CD OF THE WEEK
REMI NICOLE: MY CONSCIENCE AND I **
TEENAGERS with guitars is hardly a new phenomenon but, in the past few years, there has been an upsurge of performers who have chosen to go it alone with an acoustic rather than bash out a garage racket with their mates. This year, Kate Nash (admittedly more of a keyboard girl) and Jack Peate have been the most successful of these accidental troubadours, though the sylph-like 17-year-old Laura Marling is emerging as a precocious challenger with her fragile folk madrigals.
Remi Nicole is a far more commercial proposition. Her mixed-race background and her tomboy image distinguish her visually, while her songs have an off-the-top-of-her-head spontaneity. Rather than come at her adolescent subject matter from a quirky or poetic angle, as Nash does, she spells out her feelings using lyrics so rudimentary that she makes Amy MacDonald sound like Leonard Cohen.
Unlike so many of her peers who are swept into the bosom of a major label, her style has not been swamped by a battalion of co-writers. However, on the basis of this disposable debut album, there is an argument that Nicole has been hoovered up prematurely before she has had a chance to develop her writing.
Too late, though - she's out there now, with her hummable new single Rock N Roll already colonising the airwaves. Until now, Nicole has been moving in the same London indie circles as Peate, with whom she has the most obvious musical kinship. But there is a good chance that the combination of her childlike voice and her confident, even cocky, attitude will find her a more natural audience among younger teenage, even tweenage girls for whom she could be a less volatile (but also less interesting) role model than loose cannon Lily Allen.
For those who know nothing about Remi Nicole, breezy opening track Go With the Flow serves as a superficial introduction to her fledgling music career, as she relates the story of an opportunity that fell into her lap - "one day I was in an office job, the next I was doing what I didn't know I loved". The song celebrates the enjoyment of simply performing with no agenda - "wherever it takes me, I'll go" - offering a refreshing alternative view for youngsters who are desperately seeking celebrity for the sake of it.
Rock N Roll is more chirpy autobiography, as she answers her peers who don't understand why a young black girl chooses to be an indie kid rather than an R&B diva.
So far, so current. But the faintly ridiculous New Old Days proves that you're never too young to look back nostalgically on your childhood, as Nicole namechecks a host of kiddie cultural references before sighing "looking back now, haven't we grown up fast?" Even on an album of questionable lyrical merit, this is feeble fare, though not as bad as the witless rhyming couplet "they are not very swell, these dates from hell" or the track Go Mr Sunshine, whose essence can be boiled down to "isn't summer great?" Set to a cheerful tune, it's only one step up from The Tweenies.
Fed Up is the first sign that Nicole has any emotional range, outlining typical relationship woes in colloquial terms as a muted trumpet lends a rueful jazzy feel. But while on the one hand she berates a boyfriend for not accommodating her, on Na Nighty she has to have it her way, pledging that she won't be changing for any guy. However, she has something positive to say about relationships on Right Side of Me, a sweet, downbeat celebration of a tolerant boyfriend, embellished with a lyrical piano arrangement.
The doe-eyed teen pop of Lights Out takes her even further away from her professed love of Oasis and skinny jeans. She reasserts her self-appointed authority on Tabloid Queen, which occupies exactly the same scornful territory as Amy MacDonald's Footballer's Wife but is set to a much frothier backing track. Her declaration that "it's the glossy magazines and the tabloid thugs that bully you to diets and taking drugs, if you tried individuality you may get by more happily" is overly simplistic but delivered with the righteous concern of a close mate lecturing her vulnerable chum.
There are rumblings of a marginally more sophisticated songwriter in the downbeat brooding of Soul Back and Inside of Me. The former laments the banal choices we make to keep our heads above water, while the latter wrestles with conflicting emotions - as Nicole styles it, "the Bonnie and Clyde driving through my mind" - in an honest, unaffected manner. It is from this final song that the album title is derived. But we only ever forge a superficial acquaintance with Remi Nicole and her conscience which, on this evidence, is either cheery, sneery or teary.
FOUND: THIS MESS WE KEEP RESHAPING ***
EDINBURGH outfit Found made some good friends with their experimental debut album Found Can Move, including Fife's Fence Records who release this dishevelled follow-up. The appropriately titled This Mess We Keep Reshaping recalls the boho shuffle of Beck, The Bees and Super Furry Animals without ever exploding with pop wonder. Found are more obviously inheritors of The Beta Band's exploratory mood mantle, influenced by those moments in The Beatles' catalogue when they wandered off the melodic track and into a world of tape loops and found sounds, though the plangent country folk of Gifted suggests that they do actually know how to write a song but, for whatever reason, they just choose not to.
RICHARD FLEESHMAN: NEON **
FORMER Coronation Street teen star Richard Fleeshman is keen not to be seen as your typical soap-actor-turned-singer. Having come out top on last year's Soapstar Superstar series, the boat appears to have sailed on that one, but at least Fleeshman avoids the cheesy karaoke covers route. Unfortunately, his alternative is an album of mostly self-penned singer/songwriter banality in the navel-gazing vein of David Gray and Damien Rice, which makes for dreary listening.
KHAYA: IS/ARE/WAS - THE BEST OF... ***
SL RECORDS, 9.99
'TIS the season for compilations and repackaged material. Among this week's releases which won't have to try too hard for a place in someone's Christmas stocking are a Housemartins/Beautiful South compilation and a remastered edition of U2's The Joshua Tree, but you already know what they sound like. Over at the other extremity of the commercial spectrum, Edinburgh independent label SL Records pitches a long shot with a sprawling compilation of the works of an obscure, defunct collective of musical mavericks who failed to get anywhere ten years ago and won't likely be discovered posthumously. Which is not to say Khaya were without ramshackle charm. As this collection demonstrates, they could be witty, renegade and inventive, as far as their miniscule budget allowed.
MARIONAS: FRANCISCO GUERAU ****
SCOTS guitarist Gordon Ferries's latest recording on the Delphian label centres on the music of 17th-century Spanish guitarist and composer Francisco Guerau. The playlist - a Baroque cocktail of Villanos, Pasacalles, Gallardas, the theatrical Jacaras and other prevalent Spanish dance styles - is taken from Guerau's Poema Harmonica, a spicy collection dating from 1690s Madrid. Ferries's stylish playing captures the sensuality of the music, a quality endorsed by the somewhat provocative woman on the sleeve cover. My one reservation would be that the resonant natural acoustic of the recording venue - Crichton Collegiate Church in Edinburgh - becomes a little overbearing after a while, effectively dulling the immediacy of the music, even if it helps illuminate the rich timbre of the thickly strung instrument. That aside, this is another fascinating addition to the catalogue, offering fresh insight into the pungent world of the early Spanish guitar.
THE SIXTEEN: INTO THE LIGHT ***
MORE guitar, this time as a sweet-scented accompaniment to Harry Christophers's immaculate vocal ensemble, The Sixteen. This is essentially an easy-listening album, even including a vocal/guitar arrangement of Pachelbel's ubiquitous Canon by former King's Singer Bob Chilcott. Arrangements, too, of Borodin's Polovtsian Dances and the delicious Cantilena from Heitor Villa-Lobos's Bachiana Brasiliera add to the eclectic range of tracks. Guitarist Kaori Muraji hits out on her own in Villa-Lobos's Five Preludes though, once again, two of these receive additional vocal embellishment. There's no question about the quality of performance throughout, and The Sixteen give unblemished straight performances of Vittoria's masterful motet O Quam Gloriosum and Alma Redemptoris Mater.
THEO TRAVIS: DOUBLE TALK ****
33 RECORDS, 13.99
SAXOPHONIST Theo Travis's love of prog rock is well-known, and continues to exert a clear influence on his music. His core quartet featuring guitarist Mike Outram, Hammond organist Peter Whittaker and drummer Roy Dodds is augmented on three cuts by Robert Fripp's distinctive spacey guitarscapes, and the album's one cover version is not a jazz standard, but Syd Barrett's See Emily Play. He's a gifted improviser in a variety of settings, from the beguilingly melodic approach he adopts here through to free-jazz blowing. His compositions have a spacious openness that allows his collaborators to make their own telling contributions.
"PEERIE" WILLIE JOHNSON: WILLIE'S WORLD ***
ALTHOUGH it appears on a major Scottish folk music label, the majority of the material on this collection featuring the late Shetland guitarist falls squarely into a jazz category. I suspect many more people know of Johnson by reputation than have ever heard him play, and this collection gathered from diverse sources gives a feel of the guitarist's capabilities without quite living up to the glowing praise from Aly Bain and Martin Taylor on the sleeve. The majority of the recordings were made by pianist Billy Kay at his home in Shetland, and have an unbuttoned informality that shines through the mid-fi sound quality. Two traditional sets were recorded professionally in 1958 with fiddler Willie Hunter, and a couple more are from albums by fiddlers Bain and Debbie Scott. Two tributes led by Harris Playfair don't feature the guitarist. A rare and valuable taste of a legendary musician in action.
MUSIQUES METISSES ****
THE subtitle of this is "La Mandingue - empire de la musique", which is exact. The empire in question dominated West Africa in the 13th century, and its music was provided by a hereditary caste of professional musicians known as griots. Inherited griot status was at once an honour and a stigma, embodying its own hierarchy with strict rules governing who might demand obeisance - and money - from whom. Yet none of this should be put in the past tense, because it all exists today. This CD reflects the current state of the tradition. The Olympian Ali Farka Tour may lead it, but he is only one of many brilliant artists on parade here, some accompanying themselves on the harp-like kora, some on the ngoni lute, some on the balafon xylophone, and some - like Djelimady Tounkara - on the guitar. Mande society may be patrilineal and patriarchal, but female griots are also prominent, led by the provocative Oumou Sangare. We also get a blast from Bamako's fabled Rail Band, and a touch of sweetness from the blind duo Amadou and Mariam.
THE ROUGH GUIDE TO THE MUSIC OF PARIS ****
FROM France comes a Rough Guides confection covering everything from bal musette to Gypsy swing and Django Reinhardt, opening with a series of contemporary chansons. Slip it in your case before you board the Eurostar.