It’s shocking how, month after month, and year after year, the U.K. keeps turning out one amazing artist after another (or, it would be shocking if they hadn’t been doing it for the past 50 years). These days, the phrase “new, amazing, U.K.-based artist”, has lost much of its shock value. The U.S. makes movies, Germany, Italy, and Japan make cars, France makes wine, cheese, and weird, pretentious existentialist movies (I’m looking at you Éric Rohmer), Canadians make poutine (sweet, sweet poutine, how I love thee), and the United Kingdom produces great musicians with the speedy, frantic pace of a cracked-up Rob Ford on a caffeine rush. Don’t get me wrong, North America has produced its fair share of great musicians, however Britain seems to have made it its personal mission to flood the world with great artists. Just think of a list of new artists, and chances are about seventy percent of that list will be comprised of Brits.
Despite this fact of life, it’s really, really hard not to get excited when you hear a new artist, especially when that artist is as talented and as unique as Charles Connolly. This London-based singer-songwriter has a sound that is extremely hard to describe. I’ve been listening to Connolly’s new album Snakes and Ladders for the past few weeks, and the more I listen to his music, the harder it is to pigeonhole it into a single genre or style. The only thing I know is that I abso-friggin’-lutely love his sound. Connolly himself described his sound, saying “It stands out as being quite a unique sound, yet classic at the same time. Like it’s new, but also has been around forever. Like a new familiarity.”
But why exactly am I so hyped about “another musician out of the U.K.”? Well, because Connolly isn’t just another British musician. His sound is so different from most things out on the market right now that you can’t really describe it. But, what the hell, I’ll give it a go.
‘Go Go Go’ starts out this album, and boy does it ever go, go, go (okay, I’ll see myself out). A circulating, synth hook starts off the track, reminding me a little of Daft Punk in their Discovery days. A driving, punchy beat underpins this the whole thing, giving it the titular “go, go, go” ethos. Connolly’s chorusing vocals interweave and intermingle throughout this sonic tapestry, with the grace, and poise of a much older artist. If this is what he sounds like now, I can’t wait to hear him ten years from now. Connolly’s voice gives a sort of sly nod to the Beatles (especially McCartney), with the same somewhat pop-ey vibe permeating his vocals. I’m just about to label this as the best track on the album, when in comes . . .
‘You Made Me Happy Today‘, the second track on the album, sees Connolly changing tack, veering off into acoustic ballad territory. If you thought the first track paid homage to the Fab Four, this track will convince you that Connolly is somehow genetically related to McCartney. Happiness is the main vibe on this track, and, much like Pharrell William’s ‘Happy’, it manages to come across as genuinely uplifting (instead of sliding into cheese-pop territory).
‘Mood Swings & Roundabouts‘ actually remind me a little of Elbow’s front man Guy Garvey. Connolly’s voice takes on a more subdued and tender tone, for the first minute and thirty five seconds. It’s at this point that quirky synths come in, and the pace picks up. The titular mood swing has kicked in, and the introspective tone is gone, replaced by a hopeful, upbeat drive. Around the three-minute-and-four-second mark, the song’s tone swings back to its beginning feel; but don’t be fooled, this isn’t just the first half of the track, rehashed. The whole song follows a general thesis-antithesis-synthesis format, with the final minute offering up a great synthesis of both moods.
Something happens next that, in all honesty, should not work. ‘Tell Me The Truth‘, the album’s fourth track changes style yet again. This many changes in style should never work, but somehow, amazingly, Connolly manages not only to pull it off, but to sound absolutely amazing in doing so. I don’t know how he manages it, but I suspect he might be a dark wizard. A driving, slightly menacing guitar riff starts off this track, and we’re in grunge rock territory. Well, not grunge rock per se, since the track’s tone is still uplifting, and hopeful. This isn’t the peroxide hair, and torn tee shirt punk grunge of decades past. It’s melodic, and invites the listener to hum (or sing) along, with its specific brand of punchiness, which is somewhat reminiscent of the Strokes. However, you would be sorely mistaken in classifying Connolly as an impersonator (and a talented one at that). The only thing reminiscent of the the Strokes sound on this track, is the general feel. The actual sound is firmly, and securely Connolly’s. It’s amazing the way he manages to incorporate palpable influences from other musicians into his sound, without sounding like a knockoff.
‘If You Would‘ swings back to pop ballad territory, except, yet again, his sound has changed. It’s subtle, but it is noticeable. The rippling and shimmering piano accompaniment on this track is expertly mixed with subdued backing strings, lending it an almost soundtrack-like quality. Around the one-minute-and-forty-second mark, the orchestra breaks through in a coy, pizzicato accompaniment, and it is extremely effective. The track never feels repetitive or stale, and there’s always something new to hear. Connolly’s vocals reassume their Beatlesian, choral quality, and the track almost sounds like a sort of Beatles song that was lost on some cutting room floor. I’ve gotta say that It’s an absolute joy to hear a new artist that is so clearly in control of his sound, and who is not afraid to push the boundaries of the album form.
‘Snakes and Ladders‘ is the titular track, and without a single, solitary, sherd of a doubt, I can wholeheartedly say that this is the absolute pinnacle of the album. A sonic weave of cascading piano and arpeggiated strings starts off this track, with a magisterial tone, right before Connolly’s beat-backed vocals come in around the twenty-second mark. This backing tapestry of sound gives the track a sort of transcendental feel, as if the music were pulling the listener onwards and upwards to heights of optimism. This is particularly effective when you consider the lyrics: “I’m gonna pick myself up / Rise above and show you what I’m made of”.
This track seems like a perfect synthesis of Connolly’s sound. Beatles meet Coldplay, and are promptly re-synthesised and distilled in a new, distinct, and abso-bloody-lutely gorgeous sound. I still can’t define Connolly’s sound, but that might actually be the point. He can’t be pigeonholed into a certain style because his music is changing all the time; subtly, but profoundly, almost like a kaleidoscope. That’s the best thing about Connolly: his sound is extremely organic, and seems to shift and change before your very eyes. It’s almost like listening to a microcosmos of ever-shifting auditory constellations.
‘The Vespa Song’ is perhaps the biggest surprise on an album already filled to the brim with unexpected turns of musical phrase. This track calls to mind the past days of electro-pop, infused with a more modern take. A fast-paced, driving backing beat moves this song along at a brisk pace, with Connolly’s vocals expertly dancing around, and through it. A sort of wordy, stylish vocal hook pervades the whole track, appearing at different points in between the more melodic, chorus-y lead.
‘It’s Gonna Be A New Year‘ seems like the perfect closing track to this album, and also the perfect track for the beginning of a new year. Hopeful, and with an eye on the future, if this track doesn’t make an optimist out of you, then you, my friend, are beyond help. Four-part chorale sections are interspersed throughout the analogue-organ-driven track, almost sound like the rising sun, and urge the listener to “get up”, and to look forward to the new year. It’s enough to turn anyone into a morning person.
I’m actually in a bit of a quandary here. I don’t really have anything to complain about on this album. Everything is just right. The tracks are excellently varied, all the while managing to remain highly homogenous, the production value is surprisingly high for an independent artist, and the whole pacing of the album keeps you wanting more, and more. Ladies and gentlemen, we might have a perfect ten on our hands.
The Verdict – 10.0 (Masterpiece)
– Connolly’s sound is wonderfully varied.
– The album absolutely never gets boring.
– It’s a joy to discover what new delight the next track will bring.
– Surprisingly high production value for an independent artist.
– Exceptional pacing, and track position make this an eminently engaging album.
– Easily one of the best albums of 2014.
– None. And that kinda freaks me out.