Monday, 20 April 2015

Swingamajig 2015 - line-up preview

Traditionally there are a number of things which herald the arrival of summer. For some it is the arrival of the first swallow, for others its when the hawthorn bushes come into flower. For me there are two indicators that summer, if not yet here, is at least hastening towards us. These are my first cricket match of the year, and the imminent arrival of the UK's (the world's?) only festival dedicated to the electro-swing sound. The former of these took place yesterday (we lost, I still ache), and the latter is now just two weeks away.

In fact, this time in a fortnight I will be on a train returning to London from Birmingham, and if last year's shenanigans are anything to go by, I will be leaving a small pool of dribble on the train's table.

For those of you who haven't heard of Swingamajig, it is, in its own words, "a utopian future where scintillating circus performers meet under night club lasers [...] where the streets are alive with frivolitiesm, festivities and music day and night and where jazz and swing fuse with thundering synths and everyone parties like its 1929." Utopia, indeed.

Less cryptically, and more informatively, Swingamajig is a one-day urban festival in Birmingham dedicated to the electro-swing, gypsy folk and vintage remix sounds. For a taste of what to expect, here's a faintly amateurish video that I made at last year's event.

Building on the success of last year, the festival has expanded quite significantly for 2015. This year we will see six stages of live bands, DJs cabaret performances, circus skills, magic, and all sorts of other nonsense. The gates open at 2pm on Sunday 3 May and close again some 16 hours later at 6am the following morning.

As always at Swingamajig, the cream of the vintage remix and electro-swing worlds will be performing. What more would you expect from a festival organised by the Electric Swing Circus and Ragtime Records? I won't list the whole line up here, but acts definitely not to be missed are French trip-hoppers Chinese Man, the crew behind some of my absolute favourite tunes including this absolute head spinner.

It is to my shame that I have missed Chinese Man every time they have performed in London over the last few years, so I intend to be front and centre this time.

Another act at this year's Swingamajig that come highly recommended are Smokey Joe and the Kid. It would be fair to say that these guys are the electro-swing DJ/producer's act of choice - so many people in the scene cite them as their favourites that again, I find myself asking why I have not yet seen a live performance. Rumour has it that they spend 60+ hours per week in the studio, so it is hardly surprising that they have such popularity. Their sound combines so many styles and flavours that its hard to pin them down to one style, but almost everything they do has a sweet vintage tinge to it and their music is eminently danceable.

Of the live acts, I would also recommend that you catch Jenova Collective, who I saw for the first time a month or so ago - they really killed it in front of a really mixed crowd and are sure to get you moving with their dubby take on Vintage Remix. I'm also sickeningly excited about the Dutty Moonshine big band, which promises to be loosely controlled musical mayhem.

This year one change to the festival is the upgrade of the Ragtime Records stage to the Ragtime Records Warehouse. Anyone who has (literally) bumped into me at a gig knows that my dancing is... expansive, so the implied extra space in this name sounds like a good thing. There's going to be plenty to get me dancing too, with names like Ed Solo (who made the windows shake recently at the Boomtown warm-up event), Don Johnston (ft Leo Wood) - who are behind one of my utter favourite reworks of a classic jazz-age tune - see the video below - the lovely Tallulah Goodtimes, the legend that is Chris Tofu, Mista Trick, Mr Switch (World DMC Champ) and C@ in the H@.

I for one am shivery with excitement - if you've got your tickets I hope that this has helped to get those juices flowing, and if you haven't get over to the Swingamajig website before its too late!
See you in Birmingham!

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Swingrowers return - 'Remote' - Album review

Swingrowers new album ticks all the boxes

Back in February a band for whom I have a serious soft spot - Swingrowers - released their second full-length album, the follow-up to Pronounced Swing'Grow'ers A great deal has changed with the band since those early days. Way back in the mists of 2012 they consisted of just three members - Loredana, the singer; Alessio, the gypsy guitarist, and Roberto, the producer. Now they have strengthened their numbers with two new members, Ciro Pusateri on sax and clarinet, and Davide Rizzuto on violin and keyboards.

New line-up, new album, new approach

One of the main features of the electro-swing sound is the use of vintage samples, indeed, it is often incorporated into definitions of the genre. In recent times I have been noticing more and more artists using the same samples over and over (seriously, one more 'Swing, Swing, Swing' or 'It don't mean a thing' remix and I swear I will cry). The reactions of some producers is to get digging and to unearth some more obscure swing tunes to plunder. The Swingrowers, interestingly, have opted for a completely different approach - to do away with vintage samples altogether. Instead, each track on the album is 100% original material.

Now, I always make a point of listening to any album I am sent before reading the PR blurb, and the first thing to say is that I didn't notice the lack of vintage samples. My first impression was very much positive - The record opens with the first single off Midnight, which was released around Halloween of 2014. It does a very successful job of combining spooky sound effects with a haunting melody and a gentle 100 bpm walking bassline. From this sinister starting point the release takes a sultry tour through various takes on the vintage remix sound. Baby Lone is is pretty sedate as vintage remix goes, and is perhaps more of a showcase for the talents of the band - Lore's seductive tones and gypsy guitar, violin and clarinet solos, with a bit of scratching thrown in for good measure.

New single ramps up the tempo

The second single, That's Right is the third song on the record, and it takes things up a notch or two. Not only is the tempo a bit on the gutsier side, so is Loredana's vocal. Its also the first track to have more of an electronic than organic feel, with programmed synths that must be the audio equivalent of what a slinky falling down a well looks like. I can really see this track getting a dancefloor bouncing. The reason you are reading this review now, as opposed to say, last week, is that the single was released on 6th April, along with the video below. Filmed at the London's amazingly gorgeous Rivoli Ballroom, its a feast for both eyes and ears.

As the album progresses Stay Swing uses a driving bassline to get the feet tapping and to provide a foil for further solos from the excellent musicians in the line up. In typical jazz style there is something of a call and response motif, with one instrument posing a question and another providing the answer. There's also a fabulous piano riff and a definite hint of Parov Stelar to the sound. One thing that really stands out on this album is the musicianship, something which really comes to the fore in Frank with a dark piano rhythm that helps to emphasise the pumping beat, and violin twiddles (technical term) that are so reminiscent of Stephane Grappelli that I initially believed them to be samples of that virtuoso's recordings.

Too Many Reinhardts

One of the most interesting tracks on the album is the collaborations with London's own rappers du jour Too Many T's. If you have read this blog before you will certainly have come across their name. Django's blend of relaxed hip-hop beats, virtuoso gypsy guitar and witty lyricism tells the story of the imagined sibling rivalry between Django and his brother DiAngelo, ending, inevitably in a 'soundclash to the musical death' and a 'post-musical bloodbath' which sees both brothers losing their hands. Always be nice to your brothers, kids.

The track that most makes me want to sing along is Chiovi, which is, incidentally, the only track on the album on which Lore sings in her native Italian. I do think it comes across that she is more comfortable singing in Italian rather than English, and I think I would probably prefer if they stuck to Italian, though in this international scene I can understand why they have chosen to include so many English lyrics. Its long enough ago that I completed my degree in Italian that I can't really translate for you, but the song's house-y beat, bright horns and Lore's joyous-sounding vocal make this one a stand-out track for me.

Swingrowers mix it up

From here on the party tunes come thick and fast: Breakout's
bassy brass and dark, bubbly synths, noodly (technical term) sax solos are pretty infectious; Enjoy the moment seems to reference Ray Charles's famous Hit the road Jack! and makes it hard not to follow the instruction in the title. The most infectious track is certainly Fancy, which combines the oompah rhythm of a Balkan brass section with a heady basskick, bright melodies and a pretty vocal to make a real head-nodder.

Sexy Swing

The final track of the album, Why? takes things into the realms of brushed cymbals, melancholia and a bluesy love song, which seems to round off the offering nicely. Swingrowers have, with this album, cemented their position as one of the most interesting and innovative electro-swing groups on the scene at the moment. The whole album is a fascinating exploration of the various meanings of the ever evolving electro-swing genre. It might not be rammed full of dancefloor stompers, but it is a great listen and many of the tracks have excellent remix potential, as evidenced by the fabulous remixes from Swing Republic and Jamie Berry that make up the rest of the That's Right EP.

The label describe this record as a 'game changer'. I'm not sure that I would go that far, but what it does do is show that the scene need not be reliant on sampling if the quality of the musicianship is good enough, and will surely encourage other artists to consider taking the same route.