Nova Scotia? SAY 2020 Longlist
The latest Booker Prize shortlist is proof that a more diverse judging panel leads to a more diverse selection. The decision by the organisers of the Scottish Album of the Year Award to introduce a 50:50 gender split (in place for two years now) in its 100 strong nominators list is a step in the right direction: at least half of the longlisted albums are by female artists, or groups featuring women. And while Scottish culture still has a long way to go in terms of BAME representation, the inclusion of artists like Nova and Sacred Paws helps chip away at the outdated stereotype of Scottish music being about white men with jangly guitars. Reactionary claims that such artists are only there to tick a diversity box are easily dispelled by the quality of the music. It’s also refreshing to see an emphasis on emergent and marginal acts over well-established ones. I’ve often argued that SAY is essentially a development award, and given its public funding, it’s only right that the spotlight – and prize money – should go to those who need it.
Comfort were my underground pick from the eligible albums list, so I’m delighted they’ve made it through to the longlist. I suspect the sister-brother duo are a little too raw to scoop the top prize, but Not Passing is a stunning album. Natalie McGhee’s vocals are alternately declamatory and vulnerable, sarcastic and celebratory, as she relates her experiences as a trans woman and challenges assumptions. All this over pounding drums and spare electronics that wriggle, fizz and spook.
Nova Scotia The Truth chose her name to reflect the feeling that she and many of her peers “are carving a new space for ourselves and our own communities despite not fitting into the archetypal idea of what it is to be Scottish.” The efforts of collectives like Fuse by VAJ.Power, Forij and OH141 have been instrumental in creating a more inclusive club and party scene, and Nova has thrived in that community. Re-Up delivers on the promise of the rapper, producer and DJ’s earlier tracks and mixtapes, its sharp rhymes embedded within choice beats by $1000 Wallet, Inkke, Kami-O and others. Nova’s low-key tone draws attention to lyrics that address racism, issues of consent, drug addiction and gang violence. Beat wise, there’s plenty of variety, from the grime of ‘Back In The Day’ and ‘Trophy’, to the trap of ’30 Minutes’ and the dreamy soul of ‘Bread & Butter’. This deserves to go right to the top.
As has become customary, folk and jazz enjoy two entries each. Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook folds the Caledonian pop canon into the folk tradition, with sensitive takes on songs by the Waterboys, Chvrches and the Blue Nile. The slick indie folk arrangements would benefit from a little more grit, but there’s no denying the beauty and power of Polwart’s voice, not least on her bluegrass inflected version of John Martyn’s ‘Don’t Want To Know’. Elephant Session’s What Makes You is not quite the bold reinvention of traditional music that it’s claimed to be – there’s little of the audacity of Martyn Bennett’s Grit – but it’s a slickly entertaining set of fiddle and mandolin led tunes. The rock and electronic elements sound a little tepid on record, but I imagine they generate more heat live.
There’s a similar slickness to the jazz entries. The Scottish jazz sector has been pushing younger acts, but it still feels like it’s catching up with trends in London and the US. Mezcla offer an accomplished take on 70s fusion and Afro-Latin styles, but it’s hard to shake the feeling of young conservatoire-trained musicians showing off their chops. Fat-Suit’s crossover sound recalls US acts like Snarky Puppy, albeit with a Celtic twist. Here are big tunes, tightly structured; there’s not a lot of improvisation going on. Tunes like ‘Rumblings’ and ‘Brum Does A Wheelie’ are energetic, if somewhat bland, takes on ‘70s cop show funk. ’Countryside Quietness’ and ‘Lunar Milk’ ladle on the Celtic lyricism – it’s a long way from the folk-inflected free jazz of Ken Hyder’s Talisker. When the horn section is finally let loose on ‘Caretaker’ you catch a glimpse of what these musicians might be capable of in a less commercial setting.
The classical choices are also in a crossover vein. Erland Cooper’s Sule Skerry comes swathed in Orcadian mist, as plaintive piano themes and strings hover over polite electronic percussion. The idea of Sigur Ros and Max Richter writing sonic postcards from Orkney will be heaven to some, but I find this kind of thing insipid. Now my bridge is cinders, I might as well ask why the fuss about Anna Meredith’s FIBS? The composer won the SAY Award for Varmints in 2016, and her latest refines her combination of brassy Philip Glass minimalism, synth pop and art rock. It’s quirky rather than genuinely strange, and the gleaming synth textures lack the character of a Hudson Mohawke or SOPHIE production.
Of the indie picks, Calum Easter’s Here Or Nowhere has been tipped for the top, and while it has a pleasingly woozy reverb-drenched sound, it’s a little too stuck in its ‘60s and ‘70s reference points to convince me we’re dealing with a true original. Cloth’s self-titled debut has quietly blown up, with their single ‘Old Bear’ appearing on the soundtrack of the BBC’s Normal People. The spare guitar and tight rhythms are clearly modelled on The XX, but Rachel Swinton’s gorgeous vocals take them somewhere else. Their dreamy twilit pop will surely do well with the judges. There’s a comparable minimalism to SHHE’s atmospheric debut. In a voice reminiscent of Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, Dundee-based Scottish-Portuguese artist and producer Su Shaw intones her songs over sparse guitar and electronic rhythms. Finally, some brief words for Bossy Love, whose r ’n b inflected pop might not break new ground, but bursts with giddy tunes and sass.