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Maz Totterdell: Sweep

Puppyskinner, nonce. What more? Elitist pseud, naysaying neverwas, pen-envious killjoy bubble-burster. Or, as Samuel Beckett worded his most venomous insult – 'CRITIC!'.

For what or who else could fail to be moved to winsome paroxysms of sentiment by the pure and unaffected voice, lyrics, arrangements and guitar strums of a fifteen year-old girl? Fifteen! A mere slip of a thing. Who could possibly pour scorn on a child? Oh, heartless swine, desperate and perverted mid-life crisis-suffering grumblehump, bitter as the very dregs and toenail clippings swilling in the last half-inch of the Chilean Merlot he clutches, the only remaining source of comfort that he hasn't alienated with his jaundiced worldview and hard done-by autobiography (unwritten).

And when the swell of public opinion moves so clearly against the critic's snark, as it does in the case of Maz Totterdell, what is there left to do but shake one's head slowly, emit a shrill 'tsk' (or 'tut', if that's what people emit round your way), and just thank your chosen deity that you, personally, are a better type than that? She won BBC 6 Music's Rebel Playlist public vote, fer chrissakes! Sir Terry Wogan called her debut single 'charming'!

Terry Wogan, himself the very definition of charm,  who has forgotten more about charm than any vinegar-soaked music writer will ever learn. Even the lesser angels of the beeb follow where Sir Terry leads – Radcliffe and Maconie played it on their show, as did Shaun Keaveney, as did Steve Lamacq. The evidence for the defence mounts and mounts.

there is certainly a solid body of buzz and hyperbole to precede it

And as a narrative to surround Maz Totterdell's debut album Sweep, there is certainly a solid body of buzz and hyperbole to precede it. As the debut album of a fifteen year-old, it certainly has much to boast of. Musically, it is competent. The extended lines that close the chorus couplets on 'Delirious' are nicely arranged, and Totterdell's vocals are noteworthy in some ways.

Her diction is crystal clear, if a touch too bluestocking to be intimate, and she has an attack on the higher pitches that is disarmingly brave. Brave, because although her voice becomes reedy and thin when she reaches for the dramatic high notes, she doesn't back away from them, avoid them or resort to that revolting habit of talentless vocalists – warbling over, below and around the note in a hit-it-but-don't hold-it screech (Jessie J take note).

Youth in itself is no substitute for genius.

And yes, it's good. It's good for a fifteen year-old. The album will be a knockout GSCE coursework presentation. And it is excruciating to pour negativity on a child who has talent. But…. Let's not forget that Stevie Wonder took 'Fingertips – Part 2' to the top of the US charts at the age of thirteen. Youth in itself is no substitute for genius. And whilst it's clear that the miracle wonders that are cheap recording technology, digital distribution and social networking buzz have made it possible for a whole generation of aspiring musicians to express their artistic ambition, market it and make it available to a world's worth of potential fans, what's not been fully developed by that revolution in musicmaking is the discipline, restraint and judgement that are an essential part of the artistic process.

That the masses now have the technology to record and distribute music has created no more great musicians than the development of the pencil created more great writers.

What can be linked to the development of public-accessible music distribution platforms is the slew of plodding, unambitious lyrics which owe more to the diary entries of adolescents than to any considered reaction or reflection of the society that engenders them. Where folk approaches – the acoustic guitar, the clear female vocal, the backing violin, the immediate non-metaphorical lyric – are to be used, there needs to be an eternal truth expressed, a universally appreciated sentiment or experience brought to prominence despite (or better again, because of) the sparsity of accompaniment. And frankly, Totterdell does not have, or does not express on Sweep, anything of lasting interest.

her full-on attack at the song's most challenging points is hugely satisfying

Which is a pity, because apart from the horror of having to be mean about a plucky teenager, Totterdell has potential, so much potential, to be better. What is irritating is the FaceTube nature of 21st century living that demands her artistic development to be shared with the world. Penultimate track 'The Leaver's Song' is a huge, dramatic track in which she pushes her vocal and emotional range to their limit, and her full-on attack at the song's most challenging points is hugely satisfying. There is no trickery or subterfuge – she really goes for it. But ultimately, the flat spots in her voice, the lack of experience in her breath control, the sheer immaturity of her body are exposed by the track. There is no truthful way to put this other than: she is simply not ready.

'Counting My Fingers' is a semi-acoustic, sweet ballad of teen love to the hand-clappy rhythm of an early Jason Mraz vibe, 'Heart in Your Pocket' is a wistful Edie Brikell-meets-Alanis Morissette ditty with a hooky chorus. 'Delirious' has a pure and beguiling extended rhythm to it's bittersweet chorus that is one of the high points of the album. 'Willow (Angel Child)' is a GCSE Creative Writing essay about 'innocence' and 'scars' and suchlike, saved by a sweet bass drop in its chorus. 'The Leaver's Song', as already mentioned, has an undeniable charm (thanks Sir Terry). The sheer gutsiness of its vocal approach speaks volumes about Totterdell's as-yet unfulfilled potential.

The rest of the album is the forgettable (and best forgotten) girlie pastiche, owing far too much to Kate Nash's appalling House of Bricks to be worthy of attention or praise.

But there are no junior leagues in music. It goes out there, and it goes out there with GaGa and Madonna and Joni and Janis. And perhaps it might have been better to wait until that evident potential was fully realized.

On Series 8 records, May 28th.


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