Angel Olsen at the Hammersmith Apollo, 11 February 2020

Angel Olsen is an American singer-songwriter with a bit of edge who knows how to rock. I first came across her music when she released her 2016 album “My Woman”, which met with a lot of acclaim. I liked her voice – a combination of vulnerable and defiant – and the guitars. The song that I really loved was “Sister”, a seven minute epic which built slowly and ended with a guitar workout that had a lot of Neil Young at his most raucous in it. Around that time I bought a ticket for one of her concerts but then realised I was going on holiday at that time, so missed her. I didn’t listen to her music all that much after that, except “Sister”, which made it onto quite a few of my playlists. But I had a lot of respect for what she was doing.

Last year she released “All Mirrors”. It’s another album about a relationship break up and is  pretty hard-hitting. It was in a lot of top tens and twenties in the end-of-year lists. But I struggled to get into it at first. I’m not sure what it was – maybe a bit overblown sonically, and a lot of violins, which sometimes rings alarm bells for me. But I bought a couple of tickets for her show at the Hammersmith Apollo, and Jon G took up the other. I gave it another few listens before the show and thought, I’ve underestimated this a bit. It could be good live.

And you know what, it was amazing! It was such a good show. There was a real power in the music, an intensity and beauty too. And those violins (in fact one violin and one cello) were great, adding an extra dimension to the music. Angel’s voice was scintillating and at times very moving. There was an anthemic quality to a lot of the tunes, especially those from “All Mirrors”, which took up the first half of the show, with a couple of slower ones at the end. Jon suggested a connection which hadn’t occurred to me, which was the Cocteau Twins, a Scottish duo whose heyday was the 1980s. They too had a big sound, with Elisabeth Fraser’s vocals floating rather ethereally over it all. Angel Olsen’s sound is a bit sharper and harder, but I got what Jon was thinking about. The title song “All Mirrors”, which was second in the set, was perhaps the best example.

I was reminded a little, too, of Sharon van Etten, in her new, rocky mode. But Angel was less flashy and a bit deeper. She was also genuinely pleased and even overawed at playing the Apollo. Highlights for me were “New Love Cassette” and “All Mirrors” at the beginning; “Lark” (which opens the new album); a rather lovely, almost solo, keyboard piece called “Tonight” which Angel dedicated to me; the feisty “Shut Up Kiss me” off “My Woman” which was greeted ecstatically by the crowd; and… I’m so glad… “Sister”. What a version! A true epic. I loved every minute of it.

So, I thought the concert would be good, but it was better than that. It was brilliant. Without ever being overstated, Angel Olsen and her excellent band made powerful, anthemic music. A classic example of the live performance really bringing out the best in the songs. A great start to my concert-going in 2020!

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lovelondonscenes 167 – from Canary Wharf to Islington

I went on a walk Friday before last with the main intention of doing the bit of the Regent’s Canal that I hadn’t done before, which was the stretch between Haggerston, and Limehouse basin, by the Thames. The most eastern and southern section, basically.

I took the tube to Canary Wharf to catch some of the sights I’d glimpsed just before Christmas on the Docklands Light Railway, from Greenwich to Bank. I do like the DLR – it runs through some really interesting urban scenery, old and new.

I’d been thinking of walking all the way on the Regent’s canal from Limehouse in the east to Paddington in the west, and spent a bit too much time dawdling in Canary Wharf and Westferry taking photos. So I just walked to Islington in the end. At that point, near Angel,  the canal goes into a tunnel for a bit, under Upper Street and a shopping centre – not that the shopping centre would have been there when the tunnel was first constructed. Why a  tunnel was deemed necessary, I don’t know. There’s another tunnel near Maida Vale in the west. Maybe they were judged more effective than a load of locks if the land rose, though there’s nothing dramatic in either place.

Anyway, here are some photos – in black and white, which suits the urban landscape, I think.

Starting in Canary Wharf and surrounds.

Limehouse Basin. With the ubiquitous DLR.

Onto the Regent’s Canal.

Approaching the Mile End Road.

An interesting extension.

Stretching out to dry. Inner city comorant.

 

Alongside Victoria Park, Hackney.

The end. (Of the walk, not the canal!)

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Dorset coastal skies

The sea, fresh air, bracing winds and big skies. These are some of the joys of escaping from London – much as we love it – and walking along the coasts of Britain. It works wherever you are – it just so happened we were on the Dorset and briefly Devon coast this New Year. Most days were fairly cloudy, but the sun made some heroic efforts to break through, and that gave us some of the most spectacular views. As for the sunset – in Seaton, Devon, it was spiritual, as golden light suffused everything. Hopefully the photos below capture a bit of that, but you had to be there, really.

Let’s start with the walk from Lyme Regis to Seaton. Yesterday I posted a collection of photos from the depths of the woods. These ones were taken mostly from the cliff tops, until we reached the beach in Seaton.

This first one, which was taken at about 12.30 in the afternoon, made me think, the aliens are landing! But why would they choose Lyme Regis? Don’t they usually land in America?

Axmouth Harbour.

The beach at Seaton.

The walk to Charmouth was bitty, as parts of the coastal path are closed because of the risk of landslips. Coastal erosion is a big issue in this part of the world, and always has been. The cliffs have a habit of falling away. But we had more aliens and the beach had a lovely bleakness.

The last few photos are of Lyme Regis. All but the last were taken on New Year’s Eve. The last one was on a rather misty New Year’s Day. In honour of Led Zeppelin, let’s call it the Misty Mountain Hop!

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The rain forest of Lyme Regis

Between 29 December and 3 January my wife Kath, friends Jon and Maggie and I stayed in Lyme Regis, on the Dorset coast – almost but not quite Devon. Lyme itself is a lovely town and there are some great walks in the area. Mostly very hilly! On our first full day there we thought we’d try the walk from Lyme to Seaton, which is in Devon. The walk is part of the South West Coastal path, which stretches for 630 miles from Minehead in Somerset around to Poole Harbour in Dorset.  Ours was only seven miles – a doddle, we thought. We were soon disabused of that notion…

Once we’d climbed up to the Undercliffs we were soon heading into the woods that cover much of the ground between the two towns. From time to time there are clearings that give you some spectacular views out to sea, but mostly it is in the woods. As we entered there was a sign saying the walk was arduous and could take up to four hours. For seven miles? Well yes, as we discovered. When you are walking up then down then up again, often through some pretty muddy ground, you do lose the spring in your step!

So it was hard work, but the reward was some beautiful scenery: both the views from the cliffs and in the woods. I called it the rain forest in my heading because it felt like that. So green and lush even when many of the trees have lost their leaves, so rich in different species of plant. An English version of the rain forest – no nasty bugs, or alligators or snakes lurking, although there was, no doubt, plenty of wildlife in there somewhere. A treasure trove of plant life – and photo opportunities. Here are a few that I took:

Bit of a cheat, this last one, as it was just outside the main woods. But I think it deserves inclusion!

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My Top Ten Albums of 2019

I always enjoy compiling this list and it’s been particularly difficult this year to decide what should be No 1. There are four or five records that, at some point, I’ve thought, this is definitely going to be No 1. And then I’ve thought the same about something else. So here is the top ten in order; but honestly that could be different if I did this in a couple of days’ time. They are all great records.

No 1 – “When I Have Fears” by the Murder Capital

An extraordinarily powerful album, best listened to in proper sequence, as it moves from all- out attack to quiet reflection and back again. It’s dark, intense, and moving in all sorts of ways. The band hail from Dublin and their name, and this album, are inspired (if that is the right word) by a friend’s suicide. They are amazing live performers – I saw them at three festivals over the summer and I’d have to rate them the best live act of the year. This album captures the menace and energy of their live performance, but it is also imbued with a melancholy that comes to the fore on songs like “Green & Blue” and “On Twisted Ground”. And the best guitar I heard all year is on “Slow Dance II” – raw and full of celtic passion. They are described as post punk, and certainly you can hear a bit of Joy Division in the sound. Equally, there are elements of U2 in there  – and I don’t just say that because they are Irish. Listen to “On Twisted Ground” – it could hold its own on “The Unforgettable Fire”.  They can do brutal rock’n’roll too as “More is Less” – what a song! – and “Feeling Fades” demonstrate. If you haven’t heard this album try it. It may not be for you, but it might just knock you out.

No 2 – “Crushing” by Julia Jacklin

This is a powerful album too, but in a very different way to the Murder Capital’s masterpiece. This is the sound of a person who has been crushed – by the breakdown of a long term relationship, and is just beginning to pick herself up. That person was Julia herself, at the time she wrote the songs. It is shot through with sadness and vulnerability, and is beautifully, painfully sung. There’s a theme that runs through many of the songs about the body, her body, and how she is claiming it back. It’s not a particularly bitter album, just sad; but it is, ultimately, a defiant one. The music is a similar mix to that on her first album, “Don’t Let the Kids Win” – some up tempo Americana and a lot of heart-wrenching balladry. My favourite song of the year is on this album: “Don’t Know How to Keeping Loving You”, which is a wistful, bluesy reflection on the crumbling of the relationship, which has a tinge of Neil Young, especially in the guitar solos (which are quite rare on Julia Jacklin’s music). Other favourites include “Pressure to Party”, which has become a real live favourite, and has Julia grappling with trying to return to “normal” life; and “Turn me Down”, in which she pleads with someone not to tempt her into another relationship. When the song stops, and her plea turns into a cry, it is stunning. Live, it is an extraordinary moment. On this wonderful album, it just breaks your heart.

No 3 – “In Plain Sight” by Honeyblood

My favourite band of the last few years, and another great album. In this one Stina Tweeddale has gone solo and experimented a bit with her sound. It’s less indie and more pop, up to a point. There are guitars, but as Stina said in interviews, she wanted guitars that didn’t sound like guitars. The songs reflect a turbulent time in her life, but exude a defiance amid the vulnerability and angst. The sounds are quite upbeat for the most part, but less rock’n’roll than in the two previous albums (which are two of my favourites from this century). It took me a little while fully to appreciate its depth and musicality, but I got there. Good albums often reveal themselves gradually. There are three songs which have already become staples of the live show: “The Third Degree”, with its 60s feel; “Glimmer” which owes a debt to glam/punk; and “She’s a Nightmare” which could easily have fit on the mighty predecessor “Babes Never Die” and really rocks live. Other highlights for me include the feisty “Gibberish” and the sinister “Twisting the Aces”. Like the previous albums, you can put this on and enjoy everything on it, time and again. Yep, still my favourite band!

No 4 – “Doggerel” by Fontaines DC

Another great debut album from Dublin. Fontaines DC are poets as well as punks. Live you get more of the punk than the poetry, but listen to the lyrics: they have plenty to say. What I love about this album is the joyousness of the sound. Songs like “Too Real”, “Big”, “Chequeless Reckless”, “Boys in the Betterland” and especially, for me, “Liberty Belle” are just awesome rock’n’roll. They look back to punk for sure, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Need a bit of energy? Stick that lot on. There are more reflective efforts too, like the excellent “Television Screen” and “Roy’s Song”; and at the end you even get a ballad, “Dublin City Sky” which could be Shane MacGown doing one of his sozzled and poetic laments.  “Doggrel” was voted No 1 in the BBC 6 Music DJs’ poll and by Rough Trade. I am not surprised at all. It could have been mine.

No 5 – “It’s Your Bed Babe, it’s Your Funeral” by Maisie Peters

This is actually a six track EP, and follows another EP from 2018 called “Dressed Too Nice for a Jacket” as well as some excellent stand-alone singles. Maisie’s place in my top ten reflects all these efforts: put them together and you would have a real contender for my album of the year. She’s a young singer-songwriter, who describes her music, with a just a bit of irony, as emo girl pop. So yes, most of the songs are about either falling in love, or more frequently, being let down; but then when wasn’t most pop music about one of those themes? I first came across Maisie’s music when I read an interview in Line of Best Fit. At one point the article compared her with Laura Marling. I don’t quite get that, but the truth is, I have probably ended up listening to all her songs on shuffle more than anything else this year. The tunes are catchy, the lyrics are sharp and it makes you feel good! “It’s Your Bed, Babe” has a more sophisticated pop/dance sheen to it than its predecessors – you can sense that the producers are getting to work on making her a genuine pop star – but it still combines the wistful, the celebratory and the melancholy in a really engaging way. And it’s defiant: opener “This Is On You” isn’t taking any nonsense from an ex who is looking for a bit of succour. I love the bounce of “Adore You”; “Take Care of Yourself” is a sensitive plea to a friend; and “Personal Best” has a touching nostalgia to it. I saw Maisie play to a full Shepherd’s Bush Empire recently and I was really impressed by her poise and the responsiveness of the audience – everyone knew the words! Not my usual world, but Maisie Peters is special.

No 6 – “Designer” by Aldous Harding

Just about every review of Aldous Harding, a singer-songwriter from New Zealand, talks about her eccentricity, her weirdness.  And yes, “Designer” continues the tradition of elliptical, quirky lyrics: a highlight, in “The Barrel”, suggests you show the ferret to the egg. Quite why is never made clear! Live, there is something incredibly capitivating about her performance – the audience takes it in, in rapt silence. She says very little – at the Roundhouse recently one of her few utterances was I’m quiet because I’m focused…but I’m open. “Designer” is her third album. The first merited the epithet gothic folk. The second, “Party”, like “Designer” melded pop, folk, jazziness and torch songs into an intriguing whole. “Designer”, if anything, has an added level of sophistication, as well as ridiculously catchy melodies at times – check “Fixture Picture”, “Zoo Eyes” and “The Barrel”. The fact that the lyrics seem like random fragments of speech just makes them even more interesting. (A lot of Radiohead’s lyrics are like that too). And there’s a fragile beauty to songs like “Treasure” and “Damn”, which really comes across live. A fascinating album from a very distinctive performer.

No 7 – “Feeding Seahorses by Hand” by Billie Marten

This is my chillout album of the year. Everyone needs one! It is just so beguilingly lovely, something you can really wallow in, or have soothing you in the background. Billie Marten is a singer and guitarist from Yorkshire. This is her second album, after the equally wonderful “Writing of Blues and Yellows”. The lyrics are mostly melancholy, and involve a lot of soul-searching on Billie’s part, I imagine. Her voice has a dreamy, rather lost quality. The guitars are subtle and gentle, but they have a rolling rhythm which comes across quite strongly live. My favourites include “Mice” (which isn’t about mice, but about being alone), “Blue Sea, Red Sea” which shuffles along engagingly, and the drowsy “Vanilla Baby” – I am only as good as you want me to be. Thinking about it now, you can hear a bit of Joni Mitchell in the music, the Joni Mitchell of “Blue”. There’s something of that 60s French balladry in there too. But really, “Feeding Seahorses by Hand” is simply a mellow delight and has become, with its predecessor, real go-to music for me.

No 8 – “Western Stars” by Bruce Springsteen

Now, here’s an interesting one. When I first heard this, I wasn’t that taken with it. Of course, I’ll always give Bruce a lot of chances, as befits my favourite singer and performer of all time. But I kept on thinking, this is a bit bland. It felt like the sound of growing old. He is 70 after all. I got all the musical references to the likes of Glen Campbell and Burt Bacharach, but I didn’t need Bruce to be doing that. I set the album to one side. But then the film of the album came out and I went to see it with my friend Dave. The film is a combination of a live performance of the album, with a thirty piece orchestra, in his barn. It’s a big barn! The songs were played in the same sequence as the album, and each was preceded by a video, in which Bruce talked about the meaning of the song, sometimes over film of the Californian desert, or a deserted highway (all very Bruce), sometimes showing old family clips, sometimes, just focusing on Bruce, as he talked about life, and how this album, for him, is the third of his storytelling albums, after “Nebraska” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. And I completely got what he was talking about. Some of it I found very moving, and I absolutely loved the show. And so, of course, I went back to the album, and discovered its depths, its beauty, and its sadness. It is a cinematic album. It is the sound of growing old and still searching for meaning. It is Bruce Springsteen – and I love it!

No 9 – “UFOF” by Big Thief

I really like Big Thief. They are a band from New York, whose sound combines Americana and folk with an other-worldliness which sometimes reminds you of Radiohead. Singer Adrienne Lenker has a beautiful, rather fragile voice that belies the punch of some of her lyrics. They are a rock band, but don’t really feel like one. They are great live – the performance I saw in Bristol in May was one of my live highlights of the year. “UFOF” is the first of two albums that they have released this year – the other, “Two Hands”, came out quite recently and didn’t immediately grab me. Unlike “UFOF”, which I loved immediately. It has a gentler, more bucolic sound than its two predecessors. One of the best songs on the album, “Cattails” sounds like it is out of the Appalachians and has a funny sort of danceability to it as Adrienne warbles along. That really comes across live – it has become a crowd favourite.  There are songs of great beauty, like “Orange”; weirdness (in a Radiohead-like way) like “UFOF”; and rocking noise, like “Jenni”. This is a band that manages to sound really original while working in a tried and trusted American rock field. In the end, I think it is Adrienne who makes the difference. She is not like other singers. She is operating in her own dimension, and Big Thief are strangely different as a result.

No 10 – “Birthday” by Pom Poko

I had to find room for this album in my top ten, if only to reflect the fact that they are such a hugely enjoyable band live. Pom Poko are Norwegian art-punks – you might even call them prog-punk. Which is an unlikely combination. Their music is quite complex – there are frequent time changes, diversions, general craziness – but also some full-on razor sharp riffs. They are fronted by the most charismatic singer I have come across for a while: Ragnhild Jamtveit. On stage she leaps around to the rocking moments with abandon and is rarely without a big smile. She looks like she is really loving it, and that sense of enjoyment is there with the whole band. The best song of all is “Crazy Energy Night” which is wild. The guitar scythes through all before it, as Ragnhild shrieks over the madness. There’s a solo which sounds like speeded up Yes, or something like that. The guitarist, Martin Tonne, is pretty amazing. Live he has one guitar, hardly ever seems to have any issue with tuning, and makes it do all sorts of things, effortlessly. The record is the same – you never really know what is coming next. It is a lot of fun. Try this album, but even more so, go and see them live. They are sensational.

Honourable Mentions

Pumarosa, with their album “Devastation” is the unluckiest to miss out on the top ten. It’s partly because it is very recent. But it’s a powerful, rather grandiose album, that was great live at EartH, Hackney the other day. There are some very fine jazzy albums, that take me back to the 90s, from a new generation of artists. They shone at the festivals this summer. Four to listen out for are “Displaced Diaspora” by Moses Boyd (from 2018, but there’s a new piece called “Stranger than Fiction just out); “You Can’t Steal my Joy” by Ezra Collective;  “Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery” by the Comet is Coming, which features the awesome “Summon the Fire”;  and “Blume” by Nerija. Sharon van Etten’s “Remind me Tomorrow” was a tour de force, with the Springsteen-esque “Seventeen” a highlight. Maybe just a tad over-produced to make my top ten. Two more entrancing break-up albums were “Good at Falling” by The Japanese House and “Ex:Re” by Ex:Re, aka Elena Tonra from Daughter. Japanese House is the vehicle of Amber Bain. Her album is a shimmering mix of pop and electronica, with a bit of vocoder. “Ex:Re” is more about the guitar unsurprisingly. It’s very atmospheric and has a great song called “Crushing” (not to be confused with Julia Jacklin’s album!).

Faye Webster’s new album, “Atlanta Millionaires’ Club”, is a lush delight, with “Kingston” the highlight  – it’s maybe just a little too self-indulgent, compared with the previous, self-titled album, which was my introduction to her music. As she sings on “Room Temperature”, I should get out more.  Rosie Lowe’s “YU” is soulful and jazzy (there’s a bit of a Prince influence, I think), while Hannah Cohen’s “Welcome Home” is just plain beautiful. Holly Herndon’s “Proto” challenges musical boundaries and she was amazing at the Barbican. Caoimhin O Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett conjure up a dazzling Irish soundscape with violin and piano on their self-titled album.

Ward Thomas made an engaging country-pop album, “Restless Minds”, which was highly entertaining live – I saw them in March at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Spotify introduced me to a few artists this year – you know how when an album ends it plays you other things you might like? – and one was a folk singer from Nebraska with a beautiful voice called Andrea von Kampen. She had an album called “Old Country”, which includes a striking cover of Bob Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello”. Finally Foals, a great band, released two albums this year: “Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost”, Parts One and Two. I liked the first, which nodded to their early days of math rock; the second I haven’t really given enough time yet, but it’s their bombastic stuff, which I’m less keen on.

I was looking forward to Taylor Swift’s new album “Lover” after I’d enjoyed “Reputation” so much. But on the first couple of listens, it sounded like more of the same, but not as good. “London Boys” is a bit embarrassing. I’ll try again! And I haven’t even attempted Coldplay’s “Everyday Life” yet. But I will – I have a soft spot for them.

There’s just so much good new music around – there always is. My choices are just the tip of the iceberg, and don’t overlap too much with all the other lists I look forward to: the Guardian, 6 Music, NME, Loud and Quiet, Rough Trade amongst them. So check them out too. You might discover something new that you love.

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The Election – What if we had PR?

The Conservatives have just won the UK general election convincingly. The people have spoken, we are told. They want to get Brexit done, and done it will be (though it will take a lot longer than the Tories are letting on).

But have the people delivered this message? Well, not really – not if you add up the popular vote.

It wasn’t just the Sun wot won it, or dislike of Jeremy Corbyn, or years of neglect of our post-industrial heartlands (who have just voted in large numbers for the party that has just presided over nine years of austerity – weird!) or even that desire to get Brexit done. It was the voting system.

First past the post (FPTP). Winner takes all in each constituency. Dead simple, keeps local connections, tried and tested. Perfect for a two party world, which characterised most of the UK until the 1980s. Terrible for a more variegated electorate, in which issues like Brexit divide in a different way to tradition. And grossly unfair to smaller parties and their voters. They are left behind.

To demonstrate this, let’s take the vote in this election, and see what would have happened under proportional representation. I’m taking a pure nationwide form here, which exists in very few countries. Most PR systems attempt to retain some local element, so don’t perfectly divide the seats by the number of votes. But they get close. And this example is just illustrative. I’ve rounded up where there is a fraction in seats under PR (this particularly benefits the Tories, DUP and Plaid Cymru, where the fraction is below 0.5). They don’t add up to 650 because of all the other candidates who have won votes, but it doesn’t detract from the overall findings.

Data is from the BBC website, except the right hand column, which is my calculation.

Party              Seats actually won              % of popular vote             Seats under PR

Cons               365                                        43.6                                     284

Lab                 203                                        32.1                                     209

Lib Dem        11                                           11.5                                        75

SNP               48                                          3.9                                         25

Green            1                                             2.7                                         18

Brexit            0                                            2.0                                         13

Plaid              4                                            0.5                                           4

DUP               8                                            0.8                                          6

SF                   7                                            0.6                                           4

SDLP             2                                            0.4                                           3

Alliance         1                                            0.4                                           3

Under this PR system, the Conservatives win 81 fewer seats. Eighty-one! The SNP loses half its seats, because its vote is concentrated in Scotland, which greatly benefits it under FPTP (as it did Labour in the past). Labour stays about the same, but the big winners are the Lib Dems, who have 75 seats rather than a measly 11. The Greens and the Brexit party also get a decent number of seats.

So let’s fantasise about a progressive alliance forming, comprising Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP and the Alliance Party. It wins 337 seats and forms a government with a 31 seat working majority (ie, in a 643 seat parliament as Sinn Fein doesn’t take its seats).  It would be a nightmare to keep together, but it would be worth a go. The point is that we do have, even now, a progressive majority of voters in this country. It’s just that it is split many ways, which is fatal under FPTP. We have just seen quite a few Labour and Lib Dems candidates lose in this election, because of the votes that the weaker of the two has taken away from the stronger. Some key Tory figures, like Dominic Raab and Ian Duncan-Smith, have been able to breathe a sigh of relief because of this.

The other interesting counterfactual is if we try to brigade these figures into a Leave/Remain split. There are two big assumptions here: Labour is a Remain party, and the Conservatives are all Leavers. This covers 94.6% of those who voted – the sum of the popular vote percentages in the above table.

REMAIN: Labour, Lib Dem, SNP, Green, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance = 51%

LEAVE: Conservative, Brexit, DUP = 49%

Close! But Remain has the majority.

Unfortunately it reinforces the notion that we are just a very divided country. Thanks for letting us know, David Cameron.

Now, these are all just counterfactuals – what-ifs. In the real world the Tories have a majority of 80 (more if you take out Sinn Fein). So they can do what they like in the next five years.

Be very afraid.

 

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A trio of concerts: Julia Jacklin, Fat White Family and Aldous Harding, 3-5 December 2019

A little burst of concerts this week: three in succession from Tuesday to Thursday. A bit of beauty and the beast, musically speaking. Julia Jacklin and Aldous Harding, with Fat White Family in between. Julia and Aldous are two great favourites of mine. I’ve seen both live this year during the festival season: Julia at Latitude and Green Man and Aldous at Green Man, where I rated her performance the best of the weekend. They’ve both made great albums this year, which will be in my Top Ten (coming soon!). Their songs are often things of great beauty, a melancholy beauty at times. They both have wonderful voices with an impressive range that seems effortless. Fat White Family, on the other hand, are a lairy bunch, with a live sound that pounds you into submission for the most part, but is made highly entertaining by the antics of singer Lias Saoudi. I’m not that keen on their recorded output, which I find a bit tuneless and rather dull, but they make the best of what they’ve got live. And my friend Jon G and his son Louis love them!

I’ll take them in turn.

Julia Jacklin, O2 Forum Kentish Town, 3 December

Julia Jacklin’s second album, “Crushing” is a beautiful album that takes as its theme the break up of a long term relationship – Julia’s own. Like her first album, “Don’t Let the Kids Win”, it’s a mix of tuneful, occasionally uptempo Americana and heartfelt ballads. Those uptempo songs are deceptive – the lyrics are just as downbeat! “Crushing” is very dark in places, portraying a character who is pretty broken and feeling helpless. In some songs she’s feeling her way back into “normal” life – “Pressure to Party” is a good example – but in others she is just lost. My favourite is “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You”, which is not only heartbreaking, but has two great guitar solos which I wish were a bit longer. There’s a Neil Young feel to it, which would be even more so if the guitar had really taken off at the end. The two live shows I’d seen this year both began with “Body”, the album opener, which is a superb song that ventures into the dark side of a broken relationship, and provides a theme that runs through the album – the singer wanting to have control of her body – or to take it back.  Excellent song that it is though, it does make for a rather subdued start to proceedings. So, it was second song at Kentish Town on Tuesday – preceded by an even more subdued (though lovely) tune called “Comfort”, which Julia sang solo with just her guitar, shrouded in darkness. It’s a song where the voice – internal or a friend? – reassures her that she’s really OK, though she doesn’t sound it.

Both songs worked beautifully tonight, in front of a receptive, sold-out, Forum. The beats then picked up, with “Leadlight”, “Cold Caller” (a single that didn’t make it onto either album) and the sarcastic “You Were Right”. Then it was time for the song that rivals “Don’t Know How” as the best on “Crushing” for me, “Turn Me Down”. It’s a plea for someone not to go out with her because she doesn’t feel ready yet, and features a very affecting cry of anguish in the second half of the song. Live it is very powerful. Julia spoke humorously about it though (she spoke a lot more than usual in fact). At a recent show in Manchester, when the song paused for that cry of  please just turn me down to begin, she heard someone in the front row say to a friend, “I hate this f****** song”! It put her off a bit. We loved it tonight though, but maybe quite not as much as “I Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You”. It must surely be the highlight of the show these days.  What a song!

And after that the tempo upped for three at the end that maybe a lot of people would say are their favourites: “Pool Party” off the first album, “Head Alone” (another of the body songs) and “Pressure to Party”. Angie McMahon, who was the support act, and is in a similar vein to Julia when it’s just her and her guitar, joined in for the last two. I thought Angie was pretty good, by the way. She has an album called “Salt” out this year. She was there for the second song of the encore too, a cover of a Britney Spears song called “I’m Not a Girl, Not yet a Woman”. Sounded like a 90s soft rock anthem. Prior to that Julia came out on her own for a typically lovely rendition of “Don’t Let the Kids Win”.

This gig was the last of her UK tour – I think she’s heading back home after a long period of touring. I read an interesting interview with her in Loud and Quiet a while back in which she said she was over the hurt of the broken relationship; but it must feel a bit taxing singing about it every night on stage. Still, that’s the life of the artist for you. I’m looking forward to hearing where Julia Jacklin goes next.

Angie McMahon

That Britney encore!

Fat White Family, EartH Hackney, 4 December

This was the third of four nights at EartH for FWF. It was close to sold out. Last week I saw Pumarosa in the theatre here. I did wonder whether it would be a suitable FWF venue. But in fact, there is a basement area too – pretty large and suitably murky for the sound and vision of Fat White family. I’ve seen them a few times now, but still only recognise two or three songs: “Auto-Neutron”, “Touch the Leather” and “Whitest Boy on the Beach”.  All got an airing, and were great. Their new album is a bit more varied and tuneful than its predecessors I’m told, but I haven’t braved it yet. The concert was, I guess, a bit less rocking than usual – guitarist and songwriter Saul Adamczewski had a solo spot at one point, which led to a surge of people at the bar and the loos, inevitably. The crowd responded best to the early and later songs, which featured the trademark crunching beats and chants and the cavorting of Lias, often in the melee of the front rows. It was a lively evening, as ever with FWF. They’re not that loveable, but they are undoubtedly rock’n’roll.

PS – It’s fair to say that if Jon wrote this bit of the review, you’d hear about one of the best shows of the year. (And he might have dozed off to Julia if he’d been there).

Aldous Harding, Roundhouse, 5 December

I really loved this show. Aldous Harding is always described as a bit quirky, even weird; and she certainly has an unusual line in lyrics. (Show the ferret to the egg in “The Barrel” is an absolutely classic of the genre, rivalling stones smell good when you cuddle them on “Party”). Her music attracts epithets like gothic folk, but there are jazzy inflections, pop beats and a strong torch song element too. It also attracts a reverence from the people who come to see her. I don’t know of any other artist who commands such rapt silence from her audience (in rock venues) – and she doesn’t even ask. She just stares disconcertingly out at us, and we obey! It feels like that if we didn’t the whole thing might just crumble to dust.

She began as she did at Green Man with a couple of solo efforts. Seated and playing a melodious acoustic guitar. And utterly captivating. The first two songs were both from her 2017 album “Party”. She opened with “I’m so Sorry”, which sounds like the title suggests, and then performed a beautiful version of “Living the Classics”. The first in her deeper, torch voice; the second the higher, almost child-like register. She moves from one to the other with ease, often within the same song. We then had a run of songs from this year’s album “Designer”, which I could have requested myself:  “Designer”, “Zoo Eyes” (What am I doing in Dubai?), “Fixture Picture”, “Treasure”, “The Barrel” and “Damn”. The highlight maybe “Treasure”. The guitar and the piano like a bubbling stream, Aldous’s voice wistful; a kind of love song. Just beautiful. And for “Damn” she took to the keyboard, sitting alongside her colleague, the two of them like they could be something out of Kraftwerk.

The last song of the main set was the wonderful “Blend” from “Party, which gets close to having a dance beat, and is a firm crowd favourite. And she returned with “Imagining my Man” which was another of the best moments in an entrancing show, demonstrating her vocal range to full effect. She finished perversely of course, with a new song called “Old Peel”, which felt a bit out of keeping with the smooth virtuosity of the rest of the set. It was the closest to conventional rockiness that I’ve heard from her. Not a portent for the future, I hope. Having said that, my friend Tony (new to Aldous) declared it his favourite song!

She’s back in London for a concert at the Barbican on 20 May next year. Who knows what she’ll be doing by then, but I’m sure it will be as engrossing as ever. Bought my tickets already!

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