Completed last year but delayed by Covid, Johnny Black and Emma Scarr return, joined by Steve Bottcher, with Last Year’s Joke, another album of wry and largely playful songs centred around middle-age malaise, again with Scarr mostly singing lead and rooted in their cocktail of East London country and folk with its McColl and Costello shadings, but pushing the musical moods into some new areas too.
Cases in point would be the thematically self-descriptive ‘I Had Too Much To Drink Last Night’ on which Scarr relates her morning after blues to a lurching mazurka that recalls 90s post punk outfit The Ukrainians, while, again sung by Scarr, the I’m getting too old for all this ‘Knock It On The Head’ has a decided Latin flavoured rhythm to its blues and fiddle scraping.
Black opens the album with one of his working man clock watching blues numbers, ‘Work My Fingers To The Bone’, Scarr taking over with the familiar harmonica and strummed Celtic pub folk sway of ‘80s Blues’, a song recalling Maggie T, the miners’ strike, yuppies and her feeling a teenage misfit, nagged by her mother to fix her hair (“got myself a shaggy perm”) and trying fit in by listening to Duran Duran and going to Bananarama gigs, feeling “as miserable as sin” before the epiphany of discovering “Guy Clarke, Nanci and Emmylou Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt”.
The same swayalong musical backdrop carries along the duet ‘I Feel So Lonely’, a fiddle-accompanied lament about getting older, losing your mojo and relationships falling away, a theme that, Scarr on lead and featuring harmonica and twanged guitar, resurfaces with the poignant Leytonstone-set ‘Loneliness Is The Famine Of The Western World’ with its sketch of a woman who “Every Sunday without fail you see her at the car boot sale, rummaging for plants and pots in a frock she got from the charity shop… watches box sets until bed enjoys a glass or two of red”.
Another slow waltzer, the five minute plus title track (which also featured on her solo album Scarred For Life) has Scarr ruefully capturing the emptiness of life and love turned stale where, when you’re tired and old, feeling happy one day warrants a note in the diary, Growing old and losing a sense of purpose is also at the heart of the bluesy loping ‘The Shed’, the titular building to where the couple could retreat and be close to each other still unfinished after ten years, while the duetted ‘Old And Grey’ is basically Black’s version of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’.
Given a harmonica wailing, punk-folk steady march beat, there’s another dysfunctional domestic relationship as Black observes ‘My Next Door Neighbour’, a couple who are always “messing with each other’s head”, quite possibly the only song to feature the word conniption.
As mentioned, Last Year’s Joke came about during the pandemic and social isolation, so naturally the jaunty, jogging, mandolin and fiddle sprinkled blues ‘Bubble’ is a product of that with its refrain of “if you like me, you can Skype me”, as indeed is the bonus track closer, ‘Praying That The Lock Down Never Ends’, with its dread of having to return to a life of clocking in, soulless concrete towers, overcrowded tubes and traffic queues. Given the lifting of restrictions, it is of course a touch dated now. Unless you’re civil servant.
Artists’ website: www.18tilidie.com
‘Knock It On The Head’ – live:
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