JOHN TAMS – The Reckoning (Topic TTSCD006)

The ReckoningThe Reckoning, John Tams’ third solo album, is the latest deluxe re-issue marking Topic Records’ 80th anniversary. Originally released in 2005, it was the last of a trio of albums that might fall into the singer-songwriter category and the culmination, as far as recording goes, of a career that now stretches back fifty years. Tams has also been an actor, composer and musical director among other roles he’s taken on over the years but is best known for his membership of Muckram Wakes, The Albion Band and Home Service.

The first thing that struck me on listening to The Reckoning again was how gentle it is. Tams is a political thinker but he doesn’t rant in song, preferring to let the ideas enter your mind by a process of osmosis. Take the opening song, ‘Written In The Book’. On the one hand it seems to be a condemnation of the false hopes of the sixties: “Lennon and McCartney have a lot to answer for” and on the other it’s an attack on Thatcherism. ‘Safe House’ is equally complex. It’s clearly about the dispossessed but are they immigrants, Travellers, or the unemployed detritus of industrial decline? Probably all three.

There are several traditional songs here – at least they were once traditional and Tams labels them as such despite the work he’s put into them. ‘Amelia’ is absolutely gorgeous: obviously in shanty form but it leaves us wondering whether it’s ‘Amelia’ who is out on the sea or her sailor who is trying to get back to her. ‘Bitter Withy’ is modernised with Graeme Taylor’s Dobro over Andy Seward’s banjo and ‘A Man Of Constant Sorrow’ is transferred to the Derbyshire and Yorkshire coalfields and 1984.

‘The Sea’ is a song cycle which includes ‘One More Day’, a song that Tams has made his own, and the amalgamation of ‘A Sailor’s Life’ with the chorus of ‘A Sailor’s Alphabet’. The last track on the original release was ‘Including Love’, a decidedly American blues decorated by Steve Dawson’s trumpet. It sounded slightly incongruous then but with the three “postscript” tracks taken from or inspired by productions of John Steinbeck works it seems more appropriate. The first of the three is the cheekily titled ‘Sweet Home Oklahoma’ and the second is ‘No Luck At All’, both featuring Taylor on second guitar. Both of these post-date the first release of The Reckoning but the final track is a gorgeous big band version of Albert E Brumley’s ‘I’ll Fly Away’ from 1990 (remember Plainsong’s version?) and among the familiar names on board you have to single out Trevor Dunford’s lead guitar playing.

If this is the last of Topic’s celebratory reissues, it’s not a bad place to stop but, you know, I can think of a dozen more candidates to continue the series.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Amelia’ – live (from the folking archive):

DAVID OLNEY – This Side Or The Other (Black Hen Music BHCD0089)

This Side Or The OtherBased in Nashville since 1973, Olney has clocked up a fair few musical miles with 21 previous studio albums, released at a rate of one every one or two years since 1991. While his songs have been covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Steve Earle, he’s never really achieved huge commercial success in his own right, but then he’s never been short of a loyal following either. His latest is unlikely to change either situation, but it again serves to underline his strength, not only as a writer and performer, but also as an observer and a voice of his times.

Featuring Daniel Seymour on upright bass and the great Fats Kalpin on accordion and oud, though nine original numbers and an unlikely cover, the album explores the notion of walls in their different forms, physical, emotional and metaphorical and, as per the title, what the view is like depending on which side you’re standing. Inevitably, the theme of the outsider, the refugee, finds its way into the Steve Dawson produced album, opening with the fiddle-led Texicana chug of ‘Always The Stranger’ (“always the wanderer lost in time”) featuring Charlie McCoy on harmonica. McCoy on vibes, ‘Wall’ has a bluesy shuffling groove punctuated by bolts of electric guitar as he talks of division, an implicit nod to Trump’s Mexican project clear, but with a wider perspective on the paranoia that has gripped not just America but society at large as, “a lock on every door”, he ponders “When did we begin to live in shadow? We don’t even trust each other now.”

It’s perhaps no geographical accident that this is followed by ‘Border Town’, a twangsome studio recording of a storysong about a coming storm that featured on his Ann1997 Real Lies live, here one of three featuring the McCrary Sisters on backing vocals.

Extending the symbolism, balancing a desert-noir feel with a melodic chorus, the semi-spoken ‘I Spy’, featuring Anne McCue on backing vocals, adopts the espionage imagery of living a double life, unable to tell which is real, never questioning the why or wondering where the blame lies, the political coalescing with the personal in the shadows and the deception. Reworked from 2004’s Illegal Cargo, ‘Running From Love’ fleshes out the spare original with another brooding, bluesy mood, McCoy on harmonica, Dawson on electric guitar and Ward Stout on fiddle.

Co-penned with McCue (who duets) and John Hadley, the latter responsible for almost all the other co-writes, contrary to expectations the title track is a dreamy love song about lovers separated by a border and dreaming of being reunited rather than an overt political number. That this reunion could in death is a suggestion underscored by the fact it’s immediately followed by ‘Death Will Not Divide Us’, its swampy rhythm resulting in the album’s rockiest – and most apocalyptic – track as, backed by the McCrarys he sings about common bonds and reconciliations in our darkest hours, all roads leading to the same destination, albeit “bound for a brighter day”. Again, it’s the need to break down the walls that divide and keep us apart that underpins the countrified, steel-streaked ‘Open Your Heart (And Let Me In)’, McCue again crooning on harmonies, which shuffles along like some warm and easing on down vintage Don Williams number.

The final original song, ‘Stand Tall’, has had a lengthy gestation, taking Olney 25 years to complete, the simple acoustic strum and marching drum beat anchoring what is, unquestionably, the stand-out track. It initially seems to be dark and downbeat as he sings how “nothing here can grow except the desolation deep down in your soul”, the narrator declaring they will never change who and what they are. This is reinforced in the chorus of how “there’s a price to pay for being free”, that being essentially, closing your eyes to the hardships and injustice around you. But, invested with the spirit as well as the melody of both ‘Joe Hill’ and ‘Chimes of Freedom’, the song transforms into an anthemic hymn to endurance by everyone “who digs for gold but never sees it shine” and yet still “wish upon a star and hope that she can change the way things are”.

And so it ends with that cover, a version of the Zombies classic ‘She’s Not There’ that, in the desperation in the voice, plays like a film noir voice-over with Dawson on tremolo electric guitar and the McCrary Sisters providing soulful gospel backing vocals. It may seem an unlikely choice, but the more you listen the more it fits right in.

On ‘Stand Tall’, he calls out to the wandering troubadours who carry the torch in their songs, urging them to “keep it on the road and play it right”. Olney plays it right.

Mike Davies

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‘This Side Or The Other’ – official video:

CHRISTA COUTURE – Long Time Leaving (Black Hen Music BHCD0079)

Long Time LeavingA Canadian of First Nations heritage, Edmonton born Couture comes with the sort of backstory that would earn her an instant spot on the X-Factor, losing a leg to cancer as a teenager and two sons, one just after birth and the other at 14 months. Perhaps understandably, her work is often rooted in grief and loss, her songs a mixture of despair and hope. Yet there’s nothing downbeat about the music here, the melodies as light as her voice is pure, perfect for summer listening even if, as a break-up album born of post tragedy divorce , the lyrics may be overcast.

With an intro that could have come from George Harrison, melodically undulating opening track, ‘The Slaughter’, deals with sexual exploration, offering herself up to both men and women both women and men while the divorce is specifically addressed in the lightly Broadway musical tinged ‘Separation/Agreement’, as she sings “the hallways are lined with boxes neatly stacked. This is what eight years looks like packed”, and more obliquely in the piano led, carnival waltzing ‘Zookeeper’, a witty take on marriage counseling with the couple as wild animals in unlocked cages.

Produced by Steve Dawson, who also provides assorted guitars it shifts from wistful clinging to hope regret (the tumbling lush 60s flavoured pop of ‘If I Still Love You’ and the pedal steel washed Nashville country ‘Alone In This’ to the drowning pain in drink of the folksy tumbling ‘When It Gets Dark Again’ with its catchy chorus, from the giddy lovestruck, nigh vaudeville ‘Lovely Like You’ with its Weissenborn, ukulele and Fats Kaplin on fiddle to the barbed and bitter old tyme slow waltzing ‘Solid Ground’ where she sings “My heart is filled with arsenic and it seeps out from time to time in these lines.”

Elsewhere there’s shades of Tori Amos to ‘In The Papers’ with its circling piano motif and keening steel, a ditty about the ensuing gossip after a night on the tiles, ‘Michigan Postcript’ is using life on the road with its arrivals and departures as a way of escape while ‘That Little Part Of My Heart’ is a prowling electric blues that borrows the children’s king of the castle playground game in which the protagonist seems to be burying any emotions and fear of being hurt by playing the part of a sexual predator.

It all ends with Couture on tinkling piano and Dawson on pump organ for ‘Aux Oiseaux’, another number with musical theatre blood in its veins, closing on a hopeful note as she sings “I’m glad we’re here in this dump. If together is all that we’ve got it’s enough for us not to give up.” Insightful, honest and immensely hummable, this is classy stuff, haute couture you might say.

Mike Davies

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‘That Little Part Of My Heart’ – official video: