Music Reviews: People And Prophets, Or A Princess In A Paper Crown

April 6, 2021

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By BRUCE DENNILL

Richard Ashcroft: These People

Coldplay: Live In Buenos Aires / Live In Sao Paulo / A Head Full Of Dreams

Loui Lvndn: Your Princess Is In Another Castle

Sidewalk Prophets: Something Different

Josh Wantie: Paper Crown

I Am They: Trial & Triumph

 

The cover art for Richard Ashcroft‘s These People looks like fans of The Verve and the singer-songwriter’s earlier solo work will expect him to sound – stylish, serious and powered primarily by acoustic melodies. Opener Out Of My Body gives the lie to that prediction, driven by electronic beats that take Ashcroft’s trademark rock into EDM territory. Something like normal service is resumed in This Is How It Feels, particularly in the verses when the production allows the singer’s voice room to resonate. They Don’t Own Me continues in similar vein, re-introducing listeners to Ashcroft’s brand of righteous cynicism. Just when the early dancefloor-friendly material starts to feel like a sequencing error, the beats return in Hold On, which is a more balanced, successful combination of ideas than the first track. The title track is perhaps the clearest link to Ashcroft’s musical history – it would have sat comfortably on any of The Verve albums, for instance. With the rest of the collection similarly reverting to enjoyable, capable type, the choice to include the two pieces of (relative) electronica seems increasingly odd; a hedging of bets rather than a brave exploration of a new direction. For the most part, though – enjoyable, solid songcraft.

 

This package is an encapsulation of all that Coldplay have come to stand for, much of which won’t be what immediately comes to mind for some listeners. Perhaps the best way into the four-disc collection is via Mat Whitecross’ documentary A Head Full Of Dreams, which tracks the band’s development from their meeting in London as teenagers to their current stadium-filling ubiquity, including the many challenges – practical and emotional – involved in that journey. What the film reveals is, more than anything, Chris Martin’s iron-clad ambition. It seems out of keeping with the singer’s apparently perma-cheerful stage persona and the glee with which he prances around the stage in the Live In Sao Paolo concert film, but it explains everything else: the sheer scale of the Coldplay live experience, with all its props, colours, lighting effects and perfectly rehearsed band interactions, and the chart and sales success that guarantees audiences of that size whenever the band have something new to present. It’s a titanic job to get from a bedsit with a strummed acoustic guitar to one of the biggest bands in the world – always one of Martin’s stated goals – and the intimate, part-of-the-gang viewpoint that Whitecross gives viewers in A Head Full Of Dreams helps to clarify the way in which undistilled determination has seen a quartet of relatively mellow Englishmen have become an inescapable part of popular culture. The live recordings in this set – on DVD and CD – are notable for their spectacle. It helps that Coldplay have a great many chart hits, so recognisability is not an issue, but there is much intelligent planning in the arrangements and staging, making each song in the set feel like a standalone event. This in turn ensures that the intensity in each concert is ratcheted up exponentially throughout the experience, leaving fans in a state of happy exhaustion by the time the closing credits roll. Each facet of this release is impressive in its own right, but together, the components give each other added weightiness and merit. Coldplay often divide audiences, perhaps because of their earnestness and self-belief, but after watching and listening to everything in this package, there is little room for cynicism regarding the effectiveness and positive impact of what they do.

 

The title of this debut album might be inspired by a Super Mario quest, but East London-born singer-songwriter and rapper Loui Lvndn (real name Lutho Mtyamde) has a sound that suggests anything but the simplicity of the popular retro computer game. The album’s production, by Gareth Jones, is clean, clear, robust and slightly dark, giving Lvndn’s vocals a platform with a pleasing dash of menace. The singer is a charismatic, talented performer, with a vocal tone and style that reminds a little of Michael Jackson in his more aggressive, dramatic moments (think Dirty Diana). Opener Fire Is The New Black has a punchy industrial rhythm to go with the intensity of the title, and a palpable energy that declares Lvndn’s status as much more than just a left-of-centre R&B operator. The power of his performance, and the writing that underpins it, is confirmed in Kill Her Killer, one of the standout tracks. One of two collaborations with Spoek Mathambo, Body Of Work adds Afro-pop-meets-Bobby-McFerrin touches, while How Come You Are Not is a catchy Pharrell Williams-esque hit – without the daft hat and the lawsuits. There are a great many ideas utilised throughout the album, and impressively, more or less all of them work, though to greater or lesser levels of accessibility. The title track brings in a rock guitar riff, which is expanded into a towering almost Prince-ish line in Your Nature. The mellower R&B-style options like The Time have less immediate impact, though Lvndn’s delivery does give them the swagger and smoothness that is a trademark of the genre.

 

Nashville-based five-piece Sidewalk Prophets have the mien – when judging from their pictures in their sleeve art and the quieter moments of the songs here – of another obviously capable pop-rock CCM band. That is no bad thing, particularly with Seth Mosley and Mike X O’Connor beautifully penetrating production and the emphatic vocals of singer David Frey. However, a sure touch with arrangements and a desire and ability to throw themselves collectively into vivid dynamics make Sidewalk Prophets a more exciting proposition than many of their more celebrated peers. Opener Prodigal kicks off with a bright drum rhythm that suggests a Brian Setzer Orchestra-style big band tune – which it isn’t, being instead the a fine example of the chart-friendly pop-inflected material that is initially expected. Justin Nace’s powerful drumming is a feature from the start of the album, so when Everything In Awe arrives, four songs in, introduced with a serene acoustic guitar, the drop in energy is palpable. But this song is the gold standard for the aforementioned dynamics, dipping and growing and dipping and growing before blasting into the stratosphere with an epic last chorus with driving bottom end and a soaring vocal from Frey that’ll blow back the hair of even the fan in the back row at an arena – and which exemplifies the emotion it’s talking about. The band’s musicianship and performance magnetism mean that even songs that are more traditional in both lyrical content and musical structure, like To Live Is Christ, sound persuasive. Come To The Table is country-tinged pop of that sort that wins Grammy Awards for big names in that genre and Ain’t Nobody (Till You’re Loved) is a cheerful ukulele-and-kick-drum tune that ensures Sidewalk Prophets hit the youth festival demographic. I’d Rather Have You could be Bryan Adams or Bon Jovi at the end of the Eighties. Homeless Heart is as earnest as it’s title suggests before Closer concludes matters in arms-aloft gospel style. A great collection with a celebratory outcome.

 

Broadly speaking a mixture of mellow EDM and more traditional singer-songwriter pop, Josh Wantie’s music on this second EP offers plenty of atmospherics in terms of the instrumental aspects of the songs. He uses reverb and synthesised effects to good effect, with the title track being perhaps the most effective example of his ideas (it also has the strongest hook of any of the compositions). Lyrically, there is a generally pensive, though never gloomy, tone as Wantie considers relationships and their complexities. Closer Brightest Light, featuring FDVM, is the most obviously dancefloor-friendly track in the collection, lifting the energy of the project somewhat. The EDM aspect of the arrangements means that, on initially hearing many of these songs and at low volume, it is the beats that are most prominent. On repeated listening, though, the songs reveal their charms slowly, with the hooks in Go Under and Fall Again beginning to embed themselves.

 

Able to communicate the relatively small number of core truths of their Christian beliefs better than most worship acts, I Am They are also a hugely compelling country-pop act. Trial & Triumph opener My Feet Are On The Rock features both the songwriting nous and the performance passion of Lady Antebellum or Sugarland, and a brawny guitar line gives the song considerable punch, getting the album off to a rollicking start. Energy and tone is maintained in the big organ chord that begins To The One, which adds Jon McConnell’s heartfelt vocals to the strong lead of Abbie Parker. Scars is less secular chart friendly, but as a congregational song it employs creativity in its lyrics, postulating that pain can help us understand God, rather than drive us from Him. The Water (Meant For Me) combines the two styles to some degree, with more lovely vocal interplay over a brooding keyboard soundscape. The contemplative Near To Me and the more anthemic Crown Him are further offerings in which McConnell kicks off the vocals, helping to balance the overall mood and tone of the album well. In quality terms, the tracklist as a whole is uneven, but the good songs are great, and the others are better than average – Trial & Triumph will encourage regular listening.

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