Welsh music journalist Kevin McGrath has embarked on an ambitious effort to raise funds for Velindre Cancer Center in Cardiff, Wales, where he’s received treatment for his own cancer. A regular contributor to Wales Arts Review and New Sound Wales, McGrath came up with the idea to create a massive 40-track digital album release as a way to not only raise money for a worthy cause, but also pay back in kind for the life-saving care he’s received.
Accordingly, he reached out to some of his favorite musicians in Wales, as well as in places such as Italy, Finland and America, to donate a song, old or new, released or unreleased, toward the creation of a 40-track mixtape album. Well, the response was beyond what he expected, and the album, entitled V4Velindre, now has a whopping 50 tracks by some of the best bands in Wales, including Bandicoot, Climbing Trees, Campfire Social, and Head Noise, as well as established singer/songwriters such as Jodie Marie, Evans McRae and Dan Bettridge.
McGrath explains his mission for creating the album: “V4Velindre exists because from the minute that we are born our lives intersect with the National Health Service. We all have stories (happy and sad) of the crucial role the NHS plays in our very existence. Nothing, though, could have prepared us for the sacrifice that NHS staff all over the country made to keep us safe during the COVID pandemic. Just between March 2020 and December 2020 883 NHS staff members died from COVID doing their duty and so much more. As the NHS, and the nation, seeks to rebuild in the wake of the pandemic we need to come together and make our contribution. As Nye Bevan famously said, ‘the NHS will last only as long as there’s folk with faith left to fight for it’. That fight comes in many measures – some will work for the NHS, some will vote for the NHS, some will protest for the NHS, and some will help finance its upkeep through jumble sales and sponsored walks. Please consider purchasing V4Velindre. Every single penny of the proceedings that comes to me from the sale of this album (minus the Bandcamp commission) will be passed straight to the Velindre Cancer Centre, where I have been cared for as an outpatient for the past eight years.“
Among its 44 tracks, the album features songs by the last three winners of the Welsh Music Prize, including “O Silly Me” by young singer-songwriter Boy Azooga, “Brassneck” by indie legends The Wedding Present (an exclusive re-working of one of their all-time classics), “Who You Are” by BOB and “Enemy of Promise” by the Nightingales. In addition, the album includes songs donated by outstanding new Indie bands from Italy (Smile) Finland (That Forgotten Band) and the U.S. (Walter Etc, Eggs on Mars and Parker Woodland). Two of the songs are by Welsh artists I’ve previously featured on this blog: “Deal With the Devil” by the hyper-talented singer-songwriter GG Fearn, and “Stage Fright!” by electro-punk band Head Noise. There are also some newly-recorded tracks from Armstrong, Silent Forum, Burning Ferns and Y Dail that cannot be heard anywhere else but on this album.
Here’s a sampling of the wonderful songs included on V4Velindre:
V4Velindre will be available exclusively through Bandcamp as a digital-only release on October 1st, and may be pre-ordered here. If you pre-order, you will get five tracks now (streaming via the free Bandcamp app and also available as a high-quality download in MP3, FLAC and more).
Alex Southey is a Canadian singer-songwriter and musician who makes outstanding music that can generally be described as alternative indie folk, but it’s so much more than that. Originally from Vancouver and currently based in Toronto, the busy artist has released quite a bit of music over the past few years, including three albums: Christmastown in 2019, You’re Not Just a Body to Me in 2020 and, most recently …And the Country Stirred this past February. Prior to that album’s release, I featured one of its singles “Rosie” – a deeply personal and haunting love song to his erstwhile hometown of Vancouver – on a Fresh New Tracks post.
Now he’s back with an exquisite new EP My Nights On the Island, which dropped September 17th. All the songs were written, performed, and produced by Alex, and mastered by Aaron Hutchinson. The beautiful cover artwork was designed and created by Felicia Wetterlin. The EP is a departure from his more typical indie folk sound, though truth be told, his music style is rather eclectic and hard to pin down, genre-wise. Like all creative artists, he’s not afraid to explore and experiment with his music, and as a result, each of his albums sound different from one another.
In an interview with Spill Magazine, Alex explained his creative process behind “My Nights On the Island: “I was trying to make an EP that would please my 17-year-old self. So, there is a little bit of Hip Hop and beats; I am not rapping, but in terms of beats. There are a bunch of acoustic guitars, and electric guitars and there is a theme, which is breaking up.” In a later Instagram post, he further elaborated “The EP encompasses a lot of things I wanted to do, and to not do the same thing again. Instead of starting with folk songs and dressing them up with an arrangement, I tried to go backwards, starting with what might be considered secondary or accent instruments (at least for my taste) as the main instrument. It forced me to write in a slightly different way. Of course, there are some pretty simply structured songs on here, like ‘As Close As You’ll Ever Be’, but there are also plenty of moments where it’s totally abstract in a way that at least absorbed ME and continued to pique my interest enough that I followed through with them.”
Well, the result is a fascinating and sonically complex work that’s pure delight for the senses. I’ve now listened to the EP six times, and discover new atmospheric sounds, instrumental textures and vocal nuances with each successive play. While there are common threads running through all the tracks, each one sounds uniquely different, surprising and thrilling us at every turn. Using nature sounds of water, waves and birds, he takes us right to that island.
The darkly beautiful opening track “The Gods Are Fighting” starts off with sounds of a boat slowly moving through what I’m imagining to be nighttime waters, accompanied by far-off ominous synths. At around 45 seconds, the song abruptly transitions to a lovely acoustic guitar-driven melody, highlighted by gorgeous strings and what sounds like a Mellotron, soaring to a dramatic crescendo. The track calms back down at the end with gentle sounds of breaking waves. About the track, Alex told Spill Magazine: “I wrote the song around the time my last significant relationship ended. That also happened to be when it felt as though Toronto and its relationship with many of its citizens was at an all-time low. The song describes the dual positions of a relationship that has soured – where even dreams are muted and the agreed upon etiquette is out the window.” His richly layered vocals are captivating, with a melancholy quality that nicely conveys the sadness and pain of his break-up.
On the moody, atmospheric “Evergreen“, which sounds a bit like a song Bon Iver could have recorded, Alex experiments with lush, otherworldly synths and sounds, over which he layers delicate notes of what sounds like a mandolin or possibly a ukelele. The lyrics are spare, but he wistfully laments of how his feelings of love have died: “I don’t, I don’t, I don’t love you. I turned yesterday into stone.” And as its title suggests, the instrumental piece “Mellotron and Juliet” features a stunning Mellotron and his enchanting falsetto croon, creating a dreamy, yet melancholy soundscape.
“My Nights On the Island / Rich In Experience” is an interesting track, as it’s actually two distinct, but related mostly instrumental tracks that Alex has fashioned into a couplet. The first half, which is the title track, starts off with Alex’s charming strummed acoustic guitar, then deeply resonant brass sounds from what I’m guessing is his Mellotron wash over us as he sings in almost exotic-sounding ethereal vocals, accompanied by somber piano keys and a languid hip hop beat. The song appears to end at 2:30, and after a 10-second lull, we hear sounds of birds chirping along with a return of the beautiful Mellotron. Eventually, horns enter as the music swells into a lush, idyllic soundscape befitting its “Rich in Experience” title.
Perhaps the most unusual song is the dramatic and trippy “As Close As You’ll Ever Be”, which Alex first released as a single in July. The song opens and closes with sounds of a large crowd cheering, as if at a rock concert. He explained this technique to Spill Magazine: “On this song, there is kind of a crowd atmosphere which is influenced from listening to albums by Hip Hop artists and bands like Pink Floyd who would use crowd noises, and weirdly also influenced by Oasis. On their best albums they kind of do this tiny little intro and tiny little outro leading into songs.” Musically, the song features blaring, almost tortured synths and sounds, with acoustic guitar during quieter moments. The lyrics seem to speak to his partner’s lack of appreciation for his worth as a musician: “I’m the hit in your head / I’m all on your bedspread / But that’s as close as you’ll ever be. And it’s true I earn half of what the next dance gets, but I’ve got a heart of gold you’ll pay to see.” I love his vocals, which sound radically different on each track.
On the bittersweet closing track “There’s Anneko, Down the Fire Escape“, Alex comes to terms with the fact that the relationship is over for good, and that they must each let go and move on. The song has a wonderful dominant bassline throughout, overlain with mournful cinematic synths and acoustic guitar notes. His vocals are filled with sadness and regret as he laments “There’s a neat trick, that I taught myself. To let go. Let go. / I can never love you how you want. So let go. Let go.” It’s a fine, albeit dark, finish to this beautiful EP. My Nights On the Island is an impressive, masterfully-crafted work that should make Alex feel quite proud.
Awen Veleda & The Wandering Lights is a Brighton, England-based music collective that brings together musicians from around the world to create a unique brand of contemporary folk. The project is headed by songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mike Five (who also plays guitar for the rock band 1 in Five and co-hosts a music podcast with Dr. Bones). They’ve just released their debut EP An Alien Invasion In The Petty Kingdoms (Part 1: Prelude), a concept work exploring how people deal with the unexpected, manage change through their own beliefs and context, and find ways to work together. The name Awen Veleda is a fictitious person, with ‘Awen’ meaning inspiration, while ‘Veleda’ was a 1st century prophetess who was worshipped by Germanic peoples, and her name has come to be synonymous with inspirational wisdom.
The story for An Alien Invasion In The Petty Kingdoms (Part 1: Prelude) is set in 9th Century Britain, amid an unexpected and shocking event that unfolds through the voices of various characters, all scrambling to understand the truth and come to agreement about how to deal with it. The collaborative EP is based on an original narrative and accompanying music written by Mike Five, with lyrics and lead vocals by GRIM17. In addition to Mike Five, who played guitars, organ, piano, drums, synths, shakers, tambourines and birdsong recordings, and GRIM17, for this EP The Wandering Lights is also comprised of One Blind Mouse, who performed the string arrangements and also mixed and mastered the EP, Gemma Kirk, who sang backing vocals on “A Message to the King”, Becca Wright, who played fiddle on “The Witan” and “Chieftain Caiside”, Iona James, who sang backing vocals on “The Real Ealdorman”, Ron Bowes, who played harmonica on “The Real Ealdorman”, Sadie-Rei, who sang joint lead vocals on “Lucrezia”, and Rae Cameron, who played flute on “Lucrezia”.
In advance of the EP’s release on Bandcamp on September 3rd, The Wandering Lights have also released music videos for three of the tracks. The EP will be released on all other music streaming platforms on November 5th. They’ve included all the lyrics for each song on their Bandcamp page.
The EP begins with “A Message to the King“, which describes the adventures of two messengers who travel day and night to reach the King with the terrifying news that an army of mysterious mercenaries has invaded the eastern end of the kingdom. But this is no ordinary group of heathens, as they may not even be human. Unsure themselves of what they’ve actually seen, or that anyone would believe them, their message must reach the King at all costs.
The song opens and closes with spacey sci-fi sounds, a nod to the mysterious alien nature of the invaders. But for the bulk of the track, the music settles into a dark and haunting soundscape of mournful piano and stings, accompanied by Mike Five’s strummed acoustic guitar. GRIM17’s vocals are perfect for the song’s dark mood, and Gemma King’s ethereal choral vocals add a wonderful ghostly vibe.
For the official video, Mike Five and Co. overlaid their track onto the original video for “The King” by Italian animator Goga Mason, which was itself a retelling of the classic story of King Kong. Though it’s a fascinating and compelling video, the visuals do not match the storyline of “A Message to the King”, so I’m not sure why they would use it for this song.
On track two, “The Witan“, a quickly-assembled witan advises the King to take immediate action against the invaders, but before he acts he must uncover the facts and separate them from rumor and superstition. (In England from the 6th to 10th centuries, a witan was a wise man who advised the king on specific issues, and often a member of the Witenagemote, or assembly of wise men, which was the forerunner of the future English Parliament.) Led by a dominant thumping drumbeat overlain with moody strings and acoustic guitar and highlighted by Becca Wright’s lively fiddle, the song has an ancient Celtic feel.
“The Red Ealdorman” (an ealdorman, old English for alderman, was an official of Anglo-Saxon England appointed by the king, who was responsible for law, order, and justice in his shire and for leading his local fyrd, or militia) addresses the efforts by a particular official who’s sent by the King to raise the fyrd and gather an army in preparation for battle. Because of the unusual and potentially daunting circumstances behind their mysterious foe, the King will need all the help he can assemble, even from his enemies – in this case a Celtic Chieftain and his tribe. The prominent organ used in the track gives it a gospel feel, while Ron Bowes’ haunting harmonica and Iona James’ lovely backing vocals add a nice folk touch. Also, to my ears, GRIM17’s vocals on this track remind me a bit of U2’s Bono Hewson.
The video produced for this track enlisted the help of The Wandering Lights’ own army of music lovers from around the world, their own personal fyrd, if you will.
“Chieftain Caiside” sees the red ealdorman, aka the crimson man, meeting with the King’s nemesis Chieftain Caiside, and delivering an urgent message of peace and unity, in their common need to defeat a newfound foe. Thankfully, the chieftain is responsive, and promises his support to the King: “The crimson man rides from my sights, with a message I sent that I hope is right. I won’t be the reason for the downfall these kingdoms may yet incur. I’ve heard your words, I’ve heard your words. Uncommon enemies.” Once again, Becca Wright’s rousing fiddle is a highlight of the song.
The final track “Lucrezia” is the most beautiful of the five, and also my favorite. At this point in the saga, the King, struggling to get to the truth, comes to the realization that the unusual challenges he faces will require creative solutions. He concludes that to achieve the greater good, one sometimes has to do something possibly sinful by comporting with beings outside his own religion, and contacts the Priestess Lucrezia to see if her visions can offer guidance – whilst praying to his own God for forgiveness. “Lucrezia, you’ve been light, love and teacher, So much for so long. But once more I must beg your indulgence. Could you lend me your song?” to which she replies with promise of her assistance that also comes with a warning: “King, I lend you arm and leg so you can make amends .Abuse them not. I am nonviolent until you force my hand.”
GRIM17’s vocals are raw, plaintive and heartfelt on this track, and the silky croons of Sadie-Rei (of the California alt-pop/punk band Until Further Notice) are as enchanting as we’d expect from a priestess. I love the sounds of chirping birds, as well as Mike Five’s beautiful acoustic guitar, One Blind Mouse’s somber strings, and Rae Cameron’s captivating flute. It’s a gorgeous ending to Part 1 of this saga, which I’m now eager to watch unfold.
Since the release of their spellbinding debut single “Lisbon” in March 2020, British electronic pop band NOPRISM have been on a creative tear. Formed in early 2020 and based in Newcastle Upon Tyne, NOPRISM are comprised of Andrew Young, Mark Nelson, Phil Taylor and Alex Hindle. Influenced by a wide and eclectic array of artists ranging from The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire to Daft Punk, Chaka Khan and Talking Heads, they create exciting and innovative electronic pop music loaded with infectious funky grooves and intoxicating dance vibes. Their songs have garnered both critical and popular acclaim, with their single “Happiness” earning praise by Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon as “perhaps the best new song ever” on his Wooosh! Radio show.
Despite the limitations imposed upon them by the Covid pandemic, they managed to make good use of their down time by recording and releasing seven singles, the latest of which is “Animosity“, which I’ve chosen as my New Song of the Week. The song addresses the contradictions between the joys of love, and the sacrifices we sometimes make to have it. Band vocalist Andrew Young elaborates: “I’m always fascinated (obsessed) about the idea that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the idea of love is no different. Very often you see people giving up important things or opportunities in their lives for the sake of love. But obviously it’s why we’re all here, and the positives that it brings is what makes us human.We decided to write a song for voguing to, but with our own imprint on it.“
Inspired by the campy vogue music played on the wonderful MJ Rodriguez/Billy Porter TV show Pose, the band initially wrote the song as a distraction during the first lockdown, then put it out on Spotify under a pseudonym. After the song started getting airplay on BBC radio, they quickly realized they had a potential hit on their hands. Consequently, they pulled the song, re-recorded it with the full band, had it remixed and re-mastered, and released it under their own name. This new and improved version of “Animosity” is what we’re now blessed with.
The guys start with a strutting bass-driven groove, fortify it with energetic thumping drums and swirling cinematic synths, then add layers of funky and bluesy guitars to create a soulful and sensuous dance track that aims straight for the hips, while at the same time producing a lush wall of sound that beautifully captures the joy and euphoria of love. The guys’ pleasing vocal harmonies are wonderful too, adding to the song’s overall jubilant vibe. It’s a marvelous song.
The stylish video, shot in black and white, shows a group of beautiful and exotic-looking young people posing and vogueing to the song.
When I last visited British ska-punk collective Zen Baseballbat this past January, I wrote about their brilliant album Rations, which I described as wild, zany, fun, and as thoroughly eclectic as any record could possibly be (you can read my review here). Now they’re back with a delightful new album, which they’ve cheekily titled Better Ways To Love & Offend, calling it “a slap in the face, a wake-up call to rip us from the stasis we’ve ghosted into since recession and Brexit took hold. Can’t go forward, can’t go back, so we might as well just sit and watch the bombs fall.” They deliver their message with hilarious yet biting lyrics and a delicious blend of ska (itself an eclectic mash-up of Caribbean mento and calypso, American jazz and R&B), electro, punk, new wave, reggae, zydeco and dub.
Based in Widnes, England, a mid-sized city bookended by Liverpool and Manchester, Zen Baseballbat was originally formed in the early 1990s by twin brothers Gary and Carl Gleavey, along with several other musicians. Over the next 10 years or so, they released an EP and two albums, but eventually disbanded in the late 2000s. Fast forward another 10 years, the Gleavey twins reformed the band with a new lineup and a newfound burst of creativity. Zen Baseballbat now includes Gary G. on guitar & vocals, Carl G. on bass & backing vocals, Jordan Donaldson on keyboards & backing vocals, Mike Wilkinson on drums, Jonathan ‘Jogga’ Parker on guitar & backing vocals, as well as Anoushka Wittram-Gleavey and Colin Mackay, who produced Better Ways To Love & Offend. Additionally, several other vocalists and musicians contributed to the album, including Jane Anderson, Ayshea Elfer, Jessica Wilkinson, Isabelle Wilkinson and Tony Nipper.
All 14 tracks are solid, but I’ll touch on my favorites, as well as those I feel are integral to the album’s overall narrative. The album opens with a man speaking the words “We don’t want to do anything to scare your children. We don’t want to scare anybody“, but then the band quickly informs us “There’s gonna be trouble“, which they repeatedly affirm throughout the bouncy reggae tune simply titled “Trouble“. Now that we’re suitably alarmed, they launch into “Retaliation” a terrific ska number with bits of punk, psychedelic and new wave, giving it a sort of lively B-52s vibe. The lyrics speak to standing up, speaking out, and fighting back against oppression and injustice: “This ain’t no place for sweet-tempered voices. Don’t hold back, don’t go with the punches. After a good old kick in the feelings, my heart still beats like a militant drum. Give a little bit of retaliation.”
Zen Baseballbat’s skill for using all sorts of fascinating instruments, textures and sounds is showcased on the cool, psychedelia-tinged gem “Over The Wall“. I love the skittering beat, exotic Caribbean sounds and delightful female vocal trills, punctuated with some marvelous guitar work. The lyrics seem to address income inequality: “Parties of the rich over the wall. The world won’t give me back my ball. Unsympathetic wealth is stinging. Despite Rock’n’roll right-wingers are singing.”
They also have a penchant for combining fun, upbeat melodies with darker lyrics. On “A Place Like This“, they rattle off a litany of bad behavioral choices to a lively zydeco soundtrack. And on “You Won’t Get Paid“, the bouncy ska groove contrasts with the caustic lyrics addressing the drudgery of dead-end jobs with little pay: “I’ve been shovelling shit for far too long. My body aches but my head is strong. I haven’t got a pot to piss in, yet you want me for next to nothing. You won’t get paid no, you won’t get paid.”
“Rumble” is a fascinating reggae track with soulful and jazzy cinematic overtones, thanks to a colorful mix of brassy horns, flutes, organ, and funky bass. In spots, the melody sounds like a slowed-down version of the 70s disco hit “T.S.O.P.” by MFSB, which also happens to be one of my all-time favorite songs. The song’s only lyric, which is sporadically repeated throughout the track, is “I zigged when I shoulda zagged.” The delicious ska tune “Quivering On A Rope” seems to touch on the soul-crushing aspects of casual sex and one-night stands: “Rummaging for love on a Tuesday night. On the shirttails of bachelors putting up a fight. Fannies flashing like neon signs, a stained glass view of their behinds. Quivering on a rope between the beginning and the end. Forgive me my lost soul rendition. My heart sings at any proposition. Are there better ways to love and offend? Basic desires start to bend.“
On “Reasons” the band takes on the political establishment and incompetent leaders who dither while the public suffers: “We have reason to believe that you have been living. We have several pictures to prove it. The mistakes you made were beautiful. Disguising your man for the television. We know who you are. We know where you’ve been.” “Don’t Oppress Me, Love” is a cheeky punk song about the perils of being romantically involved with a woman employed as an ‘adult’ entertainer – i.e. a stripper.
A stylistic departure for Zen Baseballbat, the atmospheric and contemplative “Elsa Dorfman” is a kind of ode to the American portrait photographer, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 83. The lyrics speak of seeking solace from life’s unpleasantries through her camera lens: “Tomorrow I’ll stick the job up its arse. A working-class kid will fly to Mars. Place me in front of the open lens Of Elsa Dorfman.” The album comes full circle with “Double Trouble“, a brief reprise of the opening track, this time sung by Jessica and Isabelle, daughters of band drummer Mike Wilkinson. The song’s whimsical feel gently reassures us that things really aren’t all that horrible after all.
Better Ways To Love & Offend is another fine and immensely enjoyable offering by Zen Baseballbat. Anyone who likes reggae and ska music, combined with humorous, witty and thought-provoking lyricism, will enjoy this album.
British singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Philip Morgan Lewis is one of the most creative and prolific artists I’ve come across in my six years as a music blogger. He’s become a favorite of this blog, and this is the fifth time I’ve featured him since November 2017. Drawing upon a wide range of genres and influences, including alternative rock, blues, R&B, garage rock, folk and EDM, the London East Ender crafts his own unique style of blues-soaked rock that’s perfect for his distinctive raspy vocals. His singing voice sounds like no one else, making him one of those artists you immediately recognize upon hearing his songs.
Over the past decade, Philip has released an impressive amount of music, including his superb 2017 album Grief Harbour (which I reviewed), two EPs and scores of singles. Among those I’ve written about was “Come Find Me Back”, which I premiered this past April along with its wonderful accompanying video. The hauntingly beautiful song spent 10 weeks on my Weekly Top 30. He quickly followed with two more singles and an EP Lost Soul Sessions, and now returns with yet another new single “I.O.U.“, which I’ve chosen as my New Song of the Week.
Released via Tx2 Records, “I.O.U.” is his second collaboration with Belgium producer Orfeo Brigande, who co-wrote and co-produced the track. Philip played guitar and sang all vocals on the track, Orfeo programmed the beat and synths, and Karl Velsch played additional guitar. The track will be included on his upcoming EP NOW + THEN, to be released September 1st.
One of the many things I like about Philip’s music is its unpredictability, and that no two songs ever sound alike. With every release, we’re treated to an entirely different sound and vibe than the song before, and “I.O.U.” is no exception. The song has a slow, sensuous vibe, with Orfeo’s moody synths and keyboards creating a sultry, almost cinematic groove, over which Philip and Karl layer a marvelous blend of funky and distorted guitar notes. As always, Philip’s raspy emotive vocals are soulful and evocative, conveying his ardor in a way that’s soothing, but also smoldering with a white-hot desire.
The lyrics speak to someone who brings so much joy and love into your life that you feel an intense love for them in return, along with a grateful feeling of indebtedness – expressed by the initials “I.O.U.” In them, you’ve found someone so perfect, you need look no further for anyone who could possibly be better.
Ain’t gonna dig down deeper There ain’t nobody like you Ain’t gonna look no further I want somebody like you For the love you’ve given me Is hard and dirty babe And I.O.U. Ain’t gonna dig it down Don’t want nobody but you
As EclecticMusicLover, I’m always on the lookout for artists who push boundaries and venture outside the mainstream in the creation of their music and/or identity. Furthermore, as a gay man, it warms my heart to discover LGBTQ+ artists who not only have the courage and fortitude to put themselves out there, but also make music that’s really good. With that in mind, I was pleased to learn about queer doom pop band Reversels when their publicist reached out to me about them and their new album LaSabre, which dropped July 23rd.
Based in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina, Reversels consists of Frankie ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd (vocals, keys and synths) and Story (vocals and guitar). Frankie is a classically trained pianist who previously toured as part of the rock band The Winter Sounds, as well as performing in churches, burlesque shows and on children’s programs. Story has performed in a variety of genres with numerous bands, including dark western with Death & the Reverend, post rock with From the North, and art punk with Minge. As Reversels, the two create dramatic, genre-bending electronica music awash with alternative, goth, darkwave, psychedelic, industrial, pop and rock’n’roll elements. Frankie identifies as transmasc (they/him), and Story identifies as non-binary (they/them). The two met at a burlesque after-party in late 2017, and bonded over their love of music and shared experiences of having both been raised in different cults.
Frankie grew up in a fundamentalist religious cult that glorified limitless procreation, and pressured fathers to have vasectomy reversals. The children born after these procedures were reversed became singers in the leader’s “Reversal Choir,” and were told they owed their existence to him. Frankie elaborates: “Homemade dresses, homeschooling, the exclusion of all music but classical and hymns, and glorification of the patriarchy are some of [the cult’s] defining features. Also, the teaching that it’s a sin to *not* have as many children as one can possibly have. The cult leader, Bill Gothard, taught that anyone who had had a vasectomy was called by God to have it surgically reversed and bear more children into infinity. This led to many large families with a dozen or more similarly-named and dressed children. This also led to my little sister, seven years younger than I, and now one of my best friends. During the cult’s annual gathering, cult families amassed in their matching navy and white homemade clothes to hear the cult leader spout misogynistic, authoritarian rhetoric. We also all took our seats in that large stadium, once a year, to hear the Reversal Choir: an eerie choir of children who existed because Bill Gothard had convinced their parents to get vasectomy reversals.”
Seeking to undo and overcome the harmful predatory, misogynistic, homophobic, and authoritarian teachings of their youth, Pretty Boy Floyd and Story named their act ‘Reversels’ to signify their mission of fomenting change toward an opposite direction and course of action, spelling it with an ‘e’ “to keep it cute”. Through their colorful music and bold, in-your-face lyrics, they aim to poke us out of our complacency by pushing back on constraints of gender, power dynamics and sexual taboos. Their hope is to “sing-into-being a world of gender diversity, sexual positivity, individual growth, and healing” as they “advocate for the underdog and the demonized, rejecting oppression and celebrating life & death in all of their majesty.”
The duo released their debut album Galaxie in November 2018, and followed in June 2019 with Crane, Breed. Now they’re back with LaSabre, their most ambitious work yet, with 13 tracks exploring their ongoing themes of queer love and loss. The album opens strong with “Gravitron“, a dramatic and powerful celebration of love and lust, and one of my favorite tracks. Starting off with a mix of swirling synths and guitar notes, the song quickly explodes into a maelstrom of pulsating psychedelic synths, thunderous percussion and gritty riffs, dramatically conveying the intense euphoria of unbridled sexual desire. I love the contrast between Pretty Boy Floyd’s beautiful lilting falsetto and Story’s deeper, commanding vocals as they sing “Lay your magic body heavy down upon me, In my ready arms, protecting you from harm. Tell me that you want me.”
The colorful, trippy and sexy video produced for the track shows Reversels performing the song, interspersed with scenes of two men, played by trans actors, passionately kissing and exploring each others bodies.
“Azael” quickly follows, a darkly beautiful cinematic feast for the ears featuring a complex array of both spooky and magical psychedelic synths, overlain with heavy, fuzz-coated guitars. Pretty Boy Floyd’s lovely, ethereal vocals contrast nicely with the harsher instrumentals, softly crooning the lyrics that speak to a character named Azael’s sexual yin and yang: “You put on your makeup, both a warrior and a queen. Mastering the magic that we’ve all been kept from seeing. Are you male or female, are you somewhere in between? Make me filthy also make me clean.”
It’s Story’s turn to shine on the darkwave gem “Relentless“, their deep, sensual, and almost menacing vocals conveying a strong sense of foreboding. Another favorite of mine, “Absurdity” has a dark, goth rock vibe with symphonic overtones, thanks to Reversels’ rich blend of otherworldly industrial and orchestral instrumentals and their gorgeous choral harmonies. The lyrics address the absurdities and mysteries of life that often defy reason or logic: “No sense in trying to understand the point of all of our lives. Lie down, take in the mystery. Unknown absurdity thrives.”
“Torch Song” is a smoldering song of carnal desire sung with raw, animal-like ferocity by Story that brings chills. Sung from the perspective of a drag queen, the lyrics speak to the promise of satisfying another man’s sexual fantasies: “I’ll be your toy. I got what you need. I’m just a boy. You’re just like me. I’ll help you burn.” In the video, which was filmed by Marquana Michael Burgess, directed by Story, edited by Danny Boyer and produced by Jennifer Love Lee, the drag queen singing the song is played by Natasha Noir Nightly, and the dancers are Clara Zander and Rebecca Miller. Story and Pretty Boy Floyd portray two men watching the proceedings.
“The Real Pretty Boy Floyd” is an ode to the famous bank robber Charles Arthur Floyd. Born into poverty in Oklahoma in 1904, he led a life of crime starting in his late teens, and is believed to have killed at least 10 people before being shot and killed by federal agents in 1934. Over the years, he’s endured in American popular culture as both a notorious gangster and as a tragic and altruistic figure. While he did indeed rob many banks and killed in the process, he also reportedly provided food to at least a dozen families who would have otherwise starved during the depression. And when he robbed banks, he allegedly destroyed mortgage documents, making it impossible for those banks to foreclose on poor farmers and homeowners. He was often protected by people across many states who referred to him as “Robin Hood of the Cookson Hills” or “Sagebrush Robin Hood”, because he stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He’s been immortalized in song by Woody Guthrie, and referred to positively by John Steinbeck in his seminal novel The Grapes of Wrath.
The great tracks keep on coming. On the brooding goth rocker “SoftBoy Rabbithole“, they touch on the good and bad aspects inherent in each of us. Along a similar vein, the dreamy, atmospheric “Wonderland” is a celebration of queer and trans love: “Queen inside a king. She’s inside all things. We’re inside a dream Infinitely possible ways to love another being. All that’s wanted is allowed, Trading organs, feel new things.” Another favorite of mine is “Cupcake“, featuring terrific guest vocals by Asheville rapper/emcee Vvitchboy, and trumpets by Jay Widenhouse. The song has a delicious trap beat, overlain with ominous industrial synths, wonderful blaring trumpets and soaring vocal harmonies that give the track a dark, cinematic vibe. Though somewhat ambiguous to me, the lyrics seem to speak to finding respite from life’s problems by indulging in carnal desires: “Drown in my madness, but I can’t contain it. Refrain from engaging with haters, and faithless. Don’t make me a martyr, I’m tryna live greater. We making out- banging these dryads and Satyrs. Worship at the altar of decadence. We’re having dessert, what did you make? We have offerings of sweetest debauchery. We got swords, cunnilingus, and cupcakes.”
Reversels channels a bit of Marilyn Manson on the gothic shock rock-esque “Boom Kitty“. With its intense and spooky industrial synths and blaring horns, this would make a great soundtrack for a horror film. Story and Pretty Boy Floyd’s dual growling vocals sound downright diabolical. “Skin” features a mesmerizing repetitive piano chord, overlain with dramatic gnarly guitars that sound fucking spectacular. Story’s raw, impassioned vocals are pretty terrific too. One of the more melodic tracks on LaSabre, “Dissolve/Resolve” has a more upbeat tempo, highlighted by beautiful strings and the duo’s lovely vocal harmonies. The closing track “My My” touches on the subject of sadomasochism, namely, how far two people are willing to go in order to fulfill their sexual fantasies: “If you wanted more of me it could be a tragedy. It would be the death of me to keep you satisfied. But if you must have more I guess you could put me to the test.” The song has a brooding, atmospheric vibe that turns more intense in the bridge, courtesy of Story’s blistering guitar solo.
What more can I say about this amazing album? While the subject matter may turn off some listeners, there’s no denying that Pretty Boy Floyd and Story are very good at what they do. Their songwriting, musicianship and vocals are outstanding, and I applaud their boldness and courage to explore provocative topics head-on with unflinching honesty and candor.
Virginia-based singer-songwriter Andrew Neil (full name Andrew Neil Maternick) is one of the more unique artists I’ve had the pleasure of featuring on this blog. I first wrote about him in November 2019, when I reviewed his third album Freak (which you can read here). Andrew is considered an “outsider” music artist similar to the late Daniel Johnston, and in fact, ranks as the #1 Best Outsider Artist on Ranker, just above Johnston (click this link to see the full list). The now 33-year old has faced a number of daunting life challenges that would have crushed many of us, but his strength and resilience, as well as the incredible love and support of his family and friends, have enabled Andrew to flourish as an artist.
I wrote extensively about his experiences in my previous review, but will summarize here to provide a bit of context. After growing up as a fairly typical kid and high school athlete, Andrew suffered a life-altering event in Spring 2009 when he sustained a serious head injury in a car accident. The injury resulted in two significant changes for Andrew: 1) he began having a series of psychotic episodes, and 2) he started writing songs, despite the fact he’d never had any prior music training of any kind. During a psychotic episode in 2013, he stabbed his younger brother in the arm, which landed him in jail for seven months until his family and attorney convinced the prosecutor that Andrew needed help, rather than being incarcerated.
He was subsequently released and sent to a state mental hospital, where he received excellent treatment and learned to manage his illness. During the three years there, he wrote and recorded around 70 songs, on top of the 250+ songs he’d written since his 2009 accident. Andrew writes his honest, deeply personal songs entirely by ear, first creating the melodies on his rhythm guitar, then recorded songs on a battery powered Tascam recorder, which his father Ray would later upload to a computer. Andrew was conditionally released from the hospital in May 2017, and moved into a group home in Charlottesville. (He now lives independently.) Upon his release, he produced his first album Code Purple – Andrew Neil, featuring 11 melancholy yet optimistic songs he hoped might help others struggling with similar mental health issues. The songs were mastered by Vlado Meller, otherwise they were left pretty much in the raw, lo-fi condition as Andrew had recorded them.
In 2018, Andrew recorded his second album Merry Go Round, this time working with a number of accomplished musicians to help give his songs a more polished, fuller sound, as well as a more alt-rock vibe than his folk-oriented first album. He entered the studio again in 2019 to record what would become his third album Freak, and as he was wrapping up the recording he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He underwent a grueling round of chemotherapy while the album was being mixed and mastered, and he and his family started a Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds for album production and marketing, garnering even greater support than expected. The album, an ambitious work featuring 14 tracks addressing topics of love, faith, mental illness and self-identity, was released that October to widespread acclaim.
His cancer thankfully now in remission, Andrew began recording songs during the Covid lockdown, this time with only his own quirky, endearing vocals and vintage nylon string Ovation acoustic guitar, accompanied on some tracks by subtle keyboard overdubs. The songs came together as his fourth album Sunny Side, which is being released digitally on June 15th via Tree Heart Records. The album will become available on CD on June 30th, along with a limited press vinyl version scheduled for release in October. The songs have a mellower and more lo-fi folk sound than the ones on Freak. About Sunny Side, Andrew states “I believe the album will appeal to people who really dig the lo-fi, outsider vibe. I hope my music will be recognized as something genuine; something that people can relate to and let them know they are not alone in this jello world.” The imaginative artwork for the album cover was created by Boston artist Daniel Benayun.
The album kicks off with “Gamblin’ Man“, a pleasing folk tune with an allegorical story about a reckless soul who always lives life on the edge. Andrew’s knack for writing seemingly simple yet profound lyrics with a powerful message is exemplified in these verses: “Out in the desert sun I made friends with a scorpion. We talked about how we feel, then I said shuffle up and deal. We played till the sun went down, full moon was wearin’ a crown. I cheated, gave myself some kings. Then I felt how a scorpion stings.”
On the optimistic title track “Sunny Side“, he advises us to not wallow in our problems, but instead try and find something good in every situation: “I buy flowers. She asked what for. Just in case the undertaker comes knockin’ on my door, cause tomorrow’s no guarantee. Let’s take our sorrow, and drown it in the sea. So keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side. Keep on the sunny side of life./ This life is a gift. It makes me high, high, high like a cliff.” He continues along a similar vein with the grunge-tinged “Lemonade“, urging us to make lemonade out of those lemons life sometimes throws our way: “Make lemonade. Realize that we got it made. Make lemonade. Don’t be afraid. Even in hell, be thankful for shade./ Live with love, the world is ours.”
Andrew’s strong sense of spirituality, love and faith in humanity is expressed on several tracks. On “One Big Family“, he sings of how, despite our differences, we’re all human beings deserving of love and respect: “We are one big family. And you have a brother, a brother in me. Tough times do not last. Tough people do. And I feel so much tougher when I’m loved by you. And no one’s perfect yet; we all have flaws. But we still deserve gifts from Santa Claus.” He uses “Heaven” as a metaphor for love and empathy, rather than a biblical place: “Heaven, where hate is not allowed. Heaven, another word for love. Heaven, it’s not below, it’s not above, it’s in your heart.”
On the lovely, nearly six-minute long ballad “Awoke“, he sings of overcoming his past mistakes and feelings of hopelessness by accepting God’s love: “So many nights I wanted to cry. Wanted to fly away. This dream trope has come to an end. Stars explode, but you’re still my friend. And I’m still your friend. Cause I awoke to God’s mercy. We’re all thirsty for love.” And on the folksy final track “Thank The Lord“, he gives thanks for all the things that are important to him, and the positive role music plays in his emotional well-being: “Thank the lord for my friends. Thank the lord for family. Thank the lord for the music that lives inside, inside of me.”
Conversely, perhaps the most poignant track on the album is “Anymore“, where Andrew questions his faith, self-worth and direction in life: “You can lie, and say it’s all part of God’s plan. Cause I don’t want to grow up, I don’t want to grow old. I don’t want to shut up, I don’t want to be told what to do, anymore. I don’t want to give up, I don’t want to go on. Just so tired of being so strong. Don’t know what to do anymore./ You can blame, you can blame me for not being a good man.” Musically, his strummed acoustic guitar is accompanied by some somber but lovely keyboards that create a haunting soundscape for his introspective and melancholy vocals.
“Dog Without A Bone” is about having pretty much everything one could want in life, with the exception of a romantic partner to spend time with. Andrew uses clever and pretty direct metaphors to describe the feeling that something crucial to his well-being is missing: “Got a million reasons to live. I’m giving everything I have to give. Yet I’m so tired of being alone. Just a dog with no bone. A drunk without a drink. A cloud without a sky./ I have a lot, but I want more. Is there someone out there that could make me sore.” And once you’re in a relationship, conflicts and disagreements will undoubtedly arise, which he cheekily addresses on the charming “Kinda Turns Me On“: “When you get so mad, it kinda turns me on. Tell me what I did wrong. Cause baby it turns me on. Honestly, I want to grow old with you. Live the American dream, red, white and blue. Have a bunch of kids, and grandchildren too.”
Sunny Side is a wonderful album, filled with honest, heartfelt songs about faith, love and hope, and I’m confident all of us can relate to at least some of them. Andrew Neil is a thoughtful songwriter with a special gift for getting right to the heart of things in a way that few other artists can – or are even able – to do. I’ve grown quite fond of him, and hope he’ll continue writing interesting and compelling songs for us to enjoy.
Strange Souvenirs is an electronic/alt-pop duo from Berlin, Germany comprised of brothers Thomas and Matthias Juhnke. In their own colorful words, they “blend influences from 80s new wave, 90s trip hop, post-millennial electronica & indie with science fiction soundtracks, video games and nuggets of nerd culture into a schizoid selection of danceable, delicate and disorienting songs.” Three months ago, I reviewed their enthralling single “Pixels”, and now they’re back with “Nothing2“, their sixth consecutive single release since their December 2019 debut of “Scrape”. The song is a dramatic tour de force, and one of their best yet.
Matthias wrote the lyrics for “Nothing2”, and the music was co-written by him and Thomas, along with their frequent collaborator Cameron James Laing, a talented Berlin-based producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist who also recorded, produced and mixed the track at The Famous Gold Watch Studios in Berlin. Thomas and Matthias programmed the synthesizers and Matthias sang lead vocals. Cameron played acoustic guitar, bass, piano, organ, mellotron, renegade triangle, and the orchestral string arrangement, Gidon Carmel played drums and percussion, Héloïse Lefebvre played violin and viola, Tim Hook played electric guitar and Heidi Heidelberg sang the glorious choir backing vocals. The track was mastered by Davide Ruffini at Wisseloord Studios Hilversum, Netherlands. The cover art “20/20 Eye” was created by Michelle Marie-Lou Nuerk.
The guys state “Nothing2” is “A jilted yet strangely joyful sprawl about feeling nothing at all and everything all at once. A five and a half minute emotional outburst full of misery & magic, gut-wrenching punches, beautiful bruises, abrupt endings & unexpected new beginnings.” Matthias elaborated to me that the lyrics were inspired by two unexpected and unrelated life events in the space of six months that left him at the edges of nothings, but the details are unsavoury and quite distressing, so he kept things intentionally vague. But from what I can discern, they seem to speak of a relationship that ended very badly, and just wanting to make a clean break from the past and move on.
The song opens on a somber note, with strummed acoustic guitar and droning keyboards, accompanied by Matthias’ rather melancholy vocals. Gradually, the music expands with horns and what sounds like mellotron into a more upbeat feel, though the melancholy undercurrent remains. Héloïse’s warbly strings add great texture and an eerie, disconcerting vibe to the proceedings. The song seems to end at 2:21, then abruptly starts back up with greater urgency, as more instruments and synths are added to the mix. Everything continues to build into a magnificent cinematic soundscape that calls to mind some of the mid-career songs by the Beatles. The dramatic music continues for the remainder of the song, conveying a strong sense of cathartic release from troubles of the past. It’s a phenomenal track.
There’s nothing to Take back or undo I thought you’d know by now There’s no point in stalling There’s no point in stalling
Would you please stop calling me
This is what it all amounts to When the day is through This is what it all amounts to When the night’s through Absolutely nothing Absolutely nothing
Would you please stop calling me
There’s nothing to see There’s nothing to say There’s nowhere to be So just go away
We couldn’t see the cracks in the surface And the nothing seeping through Watch the walls come down on the life you knew Here comes the wrecking crew
This is what it all amounts to When the day is through This is what it all amounts to When the night’s through Absolutely nothing
David Oakes is an imaginative and prolific musician and composer of electronic alternative rock music, ranging from gentle synth-driven compositions to aggressive guitar-driven hard rock, and everything in between. I really like his music, and have written about quite a lot of it on this blog (you can read some of those reviews by clicking on the links under “Related” at the end of this post).
Based in the coastal town of Aberporth, Wales, David’s been actively involved in making music since his late teens, when he started playing in various bands. From 2001-06, he and his younger brother were members of the rock band KOTOW, in which he played drums. He went on to study guitar and music theory at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildord, England from 2009-12, after which he started composing and recording music as a solo artist. He released his first album The Juggernaut in 2014, and in the years since, has recorded and released an astonishing nine more albums, the latest of which is The Anomaly, which he released on Bandcamp on April 2nd.
The new album features many of David’s signature electronic and guitar-heavy elements we’ve come to expect, but has more of a cinematic feel than his previous albums, with a sound he describes as “Nine Inch Nails meets Rammstein and Depeche Mode with a Danny Elfman Aperitif!” In fact, The Anomaly would make a great soundtrack to any number of films by Christopher Nolan or Tim Burton. Things kick off with “Intronomaly”, a darkly wonderful piece with an ominous droning sound sort of like an engine, over which David layers a captivating warbling synth riff. It all works beautifully in creating a portentous mood, setting the stage for what’s about to unfold.
Next up is “Enter the Anomaly”, a brief composition highlighted by a brooding piano riff and pounding drumbeats that seem to convey the sense of an invading force, in this case ‘the anomaly’. David hasn’t used piano very often on his previous works, so its addition here is a nice touch. His outstanding guitar work makes a return on “The Anomaly (Part 1)”, accompanied by gnarly industrial synths and chugging rhythms, keeping things firmly planted on a dark path going forward. On “The Anomaly (Part 2)”, he uses unusual guitar chords, pummeling drumbeats, and an almost spooky carnival-type melody, then bathes everything in a fuzzy texture to create a discordant, otherworldly vibe.
“The Anomaly (Part 3)” has a definite film noir feel, thanks to those wonderfully moody piano keys, while “The Anomaly (Part 4)” immediately made me think of Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman, which was scored by Danny Elfman. I could imagine hearing this piece, as well as “The Anomaly (Part 6)”, while watching Jack Nicholson as The Joker wrecking havoc on Gotham City. The dark, cinematic vibes and driving rhythms continue on the next several tracks. David told me his guitar riff for “Part 6” was partly inspired by the Primus song “Welcome to this World”.
One of my favorite tracks is “The Anomaly (Part 7)”, with its rousing, hard-charging beat, grungy guitars and exuberant swirling synths. Though the instrumentals are still pretty intense, the synths and lively melody give the track a somewhat lighter tone. The album goes full circle as those enchanting droning and warbling sounds we first heard on “Intronomaly” make a return engagement on “Exit the Anomaly”. The brief but gorgeous final track “Set a Course…For Home” provides not only closure, but a sense of hopeful optimism, expressed through hauntingly beautiful piano keys, glittery synths and soaring strings. It’s a stunning end to another stellar album by David.