JOHN RICHARDS – Bring Back The Spring (Working Joe Music WJMCD2019)

Bring Back The SpringJohn Richards is credited on his new CD Bring Back The Spring as “John Richards, Songwriter”. And it is indeed quite possible that you have never heard John himself or the many bands with which he has been associated. But there is a good chance you know songs of his through versions recorded by Robin Dransfield, Downes and Beer, Mike Silver, Fairport Convention and other luminaries. Nevertheless, he seems to work tirelessly around the West Midlands despite his intention, announced some years ago, to concentrate on songwriting rather than continuing to gig with the full John Richards Band. Bring Back The Spring reflects his intention to leave behind as few uncompleted songs as possible, and a good thing too. His own vocals, guitar and bouzouki are augmented by a galaxy of fine musicians and singers, including daughter Emma Jones, Mike Silver, Phil Beer, and Paul Downes, and other longstanding collaborators such as Jim Sutton.

Here’s the track list:

  1. ‘Tutchen The Jed’ (touching the dead) is a bizarre murder ballad based on superstitions of murderers who were identified by a corpse that bled in their presence (cruentation).
  2. ‘Hallsands’ tells the story of a Devon village virtually destroyed by excessive dredging in order to provide sand and gravel for the naval dockyard at Keyham. Very effectively sung by Emma Jones.
  3. ‘Look In Their Eyes’ was co-written with Mike Silver, and is an excellent song about immigration and false promises. “They came when invited to make a new start / and find a new life for their children.
  4. ‘Yellows & Blues’ includes the line that gives the CD its title: it’s a contemplative song with a typically singworthy chorus.
  5. ‘Young Thomas’ is an absorbing story song about an instance of therianthropy – people who can change into animals (or vice versa). Phil Beer’s fiddle solo towards the end of the song is particularly effective.
  6. ‘Never Trouble Trouble’ is a rather classy number with a blues feel.
  7. ‘Threadbare Coats’ was also co-written with Mike Silver and contemplates chilling issues of trial by the media and exploitation of the victim.
  8. ‘No Blacks, No Irish & No Dogs’ is the final song in this collection co-written with Mike Silver, and addresses the issue of ongoing prejudice with individual stories. I imagine the man from Arkansas in the first verse was Bill Broonzy.
  9. ‘Mary Stone’s Waltz’ / ‘The Marigolds’ Waltz’. The waltz that follows this story song was written by Jim Sutton.
  10. ‘Cats Eyes & Stars’ is a story song with a distinctive acoustic rock and roll feel.
  11. Despite its funereal subject ‘The Ballad Of An Ordinary Man’ actually has a rather uplifting chorus. I like it a lot.
  12. ‘Mrs. Allcock’s Millionaire’ has an attractive melody and makes a good point about not being a “would-be millionaire“.
  13. The lengthy ‘The Unknown Soldier’ / ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’ strays into Eric Bogle/Bill Caddick country with its reflections on the Great War, and is a creditable addition to that body of work.
  14. It doesn’t seem to be John’s way to name names, but ‘A Bitter Thing’ is clearly about Alan Turing and “the prejudice of fools“. A very effective song.
  15. ‘Billy Shaw’ makes a trenchant political point about war and how people with good intentions are exploited for military purposes – “we went to war on a lie” – and makes a fine end to the album.

Bill Caddick regarded John Richards as “One of our finest writers and singers.” The vocals here by John and Emma are never less than pleasant, and there is indeed quality song-writing here, in some ways reminiscent of Caddick himself, with stories old and new. I can only hope that John has enough songs in him not yet written to lure him back into the studio at some point. But if not, Bring Back The Spring  is still a creditable end to his recording career. Certainly I’m glad to have finally become acquainted with his music.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.thejrbs.co.uk

‘Yellows & Blues’ – live:

GREN BARTLEY – Magnificent Creatures (Fellside FECD 2680)

GREN BARTLEY Magnificent CreaturesOriginally from Stratford-upon-Avon and now based in Dudley,  Bartley recorded his third album in Wolverhampton with the increasingly legendary producer Gavin Monaghan, his first to feature his new touring trio of cellist Sarah Smout, Julia Disney on violin and piano and percussionist Leslie Glanville (the former two also providing harmonies), with contributions from Jim Sutton on bass, Matt Marks on accordion and Laura Hares.

Though clearly influenced by Americana folk, there’s more of a Canadian mountains feel to the music in its airy melodies, the fingerpicked ‘Fair Share’ is reminiscent of the young Gordon Lightfoot, although, having said that, on the wide open sky sound of opening number ‘Tall Wooden Walls’ vocally reminds me of John Denver. The latter features some soaring backing vocals from Disney and Snout, but their voices really come into their own on the lovely simple acoustic ‘Angels Fade’ and the closing a capella ‘Silent Hotel’, another open air dusk setting, where the three voices interweave. On the preceding track, ‘This Changes Everything’ (another song featuring lovers lying on the grass and thoughts of what tomorrow brings), they also get to spotlight their dexterity on the strings, violin and cello providing warm accompaniment to Bartley’s simple acoustic guitar.

While the bulk of the album is quiet and reflective, the choppy war-themed ‘Home Soon’ features Monaghan blowing some bluesy mouth harp while two back-to-back cuts also take things up a notch. Opening with an acoustic strum and with lyrics inspired by the shipwrecks off Portland Bill in Devon, ‘Portland’ is a slow builder two-step swayer that climaxes with Bartley singing about swimming with the dead (the magnificent creatures if the album title) before string and guitar take it to muted close. Then comes ‘Nightingale’, the album’s seven minute tour de force with Bartley’s guitar dancing around Glanville’s propulsive drums, as the track sandwiches a traditional folk mid-section with fingerpicked guitar between rock sensibilities and poppy elements strongly redolent of the Thompson Twins’ ‘Hold Me Now’.

Both it and the following track, ‘Of The Girl’, are solid showcases of both Bartley’s musicianship and his arrangement skills, the latter seeing Disney’s wordless vocals circling round his slide guitar and Glanville’s skewed percussion. There’s slidework too on ‘Strange Times’, another bluesier number with lyrics about getting out before you’re broken down that link an old rusty truck sent for scrap with memories of the men who laid down the railway tracks but never got to ride the line. Clearly as gifted a writer as he is a musician, it’s time he was discovered and embraced by a much wider audience.

Mike Davies

‘Tall Wooden Walls’ – official video: