CD reviews: Franz Ferdinand, Half Man Half Biscuit, Duncan Marquiss, Solidarity with Ukraine

Half Man Half Biscuit - The Voltarol Years

Things have been a bit grim over the past couple of years, but surely a new album from The Wirral’s punniest foursome is just the tonic we need, right?

Well, yes and no. Truth be told, while Nigel Blackwell and his notoriously publicity-shy cohorts are best known for poking fun at D-list celebrities, there’s always been a touch of gallows humour in their songwriting and their 15th album is no less dark in places.

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Its songwriters (bassist Neil Crossley also heavily involved) may have spent lockdown musing on the march of time, the album’s title a nod to the magic gel that eases the aches and pains suffered by those of a certain age.

In fact, there’s a split between downbeat lyrics and their more usual jangly pop – ‘Tess of the Dormobiles’ is basically a love song: “I was Betamax, you were VHS”; while ‘Rogation Sunday’ is a slightly more obtuse, 100mph breakup tune.

Of course “irritants” get their comeuppance in true HMHB style – Kelvin MacKenzie and Nicholas Witchell cheerfully dispatched ‘In a Suffolk Ditch’, but ‘Big Man Up Front’, it seems, walks away unscathed from a hit and run.

Indeed, death is all around across the 14 tracks – opener ‘I’m Getting Buried in the Morning’ a typically bouncy ode to an upcoming execution: “Get me to the chair on time”.

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But ‘Slipping the Escort’ perhaps follows on from their previous album’s ‘Terminus’, a beautiful but bleak tale about a loved one suffering with dementia.

Overall, however, the Biscuits offer a smile, a song and an escape from the advancing years – as long as you don’t think about it too much.

Duncan Marquiss - Wires Turned Sideways In Time

There may be no finer example of the fragility of life as a touring musician – when The Phantom Band had all their equipment stolen from outside a French venue in 2015, that was the end of the upcoming Glasgow act.

Guitarist Duncan Marquiss has since spent several years on art and filmmaking, but has now returned to music with his debut solo album.

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Its seven wide-ranging instrumentals include ‘Drivenhalle’, a mix of sitar and synths more eastern-sounding than its title suggests, while ‘C Sweeps’ could soundtrack a range of documentary film genres.

‘Minor History’ takes us to the US dust bowl, while the title track is a mesmeric mantra of windchime-like loops.

The album’s much-travelled sound may have been generated mainly in the head of Marquiss, but now it’s time to welcome him back.

Franz Ferdinand - Hits to the Head

This Glasgow-formed indie rock combo celebrate 20 years in showbiz with this aptly-entitled compilation, which chronologically looks both backwards and forwards.

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Founding members, bassist Bob Hardy and frontman Alex Kapranos, oversee a set of 20 tracks which does as its title promises – in fact kicking off with the actually-not-a-hit debut ‘Darts of Pleasure’ but a track which paved the way for a string of chart singles sporting simple but infections hooks, and beats to drive, as per their mission statement, “records that girls can dance to”.

A feat accomplished on ‘The Dark of the Matinée’, ‘This Fire’, and their breakout smash, ‘Take Me Out’, through to more recent additions to the Franz canon like ‘Always Ascending’.

There’s no place for any of their work as FFS with the Mael Brothers, Sparks, but that’s perhaps understandable given the sheer fact that the band have more than enough material to fill this ‘best of’ several times over.

There’s even a sneaky addition of two brand new tracks – future hits if you will – featuring new drummer Audrey Tait: ‘Billy Goodbye’, all glam rock big beats, is far from typical Franz, but ‘Curious’ harks back to the now-quintet’s roots in snaking guitar lines and big choruses.

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Which perhaps proves the old adage that this smart bunch of musicians will know – why change a winning formula just because you can?

Various Mope / Anti-Manifesto Artists - Solidarity with Ukraine

It’s now fifty years since George Harrison released ‘Bangla Desh’, a single in aid of that war and famine-torn country. And now with Ukraine in dire need of help, 20 musical acts have come together to raise much-needed funds for its people.

With a few contributions from the Anti-Manifesto record label, there’s a leaning towards emo and alternative sounds – Burnt Tapes offer a slice of anthemic pop-punk to open, but Flinch’s ‘Thanks Ophelia’ is a jangly piece of shoegaze while Chris Sneklgrove’s ‘Same Old War’ is a modern take on Bruce Springsteen.

Chloe Hawes’ simple acoustic ‘Northern Skies’ sits in contrast with Nelson Savage’s rollocking ‘Choke’ while Kimberly Steaks’deliver an unexpected acoustic tune has a decided Green Day feel.

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The standout track may be Paper Rifles’ punked-up take on Pulp’s ‘Do You Remember The First Time’, but we’re sure Jarvis would approve, both of the delivery and the good cause to boot. (Available from Mope Productions at Bandcamp)

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