March Music Review – Bowie, Bastille, Suede and Stornoway

Now the dust is settling from the genius launch campaign, just how good is the new Bowie album, The Next Day? Can we judge it in any sort of objective and independent manner, without being coloured by a previous 40 years career?

No, is the answer, to be honest, particularly as it makes so many references to older material, some obvious, some more obscure.  From track one which has touches of the Ziggy-era sneer; then Dirty Boys with a white soul-boy period sax riff; then China Girl touches in The stars are out tonight (which comes with  a very odd video).  And that’s just the first three tracks. You can’t help make these connections and experience shivers of recognition - yet this is far from a pastiche or re-tread. These are strong songs that sound contemporary and vigorous, with good tunes (most of the time) and the usual Bowie lyrics (“what on earth is he going on about ”)?  Who knows, is the answer...

And most of the tracks are short – it’s a little like Paul Weller’s brilliant 2010 Wake Up The Nation album, in that you get very different styles track by track, and sometimes you’re just getting into a song when it finishes. But far better that, than songs that overstay their welcome.  However, to get the hype into perspective, I’m not sure the Bowie album is actually better than that varied and innovative Weller work – hence my backing off a little from too much hyperbole.

So yes, if this had been the first release from a 22 year old singer, we would be talking about an “interesting and very talented new voice”.  All in all, a very pleasant surprise and gives us all hope that being 66 needn’t mean it’s too late to do excellent work, whatever our field of endeavour.  8.5/10

Another impressive comeback is evident with Suede and Bloodsports. If you were a fan of their first two brilliant albums, you’re likely to enjoy this, and it is certainly their best since then – and perhaps  actually their most commercial work ever. It sounds totally current, with big songs, a positive, vibrant feel, crisp production and catchy tunes. If we still had rock songs becoming “hit singles” then surely tracks like “ It starts with me and you “ would be one.  I’m not one for “old” bands coming back, but I’m still hoping they might play Reading Festival based on this.  A comfortable  8/10 I think.

Stornoway's first album, Beachcomber’s Windowsill, was one of my favourites of 2010. We heard them playing new songs at the apocalyptically wet Festival last summer, and immediate reaction was uncertainty. But now hearing the second album Tales from Terra Firma in full, any fears are misplaced. It is a  tuneful, joyful and intelligent album of pop-roots-indie-folk music (a new genre I've just invented,  "Prif" for short).

They’re a band with multiple degrees and PhDs and a winning way with emotionally charged yet light on their feet and tuneful pop-folk songs. You get always intelligent lyrics, often with themes related to the natural world. They get dangerously close to the whimsy of Belle and Sebastian at times, but there’s always an  unexpected touch in their arrangements to keep things interesting.

Farewell Appalachia has a distinctly summer of love feel, with Mammas and Pappas harmonies but with a mandolin leading the backing - the overall effect being a mystic folky-hippie groove that is rather lovely. There are also relatively simple pop songs like The Bigger Picture. Will it take them up into the Mumford's stratosphere? I doubt it, even if they deserve it, as their songs are still fundamentally intimate rather than expansive - not arena material, I would have thought , but none the worse for that.  And I never expected the Mumford's to get that big either...  Anyway, 8.5/10

Finally, Bastille with Bad Blood. Whether you know it or not, you will have heard Pompeii, the lead track / single from this, all over the radio, coming out of shops or bars, etc etc . Like that track, the whole album is perfectly pleasant, middle of the road pop-rock. The core of the sound is, in the main, electronic keyboards and synths rather than guitars, with the odd touch of wider influences (a bit of chanting now and again, a hint of skittering, dance drum patterns on Overjoyed). Main man Dan Smith (no relation) is clearly a talented pop songwriter (the new Gary Barlow perhaps? ) and writes strong songs with catchy hooks, and whilst I'm surprised it is selling in quite such quantities, I can see why. Absolutely nothing that is going to distract you from dinner, working on your laptop or driving up the M1 - because you're certainly going to be doing something else while you listen to this perfect modern background music. 7/10.


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