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Hope and Social - Sleep Sound (alternative rock)
Alamo Music, 2011, DD album, 42m 50s, £name your price
I remember at school my art teacher exhorting the class to stop drawing tiny pictures in the corner and to cover the page with bold strokes, to step out and give voice to whatever it was we wanted to express. Well, there are no bushels on top of Hope and Social’s light: they fill the canvas; they are bold; they are bright colours and big gestures; and they give every impression of having forgotten where their navels are.
This album is bursting with positivity, not of the sort that pretends bad stuff isn’t happening, or that the world is mainly composed of puppies and flowers, but the kind that celebrates the whole sordid, beautiful complexity of existence. It’s not just what the lyrics are about, but it’s the big, bouncy beats, the enthusiastic delivery, the sweeping orchestrations, and the loose, comfortable feel, that never dwells on the effort that went into recording these carefully crafted and creatively arranged songs.
It may be that this isn’t the sort of thing you like: if so, you won’t like it. If, on the other hand, it’s even anywhere near the fringes of your musical taste, you’ll almost certainly like it within the first few bars. It opens with a choral arrangement, which immediately signals with its vocal timbres that it is neither church music, nor a hastily appropriated pastiche of a township choir; and it quickly launches into an irresistible groove that owes something to ska, but is really an expression of the band’s own magpie rhythmic sensibility. This is a recurring theme: almost everything in this music has some familiarity about it, but you can rarely put your finger on exactly what it is. These players and arrangers have digested their influences thoroughly, and the contents of this album are stylistically their own: it sounds almost traditional, but is highly original without ever pursuing novelty for its own sake.
If there is any style or era that Sleep Sound’s combination of big beats and expansive orchestrations puts me in mind of, it’s the late 1980s, and bands like The Waterboys and Big Country: it’s not that there is an overt influence, but there’s that sense of scale. Like those bands, Hope and Social have found a majestic grandeur in the particular and the ordinary.
The core of the album’s sound is a traditional rock lineup, but the arrangements are a tour de force, with brass, strings and vocal arrangements that always sound exactly right, never out of place. I’m a big fan of keeping it simple, and using the minimum of cleverness to achieve your expressive intentions: while all of these songs would sound just great with an acoustic guitar and a single voice, Hope and Social have done the exact minimum, finding the right arrangement for each song, and showing an admirable objectivity and self-discipline in knowing when to stop. You could hand these songs to any of the world’s top professional arrangers, and I’d be extremely surprised if they released any more of their potential than the band has on this album.
This music has sadness and melancholy in it, and not every song is upbeat, but it is joyful music, and it is also a rare and valuable thing, rock music you can dance to. Rock music that it’s very hard not to dance to, in fact! If you want music that will move you, get you swaying, and then uplift you with a big anthemic chorus; if you want music that taps a real emotional meaning, without sentimentality or kitsch; if you want a studio album that will leave you feeling like you’ve been at a gig, then get this.
Fresh Like Dexie - Step In The Sun (funk rock)
self released, 2011, CD EP, 9m 8s, £3.50
Fresh Like Dexie are funky. Very funky. I’ve been a fan of funk since I first heard Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and the Parliafunkadelicment Thang in my late teens, and I devoted a lot of time after that to studying the music, so I have some idea whereof I speak. In the more than two decades since then I’ve heard a lot of bands playing funk, and more than a few of them falling on their faces in the attempt. Funk can sound pretty busy to the uneducated, and it takes some application to strike the right balance, between putting in enough tasty links to make it exciting, and looking after the One. The One is crucial: every little flourish of tricky syncopation is there to emphasise the One. A funk groove is made up of the One, and of all the other stuff that exists to make the One fall as heavily as possible. Fresh Like Dexy are on the One.
The curious thing is that it takes many musicians quite a few years to develop the maturity necessary to understand this. Funk is not an opportunity to display your chops; it’s just that chops are required to play it. This band (whose members look very youthful on their CD artwork) have the chops, and the maturity to know what to do with them.
There are no horns in this, just a four piece rhythm section and some vocals, and the grooves are more of the continuously rolling variety beloved of the early 90s acid jazz scene, than the spatial type practiced by James Brown and his many acolytes. In fact, this band could have slotted in very nicely to the acid jazz scene, had they been born about twenty years earlier (by the look of them).
I can’t think of anything I don’t like about this band: they have an extremely likeable exuberance about them, an enthusiasm that is tempered only by the precision with which they play. Their singer is soulful and technically adept, with a very nice line in phrasing: you can hear that her voice still has room to mature, and open up a little, but that’s no criticism. The material is sophisticated and intelligent, with a good command of harmony, and the arrangements are full of variety and imagination. If they’re half as good live as they are on here they’ll be a kickass party band. I’m impressed.