Boo Hewerdine never seems to do anything the obvious way and there can hardly be anything less obvious than Before. The basic idea is that the music has been recorded before it has been overthought, hence the title. The packaging is minimalist – an 18th century painting on the outside, plain green on the inside with just enough information to allow you to get started. Boo opens the door a little and lets you peek into the dimly lit space beyond but no more than that.
The fact that the design is minimal doesn’t mean that the music is although, in line with theme, it’s not over-arranged. It began when producer and percussionist Chris Pepper acquired a dulcitone and, from that starting point, the record is almost a guitar-free zone. Boo doesn’t play one at all but there is a pedal steel and a “prepared” guitar played by long-time collaborator Gustaf Ljunggren. It turns out that Gustaf has a sizeable collection of instruments and he plays fourteen of them here, if you count the toy piano.
The album contains ten songs each one separated from the next by an instrumental interlude, some very short, so the record plays like a single composition. Except that Boo breaks his own rule so there isn’t an interlude between ‘Wild Honey’ and ‘Old Song’. The first two songs, ‘Last Rays Of Sun’ and ‘Imaginary Friends’ could be played by a conventional band and sound good, as could ‘Reno’ but ‘Before’, for example, wouldn’t be the same with anything other than the piano and woodwinds that give it a thirties vibe.
One song that you might have heard before is ‘Starlight’, co-written with Eddi Reader. Boo builds it on vibes and glockenspiel – a contrast with Reader’s rich arrangement – and it feels so melancholy. Can I say that I prefer this version? Before is an unconventional album but it hangs together so well. I’d like to think that it will be there come prize-giving time.
Before was recorded in the first weeks of 2019, with supreme Danish multi-instrumentalist Gustaf Ljunggren, Boo’s only collaborator on the set. Whilst this is an album for the times (that echoes the darkness and confusion around us all these days), Before is also a timely reminder of the power of simplicity, Hewerdine’s lyricism set to a subtle backdrop of vintage instrumentation.
“My producer and studio partner Chris Pepper found a Dulcitone last year. A century old keyboard that strikes tuning forks with felt hammers. I fell in love with its delicate sound straight away. We then came by an Indian harmonium, a Vibraphone and several other unusual instruments. My father’s old piano lives in the studio. Using these (and no guitars) I started recording with little intention this would become an album. Since Swimming In Mercury was released in 2017, I have been writing, recording and touring with Eddi Reader, Chris Difford, Kris Drever and Emily Barker among others. I love this! All my significant friendships have come through collaborative creativity. I realised that another friend Gustaf Ljunggren from Copenhagen, also has an amazing collection of strange instruments so I asked him to react to my new recordings and augment them instinctively. He has a unique approach to instrumentation and always offers the song something unexpected (we first worked together on the album Anon back in 2002) I really trust him!
The previous record was the most complex work I had made since The Bible days and I am always drawn to distilling ideas into as minimal a form as possible. I love the painting Cracked Ice by Maruyama Okyo, an incredibly spare work from the 18th century that looks like it could have been created now. It was always in my mind during the writing and so I asked The British Museum and they let me use the artwork on the cover of Before.
This album feels like an opportunity to go back to the source. The way a song might spring into being almost fully formed. Ever since I was a kid there’s been a soundtrack in my head. The song, ‘I Wish Had Wings’ arrived on the way to the studio and I recorded it without any editing or honing. In fact I thought about making the quotation marks a part of the title as I hardly feel I had much consciously to do with its arrival! A song about daft songs popping into my mind. These songs are not as “crafted” as some I have written but I love them for that. This is how I first hear them. These are first drafts. Before”.
Praised by Kathryn Williams and produced by Boo Hewerdine, who also contributes guitar, harmonium and dulcitone to Skywriting, veteran Nottingham singer-songwriter Langram comes from the old school of troubadours, his keenly observed songs gentle, wistful and poetic, his voice seasoned with the years.
The bucolic ‘Bright Autumn Sky’ with its love of nature opens the album and sets the template for what follows and, while love song ‘World Enough’ sings of him shivering and shaking with emotion, the song itself is serene, a mood never broken by the ensuing eleven songs. ‘Leave To Live (Etechachan)’ sketches a portrait of a “barefoot child” as she “peels back the peat from the moorland” and ‘Time’s Dark Wing’ treats on mortality (“all the treasures we bring/Gathered under time’s dark wing”).
Elsewhere, there’s a disconsolate mood permeating ‘The Diamond Wheel’ where “we all dream or dreams alone”, while, on a more positive note, ‘Snow Angels’ talks of that, a Emily Dickinson might put it, certain slant of light when “The hours fall away/From the veil of time/To show the best of strangers/The way things were”.
At times he reminds me of the mellow aspects of Jim Croce while, Hewerdine on vibes, the jazz-shaded ‘Snow Angels’ conjures a mix of Al Stewart and Brian Protheroe.
Don’t come to Skywriting looking for social angst, but if you hanker after reflective songs that paint musical and lyrical landscapes, sharing the spirit of writers like Robert Frost and John Clare, then the slow waltzer ‘Snow on the Mountain’, the sense of wonder in the brief ‘Camera In The Sky’ (“Look up my little one/Look up on high/To all the future all around you”) and the fading relationship drawn in ‘Injury Time’ (”You hide your hand, I hide my heart”) will prove soothing balm.
The title a reference to a maxim held by the writer Raymond Carver to give everything he had each day trusting that the well would be full again the next, Carver’s Law is Trevor Jones’ fifth solo album, one which features writing collaborations with Boo Hewerdine and David Bridie and musical input from multi-instrumentalist Gustaf Ljunggren and pedal steel maestro BJ Cole alongside long-standing musical partner and co-producer Marcus Cliffe.
As ever, it’s a reflective, meditative affair, the melodies usually anchored by piano, Jones vocals couched in his distinctive dreamily musing delivery, evocative rather than declarative, the album opening with the brief, sparse piano and violin-accompanied ‘Drinking Alone’, one of four Bridie co-writes, pondering whether solitude is better than the dangers fraught in sharing your feelings. The arrangement blossoms on ‘Coleman’s’ (which repeats the image of a rope), steel keening across the lush keyboard framework as, on a lyric exploring forgiveness, he asks “if you lit a candle/Whose name would you mumble?”. Should you be wondering, the title is another Carver reference, inspired by an account by his second wife, fellow writer Tess Gallagher, of an Irish restaurant she wanted to take him too but how he kept being distracted by a Wendy’s or a McDonald’s. They finally got there and the name became a synonym for whether their new poems or stories achieved what they out to do.
‘Have A Sunset On Me’, again complemented by pedal steel with Ljunggren texturing on sax, clarinet and flute, plays a similar thematic note, veined with closure and acceptance of a relationship run its course opening with the line “For want of something better/We went for something worse” and moving to “Seems the dreams that you discover/Were always there to see”.
French for the act of returning, ‘La Rentrée’ moves into waltztime territory on brushed snares for a song about memories, of “the debris of years washed up at my door” and of not being weighed down by the past, but to “try to forget to remember” and to take part in “the dance of the day”.
Featuring Bridie on piano and synth, ‘Gentle Down’ serves as a 56 second lullaby bridge into ‘Morning Pockets’, a song co-written with Hewerdine that has Jones paying tribute to the late British writer and critic AA Gill, acknowledging the influence (“a hounder, a helper, a crutch”) of his mastery of words as he sings “Another man’s pockets is where I belong”.
Indeed, Jones’ love of the poetry of words and their evocative power is manifested in the spoken’ Every Dream A Shadow’ which, contradictory to sentiments elsewhere, values the treasure of memories, of “the faces that have loved you” and of how “what you get is what you give”.
Opening with the sounds of ships’ bells, ‘Blackshore’ continues the thought with a simple fingerpicked number about inspiration, of drawing on experience, of “the beauty of it all” and “the blessings of the ‘in between’” in order to “turn your back to the shore” and move on to uncharted seas and create your own waves.
Another lullaby-flavoured number comes with ‘And The Moon Led Me Home. in which he acknowledges that “You’ve got to be lost to be found”, a reverie of home and hearth that references Rupert Brooke’s 1912 poem, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, in its line about there being honey still for tea.
Opening with clarinet, at just over five minutes ‘What’ll I Do’ is the longest and most musically muscular track, Jones’ dramatic Meatloaf moment, an end of a relationship number that glories in going out in style (“If that was our goodbye then girl/It’s as good a goodbye as can be”) and how we only tend to see things clearly when it’s too late.
Bridie on piano, it’s back to the sounds of water with the words-tumbling ‘Le Mercury’, an observation of two lovers in a moment of emotional crisis (“She is pale, he is tanned/Seems nothing is going as planned”) and the resolution to go with the figurative dance (another recurring image), giving away to another piano-backed spoken number, ‘Dust In My Throat’, that again addresses the theme of memory and the ghosts that he can never let rest in peace, “a box of dead crows he can never release”. Once again, the resolution here delivered in an almost Shakespearean declaration, is to learn from the lessons life teaches and that “Nothing is settled/ If nothing is lost”.
Two short pieces, Cliffe’s piano instrumental ‘Hook and Tumble’ and the closing piano, cello and violin epiphany ‘Woebegone’, which returns to the conclusion of the opening track, sandwich the country-tinged, steel yearning, hymnal waltzing ‘Folderol’, a bittersweet song of “all the hurt that kindness brings”, of lovers grown apart (“I’m for whiskey, you’re for wine”) and of holding on when you should be letting go, not of parting in anger but a goodbye “light as a sparrow”.
Tender, compassionate, sad and veined with hope for better tomorrows, it’s yet another album from an artist who remains frustratingly little known and underappreciated. Here he’s poured out the best of what he has, but we can rest assured that the spring will replenish because, as he says, “I have a song/That will keep singing/Until the darkness has gone”.
Hailing from Birmingham and now living in Bromyard in Herefordshire, Burt’s been a jobbing folkie since the 60s, playing in outfits such as Witches Brew and Dempsey’s Lot as well as solo gigs round the pub and club circuit. Although he’d always written, that had taken something of a back seat to crowd pleasing covers until he attended a songwriting workshop in 2014 and hooked up with Boo Hewerdine, who co-produced this debut album, People Watching, along with drummer Chris Pepper, both of whom provide the backing to Burt’s guitar and mandola.
All the songs are self-penned, one, pastoral troubadour folk and mellotron-tinted ‘If I Were A Wish’, with lyrics by wife Brigit, and are much in the same 60s vein, opening with the fingerpicked moving on post-relationship ‘Turning My Blind Eye On You’ to reveal an often deep vocal echoing shades of Richard Thompson, one of his acknowledged influences, and Ewan MacColl.
The bulk of the material is relatively freshly written but two have a longer history. Sporting political protest metaphor lyrics, the slow shanty sway ‘The Ship’, Hewerdine on harmonium, dates to 1973, while the ukulele-strummed ‘Devil’s Diamond’ was the only thing he wrote throughout the 90s. In a way, it has vague thematic link to ‘Fly Closer To The Sun’, opening on harmonium drone written on the day Lehman Brothers went bust, albeit the song about taking risks rather than a condemnation.
A couple of more whimsical numbers arrive with the ukulele jaunty ‘Rock Me In Your Arms’ and its audience-friendly chorus that, for all its depression-themed backdrop, suggests the playful side of Harvey Andrews and, backed by drone, ‘Monica Is Taller Than Me’ tells of an elegant waitress in a Scottish restaurant, a nostalgic lust-free reflection and fantasy on the days when a little flirtation may have been an option.
By darker contrast, another drone-backed number, ‘The Village’ calls early Strawbs to mind for a song inspired by the exploits of Freddie Spencer Chapman, the British army officer who found behind enemy lines in Japanese-occupied Malaya during WWII, and the cost of resistance. Rather cheerier is a visit to the up-tempo strummed ‘JJ’s Bar’, a memory of time spent singing at a remote rock venue in Luxor, Egypt, being a star if only for a night and a handful of drinkers.
As an observational writer, the album ends suitably with the title track, written in a Cleobury Mortimer pub near Ludlow, fantasising the lives and inventing stories about this snapshot of humanity, such as poor old Malcolm who “thinks he’s God’s gift to women” whereas “He’s despised by all those present, talking to him’s just a chore.” Ending with “I wonder what they think of me”.
Probably that, while he may not be one of the acclaimed veterans of the English folk scene, he’d well be worth catching next time he’s playing their local.
Simon And The Astronauts is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing or, more accurately, disguised as a cat video. The titular Simon is poet Simon Wells who co-wrote the songs and alongside him are Boo Hewerdine and Chris Pepper who drums and was responsible for most of the recording. Tucked away are Boo’s son Ben, Darden Smith, Findlay Napier and Karine Polwart – mostly on just one or two numbers.
The opening track, ‘Astronauts’, is reminiscent of early Pink Floyd which may not be not be a coincidence as the second song is ‘Grantchester Meadows’ but not the Roger Waters song although that would have fitted in perfectly. The first two cuts are quite pastoral and then the mood changes. ‘Zinc’ is our first chance to hear Simon, speaking his lyrics, and I couldn’t help thinking of Marc Bolan at this point. Yes, I am that old. The track is decorated by Svetlana Alexievich’s theremin following Boo’s piano.
‘Bridge’ and ‘Airmail’ are both love songs, each in their way, and by now the album is getting entertainingly quirky. Karine Polwart, assisted by Findlay Napier, adopts her broadest Scots accent for ‘Love Is’ which she co-wrote with Simon. Although it sounds jokey, it’s actually quite serious and a very clever song. ‘I’m Just A Cat’ features Simon on saxophone and may go some way to explaining the cover design Or not. By this time Simon And The Astronauts is getting under your skin.
‘Oscar (Looking At The Stars)’ is Darden Smith’s solo and he backs Simon on ‘Tightly Wrapped Jackets’. Ben Hewerdine takes ‘Trampoline’ as a solo and his dad does the same with ‘Box Of Tears’ and then we get Simon’s final appearance on ‘Patti’, in part a paean to Patti Smith, more prose than poetry, spoken over Boo’s throbbing guitar.
As the styles and instrumentation mix you begin to suspect that the participants had a heap of fun making this album. The lyric booklet is one big joke but Simon’s words are deadly earnest. You really should hear this record.