MIRACLE MILE – East Of Ely (MeMe Records CD/LP MM21)

East Of ElyA decade on since the last album, but sounding like they’ve been playing together forever, Trevor Jones and Marcus Cliffe have revived their shared connection for East Of Ely, a ninth excursion, basking in the warm glow of bitter-sweet melancholia, musing on memories, friendship, the passing of the years and the tranquillity of solitude, mingling spoken word, instrumentals and dreamily evocative vocals.

Joined on the album by Melvin Duffy on pedal steel, drummer Michael Pickering and Lucinda Drayton on vocals, its title echoing Steinbeck and conjuring the sense of a border, a fault line, be that physical or metaphysical, it opens (“in back yards strung with Christmas lights/In coffee houses painted blue/And basement bars where drunkards fight”) with the piano, strings and steel ballad ‘Appletree’ , immediately transporting you back into their gently melancholic world on a song (“so true/That it could tear your heart apart”) about recognising and being grateful for the things and people who shape who we are (“You wouldn’t be you without me/But I wouldn’t be me without you”). You may find yourself wanting to play it a couple more times before you move on to unwrap the rest.

Second up, another dreamy, softly sung piano ballad, is ‘Shivering Boy’ with its memories of childhood and themes of insecurity (“I’d bury deep all love and joy if given cause to doubt it”), vulnerability (“I always was a shivering boy, harbouring hope and feeling/That life beyond the shiny toy might foster faith and healing”) and growing up (“I bathed my dreams in starlight and left the past in tatters/As I pushed ahead and led myself astray/The only clothes that fitted were the ones I gave away”). It’s also a reminder of Jones’s wonderful way with a turn of phrase (“Too young to remember what I needed to forget”) and evocative homespun imagery (“You taught me how to dance like no-one else was there/I came as Eric Morecambe but left as Fred Astaire”).

Keyboards, weeping steel and a slow, steady drum beat guide, opening with the sound of birds and, I think, storm, ‘Sparrows’ is a poignant number about memories (“Home holds your scent and whispers your name”) and losing someone to dementia (“Here I stand at the foot of your bed/And think about the unkindnesses said/Cold tea drinking as your boat was sinking/The lack of belonging, your bright eyes blinking… Here we sit at the end of the drive/Waiting for the Big Bird to arrive/And I will love you as you forget me/I watch you colour your book of memory”), the refrain “How can we ever be foolish again?” carrying kindred emotions to Richard Thompson’s “how can I ever be simple again?

With tinkling and cascading keyboard notes, ‘Night Wedding’ unfolds a bittersweet story about settling for less when you get tired of waiting for more (“She walked down the aisle with a scotch in her hand/She was only really there for the wedding band… turns her fist into a velvet glove…Says ‘it’s time to get happy, time to find someone to love’… She looked at his cheek, all dappled in doubt/He wasn’t unkind, just a little bit cold… She stopped lacing her grief with grievance/And chose to be happy instead”) because “Sometimes you’ve just got to pick a god and pray”.

The first of two brief instrumentals, the bird-whistling, simple guitar picked ‘Postcard From Happisburgh’ is Cliff’s homage to the Norfolk village where he lives, giving way to the keyboards flourish intro to the slow walking, orchestrally-arranged ‘Ocean Of Song’ which Jones describes as using songs to archive hurt and resentment to bury the feelings (“My heart has been dried like a bone/Pretending that I didn’t care…If I blink I will surely miss you/If I blink you will ever be gone/Tears will fall as I try to resist you/Tears will fall in an ocean of song/It’s where they belong”).

‘Shorebound’, from whence the album title derives, has a vaguely Latin percussive rhythm but one coloured with harmonica, a co-write with Drayton and Cliffe both delivering spoken word verses which sing the praises of the coastal havens where the album took shape (“We arrive just before sunset/Light the fire, open a bottle and settle in/There’s always a shot of bourbon in the sky”) with its references to Dunwich, Charlie’s Field in Happisburgh, “a red and white striped lighthouse, a water tower and a Norman church”, and more sparrows, as it speaks to the sense of peace and calm they engender (“It’s a place of restoration and remembrance and always of kindness…Under the big skies we find belonging, connection; a place to breathe out”).

Duffy’s steel again adding colour, ‘Butterfly Brooch’ is another song of love, healing and gratitude (“Look at you, all alone/On the wings of despair/You fly away home/And put a butterfly brooch in your hair… Lend a healing hand/Mend a broken part/Stop me where I stand/And bless my heart/But who’s minding who”), a transition from “chaos to care/With a ginger ale or two/And a butterfly brooch in your hair”.

A contemplative, steel and strings-washed, slow walking piano ballad ‘Silent Sigh’ is a retrospective parting song (“I always loved your pilgrim soul/Till you got lost in Mexico/Didn’t make Toledo, and I don’t know why/Such a long goodbye ends in a silent sigh”) that, moving “from counting stars and red rock stone/To shopping lists on telephones”, apparently had its origins in a Tesco shopping trip (“Checking out my basketful of dreams/And I only came for beans/But this is Slough and not Sedona. And can I ask why/You couldn’t cry or try?/Beyond that silent sigh”).

‘Chapel Flower Morning’ with its percussive clicks and sweeping keys and strings is a slowly gathering, anthemic swell number about growth and new beginnings but tinged with inevitability of endings (“It’s a chapel flower morning, a chapel flower afternoon/Buds bloom and die too soon; they won’t be seeing the evening/Chapel flower morning, a chapel flower afternoon/Birds croon tomorrow’s tune but won’t be singing the evening in”), the avians this time being “a sky full of starlings”, that’s basically a carpe diem message (“We’re a long time coming, a long time gone/A long time waiting for me to sing this song/So sing along”).

The last of the songs, staying in the break of day and heralded with a dawning hymnal keyboard drone, is ‘Come Morning’, one last thanksgiving for the time given and spent (“Bliss is born and gone too soon, but I’ll be here in the morning…I will count the things I’ll miss and try to get tomorrow done”) in “the clumsy, waltzing every day” and a reminder that “Without wonder we are lost”.

East Of Ely ends, bookended by seagulls cawing and waves lapping and with a spoken dedication to “Dear Betty” (the subject of ‘Sparrows’), with the second instrumental, the piano and wheezing organ ‘Postcard from Walberswick’, this time Jones’s melancholic yet uplifting tribute to the Suffolk seaside village, the beach of which features on the album cover.

At one point, Jones sings “Let’s find where the light in the darkness lies”. This album is the map. Only now that they’re back do you realise just how empty the world has been without them.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.facebook.com/trevor.jones.1675

‘Butterfly Brooch’: