While I was not well-acquainted with the work of Tom Clelland, I’ve always liked songs that tell a story, so I was immediately drawn to his new CD release Handpicked & Collected. The compilation consists of 23 tracks mastered/remastered by Kris Koren and spread over two CDs. Handpicked is a selection of eight story songs – including the previously unreleased ‘Berries’ – with a Scottish connection, while Collected features a wider range of themes and influences.
All the songs are credited to Tom except for ‘How Far Is It To Babylon’, of which the lyric is adapted (very successfully) from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem To Minnie. Tom sings and plays guitar on all tracks, but a number of very capable musicians provide support on various songs (but not all at once), notably Mairearad Green on pipes and accordion; Wendy Weatherby, Don Dougall and Joanne Grant on cello; Steven Polwart, Clive Gregson and Robin Laing on guitar; Norman Chalmers on concertina; Willie Gamble on pedal steel; Fiona Cuthill and Pete Clark on fiddle; Alistair Kennedy and Kris Koren on mandolin; Phil Sakerski on dobro; and Davie Scott on “all other instruments“. Rather an impressive guest list.
Though the first CD favours Scotland in its subject matter, the actual themes of these stories cover a wide range – the Great War (‘Dig’), the Gulf War (‘The Wind She Changed’), the 15th century Battle of Harlaw (‘Carrion Craw’), the persecution of the Covenanters (‘The Grassmarket Butchers’), the supernatural (‘The Ghost Wi’ The Squeaky Wheel’), whimsy (‘The Balancing Boy’) and “the passage of the seasons” (the previously unreleased ‘Berries’). All told with unassuming grace and subtlety.
While there’s an Americana-ish tinge to some of the tracks on Handpicked, there’s a more pervasive country feel to many of the tracks on Collected, as well as a fuller instrumentation. Which is all fine by me: there are worse things than admiring Guy Clark (‘I Wish That I Could Write Like Old Guy Clark’), or writing the pop-y ‘Send Me Another Smile’. And if there isn’t a ‘Desperados Waiting For A Train’ on Collected, ‘Stormclouds At A Distance’ and ‘Let It Snow’ have an emotional pull of their own, though perhaps my own favourite track is the Stephenson setting ‘How Far Is It To Babylon’ (sic).
Tom Clelland has a pleasant voice, plays effective guitar, and has attracted some first-class instrumental support. But the real treasures here are the songs. For me, the tracks on Handpicked are the most interesting, but the country vibe on Collected is never less than engaging and includes some classy songwriting and performance, with some very singable choruses. And while cover art isn’t something I generally comment on, there’s something very pleasing about Savannah Storm’s floral paintings.
Artist’s website: tomclelland.co.uk
‘Let It Snow’ – live: