Based in Glasgow, Ayrshire singer-songwriter Norrie McCulloch clearly doesn’t like to let the grass grow under his feet. Bare Along The Branches is his third album in as many years, following on from last year’s These Mountain Blues. I was much impressed by that, describing him on these pages as sounding like a Glaswegian Martyn Joseph.
I’m even more enamoured this time round, although, while the Joseph comparison still pertains here and there, his vocals here remind me far more of Cat Stevens, which is never a bad thing. Again working with regular collaborators Stuart Kidd, Marco Rea, Teenage Fanclub’s Dave McGowan, Iain Thompson on mandolin and Iain Sloan from The Wynntown Marshals, is a more diverse set, embracing a wider range of genres and styles.
It opens with the plangent Caledonian folk-soul of ‘Shutter’, an end of relationship number led by McGowan’s piano and keys with a catchy ra da dada da refrain, taking the pace and mood down with the reflective strum of an equally soulful ‘Litte Boat’, a number that could easily have come from an early Van Morrison album. Electric keyboards provide the bedrock for the midtempo ‘Lonely Boy’ with its na na na na na harmonised backing vocals and a feel reminiscent of 70s soul, although, apparently Bread and the music of David Gates was also big in the young McCulloch’s family household.
Things take a significant musical shift with ‘Frozen River’, cascading mandolin lines and banjo taking things into scampering mountain folk territory, with hints of both Glen Campbell and John Denver evident. He stays in America for the sway of the tenderly poignant ‘Safe Keeping’, a particular highlight, where those Joseph echoes mingle with Son Volt influences, the acoustic strum complemented by McGowan’s electric filigree. Sloan making his appearance on pedal steel, the melodically catchy ‘Never Leave You Behind’, basically an upbeat number about following your other half after they’ve passed, is a sprightly country rock choogle with a touch of Texicana.
It’s back to Caledonia soul for keyboard let your feelings show love song ballad ‘This Time’ before the arrival of the album’s simplest and most moving track, ‘Turn To Dust’, a live solo acoustic number, written for and recorded just after the death of his mother, capturing that heavy sense of loss as he sings “maybe if you just showed me a sign, it could ease my troubled mind, just don’t know who turn to anymore.”
It’s followed by a suitably lonesome harmonica introducing ‘Around The Bend’, a slow banjo dappled march beat dusty road ballad about picking yourself up from loss, dejection, failure and facing what lies ahead with positivity and acceptance. Picking up on its underlying growing up theme, the album ends with its longest and most ambitious song, ‘Beggars Woods’, from whence the album title comes. Beginning with spare acoustic and electric guitar backing, it’s a seven minute allegorical recalling of a childhood story about a man, lost and broken, living wild in the woods, a spur to a meditation on exclusion and isolation that, as the instrumentation fills out, takes McCulloch back to the scene as an adult, where “life stretches bare along the branches”, giving way to McGowan’s closing two minute electric guitar solo. It’s a stunning conclusion to an outstanding album that should afford McCulloch the fulsome acclaim he deserves.
Artist’s website: www.norriemcculloch.com
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