The 12-string revival continues to gather steam with the third album from the British folk-rock septet fronted by David Boardman and Zoe Blythe and featuring BBC presenter and co-writer Mark Radcliffe on drums. Deadbeat Lullabies opens in splendid jangling guitar and mandolin style with the vintage Byrdsian/Dylanesque ‘King Of The Three Streets’ (it’s a close cousin to Gram’s ‘Return Of The Grievous Angel’), a number which borrows a line from John Donne’s The Good Morrow in a lyric that seems to be about the power of dreams and the imagination even when your horizons are limited (“I’m searching for the spotlight in the places that I know/You can keep your country pleasures and your talk of pure fresh air/Three little streets a heaven, one little room an everywhere”).
Blythe takes over lead with Gary O’Brien on organ, Chris Loe’s pedal steel and Emily Doggett on fiddle for the similarly rooted ‘Del Rio’, the lyrics apparently some three decades old and referring, I’d assume, to the Lanzarote tourist spot of Mirador del Rio (“Two thousand feet straight down to nowhere”) rather than the Texas town as she captures the euphoria of how “When we hit Del Rio we knew that we’d arrived/Worth every penny felt good to be alive”.
The first of three five-minute numbers, returning to Boardman, ‘First Light’ is a slower affair with yearning pedal steel, cymbals and acoustic strum but again infused with images of nature and escape through dreams (“Into the gloaming with wilder thoughts roaming/And the yearning for places that I never go/Sweet hibernation a faraway country/Beyond the unblinking street lamps aglow”), bringing illumination to the confusion of the dark hours.
The tempo kicks back up for the poppy guitar riff chug of ‘The Island’, another get away from it song (“From the darkest dreams where everything seems to leave you petrified/Somewhere out there, across the ocean, buried in your mind/There’s a place, a warm embrace, that some day you will find”) with its tumbling drums, fiddle solo and big soaring take me higher chorus.
To the best of my knowledge, the first track this year to mention Christmas, the mid-tempo ‘Far Rockaway’ offers another fine helping of classic country rock on a song that speaks of the end of a relationship (“Turning bricks and mortar to a house of cards“), the title referring to the neighbourhood on the Rockaway peninsula in Queens, to which the singer has retreated after screwing things up (“the promises I made were never easy to believe…do you think I enjoyed making life so hard”).
Doggetts’s fiddle sets the waltztime frame for the harmonised, lilting ‘The Old Haunts’, pedal steel underscoring its reflective nostalgia for that first taste of freedom and independence even if it wasn’t exactly a paradise (“I still dream about those days, in the dog house/There are more ghosts in there, than I can recall/The nights that we spent crawling back to the room/Where the paper peeled from the damp in the walls”), as the memories flood back (“I can still see the names by the doorbell/The words that were written and the parts that were played/There was dust in the carpet, a mess in the kitchen/The scrawl on the table, the bills never paid”), tinged with the melancholy of the years passing (“Years have gone by since the time of our lives/Many years creeping comfortably slow/Years of letting our dreams go on drifting”).
Blythe taking lead and Doggett’s fiddle again to the fore, ‘Long Way To Fall’ (the second mention of Christmas) shifts from cosmic Americana to a folksier Irish sound in a song about clinging to hope in the darkest days and how “When everything is said and done/
We’ll win more than we’ll lose” and that “There’s more to life than sufferin’”. Boardman back in the spotlight with Blythe harmonising, circling fingerpicked guitar guides the five-minute ‘Out On The Shore’ that, again about looking for refuge in difficult times, offers the third festive season image in “Like the fading fairy lights on a forgotten Christmas tree/With silent nights so far away – we look for Bethlehem”, the line about how “from this place we found together – we will soon be deportees” drawing on the experience of those displaced by conflict or disaster (“Nothing is left of the smouldering remains/Of the dreams and the things that we used to care for/So hold me and know that our love is the law/As we watch the town blazing from out on the shore”).
Deadbeat Lullabies enters the final stretch with the rockier country rock pulse of ‘The Lie Of The Land’ (though I’m sure I can detect a Clive Gregson influence) with its horizons ahead, Blythe back on lead for the steel-stained achingly wonderful penultimate ‘I Never Asked For Much’, again echoing Gram and Emmylou but also conjuring thoughts of Oxford’s The Dreaming Spires’ ‘Dusty In Memphis’. Having introduced Christmas, it ends with Radcliffe’s near six-minute ‘New Year’s Eve’, a final country flourish with its beers and tears honky tonk sensibility and a chorus melody reminiscent of Kristofferson’s ‘Sunday Mornin’ Coming’ Down’ (they actually had an almost identically titled song on their last album) and regret-themed lyric that, in its story of the damage of drink, could almost be a revisit to the ‘Far Rockaway’ narrative (“I’m sorry that I hurt you/I never had the gentle touch/I drank whisky, I drank brandy/and I overstepped the line/Tell the kids I work away now/Tell your folks I’m doing fine”), as the narrator says he desperately “wanted to be sober when I left on New Year’s Eve“.
They may perhaps wear their influences a little too openly at times, but, once again, these far from feckless lullabies are the stuff Americana dreams are made of.
Artists’ website: www.wearefinelines.com
‘King Of The Three Streets’ – official video: