The music industry, we are told, is in crisis. Sales are nose-diving as overpriced high street CDs are spurned in favour of peer-to-peer internet file sharing. Music is suffocating under the stranglehold of a few major labels as generic rubbish is conveyor-belted into the world via TV talent shows. Music journalism is dying out, becoming little more than an extended advert. A dissenting opinion or an intelligent viewpoint is met with incomprehension and boredom by dumbed down teenagers, at least so say the demographic surveys, and that is what concerns advertisers. Enlightened opinions and quality writing still exist, but they’ve been relegated to non-profitmaking weblogs and e-zines. In such a climate who would be deluded enough to want to be a musician? Answer: everyone.
Or so it seemed when The Mind’s Construction e-zine was submitted to the Indie Contact Newsletter, within hours I had the musicians themselves e-mailing me, asking where to send their CDs. Lacking foresight, I said “yes” to every one of them, justifying it to my that I might be interested in the artists sociologically, if not musically. When they began to flood in and I began listening to them, I realised that there was a problem: most of them were so ballsachingly mediocre that I didn’t know what to say. For writers, it is far more difficult to write entertainingly about the average and the bland than it is to celebrate or slag off.
Nevertheless, this echelon in the world of music, between the strugglers and the signed, for the self-released does seem fundamentally rotten. Almost certainly the recipient of more record company rejection slips than they care to remember, these are people who have the self-belief to overcome the music industry and go it alone. And although they don’t have any of the press machinery, the rise of internet has meant that with enough effort these artists can even find a sizeable audience, get press from independent writers and generally make a name. The press does nothing more than legitimise the presence of these things in the universe.
Close Up and Real, by a woman known simply as Jane, is reminiscent of the Corrs, if the Corrs weren’t quite as saccharine or annoying. Her 16 well-crafted pop songs – all tinged with Country influences – drifted by very pleasantly indeed. There are many singers like Jane, playing small clubs and bars all over Britain, but few with such strong songwriting ability. What she needs is a major publishing deal to sell these songs to those (like, say, Jewel and Fiona Apple) who so obviously need them.
King Bathmat, the nom de plume of John Bassett, is similarly adept at composing a strong and well-structured song. First song on Crowning Glory is ‘As Ever’ with its layered textures and inventive use of backing vocals is smooth indeed. Everything fits into place: the classic Americanised voice, multiple guitar layers and synth horns make it all very listenable background music. In a world that is becoming infested with pauper solo artists, King Bathmat is, if not King, then at least a Viscount.
There are artists who touch all the right buttons and there are artists who touch the wrong ones, Gina Cutillo touches the right buttons, but the problem is that those buttons have been pressed so many times before. The buttons are knackered. The music is formulaic. Her voice is too samey to sustain our interest. Final song, ‘Still Believe’, shows passion, but it needs to escape the strictures of received ideas about music.
“The Legendary” Jeff Laine, as he calls himself, appears on the front cover of his album Long Way to Go wearing tight jeans with one leg akimbo. Nice. The music is timeless, professional. ‘Frankie and Johnie’ (sic) is almost a cover of Dylan with Johnny Cash vocals. And at its best, his songs are a facsimile of these two artists, but all too often it becomes submerged under its classic references.
“Autumn, a time to enjoy a camp fire of tranquillity.” Resembling Chris Morris’s Blue Jam with its ambient backing to the otherworldly voice, Kathleen Swann’s Seasons of Serenity is relaxation music. Its aim is to make you feel more positive and fulfilled and relaxed. As long as you can suspend your disbelief (and your sense of humour), you will no doubt benefit from it, but occasionally hilarious lines prevented me from getting carried down this particular stream. “A friend has built a fire in the chalet. You glow with its radiance.” As she says, you need to “begin with clearing your mind” to reap the rewards and my mind, for good or ill, refuses to empty. Intriguing all the same.
Touch of Madness by Spike Ivory is MOR rock so middle of the road that you can almost hear the trucks speeding by it. It is so classic that it deserves to be put in a museum. His latest single, Rollin’ Thunder is dedicated to “all our men and women serving in the armed forces.” Singer-songwriter Joe Galluzzi asks us to “say a prayer for the red, white and blue” explaining that there “ain’t no freedom without you,” with soft-rock serving as accompaniment. Not having much of an appetite for imperialist propaganda, I was left unmoved.
Reasonably intelligent and occasionally quirky, The Matthew Show also had the best packaged CD. It makes a difference to see lyrics printed out, especially if they are as narrative based as Matthew’s. “So it seems I’ve made the scene/ I’m underneath the bone machine/ the dreaded rasta, he lets me in/ Armies thwarted again.” Although it ultimately lacks an edge, Texas is worth a listen.
Which is more than I can say for Middle of Something by The Twilight Babies, an album that may be absolutely seamless in its professionalism but is also seamlessly bland. Starting out rather trip-hoppy it descends into generic guitar pop. And descends and descends and descends.
On Cross ‘n Water, Ford revels in his Jaggeresque phrasing and “classic” AOR radio rock. It is the kind of thing has been played to death by Tom Petty and John Mellancamp. A little originality would go a long way in such a staid genre.
Stellar Tuesday have a great look, but their music is truly dreadful. The production is lifeless, the lyrics banal and cliched, the vocals dull, the song structures tired. ‘Everything Reminds Me’ closely resembles Avril Lavigne’s Skater Boi without the individuality, the angst or the talent.
In comparison to Stellar Tuesday, Richard McGraw’s Her Sacred Status, My Militant Needs is a work of sublime genius. After more reflection, he is revealed to be an intriguing singer/songwriter whose simple-but-effective acoustic guitar and vocals is backed with great subtlety. The usual solo acoustic introspection sounds fresh simply because McGraw has incorporated a complete lyrical vision that displays a lifetime’s thinking about religion (Christ) and doubt and love (he was, after all, a philosophy student). There isn’t quite enough variety for 16 songs, but a 4 part concept album is bound to have some lulls. Best song? ‘The Golden Crucifix vs. The Weight Complexity.’
That Radium 88 are from the UK (Nottingham, to be precise) is not immediately obvious, one would have thought that such pseudo-Shoegazing had long died out, but repeated listens reveal them to be the most original thing I have heard via the Indie Contact Newsletter. One minute, Jema Davies’s vocals are incredibly ethereal and the album is dreamy. Next minute, on ‘Watch the Skies’, there is a most inadvised rap, like the bloke from the B-52s on ‘Love Shack.’ Nevertheless, a great harmonica solo redeems it. An incredibly varied album, it turns into Portishead by track 5 then veers towards the synth pop of Dubstar, ‘Disenchanted’ being top quality dub-synth-pop. If it occasionally sounds dated, it is never in a bad way, reinvigorating forgotten genres with their melody-driven pop.
Like Hank Marvin and The Shadows, Bryon Thompson’s album is instrumental music that shuffles along inoffensively. It is bizarre to have the lead guitar taking over from vocal duties, but the fact is that the songs never seems to lack a singer, they have an integrity of their own, which is undoubtedly a good thing. Odd, but interesting.
Esoteric’s ouija board CD cover looks like the kind of Satan worshipping thing that one can imagine being banned. Awful sounding guitars and overbearing bad vocals make this a CD that should be banned. It sounds like it was recorded in a skip. Not so much tortured as torture. Incredible how they manage to make 3 boring tracks last nearly 20 minutes.
Far be it for me to criticise Heavy Rock, not knowing anything about it, but Idioverse sound to my untutored ears like sub-Soundgarden grunge-Metal. Neither “lounge music for punks” nor complete crap rock, but the balance is tipping towards the latter.
Imaginary Bill’s CD has a cool cartoon suggesting a different approach to the one I have been accustomed to, but their professional punk-pop suggest differently. Fairly tuneful, but quite frankly I am losing the will to live.
Rikki Gann, whose incompetent powerpoint printout of a press release caused a few laughs (a sample page reads ‘Rikki is currently collaborating with Paul Sadler aka “Carpet Monster” formally [sic] from the successful [sic?] Channel 4 early morning show, The Big Breakfast.’), is better than he should be. His cliches and his colourless ballads should be awful, but I found myself liking it despite myself.
Dream Catcha MOR pop strings together cliches in a not altogether unpleasant way. It is relentlessly optimistic, joyous and I’m sure they have fun making it, just as I’m sure they give pleasure to their fans when they play live. But it isn’t music: too cloying, too nice, too bland, too lifeless, no passion. “Don’t wanna say I’m over you, don’t wanna say it cos it’s true” a line delivered without utterly no feeling.
As an insight into the American psyche, former bulimic Shannon Cutts’ Modern Day Eve offers many revelations – about religion, the self and the role of music. Sponsored by Life me Up Ministries (“seeking grace one song at a time”), it is all very professional – and to call someone professional is the death knell, really – but not particularly inspiring. It’s good in its bland, MOR, professional way.
Philip Larkin used to say that he put the two strongest poems first and last of each collection. Fishkill on the other hand put one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard, the whining ‘Weekend Anthem’ that grates so much I feel like smashing my stereo. Tuneless vocals without charm Perhaps it is only when you listen to this much music does the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest, only then do you appreciate why bad is bad and good is good. Fishkill’s A Change of Atmosphere (and there’s 15 tracks of this stuff!) is bad.