Originally 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.
‘Tall Wooden Walls’ – official video: