May’s New Music for Te Awe


Statler: Well, it was good.
Waldorf: Ah, it was very bad.
Statler: Well, it was average.
Waldorf: Ah, it was in the middle there.
Statler: Ah, it wasn’t that great.
Waldorf: I kind of liked it.”
-‘The Muppet Show’.

I’m Mark, the Music & Film Specialist at Wellington City Libraries (I also run the Libraries’ Wellington Music Facebook page). Every month my colleague Neil and I cast our eye over the new material we have been buying for the Music collection at our CBD Te Awe library. We pick out some interesting titles across a range of music genres, and try to limit our reviews to a few lines only. Can we encapsulate an entire album in just a couple of lines? [Ed. This is probably unlikely at this point]. Do we actually know anything about new music? Or, are we just too old to understand what most of this is banging on about? [Ed. This is more than likely]. Read on to find out…

[Note: We focused on reviewing Wellington & NZ Material from our collection for New Zealand Music Month, so this is an abbreviated round-up of the new music titles added to the catalogue across May.]

Synthetic hearts / Msaki
Mark: A collaboration between Msaki, South Africa’s top singer-songwriter, and Tubatsi Mpho Moloi, a multi-instrumentalist from Soweto’s Urban Village. Lead track ‘Subaleka’ may give the impression that this is more World-Music, but most of the tracks are in English, and overall it has more in common with the smooth tones of a Sade album than anything else. Folk touches blend with with electronic elements & French cellist Clément Petit, to create slinky R&B that reimagines classic 60s soul duets through a future afrobeat lens.
Neil: ‘Synthetic Hearts’ is a rare and beautiful musical creature. An Afrofuturist album, with prominent electronica elements and many other components fused in, such as African House, Hip Hop, traditional Zulu music, Jazz and even cello. The lyrical content is largely in the form of romantic Duets. The result is a widescreen album that revels in a kind of sonic warmth and processes many creative layers that point to a beautiful, alternative African utopian future. Uplifting.

September November / Long Ryders
Mark: The 5th studio album, and first in four years from this 1980s LA band who helped invent alt-country with their 1984 debut Native Sons. 2019’s Psychedelic Country Soul was their first album in 32 years, and this follow up is just as strong with its Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers/Tom Petty nexus of classicist country rock, with themes of loss and friendship paramount following the passing of their bassist in 2021. Plenty of social & political commentary also.
Neil: The Long Ryders originally formed in the 80’s, and have been sporadically in action on and off from that time onwards. ‘September November’ sees the Alt- country and Western outfit in reflective mood. Mortality and the passing of time is clearly on their minds, prompted no doubt by the passing of their long-time bassist Tom Stevens and their long lineage. That said, the album isn’t melancholic or down. This accomplished Americana album has elements of folk rock, country blues and soul, and reminded me at points of Buffalo Springfield or The Byrd’s during their country rock phase.

Fuse / Everything But The Girl
Mark: EBTG return with their first album in 24 years. If you were expecting it to sound like a combination of the respective recent solo albums from members Ben Watt & Tracey Thorn you would be wrong, as the album picks up where 1999’s Temperamental left off and heads on from there. More glitchy, contemporary club beats, woven around lyrical imagery and melancholy songs of weary aged protagonists and hangdog losers, aiming for last chance as the world closes in on them and the music fades. Good to have them back.
Neil: It’s been 24 years since Everything But the Girl last operated as an outfit. In the intervening years they have brought up a family, and also released other projects under various musical incarnations. This album pretty much picks up the baton from where they left off. Melodic, romantic, introspective electronic pop. Like a lot of their work, it is a very personal album, the lyrics are often about people desperately looking for connection and reflect some of the difficult times they’ve come through. The downbeat and sparse club-culture influenced beats leave plenty of space for Tracey Thorn’s vocals to soar. Fans old and new will love it.

Sundown / Chacon, Eddie
Mark: A 2020 success story was the return to music-making, after years away working as a photographer, of Eddie Chacon, who was half of the US soul duo Charles & Eddie who had a major hit in the early 90s with the track Would I Lie to You?, and released a couple of albums before splitting up. His 2020 album Pleasure, Joy and Happiness was rightly acclaimed, and it’s follow-up ‘Sundown’ is perhaps even better. His voice has aged beautifully, and its rich tones float over laid-back grooves with an effortless charm that recalls prime Marvin Gaye or Leon Ware. Grammy award nominated producer, keyboardist, and writing partner John Carroll Kirby provides the direction, but Eddie provides the timeless deep soul vibes, as he mediates on acceptance and the passage of time.
Neil: The track ‘Would I lie to you’ was a massive hit in the 90’s, so massive it eclipsed Eddie Chacon’s other musical output and to such a comprehensive extent it looked like he was destined to be one of those elusive and strange one hit wonders. That was until nearly thirty years later his ‘Pleasure, Joy and Happiness’ album proved otherwise. That album was a bit of a revelation, soothing and slightly unsettling in places at the same time. ‘Sundown’ is another cool, lyrically sophisticated and abstract album that shows he is far from finished. It has tight melodies, a distinctly retro soul sound, and a different musical palette from ‘Pleasure, Joy and Happiness’ with woodwind, and brass nestling alongside the electronic and sampled elements.

My best evil friend / No Ones
Mark: The No Ones are a trans-continental project featuring Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck, Arne Kjelsrud Mathisen and Frode Strømstad, members respectively of R.E.M., The Young Fresh Fellows, and Norwegian band I Was A King. Guest performers include Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, Debbie Peterson of the Bangles, and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. Led by Scott McCaughey, their 2nd album is a set of catchy 60s style jangly power-pop, full of big hooky choruses and harmonies that pays homage to the artists that inspired them, from The Byrds to George Harrison, Phil Ochs, and the general California 60s sound.
Neil: The No Ones album ‘My best evil friend’ unashamedly channels the sunny Californian sound of the late sixties with great aplomb. There’s lots of jangly guitars, big harmonics and catchy flower-power choruses, that evoke the dreamy psychedelic pop of bands like the Byrds. The lyrics also reference both the songs and artists of the time, with tracks like ‘Song for George’ a homage to George Harrison.

Keep your courage / Merchant, Natalie
Mark: Natalie Merchant returns with her ninth studio album, and first album of original material in 9 years, following on from 2014’s Natalie Merchant. Abena Koomson-Davis of the Resistance Revival Chorus duets on the first 2 tracks and their dueling vocals and lively horn lines imply a funkier, more swinging, New Orleans groove than the album actually ends up delivering, as the remaining tracks slot more into the stately, classicist singer-songwriter mould that tends to prevail on the late-period albums of mature artists such as Merchant. Not to say that what’s here isn’t a great return, as she find universal truths in her own experiences and delivers a set of literary, lush, atmospheric, songs on the need for love and connection.
Neil: Former front woman for 10,000 maniacs releases her 9th solo album. A melodic soulful and folk inspired album that takes the listener through a range of emotions. Lyrics that speak of solace, anguish and resilience delivered by her now smoky, powerful and still unique voice. It’s a stately and mature album with pitch perfect production, mastering and mixing that only heightens its grandeur. Perhaps the best album of her illustrious career.

Holiday camp / Those Pretty Wrongs
Mark: Those Pretty Wrongs are a Big Star founding member/drummer Jody Stephens, and guitarist Luther Russell, ex-frontman of the Freewheelers. The pair first met in 1991, but they didn’t collaborate until over two decades later for the release of the Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me, when Stephens was asked to write some songs for a screening, and enlisted Russell to help. This success led to them deciding to write for a larger project, and this is their 3rd album, following on from their 2016 S/T debut & 2019’s Zed for Zulu. Big Star became the template for so many bands, and Stephens knows how to craft sweetly melancholy pop. Here he takes on vocal duties & drums, with Russell’s sparkling & clean sounding guitar work giving them a classic, folky power-pop sound that sounds completely natural, coloured with emotional weight of their combined musical wisdom.
Neil: Jody Stephens’ has a considerable pop legacy behind him being one of the founding members of the legendary power pop outfit Big Star. And you can hear some of that past in Those Pretty Wrongs releases where, along with fellow band member Luther Russell, the band creates their own version of lush and vibrant sixties influenced folk pop. Perhaps the most noticeable connection to that past is just how big generous and open hearted this album is.

Different game / Zombies (Musical group)
Mark: Classic British band The Zombies reformed in the 2000’s with main members Colin Blunstone & Rod Argent, putting out sporadic studio & live albums since then. ‘Different Places’ is their 7th album overall, following on form 2015’s Still Got That Hunger. While nothing here is going to achieve the level of material from their initial 6 years run in the 60’s that culminated in the classic Odessey and Oracle, they aren’t content to be simply another nostalgia act revisiting their past hits, instead expanding their sound with new musical directions and textures. Not everything works, but even the misfires are anchored by Blunstone’s voice, which still sounds fantastic.
Neil: The Zombies are one of those legendary rock bands. They formed in 1961 and went on to release several classic albums and songs such as She’s Not There and Time of the Season. Over the intervening decades they’ve broken up and reformed in various forms. Their core on this, and their classic earlier releases, was vocalist Colin Blunstone (whose 1971 solo release One year we highly recommend) and virtuosic keyboard player Rod Argent. This album finds them both on sparkling form, referencing their past with folk rock, jazz and psychedelic touches, though many of the tracks have a melancholic 70’s blues rock sound. A very fitting addition to legendary canon.

Wait til I get over / Jones, Durand
Mark: Durand Jones (from retro-soul band Durand Jones & the Indications) steps out on his own, for his first solo album. Reflecting on his home and upbringing he filters his personal experiences into a different take on classic soul for his solo debut, which has a more gritty sound than the smooth modern-retro vibes of his band, more of a early Stax-Church choir nexus. Raw and powerful layered vocals tell the stories of bruised protagonists struggling with love & life.
Neil: ‘Wait til I get over’ is a socially aware and personal soul album, with funky blues rock deep in its core. The album sounds both vintage and modern at the same time, a passionate, gritty, immediate and intimate work. An electrifying release with elements of gospel, blues rock and southern soul that sparks with power and energy .

The record / Boygenius
Mark: The debut studio album from ‘supergroup’ Boygenius, which consists of top female artists Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, following on from their 2018 EP. The EP came about due to a co-headlining tour back in 2018, and since then each artist has released subsequent critically acclaimed albums (Little Oblivions was Julien Baker’s 3rd album, Punisher was Phoebe Bridgers sophomore release, and Home Video was Lucy Dacus’ 3rd album). The album’s collaborative songwriting and democratic lead vocals aim to showcase the individual strengths of each musician equally, and while it’s perhaps not an entirely cohesive blend of the indie-folk and indie-rock elements that each artist brings to the table (they sound more convincing as a ‘band’ on the rockier tracks) it triumphs as a tribute to the bonds of female friendship, support and musical collaboration.
Neil: Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus are US indie rock supergroup Boygenius, their band name a comment on overblown male egos in the music world. ‘The record’ is the groups debut release, and has already been met with rave reviews. The songwriting is finely crafted, honed to perfection and emphasises heightened emotional content. One of the many impressive things about the album is just how strong the band’s joint musical vision is — they come across as very close-knit outfit, and this shows in the harmonies and unified sound.

Free music (part 1) / Free Music
Mark: The Habibi Funk label is back with some more excellent music unearthed for this 21st installment in their series. This outing is a compilation of tracks from two 1976 albums by the Libyan act The Free Music who, led by composer and producer Najib Alhoush, produced ten full-length albums during their career. The music is a propulsive collision of soul, funk, disco and reggae, with elements of Jazz and psychedelic boogie, with funky dance-floor grooves undercut by a prevailing sense of desperation and tension. Their music never made it outside of Libya due to the ongoing political turmoil of the time, and it’s great that it’s finally achieving a larger audience now.
Neil: ‘Free music (part 1)’ is the latest release from the ground-breaking and awesome Habibi Funk label. To clarify things, Free music is the name of a Libyan band formed in the 70’s. Being a band of any sort could be a dangerous thing in 70’s Libya, and indeed the band’s leader Najib Alhoush spent two years in prison. Free music has their own very unique style, a potent mixture of fiery disco, funk, soul, traditional African music with even touches of Santana and Funkadelic thrown in. It’s all delivered with raw passion and commitment. Another brilliant release from this label.

In real time / Artemis
Mark: Artemis are an all female Jazz collective on Blue Note and this is their 2nd album, following on from their 2020 self titled debut. Led by pianist Renee Rosnes, the rhythm section & trumpet remain the same as their debut, but that septet is pared down to a sextet this time out, adding 2 new Sax players to the line-up. Just great jazz, with cool, sophisticated harmonics, tight arrangements and great playing in this set of original compositions and, on the closing track, a reworking of a classic Wayne Shorter track. Reclaims that classic male dominated post bop style.
Neil: All-star jazz sextet Artemis release their sophomore album ‘In real time’, a work that elegantly builds on their debut. The album boasts some virtuosic performances, that weave in and out of multi-layered arrangements created to let each member of the band shine. The album can probably best be described as a post-bop outing. If Jazz is your thing, then this is very likely to appeal.

The Berlin session / Dur-Dur Band International
Mark: ‘The Berlin Session’ captures a historic reunion which took place in 2019 in Germany when London-based Dur-Dur Band International, an eight-piece Somali band, united with three legendary Somali singers for a concert at Berlin’s HKW. This is the first new studio recording by a full group from Somalia since the country’s golden era was overtaken by Civil War. Back then the aim was to take traditional-sounding Somali music, mix it with Western beats and get people to dance, and the ’80s Dur-Dur Band ruled the Mogadishu nightclub scene. This is a musical stew of East African rhythms, Arabic music, Western pop styles, ska, Ethio-jazz, funky vintage electric keyboards, Bollywood disco and heartbroken keening vocals. It’s all on in this Somalian rock party that hopefully brings more attention to this lost strain of African music.
Neil: Mogadishu was once a very famous party town, with a thriving disco scene and glamorous beach front night clubs, and one of the bands you might well hear being pumped out from the sound systems would be the Dur-Dur band. Sadly, civil war put an end to those heady nights. The band’s leader Xabiib Sharaabi, nicknamed the “Somali King of Pop”, ended up in exile in Sweden and other members ended up in London. In 2019, thirty years later, the iconic outfit reformed in a mixture of joy, nostalgia and sadness to do this set, recorded as live album. The band has a unique sound but there are touches of Afro Beat, Dhaanto (similar structure to reggae), soul and of course disco. It all amounts to a wonderful mix of hot funky music from Somalia designed to get you on your feet.

Hörse of the dög / Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster
Mark: The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster were a UK rock band who released 3 albums in the 2000s. This is the 20th Anniversary reissue of their debut 2002 album. Clocking in at less than half an hour, this really is something original. A pummelling, bruising set of aggressive rockabilly styled punk, with elements of garage and metal surf rock. Strange & gothic (someone described them as ‘gothabilly’) they really deliver something that is influenced by bands like The Cramps & The Stooges, but goes completely in its own direction. Truly weird and, perhaps, years ahead of their time.
Neil: Originally released in 2002, Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster’s ‘The Hörse of the dög’ is an intriguing outing. On the strength of this release, they could have been huge, but after this album they faded from public eye. The music is a kind of garage-rock hybrid, but with lots of other things going on. It has surf rock elements in places, as well as punk credentials and definitely falls into the indie-rock camp too — a raw, loud urgent release with frenzied guitar delivery. For reference, they reminded me a bit of The Cramps, Early Pixies and The Stooges.

Treasures : solo, trio & orchestra recordings from Denmark (1965-1969) / Evans, Bill
Mark: There have been so many posthumous releases from legendary Jazz pianist Bill Evans that it’s almost impossible, even for fans, to keep track of them and their varying quality. A lot of these reissues have been helmed by the Elemental Music label, who are kind of Jazz detectives, digging through vaults for unreleased material. On the surface, this seems just another entry in a long line of ‘re-discovered’ European radio performances, but it has gotten really strong reviews (8.1 on Pitchfork). Deservedly so, as this is perhaps one of the best Evans archival releases with fantastic sound, but also one which demonstrates multiple aspects of his playing. So with over 2 hours of music cut for Danish radio from 1965-69, you get a live trio set followed by a lovely set with the Royal Danish Symphony Orchestra and the Danish Radio Big Band, followed by a set of unique solo performances, with a final trio set to finish. Plenty of riches here for Evans fans to dig into.
Neil: The release of Bill Evans’ ‘Treasures’ has excited many in the Jazz World fraternity. These previously unreleased recordings from the period 1965-69 feature the three distinct facets of the legendary Jazz pianist composer’s work, solo, trio and orchestral, and they do not disappoint. The recordings sound like they were made yesterday. Exquisite cool jazz from what many consider the golden age of jazz. Like many great pieces they seem effortless, but beneath are intricate interwoven complex harmonies. His work soothes the soul with quiet emotion and crystalline pure jazz beauty.

Get behind the wheel / Jewell, Eilen
Mark: The ninth studio album from this Country singer, whose bio calls her style of music ‘roots noir’. She is certainly an artist who colours outside of the ‘Americana’ profile, with elements of everything from blues, to rockabilly, folk, pysch-rock, and even some Jazz elements. She has been on the scene since 2005 so, like many other older artists, the Covid pandemic greatly destabilised her routine, which was then followed by the dissolution of her marriage. So there is plenty of emotional upheaval to unpack on her first album since 2019’s Gypsy. Moody, searching, tracks full of raw honesty and emotion that navigate their way through loss and transformation, sit alongside uplifting & upbeat moments that see her aiming to prove that whatever brings you down only makes you stronger on the other side.
Neil: Lockdown was hard for many, and Eilen Jewell was one of those who did it tough. A messy divorce and a distinct slipping in her creative mojo to accompany her personal problems. ‘Get behind the wheel’ is her rebuild album, and you can hear both the past hurt, but also her desire to push on ahead and create a better future. It is an atmospheric swampy, blues-tinged alternative country album. A powerful piece.

Come back to me / One, Peter
Mark: Another release with an amazing backstory is ‘Come Back To me’ by Peter One, who was born Pierre-Evrard Tra. A successful Ivory Coast musician in the 80s & 90s, his career was derailed by political & economic unrest, and he ended up immigrating to America and eventually finding work in the nursing field in Nashville. When the label Awesome Tapes reissued his 33 year old album (‘Our Garden Needs Its Flowers’) with musical partner Jess Sah Bi in 2018, it got great reviews and led to a contract with Verve records and his first album in 40 years. The music he made on the Ivory Coast was inspired by music he heard as a child on his hometown’s only radio station; European & American pop Jazz & soul, which he melded with traditional forms of African balladry. This mix of acoustic West-African rhythms and Simon & Garfunkel folk-pop forms the core of this new album. A lovely, warm, mellow, soulful set of tracks (sung in English, French and the African language Guro) that trace the long roads of life’s ups and downs, star crossed lovers & lost friends.
Neil: Nashville singer songwriter travels back musically to his birth country of Côte d’Ivoire to release this sweet, personal and heartfelt album. It comprises of elements of gentle Nashville country, and more prominently Ivorian folk music . This deep and rich musical culture and tradition was popularised by Paul Simon’s Graceland. The lyrics take a long look back at his life – he spent a long time as a nurse whilst his musical aspirations were on hold. A beautiful, chilled, laidback and uplifting summer-tinged gem.

The Chicago sessions / Crowell, Rodney
Mark: Jeff Tweedy & Texan country great Rodney Crowell apparently met by chance on a Cayamo music cruise a few years back, and Tweedy offered Crowell the use of his studio. The project finally gained momentum and the two teamed up at at Wilco’s Chicago studio and rehearsal space the Loft, with Tweedy on production duties. Tweedy mostly stays out of the way production wise, stepping up for duet on the track ‘Everything at Once’, but otherwise lets Crowell do what he does best. The result is a loose, lively session of warm melodic tunes that celebrate life, as well as take stock of some of the darker moments of recent his story, with alternate slices of 70s AM radio gold, and slow melancholic refrains.
Neil: In ‘The Chicago sessions’ we find Rodney Crowell in fine form and clearly enjoying himself. The album reaches back into 1970s americana, and finds Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy doing the production honours. He was an inspired choice and is really sympathetic to Rodney’s sound, which can best be described as a roots-country-blues sound with a folk-boogie feel. The work is carefully crafted, with a light and delicate harmonic structure, and you can tell that Rodney is supremely confident in what he is doing and feel his joy in its creation.

Billy Valentine and the universal truth / Valentine, Billy
Mark: While he has been around for 5 decades and has a long music career 73 year old Billy Valentine remains a little known, L.A-based soul singer & songwriter best remembered today for the original version of the Simply Red hit ‘Money’s Too Tight (To Mention), a track on the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack, and the theme to TV Show Boston Legal. When his longtime songwriting partner Bob Thiele Jr. relaunched his father’s dormant Flying Dutchman label in 2020, his first signing was Valentine. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the many ‘protest’ songs & socially conscious music that he had grown up admiring, Valentine wanted to make a political statement with a set of covers that showcased a Great ‘Black’ American Songbook. Powerful, soulful recordings of songs from diverse generational artists from Prince, to Donny Hathaway, Pharaoh Sanders, Gil Scott-Heron, and Stevie Wonder, trace the history of ‘message’ songs, adding a Jazzy twist and a deep yearning to songs that seem more relevant than ever. A great backing band features saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, pianist Larry Goldings, and guitarist Jeff Parker among others.
Neil: Billy Valentine had a huge hit in the 80’s with “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention)” but slipped more behind the music scenes as a songwriter or backing artist in subsequent years. The Black Lives matter movement inspired him to release something more directly himself, and the result is a collection of deeply soulful, politically aware, and socially conscious tracks drawn from many places but predominantly the ’70s. His grainy warm voice really suits the selections, and the soul jazz settings compliment them perfectly. The highlight for me was his cover of the Curtis Mayfield track “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue”.

Angels in science fiction / St. Paul & The Broken Bones
Mark: The Alabama 8-piece soul band is back with another album, following on from 2022’s The Alien Coast. With its genesis as a series of letters written to lead singer Paul Janeway’s then-unborn daughter at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s no surprise that the neo-psychedelic soul of the previous album shifts to a more mellow, mid tempo set of contemplative musical ruminations. Tender, warm, reflective, piano based minimalist songs that attempt to cope with the overwhelming decision to create life and the growing unease around current social & political turmoil, while envisioning the future world his daughter will live in and imparting a sense of love & hope. A moving & intimate album.
Neil: ‘Angels in science fiction’ is ostensibly about the bands lead singer Paul Janeway’s journey into fatherhood, and his anxieties about bringing an innocent child into our troubled world. As such, the lyrics reflect his angst and fear as well as love, as they unpick the way he feels about the world. The music is moving, lilting, melancholic, contemplative and often reflective, and the lyrical and musical components mesh together perfectly in this tender and sad album.