CHRIS CLEVERLEY – We Sat Back And Watched It Unfold (Opiate Records OPI001)

We Sat Back And Watched It UnfoldI loved Chris Cleverley’s first album, Apparitions, which appeared in 2015. That was four years ago so he hasn’t rushed into recording his follow-up. In that time he’s written and performed, formed a trio with Kim Lowings and Kathy Pilkinton and made lots more friends, several of whom appear here. Although a skilled interpreter of traditional material and other people’s songs, Chris has gone down the songwriter route. The twelve songs here are all original; there’s one co-write with Sam Kelly who also co-produced the album. For the avoidance of any doubt let me say now that We Sat Back And Watched It Unfold is a stunning piece of work.

These are deep, serious songs although Chris leavens them with humour. The opener, ‘The Arrows And The Armour’, is a witty love song decorated by Jamie Francis’ banjo and Katie Stevens’ flute and I guarantee that by the end the song you’ll be hooked. ‘Scarlet Letter’ is a reworking of the first part of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel and the thing is that Chris doesn’t make Hester Prynne sound terribly sorry for her action.

‘I Can’t Take It’ is an odd meditation on the effect that events have on shaping our personalities and then comes the title track. It feels vaguely Orwellian and it might help if you’ve watched Mr Robot, which I haven’t. Like ‘I Can’t Take It’, it uses health care as a metaphor and Chris is right: we have sat back and watched it unfold and look at the mess we’re in. ‘A Voice For Those Who Don’t Have One’ considers mental health in a way that is very simple to relate to and by the end it has crept up on you. I confess that it brought a tear to my eye. It leads smoothly into ‘Happy And Proud’, a song about gender identity and ‘The Ones Like Ourselves’ which is…well…a song for people who don’t really fit in. I can relate to that.

Chris takes a side-step into history with ‘Madame Moonshine’. I’m still trying to decide if it’s about what he says it’s about or something other. Victorian perversity lives in the song – even reading the words leads you into a Dickensian world – and the strangeness of the music can bring on a shudder. The co-write, ‘The Low Light Low’ is based melodically on ‘The Golden Vanity’ but only just and lyrically it’s completely different.  At this point I’d pretty much decided that Chris Cleverley was living up to his name and playing mind games with his listeners by writing a song about something and then feeding us a line.

Musically, We Sat Back And Watched It Unfold is a weighty album. I should mention Evan Carson and Lukas Drinkwater on percussion and bass, Graham Coe on cello and Marion Fleetwood and Hannah Martin on violins and viola who worked to produce this wall of sound. Some of songs I’ll need to puzzle out a bit more but the music makes them very easy to listen to. Unless several truly astonishing things turn up before December this will be one of my albums of the year.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://chriscleverley.com/

‘In A Dreamlike State’:

BONFIRE RADICALS – The Albino Peacock (Burning Bones Records 2016/1)

The Albino PeacockRadical is an apt description for this Birmingham band who have welded together very different styles of music to make their debut album, The Albino Peacock. One the one side you have guitar, bass and drums and on the other, fiddle, recorders and clarinets. But folk-rock it isn’t even though two tracks are traditional. Imagine, if you can, an orchestra playing Beefheart and that covers about half the album. The other half is 60s/70s acoustic rock and the third half is folk(ish) in the manner of Gryphon. And don’t tell me that it doesn’t add up. I know.

Chief writer is bassman Trevor Lines. His most conventional piece here is ‘Lucy Hampton’s Wedding’, a suite comprising a waltz, a march and a song. It’s actually a good place to start the album, leaving ‘The Albino Peacock’ and ‘Coffee Countdown’ until later. That’s followed by ‘Malo’, an eastern European piece written by guitarist Andy Bole – he’s credited with playing eclectic 12-string and I don’t think that’s a misprint. Ruth Lindsay’s ‘The Left-Hand Reel’ is a slice of progressive folk-rock which leads into a traditional Swedish polska which has been given a thorough working over.

Finally we have ‘I Wish’ or ‘Died For Love’ if you prefer. It’s sung by Michelle Hollway in a voice that begins as a faux-little girl semi-lisp and becomes increasingly bitter until it’s finally double-tracked with an ethereal whisper The accompaniment is led by Katie Stevens’ clarinet over funereal drums from Liam Halloran. It’s a cracking arrangement and quite possibly the best thing on the record.

The Albino Peacock won’t be to everyone’s taste – the free-jazz style of the opening tracks come as a bit of a shock but show a little forbearance and you’ll find a lot to enjoy.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: http://www.bonfireradicals.com/

‘The Albino Peacock’ – official video: