FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: IT’S A MYSTERY
The power of music to take you back to an event or simply a moment in time should never be understated. As one who finds it tricky with age to bring some names to mind immediately, others seem simply etched there. The key to all this is the song. This week I was reminded of one that dates back 40 years now through an inspired cover, a family connection and vinyl in need of a dusting.
With Sun is the genial alias of singer-songwriter and poet Alice Hale. She began writing when she was just 13 inspired by her songwriter and musician father, Keith Hale, now something of an industry veteran who notably worked with Hawkwind, Ginger Baker and Toyah. Hale senior also has my undying respect for forming a prog rock band, Blood Donor, featuring two synth players, two percussionists and a bassist just when punk rock was booming. It was the Toyah connection, though, that brought With Sun to my attention.
“It’s A Mystery” was a UK Top 10 hit for Toyah 40 years ago. I remember seeing her on Top of the Pops and buying a vinyl copy of Anthem, the album with this song included. It was written by Keith Hale and originally performed by Blood Donor with guest vocals by Toyah before she recorded her own version. With Sun’s exquisite stripped-down version of the song features Sephine Llo accompanying Alice Hale on the kora and contributing delightful harmonies. The beautiful African harp adds a rare delicacy while Hale’s lead vocal is perfectly soothing and brimming with natural affection. The video was filmed in Nutfield Parish Church in Surrey. Watch right to the end and you can spot Alice’s dad sitting in the choir stalls.
By contrast, Toyah’s warrior-like original rendition of the song still remains fresh today. The UK Top of the Pops video is shrouded in such mist, let alone mystery, that you can hardly make out the singer’s features. Try this one from the German TV show Rockpop instead. 40 years on, the song is available on a newly remastered coloured vinyl mini-album exclusively for Record Store Day 2021.
Blackpool native, Karima Francis, has had something of a rollercoaster ride musically over the past decade and more. Licensed and then signed to different major labels as a rising singer-songwriter, she released two largely well-received albums between 2009-12 before finding herself suddenly unsigned and left somewhat rudderless. Sadly, it is an all too familiar tale in the record industry and closely echoes the experience of Essex songstress Kate Walsh, after she was signed soon after achieving a self-released #1 album on iTunes. After a hiatus, Francis re-emerged to lead a new band, Fires, independently financed, before finding her solo feet once more now in far-flung Los Angeles.
“Say” is the latest song to emerge from her fruitful West Coast sojourn and association with LA producer and Perfume Genius drummer, Tim Carr. Now London-based (she does get around), Francis has continued to work remotely with Carr. “Say” is gloriously languid and rolls along like a dusty highway to echo its core theme of isolation and separation, accentuated by lovely distended guitar passages. Francis’ beautifully relaxed vocals assuage, seemingly lethargic yet bringing a sense of conflict in their rises and falls. The couplet “Now I’m walking around like I’m drunk but I’m sober / I can’t wait for all this to be over” succinctly captures feelings brought on by the pandemic. The song is lent an added poignancy after the singer revealed that her own struggles with complex post-traumatic stress disorder became more outward and started to impact on those around her.
Photo of Squirrel Flower by John Jadkowski
Early in June we previewed the powerful new album, Planet (i), from Squirrel Flower, aka Arlington, Massachusetts native Ella Williams via her disquieting single, “Flames and Flat Tires”. The album title references an imagined world where people settle after leaving Earth and somewhat inevitably proceed to destroy, while providing a musical reflection of her own inner and outer orbits. Picturing a new world turning from a refuge into a wrecking zone suggests that she has real doubts about whether humans would be capable of learning lessons. To balance that underlying concern, Williams seems resolute in using her stage to open our eyes to the climate emergency to begin to repair a broken planet here.
A stark title if ever I saw one, “Roadkill” plays with contrary emotions, skilfully switching from restraint to outburst and back again. There is something really visceral in her combination of grunge guitar, ponderous drums and powerfully expressive vocals; a voice that is present in both quiet and expansive moods. Squirrel Flower’s music embraces the frightening power of nature hand in hand with its beauty. Towards the end of the song, there’s a subtle key change as the increasingly anthemic chorus kicks in, neatly adding to the dilemma of being caught between two contrary choices.
Next, here’s a new name to me but a seasoned performer nonetheless. Now in his 40s, Plymouth-born Gozer Goodspeed first picked up a guitar at 15 and spent (to quote) "a very, very long time teaching myself to play, and mainly being very rubbish for ages..." It must have all clicked, however, as musical projects and stints in several bands under various names followed until one day, circa 2015, he was asked if he could fill in a spot at a local show as a solo performer and, with a name that sounds like a Harry Potter character, Gozer Goodspeed was born. Carrying on a coastal connection now signed to Brighton-based label, Lights and Lines, he has emerged with an impressive 17-track new album, Ghosts of the Future & Past.
“Gambler's Last Day” sees Goodspeed getting into the head of a gambler, anxious for that one final big play to settle up and be able to become the 'better man' he believes he can be. It’s told through the personal experience of others close to the songwriter. In a broader context, he plays with the notion of looking forwards and backwards and using our individual experiences ultimately to try to become better people. With the distinctive voice of a weathered bluesman, backed by strident and resonant guitar, Goodspeed is a natural troubadour. The full album mixes brand new tracks with his back catalogue and has the hallmark of a labour of some love; highly recommended and here for you on Bandcamp.
A sad footnote to this week’s issue now follows. Fifty3Fridays favourites, The Happy Somethings, lost their very close friend, Anna, not that long ago and have recorded a short, tender tribute in memory of her. There’s a sense of anger at this untimely loss in the way the guitars are set high in the mix to add further poignancy to the vocal eulogy which almost now seems to lie beneath. Like everything this marvellous band puts out, “Follow – A Song for Anna” is freely available but if you wish you can make a donation to Cancer Research UK. Just alight on this Bandcamp link to download the song and donate. “Follow me till the end is at the start.”
Finally, you can access a new Fifty3 Fridays Spotify Playlist every month. It features all the songs from the month’s Fifty3 Fridays. The July Playlist includes 29 songs beginning with Eliza Shaddad’s “Heaven” and ending in a full circle sort of way with “Happier Than Ever” from Billie Eilish. At #8 you’ll find Maisie Peters’ “Psycho”. It’s a mystery to me (yes) how this song has eluded the UK Top 40. I mean, just what does it take? The Playlist is now live.