Friday 1 December 2023

East of Ely: 6: Light Enough

December 1st, 2023. A year ago today was the final full day of a three week stay in Walberswick. 
It was the morning that I took the photograph that is featured on the cover of the forthcoming Miracle Mile album ‘East of Ely’. It’s reassuring to know that, year by year, the place holds the same attraction. In such transient times it’s good to have access to such a sturdy touchstone.

Early morning walk. My last full day. I have the beach to myself. The paths here peter out; releasing you towards adventure and receiving you upon return. I’m walking without intent: shuffling and stumbling really. Tom Waits is in my ear: “The obsession’s in the chasing and not the apprehending…” he wheezes. The wonder of this place? It tenders an unfathomable bliss. Beyond the beauty, its boundless skies offer a sense of arrival and departure: unbridled. The birds know that: vast squadrons of humming intent, gathering chaotically on the marshlands, waiting for a whisper of collective instinct to launch them towards something better. I walk past an anti Sizewell C sign. ‘It’s Not Too Late!’ Now there’s a timely reminder for a recent retiree. ‘Rootless’ and ‘route-less’ seems to sum up my journey thus far. Tomorrow morning I’ll pack and return to the fray. Refreshed and ready for… my return next year. Always the same fortnight. Always my birthday. Always Thanksgiving. This place. Now a part of my body clock; my migration. I’ve been revisiting for ten years and it has gently hooked itself onto my heart. What does that mean? I guess it means that there’s always next year and that it’s not too late. That’s as vague and invigorating as it sounds. It’s a half light of hope. And that is light enough.

Wednesday 22 November 2023

East of Ely: 5: Songs and Serendipity

I thought I'd tell you a little about the genesis of the songs on the album.
That title? 'East of Ely' refers to the sense of a border. As I drive east towards Walberswick (M25/A12) I'm always aware of a fault-line, one that separates where I'm coming from, and where I'm going to. This boundary has become more pronounced since Marcus invested in his bolthole in North Norfolk. Our boltholes share the same border. 

The sense of the album was essentially formulated in a fisherman's shack on the Suffolk coast. There is no concept. The songs aren't about driftwood and wild swimming. They do involve specific influence. But the ideas were gathered and considered here: east of Ely, in solitude: whilst in retreat. That offered me a clarity of thought. It's why I come here every year: to put my house in order. My room remains dishevelled. My cup runneth over and always needs refilling. Fortunately there's usually another bottle. If not, there are two pubs within staggering distance. The Bell is for the seafarers. The Anchor is for the farmers. Both parties used to meet Friday nights for a scrap on the adjoining village green. I try to keep both councils and emulate Jack London's 'Sailor on Horseback'. 

Marcus later invited me up to his abode in Happisburgh. Familiar coast. Different outlook. Same sightline: at the risk of ridicule let's call it 'bucolic bliss'. I bought a guitar and songs. A mic was set up with The Scientist's directive: 'Let's see what happens'. The dogs Willow and Charlie took their places on the sofa, eyed us nervously and... we were off. The journey had no map, but we had a compass: a moral compass I guess. Our working relationship is defined by trust. And a little love. We both respect each other's skills and listen hard when the other speaks. We've never had a fall out: apparently that's not healthy for the creative process but it sure gets the bottle finished!

Our songs will often originate with my busker's version. Ten thumbs and the truth. I'll offer them to Marcus who will point out shortcomings and add flesh to the ham-fisted bones. Sometimes he'll offer up a musical motif or instrumental piece. I'll later use it as the starting point for something. I love those moments: they are gifts. Marcus's musicality is different from mine. There's good reason that I refer to us as 'The Hunchback and The Scientist'! The latter's finessed sketches are often in keys foreign to my fumbling fingers and beyond my vocal range. I'm forced into foreign territory: a peculiar pitch leads pulse and melody up unfamiliar paths. Lyrically the songs reflect what's orbiting my world. My universe has shrunk somewhat since retirement. Lockdown made us look inwards didn't it? What I thought would be a productive time creatively was a barren wasteland. I was rendered mush-brained: there's only so much inspiration to be found in porridge and duvets. But gradually, post COVID (are we there yet?) the effects became manifest and manifested themselves as songs. I never think I have an album's worth. But once Marcus hits 'Record' on a new project the muse comes stumbling out of the cave: bleary eyed but willing. 

Whilst he's in the frame, I want to mention Mr Cliffe. It's nearly always my words. Usually too many words. As the singer it's my voice that you'll hear: my name might be mentioned first. Singers and lyric writers are orally inclined by nature. Gobs on a stick. Guilty. As ever I'm concerned with truth. It's a hoary subject: previously pummelled to buggery by better men and women than I. But it remains central to my mithering. Should it be feared, endured or celebrated? I want to lead a good life. I need to articulate that intent: and am then compelled to communicate my ideas to others. I'm desperate for that connection to be kindly and authentic. That starts at home: with Di and family. But it inevitably extends to Marcus. Miracle Mile are a duo. My verbiage therefore needs to stand for both of us. Not the personal details per se, more a sense of things as they are, were, or should be. The vagaries of my lyrical form becomes our form. I take that responsibility seriously. I don't speak for Marcus but I'm confident that he stands behind my words.  As we effectively share the same bed, trust is vital. As you can see below, he's the style, I'm the culture! 

I'll list the song titles below. And in the order they'll be offered. Perhaps with a word or two about their origin. Nowt about the music. That'll come later. I might even be able to squeeze a word or two from Marcus about that. In conclusion, here's another bedshot of the fellow, in his 'happy place' with the adored and adoring Charlie.

East of Ely's songs:

Appletree: The recognition and acceptance of influence. A song of gratitude.

Shivering Boy: Insecurity and vulnerability. The boy as father of the man etc.

Sparrows: Betty's journey with dementia. My memory needs to be hers. I have a terrible memory.

Night Wedding: Good things come to those who wait. But at what price?

Postcard from Happisburgh: Marcus personifies 'Happisburgh' in a musical vignette. The album's happiest moment. I can smell 'Charlie's Field'.

Ocean of Song: Resentments are toxic but abiding. Songs are my way of archiving hurt. 

Shorebound: Me, Marcus and Lucinda try to bottle the benefits of the bolthole.

Butterfly Brooch: A lovesong for a butterfly.

Silent Sigh: A confused moment in a Tesco aisle. The same aisle where I detached my retina.

Chapel Flower Morning: A song about transience, celebration, growth and inevitable withering.

Come Morning: A hymn to her. A gathering of gifts and a thanksgiving of sorts. 

Postcard from Walberswick: A note to someone who's forgotten how to read.

Tuesday 21 November 2023

East of Ely: 4: Cover Story

An album's cover is important: effectively an acceptance of the project's billboard. It is fashioned as the timeless trousers you'll be sporting for years to come. It needs to reflect content; even if it is somehow counter to that content. Like a decent book jacket, it should encourage the idle viewer's eye to settle, linger and somehow consider 'That's for me!'  When you're wearing someone else's trousers, you have to trust their sense of fashion. We've only ever used two designers for Miracle Mile and solo projects. The magnificently maverick Nick Reddyhoff created early album designs: beautifully rendered, with a popularist's playful gaze. Barry Cross has been our man since 2012's 'In Cassidy's Care'. He's also done the artwork for all of my solo albums. Likely because of his corporate background, Barry's work is clear eyed, functional yet always supremely artful. Barry is perfectly fitted selvedge denim. Nick wears a kilt!

For 'East of Ely' both Marcus and I wanted the presentation to suggest the ambience of the coastal environment that inspired much of the album's writing and recording. There's something peculiar about east-coast light: a luminous patina settles on this strip of Suffolk which always reminds me of Andrew Wyeth's use of urinary light. It induces an oneiric, dreamlike state. Bright bleary mornings leach into afternoon bourbon skies and weeping, piss-amber sunsets. Days are indelibly mapped by a transient glow so unworldly yet cinematic that you'd swear John Ford was directing the lighting from above. 

Marcus and I sent Bazza photos: coastal candids that might catch his interest. As ever, he responded with too many excellent choices. For us both there was a clear winner. 
One early morning in Walberswick I had walked the eighty odd steps from shack to shore. With my back to the Blythe (the river separates The Wick from Southwold) I looked south towards Dunwich. The light caught timbers in shadow, skeletal remains of the old south pier, revealed by a retreating sea and a sudden calm in the waves which produced an eerie, lagoon-like balm. I took this picture.

You can see from Barry's design at the top of the page that he put the vista on its side and reflected it. In doing so he created a strikingly abstract image. A guitar headstock? An audio waveform? A totem pole? Simplistic but brilliant. I love the mirror effect because it signifies the two boltholes that Marcus and I cherish: Suffolk coast reflecting Norfolk's. And vice-versa. Here's a strikingly similar shot of Marcus's, taken north of here, in Happisburgh. Different light, but the same line of sight.


Saturday 18 November 2023

East of Ely: 3: Shorebound

‘East of Ely’
is Miracle Mile’s first album since 2012. It was largely written in an old fisherman's netting shed on the Suffolk coast and later recorded between London and Norfolk. Marcus and I had both found bucolic bliss in coastal retreat. That detachment informed the writing process and limited the palette to primary colours. The bare bones were gathered in Walberswick. Once I've given the songs form I usually present them to Marcus in his Norbury Brook studios in London. We had a slightly different approach this time. In the spring of 2022 Marcus invited me over to his bolthole - his 'happy place' - on the North Eastern coast of Norfolk, in the aptly named hamlet of Happisburgh. 'Bring your guitar and songs.' was his only instruction. He'd bought his bass, dampened the strings with loo paper, set up a mic in front of the obligatory creaky chair and... we were off. 

These were happy days. We'd walk the dogs Willow and Charlie, swim the North Sea, and retire, teeth a chattering, to the village's only pub for warmth and sustenance. We fitted the recordings around these larks and before we knew it had the sense of an album. We later took the recorded sketches back to the more palatial Norbury Brook studios in London. 

We decided to limit the musical palate to primary colours and resolved to doing most everything ourselves. 

The only folk we invited into the cave were drummer Mike Pickering

Pedal Steel maestro Melvin Duffy 

and vocalist Lucinda Drayton.

We added to the album over the course of the year and then Marcus beavered away on arrangements and production, whilst I worked on my tennis game.
Marcus and I are both pretty proud of this one. It wasn't pre-planned. It just kind of... evolved. There is no concept: other than a recognition of the benefits of retreat. I think that we'd both been a bit frazzled by the enforced withdrawal imposed upon us by lockdown. We regathered ourselves; learned to let the outside in. And then we took the coast roads. East of Ely. Shore bound.

Friday 17 November 2023

East of Ely: 2: Boltholes

Boltholes. Mine lies at the end of a road that leads only there: a fisherman’s netting shed on the Suffolk coast, couched between river and sea. There’s a wood burner, a kettle, a bed. It’s November. I’m obliged to do nothing. I wake to quiet cacophonies: the flutter of tacking sail, the mutter of migrating birds. I’m up early, onto coastal paths, mudflats, meadows and marshland. It’s easy to get lost. The moon usually leads me home.
I don’t crave isolation but have found myself sharper in seclusion. I get to sort loneliness from solitude and reacquaint myself with that revenant muse. It speaks of secret things. It helps shape the dust. Free of work I’m free to work. It’s easy labour: books my tools. Reading leads to wonder. Silence shapes the thought. Later, the rhythm of walking will reveal the song. And once I have songs I reach for Marcus. He recognises the benefit I’ve found in solitude. I don’t have to tell him: he’s a good listener. His dogs eventually dragged him east, to the Norfolk coast, and there he found his own safe harbour.
Rilke wrote “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.” Such was our silent pact. We regathered ourselves; learned to let the outside in. And then we took the coast roads. East of Ely. Shore bound. We shared secrets. Shaped dust. And in the silence we found sound.

Tuesday 14 November 2023

East of Ely: 1: Why? Why Not?

'Maybe the West's approach is right. After all, if you've got a massive fight in, say, a pub car park, the best way of solving it is clearly by standing back and randomly lobbing in fireworks. You can't get rid of an ideology by destroying its leaders. You'd think if there's anything Christian countries should know it’s that. Europe has rejected the death penalty on moral high grounds, and yet we relax this view when it comes to a group who want to be martyred. You can’t bomb ideas. If your kid shits on the carpet you can’t stop them by bombing the person who invented shit - though it would tidy up ITV's Saturday night schedule.'
Frankie Boyle 

Although he usually strikes me as smug and spiteful, this isn’t a bad effort by Frankie.
We are all desperately trying to nutshell fog aren't we? The world's in turmoil and struggling to understand how it got there. I tried by looking up the origins of 'hell in a hand cart'. Apparently in the 19th century, the phrase was associated with the American gold rush of the 1840s, where men were lowered by hand in baskets down mining shafts to set explosives which could have deadly consequences. Avarice eh? The greed and need for material wealth or gain. Or land. Acquisition, regardless of the dangers of action, reaction or the horrors of their consequence. The Middle East is in calamitously unsolvable crisis. As resentment begets resentment, horror begets horror. Intransigent 'Leaders' are either stubbornly obdurate or ruthlessly rudderless: all seemingly virtueless. Forget foreign affairs; domestic politics have become less about the pursuit of noble ideals and more about the lobbing of fireworks at other folks' ideology; our worldview more informed by disbelief than belief. With the inevitability of an election looming I’m struggling with my choices. 
Should I vote for a grey man or a buffoon? 
I know that I will choose not to choose. 
I'll choose to look to myself. 
"To thine own self be true' was my dad‘s mantra. 
I concur, but decide that I need to be more active in the belief.

I’ve spent the last 35 years in the service of others. My music had become a sideshow, a sideline; something that I choose to commit to in my other, better life. A fool's folly then. I determine to look to myself and to take that part of myself more seriously. Is that self-indulgence or self-preservation? Surely the essence of creativity is self-indulgence? If I can't burn my own torch and make myself the drum banging hero of my own story then, what's the point in the reaching?  Self-regard is unattractive in others I know but, what else can I do? If I want to invest in myself authentically I can only look inwards. With that avowed intent, perhaps my songs will better resonate with others: not just other kindred crusty geezers, but hopefully with anyone unsure of themselves. Sometimes loneliness is steeped in the belief that we are somehow uniquely isolated: that the nature of things does not apply to us. Or only to us. We are like pitiful polar bears, floating alone on melting lumps of ice, hoping that the thermodynamics of fusion won’t apply to us. Does that make us hopeful or hopeless? 

So here I am, again, lighting fires on the Suffolk coast: my annual, self-imposed retreat. But to what end? Solitude has its benefits. You arrive and... unpack. Unburdening is healthy, but isolation can lead to a re-burdening. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. You don’t have to be Einstein to see the truth in that. And only a fool would deny doing it. 
And that’s me: I’ve just thrown another soggy log on the fire, hoping that this one will burn. 
But at least I'm trying. In retiring from daily duty I have recognised the need for a change of state: the need to reset, to dry my kindling and light a new fire. I have detached myself from distraction so that I can authentically connect. My first step was to step away from work to limit my choices and thus focus my intent. At my age, why wouldn’t I do that? At my age how could I not? 
My little piece of brash ice will melt in time, but hopefully there is time enough.

Friday 3 November 2023

Love Song: Our Man in the Field: 'Gold on the Horizon'

Our Man in the Field is essentially singer-songwriter Alexander Ellis, aided and abetted by a few talented amigos. The new album ‘Gold on the Horizon’ is a lovingly crafted collection of heartfelt authenticity. Recorded in Oregon by feted American producer Tucker Martine, the album comes replete with weeping steel, harbouring horns and just enough intensity to rubber stamp Ellis’s intent. And that seems to be to deconstruct and then rebuild himself before our very eyes. That standard approach could become mournful in lesser hands, but Ellis’s conviction convinces. "I’ve always been an outsider, so an outsider I’ll be." he intones on ‘L’Estranger’. His faith is in nothing but himself: “I believe there’s nothing up there looking down on me.” It’s that self-sufficiency that sustains and clearly moves him forward. The lyrics use familiar metaphor as lifeline but there’s enough personal insight offered as to make Ellis’s rope-a-trope authentic. He tethers his troubles to a soulful soundscape that evokes a youthful Van Morrison’s dreamier desires and Ray LaMontagne’s doe-eyed soul searching. Sure, it’s a conventional conceit, but our protagonist is utterly cogent in his cause. Alex Ellis has considered form, harvested homily and hued a sweet hymnal to hope. It’s apt that he offers up this wholesome set so close to Thanksgiving. 

This is confident Americana: honey-toned and virtuous. If you want to believe in bucolic benevolence, Alex Ellis is a convincer. Our Man in the Field has farmed and fermented a heady crop: woozy with wonder but firmly fixed on that golden horizon. 

Wednesday 18 October 2023

Miracle Mile: A User's Guide: by Johnny Black


“Trevor Jones finds the poetry in real life; Marcus Cliffe anchors it in the sweetest pop. Gorgeous as ever. You may cry.”  The Sunday Times

Despite being based in a home studio in a rural backwater on the outskirts of West London, Miracle Mile chose to name themselves after a fictional gold rush main street half a world away where, according to adventure yarn spinner Jack London, ragged 49ers would blow their hard-won nuggets on booze and broads. They apply a similarly unorthodox approach to their career in general. The band’s core duo of singer/guitarist Trevor Jones and multi-instrumentalist/arranger/producer Marcus Cliffe have been relentless in their pursuit of the perfect song. Not the fastest, the gnarliest or the loudest, not even the most instantly commercial, but the song whose melody, lyrics, arrangement, performance and spirit might stand the test of time, giving pleasure to listeners not just for years but centuries.
They’d be the first to admit they haven’t yet found that perfect song and maybe never will, but I’d argue that their albums — the documentary evidence of that search — deserve a place alongside the best work of time-tested tunesmiths as elevated as Randy Newman, Elvis Costello or Tom Waits.

“Gorgeous melodies, hooks galore, intelligent lyrics that demand and repay careful listening, beautifully produced instrumentation, and an overall effect that combines poignancy and joy in equal measure. Music and words come together in a state as close to perfection as makes no difference, and leaves you with a delicious ache that makes you hug yourself with the sheer overwhelming joy of hearing such wonderful music. The beauty on offer here is enough to make you weep. It did me."
Americana UK

Marcus Cliffe wasn’t yet on board when the first album, Bicycle Thieves, arrived in 1997 but already it was evident that frontman Jones didn’t fit in with the prevailing mode. There was no rage, bitterness or self-loathing in his songs and nothing at all turned up to eleven. Instead, he offered meticulously orchestrated slices of ordinary human life, transforming the mundane into the marvellous with carefully crafted lyrics sincerely delivered. Even here, though, the hypnotic sample-based "Recycletwo" revealed a willingness to experiment that marked Jones out as more than just a pop craftsman in the vein of Crowded House or Aztec Camera.

"Gentle enchantment. The loveliest melodies you've ever heard."   UNCUT
“A melancholic ocean of poetry and sublime song-craft. Life is indeed worth living and all the richer for hearing this.” Properganda
What had started essentially as a recording project had become a five-piece live band by the time the follow-up, Candids, was released in 1998. Loaded with nagging guitar hooks and dynamic vocal interplay, it included one particularly affecting piece, "Small Ad" which featured just one line of lyric, the heart-rending couplet, "For sale, baby’s shoes, never used." With those six words, Jones conjured up a yawning abyss of grief that other writers might struggle to evoke in an entire album.

“A little oasis illuminated by musical creativity, glimpsed like a lovely mirage. Intelligent tunefulness that doesn’t kowtow to passing trends has always been as rare as fish fingernails, but it’s here.” Mojo

“How to write ‘Perfect Pop’ and still remain unknown. They are magic, charming, almost naïve in their perception of beauty.” La Repubblica (Italy)
Jones quickly realised that live performance was not his forte and retired to the womb of the studio for 1999’s third album, Slow Fade, which also saw the birth of the partnership that would lift Miracle Mile higher still above the norm. Marcus Cliffe, in demand as a player for Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Daniel Lanois, Mark Knopfler and others, was drafted in on upright bass.
Immediately the music took a more intimate turn, with Jones exploring the little things that illuminate the big things. Almost every song offers up at least one unforgettable line, like "I'd rather be ashes than dust" in "Everybody Loved You" or the concept of filling the void left by his loss of faith "with despair and metalware" in "Starwatching".
Slow Fade was further enhanced by the delicately filigreed swirls and swoops of England’s finest steel guitar maestro, B.J. Cole, whose style sat so well with Jones and Cliffe that he has become virtually a full-time member of the band.

"Meticulously orchestrated, careful and complex, this is canny songwriting leavened by bona fide humanity."  Q
“A lush swoon of gorgeous pop. Genuinely life enhancing and life changing. Jones is in a class of one. Near-perfect explorations of the human heart.” AmericanaUk
And then, out of nowhere, catastrophe struck. Trevor Jones’ sister died in tragic circumstances. It’s typical of the man that, rather than wallowing in his grief as he had every right to do, he dealt with his loss in the quiet, honest dignity of "Sister Song", the achingly lovely tribute that concludes the fourth album, Alaska. It can’t have been coincidence that the album, despite its meltingly beautiful musical landscape, was named for one of the coldest places on earth.

“Miracle Mile’s obscurity remains unfathomable. Perfect adult pop.”  The Sunday Times

“Moves you to tears and refreshes the soul. Scintillating.”  Maverick
By the time of Stories We Could Tell in 2004, Miracle Mile were drawing critical plaudits in every significant British magazine and newspaper, along with comparisons to such pop perfectionists as Prefab Sprout and The Blue Nile. Critics were noting that Miracle Mile was fast becoming a repository of timelessly romantic music fueled by the same shamelessly emotional human concerns that inspired the great standards. More than this, it was being noticed that while most bands go into decline after two or three albums, Miracle Mile were getting better, perhaps because they’d avoided the trap of trying to be contemporary, and had no need to be more outrageous than the competition, largely because they didn’t see music as a competitor sport.

“Classic songwriting, gorgeously realised.” The Times

“A tender sadness. Songs that have universal resonance.” NetRhythms

“Achingly tender.” Folk Radio UK

The sixth album, Glow, showed up in 2005 and found Jones and Cliffe further expanding their musical palette mixing Celtic folksiness with slow, semi-industrial percussion on the inspirational "An Average Sadness", blending Badalamenti guitars with Bacharach horns on "What Kate Did Next" and opening "Strange Sympathy" with a beautifully synthesised string orchestration before letting the song melt seamlessly into a laid-back country-rock rumination on the gap between aspiration and acquisition. Glow was also their most lavishly packaged disc, gorgeously presented at no small cost to themselves.

“A gorgeous album that few will hear - unless there’s justice in the world.”  The Wall Street Journal
“Jones has compiled possibly the finest catalogue of adult pop. Gently beautiful and genuinely moving.” The Sunday Times
“You hug yourself with the sheer overwhelming joy of hearing such wonderful music. The beauty on offer here is enough to make you weep. It did me.” AmericanaUK
Album No. 7, Limbo, offered fifteen songs overflowing with sensitively wrought melodies and heart-fluttering lyricism. If it’s not a contradiction in terms, Limbo was even more quietly passionate than usual, deliciously understated and, at times, devastatingly tear-jerking.

“Trevor Jones finds the poetry in real life; Marcus Cliffe anchors it in the sweetest pop. Gorgeous as ever. You may cry.” The Sunday Times
“Intellectually as well as emotionally engaging.” Mojo
"Overflowing with sensitively wrought melodies and heart-fluttering lyricism. If it's possible, this is even more passionate than usual, deliciously understated and tear jerking."   HiFi News
In Cassidy’s Carefollowed in 2012 and received similar critical acclaim.

“Miracle Mile are pop’s most consistently excellent cottage industry.”  The Sunday Times
"Memorable tunes wrapped around emotionally involving lyrics." HiFi News
"Truly outstanding. Another little masterpiece has been born."  AmericanaUk
“Masterpieces of subtlety and observation clothed in sumptuous, lush melodies.” RnR
Miracle Mile may just be too concerned with timeless quality for their own short-term commercial good. They’ll never sink a fang into the jugular when they can plant a whisper of a kiss on that sensitive spot at the nape of the neck and set off a tiny ripple that will, in the fullness of time, explode in the heart. I, for one, wouldn’t want it any other way.
Johnny Black

Tuesday 17 October 2023

Miracle Mile. New album 'East of Ely'


'East of Ely' is Miracle Mile's first new album since 2012's 'In Cassidy's Care'. It was largely written on the Suffolk coast and later recorded between London and Norfolk. Both Marcus and I found bucolic bliss in coastal retreat. The detachment informed the writing process and limited the palette to anything but primary colours. You won't be dancing but we hope that the songs offer some kind of balmy relief to your day.

'East of Ely' will be released by the Last Night From Glasgow Cartel in 2024. It will soon be available to pre-order on vinyl and CD.

Friday 27 May 2022

Lovesong: Boo Hewerdine: 'Understudy'

Boo Hewerdine looks more like God everyday. 
A God with glasses. 
Or at least my vision of a God with glasses. 
I digress. 
Boo has just released his latest album ‘Understudy’. There is undoubted divinity in these quiet passages: gorgeously rendered, wisely observed vignettes that are heart-swelling in their directness. Twelve tender epistles detail and celebrate the everyday. The subtleties are oddly… overwhelming. The benevolence in each offering is such calming balm that you wish they’d linger longer. He casts a kindly eye does Boo. There’s an almost childlike naïveté in the way that he totes his lot. The songs are understated; short but far from slight: a world of wonder within each modest miracle. Loss is palpable, but hope is the abiding, enduring aftertaste. And it tastes like medicine. Good medicine. I’d have entitled the offering ‘Specs Saver’ or ‘Hymns from Him’ but then I’m not him. He sits a cloud or two above. Goodness and graciousness is personified here. 
But Boo as God? 
There is no God. 
But, if there was, Boo’d make a worthy understudy.

Friday 11 February 2022

Lovesong: Sinner's Shrine: Dean Owens

Never meet your heroes they say: you're destined for disappointment or doomed to simply walk in their shoes. Although Dean Owens’ boots are firmly rooted in Caledonia, it’s clear that his musical heart beats in, around and along the arterial song lines that connect the music of Arizona and its bordering states: “a wire around the heart of everything that’s sacred”. This is no cultural desert: Tex Mex and Mariachi boldly blend with Country and Folk to create a very particular brand of Americana. Owens had long been influenced by the weeping steel and aching feel that informs much of the area's music. He was particularly keen on Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand and, tellingly, its bastard offspring Calexico, whose masterful ‘Feast of Wire’ clearly whetted his appetite. He was thus drawn to the source: Tucson’s WaveLab studio, home of Calexico’s founding members Joey Burns and John Convertino. That wondrous duo's muscular rattle and hum underpins much of this adroitly understated album. He's a born storyteller is Dean, yet he ditches the narratives and goes straight to the heart of the matter: these are more cyphers than stories. Ghosts haunt the open roads, borderlands and dusty destinations. They are only ever glimpsed, but are omnipresent: displaced revenants whose whispers and moans tell of loss and longing: missed opportunities and broken promises. Dean cannily drops that syrupy brogue a tone or two and floats his beguiling melancholy over his compadres’ perfect rhythms. It occasionally feels perilously close to pastiche until you remember that, that is the point: Owens is there to tip a hat in homage to his hombres. The cumulative effect is one of gracious gratitude. 

So: never meet your heroes? Dean takes Calexico's wistful template and gently melds and fashions it into something oblique yet unique: something fine. To highlight individual songs would do an injustice to the album’s artful ambience. It feels like an invitation to a gentle journey: you simply need to surrender. That the beatific finale ‘After the Rain’ makes you want to retread your steps, only endorses Tom Wait’s wisdom: the obsession’s in the chasing and not the apprehending. Owen's intent is heartbreakingly direct and tender: “Maybe the sun won’t always shine/And maybe the moon won’t always glow/But if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed it’s/ I’ll always be here for you.” 

'Sinner's Shrine' is not informed by wickedness or worship: Owen's benevolence seeks solace, perhaps even redemption, in the recognition and celebration of influence. That confluence is a river worth crying over. Dean’s dream may be wilfully woozy but it is perfectly realised: spectral yet specific. Before he left for New Mexico, he had told me of his plan: that he had no plan, just hope for a musical journey towards kinship; a yearning to find and befriend the source of his ennui and inspiration. It's an oblique map for a travelogue; but what a trip. Dean Owens left without a destination and, bugger me, he found a home.

Sunday 23 May 2021

LoveSong: Life on Mars: Bowie

So many songs, so little time.
I woke up this morning thinking about Bowie. There'd been a boozy discussion about 'genius': which musicians the word might apply to. It's a conversation as potentially incendiary as a pub trawl over the values of 'Art'. You don't need to like something to appreciate its value. Prince anyone? Genius, but I don't reach for his albums often. Dylan? Indubitably. I play Bruce more. Miles? Yes. Joni? Yes. Macca? Lennon? Nope. I love them both, but their 'genius' was collective: with the Fab Four. Paddy? Possibly. Neil Hannon? Possibly. I don't reckon Paul Buchanan a genius but his music means more to me than Prince's and almost any other artist's.

I rate this particular song, on record, as one of the great modern productions: one of the great vocals. Apparently when Bowie recorded the version on Hunky Dory, he nailed it in one take and fell in a wrecked, wracked, weeping mess at its conclusion: genius made man at the recognition of his gift. That literary giant/midget Rimbaud said “Genius is the recovery of childhood at will” and perhaps that was Bowie's gift: that he could wilfully tap into past wonders: the mysteries and mischief of formative life. Ironic then that the song is apparently about a teenage girl's desire to escape her restrictive childhood. Also paradoxical that this otherworldly man, so often likened to an alien, could speak with a common tongue.

So: Bowie? Yes: without a shadow of a doubt. He dressed his genius up in the clothes of imaginary friends and yet... he still made the song his own.
And here he is, stripping it down to its undies. Even the Liberace piano stylings cannot undermine the power of this brilliant performance.
What a genius!
What an Artist!
What a man!

Tuesday 27 April 2021

Distant Voices, Still Lives

Sailing on no honeymoon
Just separate chairs in separate rooms
Jesus, please
Make us happy sometimes
No more shout
No more fight
Family life

It's interesting how arrested many of us are by the Blue Nile song 'Family Life'. I have always thought that it was something to do with the way that singer Paul Buchanan tremulously presents us with shards of personal memory that resonate as universal recognition. Everyone's family life is different, but we all hold moments of collective clan memory that equate to personal pain. That tussle to retain and release what pleases or injures is a mournful shuffle towards something... less. Even if it is a memory full of emptiness - that clumsy dance with the 'everyday' - the cruelties stay with us as a part of our personal history. Of course there's beauty too, but that is often ephemeral, idealised in retrospect. Scars are held as badges of family honour, a kinship of ritual that ties and binds. It's a strange loyalty that we have to the overwhelming burden of a past imperfect. Our fragility and strength are often bequeathed to us by a patriarchal parent: we remain tethered to, and haunted by the sound of their voices. Our past becomes us, as our past becomes us...

Sorry to rattle on but... last night I watched 'Distant Voices, Still Lives', Terence Davies' impressionistic take on a working-class family's life in 1940s and 1950s Liverpool. It is based on Davies's family and is chillingly familiar. Everyone is hopeful for 'happier', but are happy with their lot. The tableau is masterfully held together by music: old familiar tunes, offered as mantras to soundtrack the misery and mirth. I reckon that Paul Buchanan might have watched it before penning his masterpiece. Give it a go: you'll know exactly what I mean.

Tuesday 9 February 2021

Bruce Springsteen: Stuck in 'The Middle': With Who?

Bruce Springsteen has finally made an ad: a film in fact: 'The Middle', to help celebrate Jeep's 80th year. And he's getting pelters for it:

"Christian Nationalism! There's no middle with someone who wears a ‘Camp Auschwitz’ shirt or who walks a Confederate flag through the US Capitol. There's no middle with insurrectionists. There's no middle with fascists. There's no middle with anyone who harasses a school shooting survivor.”

“I believe what the Jeep ad was telling us is that if we just set aside our differences with the fascists who want us silenced or dead, Bruce Springsteen will bring us each a Jeep we can use when we eventually have to flee to Canada.”

Bruce himself dedicates the film “To the ReUnited States of America.” and says “It’s no secret … The middle has been a hard place to get to lately. Between red and blue. Between servant and citizen. Between our freedom and our fear. Now, fear has never been the best of who we are. And as for freedom, it’s not the property of just the fortunate few; it belongs to us all.”

Regardless of any fee taken or paid - he is a working man after all - the message seems like a fairly simplistic attempt to unify to me. I’m guessing that Bruce sees it as his job. His blue collar popularism has always appealed across the board. ‘Jeep’ is a nuts and bolts brand aimed at the working man. As is religion. He’s gone to the heart of the country. He’s put on a stetson and gone for the buckle of the Bible Belt. 

Bases loaded and covered then. But, this seems more of a bunt than a home run. Perhaps Bruce is taking stock before a reset and a big swing? Despite his recent public alignment with Democratic politics, Bruce has always stood solid on common ground. Trouble is, the sands have shifted so much recently that Americans are either unsure of their footing or more entrenched than ever. Now, more than ever, the promised land seems more of an American pipe dream than a reality. It’ll be interesting to see how Bruce pitches his next delivery. I don’t anticipate a curve ball but I reckon there’ll be some bile in a heavy delivery. A spit ball then.
What Bruce is trying to endorse with the film is unclear. That’s if his hands were on the wheel. Other than a vague intent to unite, the mystic message is middling, muddled. But is taking a stand for common ground really legitimatising extremism? And wtf is ‘Emotional Terrorism’? At worst Bruce’s message is naive: at least it is well intentioned. Ultimately I hear a simple message: a plea for unity, forgiveness, perhaps even contrition.

The other main criticism seems to be that finally Bruce seems available for sale or rent. It’s not really Bruce trying to sell a car, more a brand trying to ally itself to his. It doesn’t make me want to buy a Jeep. Or a bible. 

Take a look. Do you see Christian Nationalism in the homilies? Do you hear resignation and acceptance of extremism in the call to "meet in the middle"? I just hear a tired, elderly man, keen on unity. Oh, and that sponsor's fee. At least Bruce didn’t give Jeep a song: a hymn: a slogan. Apt that the music he offered was ethereal; impressionistic: there’s nothing more undeniably American, or beautifully vague, than a gently weeping peddle steel guitar.

Friday 11 December 2020

Lovesong: Jack Henderson: Where's the Revolution

'Where's the Revolution'.
Where's the question mark?
Perhaps it's missing because, as ever, there are more questions than answers.

"Doesn't matter what you lose… it only matters what you choose"
'Conviction' is the word that comes to mind when I consider Jack. A few years back Di and I were invited to a New Year's Eve party at the now defunct Convent in Stroud. Enthusiastically run by maverick eccentric Matt Roberts, within minutes of arrival we were promoted from guests to Stage Manager (me) and Number 1 Cameraman (Di). It was quite a night: particularly considering Matt's generous gift of a free bar. During the soundcheck my ear was taken by a fashionably disheveled gent crouched over the piano, wrenching a beautifully baleful ballad from the ivories. There was a whiff of Tom Waits in the grainy delivery. The injury was clear, the conviction compelling. Later at the bar I was introduced to the performer as Jack Henderson. It turned out that Jack and I had something in common: he and my musical partner Marcus Cliffe had previously worked together on a project or two.

Jack and I stayed in touch and, last year, I was offered a chance to hear new songs as work in progress. The sketches were incomplete but fascinating. I offered vague encouragement and moved on. And then early this year a package dropped on my doorstep: Jack in a box! His newly completed album 'Where's the Revolution' sat atop my 'to listen to' pile and... somehow got buried. 

In the meantime I'd read about Jack's need to make this a homespun album. It was clear that here was a man in command of his craft, but one who was guided as much by budget as by instinct. 

“If necessity is the mother of invention then 'Where’s The Revolution' is largely the result of that confluence of necessity and invention. Sometimes limitations can be liberating and for this album I wanted to explore what would happen if I recorded, produced and more or less played everything myself whilst embracing those limitations, both physical and financial, head-on. There was no overarching manifesto and I wanted to let the songs dictate their own course and allow the imposed imperfections to constitute the very soul of the record.”

Months later, this morning I dug out the album and finally got around to breaking the seal. First impressions are that the soundscape has been vastly improved from what I'd previously heard. The production has pushed Jack's voice to the fore, but there is a musical muscularity that belies the domestic source and more than matches the muse. The arrangements are traditional songwriter fare: piano and electric guitar the primary colors. A wobbly mellotron wanders into the room occasionally to reinforce a woozy sensibility. Comparisons can be odious so let's get them out of the way early. I can hear 70s Bowie floating in the high register; Joseph Arthur lurks in the mid shadows; whilst Waits and Dylan haunt the bottom end. And yet Jack's timbre has a unique, genuinely engaging quality in its quivering delivery. As he earnestly totes the mundanities, again, 'conviction' is the byword here. You believe that Jack believes everything he's singing about. And whilst he's got nothing particularly revolutionary to say, he says it with such conviction that you can't help but buy into these passionate paeans of disillusion. I've got 'imaginatively familiar in his melancholy' scribbled down here. Jack says it so much better: 

“We’re often acutely aware of our own failings. We all have the capacity for occasional acts of selfishness, anger or jealousy, but those need not be what define us. We are all capable of acts of incredible kindness and self-sacrifice too. Perhaps we begin caring for each other by forgiving and being kind to ourselves first and recognising our shared human condition. We are so much better than we think we are and if we devote our energies to building the world we want to live in and pass on to generations that follow us we become the hope that truly remains.”

Ever hopeful then, but you can tell from the title track that Jack's not a happy bunny: “I'm sick of these clockwork clowns and their silly little paper crowns. Reckless disaffection, constant disconnection, squeeze you till you’re almost sick, We don’t have to take this shit, Oh my dear, where’s the revolution now”. Thankfully, we are talking a gentle revolution here. Jack's not breaking windows; it's your heart he's after. There's compassion in abundance. 'Stars' is a beatific hymn to hope. He's too smart to tell us that he's looking up from the gutter, but you kind of get that his boots are well worn and muddy as he gazes at the heavens: a journeyman considering the journey and the journey's end. 'We are castaways: so good, so far... We are the conscious light that lingers on: a hope that will remain when we have gone." 
'It's only Rain' completes the set contemplatively, reinforcing the compelling image of the slightly crumpled, flesh wounded Everyman.
'Don't be afraid, it's only rain. Nothing we haven't seen before'. 
And yet... there's something charming in Henderson's wide-eyed injury, in the way that he catches and caresses the quotidian as 'penny drop' moments. 
His is a true heart, a familiar flight, a journey worth sharing. 
How could you not want for the company of a man who leaves the room thus: 
"Every dying star leaves a trail across the universe. Every weary pilgrim goes on believing, and every broken heart goes on beating."