FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: WELL-A WELL-A WELL-A HUH
Tell me more, tell me more. Did you work out the song? The novelty single has never really gone away. Years ago, it was propagated mostly by Top of the Pops, radio stations or the odd film. Today it is fed by YouTube and more recently by that curious viral video phenomenon, TikTok. Enter Nathan Evans, a 26-year-old musician and postman by day without any history of seafaring, who posted an a cappella version of a traditional New Zealand sea shanty, “Wellerman”, on the platform. Less than a month has elapsed and the man has landed a three-album record deal with Polydor and is heading for a #1 hit record; confirmation of the enormous, if a tad worrying, commercial power of TikTok.
You’ve probably spent the last month under a rock if you haven’t caught a few bars of “Wellerman”. While it’s not the first time that old songs of the sea have had their moment in the brine, you wonder at the sheer randomness of musical fame and potential fortune. Through this modest column I present artistes who I feel deserve a much bigger stage with new or newish music that recently has caught my ears. Many, or even most, may never make it beyond a small, intensely loyal cohort of fans and support from a clutch of independent radio stations and music writers. Nevertheless, I sail ever on.
Without awaiting a revival in a number of other sadly neglected musical genres - perhaps a furloughed bartender or two might have a go at Gregorian Chant, Fado or the soothing sounds of pan pipes – here is what shivered my timbers this week.
I first encountered the music of Emma Denney in July through the pin-drop beauty of “That’s a Start”. Known just by her surname, Denney has now shared her seventh song in a series that threatens to form an outstanding album one day. Many of her songs seem like diary entries but they are not all autobiographical as she has a gift for writing about the experiences of others as if they were her own. “You’re Not Sorry” developed from its opening lines into a story of being tired of sticking with someone who gives no cause to do so. The sense of somebody always letting you down and not even realising it pervades it with lines subtly blurred between the personal and observed.
As always with Denney’s output, there is a fine quality to the melody which compliments her lace like, die-away vocal tone. Production-wise she has stepped up her game, employing synths to add percussive effects and decorate a classic piano ballad style, edging the song towards electro pop territory. Denney has a remix of her last release, “Glue”, coming out at the end of February and many more songs in the works. She has experimented with recording a couple of video covers with friends playing different instruments in true Zoom style but, virus permitting, last year’s goal of playing live in front of an audience for the first time still stands.
Hui Hue is an artiste who built her audience by exactly that; playing live. Prior to taking a break from music at the end of 2018 to start her family, she was a familiar sight busking outside Tate Modern which she claims is the best spot in London. She now has two wonderful little boys to keep her far too busy but has managed to find time to return to music, releasing her debut single, the entrancing “Your Silence”. Production is courtesy of our good friend Alex Hall who has elevated a stunning guitar and vocal combination with a string arrangement that allows space amid immaculate counterpoint. Expert mixing by Jay Pocknell has sealed a special, immersive sound. Further work is now planned with the same team from intimate acoustic songs to larger scale productions.
Hui’s break has given her the space to work out a new direction for her music to counter the element of frustration she felt in her career, much as she loved street performing and small venue gigs. She changed her birth-name to Hui Hue, inspired by a dream, and it embodies achieving her own sense of freedom and finding independence. With no formal musical training, she has found songwriting to be a very intuitive, organic process with the melody flowing from a set of chords or riff and the words tumbling out to be later honed into shape. Her storytelling is very evident on “Your Silence” which was conjured after experiencing the pain of friend’s rejection and reading about how the brain responds to being ignored in the same way as it does to physical pain.
A different kind of pain led me towards the Milan-based dark pop duo, PINHDAR, and its single “Parallel”, released ahead of a full album due on 26 March. Cecilia Miradoli and Max Tarenzi originally made waves on both sides of the Atlantic with the band Nomoredolls, including gigs at New York’s iconic CBGB’s, before moving on to form PINHDAR. After a self-titled debut album in 2019, the pair has worked on refining its musical identity. The single, “Parallel”, which is also the title of the forthcoming album, is fully reflective of this process; sonorous, spacious and strangely ominous throughout.
PINHDAR invokes a parallel world on an interpersonal level while metaphorically referencing a deep concern for the planet and the choices in front of us. Used sparingly here, the spoken word adds gravitas, balanced by Miradoli’s trippy, ethereal singing which softens the edges of the broader realities of the song. It is a stirring, emotive piece of music that conveys a certain solitude in tune with our locked down lives which in themselves have brought fears of mortality into sharp focus.
Southend-on-Sea’s The Trusted stopped me in my tracks with its arresting single, "Criminals", which actually dropped at the end of November but came to my attention via Fresh on the Net’s Listening Post. The four-piece came together at secondary school, with “a mutual appreciation of a strong melody and atmospheric, edgy pop.” Much of that is evidenced by this latest song which cleverly weaves personal thoughts and experiences into a compelling story. Lyrically, the imagery of crime works well with the ultimate goal of recapturing the singer’s love interest.
The way “Criminals” builds sonically and its underlying passion reminded me of early Kodaline and both bands enjoy the benefits of a persuasive lead vocalist. You tend to believe the words. The Trusted’s Tom Cunningham stretches out his vocals smoothly, lending an even pace to his delivery. There is an admirable economy to the band’s instrumental work which gives light and shade in equal measure. There is also a gorgeous stripped-down version of “Criminals” on YouTube with just piano and vocal which only serves to underline how an impassioned song like this can live through different expressions.
I first heard Cardiff-based five-piece Rosehip Teahouse back in October through its single “A Million Times” and immediately warmed to its lush, modestly fey brand of bedroom pop, signed by the keen heart on sleeve lyricism of frontperson Faye Rogers. I imagined a quaint tea shop where the band name might have been settled upon, or not. An EP, entitled Fine, followed in December and the band has just premiered the video to a second single from it, “No Gloom”. This may be a song about the pain of unrequited love yet as the title hints, in Faye’s own words, “the time spent with them was full of so much brightness.” The band captures this mood admirably.
The full EP spans five years of Rogers’ personal experiences from love to losing it, fighting an overwhelming eating disorder, unfettered emotions, dreams and finding a degree of meaning to it all. There is a sense of the singer emerging a little stronger from these experiences. Many of the songs are re-arrangements of the earliest Rosehip Teahouse demos. “It’s been really cathartic and really special to let them free with the help of the rest of the band” Faye Rogers explained. “I hope people can relate to the songs, give them a home for a bit and feel at least a little supported in the struggles we all have staying grounded in this overwhelming world”.
Finally, today from Cardiff to Lithuania. Back in July we introduced Aistè via her single, “MOJO”, describing her as a feisty pop powerhouse. Leaving aside the dramatic leather-clad heroine as depicted in the video that accompanied the earlier song, Aistè now shows an altogether softer side with her new single, “Where You're Going Today”.
Completed during lockdown in her home town in Lithuania, both song and attendant video are entirely self-written and produced. While Aistè is normally found in the urban setting of East London these days, the enforced opportunity saw her reconnect with the innocent child of her earlier life and the natural environment of her homeland. The result is a tender, emotive song in which she yearns for something more meaningful and noble in her life, closer to her childhood experiences. She may well have found it.