Mike Atkinson

Martin Carthy – Frazer Theatre Knaresborough, Friday August 14 2015

Posted in Frazer Theatre, gigs, Harrogate Advertiser by Mike A on September 17, 2015

Originally published in the Harrogate Advertiser/Knaresborough Post.

He might be one of British folk music’s most pivotal and best-loved figures – garlanded with an MBE and a Lifetime Achievement Award, his early influence on Bob Dylan and Paul Simon a matter of record – but at the age of 74, Martin Carthy wears his achievements lightly. In best troubadour tradition, he strolls up Kirkgate into Knaresborough town, guitars and suitcase in hand, ready to open this year’s FEVA festival with a solo show at the Frazer Theatre.

With no starry stage persona to project, and no signature songs to present for the umpteenth time, he opens with High Germany, the first track on his recently re-released 1965 debut album. Dating from the eighteenth century, it’s the first of several selections that deal with themes of war.

Ahead of each song, while he sets his guitar to a different tuning, we are given the context.  The Doffing Mistress tells the tale of a group of mill girls who go on strike to support their sacked supervisor, one Elsie Thompson. While her charges have been bent double by their labours, Elsie can still stand up straight, hanging her coat on “the highest pin”.

The more we are told, the more meaning we can extract. For Carthy, this is a prime duty: the songs are what matter, and he is not here to distract us with showy dexterity or pretty frills. The playing is raw, unadorned, but full of character, invention and deft tricks of timing. He might forget a line here and there, shrugging off the blunder with an easy grin, but the picking never falters.

There are unorthodox tunings – he’s known for them – which twist new colours from his guitar. By keeping the bottom string tuned low, Carthy supplies his own bass section. On The Downfall Of Paris (“or The Downfall Of Pears, as it’s known in Dorset”), the effect is thrilling.

Some songs are as dark as any Nick Cave murder ballad. A jealous husband cross-dresses to trick his wife’s presumed lover, decapitates him, then learns too late that he is her secret bastard son. A battered wife stitches her sleeping husband into his bedclothes, then whacks him with a frying pan. Whoever said that folk music was twee?

He ends after two and a half spellbinding hours, with an acapella re-telling of Hamlet (“If you thought that was boring, you should read the bloody play!”) and a playfully creepy Harry Lime Theme. The cheers are hearty, sustained, and richly deserved.

 

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Sleaford Mods: Key Markets

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on September 17, 2015

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

smkm“I’m just a little moaning arse-fart, blowing smoke.” On an album which takes pot-shots at everyone from Cameron and Johnson to Brand and Blur, it only seems fair that Jason Williamson should turn on himself for a moment – but there’s more to Key Markets, the fifth Sleaford Mods album in three years, than mere scattergun abuse.

Lyrically more abstract than its predecessors, it’s also more varied in pace and mood, adding new colours to the palette. The opening two tracks, Live Tonight and No One’s Bothered, stick closest to what you’d expect – lairy chants, punk rock riffs – but elsewhere, we’re on shifting ground.

Silly Me nudges towards clumsy funk; Arabia wrong-foots you with awkward off-beats; Tarantula Deadly Cargo is a menacing, loose-limbed rumble, with an unfathomably surreal storyline. There’s seething rage on Face To Faces (“this daylight robbery is now so fucking hateful, it’s completely accepted by the vast majority”), but by the halfway mark on Side Two, Jason’s despair has taken a morose, almost defeated turn.

On the brooding, atmospheric Rupert’s Trousers, he takes weary aim at the Chipping Norton set, intoning mournfully over Andrew Fearn’s bleak, PiL-style dub tones. It’s followed by the staccato death-rattle of Giddy On The Ciggies, which gradually gathers steam, marshalling a final blast of fractured fury before ebbing away into hollow, wordless beats.

Hearteningly free of any concessions towards their new-found semi-fame (“we don’t want radio play, we’re not fucking Cannon and Ball”), Key Markets signals that Sleaford Mods are in for the long haul.

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Pride Life cover feature: Madonna Magic

Posted in features, Pride Life by Mike A on September 17, 2015

Originally published as a cover feature in Pride Life magazine.

Thirty years after Like A Virgin turned her into a global star, Madonna is still setting tongues wagging, flashbulbs popping and cash tills ringing – and yet, seven years since her last internationally chart-topping hit, her place at the top of pop’s ladder looks a good deal less secure.

This spring, with the release of her thirteenth studio album Rebel Heart, the 56 year-old is once again gearing up to claim centre stage as a relevant pop artist, whose glory days are far from over. It’s a game which almost all of her contemporaries have long since given up, and yet Madonna’s determination seems as fierce as ever. It’s a determination which has fuelled one of the most remarkable success stories of modern times.

In contrast to the remote, quasi-regal position she now holds, safely sequestered behind superstardom’s velvet ropes, Madonna’s roots were grounded in club culture. Emerging from the cutting-edge Manhattan scene of the early Eighties, she scaled the dance charts before setting her sights on the Top Forty, using her club-savvy instincts to shape her sound and style.

It was a smart opening move, but this limited world was never going to contain Madonna for long. Doubtless mindful of the short shelf-life of most club-based acts, she wasted no time in trading dance chart credibility for mass pop appeal. Chic’s Nile Rodgers might have been her new producer, but Like A Virgin stepped firmly away from funkiness, shedding the egalitarianism of the dancefloor in favour of the nakedly ambitious individualism of the Reagan-Thatcher era. Madonna now wanted to be a star. She didn’t care who knew it, and she knew exactly how to get there. Material Girl, the album’s second hit, said it all: ironic and arch on one level, disarmingly sincere on another.

By the time of her third album, the staggeringly successful True Blue, any lingering traces of subversion had been snuffed out. The dream had been fulfilled. She was the stadium-filling darling of suburban Middle America, whose songs had ceased to say anything much beyond “where’s the party?” Granted, Papa Don’t Preach tackled the controversial subject of an unplanned pregnancy, but not in a way that would have disturbed a conservative mindset.

It still wasn’t enough. With commercial success now in the bag, Madonna re-booted her mission and embarked on a new journey: from ephemeral pop star to mature artist. Like A Prayer marked a thrilling re-invention, which seemed to expand the scope of what pop could achieve. Like the very best pop albums – the Thrillers, the Sgt. Peppers – it embraced a rich variety of genres, moods and themes, mixing the playful with the provocative, the sacred with the profane, and attracting the attention of heavyweight cultural commentators in the process. Madonna hadn’t been cool since her first and best movie, Desperately Seeking Susan. Suddenly, academics were falling over themselves to study her, high-end couturiers were clamouring to clothe her, and the world in general was starting to take her very seriously indeed.

From 1989 to 1992, Madonna ruled pop. The Immaculate Collection cherry-picked and subtly remixed her back catalogue, showcasing the gems and ditching the duds. To this day, it remains her biggest selling record. The Blonde Ambition tour scaled new heights of artistry and spectacle. Vogue conquered every dancefloor on the planet, its accompanying video oozing style and class. A fly-on-the-wall documentary, In Bed With Madonna, offered unprecedented levels of access to her private life, simultaneously bulldozing her mystique and building her brand. The Like A Prayer video drew accusations of blasphemy, the Justify My Love video was decried as soft-core pornography, and yet Madonna thrived on controversy, always ready with an eloquent defence. To most of us, it seemed as if she could do no wrong.

This period came to an abrupt end in October 1992, with the simultaneous release of Erotica (the single and the album) and Sex (the eye-popping coffee-table book). For many observers, Madonna had already pushed successfully at sexual boundaries – most recently with Justify My Love – and so it now felt as if she was boxing herself into a rather coarse and charmless corner. But for all this knee-jerk outrage (fuelled further by the teasing misdirection of some of its song titles: Why’s It So Hard, Deeper and Deeper, Secret Garden) the Erotica album turned out to be a surprisingly understated affair. More stylistically cohesive than its predecessor, it stands up well to the test of time.

Two years later, Madonna struck back. “Screw you, haters” songs might be commonplace these days, but with its defiant refusal to repent, Human Nature mapped out new territory. (“You punished me for telling you my fantasies, I’m breaking all the rules I didn’t make.”) Its parent album, Bedtime Stories, remains an under-appreciated piece of work. Warm, sensual and seductive, it supplied a ready-made soundtrack to countless nocturnal encounters. If you were ever invited back to a stranger’s room in the mid-Nineties, you would almost certainly have heard Bedtime Stories.

By Madonna’s standards, this was a lower-key release, paving the way for an extended break from the treadmill of pop. However, the singing lessons which she took for her screen portrayal of Eva Perón – the fulfilment of another long-held desire – stood her in good stead for the next reincarnation. Released in March 1998, Ray Of Light felt like an artistic rebirth, re-casting the go-getting sexual adventuress as a spiritually questing earth mother. Vocally, she adopted a fuller, more expressive tone, which matched the richness of William Orbit’s sumptuous, intricate arrangements. Lyrically, she offered her most personal collection of songs to date, openly questioning her former set of values, and striving for a deeper personal fulfilment. It was a triumphant comeback, selling more copies worldwide than Erotica and Bedtime Stories combined.

The winning streak continued with Music, an album whose mastery of diverse turn-of-the-millennium pop styles felt almost effortless. Perhaps uniquely for a pop star, Madonna had entered a second “imperial phase” (to use Neil Tennant’s memorable term), a full ten years after first peaking with Vogue. This renewed flush of globe-straddling success made what came next all the more shocking.

American Life was not an easy listen. Over jarring, jagged, minimal electronics, Madonna spat out her cynicism, rage, disillusionment and pain. The album’s mood was confrontational and claustrophobic, the gospel-tinged balladry of Nothing Fails its only moment of respite. You could admire the boldness of its execution, but it remained a difficult album to love.

If American Life had opened a window on Madonna’s darker side, then Confessions on a Dance Floor represented a move back into the light. With the assistance of producer Stuart Price, the erstwhile clubland queen reclaimed her crown, reminding us of one of her core strengths: the power to make us get down and boogie. Sequenced like a non-stop mixtape, with no drippy love songs to kill the buzz, the album felt both classic and contemporary: acknowledging Madonna’s pedigree, while placing her firmly in the here and now. For her long-standing gay audience, this was manna from heaven – but with many of her original gay fans now approaching clubbing retirement age, for how much longer could she rely on them to keep up?

Faced with the choice of either gracefully accepting her “heritage act” status, or of continuing to pitch herself as relevant to contemporary pop trends, Madonna opted for the latter. Equally significantly, as her marriage to Guy Ritchie began to crumble and her love affair with the UK began to wane, she turned back to the opposite side of the Atlantic for inspiration.

The result was Hard Candy, a collaboration with three major forces in R&B-slanted pop: Timbaland, Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams. For the first time, Madonna was chasing established stars, rather than giving a leg up to emerging talents. The album was efficient enough, giving her a massive international hit with 4 Minutes, but it was hard to shake off the suspicion that she was beginning to follow trends, rather than setting them.

The suspicion was compounded by MDNA, a half-hearted mish-mash of semi-digested dance-pop styles – EDM and dubstep among them – which is already starting to sound dated. With worldwide sales of around 4 million, Hard Candy had been the lowest selling studio album of Madonna’s career; four years later, MDMA managed to halve that figure. Too trend-driven to retain an older audience, and too out-of-touch to win a younger one, it fell between demographic stools.

A more satisfactory balance has been struck on the latest album, Rebel Heart. As its title implies, Madonna’s outspoken and romantic sides are equally accommodated, from Holy Water’s shrill “bitch, get off my pole!” to Inside Out’s tender “let me solve your mysteries”. There’s less desperate bandwagon-chasing this time around; instead, the songs are sturdier, and the singing comes from a more honest place. She may never again enjoy a period of absolute global rule, but as a tireless striver, dogged survivor and unrepentant provocateur, Madonna still has no equal.

 

Madonna in the 1980s.
HIT: Like A Prayer – the song which elevated Madonna from “pop star” to “artist”.
MISS: Causing A Commotion – a pale, trite attempt to recapture the glories of Into The Groove.

Madonna in the 1990s.
HIT: Take A Bow – if Bedtime Stories was one long seduction, this deceptively sweet-sounding kiss-off was the bitter sting in its tail.
MISS: Little Star – a sickly lullaby to baby Lourdes, which tells her to “never forget who you are” – as if such a thing were possible?

Madonna in the 2000s.
HIT: Hung Up – boosted by a killer Abba riff, it re-crowned her as queen of the dancefloor.
MISS: Die Another Day – given the chance to craft a classic Bond theme, she flunked it with this jagged, jarring hodge-podge.

Madonna in the 2010s.
HIT: Joan Of Arc – sounding more emotionally engaged than she has done in years, Madonna gives us a rare glimpse of her vulnerable side.
MISS: Superstar – a clod-hopping, lyrically inane rip of I Gotta Feeling, which already felt two years too late.

Pride Life: Disco Kicks

Posted in features, Pride Life by Mike A on September 17, 2015

Originally published in Pride Life magazine.

Over thirty-five years after the music industry tried to declare it dead, disco remains the genre that refuses to go away. Take this year, for instance. There are new releases from Chic and Giorgio Moroder, two of disco’s greatest practitioners. The early work of Grace Jones is being reappraised, thanks to a comprehensive boxed set, The Disco Years. Jimi Somerville, arguably the first big-selling artist to revive the genre in the first place, has returned to disco with his latest album, Homage. To the delight of the crate-digging cognoscenti, the legendary French disco producer Cerrone is making his Glastonbury debut. At the Berlin Film Festival, a radically revised director’s cut of Studio 54 wowed the critics. Meanwhile, Seventies-inspired looks have been a major story in many of this year’s spring/summer fashion collections. Once derided by rock fans for its superficiality, and sniggered at by style snobs for its excess, disco has been enjoying the last laugh ever since.

The movement’s roots stretch back to east coast America in the early Seventies, and an unlikely collision between seemingly disconnected underground scenes. Emerging from decades of oppression, and now openly striving for both personal and political liberation, a new generation of gay men were finding salvation every weekend on the dance floor, as documented by writers such as Andrew Holleran (Dancer from the Dance) and Edmund White (States of Desire). Elsewhere in the same urban centres, a similar new mood of confidence and optimism was re-shaping black culture, soundtracked by a smoother, more luxuriant take on soul music that found its perfect vehicle in the richly orchestrated Philadelphia sound (and equally eager audiences in working class Italian-American and Latino communities). Add the lingering influences of post-psychedelic drug culture into the mix, sprinkle with bohemians, fashionistas, artists, dealers, hookers, slumming high-lifers and hustling low-lifers, and you have a unique melting pot that would soon bubble over from the underground to the mainstream.

By the time that the Saturday Night Fever phenomenon had repackaged disco culture for the masses (an unlikely development, given the gritty, glamour-puncturing nature of the film itself), there were dance clubs in every town in the Western world, where dolled-up suburbanites shimmied to the Bee Gees, entirely unaware of the subcultures which had spawned their weekend rituals. Disco had become big business, and record companies and radio stations fuelled the glut. Rock superstars, showbiz legends and new wave upstarts alike jumped on the bandwagon, with results ranging from the sublime (Blondie’s Heart Of Glass, The Rolling Stones’ Miss You) to the ridiculous (Rod Stewart’s Da Ya Think I’m Sexy, the unspeakable horror of Ethel Merman’s Disco Album).

A backlash had become inevitable, and nowhere did it strike more sharply than in disco’s homeland, the USA. In July 1979, just as the music was reaching its highest commercial peak, a “Disco Demolition Night” in a Chicago baseball stadium, where piles of disco records were literally exploded on the pitch, turned into a riot, making national headlines and coining a new slogan: “disco sucks”. Chastened by the wrath of the rock fans, the American music industry beat a hasty retreat. The Knack’s My Sharona replaced Chic’s Good Times at the top of the Billboard chart, and by the autumn of that year, “disco” had become a dirty word. Collars, lapels and trouser legs all shrank, bouffants were trimmed and shirt buttons were re-fastened over chests, as the Eighties loomed into view.

Over here in Europe, where nobody quite got the “disco sucks” memo, the genre was permitted a more graceful decline. The melting pot fragmented once again, as smaller scenes re-grouped. A dedicated soul/funk crowd continued to carry the torch for the cooler, less hyped-up end of the spectrum, while disco’s zingier, sparklier side became more expressly linked with gay dancefloors, re-emerging a couple of years later as hi-NRG. Meanwhile, Shalamar, Kool and the Gang and Odyssey all enjoyed respectable hit-making careers, regardless of whether anyone called them “disco” or not, and continental summer holidays continued to be soundtracked by the brash and breezy strains of Euro-disco.

Other legacies were also brewing. In one corner, there was hip hop: disco’s bastard offspring, quietly biding its time. In another, even tinier corner, a group of black and gay Chicago DJs were keeping the faith, preparing the way for the house music explosion – or “disco’s revenge”, as some commentators wisely put it.

There were wider and equally enduring legacies, too. Disco had introduced us to the art of seamless beat-mixing, and the pleasures of dancing until dawn in a darkened room, whether chemically assisted or not. And it had given the world a new breed of performer: the glamorous dance diva, defiantly masking her pain, and giving a soulful voice to our joys and sorrows, our dreams and our desires. The genre itself might have dipped in and out of style over the years (although we never seem to be more than a few years away from its next revival), but most of its key elements – dressing to impress on a Saturday night, the communal ritual of the dance floor, the craft of the DJ, door policies, velvet ropes, lasers, smoke machines, and that biggest totem of them all, the hallowed mirror ball – will probably always be with us.

TEN ALL-TIME DISCO CLASSICS

Boogie Oogie Oogie – A Taste Of Honey
Don’t Leave Me This Way – Thelma Houston
Everybody Dance – Chic
Never Can Say Goodbye – Gloria Gaynor
On The Radio – Donna Summer
Shame – Evelyn “Champagne” King
The Boss – Diana Ross
Turn The Beat Around – Vicki Sue Robinson
Vertigo/Relight My Fire – Dan Hartman
You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) – Sylvester

TEN DISCO CRATE-DIGGERS’ CULT CUTS

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (The Garage Version) – Inner Life
Change – Zulema
Dancer – Gino Soccio
Haven’t You Heard – Patrice Rushen
I Know You, I Live You – Chaka Khan
Law Of The Land – The Temptations
Souveniers – Voyage
Take Off – Harlow
Tell You (Today) – Loose Joints
The Hills Of Katmandu – Tantra

Pride Life: Pops Picked

Posted in features, Pride Life by Mike A on September 17, 2015

Originally published in Pride Life magazine.

plpicks15

From synthpop to soul, Mike Atkinson picks some of the hottest talent you’ll be hearing a lot more of this year.

April Towers

The latest in a long line of synthpop duos, stretching all the way back to Soft Cell and Yazoo, April Towers have a knack for constructing sturdily chugging, instantly danceable songs which surge into soaring, hooky choruses. Rhythmically similar to New Order, melodically reminiscent of OMD and vocally akin to Depeche Mode, they take classic influences and embellish them with a contemporary twist, placing them alongside the likes of Hot Chip and Hurts. Having made their live debut just over a year ago, long-time friends Charles Burley and Alexander Noble have already released two singles this year: the elegantly remorseful Arcadia and the insistently throbbing No Corruption.

For fans of: New Order, OMD, Hurts.

KING

Comprised of twin sisters Paris and Amber Strother and their friend Anita Bias, the always-to-be-capitalised KING (no relation to the mid-Eighties hitmakers!) specialise in classic neo-soul, adorned with rich three-part harmonies. There’s a smooth sophistication to their music which bears comparison with Erykah Badu and Jill Scott in their Nineties heyday – and indeed, Badu herself has already lent them her support. Following last year’s well-received single Mister Chameleon, a wry take on “fair-weather love”, the trio are preparing to release their self-written and self-produced debut album, We Are KING. As performers, they are imbued with a graceful warmth and an easy charm that makes light of their musical prowess.

For fans of: Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Angie Stone.

Laura Groves

Blessed with a voice of exceptional purity and clarity, with a singer-songwriter’s emotional sincerity and a jazz performer’s subtlety of tone, Laura Groves has remained a well-kept secret for too long. This could all change soon, with a new EP, Committed Language, and some high-profile support sets with Elbow, which have been arranged at the band’s specific request. This is delicate, intimate and contemplative music, skilfully arranged but delightfully unshowy. Originally from Bradford, Laura first performed as Blue Roses, before moving to London and working under her own name. Her fascination with the blurred boundaries between dreams and reality informs much of her work, lending it an other-worldly quality.

For fans of: Joni Mitchell, Donald Fagen, Kate Bush.

LoneLady

Channelling the energy of vintage funk (Parliament, Stevie Wonder, Prince) and filtering it through “a cement-coloured North of England lens”, Mancunian singer and multi-instrumentalist Julie Campbell, aka LoneLady, is back after a four-year break with her second album, Hinterland. Recorded at home on an 8-track cassette recorder, with production completed in a remote vintage analogue studio in Michigan, the nervy post-punk influences of her earlier work are still there, but they’re now sweetened with a more dance-infused approach; recent single Groove It Out explores similar territory to La Roux’s most recent work, while Bunkerpop chugs along like a distant cousin of the Eurythmics evergreen, Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves.

For fans of: La Roux, St. Vincent, Imogen Heap.

Natalie Prass

Already basking in critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, the debut album from Nashville’s Natalie Prass could end up as one of this year’s stealthy word-of-mouth successes. It’s a break-up record at heart, but delivered with a swooning sweetness that masks much of the underlying pain. “Where do you go, when the only home that you know is with a stranger?” she asks on the opening track (My Baby Don’t Understand Me), concluding that “our love is a long goodbye”. Widely compared to Dusty In Memphis, the music harks back to classic country-soul, sung with captivating tenderness and orchestrated with Hollywood strings and Muscle Shoals horns.

For fans of: Dusty Springfield, Laura Marling, Feist.

Shamir

Raised in semi-rural North Las Vegas, Shamir Bailey started his musical journey with acoustic country and folk music, before making a late teenage detour into punk rock. Now aged 20, he is beginning to make his name as a pop performer, drawing on dance, funk and rap influences, and creating something characterful and unique. Inspired equally by Nina Simone, Joanna Newsom and The Slits, his intentionally androgynous vocals are showcased on If It Wasn’t True, a funky Prince-goes-house jam, while on On The Regular, his most recent release, playful rap sits on top of bouncy, fresh-faced, sugar-rush pop. It’s not all madcap hyperactivity, though; Shamir can also work a lovelorn lament, with yearning conviction.

For fans of: Prince, Jungle, Azealia Banks.

Cantaloupe – Zoetrope

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on September 17, 2015

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

In the three years since Souvaris played their farewell gig, three of its former members have forged a new path as Cantaloupe, developing a brighter, sunnier, more synth-based retro-futurist sound. On this, their debut album as a trio, we find them steering away from the tricky time signatures of old, and heading towards a more streamlined approach.

In another break from tradition, vocalists have been enlisted on three tracks. (One of them, Eleanor Lee, has since joined the full-time line-up.) But although it’s interesting to hear the band shaping their arrangements around traditional song structures (with stylistic nods towards Stereoloab, Chromeo and Broadcast), it’s on the instrumental cuts that Cantaloupe’s unique qualities fully come into their own.

On Big Kiss and Ian Whitehead, which open and close the album, they’re at their most assertively optimistic, as primary coloured, shape-shifting blocks of sound shimmer, clatter and rumble, evoking memories of late Sixties/early Seventies TV themes or public information films.

Named after a dodgy Nineties chatline, 0891 50 50 50 offers a thrilling excursion into early Eighties Hi-NRG and electro-funk, slapping a Bobby Orlando donk under Patrick Cowley synths. Placed at the start of Side Two, it’s the album’s most overtly dancefloor-friendly moment.

Between these energy peaks, the mood dips into calmer waters, but without ever losing that core sense of restless forward motion; in Cantaloupe’s world, nothing stays still for long, and there’s always a new twist waiting around the corner. Intricate and complex, yet instant and accessible, Zoetrope radiates joy and wonder throughout.

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