Skeleton Dance

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To call ‘Tenderhooks’ latest album ‘Skeleton Dance’, a feelgood album of the highest order, would be an understatement. Even the opening track ‘Stardust Memories’, where frontman Markus Napier bemoans the news making him ‘feel so blue’, gets you in the mood. For anything, really. Tenderhooks are one of the most creative bands I have encountered; all of their work is original, but Markus’s interest in music spanning decades is clearly manifest in the diversity of genres represented and on a deeper level, occasional subtle influences by specific musicians will fleetingly bounce off your eardrums. Poignant references to a musician who has transcended to that rocking gig on high, against a backdrop of nostalgic beats make ‘Stardust Memories’ a great first track. When the enjoyment of a cultural experience is reliant on prior knowledge, it is enjoyed all the more … and Markus is smart enough to realise this.

But just in case all of that made you ask yourself (all over again) WHY we had to lose all that talent … ‘Cheers Cheers Cheers’, will make you want to join the cast of Riverdance. Even if you can’t dance. With its expert fiddle-playing and some rousing drumming, it ticks all the Irish jig boxes. Fast-paced lyrics with a Gaelic vibe abound and there are even background pub noises to make you feel like you’re downing a Guinness in the Emerald Isle itself.

A twangy strings intro to ‘Skeleton Dance’ promises country but delivers rock. And whilst listening to Markus’s versatile tones, I was reminded of Billy Bragg’s uniquely clear voice; definitely a similarity there. Who would have thought that a song about skeletons would be such fun? But it really is.

‘Rise and Shine’ conjures up a black tie event in a jazz club with a grand piano so shiny you could do your make-up in the reflection. Dominated by the sounds of that grand piano, this is not just feelgood, it’s ‘feelbest’.

‘Black Rain’ might be my favourite; delicate pizzicato at the start captures the subtle beginnings of what could be a biblical downfall. The piano joins in to create a crescendo and the vocals start to reveal a story, which is characteristic of Tenderhooks songs. The main protagonist of this story is a nightclub singer who – to continue the rain metaphor – provides ‘shelter’ to her clientele from their woes and worries. Attention to detail within the lyrics create superb imagery for this track and the ending, as you would expect, tails off as the ‘storm’ draws to a close.

‘Cosmic Disco’ kicks off with some synthetic cosmic sounds and references to ‘Space Invaders’, along with that archaic word ‘disco’ in the title, throws you right back to late ‘70s/early ‘80s. Fun. Just like a disco!

With a wind instrument intro reminiscent of ‘The Specials’, ‘Sandy Dunes’ might be my second favourite. Any song sporting the word ‘jalopy’ is going to make you want to pack a picnic and soak up some sun. So the song is aptly named; like a modern day version of ‘Sur la Plage’ from Sandy Wilson’s ‘The Boyfriend’. Percussion and piano dominate, reflecting the perfection and simplicity of a day at a beach.

‘Bird on Fire’ changes the vibe; a slightly Latino intro with some synthetic sounds create an atmosphere of mystery. A minor key and dramatic lyrics fuel the mystery until the story unfolds, again, with attention to detail in the words which create powerful imagery.

‘Son of a Gun’ will rescue you from any prolonged melancholy though, as it tells the story of – well, the son of a gun. Background bar noise, honky tonk keys and a drum beat reflect this snapshot of a gangster character brilliantly, complete with his ‘beautiful wife’.

Another Latino style intro for ‘Running Man’ who could be ‘Son of a Gun’s’ quieter brother. A bit of a geezer, we hear about his online dating experiences to some very speedy piano and percussion and definite shades of britpop.

‘Rule the World’ is an anthem. A motivational speech put to music, it is a reminder of our own power over our own destiny.

Penultimate track, ‘Teenage Crush’, has some fast-paced strings and an ‘80s feel … certainly one that must be relevant to everyone’s teen years!

And finally, the beautiful  ‘Tumbling’ is a love story for our planet. Piano and wind instruments make it a bluesy number and its thoughtful lyrics make it a wonderfully reflective piece to round off an album stuffed with talent and diversity.

I messaged Markus Napier himself halfway through writing this to tell him I was having a blast writing this review. Go have a blast folks – get your hands and your ears on this banquet of music. Enjoy.

 

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North Star (Markus and the Tenderhooks)

‘Markus and the Tenderhooks’ are a tangible representation of shifting dynamics in music. Just when you think you’ve identified their genre as ‘jazz meets ska meets Britpop’, they open their latest album, ‘North Star’, with a song title that is clearly classical. The magical ‘Prelude in Blue’, gives us Markus Napier’s rich tones narrating a snippet of a story against a backdrop of delightful piano sounds. Occasional phrases reminiscent of familiar classical pieces give an Oriental feel, adding to the mystery, especially with the spoken references to jazz clubs on Broadway.

A leaning towards country vibes brings us the second track, ‘Mother Dear’, which manages to impart a child’s tenderness towards his mother without the schmaltz.

Drawing you in with some stirring drum beats, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re in for a rousing anthem, in the opening seconds of third track ‘Yolena’. But in true Tenderhooks style, the rug is pulled out from under you as frontman Markus Napier whisks you back to the ‘80s with a slick Britpop-esque commentary. With the afore-mentioned drumbeats and some pretty string sounds, this is a very musical song, despite the whole story being presented via the spoken word; the whole story being the lowdown on the intriguing and enigmatic Yolena. The latter is the narrator’s neighbour and the object of his affection in a remote, adoring manner and indeed, the catchy chorus is a chant of her name with the fun sounds of a tambourine in the background. With his slightly obtuse, yet very entertaining flair for writing clearly evident throughout the song, Napier has every art form – music, writing, acting – covered in just a few minutes and with its clean, abrupt finish, displays an easy flawlessness.

Definite shades of Billy Bragg are evident in the next track on this musical feast: ‘Little Stunner’, only to be followed by the more reflective ‘Sleep Tight’, which, as its name suggests, has qualities of a lullaby – but on the outside, as you’ll find a more upbeat element in the middle.

North Star

The second half of the album kicks off with the rock’n’roll ‘Russell You Up’, before sliding into the easy reggae beats of the aptly-named ‘Ease Yourself’.

Markus’s trademark saxophone – one of my favourite sounds of this band – makes an appearance in ‘Rubber Necking’ before the penultimate rock track ‘Cry Cry Cry’.

The final track – the album’s namesake – ‘North Star’, seems to be a revelation of the first track, ‘Prelude in Blue’, which is clearly a teaser. With keys, strings and wind, there is nothing short of a full orchestra supporting this enchanting number whose lyrics reveal more to the story of which we only receive hints at the start of the album. If ‘Prelude in Blue’ is pretty, ‘North Star’ is stunning; with minor keys building up to a crescendo of harmony, it is a fitting way to round off an album packed with a dynamic variety of musical genres.

 

‘North Star’ is currently available from Resident Brighton.

 

Lisa O’Connor

Yolena: from Tenderhooks’ latest album ‘North Star’

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Drawing you in with some stirring drum beats, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re in for a rousing anthem, in the opening seconds of ‘Yolena’, third track on Tenderhooks’ latest album ‘North Star’.

But in true Tenderhooks style, the rug is pulled out from under you as frontman Markus Napier whisks you back to the ‘80s with a slick Britpop-esque commentary. With the afore-mentioned drumbeats and some pretty string sounds, this is a very musical song, despite the whole story being presented via the spoken word; the whole story being the lowdown on the intriguing and enigmatic Yolena. The latter is the narrator’s neighbour and the object of his affection in a remote, adoring manner and indeed, the catchy chorus is a chant of her name with the fun sounds of a tambourine in the background.

With his slightly obtuse, yet very entertaining flair for writing clearly evident throughout the song, Napier has every art form – music, writing, acting – covered in just a few minutes and with its clean, abrupt finish, displays an easy flawlessness.

‘North Star’ is currently available from Resident Brighton.

Lisa O’Connor