FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: MAINLY NOT ABOUT THE BRITS
So, the BRIT Awards came and went, providing the occasional high, several lows, incoherent speeches, silly outfits, a surfeit of alcohol and vacuous answers to equally dull questions. Last week I wrote about the under-representation of women in the list of 2022 UK top selling acts, and thereby BRIT nominations, fuelled by a big gender disparity within major UK record label signings. Fear not, there are plenty of emerging female artistes who may one day help redress this bias and again this week’s column is almost, though not quite, fully female populated.
Briefly back to the BRITs, I was pleased that Becky Hill won Best Dance Act and sorry that First Aid Kit missed out on International Group of the Year. I remain a tad perplexed by the hype around Wet Leg and sceptical as to whether many of the songs aired throughout the evening would stand any test of time. Mind you Harry Styles is one class act and performances by both Lewis Capaldi and Cat Burns kept it simple and real. When confronted by an enormous list of songwriters for the new breed of ‘manufactured’ pop songs, I ponder what happened to the classic Goffin-King style partnerships. According to Sam Smith, “Unholy” is a song about “liberating oneself from the clutches of others’ secrets.” I’m not sure why it took seven people to write it. Maybe some of them need to be liberated from the process themselves.
I thought it might be neat to continue today’s edition with a new pop song not written by loads of people. Helene Svaland Johansen aka Ponette hails from a small town in southern Norway and grew up as the middle child in a family where her two siblings were seriously ill and/or physically handicapped. She spent her childhood trying to keep her head down out of the spotlight and her adult life challenging herself and fighting that way of being, using music as a platform for free expression. It seems apt that the record label she is with is called Toothfairy.
Ponette’s new single “Beats Me Up” is a preview ahead of an upcoming album due later this year. It is a collaboration with prolific Norwegian producer Coucheron who brings a lighter touch to the song than can often be the case with such partnerships. This is a quality pop song with a rush of raw emotion running through it and production effects that complement its nuances rather than dominating things. Ponette adds a guttural Scandinavian undernote to her airy, expectant voice which seems to echo some of the graphic imagery she employs in her lyrics in a tale of contrasting emotions within a relationship. It is as exorcising an experience as it is an ear-worthy one.
Now to a name recognisable to Fifty3 Fridays aficionados yet in an unfamiliar guise. London-based, Tel Aviv-born singer-songwriter and pianist Florie Namir brings a wonderfully vibrant blend of 1940’s American jazz vocal stylings to her classic pop music influences. For her latest release, Florie has teamed up with afroelectric artiste, Franck Biyong. The pair met through the Beyond Music platform founded by Tina Turner which sets out to connect musicians from all kinds of genres worldwide. Inspired to create new music, they were quick to produce “Silence Is Music” composed by Franck who also wrote most of the lyrics, with Florie contributing the final verse.
“Silence Is Music” was put together in just 11 days, taking its creators in different directions from their usual paths, while integrating their individual styles and influences. The instrumentation includes parts added remotely by Canadian cellist Tess Crowther and Argentinian double bass player Lila Horovitz. The song is a gently hypnotic reflection on conflict and its damaging potential with an underlying message of hope and relief. It has an organic and airy feel driven by acoustic instrumentation complemented by African drums and given subtle weight by some choice background electronic sounds. Vocally Franck and Florie add a serenity and calm to the imagery of conflict and prepare the way for the note of hope struck in the final verse.
After a feature last month for her single “The Planes”, Maidstone native and resident, Holly Henderson makes a quick return to this column. Recorded in an English farmhouse, her second full-length album, The Walls, released on 10 February brings Holly full circle having previously jetted off to Los Angeles to record her debut offering. The album is characterised by subtly crafted arrangements, strong melodies and caressed vocals, blending psych-pop with folk resonances in an alluring mix. The songs centre around reflections of home and belonging; the walls around a largely a safe space.
The final single announcing the album is literally short and sweet. Clocking at just under two minutes, “Wendy” has a classic Carole King-esque vibe to it. On paper, the story of someone leaving their dog called Wendy at home and reassuring her that she won’t be abandoned, the sentiments can equally be applied to human situations and there is sense of reassurance about the closing verse especially. I like the way “Wendy” builds from a sparse opening to a fuller band sound before falling away to a glistening conclusion; a progression that is mirrored by Holly’s beautifully measured vocal command.
Next to two female acts who drew my votes in last week’s Listening Post on Fresh on the Net and who went on to join the week’s Fresh Faves. First up is CATBEAR, the finely tuned synth-pop pairing of best friends Zoe Konez (lead vocals, synths, guitars) and Sarah Smith (drums, backing vocals). The London duo began songwriting born of the kind of conversations the closest of friends enjoy, translating them into effervescent, upbeat songs. Now in its fifth year of self-producing singles and a 2021 debut album in Zoe’s home studio in South London, CATBEAR (they like capitals) realised its ambition to play live shows for the first time on a UK tour supporting The Subways in January and early February.
“I Choose Love” was released as a single in January ahead of that tour but was only submitted to Fresh on the Net last week. There are shades of Joy Division and New Order in the song’s consciously retro vibe which balances propelling synths and drums with clean guitar and pulsing bass. The vocal layers give it a more modern makeover with lead and backing harmonies working in beautiful consort. Lyrically “I Choose Love” applauds queer love and makes a stand for individuality. In Zoe’s words the song is “your armour for a message of defiance, of confidence to be yourself, and a reminder to treat everyone as equals.”
Our second Fresh Fave is London-based independent musician Emily Barnett who goes under the aegis of Say Anise. Emily evokes a different period in music to CATBEAR with a sensibility and in many ways a sound most akin to the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters of mid-late 60’s and early 70’s. Having run a successful Kickstarter campaign last year to help funds recording her forthcoming EP, due for release in the Spring, Say Anise has just heralded it via an opening single.
“Hurry Honeypie” opens with gentle bell-like acoustic guitar over which her initially delicate voice begins to cast its spell. I like the way her vocal grows in intensity in the choruses echoing the instrumentation while her layered harmonies are beautifully realised. Released on 3 February, the song was written almost exactly a year ago as a heartfelt wish “for peace and joy after experiencing a difficult time” – a call to the universe that appears to have been answered. Might I also commend Say Anise’s YouTube channel which features a delightful live version of “Hurry Honeypie” alongside a mix of original songs and covers. For the latter check out her versions of Joni Mitchell’s “River” and “Helplessly Hoping” by CSN especially.