BILL DODDS – Closer (own label)

CloserFollowing in the footsteps of Norman Paterson, Dodds, a retired railway driver and keen cyclist (he’s one of the few to have cycled round the globe) from Newcastle, is the latest late bloomer to release a debut album. Venturing into songwriting during the pandemic, he began attending online workshops and hesitantly exploring live performances once lockdown ended. Having met online, he hooked up with producer Dan Whitehouse who helped refine his work and who also plays guitar, synth and adds backing vocals on Closer, a collection of easy on the ear songs about love, loss, musical heroes and historical stories, that features musical contributions from with frequent Whitehouse collaborator Gustaf Lljunggren on pedal steel, accordion, guitar and electric piano.

John Elliott providing percussion, backed by noodling piano the melodically simple title track opens proceedings, a reflection on  tentatively taking those first steps into romance (“I thought about holding you tight/And asking if things were ok/But I didn’t know what you’d do/Wasn’t sure what you’d say/So I just moved a little closer”). The tempo picks up slightly for ‘Waiting For Snowflakes To Fall’, another romantic reflection, here of becoming a parent and their daughter eventually flying the next framed with images of autumn and the changing seasons in contemplating the passing of the years.

The first of two musical heroes is celebrated in ‘Goodnight Vin’, a slow waltzing elegy  to the late Vin Garbutt  (“he had us in stitches as his stories unfolded/And his punchlines finally broke free/His voice was unique, his patter the best/We were lucky to have him, fortunate to hear him/And listen to his tales and his jest”) that has hints of  ‘Sweet Baby James’ and, namechecking various song titles, features Christine Durand on whistle and  lilting backing vocals from Harriet Harckum, who, it must be said, should herself be far better known by now. Durand returns to read the French poetry on ‘Incroyable’, a reverie of l’amour in the city of romance (“Tonight’s the night I want to be with you/As stars fill the Paris sky/I only hope that once the daylight breaks/This chance for love, won’t have passed us by”).

When cycling, Dodds often stops by at war memorials, giving rise here to ‘The Kaiser And The King’, a gently strummed,  lightly dancing tribute to young men lost at war written in the voice of a wife/mother having to watch her husband/son go off to fight in WWI  and wonder if he’ll ever return (“Already the streets in our village are empty/Of men away fighting so far from their land/The widow’s black is seen all too often/And postmen are feared when they knock at a door”) while, Kathy Wesolowsk on operatic vocals,  the chorus notes how “The Kaiser and the King/Sleep safely in their beds”.

Picking up the ‘where have all the young men gone” note, the second tribute, ‘I Heard You Sing A Song’, is written for Pete Seeger, repaying the favour of his activism (it references his marching with Martin Luther King and his involvement at Selma Bridge) and songs of protest (“I heard you sing a song for freedom/I heard you sing a song for peace/I heard you sing a song for our troubled earth/Now I’m singing this song for you”).

As you might assume, strummed swayer ‘Waltzing With Clara’ is another love song, this time moving from Paris to Vienna and Firenze, memories of meeting giving way to waiting for that final parting (“Now I’m waiting for something quite different/Sitting here by your side/Our dancing days are behind us/But I still see you circle and glide/Finally the music stops playing/And you’re no longer dancing with me”).

Featuring viola virtuoso Alison D’Souza and inspired by a trip to Verona with his partner and sharing a balcony moment, the warmly backed ‘Fools and Princes’ naturally relates to “star crossed lovers” Romeo and Juliet (“Thirteen years old, she doesn’t know/Just how cruel this world can be/She’s so in love that nothing else matters/He feels exactly the same as she/Lying next to each other as their hearts beat and soar/They’re hoping for a lifetime together”), though focused on the fight between Romeo and Tybalt that sets the tragedy in motion.

‘How Could I Know’ returns to the romance path, this time about schooldays lovers who went their separate ways (“You were the one for me, but I never knew you’d break my heart/You looked my way and I heard you softly say/’Do you think he’d like to dance with me’”) and met again years down the line. albeit with a slight twist to the tail (“Walking down the street, two children by my side/I saw you with your friend and you stopped to talk to me/You both stood hand in hand, your girlfriend by your side/Then you kissed me on the cheek and said goodbye”).

Written at a songwriting retreat led by Gretchen Peters and Mary Gauthier, Dodds has the good sense to get his granddaughter, Chloe Weston, to sing the delicate, wistful lover spurned ‘I Am A Woman Who Knows No Bounds’ (“There was a time I believed all your lies/And all the things you’d say/I gave you my heart to hold in your hands/You threw it all away… You kissed her like she was me/Then you turned and saw my face/Too late to try and pull free”) that takes its cue from a certain Dolly Parton classic, albeit  nowhere near that needy (“You made the biggest mistake you could make/Cause this isn’t like Jolene/Your bags were packed and waiting for you/No need to make a scene/Now you can go wherever you want/With anyone you please/I am a woman who knows no bounds/I’ll never be on my knees”).

It ends in a final song of heartache and loss, and yet more terpsichorean imagery, with the slow accordion-tinged, gently picked swayalong ‘Waiting To Dance With The Moon’ (“People out walking smile as they pass by/They don’t know how broken I feel/I’m still waiting for time to move on/Wishing my heart can soon heal”) with its bittersweet refrain “I’m living a lie/Hoping that you’ll come back soon/Here all alone, hiding from daylight/Waiting to dance with the moon”.

The pervasive muted tone, themes and gentle pacing suggests audiences of more mature, mellow years who prefer not to break aural sweat, more a glass of red wine by the fire than a shot down some craic-friendly club, but there’s no denying he has a soothingly engaging voice and an inviting way with words. In his tribute to Seeger, he says “be proud of the songs that you sing”. He should be.

Mike Davies

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