ROBB JOHNSON & THE XMAS IRREGULARS – Murder At The Grange (Irregular Records IRR127)

Murder At The GrangeMurder At The Grange is a show I haven’t seen, although it was premiered last Christmas and will be on the road again very soon. This is the soundtrack album and I wondered how comprehensible it would be without the context of the stage presentation. Then I thought: Robb Johnson & The Xmas Irregulars are musicians not thespians and Robb isn’t billed as Baron Hardup so I should be all right.

The band is set up like an outfit from the 1930s or 40s. Lead vocalist Fae Simon and Sian Allen’s brass do most of the heavy lifting to set up the mood with Robb’s guitar given that plangent reverb that sounds like a toned down Bert Weedon. John Forrester is on double bass, Roger Stevens on piano, Arvin Johnson on drums and Saskia Tomkins plays violin and viola.

The album opens almost playfully with the ‘Murder At The Grange Theme’, which is essentially a jazz-influenced ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ followed by the jokey ‘The Christmas Bells’, ‘Christmas Is Here’ and the single ‘The Best Christmas Present Of All’. It’s all very jolly and ‘One Little Spark’ is a pretty love song.

If you’re at all familiar with Robb’s music you’ll know that it can’t last and I was waiting for the second shoe to drop. The first hint comes with ‘Christmas Morning’: Fae is still on lead vocal but there is a line about people getting what they deserve for Christmas that may alert your suspicions.  And you’re right! Robb takes lead vocal for ‘Christmas Morning’ which starts with Arvin’s pounding drums but his cheeky chappy singing style almost disguises his cynicism and then he starts on about the starving in Botswana. I seem to remember problems there in the sixties but Botswana is now one of the wealthiest countries in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the world’s leading exporters of diamonds. So who or what are Robb’s targets here?

‘Hallelujah! Oh Be Joyfull’ opens with acoustic guitar and despite the title is essentially an attack on greed and an unwarranted denigration of Brussels sprouts. Getting serious now. ‘Move On, Egyptian’ sets the issue of migration in a biblical context. “There’s no room here for the likes of you.” This should be a Christmas standard from now on. The pretty ‘Mary Sings A Lullaby’ disguises its true message – that our children will not stay children forever and must face the world sooner or later.

‘Charlie Parker’s Bebop’ finds Fae in femme fatale mode – “I’m very very good at being very very bad” – but what about the murder? I’m glad you asked that question. Is this song dropping a hint? Perhaps so, but there is definitely a clue in ‘A Mystery To Me’ with the suggestion that someone put a little something in the vicar’s marmalade. Sian’s trumpet is a glorious counterpoint to the story.

Finally, Robb gathers everybody together in the library for ‘Whodunnit’ and runs through the long list of suspects. The murderer isn’t actually unmasked here but I’m sure that there is lot more spoken narrative that isn’t included on the album. I suppose you’ll have to see the show to find out and, presumably, as in The Mousetrap, be sworn to secrecy. Murder At The Grange doesn’t reveal much of its plot in the soundtrack but it’s a damn good record to listen to after Christmas lunch.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

‘Murder At The Grange Theme’ – official video: