Tag Archive | "John Howard"

John Howard – Across the Door Sill


John Howard – Across the Door Sill

Posted on 07 November 2016 by Joe

This may just be John Howard’s best album to date. It’s just so wonderfully simple, featuring only his time-capsule preserved voice and piano.

Apart from simplicity why else does it work so well? For a start, his vocals are excellent and deserve to take centre stage. After his first ultimately doomed pop career in the 1970s a two decade hiatus followed. This allowed his voice to be preserved, tonsils tucked away in a jar (perhaps by the door Eleanor Rigby style), ready for his comeback.


This latest release from John Howard also works because his soundscape skills and home production techniques learned in recent years have meant he can really go to town on vocal layering. At times there’s an entire Howard choir involved and they sound sensational, giving it a dream like quality throughout.

There’s also a strong sense of freedom on this record, making him bold enough to let the songs carry on until he feels he’s done with them. In two tracks it take more than nine wonderful minutes for that to happen.

To release tracks of such length you really need to nail the songwriting and here he does that well with the piano providing a hypnotic, film score rhythm to the vocal melody. The track Outward in particular has that in abundance with its dark, foreboding piano reminding me of the music to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s stairway to heaven scene in their 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death. The layered vocals really work well here, giving an added, angelic quality.

There is space for one traditionally structured pop song, In Pig and Pies, which comes in at a relatively concise four minutes. The Howard choir really gets going here as the decades cascade past in the lyrics. It reminded me a little of Howard’s track from You Shall Go To the Ball, The Deal, which also channelled the spirit of Denis Wilson so well.

We have said it before that Howard may be one of the most independent artists we have encountered in our six years of reviewing. Part of this is because he’s experienced the constraints of the 1970s music industry so revels in the freedom that internet promotion, self production and independent labels can bring.

Across the Door Sill is another great example of an artist playing to his strengths, of vocal ability and songwriting, and carried out very much on his own terms.


by Joe Lepper

John Howard – Across the Door Sill is released on Occultation Recordings in November


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Robert Rotifer – Not Your Door

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Robert Rotifer – Not Your Door

Posted on 03 August 2016 by Joe

Not Your Door is a deeply personal album for Robert Rotifer, taking in his present life living in Canterbury, Kent, as well as his past, growing up in Vienna. But with its themes of family and the very notion of home it aims to resonate with many.

As with other Rotifer releases it also has a political edge and the timing of its release, coming after the European political landscape changed when Britain voted to leave the EU, gives its tale of an Austrian who has made his home in England added resonance.


The first five tracks focus on his English life, as an artist, journalist and parent. Opener If We Hadn’t Had You is a deliberately non-mawkish look at parenthood that takes in his own sense of wonder and worries of having children while referencing the ongoing aftermath of the war in Iraq, where parents continue to live in fear that each day with their child may be their last.

Meanwhile in my Machine takes in our obsession with technology and its affect on real living. This is a theme that was also touched on in his John Howard and the Night Mail track last year, London’s After Work Drinking Culture.

Elsewhere on the album’s first half, Passing a Van looks at Shrodingers immigrant, who are perceived by Brexiters as a drain on the economy, while at the same time working hard and paying taxes in jobs such as working in care homes. With his fellow Kent residents voting to leave the EU by a whopping 59% you can see why he felt the need to write this track.

On side two Rotifer travels back to Vienna, visiting old haunts and key childhood memories. Falling off a bike in front of laughing workers on The Piano Factory and encounters with skinheads on Top of the Escalator are two such memories that many will have experienced in similar ways.

His incredibly interesting late grandmother Irma Schwager also features on two songs, Irma La Douce and the title track. As a Jewish communist she was forced to flee Austria during the Second World War, fought as a member of the French resistance and then returned home.

Across the album there’s a deliberate focus on lyrical content with instrumentation often taking a back seat. This gives it a folk feel in places, with hints of John Martyn at times in Rotifer’s acoustic guitar work. The sparse production has also meant he has had to be ruthless at times, in particular axing a version of If We Hadn’t Had You, featuring a saxello solo by Canterbury based jazz veteran Tony Coe. This version has been released separately as a single though, to ensure it is not lost.

Also, while Rotifer band members, bassist Mike Stein and drummer Ian Button, appear here, they are used sparingly, hence the album being released under the name Robert Rotifer rather than Rotifer.

While it lacks the energy of Rotifer’s last release The Cavalry Never Showed Up its low key feel works well, especially in capturing how lives are affected by events such as war and most recently the EU referendum.


by Joe Lepper

Robert Rotifer – Not Your Door is released by Gare Du Nord.


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John Howard – Songs For Randall EP


John Howard – Songs For Randall EP

Posted on 14 April 2016 by Joe

There’s something very Reithian about John Howard’s cover series of EPs, that carry the unofficial strapline of informing and educating, as well as entertaining the listener.

His 2013 Loved Songs EP introduced me to singer songwriter Laura Nyro, who always seemed to reside in the shadow of her contemporary Carole King. His cover of her wonderfully upbeat Blackpatch prompted this reviewer to go out and buy her early 1970s album Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, which that track features on.

Then in 2014 his Songs for Someone EP offered an entertaining education to some lesser known artists he admires and has collaborated with: Darren Hayman, Alex Highton, Ralegh Long, Robert Rotifer and Ian Button. His cover version of Highton’s Song For Someone was a particularly stand out here.

John Howard

John Howard

Now it’s the turn of Randy Newman to be the subject of Howard’s mission to entertain, inform and educate.

As a Newman newbie I’ve listened to very little of a lengthy back catalogue that dates back to the early 1960s. His track Baltimore, covered so brilliantly by Nina Simone, and his soundtrack for the Toy Story series of films have shamefully been the extent of my knowledge so far.

To enlighten me Howard has served up five of his favourite Newman tracks, mostly made famous by others from his fledgling songwriting career in the 1960s.

First up is Nobody Needs Your Love, originally recorded by Gene Pitney with all of the lavish early 1960s pop production you’d expect. Here Howard focuses on the sad lyrics far more while retaining the excellently catchy chorus. I’m going to say right off the bat that I prefer Howard’s version here, but mainly because I’ve always found Pitney’s vocals too nasally. It’s also interesting to hear this low-key, sadder take on what is essentially pure 1960s pop.

I Think Its Going to Rain Today is up next. This is one of Newman’s most covered tracks and one he also recorded for his debut 1968 album Randy Newman. Since Julius La Rosa first recorded it in 1966 there have been 65 known covers from artists as diverse as Leonard Nimoy, Dusty Springfield, Bette Midler Peggy Lee and even Val Kilmer. The source material is so diluted that comparisons are futile, which leaves us just with Howard, his marvellous voice, a piano and some great songwriting. This track was a real eye opener as I’ve heard it so many times before but never even knew it was by Newman. Duly informed, educated and entertained.

More education follows with Just One Smile, a relentlessly upbeat track I knew from the Blood, Sweat and Tears version in 1968 but one that Howard is more familiar with through the Gene Pitney version. As with Nobody Needs Your Love, Howard’s version is more melancholy, although the vocal arrangements on the chorus give more than a nod to this track’s 1960s pop heyday.

Snow, originally written by Newman for Harry Nilsson’s 1970s album Nilsson Sings Newman, emerges as my favourite. This is a track I’d never heard before that is quite, quite beautiful. Howard’s version is full of respect and after hearing Nilsson’s version I think I’ve found my next album purchase.

Feels Like Home wraps up the EP. This is one of Newman’s relatively recent songs and one that he recorded himself, for 1995’s album Randy Newman’s Faust. It’s another remarkable song with Howard’s vocals offering a completely different take. While Newman’s soft singing style makes him sound vulnerable, Howard’s strong vocals give this song a more uplifting quality, especially on the chorus.

I’m looking forward to my next musical education already from Howard’s next EP.


by Joe Lepper


John Howard – Songs for Randall EP can be downloaded via iTunes.


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John Howard – Not Forgotten, The Best of John Howard Vol 2.

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John Howard – Not Forgotten, The Best of John Howard Vol 2.

Posted on 18 January 2016 by Joe

John Howard’s renaissance continued in fine form last year with the release of John Howard and the Night Mail, a collection of timeless pop written and performed with Andy Lewis (Paul Weller Band), Robert Rotifer (Rotifer) and Ian Button (Papernut Cambridge).

It ended the year gracing many a best of list, including our own, and even charted, albeit in the Austrian independent releases run-down.

As a result Howard’s music has come to the attention of a wider audience and may well be the reason you are reading this now.

John Howard and the Night Mail

John Howard and the Night Mail

Never one to miss an opportunity Howard has decided to release a second volume of his best of series to show his new admirers what else he’s been up to in recent years.

So for those who are new to Howard’s music let’s take a few lines to recap his tale.

It’s a familiar story, glam pop boy and his piano meets record company, in his case CBS in the 1970s. Boy then gets dumped by record company, ends up quitting recording and working for the music industry in A&R for a couple of decades. Much older boy then meets internet generation, decides to record again and the pair live happily ever after.

Since the release of his comeback album, the appropriately titled As I Was Saying in 2005, he has released around a dozen more, as well as a handful of EPs covering lesser known artists he admires such as Alex Highton.

On his first best of compilation These Fifty Years, released in 2009, the focus was on his 70s heyday and comeback releases up to that point. Here the focus is exclusively on his comeback, with the internet generation helping with the track list as Howard keeps a close eye on downloads, streams and Youtube interest to guide him.

John Howard - As I Was Saying

John Howard – As I Was Saying

Among our picks on this compilation are the As I Was Saying tracks the Dilemma of the Homosapien, with its killer chorus, and Taking it All to Heart, that perfectly sums up the emotions of a rejected artist. There’s also a heavy focus on glam pop, with upbeat songs such as Making Love To My Girl, from Same Bed, Different Dreams (2006) and Believe Me, Richard, From Storeys (2013) among highlights.

Maybe I Know Why and Born Too Early are among the best of the ‘slowies’ here. Both are from Hello, My Name Is, a largely autobiographical collection looking back to his time in London in the 1970s and society’s changing attitudes to sexuality

But as with any compilation this is as much about what isn’t on it as what is.

What awaits those who want to delve further into his releases are further gems on As I was Saying such as the Magic of Mystery. Bob/Bobbi, from Hello My Name Is, which gives genuine heart and substance to a drag queen he once met while on holiday, is another to seek out.

Also missing here are tracks from 2012’s You Shall Go the Ball!, featuring reworkings of his 70s demos that failed to see the light of day. It is here that an extra layer to the Howard story unfolds with his carefully crafted soundscapes interspersed with tracks such as the magnificent The Deal, where his adoration of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s solo work is clear.

And there’s some great covers too to discover, particularly his version of Alex Highton’s Songs for Someone and Darren Hayman’s Elizabeth Duke, on his Songs for Someone EP.

John Howard interpreta “The Bewlay Brothers”, de David Bowie from Oscar Garcia Suarez on Vimeo.

Looking back on his comeback output Howard’s initial failure to be a star in the 1970s may just have been the best thing to happen to him. The break from performing for a couple of decades has beautifully preserved his voice. Just watch him performing his cover of Bowie’s Bewlay Brothers in Barcelona in January this year (see above) to see what we mean.

It has also meant he is fiercely independent, embracing home recording technology and the promotional possibilities of social media to great effect to take direct control of how his music sounds and is released.


by Joe Lepper


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Top Five Protest Songs of 2015

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Top Five Protest Songs of 2015

Posted on 27 November 2015 by Joe

From the tragic consequences of US gun laws to the UK’s ongoing debate around inequality and low wages as well as worldwide debate around the plight of refugees fleeing war torn Syria, it’s been another year where political songwriters have had lots of inspiration.

Here we take a look at our five favourite political songs. All can be loosely called protest songs, but also offer more than that, often looking at the real lives of those affected by the political decisions taking place.

Darren Hayman – Down Among the Dead Men

Chants for Socialists is a rare political album from Darren Hayman. As you would expect from the former Hefner frontman it carries none of the bombast of Chumbawumba. Instead he has taken the lyrics from Victorian socialist William Morris, set it to music and given it a modern take with a choir of friends and those living nearby Morris’s former London home.

On this, one of the album’s standout tracks, Hayman successfully conveys a comforting sense of comraderie among the hopelessness of a world of social injustice, all sounding like a mix of The Kinks and a Victorian pub singalong thanks to co-writing duties from frequent Hayman collaborator Robert Rotifer.

Villagers- Little Bigot

A few years it would have been inconceivable that Ireland, with all the atrocities its Catholic society forced on women and gay people would allow same sex marriages. In the year Ireland really came of age Villagers frontman Conor O’Brien penned the album Darling Arithmetic, which is as much about Ireland’s attitude to gay men like himself as it is a wonderful collection of songs about love.

He is keen that this shold be seen as a love album first and a protest album second, but on Little Bigot he rejoices as finally the old way of thinking is cast aside. “So take the blame, little bigot. And throw that hatred on the fire,” he sings.

Belle and Sebastian – Cat with the Cream

Politicians and the banking elite are the smug cats here on Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch’s bitter take on British politics. Written after the Tory led coalition came into power in 2010 it was not released until this year when the Conservatives won an outright victory and looked to lap up even more cream. ‘Tory like a cat with the cream’ sums up many of that party’s politics wonderfully, but Labour and their ‘grubby little red’ MPs and the Lib Dems ‘flapping hopelessly’ also come under fire.

John Howard and the Night Mail – Tip of your Shoe

This is the second mention in this list of protest songs for Robert Rotifer, who in between fronting his own band Rotifer and helping Darren Hayman out, also collaborated this year with 1970s singer songwriter John Howard as part of the Night Mail. Here Rotifer’s lyrics and Howard’s wonderful voice and music take on xenophobia and right wing media commentators, especially ones of the likes of Katie Hopkins, who spout all sorts of vile political rubbish on their “21st century toilet wall” of social media.

Southern Tenant Folk Union – Slaughter in San Francisco

It seems incredulous that the US government still allows gun ownership to go unchecked in yet another year of horrific shootings. The school shootings are particular tragic and provide the sad inspiration for Slaughter in San Francisco, among the best songs on Southern Tenant Folk Union’s album The Chuck Norris Project, which is packed full of protest at a range of issues from bigotry to gun laws.

Here singer Rory Butler provides genuine emotion as he shows the horror of such incidents through the eyes of one of the frightened young victims. It’s one of the year’s most heartbreaking songs that sadly is set to have resonance for years to come until the US legislature finally sees sense on gun crime.

Compiled by Joe Lepper


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John Howard and the Night Mail

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John Howard and the Night Mail

Posted on 04 August 2015 by Joe

A new angle has emerged in the John Howard story. The 70s singer songwriter, who was lost by the music industry and found by an Internet generation, has now got himself into a pop group. After a decade or so into a fiercely independent comeback career, where he writes, plays all instruments and handles promotion and distribution, the creation of The Night Mail is actually a big deal for Howard.


Control Freak, one of the best songs on this collection of clever, timeless pop, best exemplifies the fear and excitement of having to relinquish some of his guarded independence to others.

But don’t feel too sorry for him as he steps out of his comfort zone. He’s in good hands as the Night Mail of Robert Rotifer on guitar, Ian Button on drums and Andy Lewis on bass and mellotron, are no strangers.

All are seasoned musicians and songwriters who have been in contact with Howard through mutual musical appreciation and common friends, including former Hefner man Darren Hayman, for the last few years. All three also formed his backing band for his two most recent gigs in London. Howard knows what he’s getting into and judging by the results is loving every minute of being in a band.

All three musicians also bring their own personality to each song, with each taking joint songwriting credits as manuscripts, demos and lyric sheets shuffled to and fro between England and Spain ahead of its recording last year at Big Jelly Studios in Kent.

There are merits to all three collaborations. But with five shared songwriting credits it is Howard’s partnership with former Thrashing Doves and Death in Vegas man Button that dominates.

Given Button’s love of the 1970s pop scene, most notably on his recent set of covers under his Papernut Cambridge moniker, it is unsurprising that in Howard he has found a songwriting soulmate. Whether it’s Howard supplying the words and Button tackling the music on Control Freak and In the Light of Fires Burning, or vice versa on Deborah Fletcher, This Song and Thunder in Vienna, their love of the era that Howard started out recording in oozes through each catchy chorus and verse.

Rotifer and Howard share four songwriting credits and is another stellar partnership on display here. Howard’s music compliments Rotifer’s lyrics of modern life on London’s After Work Drinking Culture perfectly, and Rotifer’s music on opener Before provides another high point.

Lewis, who is also bassist in Paul Weller’s band, shares just one songwriting credit but what a credit it is. The Lewis and Howard track Intact and Smiling was the one I singled out as the best on my first listen and that hasn’t changed over the weeks. Seems I’m not alone as its been released as a single and has already garnered BBC 6Music airplay. This track is great pop. How Howard must have craved such a quality tune from Lewis back at the start of his career.

There’s a cover here too, Small World by Roddy Frame, and it’s a testament to the creative partnerships with Howard here that this high quality piece of songwriting does not overshadow the original songs.

Arguably this is amongst the three most important albums of Howard’s career. One day it may even be seen as more important than his other two classics – his rediscovered 1970s debut Kid in a Big World and his excellent 2005 comeback album As I Was Saying.


by Joe Lepper


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Top 20 Alternative/Independent Albums of 2014

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Top 20 Alternative/Independent Albums of 2014

Posted on 16 December 2014 by Joe

Welcome to our annual celebration of the year’s best independent and alternative albums. Many of our releases are  by artists you may not have heard of. If that’s the case we urge you to read our full reviews, visit their websites and Youtube channels and go and see them live and buy their albums if you like them. There is some great talent out there on independent labels and we are proud to do our bit to help bring them to a wider audience. So sit back, pull up a gig guide, get Youtube on standby and enjoy our favourite independent and alternative releases of the year.

20. Junkboy – Sovereign Sky

Come take a barefoot run across the Sussex Downs, sandals in hand, kaftan lapping in the wind as we head with Junkboy down to the coast. These are the images that this hidden 2014 gem from brothers Rich and Mik Hanscomb conveys with its echoes of flower-power California and good old fashioned British folk and pop. Read our full review here.



19. Steven Malkmus and the Jicks – Wig Out At Jagbags

One of the most accessible and satisfying releases from the former Pavement man and his band, who has learnt to curtail his fret meandering leanings in recent years. One of the year’s most solid indie rock releases. Read our full review here.

Wig Out at Jagbags


 18. Co Pilgrim – Plumes

Nestled in Winchester is Mike Gale, one of the UK’s brightest song writing talents.  This third album with his band Co-pilgrim is full of beautiful alt-country, Beach Boys harmonies and Pernice Brothers and Teenage Fanclub indie alternative melodies and is a gem. We think its about time you started to discovering Gale’s wonderful music. Read our full review here.



17. Avi Buffalo – At Best Cuckold

Four years on and California’s Avi Buffalo have finally released an album to match their breakout single What’s It In For. Full of 1960s pop references and sunny West Coast melodies Avi Buffalo, now of Sub Pop, have arrived as a major creative force in independent music. Read our full review here.



16. John Howard – Live at the Servant Jazz Quarters

You can’t get more independent than John Howard, the singer songwriter who’s first career in the 1970s with CBS stalled before it began. Now from his home studio in Spain he writes, records, arranges, distributes and promotes each release with fierce independence. Here is a fantastic introduction to his work past and present that re-energised our appreciation of the live album.  Read our full review here.

John Howard at the Servant Jazz Quarters, London, 2013.

John Howard at the Servant Jazz Quarters, London, 2013.


15. Owen Pallett – In Conflict

Following a tour with The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, who specialises in autobiographical lyricism and story telling, Pallett has taken a more personal approach with this album. Gone is the fantasy imagery to be replaced with his most personal release to date. As you’d expect from a multi-instrumentalist who is equally at home conducting an orchestra or behind a synth the music is beautiful.  Read our full review here.



14. New Mendicants – Into the Lime

The New Mendicants are a harmony-pop supergroup of sorts formed in Toronto by Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub/Jonny), Joe Pernice (Scud Mountain Boys/Pernice Brothers) and drummer Mike Belitsky (The Sadies). It will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of any of their bands to hear that Into the Lime is a string of melodic pop gems with beautifully sung vocal harmonies. Read our full review here.

The New Mendicants - Into the Lime


13. Bob Mould – Beauty & Ruin

With Jason Narducy on bass and Superchunk and Mountain Goats man Jon Wurster on drums Bob Mould arguably is now in his best ever band. This is the second solo Mould album recorded with the pair and shows a veteran performer re-energised and at the top of his game. If you liked Sugar you will love what Mould is doing right now on this album and last year’s Silver Age.



12. St Vincent – St Vincent

Art rock stalwart St Vincent, aka Manhattan’s Annie Clark, recently revealed that she tries to live ‘at the intersection of accessible and lunatic’. If her latest, eponymously titled, album is anything to go by, this is something she achieves with great success. Read our full review here.



11. Hospitality – Trouble

This second album is as stunning as their self titled debut and shows a band progressing well, with guitars and synths powering them through an album full of influences from the 1970s world of progressive rock. As with their debut they have some darn fine tunes too. Read our full review here.



10. Guided By Voices- Motivational Jumpsuit

Each year we lose count of how many albums Robert Pollard puts out, either solo or with his legendary band Guided By Voices. For sake of argument let’s say its about 20 albums a year. This was the pick of his 2014’s releases and sadly one of the last releases by GBV, who’s brief reunion ended this year. Read our full review here.

Motivational Jumpsuit


9. Deerhoof – La Isla Bonita

Despite having 20 years experience under their belts this 13th album from the San Francisco punk act manages to give the impression it is a debut by a group of youngsters. Its bold, enthusiastic and packed with a gigantic palette of genres like a band starting out and finding their feet in the world. Read our full review here.



8. New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers

Hailed as a return to form by many reviewers, we say that the Canadian power-pop supergroup never lost their form. It’s another superb release from Carl Newman, Niko Case and co as they continue to pack a punch. Read our full review here.

Brill Bruisers


7. Withered Hand – New Gods

If you have yet to discover the songwriting talents of Scotland’s Dan Willson you’ve been missing out. But there’s still time, just buy this fantastic latest release from the singer songwriter, go see his shows and then discover his back catalogue. One of many jewels on indie label Fortuna Pop’s roster. Read our full review here.



6. The Phantom Band – Strange Friend

By coincidence with stick with Scottish talent for the next release in our annual run down of the best albums. Listen to the stunning indie rock, pop and synth magic of this album and then join us in wondering why they aren’t one of the UK’s biggest acts around. Read our full review here.



5. Alex Highton – Nobody Knows Anything

Now signed to fledgling UK label Gare Du Nord, Cambridgeshire based singer songwriter Alex Highton has taken his honest folk style to new levels for his second album. One of the most ambitious folk albums you will ever here. Read our full review here.



4. Happyness – Weird Little Birthday

This album from London based trio Happyness  quickly established itself as one of our favourite debuts with its sardonic wit and Pavement indebted take on indie rock. Among highlights are the superb ‘Great Minds Think Alike, All Brains Taste the Same’. Read our full review here.

Weird Little Birthday


3. Sun Kil Moon – Benji

It’s quite an ability to write 11 songs about grief and death and make it one of the year’s most uplifting releases. On each of the songs on Benji, Mark Kozelek, under his Sun Kil Moon moniker,  takes us through some downright horrific tales of loss, but we emerge at the end treasuring life and ultimately happy. Arguably Kozelek’s best album to date. Read our full review here.



2. Eyelids

When Robert Pollard chose to bring his Boston Spaceships project to an end (the band that released our favourite album of 2011) the core of the band stayed together and formed Eyelids. Headed up by Chris Slusarenko and John  Moen the band play a classic hook laden rock that evokes Big Star, The Byrds, Teenage Fanclub and Velvet Crush across yet another debut to grace our list. Read our full review here.

Eyelids 854


1. Papernut Cambridge – There’s No Underground

Two years ago the Tigercats topped our end of year list with Isle of Dogs, a perfect collection of songs about urban London life. Here Ian Button, formerly of Death In Vegas, has created the perfect suburban pop album to complement it. Full of the imagery of his native south east London suburbs and packed with musical influences spanning the last forty years this is one of  the most life affirming,  feel good rock and roll albums of recent years. It is also the second on our list to be released on Gare Du Nord, the label that Button is a founder of. Read our full review here.

outside cover

Compiled by Neonfiller’s writers.


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Gare du Nord’s Arrivée/Départ – Mel Mayr, John Howard & Rotifer – Servant Jazz Quarters, London (Nov 26, 2014)

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Gare du Nord’s Arrivée/Départ – Mel Mayr, John Howard & Rotifer – Servant Jazz Quarters, London (Nov 26, 2014)

Posted on 02 December 2014 by Patricia Turk

It wasn’t quite a trip on the Eurostar, and I didn’t need my passport, but at Arrivée/Départ, the festival organised by Gare du Nord records at Dalston’s Servant Jazz Quarters last week, I did feel as if I was taken on a musical European journey of sorts.

From Spain to the UK via Austria – it was a whistlestop tour that managed to gather a group of talent together for two nights of music in the lovely east London venue.

Having been at the previous year’s event of the same name, it really was as though I had made part-way of the journey with the fledgling label that’s not so that’s not-so-fledgling anymore, and it was wonderful to be back beneath Bradbury Street to be a part of le premier anniversaire.

Mel Mayr

Mel Mayr

Founded by Robert Rotifer (of Rotifer), Ian Button (Death in Vegas) and singer/songwriter Ralegh Long, Gare du Nord first hosted the event last November in an effort to showcase its mix of emerging and established talent.

Speaking to Long before the gig, he said the label had been going from strength to strength, which, looking at the back of the label’s sampler CD, is quite clear and lists the likes of Papernut Cambridge, Thirty Pounds of Bone and Alex Highton, among an ever-growing and diverse cache of musicians.

This diversity was on full display on Wednesday night, the second of the two-night event, which got underway without fanfare or indeed introduction when Salzburg singer Mel Mayr took the stage to open the night. Performing her first ever live UK show, she started with some sombre solo songs that had something of the Sharon van Etten about them – raw, stripped back, emotional. But things took an altogether more optimistic turn when she was joined onstage by Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and other fellow Austrians/guitar shop owners, and we were treated to lush, melodic pop songs instead.

John Howard

John Howard

Up next,was John Howard. Last year I was blown away by his easy charm, effortlessly lifting voice and exquisite piano playing – and a year on, nothing was diminished for me and I found myself once again smiling from ear to ear while he played joyfully from his extensive back catalogue.

Howard’s story is one Neon Filler has documented extensively over the past few years – from his signing with CBS and subsequent ‘next-big-thing’ status in the 1970s, to relative obscurity, and finally, rediscovery in the 2000s. He played songs spanning the breadth of his career, including his debut single Goodbye Suzie, another of his 1970s tracks Family Man as well as Believe me Richard – from 2013’s Storey’s and still his most downloaded song to-date. Paul Weller’s  bassist Andy Lewis joined Howard on the cello for a beautiful rendition of Missing Key.

Full band back-up came from Button, Rotifer and Lewis, and Howard revealed that the foursome were, the very next day, retreating to Ramsgate to begin recording a new album. It’s a collaboration that has been in the pipeline for a while, beyond English borders, with music and lyrics being sent back and forth across the seas from Spain, where Howard is now based.

He treated us to two encores – Deadly Nightshade and then an incredibly moving rendition of Star Through My Window. Suffice to say, I am a fan.



With only minutes left before curfew, Canterbury-based-but-Vienna-born Robert Rotifer took the stage solo and played on his jangly, mod-ish own while his AWOL bass player was hunted down from wherever he had left his white wine. But pushing it past 11pm, they played from last year’s release The Calvary Never Showed Up, including Optimist out on the Open Sea, and the sentimental Canvey Island songs, about the young Rotifer’s unusual childhood stay with a family on the Essex seaside retreat, far from the bright lights of London he craved.

When writing about last year’s event, I went on about there being a great sense of musicians helping each other and supporting each other, and I think that Gare du Nord achieved that again this year. Collaboration seems to be at the centre of what Rotifer, Button and Long are trying to achieve with Gare du Nord and it’s wonderful to see it doing so well. I’ll be looking forward to hearing the results of the Ramsgate sessions immensely and am already looking forward to Arrivée/Départ 2015.

Words and pictures by Patricia Turk


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Alex Highton – Nobody Knows Anything

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Alex Highton – Nobody Knows Anything

Posted on 26 November 2014 by Joe

Alex Highton first came onto our radar two years ago when his debut album Woodditton Wives Club landed on our doormat. This collection of savvy pastoral folk pop, inspired by his own family move from London to the Cambridgeshire village of Woodditton, was beautifully arranged; perfectly mirroring his transition from city to rural life.


Two years on he’s still producing high quality folk music, but on Nobody Knows Anything his palette is far broader and there is a range of genres at his finger tips. There is also a raft  of notable backing musicians too such as Robert Rotifer on electric guitar, John Howard on piano and the wonderful English folk vocals of Nancy Wallace.

On one hand Nobody Knows Anything is still the rural folk album that Woodditton Wives Club was. There’s the similar Pentangle style double bass, acoustic guitar and the addition of Wallace to add further folk class.

But on the other hand Highton has packed this with squelchy synths, nods to the 1960s psychedelia and pop as well as more modern alternative music by the likes of Field Music. One reviewer had even compared a track to the Only Fools And Horses theme tune.

These two strands of rural folk and modern eclecticism never conflict thankfully, they just weave in and out of each other as old friends and by the end it ceases to matter whether this is a folk album that became more ambitious or an ambitious album that wants to retreat back into the comfort of Cambridgeshire village life.

Take one of the highlights, Sunlight Burns Your Skin, for example. It starts with largely vocals and acoustic guitar. So far so folk. Then Rotifer’s electric guitar comes in and a world of psychedelic pop ushers in with trombone, backing vocals, more trombone, more guitar, more of everything and eventually comes to close with an acapela breakdown.

The same transition from small to downright  huge occurs on You don’t Own This Life, the album’s opener, which starts with some smart guitar picking and ends up with a whole load of clarinet and a trip to Dixieland.

It Falls Together and Fear are the ones that will delight Field Music fans. Like Field Music’s David Brewis, Highton is a fan of Talking Heads and it shows on these two jerky, pop tracks.

And then one of the album’s key tracks Panic ushers in. With its emotion and low key Northern delivery  Panic will particularly appeal to Elbow fans, albeit ones that also like thick squelchy synths, delay effect guitar and film soundtracks. Miserable Rich are another act that bares similarity – particularly on the beautiful Somebody Must Know Something.

As it progresses it’s clear this is no ordinary folk album with its broad range of genres, melody and invention, but for those familiar with Woodditton Wives Club this is unmistakeable Highton, only more so.


by Joe Lepper



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John Howard – Hello My Name Is

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John Howard – Hello My Name Is

Posted on 24 November 2014 by Joe

Since stepping onto the comeback trail around a decade ago singer songwriter John Howard has proved himself to be a prolific recording artist. From his home studio in Spain he is regularly producing at least a release a year. It’s a far cry from his desperate attempts to release albums in the 1970s as his label CBS gradually lost interest in him.

This year has been particularly busy, with this latest full album following on from one of his regular cover EPs and a live album recorded from his 2013 gig at the Servant Jazz Quarters, a venue he is returning to in November this year.

There’s more to come as well. He is teaming up later this year with Gare Du Nord Records artists Robert Rotifer (Rotifer) and Ian Button (Papernut Cambridge) as well as Paul Weller’s bassist Andy Lewis to form a band, the name of which is currently under wraps. In his interview with us earlier this month Howard also revealed plans for a further covers EP.

But back to this current release and here we find Howard in reflective mood again, looking back on his 70s career and London’s gay culture, his 1990s career as a record company executive and current feelings of identity.

Hello_My_Name_Is_2400 front cover

There is also story telling as well, a format he excelled in during 2013’s album Storeys about characters in an imagined apartment block. It is his story telling ability that creates the best track on Hello My Name Is, Bob/Bobbi, which focuses on the double life of a drag queen who sadly says goodbye to his glamorous female alter ego. Howard discusses the real life Bob that the song is based on further in our interview with him earlier this month.

Bloomsbury Chapter is another standout, inspired by an email exchange with Rotifer and taking the listener back to Howard’s time in London in the 1970s and “the memories of various romantic break-ups at that time.”

Another reflective track is Same Mistakes, a song about the passing of heroes and loved ones. Howard explains that part of the song is about the detached yet personal loss of heroes like John Lennon and Janis Joplin he and his friends felt when they died. He adds that the middle eight section is recounting more personal loss. This “is really to do with how I wish I’d said so much more to my mum who died forty years ago at the age of just 50,” says Howard. “I wish I’d told her how much she meant to me, I don’t think I ever did, but I guess she knew anyway,” he adds.

The album comes to a close with Secrets, inspired by his time in the 1990s as a record executive, a role that never really sat well with a man who two decades before was hoping to embark on a successful career as a recording artist. Howard explains: “They were great days in many ways, for the first time in my life earning a fabulous salary and travelling First Class round the world for conferences and meetings, but I was constantly waiting for someone to ‘suss me’, to discover I hadn’t a clue what  the marketing guys were rabbiting on about in their bizarre company jargon.”

This crisis of identity is a fitting end to an album that offers a fascinating insight into how we perceive ourselves. The album also provides another interesting chapter in the Howard narrative, of an artist reawakened from the past to become a fiercely independent artist of the present.


by Joe Lepper

For more information about John Howard and details of how to order Hello My Name Is visit here.


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