Love and Hate, but mostly love

In an age where the dull monotony of ‘chart music’ seems to form a grey cloud overhead, it’s rare to find a record that does more than cause a brief ray of light or a suggestion of sunshine. Rare perhaps, but evidently not impossible. As someone who uses this blog sparingly at best, it takes something truly monumental to inspire me to put pen to paper (or more accurately, fingers to keyboard). Bear that in mind as we proceed.

Let’s start this story from the very beginning. Imagine, if you will, a 16 year-old me, sat in a tiny university radio studio with my best mate and (then) bandmate Dino. We’ve played a song or two and the show’s host decides to put on a track to keep the show’s momentum flowing. It is in this moment that I first encounter the modern Motown sway of Michael Kiwanuka.

The song she played (Tell Me A Tale) was admittedly excellent but didn’t necessarily capture my imagination. I bought his debut album and enjoyed it without any great impression being made upon me. It was an album I revisited recently and found just as appealing; beautiful, yes, but not a paradigm-shifting behemoth of a record. This collection of songs preempted Michael Kiwanuka’s disappearance.

Not a real disappearance, of course, more a backwards step out of the limelight. Having won the BBC’s prestigious Sound Of 2012 and scored a number 4 album, he vanished from the collective consciousness of the British music scene, seemingly forgotten.

Until earlier this year.

Earlier this year. A time when I was still reeling from 2015, possibly the worst year for music I’d gone through in my 20 years on this earth. A year punctuated by only a few albums of any merit at all; Foals’ What Went Down, Everything Everything’s Get To Heaven, Tame Impala’s Currents and a few other lower status releases.

This year had started well. A number of excellent works had begun to lift the gloom of the previous year, including The Last Shadow Puppets’ brilliant Everything You’ve Come to Expect and Mystery Jets’ Curve of the Earth. Radiohead even had a new album. And then one night, I was watching Later…with Jools Holland and my world was turned on its head by a man I never thought I’d see again. You guessed it.

Michael Kiwanuka. And he played this.

Now you have to understand that this may seem a fairly dramatic account of this whole story, and to that I would say two things: first, you don’t understand the impact this album has had on me, and second, it’s a blog post and it’d be boring without a little hyperbole.

I was flabbergasted by the sheer brilliance of this song. That vocal hook! That guitar solo! Those backing vocals! It was the best thing I’d heard in a long, long time. And so I started keeping an eye out for more releases. I heard a couple of other tracks off of the album, and resolved that I had to hear it as soon as it came out. So I began waiting, looking out for any versions of new tracks going up.

And then, as I nursed a truly astronomical hangoveMK coverr on a Sunday afternoon, I listened to it.

I had never been so deeply taken aback by an album on first listen. Imagine Pink Floyd circa 1995 doing soul and Motown. Then replace David Gilmour’s voice with a rich vein of audio gold, replace synthesizers with sweeping string arrangements, replace your perceptions of what constitutes genius with something new altogether. You’d be hard pressed to find any album audacious enough to open with a 5 minute slide guitar solo over soul backing, only to change key and begin the song proper and still manage to make it work. The worst part is, you don’t realise how much you loved those opening 5 minutes until the reprise at the end of the track. This track, Cold Little Heart, would be the piece de resistance of most albums. But not this one.

The next two tracks are wonderful. Love and Hate comes in at track 5 and fails to become any less stupendous. Rule The World begins with confusing, effects-laden guitar and ends with Kiwanuka’s backing vocalists riffing at will over a current of electric guitar that shimmers and crackles as if it were pure energy. The Final Frame is a fitting conclusion, a chainsaw of a riff giving way to a song of pure heartbreak and agony. The worst song on the album, Place I Belong, is almost identical to Tell Me A Tale, possibly the best song on his last album. It almost seems cruel to curse anything with as negative a superlative as ‘worst’ on a production of such quality. It’s like calling Noel Gallagher the worst guitarist in a room when he’s in there with Dave Gilmour, Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Page, Angus Young and Jimi Hendrix.

Love and Hate is a bolt from the blue in a sea of grey, a spellbinding work of art. Each song is meticulously crafted and yet loose and free, a hammer-blow of handmade heaven and yet gentle as a mothers’ touch, gut-wrenchingly emotional and yet liable to induce tears of joy, joy you feel not because these tracks are necessarily happy but because you’re just so overwhelmed that here, in 2016, someone can still do something this wonderful.

This is more than an ode to Michael Kiwanuka. This is a heartfelt thanks on behalf of music. Thank you, Love and Hate, for saving it. Thank you, Michael Kiwanuka, for your audacity, for your brilliance, and for the message you send. For the love in Love and Hate is plain to see, but it is Kiwanuka’s willingness to address his social background that really resonates here. In an epoch where racial hate is at the forefront of the world’s consciousness, he has looked it dead in the eye, said ‘I see you’, and proceeded to bring this work of love into the world.

Hate? Sure. But mostly love.

10/10

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Mad March, Madder April

After an exciting March, I was looking forwards to a nice relaxing April, and with a uni trip to Greece sandwiched in between two stints at home I assumed I was in for one. So much for that…

I believe I played 11 times between my gig at the Talking Heads on 1st April and my gig at the Railway on 25th. And I was in Greece for the best part of 10 days. Obviously I’m taking this month easier…no, seriously. I have exams.

As for the gigs, I’m going to try to sum a few of the best ones up, talk about them, and then at the bottom give a little ‘top three’ of the artists I played with this month, because I genuinely play with some outstanding people and I love to share the love around and give them a bit of exposure on here.

So, without further ado…

THE GIGS

1/4/15 – Talking Heads, Southampton, Bands On The Rise Showcase.

Bands on the Rise have been helping me with photographs, radio time and general niceness ever since the wonderful John Dunning set the company up and so I only thought it fair to go and repay them by playing at their showcase. The standard of the night was pretty much exceptional; it never fails to amaze me how much local talent there is down in my home county. I was up second, the last of the acoustic acts and I just had a lot of fun. I played the same set I’ve been playing lately, but then an impromptu rendition of Uptown Funk with The Winter Project and Meg Parkinson from Insomnia insued later at the command of S1mple, the most charismatic man in the world. All in all, a top night and an opportunity to hang out with some great friends, new and old.

2/4/15 – RMA Tavern, Portsmouth, Nick Courtney Presents.

My first gig at the RMA started LATE. I mean, I was scheduled for 11pm, which was late. And then I ended up starting at 11:30, which was also late. And then I finished at about 1:15 am, after some last minute acoustic sets from a few of the bands. This, as you can imagine, was late. Despite the lateness of it all, it was a lot of fun and I’ve managed to book myself back in Portsmouth twice from that gig. Before me there was a terrific cover band and a lot of really decent artists, and I’m told every night is that good in Portsmouth. If you’re down there, support your local music scene, because the Cellars in Eastney has announced that it’s closing this week and despite never having played there, any time a music venue closes it’s a tragedy. Please support local live music, guys. It’s really key.

And here’s that ENTIRE GIG, including all the acousticness afterwards.

3/4/15 – The Ferryman, Warsash.

Another new venue to me, I stepped in to play a small set after my good friend Dan from Eagle & Weeks was in a car accident. Thankfully, he’s up and moving again now, but the opportunity to play the gig gave me the opportunity to play a really fun gig and despite what felt like a tough crowd, I think I managed to get them on-side by the end of the set. The selection of artists was fantastic as well, big props to Shoot The Duke, Jamin With Steve, Frankie Drain and Sam Weeks.

4/4/15 – Cafe Reflections, Shirley (Southampton), Mirrorman Presents.

Cafe Reflections is a tiny venue on Shirley High Street and I was playing there for the second time (and for the 4th day in a row.) I love that it’s really chilled in there and therefore I did a slightly more relaxed set, with Welsh Winds going down really well. Have a listen.

25/4/15 – The Railway, Winchester, supporting Beth Porter/Nuala Honan

I stepped in at the last minute to open at my favourite local venue, the Railway. This night was doubly exciting for me as I managed to pull off playing a brand new song I’d written about sibling rivalries, and to a really fantastic reception as well. It was also special because I got to bring my wonderful girlfriend Sophie to her first gig since Christmas time, and I just love playing the songs I’ve written for her while she’s in the room. There were tears aplenty, I’m reliably informed, though she won’t take kindly to me saying that!

Sorry I didn't post for a while. I was here...

Sorry I didn’t post for a while. I was here…

I spent the rest of that week at the end of April with her, not concentrating on gigging, but I did play at O’Neills Winchester’s open mic night and also Mr Jones’ Open Mic in the Fareham pub, which (shockingly) is in Fareham. These were both new open mics for me, and one of them is run by Mr. Sean O’Brien, the Canadian Crooner and charmer spectacular, so I particularly enjoyed playing some tunes with him.

I’m back at university now and I’m going to be playing my FIRST gig in Swansea outside of the Student Union at the Garage on May 9th. It’s £3 entry and I know it’s going to be huge night so I’m really, really looking forward to that gig. I’m gonna be playing with Atlas, with whose members I’m really good mates, and also brand new uni band Handd who have sounded fabulous at every turn so far.

TOP 3

So I said I was going to do a top 3 of the local bands and artists I’ve played with over the last month and I will hold true to that. Here’s a quick run-down, in no particular order:

Ed Allen Trio

The Trio seen as a trio. Very rare.

The Trio seen as a trio. Very rare.

The best 5-piece trio I’ve ever heard. Bluesy, jazzy and altogether just a sublime modern take on a genre that just isn’t played very often. I confess that I haven’t been able to keep a certain hook that goes something like ‘I didn’t love you enough’ out of my head for the last few weeks. I was really impressed by the tightness of the set and the fact that they had two trombone players! Ed himself is a really clean guitarist and the whole set was excellent from start to finish.

The Winter Project

The Winter Project.

The Winter Project.

Like Ed Allen and his 5-piece trifecta, I saw these boys at the Bands on the Rise showcase, and they blew me away. Having recently split off from their former band Civil Eyes, they have a ethereal beauty that can only be described as The War On Drugs-esque, as well as electric guitar work that put me in mind of Ben Howard’s most recent offerings. Jimmy Herrity is a fabulous lead vocalist with guitar skills to match and Alex Dunning is possibly the best guitarist I’ve ever seen, with his outstanding work really complimenting melodic waves that the band was making. On the night they played with a guest drummer and bassist but they look set for big things. They don’t seem to have any music online yet, but I can’t wait until they do.

Shoot The Duke

Shoot The Duke being shot (by a photographer).

Shoot The Duke being shot (by a photographer).

Every time I see this energetic and enigmatic duo, I’m reminded why I play music. They put so much effort into every set they play and it’s completely infectious. Lead singer Tommo Bryan has been playing guitar a shockingly short amount of time, all things considered, and yet he seems to be one of the most natural rhythm guitar players than I’ve seen, slapping the guitar like it’s nobody’s business. He also has a singular gruffness to his voice, like an angry lion doing an impression of Bruce Springsteen. Neil Cripps’ tight lead guitar work layers wonderfully over the songs and his eye for a riff is astute, as well as his occasional harmonic interjections over the microphone. For their final song, Tommo grabs a harmonica and has a (very tuneful and exhausting) fit. Cracking band, cracking boys.

SONG OF THE WEEK – CRYSTALS (Of Monsters And Men)

Indie/folk Icelanders return, but are they here to stay?

When it's not hipster enough just to be Icelandic.

When it’s not hipster enough just to be Icelandic.


Of Monsters And Men gradually rose to prominence during 2012, with their trumpet-driven anthem Little Talks leading them to a fame that they had not anticipated when they released their first album the year before. That album, My Head Is An Animal, was a triumph, and despite the mainstream success of Little Talks it managed to stay interesting, with the lavishly textured Slow And Steady and the uplifting King And Lionheart particular highlights. So with a new album coming up in June, does first-look single Crystals indicate any retention of that brilliance?

The short answer is yes. They haven’t varied their style a great deal, but that’s not a criticism; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Mumford & Sons recently took off in a completely different direction with promising results, but Of Monsters And Men didn’t need to do that. Thankfully, they haven’t gone the other way and completely copied their most successful piece of music either. There was a possibility that they would try to remake Little Talks, all trumpet riffs and duets, but they have evidently attempted something new and have actually skated closer to King And Lionheart than anything else. I’m not going to say that this is a ground-breaking revolution for their genre or their career, because there are a lot of similarities to their outstanding work, but it finds a handy balance.

However, it’s not perfect. It’s definitely better on the second listen, because the verses are actually quite weak and predictable. It’s hard not to cringe when lead singer Nanna Hilmarsdottir (did I mention that they’re Icelandic?) tries to slip in an extra syllable in the first verse; ‘falling fast to THE ground.’ Ew. I also appreciate that they want to leave us wanting more, but the song has a slightly anticlimactic ending where you really feel they could have reprised the chorus one more time. But these are small niggles. I’d rather talk about what’s right about it.

The chorus is what’s right. I said I wanted to hear it twice at the end of the song but I lied. I want to hear it again and again and again. I want to date it. It’s unpredictable and it’s anthemic and it’s wonderful. The voice of male vocalist Raggi Þórhallsson (no, I don’t know what that letter is either) underneath Nanna’s gives a fullness to the melody, and every part of the song is content to just do its own thing, letting its team-mates do their separate jobs. This song is less Real Madrid, with the star men all outdoing each other, and more Barcelona, with each member of the team working in harmony.

There are trumpets, but they don’t do the Little Talks thing; they build the sound. Rather than being the fancy stained-glass windows, they are the brickwork, the windowsills. I feel like they’ve found their calling, building crescendos rather than being them. Nanna’s voice is a breath of cool breeze on a summer’s day, its delightful, airy tones ‘trembling down your spine.’ And these parts are all twined in the drum part, a length of ‘silver rope’ that pounds away of its own volition, reveling in the off-camber irregularity of the chorus.

This song, then, is like the country of Iceland; it’s not big or important, but it’s a lot nicer than most things that are.
8/10

A Trip to the Theatre…

The biggest venue yet…but at a fashion show?

Quite a big stage for just one me.

Quite a big stage for just one me.

I’m aware that if you’ve ever met me, the thought of me playing a fashion show is fanciful at best. For a start, it probably involves having to look fashionable, which isn’t something that comes naturally to me. I managed to string together a half decent outfit, going for plum chinos, a white patterned shirt, grey brogues and a H&M jacket, and even got some compliments from the actual fashion people, which was nice.

Concentration face.

Concentration face.

The gig itself entailed playing four songs in the interval of the show, and trying to make them as upbeat and fun as possible, so I opted for Antananarivo (a fast song about gap years), Drunken Truths (another speedy one about hot barmaids), Supermagnets & Superglue (so I could prove that I’m a real songwriter, not just ‘a dude who jumps around and swears a lot’ as I so eloquently put it) and Don’t, a little Ed Sheeran cover which allows me to get the audience singing and to have a bit of fun.

The audience was fantastic considering that they were there for a fashion show and not a gig; they sang when I asked them to and gave me a fantastic reception. I’ve heard that it was filmed so as soon as I can get a hold of the video, I’ll post it up here for general perusal.

All in all, it was a really fun night out, and I got to spend it with my friend Cadi Rhind, who also performed a couple of awesome mashups and a beautiful original song that had many eyes glistening.

Next up for me is my lead support slot at the Railway in Winchester, supporting Scott Freeman for his album launch. He and his band the Tokyo Sex Whales have been dashing around the UK doing a tour to promote the album and are returning to Winchester to do the big hometown show, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to play at the show once he asked. Tickets are going to be £5 on the door so come along if you’re not busy, it promises to be a fabulous night of live music.

Gig Summary:
Setlist:
 Antananarivo – Drunken Truths – Don’t (COVER) – Supermagnets & Superglue
Upcoming Gigs:
Friday 20th March – Scott Freeman & the Tokyo Sex Whales Album Launch – Railway, Winchester – £5 on the door.
Saturday 28th March – Edge of The Wedge, Portsmouth, 1pm – free.
Tuesday 1st April – No Fools Here! for Marie Curie Cancer Trust – Talking Heads, Southampton. – £4.50 adv/£5 OTD.

Joiners Arms, 5th March 2015 – RHODES and EAVES

So I’ve started a blog about my musical exploits and songwriting. Why?

Thursday night felt like one of those moments in life you have, where you look back and think: ‘Wow. That was a life-changing event.’

The venue wasn’t a fancy one – I’ve played at the Joiners a couple of times over the years and it’s a good, solid local music venue that holds about 150 people. I traveled from my university in Swansea down to Southampton to play there this time, spending 4 hours on a train with Fletch, one of my best mates from Wales. I spent the previous week stubbornly avoiding any of my actual uni work so that I could sell tickets.3/5/15 - Joiners (RHODES + EAVES + TOM MARTIN

It wasn’t my set that was different either. I played 6 songs, all original, only two of which I’d written in the past 6 months at university. There was a definite strong addition in ‘When She Holds You’, a The Streets-esque number about a mate’s cheating girlfriend with one of the more powerful choruses I’ve written. Besides that it was a standard bunch of tunes.

But the night itself was special. I opened, to a room that was probably as full as I’ve seen in my short, 10-month solo career. And (partly thanks to a stellar and attentive crowd) I got as good a reception as I can remember. Every song was received well and every time I asked for the audience to participate and sing along they did so, with unexpected aplomb given that it was far too early for all but the most hardy drinkers to be anywhere near social lubrication, let alone full-on weapons-grade inebriation.

After my usual rounds talking to spectators and handing out business cards, I settled in to watch the two acts I was supporting; Eaves and Rhodes.

Eaves, otherwise known as 23-year old songwriter Joe Lyons, is a folky, ethereal songwriter unlike anyone I’ve ever really heard. His use of chord structures beyond the ordinary and a pining, soulful wail of a voice has landed him support slots with Nick Mulvey and the opportunity to release his debut album this year.

Joe himself was a very down-to-earth and friendly guy who watched me soundcheck and then invited me up into the green room; uncharted territory for a local musician like myself. He chatted quite candidly about his music, how he started out and was full of great tips for getting myself out there. This blog is part of that process, as well as a revamped Youtube channel and a rebrand.

Rhodes then played with his band to round off the night, and in lieu of the intimate acoustic crooning of Eaves came huge anthemic choruses, sweeping tremolo guitars and big mallets on drums. Rhodes’ music is built for far bigger venues than the Joiners, but he showed versatility, stripping away the production to play ‘Breathe’ on his own. His voice burrows straight into your soul with a subtle rasp at the top end and a huge amount of control over the power that lies beneath. It happened that it was his first tour with the band, but they could have been playing together for years given the tight nature of the set.

I first heard Rhodes’ song ‘Your Soul’ about a year and a half ago on Radio 1 and ever since have kept an eye on him, and so when I found out that I was able to play the gig I was hugely excited. There was no disappointment. It was the best thing I’ve seen in a small venue like that for a very, very long time. Only that night he found out he had 3 songs being featured on American show ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ Exciting times lie ahead for him, I suspect.

After the show, Fletch, my friend Andy and I were invited to stick around for a bit and have a few drinks. I was driving so declined the alcohol but given the opportunity to hang with Rhodes, his band and Eaves, I decided to take it. After a few jokes and some light chit-chat, I asked Rhodes if he would be willing to hear a song of mine, given that he missed my set. After praising my bravery for asking, he agreed and I played him the newest song, When She Holds You. He seemed impressed and his drummer asked to hear another, so I played Supermagnets & Superglue, my quirky love song.

From left: Eaves, Rhodes, myself (Tom Martin).

From left: Eaves, Rhodes, myself (Tom Martin).

The reception I got in that little room from those signed artists was more meaningful to me than any gig I’ve ever played. And so now, here I am, doing this music thing properly.

GIG DETAILS: 5/3/15
Tom Martin (8pm)
Eaves (8.45)
Rhodes (9.30)

Setlist: Antananarivo – When She Holds You – Drunken Truths – Welsh Winds – Bethany’s Line – Supermagets & Superglue

Upcoming shows:
Wonderland Fashion Show, Swansea Grand Theatre, 10/3/15
Scott Freeman ‘Season Of Blue’ Album Launch, Railway, Winchester, 20/3/15
Edge of the Wedge, Portsmouth, 28/3/15 (afternoon)
No Fools Here! Charity Showcase, Talking Heads, Southampton, 1/4/15
RMA Tavern, Portsmouth, 2/4/15