ROBB JOHNSON – Pennypot Lane (Irregular Records IRR129)

Pennypot LaneYou might think that this doesn’t look like a typical Robb Johnson CD cover – but the design is all his. Pennypot Lane is a newly recorded collection of Robb’s songs that other people like, or haven’t appeared on vinyl (yes, there is a vinyl edition) or that he plays differently these days. So, it’s a pretty, nostalgic collection? Come on, you know Robb better than that and what a pointed sense of humour he has. I’d call it reflective. Robb is a prolific songwriter and recorder and I have a lot of his albums but by no means the whole set so some of these songs are unfamiliar. I hang my head in shame.

The title track, which opens the record, begins with Robb meeting with a fox in the titular lane but then his thoughts move on to the manicured suburbs and the identi-supermarkets. As he says, the blackberries and raspberries don’t taste like he ones he used to pick down Pennypot Lane. As a final thought, Robb walks home from his only remaining local where “the Best is second best”. ‘Winter Turns To Spring’, championed by both Roy Bailey and Tony Benn, could be another charming, bucolic song except…it begins in 1939, moves to Prague in 1945, takes in the life of Stalin and the Prague Spring of 1968 passing through Santiago, Belfast and Beijing. A real rural idyll.

For the most part Robb is self-accompanied on acoustic guitar with restrained support from Yves Meerschaut on piano, Sian Allen’s trumpet and Arvin Johnson’s classical guitar. If you need to be reminded how fine a guitarist Robb is listen to the tracks on which he’s alone.

‘The Blue Sea Says Yes’ is packed with philosophy and historical figures and a powerful piano accompaniment but then we come to the pure Robb Johnson with ‘More Than Enough’ and even though it was first recorded in 1993 nothing has changed in the intervening thirty years – “There’s never enough for the poor”. ‘Babbecombe At The Closing Of The Day’ is a typically wry observation on the English seaside but, as usual with Robb’s writing, takes in so much more.

‘At The Siege Of Madrid’ takes us back to the Spanish Civil War in a mood of continued defiance with the trumpet giving it a vibe that’s somewhere between martial and funereal. Robb claims that ‘A True History Of Couscous’ is a fictionalised autobiography, a familiar starting point. Listen to Eurotopia for further examples. Arvin adds his talents to ‘You Don’t Have To Say Goodbye’, originally on Robb’s first LP and thus one of the oldest songs in the set. It’s a delicate composition which could be interpreted as a simple love – or is it?

Even if you own all of Robb’s albums and listen to them on a daily basis there is still room for Pennypot Lane in your life.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

‘More Than Enough’ – live a few years ago: