ROBB JOHNSON & THE IRREGULARS – Eurotopia (Irregular IRR113)

EurotopiaAs if to prove that not only does Robb Johnson have his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist but that he’s actually ahead of the beat, this album arrived just before the election. There is politics in Eurotopia but not in the way you might expect. This isn’t a rant, more a lament, a threnody for the loss of Europe. It includes some of Robb’s best and most complex songwriting; songs full of people, places and memories.

Robb has spent a good deal of time gigging around Europe and beyond and many of these songs are set in cities across the continent. I assumed that the opener, ‘The Carnival Song’, is about a visit to Jerusalem and then I came to the chorus: “Dir propeller, eller, eller/Gehen schneller, schneller, schneller”. It refers to a song called ‘Dreh den Propeller’ by a German singer called Buddy. It’s horribly catchy and I suspect that it’s something that Robb heard on his travels and found stuck in his mind. In a way it sets up the majority of the other songs which are set in different times and places and in his memory.

‘Charing Cross Station & Hungerford Bridge’ and ‘Coincidents On The Circle Line’ are obviously set in London and are inspired by chance observations and memories, the latter finds Robb musing about a vanished Afghan coat. Then we move on. ‘If The Night Runs Out Before The Money Runs Out’ takes us to Paris, ‘Tram Number 22’ finds us in Prague and ‘The Kreuzberg Sisters’ deposits us in Berlin. ‘My Last Night In Montmartre’ is obvious even to me.

Now it gets serious. Having lulled us with nostalgic tales of exotic places, Robb hits us first with ‘Stalingrad’ and then ‘Welcome To The Museum’ and now we see what he’s been leading up to. The romance of old Europe is ripped away and the ugly face of the modern world is revealed. ‘The Work Is Never Done’ returns to Paris and picks up the theme in the mundane activities of the day before the tourists arrive.

The Irregulars on Eurotopia are Jenny Carr on piano, John Forrester on double bass and Robb’s son Arvin on drums. Linz Maesterosa’s flute and reeds and Bethan Prosser’s violin help to provide the late-night, rainy atmosphere that colours many of the songs. There’s one more thing you need to know. This review is of the thirteen track full band CD but …there is also a nine track vinyl version with just Robb on acoustic guitar and Fae Simon on vocals. The two issues have only four tracks in common so you know what that means: yes, you need them both!

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://www.robbjohnson.co.uk/

We’re unable to source a video from Eurotopia yet but this is brand new – ‘More Than Enough’:

JOHNNY CAMPBELL – Avalon (Subversive Folk SF001)

AvalonThere’s a long story behind Johnny Campbell’s second album Avalon. He is much travelled throughout Europe and the United States and although the record’s title suggests some sort of paradise the songs are inspired by the darker side of life, particularly in the Balkans. Here are songs of poverty and hardship drawing from diverse sources and recorded in a deliberately primitive style – it all makes sense when you hear it.

Avalon opens with the traditional ‘Banks Of The Roses’, fast and almost harsh. Johnny isn’t Irish; in fact you could call him “a citizen of the world” although his nominal base is Huddersfield. He follows that with his own song, ‘Wanderlust’, a song straight from the dust-bowl. In it he name checks Woody Guthrie and you might be reminded of the nostalgia of some of Tom Paxton’s early songs – ‘Ramblin’ Boy’ for example – except that ‘Wanderlust’ has harder edge. Welsh singer Efa Supertramp supplies backing vocals here and throughout the record. ‘Leaver’s Avenue’ is a modern political song – I’m sure I don’t need to explain its theme to you – and Johnny pairs it with the traditional ‘O’Keefe’s Slide’, acoustic guitar with support from Bethan Prosser’s strings.

‘Arthur McBride’ is well known and often over-complicated but here it’s pared back to basics and Johnny’s delivery is almost nonchalant as though seeing off a couple of squaddies is an everyday occurrence. ‘Showtime’ is the second of his US travelling songs and I have to confess that I don’t quite get it but it’s eclipsed by the superb ‘Last Year’. You may be surprised to learn that Johnny has recorded an EP of Robert Burns songs but it merely emphasises his understanding of the roots of traditional music. ‘Last Year’ is lifted from a Swedish folk song with Bethan sounding uncannily like a hurdy-gurdy although Tim Holehouse’s ebow may also contribute to the effect.

‘To The Begging I Will Go’ makes a contrasting pair with ‘The Dalesman’s Litany’; the singer of the former being happy with his lot, the latter not so much. The final ‘Tear Stained Letter’, after the delightful ‘Planxty Kateřina’, is not the Richard Thompson song – more Hank Williams, who gets name checked and Johnny evokes an undefined time of “whiskey soaked rivers” – what a great phrase.

Johnny Campbell has pulled together a remarkable number of styles and subjects to create this record and it all works. It’s an album I could keep on repeat.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: https://johnnycampbell.bandcamp.com

‘Arthur McBride’ – described as spontaneous and shaky: