Less than two years on from the release of Smiling From The Floor Up, the warm-voiced Rutland troubadour (formerly frontman for The Hi and Lo) returns with an album he freely admits is not the one he set out to make. By this he means that he handed over the reins to Joe Bennett of The Dreaming Spires who both produces and contributes keyboards, lap steel, bass, violin, banjo, trumpet and vocals.
The result is much more of a band affair, albeit a band limited to Joe, drummer Mike Monaghan and himself on guitars, mandolin, ukulele and harmonica. Not to forget Hannah Elton-Wall from The Redlands Palomino Company on vocals (her hubbie Alex and Lola-Rose McClure also adding their voices to the mix). It’s also a more directly roots-country album, opening up with the brisk and breezy, pedal steel underpinned ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ setting the blueprint for songs “about love, trying to get it, trying to keep it, trying to understand it, and just getting on with it.”
Harmonica wails its way into ‘Unremarkable Me’, an up-tempo stomp that conjures thoughts of Guy Clark (and mentions doing the shopping) while, sounding like it was improvised in the studio, especially its line about Joe on banjo, ‘I Could Be A Happy Man’ (one of three songs revisited in slightly different shapes from the Hi and Lo album) as a drunken sway walking rhythm that reminded me of a slower ‘Battleship Chains’. A melancholic, fingerpicked acoustic ‘Don’t Take Me Under’ is the first ballad, designed for a honky tonk with the beers lined up in a row, the mood carried over into the raggedly reflective ‘Everyday Is Mine To Spend’, Hannah’s harmonies adding an extra layer of hurt.
Harmonica picks the pace up for the shuffling break up number ‘Holding A Ten Ton Load’, then it’s into waltz time for more goodbyes with Hannah duetting on ‘So Long’, following by the Dylanesque bustling ‘My Big Head Hat Of Dreams’ with its mariachi trumpets and a (unfortunately radio unfriendly) lyric about building walls against those who’d bring you down.
It’s finger-picking ballad time again with the vulnerable, catch me when I fall ‘Yesterday’s Lies’, the album hitting the final stretch with ‘My Little Ray Of Sunshine’ that surely tips the hat to the jug band side of The Lovin’ Spoonful and the slow, organ-backed six-minute ‘A Song For Anyone’ hymn to the power of song to bring friendship, comfort and healing, the melody of which, unlikely as it may seem, actually recalls Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’. I did say this was more roots-country, but, as with ‘Lola-Rose’ on ‘Smiling’, for the last track he drops in a whimsical vaudeville-esque ukulele retro pop number, tip-toeing through the tulips with Lady Flossington. McClure says these are songs for anyone, go ahead and help yourself.
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‘Holding A Ten Ton Load’ – live: