ROBB JOHNSON – Your Affectionate Son (Irregular Records IRR117)

Your Affectionate SonThere seems to be no stopping Robb Johnson. Your Affectionate Son is the first of two new albums he’s about to release and there is a back-story to it. The songs were commissioned by Hartlepool Folk Festival for a concert inspired by the letters home written by Pte. George Gower during the Great War. The concert was a big affair including a brass band but circumstances dictated a different approach for the recording and Robb has turned to his (ir)regular pianist, Jennifer Carr, who arranged the music. Solo piano suits the period perfectly, of course and also the style of timeless songwriting that Robb perfected in Gentle Men and Ordinary Giants.

Robb uses George Gower’s own words but as he says in his notes it’s what George doesn’t say in his cheerful letters from the front that’s important and here reports the news as observed by George’s parents who kept a shop in Hartlepool. In fact, the opening track is ‘Illingworth J Gower’s Grocery Shop’ – what a splendid name George’s father had – talking about life before the war, with just a hint of Kipling. Things change with ‘When Did The Future Begin?’ and the bombardment of the north-east coast, including Hartlepool, by the German navy.

George writes a happy, cheery letter from basic training at ‘Rugely Camp’ – I’ve been to Rugeley and I’ll say no more – and Robb injects some of his own gentle gallows humour into the song. In ‘George Lets Us Know’ his parents report on their son’s letters, still with an air of optimism but ‘Your Affectionate Son’ and ‘All 7/6 On Chocolate’ begin to get serious; the latter referring to the way George spends his weekly pay.

Robb ironically quotes the melody of ‘Land Of Hope And Glory’ in ‘Unnecessary Grain’, a humorously vituperative comment on food rationing but ‘Shellholia’ brings us back to reality via George’s dreams and hopes which are dashed in the panic of a gas attack. Here, Robb adds historical fact to George’s words – he never told his parents about the gas that would eventually bring about his death. ‘Victory Square’ contemplates the meaning of the war in its aftermath and ‘Where Have All The Nice Boys Gone?’ takes the viewpoint of a young woman faced with the lack of suitable suitors. Robb is quietly scathing about the officers who “never fired a shot”.

‘My Affectionate Son’ sees the end of the Gower’s shop – George didn’t join the family business as his father had hoped – while ‘A Nation Of Shopkeepers’ reprises the opening song now partly set in a contemporary context and Robb just about keeps politics at arms’ length.

Your Affectionate Son is a record about family, war and groceries, the latter keeping us grounded throughout all that goes on, and further proof that Robb Johnson is one of the country’s finest song-writers.

Dai Jeffries

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There are no videos or sound files from this album yet but we’ll add one when we find it.

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