to talk about The Brits on Turkish TV but after a debut marked by forgetting to mention Ed Sheeran, much of what I was going to say, and blinking rather a lot, the phone hasn’t rung again.
Keep your head inside largely unsigned music and perhaps it’s no surprise when you scarcely recognise half of the nominees. Well, maybe half is a bit strong but scanning the list reminded me that, most weeks, I have no idea who is in the UK Top 40. Tuesday night’s Brits ceremony was marked by being in front of an unmasked, negatively Covid-tested 4,000-strong audience. For a live event, the curious thing was that it kicked off with a big screen and, yes, video footage of Coldplay’s new single, “Higher Power”, performed on a Thames barge outside the O2 venue. Much as I dearly love the band this isn’t one of its most notable numbers, though I’m sure the crowd would much prefer hearing it delivered live in person, rather than collectively stare at yet another screen.
In a timely fashion, female acts held sway at tThe Brits this year so let’s start this week’s Fifty3 Fridays with two young women from Scotland and Northern Ireland, yet to become household names but each brimming with star potential. Glasgow singer-songwriter, Bethany Ferrie, first picked up a guitar aged 10 and her love of music developed ever since. She was shortlisted for the BBC Radio Scotland Singer-Songwriter Award in 2019. Now 23, she is taking further strides towards a career in music while completing her Uni studies, with plans for an EP including “Bones”, an outstanding first outing about which there is nothing bare.
“Bones” is a particularly uplifting ballad, lit up by Ferrie’s vocals which build from country-tinged confessional tones in the verses before rocketing through to full-blown, soaring choruses. It is actually a composite of two songs she had been working on. “Bones came about between all the lockdowns going on. I was just left with myself so often, with no distractions, that it’s sort of inevitable you start facing the things you’ve been trying to ignore” explains the songwriter. It’s a song about letting go and the anthemic treatment afforded by producer Ross Griggs really seconds that emotion. You may also catch some influence from the aforementioned Coldplay too; there’s certainly a kind of “Fix You” vibe in those guitar-powered choruses.
Belfast singer-songwriter BEA greatly impressed with both of the original songs she launched on the nation in the last quarter of 2020, leading to features in this column for her striking debut single, “These Streets of Ours” and its imaginative follow-up, “Ghost”. Her third single has now arrived in the shape of “In Circles”, this time co-written with friend and fellow songwriter, the extravagantly named Evangelista Disco. The new song continues a move towards a more urban pop sound since BEA relocated to London to study songwriting, yet still retains a foot in her folk roots.
“In Circles” is lyrically reflective and despite its softly mellow delivery it is peppered with killer lines: ‘You've got a good ear but you don't know how to listen’ and ‘Your attention is so expensive / But I keep spending’ for example. It explores the duality of toxic relationships; the vexation of being stuck in a depressive cycle while accepting responsibility for continuing to play along with it. All of this is worked out against a sympathetic backdrop of organic and programmed sounds in which BEA’s lead voice supported by echoing backing vocals lends the song a defined mood and character.
Following its splendid 20-track compilation of original songs, Thinking is Free, Derby/Notts trio, The Happy Somethings has made a timely welcome return with an EP, Beach Cleaners, featuring six new seaside-flavoured ones. The ever-modest triumvirate of Happy, Jolly and Joy, are somewhat regulars around here on the back of the band’s prodigious output of highly tuneful yet often thought-provoking songs. There is a retro feel and a familiarity to its musical cues which is once more evident on the new EP. The title track carries a well-mannered message to us all to take greater care about what we throw away; a plastic shoe-in should Keep Britain Tidy ever be turned into a musical.
Greater recognition for this band’s unmistakably personable brand of music would be commendable but a HELLO! Magazine feature is unlikely. We are still waiting for The Happy Somethings to emerge from behind the dolls (a nice line in knitwear above) and the cartoon personae but you can do nothing but admire how they let the music do their talking and resolutely make it available to download free on Bandcamp. Alternatively, you can pay a modest sum to receive Beach Cleaners digitally or as a homely compact disc if you prefer to grab something physical. Here is another track from it, the particularly lovely “A Cliff Top In Blue”, which showcases Joy’s kindly, mellow vocals atop lilting guitars and sweet chord changes.
Photo of swim school by Rory Barnes
We return north of the border next where we find Edinburgh indie-rock newcomers, swim school, who fashionably keep the band name in lower case unless in title caps. In common with many acts, this up and coming four-piece must have felt the frustration of not being able to hit the road and perform live but have made the best of the downtime by writing new material and recording home demos. Since forming at the end of 2018, swim school has built up a good live following and released a handful of singles, the latest of which is titled “Outside”.
Taking up the increasingly familiar theme of manipulation in relationships, “Outside” considers the negative impact of such toxicity, the moment of realising what is happening and the challenge of emerging from it all stronger and wiser. There is increasing anecdotal evidence that the effects of the pandemic have amplified these kinds of situations. Guitarist and vocalist, Alice Johnson, delivers her words in contrastingly soothing, dreamy tones over a rock steady beat punctuated by overdriven guitar riffs which themselves add a certain grit to proceedings. With a strong chorus fuelling an anthemic feel, swim school make music that is indeed tailormade for a live stage.
Our final call today is Dublin, home of The Crayon Set, a well-established quintet led by its founder and chief songwriter, Robert Baker. We featured the band in January with its sweet yet with a sting single, “Moment”. The alt-pop outfit’s third album, Downer Disco, is now expected in July and The Crayon Set has dropped a further taster via its latest single, “Don’t Step Back Too Far”. The album promises “sadness with sunshine”; a vibe that this band seems increasingly to be making its own with introspection and playfulness going hand in hand.
“Don’t Step Back Too Far” is built on an insistent opening guitar figure and rising keyboard riffs which create an agreeable pop-disco groove while Kate Dineen’s lead vocal glides gracefully over the instrumentation, with a natural lilt to it and a hint of soft brogue too. Overall, it’s a hypnotic brew that draws the listener into the downer sensibilities of songwriter Robert Baker while concurrently being something that you can easily throw a shape to; in a sense a fitting backdrop to the angst and desire for release we have all faced over the past 12 months or so.