ROBB JOHNSON & THE IRREGULARS – Eurotopia (Irregular IRR113)

EurotopiaAs if to prove that not only does Robb Johnson have his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist but that he’s actually ahead of the beat, this album arrived just before the election. There is politics in Eurotopia but not in the way you might expect. This isn’t a rant, more a lament, a threnody for the loss of Europe. It includes some of Robb’s best and most complex songwriting; songs full of people, places and memories.

Robb has spent a good deal of time gigging around Europe and beyond and many of these songs are set in cities across the continent. I assumed that the opener, ‘The Carnival Song’, is about a visit to Jerusalem and then I came to the chorus: “Dir propeller, eller, eller/Gehen schneller, schneller, schneller”. It refers to a song called ‘Dreh den Propeller’ by a German singer called Buddy. It’s horribly catchy and I suspect that it’s something that Robb heard on his travels and found stuck in his mind. In a way it sets up the majority of the other songs which are set in different times and places and in his memory.

‘Charing Cross Station & Hungerford Bridge’ and ‘Coincidents On The Circle Line’ are obviously set in London and are inspired by chance observations and memories, the latter finds Robb musing about a vanished Afghan coat. Then we move on. ‘If The Night Runs Out Before The Money Runs Out’ takes us to Paris, ‘Tram Number 22’ finds us in Prague and ‘The Kreuzberg Sisters’ deposits us in Berlin. ‘My Last Night In Montmartre’ is obvious even to me.

Now it gets serious. Having lulled us with nostalgic tales of exotic places, Robb hits us first with ‘Stalingrad’ and then ‘Welcome To The Museum’ and now we see what he’s been leading up to. The romance of old Europe is ripped away and the ugly face of the modern world is revealed. ‘The Work Is Never Done’ returns to Paris and picks up the theme in the mundane activities of the day before the tourists arrive.

The Irregulars on Eurotopia are Jenny Carr on piano, John Forrester on double bass and Robb’s son Arvin on drums. Linz Maesterosa’s flute and reeds and Bethan Prosser’s violin help to provide the late-night, rainy atmosphere that colours many of the songs. There’s one more thing you need to know. This review is of the thirteen track full band CD but …there is also a nine track vinyl version with just Robb on acoustic guitar and Fae Simon on vocals. The two issues have only four tracks in common so you know what that means: yes, you need them both!

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://www.robbjohnson.co.uk/

We’re unable to source a video from Eurotopia yet but this is brand new – ‘More Than Enough’:

MARTIN SIMPSON – Rooted (Topic TXCD598)

RootedDid you know that Ernest Shackleton considered a banjo essential to mental health on his expedition to the South Pole? Neither did I but it’s one of the fascinating facts I gleaned from Martin Simpson’s sleevenotes for his new album Rooted. Mental health is one of the themes of the record and, being a banjo player himself, I reckon that Martin has a head start on some of us. It’s one of the reasons why the album resonates with me.

As you might expect Martin mixes original compositions, traditional songs and covers. Here, Martin’s new songs lean towards the American traditional style so the opener, ‘Trouble Brought Me Here’ sounds like it could be a hundred or so years old. The second track, ‘Kimbie’, is traditional and includes some of those “vagrant stanzas” that he’s fond of. By this time, you’ll be relaxing into the music and the distinction really won’t matter.

Rooted boasts a fine supporting cast including Andy Cutting, Nancy Kerr, John Smith and Ben Nicholls plus five backing vocalists but Andy Bell’s production and engineering ensure that Martin’s voice, guitar and/or banjo ride smoothly on top of the arrangements. I’m not totally convinced by one track and that is ‘Hills Of Shiloh’ which was very popular back in the 80s. It’s not the song but Martin takes it a little too quickly for my taste and the arrangement is rather too involved.

There are some great stories in these songs, though. ‘Ken Small’ tells of a man who laboured to unearth a tank from Start Bay left there after the disastrous Operation Tiger in 1944. ‘Joe Bowers’ came from Hedy West and is a relative of ‘Sweet Betsy From Pike’ and ‘Henry Gray’ is about a piano-player who was a member of Howln’ Wolf’s band and also worked with Elmore James and Jimmy Reed. Martin was invited to play with his band – what can you say? Robb Johnson’s ‘More Than Enough’ was a song that Roy Bailey played and Martin sang it with him in hospital just before he died.

The bonus disc is a set of instrumentals two of which are sung in the substantive set. I get the feeling that Martin let his hair down just a little – playing guitar is no joking matter – and invited the band to do the same. There are a number of songs that I haven’t mentioned; all as good as the ones I have and you’ll find that Rooted is a sublime record.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.martinsimpson.com

‘More Than Enough’ – with a story to tell: