FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: MATHS OR MYSTICS?
I wonder; do you wait for a bus in lockdown and they still arrive in twos or threes? I expect not as there are reduced services and with fewer people travelling you don’t get the kind of queues at bus stops that hold up the first bus so that a second and third catch up behind it. Being able to contemplate such questions could mean that you have too much time on your hands, or just that you are looking for an analogy to shed light on why you suddenly get a rush of great tunes in a single week. Or perhaps I should just leave these conundrums to mathematicians or mystics.
Let’s start this Fifty3 Fridays selection with two names that may be ring a bell as they have graced these columns before. Firstly, AFC Bournemouth superfan, Alex Hall, who struck the gold standard last year with his tuneful, engaging songs, “I Won’t Bow Out” and “Neon Light”. As well as shining up new material, he has been polishing up some older nuggets in his pan, most recently with the wistful “Pocket Of My Heart” and “Pterodactyl”, hardly Jurassic if written some seven years ago. At this time Alex was using the moniker of Elephant, just to mix his species further. Fast forward to today, and the songs have been remixed and mastered.
Alex Hall’s big strength is that he is comfortable working across a range of song styles, so mixing it up and keeping his output fresh. “Pterodactyl” blends the everyday and the surreal much like in dreams where you can find the mundane rubbing shoulders with odd bursts of insight. It’s a nostalgia ride, playful, fast moving, with delicious internal rhythms and a way of fitting the words in… just! I particularly like how this song recalls the freedoms and possibilities of youth to inform our busy, and possibly directionless, adult lives. I recommend you check out Alex Hall’s YouTube channel to appreciate his songcraft fully. With luck there may be a great album there in the making.
I highlighted multi-instrumentalist, song writer and producer, Mint Eastwood, in the autumn after hearing his song, “Screwed Up”, which charts a failed relationship and a disorderly character stumbling through life in an alcoholic haze. The self-styled ‘slackertronic’ musician is back with another beguiling song in the shape of “Man From Atlantis”; a warm, fuzz-pop workout with a vintage feel emanating from the analogue synths and reverb.
The first thing that hits you is Mint’s vocal on this one is uncannily similar to that of Grandaddy’s frontman, Jason Lytle, while fans of The Lemon Twigs might also find it musically a comfortable fit. As ever with Mint’s output, it’s a very catchy song with nice self-deprecating sentiments. He may not get the girl but he sure knows how to swim. What’s more, I feel sure that Patrick Duffy, who played the titular character before heading to dry land to star as JR’s brother Bobby in Dallas, would like this on his playlist. Mint Eastwood has another track in the works but I gather he is a wee bit of a perfectionist when it comes to working on his music, so it may not appear till March.
Working on its craft for a decade now is Dublin-based five-piece, The Crayon Set. Its founder and chief songwriter, Robert Baker, has been a consistent element within an outfit that he describes as a life-long project able to continue with a fluid membership. As the name implies, the aim is to add colour through the different styles and influences that band members can bring and so evolve with each album. Baker’s vision is for inclusivity and declares he is “very reliant on the other crayons adding their magic." With a self-titled 2013 debut album followed by Lost Languages in 2017, The Crayon Set’s content shifted from pure indie pop of the debut to a broader palette influenced by American soft-rock icons.
A third album, Downer Disco, due out in June takes on synth-pop flavourings, as evidenced by the new single, “Moment”; a deceptively sweet and brisk song, despite a theme that centres around mild depression. Redemption comes through not giving up on life and this makes the song’s light and airy synth-pop tones fit for purpose. The chorus ‘It would only take a moment to say goodbye’ is presented as a word and sound collage that is scarcely decipherable but is strangely compelling for all that and leaves you decidedly up rather than on a downer.
Last week, we strayed into Twin Peaks territory as we booked IAN SWEET into The Roadhouse and reprised the venue via The Chromatics’ “Shadow”. If none of that makes any sense, read our 15 Jan issue. If the blank look remains then you might not get that our next act, Audrey’s Dance, is also inspired by David Lynch’s seminal series and named after Audrey, the mysteriously errant daughter of Great Northern Hotel boss and all-round weird guy, Benjamin Horne. She crops up regularly dancing along strangely to a lounge jazz tune in the show. Preston’s own Audrey’s Dance though is the pairing of vocalist Hannah Rebecca Greatorex and keyboardist Zeynep Ozsabuncu who signed up to play a one-off Twin Peaks themed gig at their local music venue - The Ferret - and then just never stopped gigging after that; well, apart from during a pandemic.
The duo has just released its second EP, Fag Ash Lil, from which the excellent “Don’t Dream Of Me” is taken. Sharing some common ground with Regina Spektor, and in particular her Songs album, the pair seem to relish how the small details in a story are so important to interpreting and appreciating a song. According to Hannah, “Don't Dream Of Me” is “lyrically, our most personal song. I think it describes the timeline of relationships and friendships and how they're special at every stage.” The chemistry between the couple is as clear as the crystalline vocal Hannah employs, simply and sensitively backed by Zeynep’s keys.
Down the road now from Preston to Manchester where we find a landlocked Diving Station, a band who came to my attention via its third EP release, June Damp. With the band having bonded originally at university, the new record reflects the culmination of close to six years of writing and performing; a point where the quartet’s melding of guitar music, dream pop textures and folk influences has really come together. Here's a video of the band playing the EP title track live so you can see what a Clàrsach looks like. You may recognise it when the pubs reopen and you can buy a pint of Guinness.
Vocalist and lyricist Anna McLuckie’s employment of the Clàrsach – a small traditional harp – adds individuality and delicacy to the pastoral, summery vibe the song carries with it. The title was inspired by an old saying ‘June, damp and warm, does the farmer no harm’, a version of which appears on the lid of a metal tin of oddments the singer keeps on her bedroom window sill. A feeling of nostalgia permeates the song with repetitive phrases adding to a mantra-like effect. Diving Station is now back writing, recording demos and prepping to get some recordings done for a fourth EP, despite the difficulties of remaining productive in the pandemic.
Finally, we divert to Germany for the last call this week. Introducing VANÈS, of whom I know little other than she has just released a music video for her debut song, “Brain” and does not appear to have other material yet publicly visible. For a totally new, young artiste, she has amassed an impressive haul of Spotify streams in the past month having adorned the cover of the popular Spotify playlist, Fresh & Chill, and is still listed on it this week. Produced by her collaborator and brother, dontaskalex, the song sees VANÈS explore the confusion of multiple versions of herself floating around in her psyche. That said, you could just chill and marvel at the sophistication she employs vocally and through the song’s perfectly realised construction. Impressive indeed and a follow up single is promised in the coming month.