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Sunshine From Leith

Ross Wilson has had a colourful life, growing up in difficult surroundings on a Leith housing estate, opting out of school from a very early age – “abandoning my education, I’m embarrassed to say,” – and finding himself in situations that none of us would wish to be in. Despite (or because of) this, he’s quiet, unassuming and completely humble.

His song ‘Grateful’ that opens Blue Rose Code’s 2016 album ‘And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing’ distils perfectly his life so far.

When I wake in the morning now, I try to be thankful,” he sings, in an effortless East Coast croon. “Did you know that I almost died? I’ll never be cool….I’ll never be good looking….I’ll never be rich, but Lord I am grateful.” It’s a simple song; short, direct and enhanced at the very end by a terrific gospel-tinged choir that competes with the Staple Singers for uplifting joyfulness.

Ross’s audience is grateful too. I watched him perform live over two extraordinary evenings in Irvine’s Harbour Arts Centre last weekend. A super-intimate venue that holds just 100 folk, the HAC is possibly our country’s greatest hidden secret. Audiences and performers alike have really taken to its ‘gig-in-your-living-room’ feel. The front row is a decent arm’s stretch from the headliners’ fretboards, the back row closer to the action than the front of all other ‘intimate’ venues and the performers there really respond to the cosiness of it all.

Blue Rose Code is Ross Wilson. Depending on the gig, he can have 3, 4, 5 or indeed, as when he’s fronting his amazing Caledonian Soul project, dozens of musicians on stage with him. He’s been in the HAC before as a 3 piece. On Friday and Saturday his band appeared as a duo, the sum of the parts a fraction of the greatness on display. Playing two different sets, Ross took us by the collective hand and led us through the whole gamut of human emotions. Accompanied by the fabulous Andy Lucas on keys, the duo whipped up a quiet storm of intensity.

Wilson doesn’t so much play his guitar as attack it; pinged harmonics zing across the room while back of the hand percussive beats provide rudimentary four to the floor rhythm. Listening to him play, it’s as if a tap has been turned on, a slow drip at first before gushing and overflowing, unable to be held back. Melodies cascade and tumble from his fingers, complicated arpeggios formed from open-tuned guitars and a handspan as wide as the Clyde. Jazz chords give way to ancient folk melodies that in turn part their way for minor key melancholy. It’s rhythmic, tuneful and breathtaking.

When he sings, it goes up a whole other level. Anyone can sing, but no-one can sing like Ross Wilson. It’s all in the phrasing, y’see. He stretches words beyond all recognition, he st-st-st-stops suddenly, breaking into spontaneous scatting, he barks, yelps and laughs off-mike and he takes these brilliant long run ups from the back stage to the microphone, using the dynamics of an amped-up voice like no-one I’ve ever seen. Any singers in the room over the weekend must’ve gone home with a few pointers on how to get the best from their voice in the live setting.

Behind him, strapped in for the ride of his life, Andy Lucas riffs behind the guitar on his keys; piano one minute, Fender Rhodes the next, forever on a mission to incorporate a lost blue note or a major 7th flourish. It’s a beautiful sound, incredibly nuanced yet totally spontaneous. On Friday the duo sound-checked with recent new track Red Kites. By the time it appeared in the show, it was twice as long, Andy had added a second vocal and Ross was off on some freeform guitar odyssey. For the entire weekend, Lucas never takes his eyes from Wilson’s fretboard. He knows when to cut in, when to take over and when to play softer, allowing the spotlight to shine on Wilson’s unique talent. It’s incredible stuff.

Blue Rose CodeBluebell

The music on offer is superb. Recorded, it’s quite the thing, the perfect soundtrack for a Saturday night in or a Sunday morning sudoku. In the live setting though, the songs soar, a scorching cross-pollination of Chet Baker’s stoned jazz, the voodoo folk-blues of John Martyn and the meandering twilight ambience of the Blue Nile. You really should investigate if these reference points are your kinda thing. It’s led to Ross being offered tours of Canada, the west coast of America and Australia. With 4 studio albums to his name alongside a handful of live albums and non-album EP releases, Ross Wilson has quietly built a mightily impressive back catalogue. A cottage industry with no financial help from anyone other than his supporters, it deserves a wider audience and greater recognition. He’s easily one of Scotland’s greatest talents, a real hidden gem of a songwriter and a peerless performer.

All photographs courtesy of Chris Colvin

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Berry Good

Known to his mum as Alex Stephens, Strawberry Guy is one quarter of The Orielles and one wholly great artist in his own right.

Part of a thriving scene that until now I’d been totally oblivious to, his first demo release last year – demo, note – has clocked almost 2 million hits on YouTube to date.

Now signed to the excellent Melodic Records, home of the pulsating WH Lung and the soon-to-be ubiquitous Working Men’s Club, Strawberry Guy has taken his passion for analogue synths and melodies blown in on a summer breeze and created one of the stand-out tracks of the year.

Mrs Magic is one of 6 tracks on his debut release, the mini LP? maxi EP? Taking My Time To Be. If the released-to-stream track above is anything to go by, it looks like being an essential purchase. Bringing to mind another side project with endless possibilities, it sounds not unlike something from Super Furry Animals’ Cian Ciaran’s long-lost Outside In album. There, keys and soft rock vocals make space for late-era Beach Boys harmonies and gossamer-thin melodies.

Floating along on a woozy bed of 21st century psychedelia, Mrs Magic continues on a similar path. Cocooned in cotton wool and sung in an effortless amalgamation of Nilsson and Mac DeMarco, its minor key piano and liquid mercury airy synths would find it sitting happily alongside your Air and Beach House and Tame Impala and Lightships records. It’s that good. And remarkably, recorded in his bedroom and self-produced, it hints at even greater things to come.

Here’s that YouTube video that’s whipped up quite the quiet storm amongst the streamers and playlisters in the underground.

Strawberry Guy‘s Taking My Time To Be can be pre-ordered direct from Melodic Records, here. Look out for tour dates in the future….and the inevitable clash when he and his parent band The Orielles clash over headline rights at next year’s summer festivals.

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Beths Intentions

You get to a point in life when you don’t need any more new friends. I have enough old friends I can barely find the time for that to make the time for new friends is nigh on impossible. I’m not an unfriendly person. Far from it. But the circle of friends I have is rich and varied and more than enough to enhance my life for the rest of it. And it’s like this with music. I don’t have the energy or the inkling (or the cash) to invest in new music when there’s so much brilliant stuff from the past I’m happy to revisit and replay and re-evaluate, and occasionally re-buy if I fall for the remastered/repackaged/enriched audio blah blah blah that the record companies know folk like me can’t resist.

Now and again though, a new record comes along that demands my attention. The current Arctic Monkeys’ album is one such thing, even if the band didn’t quite reach out with an advance copy and ask for it to be featured Plain Or Pan. I’m regularly sent music, mainly from new bands looking for a bit of exposure. Once in a blue moon, an mp3 will arrive that stops me in my stubborn tracks. A couple of months ago it was The Saxophones that hooked me, awful name ‘n all. This time around, it’s The Beths.

If you’re of a certain age – and as you’re reading a blog with a tagline that reads Outdated Music For Outdated People, I’d suggest you may well be, you’ll be quick to point out that The Beths sound like nothing new. Which is good, isn’t it? I suspect that, like me, many of you also don’t have the time to invest in getting into new music. Familiarity, like an old Marks & Spencer v-neck or Songs From Northern Britain is just fine.

The Beths take all the best parts of that window in time post-grunge and pre-Britpop when American guitars ruled the alternative airwaves. A quick listen to them and you’ll spot obvious nods to The Breeders and Belly and suchlike. There’s a studied looseness and seemingly sloppy approach to how it all hangs together, but of course, there’s nothing sloppy about it at all.

All four Beths met in Auckland New Zealand as jazz students, and they can really play. They could’ve chosen to take a Steely Dan/Ben Folds route to showcase their talents. Instead, they’ve gone for an update on slacker rock. Fancy-pants chords chime on top of counter melodies. Mercurial, quicksilver guitar riffs are tight and taut, wrapped around the melodies as snug as a straightjacket, the only sloppiness on show being intended rather than unavoidable.

On current single Happy Unhappy, there’s a fantastically furious mangled guitar solo that sounds like J Mascis being spun at 200rpm in a KitchenAid food blender. The vocals, a saccharine-sweet rush that embraces singer Elizabeth Stokes’ Auckland twang and wraps it around sunkissed harmonies in the chorus bring to mind fellow Southern Hemispherian Courtney Barnett, one of the few new acts I like, even if despite my best intentions, I can’t seem to find the time to properly invest in her. It’s very 6 Music and “ones to watch out for” and, suddenly, when it was the last thing I was looking for, I have a new friend. I suggest you invite The Beths in for a cuppa and a chat about your favourite records. I reckon you’ll have a lot in common.

The album , Future Me Hates Me is out on 10th August. Visit the band’s Bandcamp page to stream, order and what not.

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The Turner Prize

When Neil Armstrong and his pals landed on the Moon in the summer of ’69, their landing spot became known as the Tranquility Base. I’d assume this is because it was close to the Moon’s Sea Of Tranquility, although I’m happy to be corrected on that one. Anyway, being the first to experience an out-of-this-world environment of stilled calm and slo-mo movement, I’d imagine it was the very essence of tranquility.

 

Alex Turner and his Arctic Monkeys pals have just taken one giant leap forward with their new album, in part (I’m assuming again, and happy to be corrected) named after that landing spot on the moon. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino landed last week and it’s a real departure from previous Arctic Monkeys’ records. I’ve lived with it on the commute to work the past few days and it’s fairly wormed its way into my head.

I just wanted to be one of The Strokes,” laments Alex on opener Star Treatment.Now look at the mess you’ve made me make, hitch hiking with a monogramed suitcase, miles away from any half-useful imaginary highway.”

Arctic Monkeys Star Treatment

He half speaks, half croons in his Yorkshire accent, unaffected (in voice at least) by his current choice to live in California. The sunshine’s clearly doing good for his music. He’s eased the band into ridiculous new trousers – the mark of true popstars, of course, and the mid 70s with liberal sprinklings of Carol Kaye-ish stop/start basslines, Fleetwood Mac-esque falsetto backing vocals and coke-addled Station To Station era Bowie piano. It’s as far removed from I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor‘s rattlin’ knee tremble as possible and it’s great.

OK, you’re thinking. That’s the curveball out the way. The band’ll get down to their usual business from now on in, But no! There’s more of the same on the next track. And the next. And the one after that. Fragments of half-known lyrics pop up now and again; the title track mildly pilfers ‘Mother’s got her hair-do to be done‘, from Pet Shop Boys’ Suburbia. Start Treatment‘s drawled, laconic ‘Who you gonna call?‘ is begging for a fuggy ‘Ghostbusters!‘ in response. “Take it easy for a little while,” he suggests, on Four Out Of Five. It’s bugged me all week where he borrowed that particular line from, but it’ll come to me no doubt as soon as this piece is published. Despite the sticky fingered approach here and there, Turner’s lyrics are pretty great.

So when you gaze at planet Earth from outer space, does it wipe that stupid look off of your face?” he intones on American Sports.

Arctic MonkeysAmerican Sports

The entire album continues as it starts; mid paced, self assured and self indulgent. Turner’s voice is the real star throughout. He’s the Sheffield crooner, taking his cue from those excellent Last Shadow Puppets records and using it to grease the wheels of a band who’ve worked extremely hard to steer their ship from its expected course.

It’s the sort of collection of tracks that could really tick off the festival audiences in the summer. If Alex and co choose to ignore the terrifically urgent Fake Tales Of San Francisco or the long-haired desert rock outs of Crying Lightning and everything else that followed in its globe-straddling wake, the band are in danger of losing their audience. My teenage daughter is already getting twitchy about their potential choice of set at TRNSMT in a few weeks. Me? At the age of 48 and a half, I’m perilously close to buying my first Arctic Monkeys album. Get with it, kids.

 

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I Know This Much Is True

BBC4 on a Friday night fairly throws up some unintended gems. A Bluebell here. A Dexy there. A pre right wing Morrissey, helicoptering a bunch of gladioli above his towering quiff immediately afterwards. It’s the iPod on shuffle, sublime to the ridiculous nature of it all that makes it so watchable. Don’t like Nik Kershaw? That’s fine. Stick the kettle on, he’ll be off in a tick. Shakatak? Might as well stick a couple of slices of bread in the toaster while you’re there. Be quick though Dad, here comes Bananarama, a right eyeful of bleached hair and bleached denim who’ll just as quickly choreograph themelves off of the stage to make way for Spandau Ballet.

Tony Hadley, in his ridiculously high-waisted, multi-pleated leather trousers and pinky-pointing, skinny mic toting foppish 80s pomp thought he was the real deal. He knows which camera is on him and looks directly at it, head slightly up and flared nostrils to the fore, straining his way through True with all the grace of a wounded buffalo.

I bought a ticket to the wuh-huh-hurld, but now I’ve come back again,”

When the rest of Spandau Ballet drop out and leave his vocals heaving the second part of that line in dead air, you just know they turned to one another in the control room during the first playback on the day of recording it and high-fived one another, banding around ridiculous words like ‘Smokey‘ and ‘Marvin‘ and ‘soul‘ and combinations thereof. Soul for Ford Capri drivers maybe, but not real soul. To coin an ancient phrase, I know that, you know that, but they don’t know that.

Then there’s Curtis Harding. You might be familiar with him already. You might not, but you should make it your business to do so. He’s the real deal, Tony, and no mistake. From the ‘Curtis’ down, it’s a classic soul name. Syllabically it’s even the same as another of those greats; Cur-tis Har-ding/O-tis Re-dding. Alongside fellow forward-thinking retro revivalists such as Benjamin Booker and Leon Bridges, his second album is the latest in a line of brand new soul (not nu soul) records that take their cues from the best of the 60s and 70s recordings that defined the genre.

Harding first learned his trade like all good soul men do by touring the gospel halls with his piano-playing mum. Following a stint cutting his teeth in the backround with Outkast and Cee-Lo Green, he made the decision to step out front and go it alone. What sets Harding apart is his determined approach to push his chosen genre forward.

Curtis finds soul in Atlanta’s punk scene. He finds it at hip hop shows. Bob Dylan records. An old Sam Cooke 78. The phased and whacked out guitar sounds on the Nuggets compilation. Soul is everywhere might well be the Gospel According to Curtis Harding. If his debut Soul Power was a thing of assured beauty, the just-released follow-up Face Your Fear is even more so. This latest collection of songs, produced by Danger Mouse in his old school-friendly, analogue-heavy studio goes a long way to dispelling the myth that classic soul is a thing of the past. Face Your Fear might well be a contender for Album of the Year. I don’t think I’ll tire of playing it anytime before his next offering, it’s that good.

Curtis employs a magpie-like approach to twisting his influences into boxfresh originality. You’ll hear the obvious instruments associated with a soul album; pistol crack snares, filling-loosening basslines, clipped chicken scratch guitar, the occasional wah-wah, honey-coated brass stabs and sky-scraping string passages, not to mention the occassional call-and-response cooing of a sweet soul sister, but it’s the way they’re arranged that steers Curtis away from potentially hokey Lenny Kravitz pastiche territory and into a brave new world of modern soul.

 

Opener Wednesday Morning Atonement, with it’s wonky effects, descending bassline and effect-heavy “Hello children…” lead vocal could’ve come straight off one of those mid 70’s Stevie Wonder masterpieces, fuzz guitar and eerie strings notwithstanding.

Curtis HardingWednesday Morning Atonement

Buy the album!   UK   USA

 

The title track Face Your Fear is Curtis aping his more famous namesake, a falsetto-led minor key mini symphony. All that’s missing is a subtle wockawockawocka bed of gentle wah-wah guitar and you’d have a cut that wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack to Superfly.

Curtis HardingFace Your Fear

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Go As You Are is the track that back in the day you might’ve called the lead single. The more keen-eared amongst you may have heard it ‘spinning’ on BBC 6 Music over the past few days or so.

Curtis HardingGo As You Are

It’s Dr John by way of Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues, atmospheric, paranoid and moody as hell, Harding’s vapour trail vocals tapering off and out into the night.

Buy the album!   UK   USA

There are great albums and there are grrrreat! albums. Curtis Harding‘s Face Your Fear is one of them. Trust me.

 

 

 

 

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The Admin. Assistant West Coast Promo Man

Back in the mid 80s, the coastal town of Irvine, half an hour or so by train from Glasgow, was an incredibly fertile breeding ground of artistic creativity. No one knew this at the time – indeed if you’d suggested as much, there’s a good chance your observations might have been met with a swift kick to the nether regions. Irvine – Irvine no more, as The Proclaimers proclaimed – was, like many provincial towns not supposed to be churning out pop stars, literal thinkers and all-round media fodder. Nicola Sturgeon might’ve grown up in the town at the same time, but she was still finding her feet and perfecting her spins on the Magnum’s ice rink rather than in the debating chambers of Holyrood.

The Trash Can Sinatras were our unlikely star turn; a local band who came together through shared interests on a youth opportunities scheme and ended up with a record contract and pop success permanently within touching distance. All other local bands fell into two camps; those who were pleased for their fellow local band’s success, or those who bitchily moaned that they’d become too big for their boots. Which is nonsense of course. Any of those bands would’ve bitten your hand off for a similar chance. Just ask them.


Runners-up to the Trash Cans, and head of the pack of ‘nearly weres’ was The Big Gun. Pre-dating the Trash Cans by a couple of crucial years, they maintained identical Strummer via Edwyn Collins quiffs and played the sort of shambling, Buzzcockian indie pop that was very much of its time. There are still folk in anoraks with Sarah Records badges on the lapels that’ll cry themselves silly over Heard About Love, the band’s DIY 7″ release. Thrillingly, the mighty John Peel played it more than once on his show and briefly, but brightly, The Big Gun’s star shone before fizzing out like the outro on the b-side.


Although The Big Gun never made it, whatever ‘it’ is, a couple of the constituent members/hangers-on went on to make their own mark. Andy O’ Hagan became Andrew O’Hagan, respected author of such excellent reads as The Missing, contributor to all the weighty quality dailies and some-time Editor-In-Chief at the London Review Of Books.

John Niven (not actually of the band but very much a part of their circle) went on to play in 2nd division also-rans The Wishing Stones, wrecking (or “breaking in” as he called it) my pal’s borrowed Tele in the process, before moving to London Records as an A&R man (that Mike Flowers Pop’s version of Wonderwall was all his fault) and finally putting his experiences into print in the far-flung but entertaining Kill Your Friends. Niven continues to write, Irvine Welsh by way of Castlepark rather than Leith, and, along with the weighty library of books that constitutes his polar opposite O’Hagan, is well worth investing some time in.

Recently, and out of the blue, 2 ex Big Gunners have recorded and released an album. Dead Hope is the name of the band. Songs From The Second Floor is the name of the album. It features former Big Gun vocalist Keith Martin on drums alongside his longtime partner in musical crime Andy Crone who maintains his position on bass guitar. Vocals and guitar duties fall to Scott McLuskey, someone, given the insular nature of the local band old boys’ network, I suspect I’d recognise if I saw. Although Dead Hope is essentially a Glasgow band, their roots are in Irvine. There’s a thanks on the credits to Basil Pieroni, yet another key constituent of that fertile provincial scene who these days still does his twang thang with the rarely-spotted Butcher Boy.

Dead Hope. A none-more-punk name you’ll be unlikely to encounter this year. It’s No Future for folk who remember the past; a manifesto-driven ideology, an unacceptance of the state of the nation. There are no promo band shots in the traditional sense. The cover art in tandem with the band’s name says it all. To drive the point home, sledgehammer sure, the album title references the obscure Scandinavian film of the same name where the pointlessness and, aye, hopelessness of modern-day life is a constant theme. Coldplay this ain’t.

this is Dead Hope’s debut album, the leaflet inside says. we offer no comparable band names to divert or convince you what may or may not be true.

Dead Hope believe any society that promotes boris johnson to a position beyond that of admin. assistant is truly fucked.

Setting their stall out in such terms, I came to the album with half an idea of how it might sound; angry, for one. And noisy. Gnarly bass. Abrasive guitars. Maybe a bit shouty. Maybe even a bit too shouty for my middle-aged and slightly gluey ears. But no…

It’s shouty yet sloganeering. It’s noisy yet melodic. It’s the breakneck speed of Husker Du by way of a street swaggering Cribs. Metallic sheets of Brillo Pad guitar are followed by choruses that your postman might choose to whistle as he completes his round. Despite that Cribs reference, bits of it sound like Man Made, the trio fronted by young Nile Marr who wilfully eschews anything that might pigeonhole him as his father’s son. There’s also buckets of Sonic Youth squall, bIG fLAME and Pop Group discordance and a mini dubby King Tubby outro towards the end.

All in all, it’s a pretty breathless and thrilling listen. I’d imagine played live it’d be even more vital and visceral. Sat alongside the movers, shakers and young pretenders of our time, it fairly holds its own. In fact, it teaches those young bucks a valuable lesson; bile over style and rage before age. In an era of right wing world politics and whatever horrors that might ultimately bring, we need more bands with the conviction of Dead Hope.

 

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Waltz #2

Hailing from Caithness, near John O’ Groats at the very top of Scotland, the furthest outreach on the British Isles, Neon Waltz are as far-removed from any ‘scene’ as possible. The six-piece are an insular unit; self-sufficient, self-reliant and self-absorbed.


The music they make is, if you’re of a certain age, nothing you haven’t heard before, but no less thrilling. In songs such as Dreamers and Heavy Heartless they have that unique way of creating an uplifting melancholy; world-weary vocals carried along by chiming, fizzing guitars and a heavy swell of Hammond organ. You might find comparisons with The Coral, The Charlatans or Teardrop Explodes, bands who know how to brew a heady swirl of guitar and organ that’ll lift you to giddy new heights. Lazy folk might label them ‘indie’. I prefer to call them slightlydelic.

Neon WaltzHeavy Heartless


As befits a band that is so far off the taste radar of hip opinion as to be almost non-existent, they have the freedom to come and go as they please. Regular zig-zagging across the highways and biways of the UK combined with a hermit-like lifestyle in their rehearsal space in an abandoned croft – Music From Big McPink, if y’like, has helped the band forge a sound that led them to Atlantic Records and a deal with Ignition. And a month from now, two years since first being signed, their debut album will be released. It won’t come with much of a fanfare or blustery media hype, but it will come with the guarantee of a melody-rich debut, a record that may well prove to be the year zero for future bands. You can quote me on that when the time comes.

A recent photo session on the Isle of Stroma, halfway between the very north of Scotland and the southerly tip of the Orkneys proved fruitful. Shooting the photos that will presumably appear on all promotional material for the imminent album release, the band chanced upon the long-since abandoned school house. Amazed to find it was accessible, they entered and found an old harmonium, lying dusty, untouched and exactly as it had been left when last used. More amazingly, keyboard player Liam Whittles was able to extract noise from it; eerie, ghost-like and gossamer thin, the old harmonium wheezed into life. A spontaneous version of  Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s ‘Music For A Found Harmonium’ was followed by this beautiful reworking of their own Heavy Heartless. It’s magic; understated, creaky and exactly how a harmonium-enhanced band should sound.

Neon WaltzHeavy Heartless (Stroma Schoolhouse Session)

Neon Waltz go on tour shortly. Their debut album, ‘Strange Hymns‘ is out at the end of July on Ignition Records. It  can be ordered direct from the band here and in all the usual places.