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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Stars and Scars: Carly Simon's The Bedroom Tapes

It's 2000 and you're Carly Simon. You've just emerged from a painful and difficult phase of your life with an album you've crafted, toiled over and produced in the face of much adversity. It is a deeply personal work, your blood, sweat and tears are etched into its very bars. Then your record company boss changes; your advocate and friend is gone, replaced by somebody who just isn't that interested in what you have to offer. You give it a go, releasing the album to the world. The reviews are good, great even, but without support the album slips from view. So what can you do? If you're Carly, you buy back your master tapes, and wait until a time comes when you can release it on your own. It's 2015 and you're Carly Simon. That moment has arrived. 

The Bedroom Tapes is in many ways the archetypal Carly Simon album. It contains prime examples of what makes her such a special artist. Carly's fluid writing about love and relationships has served her well over nearly five decades of making music, evidenced here by the poignant Whatever Became Of Her and the wry Big Dumb Guy. She also has a knack for biting satire, witness Cross the River and especially We, Your Dearest Friends, which drips with delicious vitriol. The album also wells with romance, especially on In Honor of You (George), where Carly channels and lauds the great Gershwin. There are three tracks in particular, in my opinion, that make this a truly classic album.

What a perfect night, secrets light up the sky like fireflies do
There's nothing but a silky hope, that old opiate, between me and you...

Our Affair opens the album and finds Carly on the verge of surrender. This is no chance encounter, this is a serious flirtation. It has grown over time until it is about to erupt. But Carly is in no hurry, she wants to tease out every last moment of anticipation, perhaps knowing that this is nearly always the most satisfying part of any love affair (all together, An-ti-ci-pa-tion). The song's refrain helps to build the tension, while Carly's vocal pulls you in and pushes you gently away, until she is good and ready to submit. A masterclass in seduction.

What if I couldn't pick out your face or find your hands
There are so many stars...

Carly has written many, many beautiful songs, and So Many Stars ranks among her finest compositions. It is a take on a familiar theme: finding that one love out among the masses of humanity. Carly is roaming around her beloved Manhattan, picking up guitar strings, riding the subway, window shopping.There is so much life, so many stars in the sky. What if 'the one' slips by? What if they're lost in the crowd? What if? It is a question we've all wondered, but few have described it as poetically and eloquently as Carly does here.

For Carly's fans, The Bedroom Tapes is the album we are all most grateful for. Only a few years earlier, Carly had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She survived. But what would it mean for her music? In a very real way, this album was part of Carly's recovery. It was mostly written and recorded in her bedroom, on her own, at her home in Martha's Vineyard: hence the title. On I Forget Carly gives a glimpse of her day-to-day struggle, but it is another song that fully reveals what Carly went through on her journey back to health.

A big man will love you even more when you're hurtin' 
and a really big man loves a really good scar...

The first time I heard Scar, I wept. I cried from empathy, from relief and from gaining an understanding of what cancer does to a person. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but it can sure beat the crap out of you on the way. Carly crafts a Celtic ballad as a medium for dealing with something so raw and painful. Carly's vocal is equally fervent, you can almost touch the emotion. Fundamentally, this is a song about the hope and strength we all need to find within ourselves at our darkest times. It is remarkable and a song everybody needs to hear.

I'm really happy that this exceptional album will be available once more, and that this time Carly is in full control. The Bedroom Tapes is an old friend to me, I hope you take this second chance to make it a friend of yours too.

On 6 April, Carly will finally re-release The Bedroom Tapes as a Special Edition. You can hear samples of the tracks in the sampler above and pre-order the album on her new website here:

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Rebel With A Cause? Madonna's Rebel Heart

The problem with making a career out of pushing boundaries is that eventually you run out of battles to fight. After thirty years at the top of the ephemeral world of pop music, Madonna has reached a crucial moment in her career. Can she still, at age 56, be relevant and cutting edge in a genre that has always been obsessed with youth? After redefining the potential for a female artist to control and exploit her own body image, what is left for her to say that the young upstarts after her crown cannot better articulate? Put simply, does Madonna still matter?

I am not really interested in engaging with the borderline misogyny and outright ageism that surrounds discussions about what Madonna wears, or how she is photographed. My suspicion is that with hindsight we will see that once again she is a pioneer, extending the limits of the age when women can flaunt their sexuality, celebrate their beauty and their liberation without the automatic disdain of a crumbling patriarchy.

What I am interested in though, is the music. Madonna did not become the best-selling female recording artist of all time because she looks good in a basque; she achieved this by consistently creating thrilling and innovative pop songs. As she prepares to officially unleash her thirteenth studio album, Rebel Heart, I believe the only answer that matters regarding Madonna's continued relevance is this: is the music any good?

Despite the official release date still being a week away, like most of the world I have already heard Rebel Heart. Madonna was devastated when demos of many of the tracks from the album were leaked on to the Internet and this was followed by further leaks of finished tracks. While she implored fans to wait and rush-released part of the album on iTunes, I'm sure I'm not alone in finding the temptation too much to bear. I have bought the album legally as well, so my conscience is clear. I have been living with the album now for a few weeks and feel ready to give a verdict. 

This album has a vision. While on tour promoting her last album, Madonna witnessed first hand how the right to freedom of expression is under threat in many parts of the world. It led her to start the Art For Freedom project, a "global initiative encouraging creative expression that brings awareness to human rights violations", and Rebel Heart is borne out of that concept and her belief that:

"I have no choice. At this point, there’s no turning back. This is my role in the world, 
my work as an artist. I have a voice and I have to use it."

Listening to Rebel Heart it soon becomes clear that this is no legacy artist trying to recapture old glories; this is vibrant, of-the-moment pop music. Something of the light, power and, well, pure sex of Madonna in her prime has been rekindled by her need to express herself and it has similarly rekindled my love for her. After a couple of albums that felt like she was chasing the pack rather than leading it, Rebel Heart is more hook-filled than Taylor, more raunchy than BeyoncĂ© and more creative than Gaga. This is an album that has been toiled over, crafted, loved: no wonder she was heartbroken to have the big reveal stolen.

Each track has something interesting to say, but my highlights are:

Living For Love would crown any Madonna album in any era, a true dance anthem that sounds instantly familiar yet fresh and current. It's not over-complicated or trying to be too clever, it just demands you to get on your feet, throw those hands in the air and boogie (or whatever the kids call it these days).

Madonna's work has often been autobiographical and she loves to sing about herself, but Unapologetic Bitch has to be the ultimate summation of her world view. Although it's superficially a brush off to an ex, anyone who's even remotely aware of the pop culture of the last thirty years can't help but see some truth to the sentiment in the lyrics. But better than all of that, it is so damn catchy! It should be a single, if we can all grow up and get over Madonna's re-appropriation of the b-word.

I've always thought Madonna is underrated as a songwriter and believe she is responsible for some of the most beautiful ballads to grace the charts. There are two such on Rebel Heart that rank among her finest compositions. Ghosttown pairs a pretty melody with an apocalyptic lyric that finds two lovers as the last people standing as the world collapses. The chorus has an immediate hook and a quiet power. It is a message of hope, that love will conquer all.

Joan Of Arc is my standout track, it has a simple beauty that can only come from a truly brilliant and clever piece of songwriting. It takes the symbol of strong womanhood and subverts it, allowing us to glimpse something vulnerable and beautiful and true. This is not about being a victim, it's about the reality that all of us occasionally just need to be held and loved, to know that there is a safe place from where we can rebuild.

Of course there is a song about her vagina and a couple of tracks where the inspiration can't quite match the execution, but overall this is the strongest set of songs Madonna has served up since Ray Of Light. And I haven't even touched on the ten or so bonus tracks that will fill up various deluxe editions, many of which could easily stand proud on the album proper. Except Auto-Tune Baby, which is as terrible as it sounds.

So to answer my own question, does Madonna matter in 2015? On the only criterion that matters, the music, then the answer is a resounding "hell, yes". By finding a purpose to continue to create music, Madonna has rediscovered the creative energy that has always made her a revolutionary force in pop. It's been a while, but I'm once again living for Madonna.

Rebel Heart is (officially) released on 6 March in the US, 9 March in the UK, international release dates may vary. Visit for more information.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Rae Of Light

It is a terrible, yet universal truth that pop music is not really for people over 40. By that I mean chart music, songs designed to be on the cutting edge of cool, mainlining in to the hive consciousness of young people. I swore when a teenager that I would never end up like my mum, who couldn't let go of the 60s. I would always like new music, I wouldn't get stuck in a time warp. Sadly, if I'm honest, most new music bores me. I'm occasionally tempted by a great hit single, only to find the promising talent stretched thin over a whole album. Remember when albums had a dozen (at most) great tracks? When videos were innovative and mesmerising? When the artistry seemed more important than the celebrity? I was beginning to think I would never fall deeply for a new artist again. Then I heard Rae Morris.

Rae is a Blackpool lass who has slowly and surely built a loyal following since signing to Atlantic Records in 2011, when she had just turned 18. Refreshingly, instead of rushing to release an album, Rae has been honing her craft through the periodic release of increasingly brilliant singles and regular live performances. This week, finally, Rae has released her debut album, Unguarded and it has undoubtedly been worth the wait.

I first heard Rae when her fellow Atlantic artist Rumer shared one of her songs on Facebook. It was called Skin and both the song and the stunning video completely blew me away. The music was hypnotic, the lyrics pure poetry and Rae's voice was unique, original and fresh, yet with a knowingness that belies her youth. The video is a work of art, simple and elegant, full of ideas and gorgeous to watch. I must have played it a dozen times straight.

Rae's next single was the equally original Do You Even Know? and it cast another spell on me. The music pulses, pulling you in, and Rae's voice soars over it. The chorus is an incantation, vulnerable, but strong. Is it a plea or an accusation? Again I couldn't stop playing it, to the extent that my husband almost put me in rehab over it.

The video is another thoughtful and innovative peice, showing once more that this is an artist at work. Rae is a mannequin, frozen in a number of odd positions and places. Watch the video to the end, the pay off is so satisfying I actually whooped the first time I saw it.

Another single followed and another completely original sound. Cold was a duet with Fryars, and allowed Rae to explore a relationship in her songwriting from both sides. Again there is such maturity on display, the ability to channel emotions and feelings and transpose them in a way that we haven't heard a thousand times before. Rae's vocal is superb, edgy this time and melding beautifully with the electronically icy vocal by Fryars.

With Closer and Under The Shadows following as singles in the lead-up to the album's release, Unguarded already feels like a Greatest Hits album. There is not a weak link to be found throughout, this is a debut album on a par with The Kick Inside or Little Earthquakes.

My favourite song on the album was also Rae's debut single from way back in March 2012, Don't Go, which has been reworked for Unguarded. It is a haunting ballad that showcases Rae's majestic voice and her unerring ability to write a hook. Here is Rae performing it live.

As you can see, I am more than a bit taken with Miss Morris. I was thrilled to get to see her play live while back in the UK in September, in a tiny room under Brighton train station. I didn't doubt that she would sound as great live as on record, but what I didn't expect was that she would seem so in awe of her audience, as if she didn't quite yet understand how special she was. I realised that I was fortunate enough to witness a star being born, at the very cusp of explosion.

I wish great things for Rae Morris and I know one day I will be sitting in an arena somewhere waiting for her to perform and remembering that September night in Brighton and that special young woman back when it all began.

Unguarded is out now in the UK, international release dates to be announced. Visit for more information and to sign up for Rae's newsletter. Here more of Rae's music on her YouTube Channel or on SoundCloud.

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