By BRUCE DENNILL
Saint Etienne: Home Counties
Soul Survivor: Never Gonna Stop
James Blunt: Once Upon A Mind
The Temper Trap: Thick As Thieves
Building 429: Live The Journey
A concept album built around the theme of the communities surrounding London from which millions of people commute daily to work in the city, Home Counties considers the mix of apparent charm – living in the suburbs should be more genteel than scurrying about in the middle of town, surely? – and what too often turns out to be the banality of the reality. Listening to this album’s 19 tracks is not unlike being on a bus or a train travelling through the communities being described, which are specific enough to confirm the band’s intimate familiarity with their subjects. As on a journey like that, the bulk of the minutiae are prosaic – the untidiness of broken sheds, bicycles, unused trampolines and the like in the back gardens of semi-detached homes whose more attractive facades are facing the opposite direction or the graffiti-covered walls of municipal infrastructure – with the occasional flash of historical or cultural interest as you cross a river on an ancient bridge or wonder what the nobles of the 1900s got up to in their sprawling mansions, now surrounded by identical two-up, two-downs. A handful of the tracks are not songs, but radio announcements, clips of ambient sound and incidental instrumentals that further build the mood, recalling the gravitas of the old BBC or choir practice at the local church. Singer Sarah Cracknell’s voice gently holds the melodies rather than being a vibrant focal point which, along with the easygoing pace at which the project unfolds, means there is no single track that leaps out on a first spin. Some songs, though, become more gently persuasive as you revisit the album, including Whyteleafe, Take It All In, and Underneath The Apple Tree. Sweet Arcadia, towards the end, sounds like the pitch for an apocalyptic story of an England under siege, with no guarantee of a happy ending. This is a collection that is more intellectually interesting than it is aurally arresting.
The annual Soul Survivor conference (the last one was held this year after a run starting in 1993) was – as well as an event at which UK scholars and students could gather to be introduced to or strengthened in their relationship with God – a platform for the development some of the most influential of the era’s worship music writers, including Matt Redman and Tim Hughes. Never Gonna Stop suggests that the focus has shifted from home-grown music to the use material from around the world, with songs made famous by Bethel Music, Hillsong and Chris Tomlin, among others, making up the bulk of the tracklisting. The impact on the worshippers was no doubt no less for all that, with The Lion And The Lamb, This Is Amazing Grace, Good Good Father and Forever (We Sing Hallelujah) all powerful anthems that encourage interaction. In all, this is a strong set, with chunky running times – songs last for between four and seven-and-a-half minutes – never feeling indulgent and overblown.
An audience polariser for his abrupt, self-deprecating wit as much as his music, James Blunt remains an excellent, consistent songwriter and performer. He hasn’t broken with his formula for this new collection, which he’s described as a sort of thematic and sonic partner to his debut, Back To Bedlam. Thematically, Once Upon A Mind is generally concerned with getting older and the questions and emotions that process raises. Opener The Truth is a strong pop tune with a romantic mood, with Cold, which follows, in similar vein. Monsters is a touching paean to the singer’s ailing father, but parts of the melody sound troublingly shrill, with Blunt’s already high-pitched vocals not quite able to manage the upper end. Youngster is a lyrical revelation regarding Blunt’s observations of, and reservations about, the new generation of pop stars who have displaced him and other older artists. Elsewhere, Stop The Clock – another perspective on the topic of mortality – is a late highlight. Another solid building block, unspectacular, but never weak.
Australian indie rockers The Temper Trap, on Thick As Thieves, pick a formula and stick with it for the duration of the album. It’s a catchy, appealing recipe, too: anthemic chants, the combination of guitar pop with electronic layers, and singer Dougy Mandagi pushing clear, tight vocals out at a high register. The title track is both atmospheric and driving and has a chorus hook that’s tough to shake. So Much Sky is less arresting, but still likeable, and an edgier vocal effect on Madagi’s voice for Lost brings that song to somewhere in the middle of the previous markers. Fall Together has the one-hand synth riff-plus-falsetto feel of Eighties Britpop and is one of the stronger offerings overall. Generally speaking, the lyrical content of the songs is not particularly sophisticated, but in musical settings that feel like they’ve been custom-designed for pop appeal, perhaps that is also a choice – creating an appeal that doesn’t ask listeners to expend too much energy in their enjoyment of the album. That does make some parts of the collection relatively forgettable – well-made and well-performed, but without any real emotional heft. Affable enough listening that will yield few long-term favourites but offers rewards enough for repeated spins.
Possibly uniquely in the history of popular music, Humanz comprises songs with lyrics imagining – and in many case protesting – a real-life event that had not yet occurred when the music was made. Damon Albarn, beginning production on the record before the 2016 US elections, asked his collaborators to imagine a world in which Trump won the election, as he was going for a “dark fantasy” feeling. Sigh. The good old days. That tone does come through often enough, but as is likely always the case when a virtual band creates music with more than a dozen disparate collaborators, the outcome is eclectic rather than especially theme-focused. Whoever’s vocals are involved, the foundation remains more or less the same – thickly smeared synths, mildly malevolent bass and beats shaped to drive the subgenre the guest is known for (rap, reggae, R&B…). Including short interludes of varying efficacy – The Non-Conformist Oath is strong; most of the others less so – the album runs to 20 tracks, and being dragged through a dystopia for that long becomes a little tiresome. There are some standout tracks – Ascension (featuring Vince Staples), Carnival (featuring Anthony Hamilton) and She’s My Collar (featuring Kali Uchis) are all good – but for the most part this feels more like a project you’re supposed to like because the concept is cool and the guests have pockets full of zeitgeist rather than ideas, melodies and stories that connect with too many peoples’ shared experience.
North Carolina’s Building 429 have long been a solid if largely unspectacular outfit, delivering on their core philosophy, which is creating Christian contemporary music that edifies listeners (as opposed to challenging them with new or fresh perspectives). Live The Journey continues in that vein, carefully produced – Jason Roy’s distinctive vocals are treated to have the same tone and EQ throughout – and sticking to a formula that sees the collection filled with mid-tempo pop tracks. The standout track – too many of the songs, though well-constructed, blend into each other – is 1,000 Promises, which lifts the dynamics considerably, launching into a big memorable chorus that makes the worshipful lyrics easy to remember. That lyrical approach is a thread all through the album, with standard phrases and sentiments meaning the songs don’t excite, necessarily, but do comfort, with the feelings expressed being easy to relate to. This is honest, well-meaning music for listeners in the same headspace as the band.