Author Archives: Dubber

Director of Music Tech Fest, author of books about music, radio and digital culture.

Album of the Week: S.P.T.A. Said Person of That Ability

Three great things about S.P.T.A. Said Person of That Ability are the intelligent rapping, the skilful scratching, and the superb production. Better than those is the fact that it’s just one person doing all three. Even better still is that J-Live (aka Justice Allah) performs those roles on the album as three separate characters who actually interact with each other: they joke with each other, they lose patience with each other, and they reconcile. Best of all is the fact that it works – and it works brilliantly.

S.P.T.A. (pronounced “Spitta”) is essentially a concept album in which the artist is divided into his component parts, and his history, lifestyle and values are aired and examined as a dialogue between the three Justices that we meet on the record.

There are archetypes at work here – it’s a discussion between Id, Ego and Superego (Producer, DJ and Rapper respectively) and while Justice the Rapper gets to think out loud about what it all means, he also has to deal with the easily led-astray Justice the DJ and the unreliable Justice the Producer.

The recurring themes for J-Live, after fifteen years in the music business, are ideas of sustainability in a changing industry (“My very first single titled ‘Longevity’”), motivation for making art (“The difference between me and you is I know why I do this / If you think this’ll make you rich, then you’re stupid”) and the hubris of hip hop superstardom:

It’s like that brand new rapper with instant mass appeal
He caught a break with that big major record deal
Acting like the rest is already history
But the release date remains a mystery…

The personal figures large on this album too. Family, fatherhood and responsibility are examined in the light of the ability to make a career. How do you be good at being a hip hop artist and good at being a human being?

S.P.T.A. is an honest, powerful album that rewards close listening. It’s thoughtful, and open in a way that a simple monologue perhaps couldn’t be. But it’s also a lot of fun: entertaining, funny, and woven together with killer grooves and solid funk. It’s not the sound of someone doing some deep searching and beard-stroking, but rather the sound of someone likeable and relatable who’s come into some maturity and wisdom and is enjoying sharing it. And that makes it a masterpiece.

Listen to the full album and explore more from J-Live.

Album of the Week: Where are the Arms

Gabriel Kahane is often compared to Sufjan Stevens and Rufus Wainwright (both of whom he’s collaborated with in the past). It’s a lot to live up to, but to that already high bar I’ll add Ben Folds and Randy Newman, if only for Kahane’s similar sense of musical theatre, playful storytelling and ability to set the stage for a very human narrative.

Kahane’s latest release, Where are the Arms, is not only clever, interesting and musically satisfying – it’s a Great Record. To me, the difference between a really wonderful album (of which there are many) and a Great Record (of which there are very few), lies somewhere in the work’s ambition, depth of emotion, honesty, complexity, immediacy, warmth, timelessness, personality and universality.

In “Charming Disease,” for instance, the arrangements tip you off that something really special is at work here, and then the lyrics begin to sink in and you find that it’s a deeply poignant song about the tragedy of addiction. Elsewhere, “Calabash and Catamaran” manages to be both a mind-bendingly polyrhythmic tune in overlapping and alternating bars of 5, 7 and 8 – and at the same time an incredibly catchy pop song that will get stuck in your head for days. “LA” is, quite simply, a timeless masterpiece of a song, and deserves to be as important to people as, say, “Fire and Rain” – and for many of the same reasons.

But there’s not a dry spell on the album. It’s coherent, consistent, eminently repayable, layered and rewarding. For this listener, Where Are The Arms effortlessly connects itself to personal history, and becomes an important work within a private musical biography in the same way as some Joni Mitchell or Van Morrison albums.

So if we’re invoking names like Sufjan Stevens, Rufus Wainwright, Ben Folds and Randy Newman, let it not be for the reason that Kahane sounds a bit like them, but because here is a group of songwriters who all have achieved the uncommon feat of creating a truly Great Record – and Gabriel Kahane has just joined their ranks.

Listen to the full album and explore more from Gabriel Kahane.

Album of the Week: Zubatto Syndicate

With a stylish, fold-out image by science-fiction artist Franco Brambilla on the album cover, we are introduced to the world of Zubatto Syndicate – at once quaint, modern, post-modern, and otherworldly. Pastel-toned robots from the future have arrived in 1961, and they are ready to hang out by the lake.

The retro-futurist aesthetic of the cover reflects the music’s subject matter. The songs all feature references to other worlds, time travel, robots and alien visitors, though as a purely instrumental record, the kitsch-cool is performed rather than expressly stated.

Led by Seattle guitarist Andrew Boscardin, Zubatto Syndicate processes the last 50 years of popular music through the seemingly anachronistic medium of a brass & woodwind-heavy 12-piece jazz orchestra. Hip hop, funk, soul, metal, bossa and rock all find their way into the Zubatto palette, but the output is orchestral and electronic, cinematic and swinging.

Bass clarinet and bassoon sit alongside electric piano and rock guitar, and together they ride along over funk baselines and hip hop beats. Saxophone and trumpet solos stretch over samba rhythms and metal riffs alike. Everyone here is an improvising soloist, and each is given space to stretch out. The arrangements are intricate and ambitious, without overshadowing the strong compositions at the heart of this record.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Zubatto Syndicate is the way in which these seeming collisions of style are made to work – and even seem effortless and natural.

“The Green Boy from Hurrah” is a rock workout in seven with timbales and snare rolls – but rapidly morphs into an off-kilter drum and bass Pathé News travelogue soundtrack. “The Trouble With Earth Women” would not be out of place in a film noir setting at the moment of the arrival of the femme fatale, but only if the film in question was made in the 21st century. “Saturn 9” features a laid-back bossa groove with a Cosby kids bassline. In “Arrival,” Wayne Shorter appears to do battle with King Crimson.

But for all that eccentricity and diversity, Zubatto Syndicate has a consistent and coherent identity of its own throughout. Boscardin is a strong leader and overlays a singular vision, but never attempts to dominate. In fact, at times he is entirely absent, preferring instead to let the other players take centre stage. This is an ensemble piece, not a guitar player and his group of supporting musicians.

Zubatto Syndicate is an utterly contemporary jazz big band – which is happily not as much a contradiction in terms as it might first appear. In fact, they’re so modern – they might as well be from the future.

Listen to the full album and explore more from Zubatto Syndicate.

Album of the Week: The Surgery EP

Grime, a descendant of garage, dancehall and hip-hop born roughly a decade ago on the streets of the UK, is now entering maturity, with several of its stars finding themselves experiencing the trappings (and the traps) of major label success. But there’s also an increasing universality in its subject matter and themes, and a playfulness with the tropes and assumptions in the music’s culture. Grime is tackling important political and cultural material with resonance for broader society, and at the same time its artists are comfortable taking themselves less seriously — all of which point to the fact that grime is growing up.

Case in point: London-based Kwam MC (Kevin Nana Boadi), an avant-garde artist in the real sense of the word. His latest release, The Surgery EP, pushes grime into new territory by dealing with socio-political issues such as citizenship, surveillance culture and branding, while periodically breaking the fourth wall and addressing his audience with sly asides and clever banter. The result is a record that succeeds in being both important and urgent on the one hand, and entirely approachable on the other. Coupled with Sketch’E’s punchy, melodic production, it’s a slick package and invites repeat listens not only because the songs are so great, but because Kwam’s just so damn likeable and convincing.

Of course, The Surgery EP contains some of the braggadocio you might expect from urban street music. “Linen,” for example, is an unrelenting diss – a battle rap with no worthy opponent. But at times Kwam is surprisingly modest. In “Pedigree,” he makes a point of drawing our attention to his less accomplished works in part to show how far he’s come, which also has the effect of humanising him:

‘05, jumped on a bar ting
Studes in Barking
Over a beat with a dog on it barking
When I look back I can’t help laughing
Swear down I thought that tune was the hardest…

Elsewhere, the EP veers toward the revolutionary. On “What Do You Stand For?” Kwam stops the track to speak “unmediated” to his audience to point out the absurdity of a culture of conspicuous consumption and the use of social media in the service of unpaid brand promotion.

While it might be stretching the point to draw a connection between the recent riots in the UK and a grime release that only just preceded them, there’s no doubt that Kwam manages to express the collective frustration, futility and outrage of people beginning to realise the extent to which their freedom and self-determination is illusory:

This whole malarky’s nothing but effery
…and it’s upset me
So I put my anger in a tune
Before I break these chains what I can’t see
I need to work out the angle I’ma use.

As well as being a completely brilliant set of songs, Kwam has crafted something sophisticated, layered, problematic, engaging, angry, witty and nuanced. And that makes it crucial.

Listen to the full album and explore more from Kwam.

Album of the Week: Les Sessions Cubaines

To say that Québécois singer Philémon Bergeron-Langlois comes across as vulnerable on Les Sessions Cubaines would be an incredible understatement. A good deal of the time he sounds utterly broken – heartsick, and in the throes of romantic despair. He refers to the 15 tracks on the album as chansons, a word that literally translates to “songs,” but which I suspect in French more effectively conveys the sense that the singer is holding both of your hands and staring into your eyes, begging you not to leave.

Because that’s exactly what this sounds like – only imagine the same scene on a hot, quiet evening in Havana. Les Sessions Cubaines is, as the title would suggest, a collection of recordings made in Cuba. Philémon’s account of how he came to be there is deliberately vague, but pregnant with poetic, romantic longing:

“…for various reasons, I was not in great shape. A friend told me to go away for a month. I thought about Cuba. I had long wanted to go, before it explodes – and it’s said there are excellent musicians, and of course – the sun…”

And with that, and perhaps a few belongings tied in a handkerchief on the end of a long stick, Philémon made his way to the island nation in the Caribbean.

There he assembled a group of musicians at the famous Egrem studio, where the Buena Vista Social Club recorded their now classic album, and began to arrange his songs for violin, double bass, Cuban tres guitar, piano, percussion, muted trumpet and, on backing vocals, a woman who had to learn the French lyrics phonetically, as she only spoke Spanish. A 15-minute making-of video on Philémon’s site gives you insight into the process and the characters that gave life to this rich mix of sounds and feelings. It’s a fascinating story and an inspiring adventure, but the music is what counts, and this is an astonishing collection of songs.

There’s a timeless approach to melodic form here, delivered with a sad sense of resignation and unrequited love. But there’s also a self-deprecating humor, a childlike naïveté, and a sophistication to the songs of Philémon, and the Cuban setting offers the perfect space for these elements to develop into something magic.

Whether you understand French is irrelevant, as the emotional heft of this album transcends barriers of language. Yet this is not at all a sentimental record. This is simply emotion, raw and unrefined. Experiencing it may make you yearn to be as heartbroken as Philémon, if only you too could express yourself so beautifully.

Listen to the full album and explore more from Philémon.

Album of the Week: The Other Half of Everything

At first glance, the landscape on the cover of Martin John Henry’s The Other Half of Everything is a scene of complete isolation. This is Scotland. An archetypal rugged landscape of hills and lochs, as far as the eye can see.

On closer inspection, there are some signs of habitation: buildings, roads, farms… but they are ruins, and their remnants are surrounded by such immense majesty that they almost disappear into insignificance. And yet the evidence of life is written into the hills. The landscape remembers the stories.

Scottish songwriter Henry (formerly of acclaimed band De Rosa) has teamed up with Mogwai producer Andy Miller to offer us those stories, together with a soundscape that’s as magnificent as the terrain in which they take place.

Using a mix of acoustic, electric and electronic instrumentation to craft his songs, Henry paints miniatures of a lived and imagined Scotland, performed not just through his sung accent, but deliberately evoked through the sounds he employs. Not parochial or tokenistic – you have to put some imaginative work in if you want to hear bagpipes, whisky, heather, shortbread or shipyards (though, to be fair, welding is mentioned) – but it is instead authentic: the sound of someone from a specific place in the world, expressing the unique characteristics and culture of that place as it is; through its daily ordinariness, as well as through its past, its geography and its myth.

Maps and ancient landmarks figure large within the album. The Other Half of Everything is, in a sense, a musical map. A map is something small; you can hold it in your hands. But what it signifies is something much larger than you can ordinarily see from where you stand.

The broch – an Iron Age dry stone wall circular building found only in Scotland – also recurs. For Henry, it roots him to his deep history – his contemporary experience with ancient tradition. “Breathing Space” takes you straight to that cultural memory.

You are allowed to be a tourist for no more than the first two lines:

In a land far away
There is hope on a beach
In a broch
In my thoughts
I will feed every day with itself

And similarly, “Span” evokes the place and its history, and connects us with the lives lived and battles fought in those hills:

Our hearts are cut in stone
Our lives are lived alone
My heart is cast in bronze
My skull is cracked

But to focus simply on the poetic content of Henry’s songs of national character would be to risk overlooking their universality, simple beauty, thoughtful arrangements and honest delivery. This is a very special album on all those fronts.

If I had to guess at the “half of everything” to which this album presents the “other,” it would be our focus on the here and now. Our own little worlds. What we mean when we talk about the “everything” of our lives is not really everything. It’s only part of the story.

Martin John Henry shows us the other half of everything – the context into which it all fits: the history, the landscape, the sheer scale. It’s all on the cover and it’s right throughout this remarkable album. Our stories are humble and personal, and yet they are permanently carved out in the land where we live.

Listen to the full album and explore more from Martin John Henry.

Album of the Week: Mir

This is the third in a series of weekly album reviews published by Andrew Dubber. If you haven’t already caught it, please check out his introductory post.

I remember the day I fell in love with sound. Not the date, exactly, but I remember the event. I’d heard Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygène on the radio and thought it was interesting and futuristic, but nothing spectacular.

“Listen to this,” said a helpful grownup.

“Yeah, I’ve heard it,” I said. “It’s on the radio all the time.”

“No,” he said, handing me the headphones. “Listen.”

And in the next few minutes, I discovered high fidelity, stereo separation, spatial movement, auditory depth of field, and my lifelong wonder at the marvel of just how good things are actually capable of sounding.

Sound is amazing. Electronic music, at its best, exploits the hell out of that fact. Jarre was really good at it. British electronic producer and musician Ott is a master at it.

Having worked with such luminaries as Brian Eno, The Orb, and Sineád O’Connor, Ott has retreated to the studio (and the occasional massive outdoor festival) to work on his particular brand of psychedelic dub, and has released fairly infrequent collections of his work in album form: 2003’s Blumenkraft and 2008’s Skylon precede this year’s offering, Mir.

The new album draws strongly from contemporary trends in electronic dance music, but doesn’t simply mimic them. Rather than adopt the palette of the latest thing, thereby running the risk of sounding dated in a matter of months, Ott references those styles but continues in a tradition of what can only really be described as timeless electronic music.

Some things will just always sound good. This can be as true of a sine wave running through an LFO as it is of a Rickenbacker. Moments of Mir will put you in mind of Vangelis, Tangerine Dream and Art of Noise as much as they will of Caspa, Rusko and Skream.

One of the drawbacks, however, of making sounds that are as beautiful and impressive as these is that there is no room for rough edges. On first listen, Mir has a kind of clinical air and a glossy sheen to it. If you like your music a little rough around the edges, that might initially put you off. But Mir redeems itself on this front by grooving hard. “Squirrel and Biscuits,” on a big system, will fill a dance floor, and prompt more than a few “what’s this tune?”s. Proven in the field, that one.

And like any good, conceptually coherent electronic album (no, I didn’t say “concept album”), Mir starts slow. This is not just a set of songs standing near each other, but a single, consistent work that builds, has light and shade, a narrative arc, conflict and resolution, thematic development.

So you’ll forgive the fact that the astonishingly intricate, glitch-riddled, dubstep-informed, deep groove doesn’t really kick in properly until midway through “Adrift in Hilbert Space,” the album’s second, 8-minute-plus tune. But when it does – and make sure you’re wearing headphones, or sitting equidistant between two very expensive speakers turned up to an almost window-rattling volume – I defy to keep your jaw at anywhere near its usual height.

Far more than the fact that Mir is a great record – it’s a great sounding record. Do a local kid a favour. Let them listen to this on a pair of decent cans. They may turn out to be a cloth-eared brat – but you could end up changing someone’s life. It’s worth a shot.

Listen to the full album and explore more from Ott.

Album of the Week: Fire on the Vine

This is the second in a series of weekly album reviews published by Andrew Dubber. If you haven’t already caught it, please check out his introductory post.

The world appears to be littered with bearded young men with acoustic guitars and notebooks full of verse, access to old pianos, and mournful string players.

Few have the skill with words, the deftness with arrangement and the ambition with the sonic palette that Bryan John Appleby has. Even fewer are able to deliver both their words and music with a voice that simultaneously expresses innocence and optimism on the one hand, and weary experience on the other.

The cover art of Fire on the Vine presents a selection of carefully arranged items that can best be described as bric-a-brac. It’s a beautifully curated collection of miscellany that evokes a rustic past. Small and well-worn fragments, simple in appearance, but which carry with them stories and memories, personal to their owner, and from which an impression – if not the detail – of those experiences and emotions can be ascertained. The contents of a life, laid out on the table – symbolic, telling and yet inscrutable.

And that nicely sums up the contents of this album too. While Appleby is a storyteller with a guitar, he’s the kind of storyteller that doesn’t require beginnings, middles or ends, character development or – y’know – plots. Stories, like melodies or paintings, don’t have to be ‘about’ something in order to have an emotional and aesthetic impact.

It’s an album that rewards repeated listening and a little thoughtful, solitary contemplation. The opener, ‘Noah’s Nameless Wife’ could read as a reflection on loss, a treatise on sexual politics, or equally a hopeful anthem about new beginnings. ‘Boys’ has an epic quality to it, coming in at twice the length you’d expect to find on an album such as this, and rises to a crescendo that gains much of its power from the hushed tones and fragile playing that surround it. On ‘The Lake’ it’s as if the objects on the album’s sleeve have joined in with the chorus, clattering in as rustic and yet as orderly a fashion as they appear in the picture.

But while the music invites our own interpretation, that’s not to call Appleby ‘abstract’ in any sense. This is simple, approachable and comforting music. But instead of drawing us a picture, he lays out the lightest of sketches – describing small details, fragments of moods, meaningful moments and evocative glances – and lets us fill in the gaps with our own personal baggage.

What Bryan John Appleby has created is essentially an ‘Open Work’ – complete, but unfinished until internalised and interpreted by the listener. And that makes Fire on the Vine a very emotion-rich record indeed. They’re real emotions, because they’re our own. And the more you live with it, the more it becomes part of you.

When you come to lay the contents of your own life out on the table, symbolically or otherwise, you could do a lot worse than placing this record carefully, neatly and lovingly alongside the other trinkets that express who you are.

Listen to the full album and explore more from Bryan John Appleby.