With the Leeds troubadour’s smoky wisp vocal and watery acoustic guitar, it’s pretty inevitable that the Nick Drake pastoral folk comparisons will be rolled out. But take time to listen carefully and closely to this introspective gem, Steady Away, a swift follow-up to last year’s debut, and what you’ll hear is more often a male equivalent of Sandy Denny.
The album featuring backing by Simeon Walker on keys, violinist Mary-Jane Walker and Alice Phelps on double bass, it opens with the shimmeringly reflective contentment of ‘Golden Days’ (“It’s our time/My river/These are our golden days”), moving to the more stately strum of ‘Please’ with its pleading to “come to my arms/And give me a second chance/Please, lend me a star/I just need a reason to fly”
Swapping piano for organ, violin adding extra colour, the pulse and skip title track’s circling guitar pattern has a heady folk blues feel of the early John Martyn, while, perhaps touching on early McTell, the fingerpicked Romantics poetic ‘Curse’ deals with relationship angst (“How am I supposed to speak/When ruled by a silver tongue/And tears upon my cheek… I beg/Curse be kind/When all sense is lost/To a tainted mind”).
A more uptempo, choppier ‘May You Never’ percussive rhythms carries ‘Silence’, again rummaging round among the anxieties of words unsaid (“The cuts of silence/Are coloured deep and blue/It’s a stabbing feeling/And it strikes you in the heart/A cruel temptation/That leads you in the dark”) and a call to “Tell me something/What’s really on your mind”.
Walker on Wurlitzer, ‘Rolling Wave’ is one of the most striking Dennyesque tracks with a musical texture and mood that mirror ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ with its wish for certainty where he contemplates “If I knew the setting sun/Would soon return from where she begun …If I knew the crawling mist/Would bring the dawn with a gentle kiss” but without adding the anticipated corollary.
‘Wish’ is a sprightly fingerpicked shift that once more looks for reassurance and certainty (“Yearning for a breeze/To guide you to me/You know I wouldn’t ask for more”), here with a hint of early McTell ragtime, stripping back to just guitar and Rhodes for ‘Tawny’, a song about being transfixed by the sound of an owl within the woods (“I heard the call/And it came to me/From the howl/Of a restless tree”).
The final three tracks are just Brain, the first the self-descriptively titled ‘Instrumental’, a showcase for his acclaimed fretwork, followed by the melodically nimble, airy ‘Weeping Willow’ where Jansch meets Donovan in a paean to nature and the seasons (“you’re golden all around/While summer’s here/And you’re turning golden brown/With autumn creeping near…don’t bow your head/When the cold has come around/Now your roots have spread”) that also serves as a metaphor on growing older.
It ends again steeped in nature imagery of landscapes and birds with ‘Now Westlin Winds’, the circular fingerpicked pattern set to an autumnal backdrop where “the moorcock springs/On whirring wings/Amongst the blooming heather… The partridge loves the fruitful fells/The plover loves the mountains/The woodcock haunts the lonely dells”) but counterpointed with thoughts of it also bringing game shoots with the “slaughtering guns”, a clash of “the savage and the tender” that extends to a meditation on “tyrannic man’s dominion” embodied in “The sportsman’s joy the murdering cry/The fluttering gory opinion” before coming over all Keats and Wordsworth in a final verse of tenderness and tranquillity as he sings “We’ll gently walk and sweetly talk/As the silent moon shines clearly/I’ll clasp your waist and fondly press/And swear I love you dearly/Non vernal showers for the budding flowers/How dear can be as though to me/My fair and lovely charmer”.
Rooted in the folk tradition and channelling his influences with exquisite style, Steady Away ably cements Brain’s status among the finest names on the contemporary scene.
Artist’s website: www.chrisbrainmusic.com
‘Please’ – official video: