A singer-songwriter from the Welsh valleys, Strange Days is Lear’s third album, the follow-up to 2016’s Motorcycle Heart and again produced by Simon Tassano, albeit with Rob sharing the credits, here adding djembe and trumpet to the mix. As before, it mingles American and folk to melodically infectious effect, the songs largely pivoting around relationships and memories of the past, informed by his growing up in a mining community.
‘Last Train’ kicks it off with an uptempo wheels rolling rhythm,, jangling guitar and Dylanish vocals on the closing of the mines and the coal trains back “when the buckets were still moving and there was work beneath our feet/And the dust was like mascara, on every working man”, but is equally applicable to the decline of any industry and the subsequent impact on the community.
‘After The Storm’ keeps the folk rock and Dylan echoes rolling with perhaps a touch of Mike Peters and again addresses a similar theme (“After the storm, after the waves subside/After the storm, after the mountain slides/That third ship will carry us away/Well once a generation comes a storm that’s on its own, where rivers come from nowhere and homes get over thrown”) and a reluctance to abandon the bonds and bridges you’ve always known (“What the heart don’t know is the cracks under our feet don’t show and the horizon always comes around at the start of every morn. So if you ever want to leave just say, after storm”).
The fingerpicked descending chords and mandolin flecked ‘Louise’ is a simple love song, the soft, piano-backed bluesy shuffle ‘Cast In Bronze’ continuing the mood (“If our bodies could be cast in bronze , I’d be holding you forever and in a thousand years they’d find us , we’d still be holding on, together”) while the itchy rhythm ‘Girl On A Plane is about a fleeting airborne encounter (“We talked about who we are/ou said you worked away, you said you worked in HR/You said when you left home you knew it’d be hard, but you never knew how hard it’d be living on your own/I said yeah well I play guitar, I don’t have a plan I just don’t get that far”) that never got to take off after they touched down (“never to be met again, didn’t even get her name”). In contrast, a slower track built on a simple guitar pattern with a Van Morrison feel (his bassist Pete Hurley plays on the album), ‘We Still’ is about a relationship that’s lasted down the years (“Time, little bit faster now, like the lines on my skin, don’t know where to begin/But our hands still touch and the big dreams don’t matter much”).
The gently chugging, slightly enigmatic ‘A . U . S . T . R . A . L . I . A Ray’ is a different proposition of a friendship that’s drifted apart over the miles (“A U Stopped Transmitting Ray”) but of a connection that remains (“like any home if left alone is when things get cracked they just get stuck together/Maybe the path that you were on was always there/But I always felt you’d find a way, from the words you wrote just yesterday, might still be there inside for you to say”).
The title track with its mandolin colours return to the valleys and reflects on those who tried to keep failed dreams alive in their heads (“Tara posts a picture, it’s the first one of the day ,it has her looking in a mirror with a tan from San Tropez , but she hasn’t been abroad since San Antonio. Is it hard to keep that figure with the twins in tow? … Johnny works the bus stop , he’s standing in the line, he does the Jackson moonwalk, said he met him one time/But the bus leaves without him, he said he’ll catch the next instead, but his journey’s like his stories, they’re all in his head”), resigned to the fact that “God help you if you stay here and God help you if you leave”. For some reason I was reminded of a line in The Doors’ own ‘Strange Days’ where Morrison sings “Strange days have tracked us down/They’re going to destroy/Our casual joys/We shall go on playing/Or find a new town”.
Drawing on Celtic shades, the rolling folk-Americana ‘Standing Stone’ with its shifting time signatures and tumbling vocals is about one who left and of the singer keeping them in their heart (“I can still hear your voice from the valley below, on the wind is the scent from your hair/I remember the times we made plans together and our thoughts never strayed from here/I still believe you’re anywhere doing anything you want to do. I still believe you’re living life loved and free. I’ll be your standing stone, whenever you make it home, whenever you need someone I’ll be your standing stone”).
‘3 2 Go’ shifts the musical mood with a punchy twangy drive that suggests Dylan back in Nashville Skyline/John Wesley Harding days and would seem to be about the break up of a band (“Now I said my heart’s an engine that’s fired by my soul/And when I play that six string, yeah, I think about our goal/But friend something just happened, it ain’t no trick or sin/I just left my heart wide open and real life crept right in…. But our dreams aren’t really dying they’re just moving on”).
It comes to a close with, first, the wonderfully titled ‘Sulk For Wales’ about the morning after an argument with your other half and getting the silent treatment (“There’s a kind of hush that I hate, it’s when the Sunday morning dust has settled on the grate… I’d rather a raging storm than all this calm”) and the enigma of women (“we puzzle God’s creation in the making of females… You put a needle in the haystack and now you’re handing out the bales”). And finally the strummed, tick tocking drum beat and overlapping vocals, ‘Country For Sale’ signs off on a dreamily waltzing political note that carries John Prine undertones as he sings of snake oil sellers and false promises (“Oh you got a lovely dimpled smile, say you’ll take our shoes and you’ll walk a mile/‘Cos a well used platitude, and a high brow attitude works to fool once in a while/I don’t believe that in your heart you mean to keep us all together/I don’t believe the words you say will end in making our lives better”), the selling off of not just our industries but of the communities that spawned them (“things you give away are not just gone, but it’s all those places they came from”).
It’s not going to suddenly make him a star, but sung from the heart, warm and melodic, Strange Days should certainly keep his fanbase well-contented and bring many others into the fold.
Artist’s website: www.roblearmusic.com
‘Last Train’ – live session: