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The Driving Test

A Musical Car Ride

The Music Industry has altered so much over the past 50 years, due to technological changes, that the reviewer's task has become both more daunting and more subjective.

Access to cheap recording and production technology has meant that any artist or group can record and release their music, virtually as and when they wish. Even the control which more established record companies exercise over choice of material and release dates is softened by the universal access to online promotion, and online posting of audio and video clips. In the youtube age anyone can search out new music for themselves, and anyone can post their own review online at Amazon or wherever - even the reviewer is superfluous.

With a varied stack of CD's in front of me to review, from a choice of hundreds released every week, it is difficult to know how to judge them and make meaningful comments which can help the potential buyer. There has also been a proliferation in the reasons artists release their music, and how and why listeners consume it. For example, some artists produce CD's as promotional material to gain them live gigs. In other cases, (jazz is a good case in point), CD sales are a way of supplementing low gig fees and door-money bookings. Some people buy CD's as memoires of particularly enjoyable live concerts; some to listen to at home; some as dance soundtracks; many to play on the go (running, cycling, in the car).

What is clear is that most CD's are good but few are outstanding. Classic albums are few and far between in any genre, and most CD's are too stylistically uniform to provide music which bears concentrated listening. Others are too varied in style, tempo and volume to offer a background to other activities. And, of course, modern technology enables us to select tracks and create our own playlists; so why would we want to listen to a whole CD, which is essentially letting the artist choose the playlist for us?

My solution here has been a simple one. Rather than review individual artists' CD's at length, I have played them one after the other on a long car journey. The simple listening test is: "are they bearable in the car - interesting, enjoyable, not distracting". This may not be how the artists want me to hear their work - but they no longer control my choice on how and why I listen to their work! My rating system is simple:

***** Classic album, standout artist - a joy to listen to anywhere
**** Great album - the perfect soundtrack to a long car journey
*** Good album - pleasant background in the car - but nothing unique
** You have to be a fan of this music/artist. I've spared you a review
* You are either the artist or a close relative. (As I'm not, sorry no review)

KILA - Alive ****

Now in their 30th year, this 8-piece Irish band launched their new live album in March this year. It is everything you would hope for and expect from a tradition-based Celtic band. Based around the original members Ronan and Rossa O'Snodaigh, and their brother Colm, the group are joined on some tracks by flautist Alan Doherty. On one track, recorded at the Polska-Eire Festival, they are joined by Polish vocalist Kayah. The tunes are all originals written by the members, or co-written with former founder-member Eoin Dillon. This mainly instrumental set is great for dancing and driving.

ROBERTO DIANA - Raighes Vol. 2 ***

The guitarist/multi-instrumentalist released his second solo album in March 2017. Raighes means 'roots' in Sardinian, and many of the tunes on this instrumental album build upon Roberto's folk cultural roots. However, on several tracks he switches from acoustic guitar to explore the textures (and sonic range) of electric guitar. He also varies the palate with guest musicians on percussion, violin, flute or harmonica. This is mostly an intriguing set of tunes with a strong Mediterranean folk core - but on some tracks the sudden brash electric guitar creates a jarring break to the general mood of the music. He switches from John Fahey/Roberto Fonseca to early Billy Bragg in a breath! Put selected tracks into your drivetime playlist - or, if you are a guitar buff, buy the album!

DOJO - Gaia ****

Released in April 2017, this is the debut album by this 9-piece jazz/reggae collective. Formed in 2014 by "punk Hammond Organist" Ben Cormack, the core of the sound lies in Parisian vocalist Mileva Corenthin, and the jazzy horn section of Robin Porter (sax), Rosie Turton (trombone) and Simon Dennis (trumpet). With a strong rhythm section and more female backing vocalists, and tasteful arrangements of their self-written reggae tunes, this is a great album for dancing, or for the car. You may not want to listen to the whole album in one sitting, but check out lead track/new single Bethel, also Wasteland and the title track Gaia for your playlists.

BENJAMIN SCHOOS - Profession Chanteur ***

This 'best of' compilation of self-penned, modern-day chansons by Belgian singer (and label boss) Benjamin Schoos is as sophisticated and charming as you would expect. It leans heavily on the tradition of French-language songwriting, with tasteful arrangements, great orchestrations, and lilting tunes. There is no Brel-style spikiness - just smooth Gallic romance. Another great drivetime recommendation - great for the late evening. Or pick your favourite tracks to enhance bedtime……!

HAMSA - Lawless, Winged & Unconfined ***

Released at the end of April 2017, at core this group plays Jewish/Middle Eastern/East European music. Dominated by the clarinet of Merlin Shepherd, these original tunes nevertheless develop the tradition though the use of imaginative arrangements, modern rhythms, and rock-style guitar from Glenn Sharp. The title track is based on a line from a William Blake poem - love is blind, "lawless, winged and unconfined". It is the most interesting track on the album - and the longest, with a rhythmic undertone reminiscent of early Pink Floyd! Some tracks - or the whole album would be too much for a car journey, though you may like "Lawless" itself. But for lovers of kletzmer, Balkan or North African music, this is well worth investigating.

BROCK ZEMAN - The Carnival is Back in Town ***

This is the 13th album from Canadian Zeman, and is a 14-track concept album, based on a traveling show. Brock is a good singer, with a wide range, and a writer of interesting lyrics. With varied arrangements (the line-up mixes guitar, accordion, fiddle and sax, much like a circus band) this proves a pleasant set for a long journey - though it may not be strong enough to hold your attention all through on the home stereo. This one's all according to your taste.

HOLLY HOLDEN Y SU BANDA - Tropical Soul EP ***

This is a debut EP from Holly and her band (guitarist Frank Clarke and David Beauchamp drums) though they have been gigging together since 2014. As it says on the tin, this is a set of songs which mixes soul vocals with tropical rhythms - Latin American, Cuban and reggae. The arrangements are tight and the songs strong, though the "soul" elements tends towards lyrical repetitiveness. Pleasant driving music.

SOLANA - Camino ****

The third album from this eclectic Bristol-based, five-piece is a typical mix of Celtic, kletzmer, Spanish, African and reggae influences. Camino, of course, means 'the way' or journey, and aptly describes this musical travelogue through the folk/world music landscape. The influences are so varied, it seems pointless to try to unpick them. Instead, just sit back and let the music flow over you, enjoying the flamenco guitar, celtic flutes, complex basslines and crisp percussion. The tunes, the arrangements and the playing are all first class. Great for listening at home or the move. Excellent, varied and stimulating, this is highly recommended.

Martin Price

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