BLAIR DUNLOP – Gilded (Gilded Wings GWR001)

GildedThe son of Ashley Hutchings, Dunlop’s follow-up to House Of Jacks contains a dozen self-penned songs, all recorded as live with a basic instrumentation of Jacob Stoney on keys, drummer Fred Claridge and bass player Tim Thomas, that find him pushing deeper into the more radio-friendly and catchily melodic frontiers of contemporary folk. This is particularly true of the opening track, ‘Castello’, a song inspired by the experiences and dreams of a Balkan/Latin woman from Manchester he met while touring Europe and which, just as ‘45s’ referenced The Kinks and Dylan, namechecks Joy Division and James. He’s been likened to Jackson Browne and, while this holds true in places (most especially on ‘The Egoist’, a relationship-centred number that wouldn’t have been out of place on Late For The Sky) , listening to ‘She Won’t Cry For Me’, a song seemingly about a relationship fractured by his chosen career (“Your dreams were only ever big enough for two. My dreams are born from other people passing through”), I’m more put in mind of Don McLean playing Richard Thompson, who’s clearly an influence on the stunning guitar work.

Social comment is part and parcel of Dunlop’s work and this is no exception. Built around fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a repetitive, almost mechanical, drum pattern of just three clicks, ‘Eternal Optimist’ addresses the way our lives are dominated by our screens and the way it distances up from real interaction while, as the title suggests, the fingerpicked ‘No Go Zones’ concerns the way the news (and the BBC is specifically mentioned) and scaremongering can inculcate fear in the uninformed Western traveller as well as nodding to the way the ban on fox hunting is blatantly ignored. Which isn’t to say, of course, that some no go zones aren’t very real.

Then there’s ‘First World Problems’, a commentary on giving up control of the manufacturing process, whether that be in terms of a third world farmer’s forced concessions to economic trade (“we can always make it cheaper”) or musical compromise (“the words fall on stony ground without the roots to hold them down”). It’s the first of three co-writes, here with his former Albion Band colleagues, while ahab’s Dave Burns collaborates on the starry-skies mood of the love lost ‘I Don’t Know’ and he teams with Gita Langley for album closer, ‘Phoenix’, a keyboards-led bluesy exploration of the parallels between the mythological bird and someone close to Dunlop.

On a different note, tapping out percussion on his guitar, ‘356’ is a wry song about a man dreaming of buying a classic luxury Porsche sports car with just 40,000 on the clock from a Mayfair showroom before riding off on his bike, and perhaps subconsciously intentionally, reminiscent of Paul Brady’s ‘Crazy Dreams’.

Two tracks make very specific reference to historical figures. That said, the solo acoustic ‘Let’s Dance to Paganini’ is actually another relationship number, here at its birth, hearts sparking to the line “then I knew that it was fate. Let the violins arpeggiate”.

By contrast, and something of a lyrical departure from everything else, opening on an acoustic strum and adding drums and organ ‘Up On Cragside’ is essentially a folk rock potted biography and ode to engineering, sung in the voice of Lord (William George) Armstrong, recounting how he dutifully followed his father into the legal profession before giving it up to pursue his love of machines, first designing a piston for use with the Tyneside dockyard cranes, then setting up a company that forged a light field gun used in both the Crimea and the American Civil War before eventually building the first house (the Northumberland country pile of the title) to use hydroelectricity.

So, songs of the conscience, the heart, the human spirit and the lousy Manchester weather. Sounds like pure gold to me.

Mike Davies

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‘Eternal Optimist’ live in the studio:

Blair Dunlop – new album

Blair Dunlop

Blair Dunlop announces the release of his third studio album Gilded on May 6th 2016. An accomplished writer, guitarist and vocalist, Blair will also be heading out on a 16 date UK tour to promote the new record, kicking off April 20th 2016 in Shrewsbury, including a launch show at London’s Lexington on April 25th.

Gilded follows on from Blair’s highly acclaimed 2014 release House Of Jacks and his outstanding debut album Blight and Blossom in 2012, which saw him win the BBC Radio 2 Folk Horizon Award. Blair is a story-teller, known for his cerebral life affirming lyrics and the new record fares no differently – Gilded is a collection of stories and reflections, recorded in live takes at Manchester’s Blue Print Studios. On this record Blair remains true to his folk roots lyrically whilst continuing to push musically into new areas.

Album opener ‘Castello’ sets the tone for the narrative nature of the record with lyrics inspired by the dreams, lineage and experiences of a woman Blair met while staying at a 14th century Italian castle during a European tour. ‘Eternal Optimist’ was born of his frustration and intrigue at the digital world we now live in, “our real-world experiences seem increasingly subservient to the digital facades we are obsessed with maintaining and refining explains Blair.  ‘First World Problem’, which, written with Blair’s old Albion Band mates, also reflects on society and the lack of compassionate, consequence-based thinking in the Western world, he muses “money talks, at the expense of workers’ welfare, quality of produce, culture and the sustainability of the planet.

Some tracks on the album are more personal. ‘She Won’t Cry For Me’ is a reflective song about the intricacies of a relationship and how the attitudes within it change over time. Blair was also lucky to co-write some songs on the album, writing with Dave Burn from the band AHAB and also with Gita Harcourt-Smith, with whom he co-wrote album closer ‘Phoenix’ on which they explore parallels between the mythology of the Phoenix and someone close to Blair’s heart.

Blair’s career goes from strength to strength. He has won awards, toured all over the UK and overseas, collaborated with a variety of writers and musicians, moved to London and set up his own record label (Gilded Wings Records), all of which have informed, and are reflected in, his mature and astute musical musings. The Guardian described him as an increasingly adventurous songwriter, and it rings even truer now. Blair has the confidence and experience to make the music he has always wanted to.

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‘Eternal Optimist’ live: