April Music Review – Band of Skulls, Simone Felice and EMA

Himalayan, the third album from Band of Skulls, the UK blues rock band, shows more than a few touches of Led Zeppelin, or the Black Keys if you want to be more contemporary, combined with more of a pop feel from time to time.  Asleep at the Wheel kicks things off - a stomping driving rhythm, an unfashionably lengthy  guitar solo and a bass riff to blow the doors off. Great start. But it doesn’t quite kick on as an album in the way I hoped.  Several songs just don’t have identifiable tunes, with the feeling that getting into a good groove is a substitute for real construction and melody (Hoochie Coochie being an example). Other tracks sound like maybe they’ve been put together with one eye on US adult-orientated rock radio – a little smoothed-off perhaps.

Which is a shame  because songs such as the lovely blues ballad Cold Sweat and Nightmares, with a great guitar hook, show what they can do. It’s not a bad album by any means, but I thought this would be the one to propel them into headlining league and I’m not sure it will quite do that.  But still a 7.5/10.

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It’s that shiver down the spine, isn’t it? A cliché, but for me it’s true – every so often, music causes an actual tingling, physical sensation, often accompanied by a certain amount of moisture detected in the eyes.  It tends to hit me at gigs more than from recorded music. Arcade Fire at Brixton Academy, Frank Turner’s acoustic set at Reading, hearing 15,000 kids singing along with Of Monsters and Men again at Reading, seeing Florence and the Machine as a support act before anyone knew her... Moments that will  stay in the memory for a long, long time.

So the first shiver this year, certainly from an album rather than a gig, came this month from Simone Felice’s second solo album, Strangers. The lack of any real expectations was probably part of that. Then first track *Molly-O! bounded out of the speakers, with a lovely chorus, piano and brass adding warmth, and nods to Dylan, early Van Morrison, Springsteen and maybe Dire Straits too.  I was hooked. Now, not every song lives up to that, and this isn’t an ‘in your face’ rock album generally. Much of it features slower, reflective pop/folk  songs – the sort of songs that could have been written at any time in the last 50 years or more. The lyrics often tell short stories, and it’s no surprise to learn that Simone is a writer as well as a musician. He was part of the Felice Brothers, a good band who never quite broke through, but this is an impressive 9/10.

(*This live performance is pretty stripped down compared the  album version).

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Now a very different sound but another maverick artist who doesn’t neatly fit into pigeonholes. The last album from EMA (Past Life Martyred Saints) was one of my favourites of 2011. She’s a hard to categorise US singer and songwriter, with punk influences, and some serious weirdness at times, but the ability to write strong songs with words and tunes that stick in the memory. The Future’s Void, her new album, is perhaps a little more mainstream than the last, and certainly has more slower paced songs, but is nonetheless very good. It’s apparently about the Internet and ‘the virtualisation of our lives’ but personally, I wouldn’t worry about that, I would just enjoy an interesting, very contemporary album.

Reference points might be other female fronted, largely keyboard-driven bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Metric, as well as Sonic Youth, Courtney Love and Patti Smith. But don’t think it is all very earnest or hard work – 3Jane is a lovely ballad, and there are real tunes here. 8.5/10.

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