When I were a lad — back when you could buy the entire back catalogue of the Fall for thruppence and still have change to get into a New Order show on the way home — record labels mattered. Well, a cohort of independent labels mattered, because their imprints stood for something. There was Creation, with its dedication to a twin axis of 1977 and 1967 as the only years that counted; 4AD, with its arty sleeves and its wafty, diaphanous music; there was Factory, somewhere between an elaborate practical joke and home to the most forward-thinking musicians in the country.
You don’t get many labels like that any longer. The new economics of the music industry militate against the model of the record label as an aesthetic statement, rather than purveyor of vulgar commerce. Of course there are still specialist labels for genres; there are still label owners with a world view rather than just a balance sheet. But there aren’t many labels whose artists and vision suggests something more at work than either ‘The regulars will like this’ or ‘Can we get this on the front of Spotify?’
Dirty Hit, however, could have existed in my 1980s youth: it’s a label with a sense of identity. On the one hand it has two commercial powerhouses — the 1975 and Wolf Alice. Below that are some biggish cults — Beabadoobee, Rina Sawayama and the Japanese House. And below that it has others. It’s not a big roster — 19 acts in total — but you can listen to each of them and understand why they are there. It’s the only successful record label of which I would be willing to sample everything it has signed.
Earlier this year it signed a young man from Birmingham called Sipho. He played at this year’s End of the Road Festival, where I missed him, but had my weekend ruined by people telling me how brilliant he had been. And so to Hackney, to catch this rare talent, and to note the strange coincidences that bring people thousands of miles apart to the same musical conclusion.
The other week I wrote about — and raved about — the west coast group Gabriels. Well, in the West Midlands, Sipho had been having similar thoughts: here, again, is a soulful man with a blistering voice doing a whistlestop tour of styles, though his history of black music is a generation younger than that of Gabriels’: hip-hop and its offshoots run alongside the soul and the funk in his music, and there’s something pleasingly incongruous about hearing Pink Floyd-esque guitar soloing while the singer is embarking on a wholly unrelated flight of vocal fantasy. But the impulse is the same: musical history, placed into a new focus to alter the listener’s perception of it.
As with Gabriels, the singing is the star, and Sipho has a voice to bathe in, and the sense to use its power sparingly. At the moment I think he falls more into the category of ‘good idea that needs developing’ than finished article, but then that’s what the very best labels do — they turn people into finished articles.
Frazey Ford, from Vancouver, is the finished article. She’s so finished she knows exactly what she is doing: her songs are deceptively simple pieces of Americana, with organ, guitar, bass and drums supplying a simple, plain backdrop for her voice. Her arrangements are not at all dissimilar to large chunks of Neil Young’s back catalogue, just more comforting. It’s like making a simple pasta dish: use cheap ingredients and you’re going to end up with something bland, but get the egg tagliatelle and the really good garlic and you’ve got something great. Ford sounded like a thousand other people you’ve heard doing this same thing, but better, because the songs were uniformly strong, and her voice elevated them. Rarely has an artist been so perfectly suited to a room, her singing reaching up to the topmost beams of the vaulted roof.
The voice is the thing. Ford’s lyrics aren’t always great; they’re usually in that wide-ranging pile labelled ‘Serviceable but vague’ (one song whose meaning is clear, ‘The Kids Are Having None Of It’, didn’t make it to the setlist, despite being a bit of a breakout last year, perhaps because its anti-Trump message seems a bit redundant now).
I’m not sure why this spectacularly good show was part of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival; Ford is jazz in the same way that I’m a professional racing driver: yeah, I know what motor racing is, and I sometimes corner too fast — but that didn’t matter. I suspect this is what she would have sounded like had the event been the London Metal Festival, the London Afrobeats Festival or the London Unlistenable Noise Festival. And the audience would have been the same older, respectful crowd, and they would have given the same standing ovation at the end.
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