FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: TAKES YOU BACK
Who remembers Keith West? He was the good looking lead singer with Tomorrow, a 60s psychedelic band which also mustered Yes guitar supremo, Steve Howe, in its ranks. West had side projects as a solo act too and is probably best known for singing "Excerpt from A Teenage Opera", a #2 UK Chart hit in 1967, in which he pleaded for a character called Grocer Jack to return, as you might, to save a town from starvation. ‘Grocer Jack, Grocer Jack, get off your back / Go into town, don't let them down, oh no, oh no’ went the refrain. Sadly, old Jack, being deceased, didn’t make a Lazarus-like return and the original vision for a full Teenage Opera never got past a follow-up single, “Sam”.
The song though is an early example of the mini pop opera which arguably saw its greatest gestation in The Who’s Tommy and shoots through late 60s psychedelia via prog and glam rock variants, like an oversexed arborist in a hothouse. Pete Townshend’s rock opera, of course, was a fully developed double album epic so perhaps the best yardstick to help introduce our first new act this week is to consider seminal works such as Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “How Dare You” by 10cc or Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us”. Episodic by nature, grandiloquent in desire and always packed with surprising dynamics, these mini epics form a tradition well worth reviving from time to time.
Enter Barbara, aka Brighton brothers, Henry and John Tydeman, with "BRB". For a first ever song released by the pair under this aegis, it sets a pretty high bar. The boys did release a single two years ago as Big Cat which got NME enthusing but Barbara represents the first outing with a band behind them. The new band name reflects a shared love of 60s and 70s style and music when there were quite a few more Barbaras around. Indeed, sign up to their website email list and they’ll send out a goody bag of weird and wonderful things that evoke the time period. “BRB”, though, takes its inspiration from Be Right Back, an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, chronicling how technology allows a young woman to create an android replica of her deceased partner, based on data from his social media.
Despite its Sci-Fi stimulus, “BRB” feels like a long-lost classic as it retells the story from both human and robot perspectives. Indeed, the two things are not incompatible as the musical dressing is very much in keeping with the way the future is often viewed from the present. It shifts in time and mood from verse to verse as you might unpeel an onion; however you might anticipate them, sharp stings to the senses burst on you unexpectedly yet somehow cohesively. Driven by stabbed piano chords, it bristles with endearing harmonies and punchy rhythms before dissolving into an unexpected and glorious singalong coda. All in all, it’s an impressive entry that leaves you wanting more.
From Barbara to Sophie. No stranger to this column, Cheshire singer-songwriter Sophie Morgan is back with a charming new single, “Always”. The young artiste has been steadily releasing music since 2017 with three EPs under her belt and this, now the third single since her last EP, Marmalade. Her work is always carefully formed and sealed with delicacy of touch, framed by her quite exquisite vocal tone. The new song was co-written with London songwriter Archie Faulks and features The Verve’s Simon Jones on bass, a longstanding supporter of Sophie’s, and drummer Matt Ingram (Laura Marling). It serves as both a reminder and something of an antidote to acute loneliness, managing to be poignant yet uplifting.
The mood of the song is wonderfully captured by its accompanying video which translates a waltz for the empty-armed into a fantasy dance sequence, imbued with old school Hollywood glitz. Shot on a shoestring budget in a local theatre where Sophie Morgan first sang at the age of 9, the video actually looks like it has had some serious dosh lavished on it. Her fantasy does unravel at the end as the fake set dissolves and she is left alone again. The intention might be to heighten the sense of loneliness one may feel as the daydreaming ends but conversely, the beauty is all in the memory that such escapism affords.
Also making a welcome return this week is Brighton-based Olly Hite with the fourth song to be previewed from his debut album, In Everyone, set for release in late summer through Mayfield Records in partnership with Stanbridge Studios. “Politic Junkie” continues the reflective stance of earlier singles but with the focus shifted to the dark arts of political posturing. According to Hite, politics has scarcely been more fascinating yet equally concerning with our leaders showing characteristics of court jesters and gameshow hosts. The song is a plea for a return to dignity and withdrawal from the whole media orchestrated game.
In common with Olly Hite’s earlier releases, his songs are recorded on acoustic instruments ranging from a simple piano and vocal to a full orchestra, with arrangements scored by Shelley Gent who again contributes her fine cello accompaniment. The clock is ticking literally and metaphorically throughout “Politic Junkie” until Hite makes a simple spoken word plea at the end for tolerance and freedom. Meanwhile the fifth song in the collection, a pure love song entitled “Made Up”, can be streamed now on Spotify though we await an attendant video.
It was hard not to be charmed by the beauty of Chloë March’s album, Starlings & Crows, which flew into sight in October last year. As a timely reminder of her precious talent, the English ambient-pop artiste has just shared a third single off the record, “All Things Good”. Those very familiar with her work may recognise that the song is a version of “Calypso Wants” from her previous album, Blood-Red Spark, with extended lyrics and a different arrangement. March is a confessed fan of the process of reworking as a means of improving something or continuing to explore a theme. “All Things Good” falls firmly into the second category.
Like its forerunner, the song is inspired by Calypso, an immortal nymph who enchants Odysseus, keeping him prisoner on her hidden island until she is ordered by the gods to release him. It has a more conventional song structure than its predecessor and the way Chloë balances vulnerability in her vocal with a vigorous melodic flow is particularly effective. Lyrically it is full of quaint juxtapositions as the imagined island temptress paints a picture of sensual confinement in a naturalistic setting. Magical indeed.
Weaving a little more magic now is Chalk Horse Music, the Sussex duo of Liz & Daren Pearson, whose inventive reworking of Scritti Politti’s “Hegemony” caught my ear last summer. Blending traditional folk guitar, lyre, double bass and a mournful horn with electronic effects, the pair has now followed up with an original composition, “Along The Hidden Beach”. Set amid the foaming sea, stones, shipwrecks and lost bells of the Sussex coastline, the song brings a mystery and charm all of its own. Liz Pearson’s softly restrained vocal perfectly matches this mood while the underbelly of incanted lines gently unnerves.
Referencing both the song and the video location, Liz Pearson explained: “It's not particularly a lockdown song, but the atmosphere of the pandemic has been muted, a little like being underwater.” She has spent a lot of time walking along the cliffs in all weathers, thinking about the unseen, underwater part of the coastline; the ghost ships, smugglers and the legend of the lost bell at Bosham that is said to ring still from beneath the waves. Much of that learning has been absorbed into the song turning it into a truly immersive experience.
As an innovation for 2021 you can now access a Spotify playlist each month featuring all the songs – as long as they are listed on Spotify - from each month’s Fifty3 Fridays. The January Playlist featuring 32 songs is HERE.
VIEWING THIS WEBSITE
This website is designed to be viewed on a desktop PC, laptop or tablet. You can view it on a phone but I am the first to say it doesn’t look great on a phone. A bit like me. Mind you I don’t look great on a desktop… either. If you have any issues accessing the site, SoundCloud or YouTube embeds on your phone please let me know via the Contact Page (if you can find it). Thank you for reading.