Another working week beckons for many of us and I’m sure we all need a bit of glam sassiness to get us through. Best look no further than today’s Sonic Breakfast track from the self-styled Norwegian mariachi, Robert Vendetta, an entertainer who labels himself old-school as a badge of honour.
The concept for ‘Colombian Spice’ is simple. Robert Vendetta has just bumped into a ‘gorgeous Colombian girl’ coming out of a hotel lift. And the moment made him want to dance in celebration. “It is inspired by real events,“, says Robbie when I check in with him and ask about the veracity of the tale. “I’ve met a lot of amazing women.”
The sound is a mash-up of all manner of vintage influence. It’s glam Bowie, funky crooner and quirky rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a song that wouldn’t seem out of place back in those glorious days of Stiff Records just after the peak of punk when songwriters such as Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Nick Lowe came to the fore. It’s bouncy, pastiche-laden fun.
I ask Robbie how things are in Norway right now, conscious that an extrovert performer such as he is might be struggling more than most. “I miss the casual interaction.“, he tells me. “We’re back in lockdown here in Oslo. The goverment are coming with new information soon, since the numbers of infected people here in Norway are going up. But even tough 2021 has been good to me, thanks to the internet.”
Robert Vendetta is clearly a man with oodles of positive spirit – and nobody can deny that’s what we need right now.
Take out the slight blips and 2019 was a great year for Sonic Breakfast. This top ten rundown has enabled me to reflect on some of the many highlights. But ten is a pretty arbitrary number and it does mean that no space in this list has been found for some storming memories; LIFE at Marathon Kebabs (here), my early evening at the Institut Francais (here), Spearmint and Piney Gir at Water Rats (here) and Louis Brennan at the Pensioner (here) being just a sample.
I’ve hinted at it elsewhere in the countdown but 2019 was my Norway year. Aided by great releases and invites from Georgie at Propeller Records, I’ve been able to scratch the surface of a rich musical scene. There is no genre that defines the country. But, like cuckoos, the Norwegians are nesting in other homes, putting their own unique slant on the tried and tested to come up with something new.
Number one (fanfares all around) in the Sonic Breakfast chart of 2019 goes to the ace Bjørn Tomren and his short, showcase set at the Betsey Trotwood back in the Spring (here). Was this the best gig I went to over the course of the year? Probably not! But it whetted my appetite for an artist who had a neat spin on gloomy Americana. Like Kurt Wagner from Lambchop, Bjørn’s voice deeply swayed over picked guitar as stories of frustrating times on the road were relayed.
His album, Bad Science Fiction, came out in October and it really is a record to cherish. Dripping with melancholic delivery, it’s icy Americana, one for wintry nights around a log fire or for long drives over freezing plains with your in-vehicle heating turned up to eleven. It dabbles in folk and jazz flourish before returning to its alt-country core. A true slow burn of an album, you could see the quality of the songs emerge during the Betsey Trotwood showcase.
If 2019 has taught me anything, it’s to jump when Georgie, the fab PR person from Propeller Records, sends a recommendation about anything. She promotes a fab range of music, largely from Norway. It’s never failed me yet in terms of quality.
I was going to have a Wednesday in but then got the notice that Sløtface (still pronounced Slutface) were doing a special event at The Old Queens Head. It’s a pub just down the road on the Essex Road, a little over five minutes walk away. Always looking appealing from the outside, now was my chance to see the interior.
There’s a Wednesday celebration going on downstairs at the Old Queens Head. I guess that somebody has just got married. “I said to you in the first year of uni that by the third year I’d be sucking your cock”, screams one drunken casualty. It’s 8PM and I quickly head upstairs, following the printed instruction.
It’s quite a venue – faux square music hall with an edge of punk spirit. On Wednesday’s The Old Queens Head does cocktails for a fiver. Sadly, it takes a good fiver minutes to make each drink. That leads to queues of nonsense length at the bars. It’s a good job that it’s a midweek session.
Sløtface are here to excitedly proclaim that their new and second album, Sorry For The Late Reply, is about to launch. The set-up for tonight is announced. We’re going to get a band Q&A with a journalist from the NME before a first listen to the new disc. To round things off, Sløtface will play a short set. The serious fans here whoosh in unified excitement.
It’s hard not to warm to Sløtface. The NME fanboy gets his notebook out and asks his prepared questions. Discussions like this are rarely fun. But, at least he steers clear of questions about the recording process. There’s little more dull than discovering about how an album was engineered.
We learn that for Sløtface, releasing records is anti-climatic, akin to those birthdays that nobody remembers. The staunchly feminist band rally against missed merch mistakes before revealing that this new record is political but personal not preachy. It still might be categorised as indie pop punk but Sløtface show that their influences range wider; Weaves, Phoebe Bridges and Julien Baker all get nods of acknowledgement. Specific tracks are mentioned. The NME scribe believes that ‘Crying In Amsterdam’ is the album’s centrepiece but the band are less sure. All of Sløtface like ‘Stuff’ because they didn’t much like Haley’s boyfriend who it’s about. “I wanted to call it ‘anti-consumerist love song‘”, says Haley, ever so jubilantly.
The album does sound ace. Many here must have already heard it because they get up and mingle, talking over the top. I like what I hear. There’s every indication that 2020 could be a major year for Sløtface as their difficult second record lands.
Gigs in bright rooms put on for fans and press wonks are always odd affairs. But the four members of Sløtface make a better fist of it than most. Tracks from this new album sound impressive and stand up well against the odd old track (Nancy Drew). A break from their current tour with Pup, Sløtface are initially relaxed about our sedentary state. But, by the end, they’re urging us to our feet. Haley stage dives because it’s what she’s done on every night of this tour. Sløtface are a band that could connect with you anywhere.
The chap from the NME visibly riles Sløtface when he suggests that their mission is to make as many enemies as friends. On tonight’s evidence, the likelihood of more friends is the certainty.
I wrote this review a couple of weeks back but never got around to publishing it. Better late than never I guess…
I’m about to head back to Spain for Easter. I’ll miss London; the enjoyable challenge of the day-job followed by evenings out catching one of the many gigs in this fine and vibrant city.
Before I have my two weeks of spring sun, there’s a chance to take in one last gig. I head to the Sebright Arms again. Across a number of gigs in recent months, I’ve never felt let down by the venue. A fine range of beer and a sound quality that’s precise, it’s helped introduce me to a range of acts I simply would not have heard of otherwise.
Tonight, I’ve come to see another Norwegian act. This’ll be my fourth (I think) this year. Otha is described in blurb as a lo-fi downtempo Robyn. It’s a comparison that you can certainly see in the two singles, I’m On Top and One Of The Girls, that she’s so far released.
But to pigeonhole her in such a way does miss the point a bit. My guess is that for most of the considerable crowd gathered tonight the bulk of the songs that Otha takes us through are new. Deliciously catchy bedroom electronica with breathy vocals, these are tunes that lodge in your head and won’t let go.
Across many of the numbers, Otha does this thing where she’ll introduce a couple of lines of poetry and then repeat, amending the melody slightly and adding an extra plink here, an additional plonk there. “Put your clothes back on, we drink, we dance”, she utters across one particularly memorable verse. “You don’t give a shit about me so please stop acting like you do”, she speak-sings in another.
With a sharp, straight fringe and long reddish hair, she’s strikingly sweet; the stage set-up is minimal. Sometimes Otha plays notes on her keyboard but mostly she leaves the music to the other musician on stage with her whilst she smiles and dances in a patchwork dress of many bright colours. There are technical hitches – for a period of time, the click-track can’t be heard on stage but our enjoyment down in the crowd is not hindered.
She seems genuinely delighted to be here and happy that a crowd has shown. “Last night in Liege, the computer crashed on the floor”, she tells us. Frankly, by this point, Otha could tell us anything, so invested are we in her.
“Look at me, look at me, I’ll put you in a heavy trance. It doesn’t matter what you look like. Just Dance“, she beams towards the end and the hypnosis is complete.
Singing and performing like Sarah Cracknell in her prime, I’m glad I’ve made the effort to ‘tarka’ a look at Otha.
Everybody likes receiving an invite to a ‘showcase’. Obviously the lure of free beer is simply a hook and the chance to see new music in a live setting the deal-breaker.
Propeller Recordings are rapidly becoming one of my favourite labels. Dedicated to the promotion of Norwegian acts, their thorough and diligent UK based coordinator has invited me to some right cool stuff in recent weeks (here) and (here).
And it’s because of Georgie that I’m standing in this basement at the Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell on a Wednesday evening to watch an act newly-signed to Propeller, Bjørn Tomren, do his thing.
A word about the Betsey Trotwood first. The more that one scratches at London’s surface, the more you uncover great bases of entertainment. The Betsey is a dinky pub where streets converge. The basement, at a guess, holds no more than 50 though it could be deceptive with nooks, crannies and alcoves all offshoots of the main space. It would appear that they hold folk sessions down here, ukulele jams and knitting circles. It has community and great charm.
Bjørn shuffles to a bar-stool, emerging out of one of the nooks. He has a self-deprecating manner that verges on the fatalistic; he’s an observer, a storyteller with a dry sense of humour and it’s hard not to warm to his folky reference-laden Americana.
After celebrating Vera Lynn and questioning the validity of there ever being ‘bluebirds over Dover’, Bjørn launches into a story about Eartha Kitt’s invite to the White House in 1968. Eartha speaks out about the Vietnam war and sees her career in the States nosedive as a result. Bjørn champions her and other protestors in his song, 68.
He might be Norwegian but his outlook is truly global. A traditional Norwegian folk song complete with a form of throat singing is included but so to a tune about Drinking in Helsinki, an opportunity to literately reference the influence that the mathematical best-seller ‘The Drunkard’s Walk – How Randomness Affects Your Life’ had on his thinking.
Showcases, by their very nature, can be short affairs but I really don’t want this to end when Bjørn says that he’s going to close his set with a cover of Hank William’s Long Gone Lonesome Blues. Most of us gathered are more than aware of the innate darkness and suicidal sadness lingering within this tune but can’t help raise a smile as Bjorn effortlessly and impressively takes on the yodelling parts.
It’s just another string to his bow. Propeller Recordings have successfully whetted the appetite of those gathered regarding their latest signing. You can see why they’ve trusted in Bjørn.
Norwegians are cool. I formed this sweeping generalisation of an opinion over the last year. Back at Eurovision in Lisbon (here), I met three in particular who just seemed to accept, with little notion of the sniffiness that often attaches itself to your typical British Eurovision outlook, that some of the cheesy electro-pop tunes and glorious ballads on offer are sometimes special.
It might seem like a logical leap to some but the coolness of Norwegians is a thought that I ponder whilst watching Highasakite at Heaven on Thursday night. For this is a show, and I imply no criticism by this, that oozes Eurovision.
It helps that every song sung by Ingrid and Trond and the rest of their troupe is a douze pointer; whether it’s upbeat banger or stylised ballad, the tunes are allowed to stand out here amongst the highest of production values.
There’s theatre – I miss the skull and beating heart entrance because I’m in a queue for beer but can’t help approving as contours fizz in a graphic display behind the band. When the light show really gets going and the costume changes hit full flow (the red leather is discarded with) you see the sense in scheduling this slinky swagger of a show at Heaven, this most iconic of clubs nestling in the arches beneath Charing Cross station.
The first show on Highasakite’s Uranium Heart tour is a triumph; roots tangle, veins do what veins do and the arteries block to point of explosion as the beating heart clogs with uranium.
‘They sound so much better live than on record’, is the general tone of conversation as we file on out.
And you have to concede that there’s something in that line of thought.
It was a Spring day I think. Though it might not have been.
It could have been an Autumn day. All I know is that the drive was a sunny one; not sticky and hot like we might expect in the summer months. The air was fresh and bright, all sorts of beautiful.
We drove across the high road from Leicester to Rutland with not a care in the world. At least it felt like that for a short while. I’m sure if we had stopped to think about our lot we might have crumbled.
I put on a CD that I knew very little about. It was back in the days when the PR agency used to send me new albums in the post. This one hadn’t arrived with much of a fanfare. Still, we listened and loved.
The garage pop felt right. It wasn’t a long album. We didn’t stop it when it started to repeat. By the second listen, we could sing along to the catchy choruses – and felt no inhibitions when doing so. If the car had been one that had a retractable roof, we would have let the breeze blow through our hair as we sang.
That was my introduction to Death By Unga Bunga. Norwegian power pop at its best. Pineapple Pizza the unlikely CD.
I had a chance to see them live in London. This was as part of a Scandinavian showcase. I was working down there and the Lexington was one of my favourite venues. Beer options were good; pricey but this was London. I suspect it was winter then; at least I remember that it was pretty much dark when I left the office and I wouldn’t have been prone to working late.
I hadn’t seen the late E-mail advising me of early start times. And by the time that I arrived at the venue, Death By Unga Bunga had already finished their set. I hung around to watch the other bands. In truth, they can’t have made much of an impression because I can’t even recall their names now.
I did get to see Death By Unga Bunga eventually. On the surface, they were unlikely additions to the Nozstock festival line-up two years ago. In afternoon sunshine, they looked horrifically dishevelled; a scruffiness cultivated as a result of an early flight from Norway.
But my eFestivals review of their set was positive “By the end of their whirlwind set they’ve got all onside so much that the whole band in unison can play their guitars behind their heads with ridiculous rock postures. It’s surely what it’s all about.”
I’m alerted to the fact that Death By Unga Bunga are supporting Ash on their October tour. If I was back in England, I might have tried to take in a show at Sheffield, Bristol, Birmingham, Norwich, Huddersfield or London. Sadly though, I’m not.
Flashback – I am sat in a school assembly. The Deputy Head spins a record and encourages us all to sing along to the words. The words are projected on an overhead projector. We all know the tune. It’s mass karaoke before karaoke was widely known about. ‘A little loving, a little giving, a little peace‘, we all sing as we attempt to emulate Nicole from Germany and her winning Eurovision entry.
The borders and the countries have changed in the 58 years that Eurovision has been running – but the message from Nicole shouts out stronger than ever. It’s just such a shame that, by and large, the lyrical content for songs in this years Eurovision is so dire (Iceland’s entry is at least naively different).
I’m reminded of that game you sometimes see on fridges at parties and wonder if there is an Eurovision equivalent. A box of metallic phrases and words that can be rearranged into any order and stuck to your fridge in an effort to help struggling songwriters come up with their lyrics for their songs. In 2014’s bag of words,we have lots of ‘hearts’, ‘tons of ‘time’, a few ‘storms’ and a supply of ‘worlds’ and ‘universes’. Painting by numbers.
The Easter weekend is nearly over. It’s almost time to head back to work at which point ‘normal’ service will resume for this blog. I’ll cover the local, the national and international that’s caught my ear. I hope that this Eurovision diversion hasn’t been too painful. Just another ten to go.
28. Netherlands – The Common Linnets – Calm After The Storm
The Dutch go all Country on us and give us a song that wouldn’t sound out of place if Bob Harris played it. I don’t know how many ‘highways’ there are in Holland but this is driving along one of them complete with slide guitar. I like the fact it sounds unique amongst the Europop but the tank runs out of petrol before we get to Copenhagen and we need to hitch a lift. By which i mean, it’s pretty boring.
29. Norway – Carl Espen – Silent Storm
See what I mean about the use of the word ‘storm’? This is a rock/pop ballad and it’s duller than Dutch dishwater. Carl tells us that he has a ‘silent storm inside‘ him. I reminded of the phrase ‘silent, but deadly’ and can only suggest that he changes his diet before arriving in Denmark if he wants to impress Ruth Lorenzo.
30. Poland – Donatan & Cleo – My Slowianie
Starting like something out of ‘Hairspray’ and then heading into M.I.A. territory, these Polish girls at least sound excited about representing their country. It all goes a bit tap dance on a merry go round in a fairground in the strange middle section before the girls come back and translate what they were saying in the first verse. Interesting so doubt it’ll win.
31. Portugal – Suzy – Quero Ser Tua
Portugal take us back to the 80’s and give us something akin to ‘Tarzan Boy’ quality, happy pop. This is the sort of tune that’ll get played this summer in beach resorts – the sort of beach resort that I never want to go to.
32. Romania – Paula Seling and OVI – Miracle
I played this tune to my 17 year old son, Ollie. He thinks it sounds like a winner, not because he likes it but because it’s the sort of song that’ll pick up votes. Mark his words. “I got a feeling and I want to believe it’s magical“, sings either Paula Seling or OVI. I can assure you that it’s not and in my opinion, it’ll take a miracle for you to win.
33. Russia – Tolmachevy Sisters – Shine
The Tolmachevy Sisters from Russia are “telling all the world to show some love”. I guess this is only if it’s of the heterosexual variety eh Putin? The most interesting thing about this will be to see which countries vote for it and which are about to be invaded. I’m sure that the Tolmachevy sisters are lovely as well.
34. Sweden – Sanna Nielsen – Undo
Sanna’s songwriters have clearly been playing the fridge game as we get both ‘silent’ and ‘storm’ in the first line of the song. Sanna then proceeds to ‘undo’ all of Abba’s great work from forty years ago with a dull piano ballad. Sweden could offer so much more to this.
35. Slovenia – Tinkara – Round And Round
Bonus points for the use of assorted whistles and pipes over the standard Euro dance track. “I’m going to show you how to breathe“, offers Tinkara generously. “Thanks Tinkara – and once you’re done with that, I’ll show you how to sing an interesting song?” I reply.
36. San Marino – Valentina Monetta – Maybe (Forse)
Way back when I started this preview,I noted that Austria’s entry sounded like a song that should accompany Sean Connery era James Bond films. This is from that ilk but should accompany George Lazenby era James Bond films. ‘Maybe’ it’ll do well. ‘Probably’ it won’t.
37. Ukraine – Mariya Yaremchuk – Tick Tock
Wahey – we’re there. I can’t begin to tell you how happy this makes me feel. In this one, Mariya entertains us by seeing how many words she can rhyme with ‘Tock’. I’ve got a couple more for Mariya. Crock of cock. Seriously though, I hope that this is a good year for the Ukraine. A little peace.
It’s harder to pick two songs today. Let’s go home along the Dutch Country roads and then perk ourselves up with Donatan and Cleo from Poland. This video of the tune gives a different edit to the song they’ll be performing on the night.