Robb Johnson, dubbed “the last of the genuinely political songwriters”, has released more albums than probably even he can count. By my reckoning My Best Regards is his thirty-third, not counting re-recordings and compilations and the thing is, the quality never falls. Even Bob Dylan had his off days.
The opening track is ‘September 1939’ and I thought how clever that is: taking the period of the phoney war, as it was known, and pointing out that on both sides nothing had really changed. Ah, but then Robb moves the story to the present day and we see what he’s really driving at. With ‘A Hollingdean Lullabye’ goes straight for the jugular as a response to the fuss made over the Cambridge’s children. Hollingdean is a children’s centre where Robb once worked, one that is still open, and he points out that although babies born there don’t have it so good there are many off in worse circumstances.
Robb’s finger is always on the political pulse and the subjects of ‘When The Tide Comes In’ and ‘The Future Starts Here’ are obvious but some songs have to picked at until they unravel. ‘Dear Franz’ links Kafka and the Prague Spring but brings Tesco into the argument and ‘A Whole Lot Less’ is ostensibly a song of lost love but there’s a lot more to it – “Second class and second best” is a recurring line. This is one of the album’s rockers with Jenny Carr’s keyboards, John Forrester’s bass and Robb’s son Arvin on drums. If you hear Robb in folk club you might forget that he can rock like a good ‘un. The upbeat mood continues with ‘Better Than TV’ – I’m still trying to figure that one out – and the even heavier ‘That Mystery Beat’ which sound like something by Rush except for Robb’s vocals.
Three songs are repeated in different versions. ‘When The Tide Comes In’ has an additional Arabic vocal courtesy of Reem Kelani and ‘The Sidmouth Promenade’ and ‘The Future Starts Here’, featuring Brighton’s Hullabaloo Quire, both stick it to the right-wing in no uncertain terms. There isn’t a bad song and I haven’t mentioned ‘Babbacombe At The Closing Of The Day’, a delightfully cynical song that’s typical of Robb’s style, or the Cohenesque ‘A Room In The House Of Love’. If you have read this far, you’ll probably want to buy this album and I urge you to buy another from Robb’s back catalogue as well. It’s what I do.
Artist’s website: http://www.robbjohnson.co.uk/
A live set by Robb from 2011 (parental guidance required):