Thursday 2 May 2024

Paul Auster: Gone

                                        “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.”

Paul Auster: gone. He likely wrote his own epitaph: “To leave the world a little better than you found it. That's the best a man can ever do.” More a Gillette ad than a eulogy, but apt. He's alongside Raymond Carver and Richard Ford as my 'go to' American writer. ‘Moon Palace’, ‘Book of Illusions’, ‘Music of Chance’. My favourite is always the one that I’m reading. His manner was lofty but worldly; a spidery intellect, wonky enough to be lovable. His style is impossible to bottle. This morning I’ll go for ‘wide-eyed and squinting!’ That'd be a poet’s eye: one that fuelled a forensic mind; and yet he clutched the inquisitiveness of childhood like a beloved balloon.

"If nothing else, the years have taught me this: if there’s a pencil in your pocket, there’s a good chance that one day you’ll feel tempted to start using it. As I like to tell my children, that’s how I became a writer."

Funny yet fathom deep, his playful tales are frequented by ‘chance’. And lost chances. Flighty thoughts imbue core truths. Auster’s observations are often so startlingly simple that you catch yourself rereading, just to be sure of their directness. “It was. It will never be again. Remember.” Strewth! And then he mangles meaning and encourages you to rebuild it: from cloud to clarity. We are offered cyphers and codes, mysteries and clues. And as we grapple for understanding, the blissful reconciliation of concept and conceit is the mischief that engages. Narratives bounce between impenetrable Kafkaesque fables (City of Glass) and rattling good yarns (Book of Illusions); the stumbling protagonists as unreliable as memory and the stories that carry them. He taught me much about the writing process: the compulsions and the contradictions. “We find ourselves only by looking at what we are not.” And what was he not? At 77 he seemed ageless: tireless in his pursuit. And what was that? Perhaps Paul put it best here: Why Write?

Tuesday 16 April 2024

East of Ely: 10: The First Ad


East of Ely: 9: The Fatea Review

EAST OF ELY, is Miracle Mile's first album since 2012. Songwriter Trevor Jones has used the seclusion offered by the Suffolk coast to arrive at some insights about the human condition. There is a strong theme of love and deep connection, both personal and universal running through the album. The silence and space of the Suffolk and Norfolk coasts informs both Jones’ lyrics and Marcus Cliffe’s music, occasionally in the atmospheric snatches between tracks, the keyboard sounds and the two instrumental postcards, the space itself gets onto the tape. Jones himself says in a very poetic way, ‘In the silence we found sound’, you could almost put that in brackets after the title.

"Appletree" is a soft, gloriously languid love song, reflective vocals and atmospheric pedal steel. This isn't music to dance to, but Trevor's vocals and Marcus' music leave you with a kind of Blue Nile warm glow. “Shivering Boy” carries on the warm love songs with some great lyrical imagery ‘You taught me how to dance like no-one else was there I came as Eric Morecambe but left as Fred Astaire’. “Sparrows” adds another voice to the warm lush sound. “Night Wedding” is a bruised, jaded song about dreams and making do. In feel its a Country song with ethereal electronic backing. With pastoral atmospherics and Trevor’s acoustic guitar “Postcard From Happisburgh” is a jazzy Floydian interlude. “Ocean Of Song” keeps the nimble guitar going, lightening the mood, contrasting the melancholic but poetic lyrics. ‘Well, I’m a shallow man Complete in my incompleteness I am what I am what I am.’ “Shorebound” mixes spoken poetry and sung lyrics. There is a real sense of place and of a moment, created by the imagery and the arrangement. Light and atmospheric “Shorebound” is a stand out track with its lyrics titling the album. “Butterfly Broach” is a very english pastoral love song with a dark edge like the best of Boo Hewerdine. “Silent Sigh” is another electronic Country song, weary delivery with some superb lyrics about the slow drift apart. ‘Now love is whiskey, love is wine I know I’m fading but I’m fine’. “Come Morning” with its light touch, electronic drums and reflective vocal has a touch of The Blue Nile. The wave like keyboards and pastoral imagery are followed by “Postcard From Walberswick” a final sea shore interlude that closes this thoughtful and delicate album.

Marc Higgins

Sunday 28 January 2024

East of Ely: 8: The Paul Woodgate Review

Miracle Mile released 'In Cassidy’s Care', their last full-length recording, in 2013. It was the year Taylor Swift released her fourth long player, 'Red'. She was still a year away from the titanic shift that 1989 and its globe-swallowing exploits were to herald. Tay Tay is not the reason Miracle Mile went quiet, but it seemed possible to those of us who cared that they were never ever (ever!) getting back together. 
A lot can happen in 11 years. Music has succumbed to the digital diktat of corporate streaming services where it is now described as ‘product’ and a lot of it seems created only to fuel our connection with the adverts scrolling across the small blue screen in front of us. You’re probably reading this on your smartphone, right? The whole world is in your hands, but where is your heart?

Perhaps you need Miracle Mile more than you thought.

And what of our heroes? Marcus Cliffe, multi-instrumentalist, studio owner, all round melodic marvel has, amongst other things, toured on and off with Manfred Man, released solo LPs and worked on a musical with Mark Knopfler. Trevor Jones, always with Marcus’ assistance - it would come as no surprise if they finished each other’s sentences (I sort of want them to) - has released a series of solo LPs culminating in 2019s 'Carver’s Law', which have allowed him to step outside the ‘band’ ethos and explore a gentler, more introspective journey.

That tilt towards introspection continues here. It will be no surprise to long-term fans of Jones and Cliffe, and can be measured in rough correlation with the decreasing number of ‘official’ band members over the years. From the fizzing pop of 'Bicycle Thieves' with a full compliment, to the later LPs where the duo made best use of friends and hired hands to conjure music so irresistibly catchy and thought provoking it’s probably illegal. The road now arrives on the windswept shores of East Anglia; East of Ely.

There isn’t a bad song on the album; the quality level is shockingly high. All the touchstones are here, from musings on family past and present, the joy of solitude, the passing of, and gratitude for, time. Add to those love, friendship, forgiveness and always, always, hope; it’s Miracle Mile’s oxygen.

Opener 'Appletree' reads like a reintroduction to Miracle Mile's manifesto. Over a typically gorgeous piano and string melody Jones reassures all those who wondered at their absence that ‘It's from me, just for you..’, recognising the relationship between the artist and listener, between influencer and influenced; ‘ wouldn’t be you without me / but I wouldn't be me without you.’ The re-connection is, I'm happy to report, instant.

'Sparrows' unwinds delicate memories - ‘Home holds your scent, and whispers your name / He scratched it there on the back window-frame’. Underpinned by brushed snare and a wash of keys, it has one of the band’s brilliant trademark codas, a songwriting skill so often lacking these days but well understood by these gents.

No-one’s Walking John Wayne here, but there’s no less drama. 'Night Wedding' opens like one of Carver's short stories. There’s no disguising the storytelling craft in ‘Well she walked down the aisle with a Scotch in her hand / She was only really there for the wedding band’. The beautiful strings in the middle-eight could have soundtracked Brief Encounter. I don’t have a favourite, but I keep coming back to see how the girl got on.

'Shorebound', a title track of sorts, continues Jones’ penchant for the spoken word in song, in this instance joining with both Marcus and Lucinda Drayton (whose voice in her spoken word verse sounds uncannily like Sarah Cracknell) to extol the virtues of their coastal retreats, retreats where most of the album was conceived and which birthed its title. The song is an anchor around which all the others float. Try getting the ear-worm of a chorus out of your head - you’ve been warned.

If I were to choose a song for the first 7” - ah, those were the days! - it would be 'Chapel Flower Morning'. It’s the most immediate track on the album and reminiscent of 'Limbo' and 'Glow'-era Miracle Mile, with a steadily rising wall of melody that breaks on your shore like a benediction. You’ll have to buy the CD if you want it though; it’s not on the vinyl. Buy both, why don’t you?

Nowhere is the sense of calm and clarity of thought they’ve discovered better summarised than in the album’s two short instrumental pieces. The first, 'Postcard from Happisburgh', is a wonderful guitar piece from Cliffe that leaves you envious for his having found a place that makes him so happy. 'Postcard from Walberswick', the final piece on the album, is Jones’ gift, a musical wish-you-were-here from a man with a heart too big for his body. No, I’m not crying, you are.

Over eight studio albums and a compilation, Miracle Mile have built a beautifully crafted catalogue of articulate, intelligent music. Beautifully rendered, resolutely anti-zeitgeist, often melancholy, always hopeful. They might not be in everyone’s sights, but when you travel under the radar, you can hit the target without being found out. If there’s a sadness in not having been more widely recognised, perhaps we should just be grateful Miracle Mile are here at all. 'East of Ely' is bullseye number nine. Hit the coast roads and rejoice; our happy/sad place is found again.

Paul Woodgate   27/1/2024

Saturday 27 January 2024

'East of Ely': 7: A Good Egg

One of the pleasures of writing, recording and releasing music, is in meeting the folk with whom your music resonates. It's quite a thing to have a stranger let you in. In my songs I try to demystify the mundanities and clarify the confusions by using facts of life. It is encouraging then to hear when 'specific' translates as 'universal'. It helps if you steep your writing in truth: it keeps things authentic and convincing. If folk whiff falsity or contrivance you'll soon lose them. So, when a stranger calls to tell you that they recognise their own world in yours, the sense of 'connection' can be overwhelmingly gratifying: particularly when your moment of clarity has been born from confusion. 

A few years ago Di and I were at a Case Harding gig in Soho. The Borderline has long gone, but was once a regular haunt: an atmospheric basement venue that offered cheap beer, decent Mexican food, a great rig and seemed to lean towards the artists that I admired. It's where Mark Eitzel's brilliant live album 'Songs of Love' was recorded. I saw Ron Sexsmith there on his first UK tour: a young Sheryl Crowe too, when she was raw and hungry. I digress. This particular night I was aware of a young chap side-eying Di and I as we watched the zesty Pete Gow and Jim Maving strut their stuff as Case Harding. The next morning I received a FB message asking me if I was at the gig and was I the singer with Miracle Mile? Those recognitions don't happen very often so I was intrigued. The message came from Paul 'Egg' Woodgate. It seemed that Paul had recognised me from the cover of 'Slow Fade' and was an admirer of Miracle Mile. My ego was stroked and we chatted. We were clearly kindreds and eventually met up for a messy pub crawl in Islington, followed by a gig at The Union Chapel; The Unthanks I think. Egg has since become a good mate. He is a sweet man: self-deprecating, witty, fiercely intelligent and wonderfully articulate. It also turned out that, amongst his many strings, Paul was a music writer. A great one at that. He has reviewed my solo albums a time or two for AmericanaUk. The reviews were always positive but, more importantly, perceptive: on the nose in terms of understanding and deciphering the thing that I do with Marcus Cliffe. He is therefore one of the first people that I send new recordings to: a bellwether: a touchstone. I trust his judgement and know that I'll get honest feedback. This rambling preamble is by way of introducing a piece that Paul has written for the album; essentially the first review for 'East of Ely'. 

It'll be my next post. 

Thanks to Paul for his kindly words: both elevating and humbling: he really is a good egg!

I hope that his insight whets your appetite and perhaps might move you to pre-order the album. 

Pre-Order 'East of Ely' here.

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 brought 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.