JOE WILKES – Japanese Elvis (Frontline FLR009)

Japanese ElvisBorn in Coventry and now based out of East London, Wilkes first caught my ear back in 2006 with his debut album Spotlight. This was followed two years later by Here On This Frontline and, in 2012, Looking For The Grave of Garcia Lorca. However, the following year an injury to his right hand left him unable to play guitar and it’s taken until now to regain the ability, during which time he’s also learned piano.

The latter has brought a sort of set ‘em up Joe feel to the new album, an evocation of Waits and Cale shrouded in cigarette smoke with a whisky to the side, that carries the atmosphere of the rainy south London flat where they were mostly recorded demo style, as he meanders through a collection of songs that variously touch on nuclear war, Palestine, Trump and, er, My Little Pony. The Waits influence is to the fore on the opening Ironstone Sky, a melancholic, weary meditation on time passing, loss of innocence and regret (“We used to look at children’s smiles/Now we just talk about pedophiles”), Natasha Williams’ backing vocals adding to the mood.

That’s pretty much the musical and lyrical territory in which it stays, although the pace and tempo do vary, such as on the fingerpicked country blues ‘Less Hesitation’, featuring backing from Anglicana singer-songwriter Siobhan Parr, and the equally nimble ragtime and classical guitar work of ‘Down In The Alley’, a song set, I would assume from the lyrics, against checkpoint stops in occupied Palestine although the scenario echoes any disputed territory subject to urban warfare. His playing here more than evidences that his injury is behind him, but there’s even more substantial proof on look no further than ‘Sleeping On The Floor’, an intricately picked break up duet (“I got your note/But decided not to vote, in the upcoming/Election, of you and me”) to which Charlotte Sometimes from London outfit Madonnatron lends her lived-in vocals.

There’s a couple of other guitar-based numbers; the circling ragtime patterns of ‘A Thousand Steps’, ‘The High Life’, a rise and fall tale of the guitar playing sideman being given the elbow when the female singer becomes the star (“The high life comes fleeting fast/But quickly blows away”), and ‘We Believe In Nothing’, a Dylanesque talking blues offering a bleak vision of a blinkered, mutually assured destruction society with its reference to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, chickens coming home to roost and yes, My Little Pony.

However, it’s arguably the piano ballads that are the most potent. The downcast slow waltz ‘After The Sorrow Has Past’ finds him back at the Waitsian world-battered coalface, a synth line complementing the doomy piano notes in a plangent lament for love lost from whence comes the album title. There is also perhaps a touch of Randy Newman here, one that surfaces more strongly on the politically tinged ‘The Valley’, Parr again on backing.

The longest track at five and a half minutes also has the most off the wall premise, ‘If The Angels Don’t Welcome You They Can Go To Hell’ being a melancholic early hours blues musing on what happens if your (suicidal?) ex-girlfriend goes to heaven and fools around with God, the title chorus line dripping with an aching world weary melody line.

The remaining number, and probably my favourite, is ‘Hollow Moon’, another downbeat reflective ballad about a fraying Stockholm syndrome relationship (“maybe we’re listening to the music so we don’t kill each other”) steeped in a stained and rusty romanticism that, sneaking in allusions to ‘Happy Christmas, War Is Over’ and Dylan’s ‘Neighborhood Bully’, gradually builds to an anthemic note of redemption and hope in a time of Trumpism as he sings “I’ll see an angel when you only see a ghost.. I’ll give you flowers on a bombed out road.” Ladies and gentlemen, the Japanese Elvis has entered the building. It’s good to have him back.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Hollow Moon’ – official video:

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