Written by: Dave Cantrell
The Flat Five “Another World” on Pravda Records (released November 13th, 2020)
Let’s make this brief. In fact, let’s make it snappy. The Flat Five are just about the smoothest groovinest human-made music machine there is. Dipping their considerably talented, richly experienced toes into one classic – and classically American – pop trope after another, the quintet take us on a warm, sentimental, and damned satisfying 35-minute journey on second album Another World that’s akin to a daydreamed song cycle drawn from our national subconscious. It’s lovely, it’s lasting, and made to make your day.
This is no surprise given the participants, of course, this fivesome of Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall (performing eleven songs penned by Scott’s legendary brother Chris, a guy that writes songs like you or I would write shopping lists) sporting résumés that span the last half century or so of the American pop landscape – NRBQ Mavis Staples Brian Wilson Iron & Wine Decembrists need I go on? – but even with all that considered this album’s still a might juicy combo plate of comfort food dashed with just enough unexpected flourishes to delight the palate no end.
You got your chirpy Hoagy on a jazzy bluesy roll in “Look at the Birdy” with its swell sax vamping and all, your sweet lil tearjerker ballad “Great State of Texas” (arguably 202o’s finest distillation of that grand ol’ tradition of sunny morose pop, perfect for the truckstop juke), your Buddy Holly’d T.Rex cherry picker “This’ll Be The Day,” your perky “Butterflies Don’t Bite” that sports the economy of a Bacharach David outing with a touch of Nelson Riddle, your nod to a surprisingly cynicism-free Randy Newman (“Oh What A Day”) and on and on, over and out.
While – wonderfully – derivative, it’s important to note that these are not slavish simulacra but rather knowing and, more importantly, convincing indie takes on the song forms 20th C. America grew up on. Engaging, witty in intent and deed but always true to the heart of its craft, Another World, in that sense, is both well-named and an artful misnomer. Anachronistic and on-the-spot modern, these songs, like a series of snapshots, capture our world down to its musical socks.
Louis Philippe & The Night Mail “Thunderclouds” on Tapete Records (released December 11th, 2020)
Some artists that one is late coming to – which any frequent reader will know is not infrequently the case with us around here – bear such a remarkable range of markers and collaborators that it’s truly and almost painfully baffling that we’ve not picked up the trace well before they’re several decades into their careers. Mystifying and not a little embarrassing as it is, what choice do we have but to shrug the shrug of acceptance and, with the old saw ‘better late than never’ sawing away in the background, pick up the pen and begin.
The French-born but London-ensconced (for over thirty years) Louis Philippe has indeed been lurking with critical prominence in a number of SEM sweet spots over those years. From inside the intimate taste-making confines of él Records – think Vic Godard, Felt, Momus, and Bid from The Monochrome Set – where he was house producer and go-to songwriter, to teaming up with High Llamas, Towa Tei, and Martin Newell among many others, to his work over two albums now with YMG’s Stuart Moxham, the kind of craft our staff tends to crave seems to quite often have Mr Philippe’s fingerprints all over it. The Night Mail, meanwhile, featuring Robert Rotifer, Andy Lewis, and Ian Button, while having their own boast-worthy credits tucked into their collective CV (Spearmint – ! -, Death in Vegas, Thrashing Doves, The Electric Eels etc etc), are, in a way, something of a three-man Wrecking Crew, lending their intuitive, reflexively simpatico musicianship to back up the work of others. It was in that capacity that Philippe and the Night Mail met, the latter backing the former at Tapete’s blow-out two-night 15th anniversary celebration at London’s Lexington in 2017 after having provided the same for Robert Forster the night before. It’s The Night Mail’s original, supporting-role raison d’exister, however, that most underscores the gist of what we find here on Thunderclouds.
Just prior to this writer’s ‘discovery’ of him with Occultation’s 2016 release Across the Door Sill, The Night Mail formed into a working trio behind John Howard, a stylistic pairing that finds further – and quite exquisite – fruition in this fresh affiliation with monsieur Philippe. In truth the connection was almost fated, seeing as the two songwriters have long shared a tonal dalliance that one suspects is far less a matter of cross-influence than simply a case of similar aesthetic trajectories arcing across the last four decades. And anyway, what’s abundantly clear here is that for either to find themselves in referential alliance with the other can only reflect a positive flattering light no matter which way one crosses the bridge. “And anyway” part deux? Thunderclouds, quite apart from the poncey observations of some two-bit music writer, spirals into its own unique level of excellence and does so tout de suite.
“Living on Borrowed Time,” blooming on the sneaking heels of a Peter Gunn bassline and a lightly tapped snare, exudes a sophisticate’s charm that could capture and instantly rehabilitate the heart of the most withered cynic; the brief “Willow,” achingly frilled with a deceptively simple jazziness, while grounded by guest Rachel Hall’s reassuring violin, has an avant, Canterbury-esque, Duke Ellington-meets-Philip Glass vibe to it; the title track, ephemeral of sentiment, timeless in tone (thanks in no small part to the rainy day beauty of Shanti Jayasinha’s trumpet), carries with it a cinematic sense of resignation like a blessing of sadness while “The Man Who Had it All,” throughout its handful of subtly shifting movements, maintains both its message of life’s eventual leveling and the thematic momentum needed to uphold a track that begins with the words “Somewhere in the blinded town, your sweet immortal soul…”
Though but a sampling – and be assured, Thunderclouds‘ quality never falters – it’s enough to confirm that, yes, there is that similarly wistful, resplendent fatalism playing across these songs just as surely as there is a sharp intimacy swirling inside oh-so-human universal. In the end, though, as measured in comparable adjectives, the one that most aligns Mr Philippe’s work here with that of Mr Howard’s is ‘gorgeous,’ with ‘poignant’ and ‘enduring’ scrambling for runner-up honors. Nothing more matters.