the mike davies column june 2016

humdrum

Following on recent single Copy Cats, Kidderminster’s Ian Passey, aka THE HUMDRUM EXPRESS releases new album The Day My Career Died on his own Cynical Thrills label. As well as earlier singles, Double Edged Swords, Cryptic Self Pity and Festival At Home, there’s six further forays into social observations and local references wrapped up in sarcastic and cynical wit wrap. Some are sung, as with the frenzied punky rush through the title track, while others, like Cryptic Self Pity and the wry Leopard Print Onesie (a song that embraces nostalgia, self-important pundits, radio callers, namechecks Joey Barton alongside Pythagoras and argues that bags for life should get cheaper as you get older) are all or mostly spoken.

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Not everything is equally effective, the rapped Game, Set and Match seems a little fuzzy about the target of its barbs, but that’s ably compensated for by the modern times anthem Austerity For All’s jibe at the condescension of Cameron et al. and Catch A Falling Star’s sobering tale of the fall from grace of a now ageing TV game show host amid unproven Operation Yew Tree rumours. On top of which you also get the cleverly constructed End of Part One, a percussion driven rap number built almost entirely around TV commercial slogans. Besides, any record that ponders the question as to why Sam Smith sells more records than TV Smith has to be worth your dosh.

While he continues to put together funding for his album, DOMINIC CRANE has a new project running from June to September dubbed #SoNouveauRetro. Basically, it’s a series of free monthly downloads in the spirit of Costello’s Almost Blue and Weller's Cover album , kicking off with his version of the old Al Jolson chestnut You Made Me Love You and continuing with other songs from the period (www.sonouveauretro.com/songdownload). Tying in, he also has a series of live dates, including fortnightly Wednesday (From Jun 15) in June/July at the Tower of Song in Kings Norton alternating with the Dark Horse in Moseley.

scarlet

Back in 1987, following the demise of Swan’s Way, Rick Jones and Maggie De Monde put together dance-pop outfit SCARLET FANTASTIC, signed to Arista and had a Top 30 hit with No Memory. Disappointingly, the follow up, Plug Me In (To The Central Love Line) stalled at the bottom of the top 60 and subsequent singles failed to chart at all, nor, criminally, did their debut and only album, 24 Hrs. The band fell apart not long after, Maggie going on to work as a stage and screen actress, become Mighty K with husband Leif and collaborate with Marc Almond's keyboard player, Martin Watkins.

Now, however, she has revived Scarlet Fantastic for a new album, Reverie, due out this month. A twelve track release, it embraces her French chanson influences, particularly on on the accordion-wheezing opener Take Me Away . You can hear them too on the keyboard backed, chorus tumbling Church Bells and Starlings, a sort of cross between Piaf and Enya. There’s a dark carnival waltzer approach to Taste of You while Live For Now is a seize the day ballad played out over strummed acoustic guitar before the drums and backing vocals kick in. Elsewhere, the mid-tempo pop Beyond Pluto has a hint of Spanish, The Phoenix, backed by organ and featuring handclaps and sax, is soaring desert noir pop, Last Train is a dreamy ballad that puts me in mind of The First Cut Is The Deepest and You Will Get through a gospel-hued inspirational anthemic cathartic ballad complete with a testifying backing choir. Of the two other original numbers, the simple, swelling, strings pulsing Grace also leans to gospel roots in its resolution to live the life offered with humility and dignity and see the extraordinary in the ordinary, the album ending with the gentle musical box notes (is that a synthesised harp?) of the aptly titled Crystalline.

Rounding the track listing out are two covers that offer an insight into the roots and influences feeding into her writing, a phantasmagorical, orchestral-styled arrangement, with timpani, of Spirit’s Nature’s Way from 1970 and a terrific version of the 1966 Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood hit, Sand, a duet featuring the unmistakable and unique gravelly warble of Dominic Silvani, formerly of local cult heroes Penelope’s Web and currently fronting The Avon Guard. It’s one of my tracks of the year, on an album that’s guaranteed to be in my Top 5 come December. Welcome back.

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Four years on from the ‘comeback’ album, One Day I’m Going To Soar, DEXYS (the core comprising Kevin Rowland, Lucy Morgan, and Sean Read) return via Warner Music with the pithily titled Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul. Its origins date back to the mid 80s when Rowland planned an album of traditional Irish songs to be titled, er, Irish. The band fell apart before that came to fruition, although fiddle player Helen O’Hara did go on to record a solo album called A Night in Ireland in 1998, three of the numbers on which also feature here. As indeed does O’Hara herself, her guest appearance marking the first time she’s played with a Dexys line-up in 31 years.

The title’s something of a catch all, and, essentially, what you get is a mix of Irish evergreens along with a couple of soul classics (though the term country seems somewhat arbitrary) and, as Kev puts it, some songs he’s always wanted to record. These would include the Bee Gees’ To Love Somebody, which isn’t, by any definition, either Irish or soul. However, the interpretation here, partly spoken by Rowland, definitely does inject a Van Morrison feel. Likewise, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now gets a Celtic fiddle touch along with Memphis soul guitar work while Rod Stewart’s You Wear It Well marries a country swagger flavour with lush orchestration. And, talking of country, LeAnn Rimes ‘s How Do I Live is successfully reimagined as slow, melancholic Celtic Memphis soul soaked with warm soulful brass. On the soul side, reminding that Rowland’s a long-time admirer of 50s evergreens, he takes on Platters’ Jerome Kern classic Smoke Get In Your Eyes, complete with dreamy orchestral backing, while old school R&B is represented by a distinctive Rowland semi-spoken vocal take on Friends of Distinction’s 1969 vocal cover of Hugh Masakela’s 1968 instrumental smash hit Grazin’ In The Grass, complete with ‘can you dig it?’ interjections.

So, what of the Irish? The album opens with the O’Hara-featuring instrumental Women of Ireland, losing the original lyrics (from an 18th century poem by Peadar O Doirnin) in favour of just the traditional styled air composed by Sean O Riada, the second dip into Irish culture coming with a sadness soaked, slow march reading of the traditional Curragh Of Kildare, Rowland speaking the opening lines before the music kicks in, Although it could have done without the spoken soul brother interjections, which would be better served in the live context, it’s still a terrific, impassioned version.

Sentimental Irish ballads don’t come more Irish than I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen, which is rather ironic given it is of German-American origin, written in Indiana in 1875 by one Thomas P. Westendorf, an answer song to Barney, Take Me Home Again, a then popular ballad written by one of his friends. It was, however, quickly adopted as Irish, first being recorded in 1914 before the arguably two best known versions by Bing Crosby and Irish tenor Josef Locke in the 40s. Given an air of muted melancholia, backed by piano and strings, it’s one of the best numbers here, Rowland delivering one his finest, mostly deeply felt vocals.

Another Irish song that isn’t strictly Irish, 40 Shades Of Green (was actually written, during a visit to Tipperary, by Johnny Cash (the B side of 1961’s The Rebel – Johnny Yuma), but has since been colonised and covered by the likes of Ruby Murray, Foster and Allen and Daniel O’Donnell. Again, backed by piano, strings, a steady drum beat and some subtle trumpet, it’s a fine version. Of slightly more recent vintage, The Town I Loved So Well was penned by Phil Coulter in the early 70s, partly a nostalgic reverie of his Derry childhood and partly a lament about the way Derry was torn apart by Troubles. It would be the standout track here, were it not edged into second place by the terrific closing six-and-a-half minute version of 18th century Irish classic Carrickfergus, sung from the perspective of a dying labourer wishing he was back home and easily one of Rowland’s finest moments.

It’s a particular highpoint in Dexys and Rowland’s long and, it must be said, sometimes erratic career, and, if you get the deluxe version, you also get eight a capella versions and three instrumentals, the later including Grazing In The Grass and an inspired almost Northern Soul arrangement ofBoth Sides Now.

roots-and-branches.com 2016