FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: IT’S A KINDA MAGIC
OK, so we try to bring you a little bit of magic every Friday with a selection of great songs you may not have heard before, largely from artistes who plough a stoically independent furrow. Or indeed furlough to keep things regrettably topical. On with this week’s choices and a particularly magical sound to commence proceedings.
South Londoner Toby Juan transitioned from humping bricks to full-time busking after moving to Brighton where he began creating his own music in 2013. Now trading under the romantic title of The Magic Epic, steering clear of the building site was obviously the right call as all that live work has helped him hone his craft and produce some startlingly good original music. While the pandemic delayed plans to record a debut album, glimpses of that pipeline quality can be seen in both the songs he has shared in 2021 to date; in the emotive storytelling of “Sally”, previewed below, and in the swirling romanticism of “More Than Just Pretty”.
“Sally” is a tale of redemption through childbirth, recalling the singer’s titular friend, a dancer heavily into the clubbing scene, suffering poor health and, after a brief fling, an unplanned pregnancy. In the song, Juan, now godfather to Sally’s child, honours the battles she overcame to become the woman and mother she is today. Vocally, the song courses beautifully between Jaun’s yearning tenor and falsetto moments that he handles comfortably and with a certain verve. Instrumentally the song ebbs and flows from Elton John-flavoured piano balladry into timely empowered bursts of electric guitar and keyboard flourishes. Epic is indeed the word.
I first heard Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno back in February and highlighted the Portland, Oregon roots duo’s eponymous album, released one month later, via a reflective yet inspiring song from it, “Love and Chains”. The youthful pair’s blend of old time and classic country sensibilities with bittersweet musings on modern life is a quietly compelling mix and I heartily recommend the album as one of the best in its class. Further evidence arrives here in the form of another album track, “On the Line”, which they have just shared on video. While the album version of the song is naturally more rounded instrumentally, there is a compelling strength about this stripped-down live take.
Experiencing times apart and the doubts such separation may sow, we find the couple unified by the idea of sustaining relationships through communication. The songs that form the album took shape while Leva and Calcagno were separated by half the country while attending different universities on the West Coast and in Ohio. Subtly, the video to “On the Line” hints at space between them; she taking over the vocal to deliver her take on distanced relationships with her partner offering half-whispered harmonies and, positioned a step behind her rather than alongside, only stepping forward to deliver a nifty banjo solo. A contrasting closeness is underlined by Calcagno’s adoring glances and Leva’s conversational lyricism that seals the deal: “But we're talking 'bout our day so everything is fine.”
Photo of Red Ribbon by Kelsey Hart
Billed as Red Ribbon, Los Angeles-based songwriter Emma Danner is due to spin her latest album, Planet X, into orbit on 11 June. Her new single from it, the sparingly titled “Way”, had been lurking in my email for a couple of weeks until gravity drew me to it during a sporadic prune of the Inbox. Danner settled in LA about a year ago after moving from Seattle, but recorded the eleven songs that form the album with her band at five studios in three cities before the pandemic set in. Posing the question of just how far can a cockroach hitchhike on Twitter hinted at an urgent need to hit the road again to escape such pests! Lose the scent and pack her own bags and she might never need to know.
As opposed to escaping, there is an inward focus to the upcoming record which wrestles with life’s frailties, personal battles and puts trust in time as the healer. The ominous chords that open “Way” create disquiet, which is intensified by Danner’s spectral voice embedded into the brooding instrumentation, frequently disappearing into guitar chord crashes. Imagining a last night on earth, she searches for what to say to those closest to her but repeatedly questions “who are you?”. There’s a fragility to this process and while some of her voicing might be lost to diction, the outcome is nonetheless impressively cathartic.
Returning last week after a short Easter break, Fresh On The Net’s Listening Post was marked by a particularly strong crop of entries and resulting Fresh Faves. Here is a trio of acts new to me who equally caught my own ear.
First up is Pembrokeshire songstress, songwriter and cellist, Ceitidh Mac, with a Scots surname (MacLeod) and whose first name is spelt the Scottish way yet pronounced Katie. To complete a three nations experience, she is now based in Newcastle. Her warm, alt-folk sound is very much informed by her pizzicato cello style, a method of plucking the strings to create a wonderfully rich and resonant sound with slides and flourishes aplenty. On her latest single, “Birds”, her cello sound recalls the great Danny Thompson’s double bass wizardry.
“Birds” takes its cue from one of the few upsides of lockdown; the greater evidence of birdsong as the human side of the city quietened down. So, the song celebrates the small things around us that go unnoticed in the rush of daily life in ‘normal’ times. Vocally Ceitidh Mac blends a traditional folk sensibility with a contemporary, almost jazzy feel; her fluid runs switch from alto to falsetto to echo the gliding instrumentation to cap an impressive, individual style.
Back to Welsh roots again and singer-songwriter Gillie whose new EP, Retirement Paradise, came out a couple of weeks ago. At first glance the portraiture of the artwork might suggest a traditional folk heritage but this belies Gillie’s contemporary musical style in which the influences of her Carmarthenshire countryside upbringing converge with those of her new home in the mushrooming London metropolis. The four songs consider the different relationships she has with those close to her and her own evolving connection with self, allowing her songs space to breathe.
“Still Dreaming” from the EP starts simply and sparingly before building nicely in harmonic layers. Gillie’s vocals are softly relaxed yet with an underlying refinement to them and become more expressive as the dynamics of the song are revealed. The effect is alluring and fitting for a dream scenario. Commenting on the song, Gillie explained: “Like many I found myself having all sorts of dreams over the past year, reality had become so mundane and it seemed that dreaming was the best opportunity for my mind to escape and take up adventures.” Her choruses encapsulate this feeling, creating textures to explore rather than offering a fixed narrative.
Photo of Mt. Misery by Jodie Canwell
Finally, to Hartlepool in North East England, a place famous for the unfortunate monkey-hanging legend and H’Angus the Monkey, both the official mascot of Hartlepool FC – currently top of the National League - and the moniker used by a former mayor of the city. It is also the home of indie-pop trio Mt. Misery who shared the single “In The Blink Of An Eye” to announce its debut album, Once Home, No Longer, due for release on 25 June. The band name comes from a summit in New Hampshire which the band’s founder, Andrew Smith, once spotted as the venue on a DIY band poster online and chose as an ironic counterpoint to its bright, tuneful music.
With Mt. Misery originally as a solo project for Smith, “In The Blink Of An Eye” is the first song the new trio learned to play together after joining forces in 2019. Enshrining melancholy rather than misery, the song glides nicely along a mid-tempo path, enriched by cut-glass guitar chords and led by Andrew Smith’s charmingly engaging vocal. With a West Coast of America feel rather than invoking the windy shores of the band’s home county, Mt. Misery arrive radio-friendly and set for a bright future.