erasing clouds

The British Are Coming? Music From the UK

by john stacey

The British are coming! How many times, Stateside, have you heard that. How many times have our cousins across the pond been told to get ready for another British rock/pop invasion, only to discover that nothing happened or the acts that were supposed to give America a little taste of British culture turned out to be less than savoury? Biggest example? Try Oasis. Biggest hype? Try the Spice Girls. And, talking of those five - oops, sorry, four, because one of them left - Spices, Sporty, a.k.a Melanie Chisholm (the only one, we were assured, who could actually sing) has got a new CD out. It's called Reason (Virgin Records) and its...hopeless. And that's a shame. Because Mel C's debut offering, Northern Light, wasn't that bad. Reason, on the other hand, is. The girl might have got her act together and these days looks quite fetching (as we say in old Blighty) but her latest bid for solo stardom - not that she needs the money, being a millionairess several times over - isn't a patch on her debut. It's rocky. It's poppy. It's indie. It's cheesy. It's a hotch-potch of styles and ideas and gets very boring halfway through. It's the sort of CD you would expect of someone who, as she enters her late 20s, still doesn't know what to do with her voice. Now, Mel C's singing can be quite appealing; certainly it was the best thing about the Spice Girls' tepid offerings, but too often it sounds thin and screechy and unpleasant. Dare I say that underneath all the pop styling and wannabe heaviness is a (gasp) blues singer struggling to come out? Yup, our Mel C should forget being Britain's answer to Britney and try getting down and dirty with real, dyed-in-the-wool blues musicians. She might find she enjoys it. And she might find a lot more people do, too.

There are still a lot of bands in Britain that believe in the old rock values - good lyrics, musicianship, integrity, power. Medium 21 are one such band. Their debut album Killings From The Dial (Temptation Records) is a return to those rock values that many of us thought had disappeared in a welter of programming, samples and computer-aided recording. Not that there's anything wrong with computers per se, it's just that - sometimes - what a musician/producer can do with artificial intelligence often obscures the whole point of making music. Which is to use your hands to strum guitars, thwack drums or caress keyboards. Cribbing previously-recorded stuff can help make great music but (personally) I tend to prefer the natural, organic route. Medium 21 seem to think so, too. A four-piece from the English midlands region, their CD is packed with strong, dense, powerful music; music borne out of a determination to put the rock back into rock music. It's not metal, for sure, but it's not pop-lite, either. It's just the sort of intelligent, carefully-crafted stuff that used to be recorded eons ago. Which means that in the UK it probably won't chart; not that the boys of Medium 21 will care, I suppose. They'll be happy to plough their individual furrow on the concert tour round, hoping to back a bigger band and pick up fans - and sales - as a result.

Turin Brakes are not like Medium 21. They're two guys - Olly Knights and Gale Paridijian - who have put their own spin on the Travis/Coldplay style of rock; melodic, charming, hummable, very British. Where Turin Brakes differ is in the harmonies. During their second album - Ether Song (Source Records) - I could have sworn I was listening to the mutant offspring of Phil and Don Everly. The music they are producing is modern - it uses scratching, clicks, electronic background noise etc. to give it an up-to-date sheen - but it is at the same time quintessentially old school, the sort of stuff that has been produced with varying degrees of competency for 30-odd years. The tracks start, build up momentum and finish. Each song is a cornucopia of sound, mainly acoustic guitars - sometimes slide - delicately arranged, each additional instrument carefully positioned. Then there are the vocals; a sweet tenor supplemented by over-dubbed harmonies. It's the Everly Brothers circa 2003. It's very English, very restrained and quite lovely.

Ed Harcourt could (almost) be bracketed along with Turin Brakes in that he produces English-style pop music of that old-fashioned, singer-songwriter variety. But wheras most of us think of the West Coast Jackson Browne as being the template for most singer-songwriters, Harcourt uses the venerable Randy Newman as his template. Harcourt's subject matter is less vaudevillain but no less entrancing; his music on From Every Sphere (Heavenly Records) has developed a space and texture that was only hinted at on his first album. Harcourt also doesn't limit himself solely to playing the piano; he credits himself playing everything from pump organ (on the delicate All Of Your Days Will Be Blessed) to wah-wah clavinet, bells, glockenspiel and 'fun machine.' He's obviously a talented guy who enjoys messing around in the studio creating different sounds for his (usually) very listenable songs. Worth chancing a few dollars on.

Where Ed Harcourt's music is, in the main, upbeat and brimming with positivism, fellow Brit Tom McRae is an altogether different beast. His second album, Just Like Blood (db Records) grabs you by the throat and won't let go. It's not overtly loud, or thrashy, or metallic, or's just very intense. Tom's sound palette smacks of dissonance and claustrophobia; of minor chords clashing with cellos and deep bass. Over all of this is McRae's upper-register voice, at once at odds with the noise he makes but at the same time totally sympathetic. In Britain, big things are expected of Tom McRae. He is beginning to deliver.

Pulp were/are a Britpop band who have had limited success during their very long shelf-life: Year 2000 and Common People were two of their hits in the 90s. During all this time Richard Hawley quietly did his work, supplying the guitar parts for the band's individualistic sound, personified by singer Jarvis Cocker, he of the butt-revealing anti-Michael Jackson antics. But all the while he picked up his paycheck, Hawley was dreaming of making his own music - and it wouldn't sound like Pulp. His latest album, Lowedges (Setanta Records) follows an album and a mini-album in which he developed his craft. Hawley's music reaches fruition in Lowedges; his deep, rumbling voice perfectly completenting the classic, Orbison-style songs he writes. The music is slow but never ponderous; beautifully produced, aching and melancholic - and nothing like Pulp.

Finally a mention of one of the best CDs I have listened to in a while. Karl Broudie is a Scot, playing roots-style Americana on an Australian label! Already Nowhere To Here (Laughing Outlaw Records) has created a buzz in the UK, and no wonder. Broudie's weathered croon, with its shades of Tom Waits, informs 13 tracks that make you think you are listening to an American band - think Jayhawks, with more country or Dylan legends The Band. Broudie utilises pedal steel, banjos and mandolin to create an authentic sound that tastes of the south. It's languid and gentle, careworn and tragic, uplifting and classic. In short, Broudie has managed to stuff 40 years of Americana into one CD. And it works.

Issue 13, April 2003 | next article

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