This section focuses on great music, providing:
A selection of ESSENTIAL TRACKS chosen to give your system a workout, some of which are seminal recorded performances.
DOWNLOADS of superlative quality recordings in a range of high resolution formats.
Our ALBUM OF THE MONTH and some words on why we chose it.
Invited COMMENT from dCS and leading members of the hi-fi world – although in most cases we offer these anonymously!
It’s a major birthday that gets the spotlight for Only the Music’s March classic recording: that of the Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink, who celebrates his 90th this month. Haitink’s career has been an illustrious one, past roles including Amsterdam Concertgebouw Chief Conductor (1961-1988), London Philharmonic Orchestra Principal Conductor (1967-1979), Glyndebourne Music Director (1978-1988), and Royal Opera House Covent Garden Music Director (1987-2002). Plus, his concert diary is still a busy one, much as he’s planning a well-deserved sabbatical for next season. January’s Only the Music featured his recent recording with Gautier Capuçon and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe of Schumann’s Cello Concerto. For this birthday shout, I’ve chosen to celebrate his relationship with the London Philharmonic with their 1999 recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s In the Fen Country.
Moving on to the month’s new releases, these begin with French harpist Anaïs Gaudemard’s impressive debut recital for Harmonia Mundi, continue with two-violin French Baroque music from Johannes Pramsohler and Roldán Bernabé, before fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout plays us out with Haydn.
Anaïs Gaudemard: Solo
Henriette Renié – Légende in F minor 1HR.10
French harpist Anaïs Gaudemard’s career has been on a fast upwards trajectory since her 2016 debut album on the Swiss record label Claves, which was a concerto recording gifted to her as winner of the Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad festival’s young artist competition. Since then she’s been nominated by the Philharmonie de Paris and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon for the prestigious ECHO (European Concert Hall Organisation) Rising Stars scheme, and now comes this first album for Harmonia Mundi through its young artist Harmonia Nova series: a solo harp recital designed to show off the instrument’s stylistic and colouristic range through repertoire ranging from Scarlatti and CPE Bach through to Hindemith. It’s an immensely beguiling listen from start to finish, and for dCS I’ve chosen the programme’s curtain-raiser, the other-worldly Légende in F minor first published in 1904 by the French harpist-composer Henriette Renié.
Sonatas for Two Violins Without Bass – Johannes Pramsohler/Roldán Bernabé
Louis-Gabriel Guilleman – Sonata in D minor, Op.4 no.2
Baroque violinist Johannes Pramsohler combines a busy touring and teaching schedule with a penchant for sight-reading stacks of completely unknown music from libraries around the world, on the look-out for gems worth bringing back to life. These musical hunts have yielded some intriguing and unfailingly superb recordings over the years, with his Ensemble Diderot on his own CD label Audax. This latest, for which he’s joined by his fellow Ensemble Diderot violinist Roldán Bernabé, celebrates the largely forgotten genre of “sonata for two solo violins without bass”, which enjoyed a short vogue in eighteenth century France as the country basked in a golden period of violin virtuosi. On the menu are works from violinist-composers Louise-Gabriel Guillemain (1705-1770), Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), Jean-Pierre Guignon (1702-1774) and Étienne Mangean (c1710-c1756), with world premieres by Guignon and Mangean. It’s Guilleman’s Sonata in D minor I’ve chosen here though, rather than one of the premieres, simply because from a musical perspective it’s represents the programme’s crown jewels. Add a reading from Pramsohler and Bernabé that’ll have you hanging off its every note, and superb engineering which has the two violins’ respective personalities bristling out in glorious technicolour, and this is the one that’ll really have you appreciating what your sound systems can do.
Haydn Piano Sonatas Hob.XV1:6, 20 & 18
Variations on the theme “Gott erhalte Franz, den Kaiser” in G major
In the history of the keyboard, the instrument sitting between the harpsichord and the modern piano – and therefore the instrument sitting under the fingers of Haydn and Mozart – is the fortepiano: basically a piano, in that its keys were hit with hammers rather than plucked as with the harpsichord, but one that was smaller and lighter of frame and sound than today’s models. For the pianist-composer it offered a highly responsive action that made it capable of beautiful definition, and whilst its colouristic range was narrower to that of the modern piano, it was still an entirely superior palette of possibilities to that of the harpsichord. Kristian Bezuidenhout himself is a colourist and sculptor extraordinaire with this instrument, and from this Haydn programme I’ve chosen the piece you’re most likely to recognise, i.e. the Variations on the theme “Gott erhalte Franz, den Kaiser” in G major, because it’s the melody now used for the German national anthem. It appears here in a loving, singing, delicate reading full of gorgeous filigree detail and beautifully judged part-voicing.
Like so many American soul greats, the Cincinnati-born Isley Brothers started life singing lightweight gospel and doo-wop-influenced pop songs in the late nineteen fifties. By the mid seventies however, the band had changed line-up, instruments and style to deliver some great soul/funk music for the up-and-coming disco era. In May 1976, the band released Harvest for the World, cementing their reputation as serious songwriters and performers. Their fourteenth album – released on their own T-Neck label – fused beautiful harmonies and catchy melodies with savvy, socially-aware lyrics that echoed the sentiments of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, of five years earlier.
The Isley Brothers’ line-up changed over the years, but by the time this album came out it had settled into the six-piece unit that would rack up a number of classy chart hits up to 1983. It comprised Ronald Isley on lead vocals, plus O’Kelly Isley, Jr. and Rudolph Isley on lead and backing vocals, with Ernie Isley on guitars, percussion and drums. Marvin Isley supplied bass guitar and percussion, and Chris Jasper was on keyboard duties. In the case of Harvest for the World, this meant acoustic piano, clarinet and an early ARP synthesiser. The band themselves produced the album, alongside British jazz musician Malcolm Cecil.
Ten years earlier, the band had been signed to Motown with – surprisingly – Jimi Hendrix playing guitar on some of their singles, but they left in 1968. Fame came calling a few years later as they began to infuse rock with soul, scoring hit singles with their self-penned That Lady and a funk-infused cover of Seals and Crofts’ Summer Breeze. Harvest for the World was the album that broke them internationally; recorded at The Record Plant in Los Angeles, it had a distinctively warm mid-seventies, Californian feel and sold over half a million vinyl copies in its first three weeks of release – making it one of the fastest selling US albums ever. It was an appropriately sunny album for an America celebrating its bicentennial year.
The opening Harvest for the World (Prelude) – and then classic song following it – are surely the album’s highlight. The sense of tension rises as the mood switches from a soulful piano-driven ballad into an upbeat, acoustic guitar-driven protest song. Musicianship is superb, with beautifully syncopated piano work and percussion, alongside Ronald Isley’s plaintive but gutsy vocals, and brothers O’Kelly and Rudolph backing him. The album runs the gamut of styles, from the funky Superstition-era Stevie Wonder-tinged People of Today to the more mellifluous Superfly-period Marvin Gaye feel of (At Your Best) You Are Love.
Although by no means an ‘audiophile’ recording, Harvest for the World nevertheless has an earthiness and honesty that makes it a pleasure to play on any serious hi-fi system – and the sheer virtuosity of the musicianship is hard to miss. It first reached Compact Disc in Japan in 1995 [Sony Records SRCS 6465], but the later 2011 UK remaster [Big Break Records CDBBR 0083] sounds decent enough and is a more easily attainable introduction to The Isley Brothers canon.
To listen to our all of our 2019 AOTM choices visit https://tidal.com/playlist/05aa8463-bc28-4a26-a1d1-c8fad7c3c32b
No definitive account of nineteen seventies popular music would be complete without mentioning Dr Feelgood. Formed in Canvey Island, Essex, in 1971, from day one the band had the distinction of being one of Britain’s most unfashionable pop groups. At that time, pop music was moving from Progressive Rock to Glam, and then soon to Punk – yet guitarist Wilko Johnson, singer Lee Brilleaux, bass player John B. Sparks and drummer John Martin were none of the above. In love with rhythm and blues – a genre widely regarded as just an influence on other great bands, rather than a thing in itself – they were way out of time.
The band’s name was taken from Willie Perryman’s 1962 hit Doctor Feelgood, recorded under the moniker of Dr. Feelgood & The Interns – as well as being a drug-related slang term. Brillaint young musicians, their skills were honed by relentless gigging in London pubs and clubs, and they were devoted to R&B in spite of it being very much a niche pursuit. Their playing style was certainly not in the manner of slick American greats such as John Lee Hooker, though. Instead it was spiky, raw and edgy to the point that at their best, their music was almost an assault on the senses. In a way, they presaged Punk Rock in this, doing to R&B what the likes of the Sex Pistols did to Rock and Roll. As The Independent’s Nick Hasted put it, “Feelgood are remembered in rock history as John the Baptists to Punk’s messiahs…”
The band’s first album Down By The Jetty was recorded for United Artists between the June 8th and November 27th, 1974, then released the following January. Its non-nonsense monochrome cover shot was a dramatic contrast to the ornate, colourful designs of Progressive rockers like Pink Floyd and Genesis – and its production way off too. Indeed, it was deliberately mastered in mono, which couldn’t have been more contrary to the fashion of the day for sophisticated multi-tracked stereo recordings. The result is forty-plus minutes of crunchy, stripped-down, guitar driven music that has an attitude that few debut albums have ever bettered.
From the opening thrash of She Does It Right to the grimy cover of John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom, to the slippery rhythms of More I Give and the scratchy All Through the City, this album is a fascinating mish-mash of old school American Blues and nineteen seventies British teenage angst. Although the band never thought their music translated well to studio albums, Down By The Jetty sounds unique all the same. The Vic Maile production is refreshingly lean and mean, full of grit, energy and edge – things lacking in today’s over-produced, computer-assisted pop fodder. Because the band and their music were terminally out of fashion at the time of its release, Down By The Jetty has hardly dated and sounds strangely timeless now.
The most recent 2006 CD remaster [EMI 0946 363951] is very clean, and well able to capture the visceral energy of the musicianship, along with the catchy riffs and stripped-down rhythms. Lee Brilleaux’s vocals are crisp and clear, while Wilko Johnson’s razor-edged guitar work is breathtakingly syncopated with that super-tight rhythm section.
A couple of years after its release, Rock critics were waxing lyrical about the power and directness of The Ramones, largely neglecting the brilliance of a much less pretentious band closer to home. Indeed, Down By The Jetty went on to become a formative influence on the careers of greats like Paul Weller and Blondie, as well as being a seriously special album in its own right.
Listen to all of our 2019 AOTM choices for 2019 on our TIDAL playlist
When it came to choosing my first “older” Only the Music choice of 2019 it was very clear which route I’d be taking. Fresh in my memory as I type is the recent launch of Venus Unwrapped, the concert series at London’s Kings Place which will spend the next eleven months throwing a light on the achievements of women composers. That opening event saw soprano Mary Bevan and members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment perform the music of seventeenth century Venetian composer Barbara Strozzi, and by the time the year is out over 100 women composers will have been represented across over sixty events. It should be fascinating, and I suspect many of us will emerge the other end having had previously-held perceptions challenged and changed. So the first track on this month’s playlist is the first movement of French composer Louise Farrenc’s 1847 Symphony No 3 in G minor, a magnificent work that represents a colossal achievement not simply for the fact that it was composed at a time when women were barred from composition classes at the Paris Conservatoire, but also because this was an era during which symphonic music in general was out of fashion on Parisian stages, audiences instead preferring grand opera. Opening with solitary oboe, before quickly and expertly building to a huge full-orchestra climax, this is a brilliantly crafted and thoroughly ear-grabbing work which thoroughly explains why Robert Schumann admired her music so much.
It’s Schumann who then tops this month’s three new release choices, in the shape of cellist Gautier Capuçon’s new all-Schumann programme for Warner Classics, after which we have Early Music vocal ensemble Stile antico on Harmonia Mundi, with a programme centred around English Elizabethan composers in exile. Then to finish, a first foray into the recording studio from the young Consone Quartet that’s resulted in a programme of Mendelssohn and Haydn which I’ve no doubt I’ll still be describing in eleven months’ time as one of the most satisfying recording debuts of 2019.
Years in development, Gautier Capuçon’s latest album is an all-Schumann programme of live concert recordings dating between 2009 and 2015, made with some of his longest-standing musical collaborators and champions. Its superlative curtain-raiser is the Cello Concerto (composed so the three movements flowed seamlessly into each other with no breaks, such was Schumann’s dislike of mid-work applause), recorded in 2015 in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Bernard Haitinck (first concert together 1997). Capuçon’s playing here is supremely elegant and unfailingly beautiful of tone. However equally it’s taut with drama, and with a wonderful ever-so-slightly-untamed quality which brings to the fore the turbulence and instability which dominated so much of Schumann’s life and psychological state. Haitink and the COE meanwhile are with Capuçon every step of the way, with a multi-coloured reading imbued with understanding of both composer and soloist. The rest of the album then underlines Capuçon’s status as one of the world’s finest chamber musicians, with recordings made with pianist Martha Argerich (first concert 2002) at her Martha Argerich Project Festival in Lugano: the Adagio and Allegro op.70, the Fantasiestücke op.73 and the Fünf Stücke im Volkston op.102; then the Fantasiestück op.88 for which they’re joined by Capuçon’s violinist brother Renaud (first concert 1997). With all of these it feels every bit as much like perfection every step of the way, with chamber bonding which couldn’t be any tighter, closer or more instinctive. Or indeed more exquisite, when it comes to moments such as the brothers’ dovetailing lines of the op.88 central slow movement. Obviously it’s early days, but I have a feeling this will turn out to be one of this year’s stand-out albums. So lucky us that we get it as early as January.
This latest beautifully conceived album from Early Music vocal ensemble Stile antico is built around the music of Elizabeth composers who found themselves in exile as a result of their Catholic faith. Sometimes this was textbook geographical exile, with composers such as Peter Philips, Richard Dering and John Dowland effectively choosing spiritual home over physical home by leaving England’s shores for new lives on the continent. For other composers though, such as Robert White and William Byrd, the exile took the form of spiritual exile in England itself.
The works Stile antico have chosen span the emotional and stylistic gamut. On the one hand, there’s Robert White’s (1538-1574) affecting Lamentations a 5: a dramatic and individual setting of the Old Testament Lamentations from Jeremiah, meditating on the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem, which would have felt especially pertinent subject matter for an England-based Catholic. But on the other hand there are works such as Peter Philips’ joyous and slightly more archaic-sounding “Gaude Maria virgo”. The Stile antico sound itself is clear and agile, with female sopranos so boy-treble-like of tone that at points you can’t believe that’s not what you’re listening to, and the two tracks I’ve chosen show that off to the full. First, Richard Dering’s Italianate, madrigal-like “Factum est silentium”, which sets a dramatic passage from the book of Revelation. The second extract is then the recording’s only modern piece, from one of today’s finest British composers: Huw Watkins’ 2014 setting of Shakespeare’s poem The Phoenix and the Turtle, which on the surface describes the funeral rites of the phoenix and the turtle dove (symbolic of perfection and devoted love), but which may also have been an allegory about Catholic martyrs.
Every so often a debut recording comes along which absolutely leaps out of the stereo at you as something special right from its first seconds, and this is one of these.
Formed in 2012 at London’s Royal College of Music, the Consone Quartet focusses on exploring Classical and Early Romantic period repertoire on period instruments, and their successes to date include winning the 2016 Royal Over-Seas League Ensemble Prize, and two prizes at the 2015 York Early Music Competition, including a place on the Eeemerging Scheme for young artists at Ambronay. At the centre of this programme now recorded through that same Eeemerging Scheme is the first of Haydn’s late-life op.77 pair of string quartets of 1799, commissioned by the wealthy Viennese patron Prince Maximilian Lobkowitz who at the same time commissioned a set of quartets from the young Beethoven. Bookending this are two Mendelssohn quartets: the String Quartet No 1 of 1829, written by the eighteen year old composer shortly after Beethoven’s death sent shockwaves across the musical world; then the four string quartet movements dating from various periods of Mendelssohn’s life, which after his death in 1847 were grouped together and published (in 1850) as his op.81. It’s Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No 1 you’ll find on this playlist, and the Consone Quartet’s tender and poised reading displays all the qualities you’ll hear across their programme: clean, lucid tone; tonally zinging and tightly superglued ensemble playing; beautifully spun long lines; and a compelling narrative to the phrasing which has you hanging on for their every next musical word.
Pop music is here today and gone tomorrow – which is why it so powerfully embodies its time. Twenty five years after Parklife was released, Blur’s third album does precisely this – it’s a musical time capsule that whisks the listener back to British cultural life, circa 1994. Although not quite a top tier album in the great scheme of musical things, it’s still an interesting and enjoyable fifty minutes that shows this fine Britpop band at its creative height.
Blur’s lead singer and songwriter Damon Albarn was a fan of the The Kinks, and there’s more than just a hint of them running through Parklife – yet there is more to it than that. Blur started life in London in 1988 as a rather fey student band, with guitarist/singer Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree joining lead singer Albarn. Leisure (1991) was their first album, a weak thing helped along by uptempo ‘indie dance’ numbers like There’s No Other Way. Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993) saw Blur really finding their feet, with a classic pop sensibility reminiscent of The Beatles, T Rex and XTC. By the time Parklife appeared a year later, the band was on top form – running through British popular music history for inspiration and adding a good deal of their own.
The first single wasn’t particularly representative of the album as a whole; the disco-infused Girls & Boys reached number 5 but was the most throwaway song on the album. The tender ballad To the End showed a more mature and contemplative band, while the plaintive End of a Century was something Ray Davies could have penned himself. However, it was the album’s title track – released in May of that year – that really put Blur on the map. The decision to invite Phil Daniels – star of mod movie Quadrophenia – to guest on vocals was genius. It was a hugely catchy pop tune that went on to epitomise the whole Britpop genre.
Recorded between August 1993 and January 1994 at Maison Rouge Studio, Fulham and RAK Studios, St. John’s Wood, Parklife has aged well. The production by Stephen Street – most famous for his work with The Smiths in the nineteen eighties – is clean and crisp. Although a little compressed, it uses no instruments that were fashionable at that time, so doesn’t sound dated today. The strong melodies, soaring choruses and mixture of late sixties pop sensibility and punky, thrashy guitar could be from any period. Albarn’s lyrics are funny, quirky and sometimes quite profound, without trying too hard. The Japanese CD release [EMI PCD-0476] is the one to have for the best sound quality and packaging.
Parklife was in the right place at the right time, and saw young British musicians begin to pay homage to their cultural past. Perhaps unwittingly, Blur became the scion for the so-called Cool Britannia movement that included everyone from the Spice Girls to Michael Caine. Parklife went on to sell over five million copies worldwide, as Damon Albarn had predicted. Back in 1990 he presciently told some music journalists that, “when our third album comes out, our place as the quintessential English band of the nineties will be assured. I intend to write it in 1994.”
Listen to Blur, Parklife on our TIDAL dCS 2019 Album of The Month Collection https://tidal.com/album/68735433
Christmas has to be the most exciting time of the year for music, what with all the wonderful repertoire you’re technically only allowed to listen to during December. In fact don’t expect to hear very much music in the Gardner household that isn’t Christmassy once the first of the month has dropped, and for my older recording this month I’ve chosen the musical work most attached to my own family’s Advent traditions: Handel’s Messiah, which we listen to every year as we bring in and decorate the tree (whilst determinedly ignoring the fact that the Messiah is in fact only one-third Christmas, and two-thirds Easter!). As for what I’m personally looking for in a Messiah recording, the answer is something warm and nimble on period instruments, its orchestral textures zinging and lucid, with clean-toned vocalists who sound as though they truly mean what they’re singing. For me that means Rene Jacobs’ 2006 recording with Clare College Choir and Freiburg Baroque for Harmonia Mundi, from which I’ve given you the chorus, “And the glory of the Lord”. Then, because I can’t not give you some actual carols too, I’ve slipped in Voces8 singing “Once in Royal David’s City” and “In Dulci Jubilo” on their 2011 Christmas album, which equally gets a lot of December airtime in my house.
On to the new releases, an album that actually hit the shelves a few months back, but is too good to not champion before the year draws to a close: the second installment of Lorenzo Gatto and Julien Libeer’s Beethoven Violin Sonatas cycle on alpha. Then finally some more Handel, in the form of Italian cantatas from the Concert d’Astr ee under Emanuelle Haim, with two of France’s most sought-after sopranos as Haim’s soloists: Sabine Devieilhe and Lea Desandre.
Beethoven’s violin sonatas 1, 10 and 5 “Spring” – Lorenzo Gatto and Julien Libeer
As previously mentioned, this one was released earlier in the year, but it’s been on my stereo so many times in the intervening months that it thoroughly deserves its place here. The second installment of this Belgian duo’s Beethoven cycle, this is one of those core repertoire recordings that leaps out of the stereo and makes you listen as if for the first time, and to make that point I’ve given you the most famous sonata here, i.e. “Spring”. So enjoy the energy, the brightness and sweetness, the air in their textures, the equal weighting of piano to violin, and an interestingly straighter reading than many of that jokey third movement race.
Handel Italian Cantatas – Haim, Desandre etc
It’s funny to think that only a few years ago I hadn’t even heard of soprano Sabine Devieilhe, and that it wasn’t until earlier this year that mezzo Lea Desandre entered my radar. Their respective career trajectories have been nothing sort of supersonic, and to understand why you need only listen to this new collaboration between them and the superlative Le Concert d’Astree under Emmanuelle Haim, which presents Handel’s recently-rediscovered, early-career cantatas (effectively mini-operas written for just one of two characters, which would have been performed in the homes of wealthy patrons). From Devieilhe and Desandre think purity of tone and crisply elegant virtuosity, with the texts themselves imbued with bucketloads of life and drama. Then from Haim and Le Concert d’Astree, an equal story of interpretational sparkle and high virtuosity. For you here we first have Desandre singing “Fiamma bella ch’al ciel s’invia” from Aminta e Fillide (a love story between a shepherd and a shepherdess), then Devieilhe singing “Ah crudele! E pur ten’ vai” from Armida abbandonata (about a sorceress who ends up falling in love with a Christian warrior).
The disco era is rightly derided for its outlandish kitsch, yet it delivered a rich seam of pop music throughout the nineteen seventies. It took the classic Motown soul tradition, mixed in funk and added solid, four-on-the-floor rock rhythms to create a sound that transformed the latter half of that decade. Although much of it was of little artistic merit, some great albums came from that era – and Chic’s C’est Chic was surely the genre’s finest moment. Formed in 1976 by guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards, the band delivered a torrent of soaring dance floor anthems that captured the spirit of the age.
Rogers and Edwards were virtuoso musicians at the very top of their game, crafting a highly sophisticated sound that was as close to technical perfection as it was possible to get, back in the days before sequencers and drum machines took hold. Hits like Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) (1977), Everybody Dance (1977), Le Freak (1978), I Want Your Love (1978), Good Times (1979) and My Forbidden Lover (1979), showed their breathtaking technical prowess. The music sounded so tight, yet there was a synergy between the two men that made it more than the sum of the parts. Indeed, Rodgers and Edwards became prolific session musicians and producers too, writing and playing for everyone from Sister Sledge, Diana Ross and David Bowie to Duran Duran, Madonna and latterly Daft Punk.
Steeped in the nineteen seventies New York club scene, they moved from session work with Walter Murphy to being the greatest disco band in the world in the space of just eighteen months. The band borrowed its concept from British avant-gardists Roxy Music; like them they would be immaculately dressed and their artwork would denote an escapist, luxurious world. Chic’s eponymous debut album released in 1977 won many friends, but it wasn’t until 1978’s C’est Chic that the band got into top gear. Le Freak was its smash hit single, and became an anthem for the disco era, selling an amazing six million copies. Released on August 11, 1978, it featured a welter of musicians including Tony Thompson, who contributed the superlative drum work, Robert Sabino for clavinet, acoustic piano and electric piano and Raymond Jones on Fender Rhodes. Marianne Carroll, Cheryl Hong and Karen Milne provided the soaring strings, and there was a superb brass section too.
Aside from Freak Out and I Want Your Love, the album has no other hits but is still a work of beauty from start to finish. The lyrics are sometimes plaintive yet never attempt to be deep and meaningful; instead the lushly orchestrated melodies do the talking. The result is uplifting to listen to from start to finish, with a uniquely rich and vintage sound. Recorded to a very high standard at the Power Station, N.Y., with Bob Clearmountain engineering, C’est Chic is treat for any self-respecting high end hi-fi system. The standard CD pressing sounds good, the Japanese HDCD [Atlantic AMCY-2725] even more so, but the widescreen hi-res FLAC version of 2014 is best of all.
To listen to all of our 2018 Album Of the Month picks visit our TIDAL playlist https://tidal.com/playlist/5c4a2912-a1ac-4e45-82f0-121bd77cd4e3
There was a time when the musical description ‘Country’ might bring a collective sigh of horror from Audiophiles – but no longer. The American Bluegrass scene has expanded beyond recognition and its influences extend far beyond the front porch or The Grand Ole Oprey these days. Labelling is a thing of the past. It’s also an area of music where you simply have to be able to play to achieve recognition or a recording contract. Some of the artists here are at the very peak of achievement and ability. They are largely acoustic musicians who combine truly formidable playing skills with a sweet harmonic sensibility hence the Lyricism tag. I hope you enjoy the music and use the artists featured as a springboard into a musical journey of your own.
When Japan formed in 1974, the signs were encouraging – although a little too obsessed with the style and sound of glam rockers the New York Dolls, it was clear that David Sylvian (vocals, guitar, keyboards), brother Steve Jansen (drums) plus Richard Barbieri (keyboards) and Mick Karn (bass guitar) were prodigiously talented. The band started at Catford Boys School, South London, as a way of escaping the boredom of their surroundings. The name was a working title, used in lieu of a better one that they never thought of. In love with Roxy Music and David Bowie, they epitomised the British ‘art school pop’ tradition, but when lead guitarist Rob Dean joined in 1977 and they signed to the Hansa-Ariola label, the horizon expanded. Their first two LPs, Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives, were overlooked by the new wave-obsessed British pop market of 1978. Then Japan hooked up with Euro disco producer Giorgio Moroder, who co-wrote and produced the single Life In Tokyo – and things would never be the same again…
The stage was set for the band’s third long-player, Quiet Life. Released worldwide on December 1979, it showed the band morphing into a fully-rounded synth pop combo, just at the right time. It’s possible to argue that Japan was the original New Romantic band – even though David Sylvian repeatedly refuted the claim. The new decade saw an explosion in colourful synthesiser-dominated music and Japan was at the vanguard. Quiet Life is a fascinating work, melding Low-era Bowie, Roxy Music and Lou Reed with disco, funk and even punk. For the first time, we saw David Sylvian dropping his vocals down to baritone, and singing in a stylised way that many British electropop bands copied.
It combines sharp uptempo songs like the title track Quiet Life, with slow, atmospheric, brooding tracks like In Vogue and The Other Side of Life. Musically it is intelligent, sophisticated and more eclectic than any of its contemporary releases – and showcases the superb musicianship that the band had by now achieved. Mick Karn’s fretless bass guitar playing went on to influence a whole generation of eighties bass players, and provides a supple underpinning to the rigid electronic backing. Extensive use was made of sequencing, and the edgy guitar sounds were replaced by smoother synthesised textures. Rob Dean used an ebow on most tracks, and the production was awash with phasers and flangers, with heavy harmonising on the vocals. The result was an introspective and dark sounding album, but full of beguiling melodies and tender, thoughtful lyrics.
The album peaked at No.72 in the British album charts in February 1980, and acquired gold status in 1984 for selling over 100,000 copies. It was the beginning of the band’s harvest years – soon they signed to Virgin and released two more memorable studio LPs, Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980) and Tin Drum (1981). The title track was re-released as a single, reaching number 19 in October 1981. Domestic squabbles caused the band to split in 1982, their last ever performance being on 16th December 1982 in Nagoya, Japan. Quiet Life still sounds superb today; the Japanese remaster (BVCM-37220) being an essential purchase.
To listen to all of our 2018 AOTM visit our TIDAL playlist here
Being a serious student of pop music back in the nineteen eighties wasn’t easy. Whilst some may look back nostalgically now, there was a huge amount of rubbish in the charts. The cool indie bands of that period – The Smiths, The Cure, The Cocteau Twins, New Order – barely and/or rarely made a dent. Yet the Pet Shop Boys transcended this; purveyors of catchy dance music that was lyrically intelligent and beautifully honed, New Musical Express called them, “The Smiths that you can dance to.” The synthesiser pop duo combined polished uptempo electronica with touchingly personal and reflective lyrics – instead of the usual “baby I love you” cheesiness that was the norm for mass market pop then.
The band’s first two albums brought Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe huge commercial success, yielding some stomping singles that practically defined their age – West End Girls and What Have I Done to Deserve This from Please (1986) and Actually (1987) respectively. By the time that 1988 came around, people were wondering how they would follow them up. Introspective was the answer, a subtle departure that was in some ways the band’s most commercial long player to date. While the first two albums had been mainstream pop, this fused the newly developing house music genre with the Pet Shop Boys’ own distinctive style. It added a more sophisticated production too, and more confessional and intimate lyrics from the duo’s songwriter Neil Tennant. Released at the end of a long hot summer on 11th October 1988, it caught that moment’s happy, optimistic vibe perfectly.
Introspective was the coming together of several fortuitous things. First, Tennant and Lowe teamed up with the producer of the decade, Trevor Horn, and one of the most accomplished studio engineers of his time, Stephen Lipson. It was recorded between 1987 and 1988 at Horn’s famous Sarm West Studio in London, where he had produced Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and made some great records with Propaganda, Art of Noise and Grace Jones. As well as this, it was packed with singles; the band’s epic cover of Elvis Presley’s Always on My Mind had already charted, as had their flamenco guitar-infused Ibiza tribute Domino Dancing. Left to My Own Devices was just about to assail the top ten, along with It’s Alright, and it also contained a stomping version of their self-penned I’m Not Scared, previously covered by Patsy Kensit’s Eighth Wonder. Small wonder then, that the album went on to be the duo’s second best selling ever, racking up 4.5 million copies, and peaking at number two in the UK album chart.
Lyrically, the album was indeed introspective. It saw songwriter Tennant in a reflective mood, which was in dramatic contrast to the Chris Lowe’s hugely upbeat tunes. Technologically it is a fascinating snapshot of the late eighties, with layers of multitracked analogue synthesisers adorned by Fairlight CMI samples. Each song feels like a perfect three-minute pop single, that’s been elongated to play on a twelve inch vinyl single that you can dance to. Although not an audiophile album per se, it still sounds great on a serious system – especially the original Japanese market CD release [EMI CP25-5670].
Listen all of our AOTM choices for 2018 on our TIDAL playlist