FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: UPSIDE LOCKDOWNING
Rubbish. Actually, it’s the most dispiriting thing so far about this gradual easing of lockdown. I’m talking about people trashing the countryside, idiots lighting disposable barbecues in woodland or leaving cans, bottles, plastic and myriad detritus strewn over parkland or beaches, in a mindless quest for what they think is having a good time. My hat is therefore tipped towards Leeds Beckett University student Jack Colmer, who took it upon himself to install a homemade bin bag dispenser in a local park where basking crowds had left unbelievable stacks of litter. So, a big hand from me for Jack and anyone else who takes action and calls out their moronic rubbish peers.
Photo from the BBC website illustrating this story
So whither the upside, you ask? Any notion that today’s headline was chosen to rhyme with the title of Althea and Donna’s surprise 1977 #1 hit, “Uptown Top Ranking”, is entirely coincidental, though I feel a cover coming on. Yet the idea that there is an upside to lockdown is evidenced by the quality of new music being made under significantly strained circumstances. Then, as things ease, we can begin to see live music somewhere on the horizon. Local to student Jack, Leeds band The Harriets produced a pearl of a debut album last year in the shape of Hopefuls and has now previewed the lead track from a brand new EP, A Little Something, which is scheduled for 7 May release.
When lockdown first hit last year The Harriets’ songwriters and frontmen, Daniel Parker-Smith and Ben Schrodel, vowed not to grind to a halt creatively. While it was impossible to convene the full band, which includes Jess Womack on keys and drummer Ryan Bailey, it was an opportunity for the remaining pair to set new writing and recording goals. The result is an EP which surfs diverse styles over its five tracks, combining intimacy with immediacy. The title song “A Little Something” is gloriously likeable, an earworm that highlights Ben Schrodel’s theatrically high register and Dan Parker-Smith’s complementary harmonies. The baroque piano sequences are a further joy.
From its title to its core sentiments, this song captures a sense of reaching out and communicating to counter the pressures of the pandemic. Indeed, the whole EP has been conceived as a gift to both fans and casual listeners who generously helped the band break through some barriers last year. Just wait till you can hear the whole thing and for the full band to work it into its live set. Meanwhile, enjoy the video – no rubbish in the great outdoors here. You can pre-order the EP on Bandcamp in different formats or support the band via a digital subscription on the same platform.
Back in November, we introduced you to an exceptional young talent, Cathy Jain, who I fully expect to join the ranks of major recording artistes in due course. Having wowed us back then with her third single, “Green Screen”, she has now shared a new song, “Cool Kid”, once again in remote partnership with multimedia artiste and producer Heron @ Cracked Analogue, currently working in Goa. One cool kid herself, Cathy Jain expresses her sentiments with a surprising maturity. She describes the song as being “about how so much of our time is spent trying to project images of ourselves to others, and how we define other people by projecting our own emotions on to them.”
Still only 16 until this Sunday, Cathy Jain exudes the effortless cool of a seasoned act, a Lianne La Havas or a Corinne Bailey Rae. “Cool Kid” has a laid-back vibe, like a lazy summer evening spent under a setting sun. Her flow is intuitively melodic but halfway into the song the spell is nicely broken by an imaginative bridge which takes the song to a different level before it reverts to its chilled self for a repeat chorus and relaxed, extended coda. Lyrically, the song connects with her earlier singles in that they all deal with aspects of the fake versus the authentic. This cool kid will go far.
It was a pleasure too to reconnect this week with the music of Scots songstress, Rachel Sermanni, who has announced a new EP, Swallow Me, and shared the title track which follows her personal journey to motherhood. The song, mostly written when the singer was pregnant on tour in the US and completed back home as she approached the birth of her first child, balances the hard work of pregnancy, physically and emotionally, with a real sense of contentment. She embraces the seismic change to her life that motherhood will bring in a positive acceptance of her life choices.
“Swallow Me” flows with a spectral calm, invoking spirituality at several turns, aided by brushed guitar, drowsy violin and carefully chosen pedal steel guitar stings. Her voice is serenity personified, beautifully soft and flowing with little melismatic flourishes. Rachel Sermanni brings an entrancing, beguiling style to her music, not unlike Laura Marling in many ways. While there are moments in this song that her phrasing recalls Marling’s, particularly that of her seminal second album, I Speak Because I Can, Sermanni is, and always will be, her own woman with innate wisdom and empathy.
Among Rachel Sermanni’s inspiring back catalogue, her 2015 album Tied to the Moon is a particular favourite of mine. I remember including “Tractor” from that album in a year-end feature I wrote for BestNewBands (still available HERE – check it out for 10 great tunes). The album was inspired by the wild solitude of Nova Scotia rather than her native Highlands and has a much darker, earthier vibe to it. The brooding “Tractor”, with its angry discordant guitar solo thrown in for good measure, showcases a developing musical palette that has now reached a place of clarity and peace in her latest work.
To complete this week’s offering, let’s give a big hand to The Natvral (with a v) which is the new solo project from Kip Berman, who previously led NYC indie pop outfit, the splendidly named The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Berman released his excellent debut solo album Tethers last week and if you’re quick you can hear him chatting about the album on Tim Burgess’ excellent Twitter Listening Party TONIGHT at 9pm (UK time). Details are HERE. Meanwhile I was completely knocked over by The Natvral’s live performance of "Sylvia, the Cup of Youth" from the album, shot on a rooftop in Brooklyn back in March at The New Colossus Festival and looking out over the Williamsburg Bridge.
Released from the wall of sound that came with his previous band, you sense that The Natvral is enjoying stripping away any excesses and delivering a raw, yet clean sound. I love the honesty of this song and its strident, down-the-line live performance here. To complete a rather neat circle, the album was also basically recorded live too with a quick plug in and play methodology. “Sylvia” is delivered in a weathered Dylanesque drawl as Berman fills in a character portrait from his past; an ex-girlfriend maybe “still searching for the cup of youth” and trying to find her place. Like Rachel Sermanni, Kip Berman has embraced life changes through parenthood; in his case becoming a stay-home father of two. You feel he’s found his place now and it shines through in his music.