Back in the early 1970s, I found a 1972-vintage LP lurking in a record shop in Manchester. It was called The Machine Stops, by Andrew John, a native of Yorkshire but living and working as a musician in Denmark. Featuring a fine choice of songs by Nick Drake, Roy Harper, Al Stewart and others as well as Andrew’s own songs, it accompanied me around the UK for at least a decade. I haven’t thought of it for years, but then I got the opportunity to hear and review At Home, a new release by Andrew with Lissa Ladefoged, with whom he has worked as Andrew John and Lissa since 1976.
The release consists of a CD with 12 tracks, a DVD and a Blu-Ray disc with videos of the same performances (albeit with more conversational content), plus three documentary videos. The tracks were all recorded live at their home in Denmark, with Andrew and Lissa playing a variety of instruments augmented on two tracks by various musicians in Nashville.
If you’re more familiar with their output over the last forty years than I am, you may well have come across these songs on other albums or in live performance, but this is the first time I’ve heard them together. Both have pleasant, slightly fragile voices, which generally work very well in harmony as well as alone.
‘Louise’ is song by Paul Siebel with a theme slightly reminiscent of Bill Caddick’s ‘She moves among men’. While it’s not as lyrically or melodically striking as the Caddick song, being very much in the country idiom, it’s a nice example of the genre. I prefer this version, with its simple but effective guitars and harmonies, to Siebel’s.
‘Time’ is a song of Lissa’s to which Andrew has put English words. In fact, it’s less a lyrical composition than an accumulation of time-related quotes from the likes of Marvell, Herrick, W.H. Davis, Longfellow and even Lewis Carroll. Which sounds like a terrible idea, but actually works quite well. Lissa’s touching and dynamically varied vocals are well framed by Andrew’s piano.
Andrew takes the lead vocal on Ralph McTell’s ‘Grande Affaire’: a somewhat mannered vocal and piano style actually suit the song rather well, giving it a period tone somewhere between Noel Coward and Jacques Brel with just a touch of Palm Court. I shall certainly be listening to this again.
The traditional song ‘Butcher Boy’ doesn’t work so well. I’m by no means against folk songs accompanied by the piano – it’s certainly worked well enough for June Tabor and even Kathleen Ferrier, who would never have been mistaken for a folk singer – but while Lissa’s voice is probably very well suited to traditional material generally, here she sounds a little uncertain in her pitch and phrasing. She describes it as an Irish song (and the lyric here sets the scene in Dublin) but the song is widely known in England and the US in very similar versions to this.
‘Grapes On The Vine’ is another country song, this time by Steve Gillette and Charles John Quarto: Andrew and Lissa’s guitars are magically augmented by technology across the miles between Nashville and Aarhus by Wayne Moss’s country picking. A great song performed well.
The next track on the CD takes us from Nashville to ‘Fiji’, a delightful song of Andrew’s on which he plays ukulele and Lissa takes lead vocals. The song really suits her voice. ‘Skelter’ is another song of Andrew’s, but in complete contrast, lyrically and melodically complex and dramatically accompanied on piano.
The ‘Five Pennies’ medley features three songs from the film of that name, all written by Danny Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine. As in the movie, somewhat based on the life of Red Nichols, the three songs are performed as a trio, so that at the end all three are being sung simultaneously. Since Andrew manages to sing ‘Lullaby in Ragtime’ and ‘Five Little Pennies’ at the same time, there’s evidently a little extra video and audio trickery to this track. I found a clip from the original movie, sung by Louis Armstrong, Danny Kaye, and the endearing child star Susan Lynn Gordon on YouTube.
The next track is Pamela Philips’s song ‘Valentino’, effectively sung by Lissa and equally effectively accompanied by Andrew on piano. Another track I plan to revisit.
‘Two Letters’ is based on Alan Sillitoe’s story of an eight-year-old boy abandoned by both his parents on the same day, for very different reasons, though it doesn’t go into the later events described by Sillitoe, focusing on the abandonment rather than on the boy’s subsequent thoughts and actions. It seems like good folk club fodder, though, with its catchy chorus.
Andrew’s whimsical ‘Mosaic’ is actually about the short-lived international folk group of that name, in which Lissa played bass back in 1985. If you’re allergic to whistling or ukulele, you may not like it as much as I do. But there are, after all, enough bitter songs about bands that have broken up: it’s nice to hear such a sunny reminiscence.
The last track, ‘Greener Than Here’ is another song by Andrew, benefiting from additional drums, bass and electric guitar from Bob Mater, Craig Nelson, and Jerome Kimbrough respectively, playing along in Nashville, as well as some interesting chord changes and harmonies.
‘Our Home Documentary’ is a brief look at their home in Aarhus. The ‘Pottery Documentary’ is an introduction to Lissa’s work as a potter, and the ‘Amateur Radio Documentary’ is about Andrew’s interest in ham radio. The video is apparently the same on both the DVD and Blu-Ray discs, but my laptop doesn’t do Blu-Ray, so I was unable to sample its full HD glory. In any case, I don’t know that I’d revisit these very often, but as an introduction to the pair they have some interest. There’s also a booklet with the lyrics, which I always regard as a Good Thing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include the snippets of information and reminiscence that can be gleaned from the video versions, but those videos do add to the almost literally homespun charm of the set. It’s not “my kind of music”, but it’s growing on me nevertheless.
‘Butcher Boy’ from the DVD/Blu-Ray At Home: