New Musical Success: The Best New Music From The Last Month…

Live In The Flicker cover – credit Louise McLachlan

It’s interesting to write this after putting together two radio shows made solely from music featured on this year’s SAY Award Eliglible Album list (Yes, we have a SWH! radio show – haven’t I mentioned it? You can catch up with all the old shows here – SWH! on LP Radio). What it proved was that last year was phenomenal in terms of Scottish music, with a huge variety of styles and genres on show, and of such high quality it’s genuinely astonishing. It fair makes yer heart swell…

This month’s review proves that situation is not only continuing, but is arguably getting even better. Without a doubt it has been one of the hardest to compile as there was so much good new music released in the last month, and to whittle it down to eight was tough. There’s a mix of noisepop, jazz/folk, electronica, gaelictronica, singer/songwriters, American roots, and much more, including at least one album (at least one) destined to become an all-time classic. Think I’m joking? Perhaps exaggerating for effect? Read on and decide for yourself…

We are going to start with Half Formed Things. Regular readers of these reviews will probably be able to write this one for themselves as I have made it clear that when it comes to Half Formed Things it was a case of love at first listen, which would have been their eponymous EP back in 2016. Since then there are few things I have been awaiting with as much anticipation as their debut album, Live In The Flicker. Now it is with us and I can assure you, and me, that it more than lives up those high expectations.

The album opens and closes with the peal of church bells, and the songs in-between each tell their own tales, like chapters in a book, not unlike Tindersticks, or, and I don’t say this lightly, The Blue Nile – with each song working individually but coming together to create an even greater whole. Other influences I detect are David Sylvian, Kate Bush, and late-period Talk Talk, with a similar sense of space being evoked. That suggests ambience, yet the music is always insistent – it will not be ignored. There’s a sense of momentum to the album – like glimpsing scenes from a moving train, you’re not quite sure what you’ve just witnessed.

That’s what the first listen to Live In The Flicker is like, you know you’ll have to listen again, and again, to try and understand fully. From the opening ‘Flicker’ to the closing ‘The Calm’ you are taken to another place by a soundtrack which makes your head swim – with instruments being used for different purposes – drums and cymbals take the lead, piano riffs keep the rhythm, and harmonies (oh, the harmonies!) becoming an instrument all of their own.

So make room in your lives for Half Formed Things’ Live In The Flicker as it may just be your new favourite album – or maybe, for you, just a very good one. Ultimately you decide, I can only guide. You certainly won’t hear another album like it until they make their next one. Scottish Album of the Year? Half Formed Things may just have made an album for the ages.

How do you follow that? Well, what about a track from an album which has now become the most eagerly awaited of the year, and a video featuring friend of SWH! and Olive Grove Records hi-heed-yin, Lloyd Meredith, tied to a pole in the middle of nowhere. The artist is Broken Chanter and the track is ‘Wholesale’, and if it’s an indicator of the quality of the rest of the album (*Spoiler Alert – it is) then we are all in for a treat.

As anyone who has been to a Broken Chanter live show knows ‘Wholesale’ has quickly become a highlight of the set, and rightly so as it is Celtic pop at its finest, with David MacGregor’s world weary vocals (for Broken Chanter is he) beautifully offset by heavenly harmonies and a band playing at the peak of their powers. They include Audrey Tait, Jill Sullivan, Gav Prentice, Hannah Shepherd, Kim Carnie, and Emma Kupa – just about the most super-group you could imagine. If the summer starts with Half Formed Things and Live In The Flicker it could be rounded off nicely by the Broken Chanter album. Phew, what a scorcher! In the meantime, enjoy ‘Wholesale’, video and all:

What I love most about these reviews is discovering someone new to SWH! and falling hard for their music. Norrie McCulloch got in touch last month and kindly sent a copy of his latest album Compass. It is packed to the gunnels with great songs, with Norrie’s voice as smooth as a Speyside single malt.

There is some great American influenced roots music being made and played in Scotland at the moment, and Norrie has made a record which stands alongside the best of them, and which deserves to be heard far and wide. If you like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, together or as seperates, then this is for you. If Haight-Ashbury had sat at the foot of Stirling Castle this is the music you would have heard. This track is called ‘Road Sign’ and it is the very definition of a great song. Listen once, listen again, and before you know it you’re hooked.

I have probably seen Lizabett Russo live more than any other artist in the last 12 months, with L-Space possibly the only exception, and I can tell you that she never gives the same gig twice. There have been nights of traditional Transylvanian songs, film soundtracks, folk and fairy tales, and then there is her own music which is a mixture of them all. Her latest album is Something In Movement, made with her regular musical collaborator, guitar virtuoso Graeme Stephen, as well as Pete Harvey, Tim Lane, and Tim Vincent-Smith.

It’s a fantastic collection of songs in every sense of the word, with Russo’s voice never better. There seems to be a new-found confidence in her work, as if this is the album she’s been wanting to make from the start. Be under no illusion, Lizabett Russo is the real deal, and one of the most interesting and intriguing musicians around. This song, ‘The Hunter & The Prey’, makes that point perfectly:

Another new band to SWH! are Bad Protagonist Club but I’m sure this won’t be their only appearance on these pages. This single is ‘Verdant Forest (Waiting For Me)’ and it’s exactly the sort of pop song which works its way into your life without you noticing. You get up in the morning, it’s just there! There are chiming guitars, drums battered to within an inch of their lives, vocal harmonies as much shouted as sung, and bursts of energy followed by periods of contemplation, before it all kicks off again – like a kid whose tooth-kind Ribena has been replaced with Buckfast. This, in case you were in doubt, is a very good thing. And this is ‘Verdant Forest (Waiting For Me)’:

Amy Duncan has regularly appeared on these pages over the years, and the reason for that is she just keeps on making music which lifts the heart and soothes the soul (hell, it might even soothe Bad Protagonist Club). Her latest single, ‘Labyrinth’, is no exception, although, like most of the music featured in this review, there is a twist in the tale. In Amy’s case it’s the electronic sounds and jazz rhythms which appear halfway through and turn what is a perfectly lovely song into something altogether more interesting. Amy Duncan’s music makes the world a better place, and right now we need her, and those like her, more than ever. This is ‘Labyrinth’:

Animation by Tracy Foster

Previous podcast guests WHYTE are back with a new album, tairm (following on from the acclaimed Fairich) and to say it’s a thing of beauty is understatement in the extreme. Once again composer Ross Whyte’s electronic music underscores Gaelic songs sung by Alasdair Whyte, and their marriage is magical. The songs are based in the folk-tradition, but Ross’s music, perhaps unexpectedly, enhances that feeling rather than diluting it.

It helps that Alasdair’s vocals sound like they are sung by an old soul, and he clearly has an inherent understanding of what he sings and where it comes from. I mentioned the SAY Award at the top of the page and I genuinely think that tairm has a chance of being the first Gaelic language album in contention. Put aside any doubts you may have and join in as it’s a record which deserves to be heard by the widest audience possible. That includes you, by the way.

Braemar’s Youth Team also have new music for our pleasure in the form of the album Threshhold Experience and it is the result of Angus Upton (for they are he) spending a winter immersing himself in Krautrock, the works of Brian Eno, and possibly The Durutti Column if the title of one track is anything to go by – an excellent way to spend those long nights. It’s certainly been time well spent as Upton proves again he is one of the most exciting young musicians around today, and if you haven’t yet got his 2018 album Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (an eligible album for this year’s SAY Award) then I advise you to do just that. But only after you listen to the following. Youth Team are in it for the long haul and that’s a journey you want to be part of.

Meet you here next month for more of the best in new Scottish music. But while you wait, remember that SWH! now has a regular radio show on LP Radio on Monday nights, 7-9pm. You can catch up with the previous shows, along with all the other fantastic LP Radio shows, by following the relevant links in the sidebar.

Second Thoughts: A Review Of Mandy Haggith’s The Amber Seeker…

You wait ages for a good trilogy to come along then, appropriately, three turn up at once – or almost at once. In the last month or so SWH! has reviewed Runaway, the third (although likely not the last) in Claire MacLeary’s Harcus & Laird series, Star Of Hope, the final book in Moira McPartlin’s Sun Song Trilogy, and now we have The Amber Seeker which is the second part of Mandy Haggith’s Stone Series. If you read part one, The Walrus Mutterer, then you’ll be eager to return to the land-and-seascapes of Haggith’s wonderfully evocative Iron Age, and you won’t be disappointed – but you may be surprised.

The reason for that is all in the telling. Last time around the story was that of Rian, a young woman who is unexpectedly sold into slavery, and who has to learn harsh life lessons quickly as she is used and abused while trying to make some sense of how her life has transpired. In The Amber Seeker the narrator is Pytheas of Massalia, a character who also features in The Walrus Mutterer, and not a sympathetic one at that. This makes it a brave and fascinating decision from Haggith to look at events from his point of view.

If you think of famous films such as Rashomon, The Usual Suspects, or Jackie Brown, and how they look at events from different characters’ perspectives, you’ll have an idea as to what is going on with these narratives (when taken together) as the same story, or at least parts of it, are told from different points of view. Both Rian’s and Pytheas’ stories are riveting from beginning to end, but it’s where they overlap that makes for the most interesting reading. Is one more reliable than the other or are they just two sides of the same story? Or is the full picture to be found somewhere in-between?

This asks questions about the nature of truth, perspective, and the power of the narrator to influence where readers’ sympathies lie. As you would expect, Pytheas is portrayed as a more appealing personality this time around, but it is difficult to forgive or forget his behaviour as Rian experienced it. There is still a strong whiff of toxicity surrounding him, especially when convincing himself of the rights and wrongs of his actions, and Rian’s subsequent reaction. But it is not just he who regular readers will reassess – for those familiar with The Walrus Mutterer many of the main players, such as Toma, Ussa, Gruach, and Fraoch, are changed, to greater or lesser degrees, in relation to their interactions and relations with Pytheas.

At times the world that Haggith creates feels like fantasy as much as history – a sort of Game Of Thrones before the dragons – with warlords, curses, feuds, revenge, and the promise of prosperity in other lands. This is in part due to Haggith’s choice to use English no matter the speaker, with where an individual is from, and who they are, explained using backstory, plot, beliefs, costume, and character. It makes for a world which is strange and intriguing, but familiar enough for readers to immerse themselves fully.

When a book is part of a series then a pertinent question is always, “Do I have to have read the others?”. My answer to this is that, while it usually helps, the best novels need to stand alone. However, while that is true for The Amber Seeker, I would urge you to also read The Walrus Mutterer to get as full a picture as possible of the story up to now. Taken together they make The Lyre Dancers, the final volume in this trilogy, a novel which is eagerly awaited as this is a story which demands a fitting ending. But who gets to tell it, and how? Only Mandy Haggith knows, and that mystery is as intriguing as any.

The Amber Seeker is available now, published by Saraband Books

Call Me Ishbel: A Review Of Moira McPartlin’s Star Of Hope…

When you come to a trilogy at the end it can feel like you have missed too much to truly understand what’s going on. I can’t imagine seeing the The Godfather III without having seen I & II first, or, gawd help us, The Matrix Revolutions before The Matrix. However, that’s not always the case, and the best books and films in any series should work individually as well as part of the series, with the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy books, or Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ‘Three Colours’ films, being perfect examples.

After reading Moira McPartlin’s Star Of Hope, the final part of her ‘Sun Song Trilogy’, without having read the first two I can say that it passes the test of working as a stand-alone but one which also makes you want to spend more time with the characters, to discover fully how they, and their world, got to this point. If one of the characteristics of a good writer is to make you care, then Moira McPartlin does that in spades.

That’s partly because it’s a story that is all too believable – and terrifying. Set in the dystopian near future of 2089, Star Of Hope is close enough for many of its themes and concerns to be all too recognisable. Concerns over artificial intelligence, the distant between the have and have-nots (in this case the ‘Privileged’ and the ‘Natives’), genetics, the plight of the bees, and what happens when the lights go out, are all central to the story.

As with many such fictional worlds they increasingly feel like predictions rather than prose. In that sense Star Of Hope is similar in tone to Louise Welsh’s No Dominion, the third of her ‘Plague Times Trilogy’ in that both are about a final mission, or in this case missions, with groups travelling across the land. Along the way they encounter ever-increasing dangers, double-crossing, and death. Long-held beliefs are challenged and no-one reaches the end unchanged.

In Star Of Hope the story is mostly told in alternative chapters which focus on 16-year-old Sorlie and his aunt Ishbel. They undertake separate missions to find the legendary ‘Star Of Hope’ which, we are told, holds the key to returning to a better life, one which will benefit all and not just the few. Without giving anything away, while this proposed solution is not necessarily what you might expect, the world they encounter is just recognisable enough to believe that this possible world is worryingly probable.

Creating such a familiar world for her characters to inhabit allows McPartlin to have some fun with place and language. There is a visit to ‘Beckham City’, when people frown their eyebrows “pringle”, (a perfect image which I intend to use in future), messages are ‘pinged’ to each other, and there are lots of rumour and myth about the history of technology before the servers went down which emphasise just how, and how quickly, this world became the way it is.

There are no frivolities, nothing unnecessarily sensational, to sidetrack the reader. Sorlie and Ishbel’s missions are deadly serious, with nothing less than the very future at stake. But this is not the worthy and finger-wagging undertaking that it could have been. Sorlie and Ishbel are characters you care about, and I can only think this will be strengthened for those who have been with them from the start. However, there are plenty of other strong characters to invest in, from the taciturn and increasingly complex ‘Dawdle’, the damaged and confused ‘Noni’, the Machiavellian ‘Merj’, and the dependable ‘Reinya’. It’s a fine cast which gives not only the journey but its end a power it wouldn’t have otherwise had.

The final scenes are worthy of a Sam Peckinpah movie (or John Wick, for a more recent comparison), with bullets and bodies flying around and no-one sure what is going on. It’s a suitably dramatic ending to a novel which builds the tension right from the start and which never lets up (with a couple of notable and memorable beats for everyone to catch their breath). It’s one of the most exciting bits of writing I have read in some time, and a fitting conclusion.

Young Adult fiction, (or at least fiction with young people at its core), is thriving in Scotland – with some publishers having their own YA imprint, which speaks well for the future as well as the present. Recently memorable examples include Ross Sayer’s Mary’s The Name (his latest Sonny & Me is out now), Helen MaKinven’s Talk Of The Toun, Claire McFall’s Ferryman and Daniel Shand’s Crocodile, and Moira McPartlin’s Star Of Hope belongs in that company. Does it all end well? You’ll have to find that out for yourself, but it’s a journey well worth making.

Moira McPartlin’s Star Of Hope is published by Fledgling Press

That’s Entertainment: A Review Of Scottish Opera’s The Magic Flute…

Few operas have found their way into popular culture in the manner of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. From Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of Papageno’s bird catcher for the character Old Bailey in his novel Neverwhere, Whitney Houston claiming she is the ‘Queen of the Night’ in the movie The Bodyguard, and with music which has been used to sell everything from cars to contraception, it’s influence has spread far and wide. This is something which Scottish Opera’s revival of their 2012 production plays with beautifully.

It embraces the aesthetic of steampunk fully. If you know the graphic novels of Alan Moore’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or films such as Brazil, Howl’s Moving Castle, or the recent Mortal Engines, you’ll have some idea of the look and feel. In fact the wizard Sarastro can be described as a mix of The Matrix’s Morpheus and Kenneth Branagh’s Dr. Arliss Loveless from the otherwise forgettable Wild Wild West.

Throw in minions who seem to be a marriage of Disney’s Minions & Tik Tok from Return To Oz, a dragon which is more H.G. Wells than Game Of Thrones, and strange men in top hats who watch over proceedings, and it’s clear that everyone has risen to the challenge to offer up a production which is as much a treat for the eyes as for the ears. Those involved with stage, costume, lighting and props should take a well-deserved bow.

But for all the magic and magnificence of the staging what runs through this production is heart, humanity and humour. Central to this is Richard Burkhard’s Papageno who represents the everyman, the link between the audience and the stage, (the ‘Buttons’ character, so to speak – see more below), whose mistakes and mishaps are all too recognisable, and who reminds us that while not everyone can be a hero, they still deserve love.

There is more than a touch of pantomime about The Magic Flute with a prince and a princess, a wicked Queen, slapstick and farce, playing to the gallery, and (*Spoiler*) happy endings for most by the time the curtain falls. As such it is easy to explain its continued popularity, regarded by many as the opera for all the family, and there is an excellent piece in the programme by Paul Maloney which sets out the influence on vaudeville and music hall.

If you’ve been looking to introduce someone to the joys of opera, then Scottish Opera’s The Magic Flute is the perfect choice. If that someone is you, then why not give it a chance. I guarantee you’ll leave with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

Thanks to Scottish Opera for use of the following images:
Credit – James Glossop

Tour Dates:

Theatre Royal – GLASGOW Tue 14 May to Sat 18 May BOOK TICKETS

Eden Court – INVERNESS Tue 21 May to Sat 25 May BOOK TICKETS

His Majesty’s Theatre – ABERDEEN Thu 30 May – Sat 1 Jun BOOK TICKETS

Festival Theatre – EDINBURGH Wed 5 Jun to Sat 15 Jun BOOK TICKETS

Hackney Empire – LONDON Thu 20 Jun to Sat 22 Jun BOOK TICKETS

Belfast Grand Opera House – BELFAST Thu 27 Jun – Sat 29 Jun BOOK TICKETS

Keeping It Corporeal: A Review Of Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other…

As regular visitors to SWH! will know, 404 Ink have, in a fairly short space of time, come to be recognised as a reliable mark of quality, publishing books which are not only well written and enjoyable to read, but which challenge readers and the literary status quo, allowing for marginalised voices to be heard, loud and clear.

Recent publications include Nadine Aisha Jassat’s poetry collection Let Me Tell You This, the Queer words anthology We Were Always Here, Chris McQueer‘s second short story collection HWFG, Helen McClory’s The Goldblum Variations (the international rights to which have just been sold to Penguin Books) and the rightly acclaimed collection of essays Nasty Women. By any standard that is an admirable list, and it only scratches the surface.

Their latest is Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other and it is a welcome and worthy addition. It’s a novel which hits you full in the face so hard it makes you fear for your front teeth. The arresting opening sentence sets the uneasy, and often queasy, tone which doesn’t let up till the last. A visceral read which is at times dreamlike as you become intoxicated by the sensual and sensory images and language. You may want to look away but you’ll find you can’t, desperate to know how things resolve themselves. However you’ll soon realise this isn’t about where the narrative is going, but why.

The writing is exemplary – lean and mean, reflecting the content – it’s where Ernest Hemingway meets Kathy Acker. It also pulls off the difficult trick of making you think you have experienced or read things which you haven’t. As with the infamous shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho, Nash makes you believe you have witnessed visceral acts of violence, and sex, when in fact she cuts away and lets your imagination run riot. In terms of editing as much as writing, Animals Eat Each Other is an example to all.

We are introduced to ‘Lilith’, although that is a name given to her by others, and which, she learns, is one rich in meaning and which comes to define her, and even shape her. Nash makes it clear that language is important, the things which are said and those that remain only thoughts, as well as how people are referred to and the way in which relationships are defined. The latter hold the promise of, if not happiness (which is rarely considered a possibility), escape, belonging, change, submission, and subsummation – the chance not only to be with someone else but to become someone, or something, else.

There are shifts in power and thought happening constantly, sometimes in the space of a single embrace. This is in no small part down to the fact that ‘Lilith’s’ is a mind never at rest, except when quietened by drink and drugs, or distracted by pain or pleasure. The world as she has experienced it has her constantly anxious which in turn has made her uncomfortable in her own skin – a skin she is, as with her identity, keen to shed, or to have others remove for her in the belief that psychological change can happen through physical manipulation.

Despite what you may initially think this is not a novel about sex and violence, but one which examines obsession, self image and worth, fantasy vs reality, want and the need to be wanted, and the complexity of human appetites and infatuation. You could say it is concerned with the politics of desire, the rules and regulations – some made clear, some unsaid – which play out in various, and arguably all, relationships. I have seen Animals Eat Each Other described elsewhere as ‘erotic’ but that doesn’t do it justice it at all as Nash digs much deeper than that. She is not concerned with the aesthetics of desire, but with the psychology – more Erica Jong than E.L. James.

If you are looking for recent points of reference then those of you who have read Helen McClory’s novel Flesh Of The Peach, Pauline Lynch’s Armadillos or Anneliese Mackintosh’s short story collection Any Other Mouth, will find similar themes in Animals Eat Each Other. With it Elle Nash has written the literary equivalent of a great Punk single – fast, furious, and unforgettable, one which sticks in your head and creeps beneath your skin. Animals Eat Each Other – you couldn’t ignore it if you tried.

Animals Eat Each Other is out now, published by 404 Ink.

You can still hear the SWH! Podcast with 404 Ink here

New Musical Success: The Best New Music From The Last Month…

New music review, ahoy! At the time when voting for this year’s SAY Award opened (and you can nominate your favourites here) it’s heartening to reflect on just how much good music there is at the moment, in all shapes, forms and sounds. But before you head off to add to the list, here’s the latest review of the best new music to reach SWH! in recent recent weeks.

There’s a nice balance this month – at least we like to think so – not just in terms of the return of well-loved regulars and warm welcomes to the new-to-us, but also in the way that, as with the best stories, it has a beginning, middle, and an end. The perfect soundtrack to your weekend? It’s that and so much more, starting with…

..The Pearlfishers – and a long-awaited new album in the form of Love And Other Hopeless Things, the first since 2014’s Open Up Your Colouring Book. If you aren’t familiar with their music, boy are you in for a treat as this is a band steeped in classic pop. You can detect the influence of Bacharach, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, Paul Simon, The Carpenters, Steely Dan, Prefab Sprout, and – well, you get the idea with that. Suffice to say that this is a band whose standards are set sky high.

This is in no small part down to David Scott, one of the finest songwriters/arrangers around. He appears to live and breathe music, as anyone who has listened to his essential BBC Radio Scotland series Classic Scottish Albums will know. Scott is the main driving force behind The Pearlfishers, and from the opening chord to the last his influence is clear in every note. Have I convinced you yet to investigate further? Then perhaps this will seal the deal. From Love And Other Hopeless Things this is ‘Could Be A Street Could Be A Saint’. Sit back, relax, and enjoy:

While we’re on the subject of Scotland’s finest, there’s a new single from Tenement & Temple, who are Monica Queen and Johnny Smillie. It’s called ‘Loving Arms‘ (the second single from their forthcoming album which can’t come quickly enough) and it is a thing of fragile beauty with Queen’s heartbreaking vocals and Smillie’s understated guitar proving the perfect partnership.

This is appropriate as, while the two regularly collaborate and work with others (to great effect), Tenement & Temple feels intensely personal, a statement of who they are individually, but, more importantly, who they are together – making music, and creating an ambience, which is theirs alone. ‘Loving Arms’ is a song which can’t fail to move you. Are you ready to be heartbroken…?

Andrew Howie contacted SWH! last month to suggest we listen to his latest music, and we couldn’t be happier that he did as his new single ‘Fragile‘ is really something special. That slightly unwieldy term ‘folktronic’ sprang to mind on first listen, but the song needs further explanation. As its title suggests, it’s a song which is delicate, but it’s also insistent – creating an atmospheric sound which demands repeated listening.

For SWH! regulars I’ll go with some familiar references. It’s the place where Blue Rose Code meets OK Button, or if Findlay Napier were remixed by L-Space – and hopefully you’re beginning to get the idea as to what Andrew Howie is about. Of course, the easiest way to do that is to listen to ‘Fragile’ right here, right now:

Also new to SWH! are HYTTS, whose single ‘Car Crash Carnivore‘ is one of those dance tracks that has the people who say they don’t dance out of their seats and on the floor before they even realise it. It’s a belter of a tune – falsetto vocals, finger clicks, disco beats, and a pop production which is pitch perfect. It was then no surprise to find out that Gary Clark (of Danny Wilson/King L/Sing Street fame), has been a musical mentor to HYTTS as few know their way around a pop song like he does. ‘Car Crash Carnivore‘, like much of the best electronic music (and the best clubs, come to that), hints that something dark is going on, and is all the better for it. Are you dancing?

With each release wojtek the bear get better and better, adding new ingredients to an already winning formula. The latest single is ‘tonic youth’, a wry reflection on, and ironic paean to, so called wasted youth and the long-lasting influence of those ‘wonder years’. There are few bands better at marrying acerbic lyrics to a deceptively upbeat and melodic soundtrack, in the long and fine tradition of Jimmy Webb, Elliot Smith, The Beta Band, and far too many others to mention here. Prick up your ears – while you were looking elsewhere wojtek the bear have become one of the best bands around. This is ‘tonic youth’.


This review sees the return of many of SWH!’s favourites from through the years, and that certainly applies to PAWS, who initially won us over with their 2012 album Cokefloat!. Last month saw the release of Joanna‘, the first single from their new album Your Church On My Bonfire – also out now. It can be double-edged to suggest that a band have ‘matured’ in terms of their lyrics and music, but believe me when I say that in the case of PAWS it is absolutely meant as a compliment.

If their first three albums were the riotous soundtrack to the mother of all parties, Your Church On My Bonfire is something different altogether as it picks up the pieces and reflects upon what comes after, with Phillip Taylor’s songs examining life’s more sombre and sobering challenges and the way we try, and often struggle, to deal with them. It’s a record which reveals more with each listen, and it’s shaping up to be one which will stay long in the hearts and minds of those who hear it as it makes you reflect upon your own lives, loves, and losses. In all honesty, I can’t recommend Your Church On My Bonfire highly enough. This is ‘Joanna’.

Discovery of last month for me was the music of Glasgwegian composer Richard Luke, his collaboration with Scottish Chamber Orchestra violinist Amira Bedrush-McDonald, and the album Glass Island (and thanks to the legendary Jockrock for bringing them to my attention). It’s an achingly beautiful record where classical meets electronic music and they make each other better – the perfect late-night/early morning listen when you want to immerse yourself in sound that makes everything in the world seem alright, despite contrary evidence.

Out now on Canadian label Moderna Records, Glass Island could just be the record we need right now. If you’re a fan of the likes of Murcof, Nils Frahm, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, (and if you’re not, you should be) then this is your next favourite album. From it this is ‘Everything a Reason’, but believe me one track is not enough – you need the whole for full effect.

Long terms visitors to SWH! will know the high esteem in which we hold Siobhan Wilson and her music. After the well-deserved critical success of her 2017 album There Are No Saints she is back with new songs which prove she isn’t going to stop now. She is one of those musicians who carry with them a guarantee of quality and confidence in her music and songs.

Exhibit A is ‘Marry You’ with understated grungey guitars and drums supporting Wilson’s effortless vocals, reminiscent of Kristin Hersh or early Cat Power. It suggests that the forthcoming album, The Departure, is going to cement Siobhan Wilson’s reputation as one of those musicians whose records are essential – with no collection worth its name truly complete without them. While you wait for its release on May 10th, this is ‘Marry You’.

Meet you here next month for more of the best in new Scottish music. But while you wait – SWH! now has a regular radio show on LP Radio on Monday nights, 7-9pm. You can catch up with the previous shows, along with all the other fantastic LP Radio shows, by following the relevant links in the sidebar.

Storm Warning: A Review Of Douglas Skelton’s Thunder Bay…

A new novel from Douglas Skelton is always reason for cheer so the recent publication of his latest, Thunder Bay (Polygon Books) was welcome news. It’s another departure in terms of style and setting from Skelton, a writer who refuses to rest on his laurels, always keen to explore different literary approaches to writing crime fiction. A prolific writer of non-fiction books on crime as well, he is steeped in his subject area and brings all his knowledge and understanding to his fiction. The style may vary but the name Douglas Skelton is a guarantee of quality.

His characters are usually to be found pounding metropolitan mean streets, but the action in Thunder Bay takes place on an island off the coast of Scotland and Skelton manages to make this landscape as equally dangerous and disturbing, understanding that the threat is not in the place, but with those who live there. In doing so he brings to mind many influences including films such as The Wicker Man and When Eight Bells Toll, the Shetland TV series, as well as island novels such as Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands, Kevin MacNeil’s The Stornoway Way, and Louise Welsh’s Naming The Bones.

As with all of the above examples, Skelton understands that island life has a very particular, and, especially to outsiders, an often peculiar feel. Due to the necessary close-knit dynamic of such a community strangers are noticed and viewed with suspicion. Secrets are closely guarded but never forgotten, passed down through generations, and crime and recrimination are often two sides of a very similar coin.

Journalist Rebecca Connolly arrives into just such a community, travelling from the mainland to the appropriately named island of Stoirm in search of a story which will make her name. 15 years previously the island’s most infamous native, Roddie Drummond, was charged with the murder of Mhairi Sinclair but, in that singularly Scottish and often unsatisfactory manner, found Not Proven. This is a verdict which splits locals into factions which don’t heal despite Roddie leaving. His return for his mother’s funeral threatens to stir up all those old resentments and Rebecca is determined to discover the truth. What she finds is more shocking and sensational than she could ever have imagined.

Skelton understands people, both their strengths and flaws. He certainly understands the evil that men are more than capable of doing but manages to avoid making his characters monsters. He doesn’t simply divide them into white and black hats, they are more complex than that – sidestepping stereotypes while acknowledging types. He is also confident enough to have more than one storyline unfolding keeping the reader on their toes as to where the narrative is going.

Skelton proves once more that he is master of his craft. I can’t think of many, if any, other writers who bring such varied and distinctive styles to their books. With that versatility in mind, as well as his wry humour, a deft way with a cliffhanger, and a barely concealed anger at injustice, with Thunder Bay in particular the writer he most reminds me of is Iain Banks, especially the latter’s later novels The Steep Approach To Garbadale and Stonemouth.

From the Clydeside crime novels of his Davie McCall series, through the tales of Glasgow gumshoe Dominic Queste, his action-packed New York novel The Janus Run (a movie adaptation waiting to happen) and now Thunder Bay, Douglas Skelton shows that he is a writer who you can’t pidgeonhole or pin down. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he gives us next.

Thunder Bay is out now, published on the Polygon imprint of Birlinn Ltd.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Claire MacLeary…

Claire MacLeary

For the latest podcast Ali spoke to writer Claire MacLeary about her trilogy of Aberdeen set crime novels, Cross Purpose, Burnout, and her latest, Runaway (all published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books) . These novels introduced readers to Maggie Laird and ‘Big’ Wilma Harcus, two middle-aged women who join together to work as private investigators.

Claire and Ali discuss the central characters, how they are a refreshing change from the norm, other people’s reaction to their choice of career, and the development of the relationship changes over the three books. They also talk about the importance of research, the often dark themes of Claire’s writing, the importance of bringing something different to the genre, Aberdeen as a setting, and the distinctive way she approaches her work. It’s a must listen for anyone with an interest in books – crime or otherwise – one which gives a fascinating insight into the life of a writer.

You can read the SWH! review of Runaway here, but before you do I suggest you listen to the podcast as I think the two work together well to give you a clear idea as to Claire MacLeary and her work.

If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back-catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes, on Podbean, or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so). 

You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud

..or on YouTube:

We’ll be back soon with someone completely different. See you then…

New Musical Success: The Best New Music From The Last Month…

Without wanting to go in too heavy in these days of storm and stress, music becomes increasingly important to help make sense of, comes to terms with, or just forget for a while, the world and its woes. The future may be uncertain but against such a backdrop 2019 is proving to be a rich, varied, and exciting year in terms of Scottish music, as the following review will evince.

Some may say that’s small and insignificant comfort, but they are wrong. It’s important and necessary comfort, and we hope time spent with the music featured will make your day, and give it an appropriate soundtrack. There’s understated anthems, songs of fragile beauty, experimental compositions, exciting collaborations, the personal, the political, the melancholic, and the uplifting. If you don’t find something to love then we have failed you and ourselves…

First off, it’s a case of “say hello, wave goodbye” as A Mote of Dust release their new album A Mote Of Dust II while simultaneously announcing their, and musical maverick Craig b‘s, retirement. As I’m sure you’ll know, Craig b was an integral part of Ganger, Aerogramme and The Unwinding Hours before recording as A Mote Of Dust, and it’s a quite remarkable musical legacy with nary a bad song to be found from the beginning to the (in this selfish reviewer’s opinion) premature end.

The album launch/farewell gig at Glasgow’s Mono recently showed clearly just how much Craig b is respected and loved as it was packed not only with fans but also many of his musical contemporaries. I doubt anyone else was reviewed in Glasgow that night judging by the number of music writers and bloggers also in the room. So it’s a fond farewell and bon voyage to A Mote Of Dust and Mr b. If you want to show your appreciation, or discover just what all this fuss is about, get yourself a copy of A Mote Of Dust II. To convince you further, this is ‘Slow Clap’:

Annie Booth‘s debut album An Unforgiving Light, (a joint release on two of Scotland’s most discerning record labels – Last Night From Glasgow and Scottish Fiction) is one of the most talked about in recent years – literally. More than any other I can think of, perhaps with the exception of LNFG label mates Sister John, it was the record that people discussed most often at gigs and get togethers, often in hushed and awed tones. Her latest EP Spectral (another LNFG/SF collaboration – &, by the way, more of this sort of thing can only be a good thing) shows clearly that Booth is a rare talent indeed.

There’s a melancholic and haunting quality in her vocals which, on the evidence I have seen, can silence any room, but it is in the songs themselves where the real magic is to be found. All four tracks on Spectral are memorable, but ‘Mirage’ and the single ‘Magic 8’ are two of the best of the year. I’ve been trying for a while to think who Annie Booth reminds me of (cos that’s the sort of thing reviewers do) and have realised that, among others, it’s Aimee Mann, especially in terms of marrying the songs to the way they are delivered. There’s an integrity to her music which demands your attention. During one of those gig conversations, as mentioned above, someone whose opinion I rate highly called her “the best singer/songwriter in Scotland at the moment”. Listen to Spectral and I think you’ll find it hard to disagree. From it, this is ‘Magic 8’:

Citizen Bravo is the latest musical project from Matt Brennan, one-time member of the much-missed Zoey Van Goey. He has his debut album, Build A Thing Of Beauty, released on Chemikal Underground but that is only part of the story. It is also part of, and soundtrack to, Brennan’s research project which includes a film, The Cost Of Music, and an incredible one-off interactive musical sculpture called the SCI★FI★HI★FI, which will tour as part of a series of public lectures in 2019.

It’s a fascinating undertaking, one which should be of interest to any music lover as Brennan looks to the history of music making, and consumption, to better understand the present and even the future. But while that is important, it would mean little for this review if the album wasn’t quite extraordinary. With a lyrical wit and insight reminiscent of Neil Hannon, a band made up of some of the finest musicians around, and a judicious use of samples, you have a record unlike any other you are likely to hear in many a year. Inform, educate, and entertain – Citizen Bravo ticks all the boxes. From the album this is ‘Limbs and Bones’:

In the space of just a few singles OK Button have proven themselves to be one of the most exciting new bands around, one who aren’t afraid to mix the political with the often intensely personal, and all to the most exquisite soundtrack. Their latest, ‘Grenade’, is arguably their finest yet, but then I previously said that about ‘The Message’, ‘Beds’, and ‘Flesh & Blood’. Suffice to say that their debut album is shaping up to be something rather special and one off the most eagerly awaited of recent times.

The band’s atmospheric electronica, and Amber Wilson’s heavenly vocals, lull you into a false sense of security and before you know it you’re floored. OK Button are going to be playing Aberdeen at The Tunnels with SWH! favourites L-Space on July 27th which promises to be a musical match made in heaven, so I recommend grabbing your tickets while you can. While you mull that over, this is ‘Grenade’:

Josephine Sillars featured recently on these pages as guest vocalist on Frog Costume’s excellent ‘A Daydream’ which, while a treat, made you long for new music from her all of her own. Luckily we didn’t have to wait too long. Her latest single ‘Skeleton’ sees Josephine reunited with The Manic Pixie Dreams, and features Spring Break’s DJ Butterscotch. It’s a winning combination of ska-inflected pop, hip-hop, and Sillars’ velvet vocals, with a social-political message at its heart that has never been more relevant. It’s a fine example of the sort of agit-pop song which is all too rare these days in that it makes you dance and makes you think simultaneously. More of this sort of thing:

Next up, it’s the welcome return of Sacred Paws, last seen riding into the sunset clutching a well-deserved SAY Award for 2017’s Strike A Match. How do you follow such a success? Well, if the first single from their forthcoming LP Run Around The Sun is anything to go by Sacred Paws are going to do what they did before only better. As soon as it starts up ‘The Conversation’ (for that is its name) puts the listener at ease with the unmistakable drum and guitar sound that we have come to know, love and cherish. Sacred Paws are back with a vengeance and the world is a far better place for it:

How you feel about the next song will depend how you feel about the music of the mid-late 1980s. If, for you, it was only ever The Smiths, The Wedding Present, The Cure, The Woodentops, The Fall – and many other artists with the definite article – then move on, nothing to hear here. But if you had space in your life for Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, New Order, and even, god help us, Alphaville, then Michael Oakley takes you back, way back, to that time and place. Oakley’s latest single is ‘Left Behind’ (from the album Introspect) and it is as nostalgic for the ’80s as Max Headroom drinking a can of Schlitz. If you’re going to go with Michael Oakley’s ‘New Retro Wave’ then you have to embrace it fully. Go on, try it – what have you got to lose?:

And finally…it’s the Sonic Bothy Ensemble with their album Fields – a record which almost defies definition, but here goes. It’s an experimental, at times unnerving, surprising, and always exciting composition. If you like your ambient music more challenging than chill out – think Harold Budd, Philip Glass, Tim Hecker – then you’ll love Fields. It’s an album which has you believing it’s going to be one thing, then pulls you in a completely different direction altogether.

Whereas many ambient albums are little more than aural wallpaper, Sonic Bothy Ensemble force you to listen, encourage you to engage, and never allow you to settle. It’s quite the most intriguing, hypnotic and thought provoking composition I have heard this year and I’ve been returning to it most nights (often late at night) since that first listen. If you want to know more about Sonic Bothy Ensemble then click here, but I would suggest you first settle back, relax, open your ears and mind, and expect the unexpected:

We told you it was good. Meet you here next month for more of the best in new Scottish music. But while you wait – SWH! now has a regular radio show on LP Radio on Monday nights, 7-9pm. You can catch up with the previous shows, along with all the other fantastic LP Radio shows, by following the relevant links in the sidebar.


Sunday Service: A Review Of Scottish Opera’s Silvano…

2019/20 Programme

A quick look at Scottish Opera’s 2019/20 programme (right) makes it clear that the company are reaching for a balance between the old and the new, the classic and the experimental, the expected and the unexpected. It’s a tough act to pull off as there will be those who think that a national company should concentrate on the tried and tested. Others will think their remit should be groundbreaking and challenging. While you can’t please all of the people all of the time, Scottish Opera give it a good go.

While the coming season has productions of Puccini’s Tosca, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, there is also the promise of John Adams’ Nixon In China, an original piece called Amadeus & The Bard which looks at the similarities between Mozart and Robert Burns, and, most intriguing of all, Missy Mazzoli’s adaptation of Lars Von Trier’s controversial film Breaking The Waves. Add to those the Opera Highlights Tour, the Scottish Opera Young Company production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, children’s opera Fox-Tot!, and various pop-up events, and you can see that there is something for everyone, but also everything for some of us, reaffirming Scottish Opera’s reputation as a company of national and international renown.

And I haven’t yet mentioned the Opera in Concert series which puts the Orchestra (conducted by musical director Stuart Stratford) centre stage. The latest of these was at Glasgow’s City Halls on Sunday, the rarely performed Silvano. It is a dramma marinaresco, literally translated as a “seafaring drama”, by the Italian composer Pietro Mascagnic – a classic love-triangle, which, if literature, poetry, and country & western music has taught us anything, never ends well. Set at the Adriatic coast in central Italy, the plot revolves around the rivalry of two fishermen who are in love with the same woman. The drama climaxes in a duel which ends, unsurprisingly, in tragedy.

In many ways this is opera in its purest form. Being able to see as well as hear the majestic music that the orchestra makes, and the skill and passion with which they make it, is a rare treat. This style of concert is one for music lovers as you also get to concentrate on the power and purity of trained opera singers’ voices. Aexey Dolgov as Silvano, David Stout as Renzo, and Leah-Marian Jones as Rosa were all magnificent, but when Emma Bell hit the high notes as Matilde you feared for the City Halls very foundations. With strong support from the chorus in the balcony, this was a tour de force of orchestration and performance.

I have been attending and reviewing Scottish Opera for almost four years now and I can honestly say I haven’t yet had a bad experience, and more often than not have had an unforgettable one. You can find out more about what the coming season holds over at Scottish Opera, and I urge you to take a look at what’s on offer and, if you haven’t yet done so, take a chance on at least one of the shows. If you’re anything like me you won’t look back.