Updated: Oct 22, 2021
STELLA SONIC: SAINT OR SINNER?
Let's start with music itself and the difficulty one has in putting into words the visceral effect it can have. My son knows what I mean when I speak of the shiver, the lurch of the heart, one feels when hearing certain chords or phrases. All Your Love by Otis Rush, as an example, has been covered in stupendous fashion by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore. Certainly the guitar sound is different, worlds different, but they both emphasise that glorious ‘three note’ descent that evokes a joyful melancholy, a yearning, a kind of homesickness.
Is that yearning a recognition? A recognition of something intangible but nevertheless very real? Perhaps it’s the soul perking up as it’s reminded of what it's like to live a life beyond ‘home’, beyond the polarities of human existence.
Are there ‘parallel universes’, as suggested by quantum physicists? Can we, on a subtle level, sense or recognise certain vibrations usually inaccessible to us on this plane? Does music enable us to step over, if only for a while, onto another, higher plane of existence, a parallel one to our own?
If so, and if music is indeed the food of love, then by all means keep on at it, musicians, and keep on feeding us your divine victuals! We as audience are, you may have noticed, your rowdy congregation!
So, to The Strays!
The Strays started out as an acoustic duo, Estelle Iles (now Chamberlain) and Sam Cordery combining vocal and string fluidity with a huge helping of daftness and joy. Gary Chamberlain (Stella's future spouse) came in on drums at around the time Sam put the acoustic down and plugged in his burnt-orange Gretsch. Kris Jakab-Hall on bass subsequently pulled this holy trinity together into a quartet like no other. And from that joyful start, when first they offered their own quirky, carefully curated and deeply-felt interpretations of others’ songs, they quite quickly found themselves at a destination for which they were surely destined: first as a wildly popular live band, and then, to boot, pulling out of the conjuror’s hat two EPs and two albums, all adding up to an extraordinary portfolio of self-written songs.
The Strays, Cheltenham, 2015
The Strays, Lechlade Music Festival, 2017
The Strays, The Louisiana, Bristol, 2019
The Strays, Outcider Festival, 2021
Anyone listening with full attention to these recordings will be thunderstruck by The Strays’ range of style, influence, skill and sheer originality in lyric, melody, sophisticated harmony and intricate and free-flowing instrumentation.
Let’s talk about Cool Your Jets, their second (difficult) album.
The songs on this album, unrelenting as they are in pace and drive, can be seen collectively as 21st century cultural commentary, pure and simple. But they can also be seen as a cri de coeur, a plea for sanity, for honesty, for truth.
Through Stella’s sublimely controlled vocals and her sometimes troubling lyrics, the full gut-wrenching parcel of human experience is torn open. The good, the bad and the ugly. Stella doesn’t baulk at describing and exploring the emotions and the moral dilemmas most of us grapple with (if only we could admit it). I'll just talk about a few, my favourites if you like, although it seems hardly fair to have favourites in such a collection of humdingers. Alright. Here goes with my favourite favourites.
We find determination under duress in Hold Your Own, a rocking albeit indefinable number as far as a 'style' is concerned. It's a bit of a mystery, and I adore it. There is a suspicion of Motown in the vocals with insistent rhythm section, cowbell and subtle harmonies as clues. Watch the video and see what you think (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWIlnLavMx8)!
Snap out of It is a wracking telling of depression's loneliness and desolation (albeit with hope and burgeoning strength):
"I'm reaching up coz that's the only way to go."
"Gotta reach down deep into my soul
Don't stop until the deed is done."
Triumph in adversity. “Misfortunes often sharpen the genius", as Ovid said. And in the accompanying instrumentation there is grating beauty, soaring elation. It's truly an electric bolt from the blues.
The human condition is messy, we know, and although we all naturally aspire to transcend these painful conditions, I think Stella is, by so courageously opening herself up, suggesting that we cannot transcend anything if we remain in denial. That only in acknowledging and naming life’s less than glorious bits can we step up into something higher.
As Didn’t Wanna Know opens you hear the guitar playing in the distance, as if behind closed doors. It reminds you of that feeling when you stand alone outside the nightclub, in the cold, with no admission ticket. There is exclusion and rejection here, and sorrow, carried by an unashamedly mournful sixties sensibility. The guitar, as is its wont, pours forth an empathetic and beautiful solo which is surely designed to help keep the pieces of the singer's breaking heart in place.
And here's a song about gambling! Maybe its about addiction too, but it certainly portrays desperation and its resultant destruction (The House Always Wins). Melancholy and defiance both colour the timbre of Stella's vocals. The guitar is just plain brutal (the solo discordant, with a little judicious wah wah winding up the protest) while the steady stately rhythm brings to mind the slow confident walk of that familiar hard-bitten Netflix detective as he arrives on the scene. We can almost see him as he steps over the casino threshold, looks around and, the case already clear-cut, nods to the boys to begin the clean-up.
But let’s talk again about Stella's lyrics and her voice for a moment and see where it takes us. At times, listening to her sing, one wonders whether she isn't actually black. She’s certainly soul, and she’s surely gospel! She’s a feisty and brave slave freed from the shackles of a heartless past. She is subversive and bold, vulnerable and honest.
But she’s a white woman, too. Brought up in a broken family in a society aching for meaning, she is searching in her own transparent way for truth in the midst of all the mess. I think she sees that, although "all that glisters is not gold", there is, nevertheless, gold hidden amongst the debris. She is like a prospector, sieving through the silt. She is a mudlark, willing to stand on the side of the river and receive what the waters offer up.
And of course that brings to mind an earlier song, ‘The River’, found on the EP ‘Brand New Day’.
“I hear birds sing, as they take wing,
They are telling me my path is good and true.”
“I can’t go back, on this dirt track,
I must keep on pressing on and see it through.”
“I’m going to the river ….
Let those waters wash my sins away.”
“A brand new day.”
The soaring conclusion, gospel par excellence, nearly brings one to tears, of optimism I suppose, and with an aching dash of hope.
So already in this EP we found ourselves, metaphorically speaking, on the shores of the Jordan, awaiting baptism. But baptism into what? The Church???
When rock and roll blasted its way into Western consciousness in the early 1950s, with all its hip-thrusting and infectious rhythm, Christians were terrified of its raw energy. It was the work of the Devil, they said. We must protect our youth from this sinful and shameful music, they said! Thank God their terror made no discernible ripples. Rock and roll still thumps and twists our guts nearly three quarters of a century later and nobody seems the worse for it. Other things have gone a bit awry though.
‘Heyyyyy’ takes us to a particularly disturbing place. With its brooding tango-esque introduction, it’s a scathing indictment of on-line predatory male behaviour. In clever wordplay (“Then he gets click-sure”) and blunt assertion (“Now he’s a nasty little troll.”) Stella shouts out for an ethical and emotional adjustment (“So ladies, rise, rise, show them all it’s really not alright!”).
Traditionally when we hear the tango rhythm we (at least I do!) instinctively sense and feel the delicious power of Latin American male energy … the primal pursuit of the woman … the dance begins … the woman steps back …. “You will work hard to seduce me," she says. "I am not easily won. Nothing valuable is easily won. But when you do win me, my God …”
And ‘Heyyyyy’ reverses this. Here is a man seeking to seduce, but going about it in the most clumsy way possible, in the process completely negating his own glorious male potential. He is, horribly, preying on a woman’s vulnerability, objectifying her, with the deepest disrespect for her dignity and beingness.
And, seeing this, and refusing it, the woman triumphs. But there is a bitter aftertaste. Why? Because somehow the natural order of things has been distorted. Woman should not triumph over man, any more than man should triumph over woman. Should we be fighting a battle at all at this point in the proceedings?
Well into the song, over the rhythm section, the guitar suddenly joins in the conversation. In four plaintive cries of support for the woman, it seems also to suggest sadness that so many men are badly losing their way. The song invites men to re-consider, to regain their honour. It urges women to hold to their self-respect and categorically refuse this erosion of trust.
M.O.A.N. (Memoirs of a Narcissist) has the drums, bass and guitar giving Stella an incessant, fast, frantic, outraged accompaniment. Actually, she is, in the song, speaking as the narcissist, but her brothers-in-arms fire salvos of protest. The wah wah echoes and demonstrates the abrasive discrepancy, the dissonance when one’s expectations of a respectful relationship are utterly confounded. The outrage that comes when one finally realises the extent of the manipulation.
This brings us to The Book of Joe 4.14-21, which reminds us perhaps of that earlier redemptive moment on the shores of the Jordan.
The Book of Joe is full of clever plays on the words of Psalm 23, and at the same time brings to music lovers a pulpit-worthy message.
“Well, I walked through the valley of the shadow of death of radio.”
“… I bring to you good news, good news.”
“I’ll be your shepherd, I’ll show you the way.”
“All you gotta do is shake, rattle and roll
The Devil from your soul …”
The delicious irony! Stella declares that this rollicking, honest and primal thing called rock and roll is salvific, is healing, is life itself!
And this band really knows what it means to rock and to roll!
They know, and love, their instruments intimately, and their knowledge and musical instincts come together in an uncannily tight alchemy.
Stella's harmonies are layered celestial bodies turned into aural poetry. Musica Universalis coming through our earphones!
Sam’s guitar has the energy of angels, darting around putting things right, bringing light to the matter but bringing a Gevurah-like might and severity too that warns against inappropriate sentimentality and foolishness. His nimble fingers confound, his bends and tsunamis go deep.
'There is geometry in the humming of the strings. There is music in the spacing of the spheres.’
- Pythagoras (569-490 BCE)
And then there are the bass and the drums. The groundrock. the foundation. Kris’s bass almost rumbles, sounding like Daddy pacing his study floor, keeping a stern eye through the window on his errant children playing in the garden below.
And Gary, unrelentingly, rhythmically, holds that power in harness, reminding even the gods that life is chaos without discipline, form. Let creativity run amok? Nah.
Coming back to earth for a moment, what is it about this thing called rhythm? Can it be analysed? Obviously one thinks immediately of the mother's heartbeat, heard and felt as we nestled in the warmth of the womb. Her heart’s steady beat, the whooshing of her blood; a constant soundtrack as we waited at the starting gate. No doubt about it, it goes deep. It is tribal, primal, beyond the reasoning mind. It feels sexual but goes perhaps even deeper. It’s an embrace, a dance, with life itself. You may say sex is life. But perhaps there is something before sex! The creator of sex! God! That dancing, seductive God of Hinduism, Krishna, perhaps?
“As one of the principal gods of Hinduism, Krishna represents mankind's aspiration to embody all that is divine. Amorous and loyal, he is seen as the ideal husband, and his playful nature is a gentle admonition to remain good-natured in the face of life's challenges.
“….. Krishna serves as a moral compass for the faithful. His exploits …. are ethical models of behaviour for Hindus, particularly on the nature of personal choice and responsibility to others.
“Despite their differences, Hinduism and Christianity have great similarities. And this is particularly prominent in the case of the life and teachings of the two central figures of these world religions - Christ and Krishna.”
Unlike Krishna, though, whose very presence is joyful and seductive, the Church’s Christ is a neutered figure. Born of a Virgin, he apparently lived and died single and chaste. Any suggestion from the Gnostics that he was sexual partner to Mary Magdalene has naturally been dismissed, by the Church, as heretical.
Shame has been the undoing of Christians. Shame somehow skewed our society into one that surely had to rebel at some point! More and more we moved away from a church that failed us.
And here we stand, a nation of lost souls. It is quite hard to observe how lost we are.
We are oddly designed creatures. Without proper early nurturing, or failing that a moral code, we are potentially, according to the amount of neglect or abuse meted out to us, a snarling cage of stray dogs fighting for survival.
The behaviour of the on-line troll (which is only a tiny glimpse into the really worrying behaviour experienced by women from many young men, at universities and nightclubs in particular) and the manipulations of the narcissist are equally reprehensible and abusive. But perhaps these nasty individuals were, early on, cut adrift from the world of belonging and simply have no moral ‘compass’ against which to measure themselves? In this way, these songs (whilst correctly born of righteous anger) might also be seen as a cri de coeur for these lost souls too.
And so here we find ourselves. We do the best we can in the lives we are born into. Survival seems to be the name of the game now.
Supposing that, via lyrics that sting but which are wrapped in the blanket of well-woven melody and harmony, we have been actually given permission to look at, accept and thus heal our messy, inglorious and beautiful selves?
It's not necessarily carte blanche to live out all our dodgy qualities. It's more an opportunity to look at the whole sorry picture, and realise that we are all in this together. That is perhaps why music, above all, is seen as a universal art form, bringing together all the disparate bits and fitting them, albeit rather haphazardly and clumsily, together.
Will art, will music, be our salvation? In its sheer honesty, Cool Your Jets seems to give promise of some kind of absolution.
It's the kind of absolution the Church (as it stands) can never give, lacking as it does the understanding the artist has: that humans need a climate of attention, tenderness, understanding, acknowledgement, in which to thrive. And a moral code as a backup. When we lack those things, certainly early on, we struggle. Our evolutionary design will ensure that we will do anything to survive. That is a purely physiological reality.
It would be dishonest to state that anyone is free from aggressive, angry, needy impulses. If I am too proud to admit to being, not my brother’s keeper, but rather my own zookeeper, then I stand absolutely no chance of liberating myself from my own primal impulses. Only when I know what Jung calls my 'Shadow' can I be free of it.
These songs, then, seem more spiritual anthem than solely expressions of love and loss and cultural struggle. They challenge the listener to be awake to the necessity for self-awareness, that we are all saints and sinners. Don't go looking for evil without before dealing with the devil within. Which is a weird kind of forgiveness if you think about it.
Cool your jets, indeed.
Cool Your Jets
Western Star Records, 2021
PS Just because the Church failed in its mission, it doesn't mean God is dead.
PPS "He is not lost ... he is right here ... closer than your own breath!" - Rumi
PPPS The Sufi master often comes disguised as a rogue, a drunkard, a madman.
PPPPS Whereas the Zen master will hit you on the head with a big stick to wake you up.
PPPPPS Fred Batt.
PPPPPPS Did you spot the theremin?
PPPPPPPS Nietzsche was only joking.
PPPPPPPPS. If there is any justice in this world, the talents of this woman and this band
will be fully recognised.
PPPPPPPPPS. Stella is latin for 'Star'.
PPPPPPPPPPS. Some words from the great interpreter of Taoist wisdom, Alan Watts: