In many ways Great Novels is a companion piece to the Amit Dattani solo debut, both of them hailing from Birmingham and sharing a love of folk, blues and country, indeed opening number ‘Leaving Sodom’, a song about learning to let go (“If you hang on to what you have or used to be, then the only thing you get is further into debt with history”) echoes the fingerpicked country blues of Dattani’s album, although the instrumentation is more expansive (drums, harmonica) with a slightly jazzier tinge. In their alter egos, they also co-present the fortnightly roots-based 50 Miles of Elbow Room on BrumRadio.
Shading the Americana with homegrown hues, he has a warm, relaxed and slightly reedy warble vocal style, ‘Canton’ with its simple repeated guitar pattern and a lyric about how “we’ve both learned to show only our best sides – people prefer you to glow”, suggesting a melding of Paul Simon and Gerry Colvin, his songs equally literate and thoughtful.
Produced by fellow local musician Chris Tye, the spacious, airy arrangements gently massaged with understated synths, it’s a generally reflective and laid back affair, though, having said that, ‘In The Ranks’ has a more driving, bluesy groove, pushed along by Dan Todd’s cello, Gary Doidge’s viola and handclaps percussion as he sings about a relationship pecking order and how “I’ve got nowhere to be except cooling my feet until you next find you’re free.”
The songs linked by themes of community and communion, it hits a country stride on the brushed drums waltz of doomed relationship number ‘The Usual Mistake’ (“She spent all her time knowing that she wasn’t growing any way but out”) while Todd’s cello again bolsters the strummed and fingerpicked notes and rumbling drums for ‘Loved & Lonely’ , another broken relationship song, which, I’d venture to suggest, has a bit of a Lou Reed influence about it.
The title track, the shortest at just over two minutes, takes on fingerpicked talking country blues as he sings how “Great novels have been written in this way poring over every hour in a single day”, a playfully musing apology to a lover for why he’s never written a love song, concluding that “what fills my every minute doesn’t fill my ever line… so I’ll sing about the absence of one.”
With its nimble fingerpicking and a more falsetto touch to the vocals, ‘Flowers Of Youth’, a reflection on a relationship that meant less in hindsight than it did at the time, grazes in the same musical fields before drummer Becky Davis lights the blue touch paper and it bursts into an urgent flurry of skiffle-like fireworks that just lacks the washboard to add the final touch.
Sandwiched in-between, Marko Miletic providing the upright bass backbone, ‘British Columbia Calls’, a bitter-coated leaving and recriminations song (“You keep on wreaking the same old revenge”) with its reference to Cassandra who, gifted with prophecy, was cursed that no one would believe her, brings the tempo back down to a bluesy slouch, ‘Stray’ (“If asked your destination you say anywhere that ain’t homebound”) sustaining the regret-grained balladeering.
With synthesised brass, the penultimate number, ‘Passing St Mary’s’, a reflection on rose-tinted memories of our past and a blindness to the present, its title a reference to a local hospice, is a lovely rippling guitar melody with Celtic tones which, gathering to head on the back of Joel Stevens drums and swirling guitars, is dedicated to the late Paul Murphy, the Irish-born, Birmingham-based poet, singer and actor who founded the city’s influential Songwriter’s Café and was a founder member of and vocalist with the Destroyers.
It all ends with the slow bluesy sprawl of ‘5/7’, a song about the factory working week and the community of those who work the production line there “with nothing to show but their family and friends. A quality product to profit the men at the top” and how, at the end of it all, while all that’s left is a stone column “inscribed of the ones who didn’t survive”, there’s pride taken in a job well done. Something Hartland is also well justified in feeling.
Artist’s website: www.danhartland.com
‘Loved&Lonely’ – official video: