The new Ralph McTell CD Hill Of Beans, due for release on the 20th September 2019, is apparently his first collection of original material since Somewhere Down The Road in 2010, though he’s been keeping busy with other projects such as Songs For Six Strings and two albums with Wizz Jones. Hill Of Beans is also notable in that it reunites him with Tony Visconti, who played such a large part in his early recording career.
The promo copy I received gives no details of the other musicians participating in the recording, unfortunately. I don’t suppose I’m the only reader of these reviews who likes that sort of detail, but I suppose in the end it’s what comes out of the hi-fi that really matters.
Here’s the track listing.
- ‘Oxbow Lakes’ is a quirky application of a geological metaphor to a human relationship.
- ‘Brighton Belle’ combines a reminiscence of a rather beautiful train with family history, a little like ‘Barges’ on the Not Till Tomorrow Is it his own family history? It’s a bad idea to assume that a songwriter – or any kind of writer – is writing about himself. I suppose it doesn’t matter: Ralph has an enviable ability to make any story he tells sound like his own.
- You may already be acquainted with ‘Clear Water’ from the version by Fairport Convention on Myths And Heroes, if not from Ralph’s own concert performances. The strings and heavenly chorus in this version are not altogether to my taste, but there’s something uplifting about the song.
- I suppose it’s inevitable that ‘Gertrude And Alice’ should introduce its theme of the relationship of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas with Parisian-flavoured accordion: in fact, it’s a charming arrangement, slightly reminiscent of ‘Maginot Waltz’ in its period charm.
- ‘Gammel Dansk’ has a somewhat klezmer-ish orchestration and echoes (to my ear) of Brel, Brecht and Cohen. Really rather impressive.
- ‘Shed Song’ is as curious a topic as the title suggests, describing the man shed as a “church of masculinity“. Yet set in the context of a family history and married to a particularly attractive melody and orchestration, it turns out to be one of the standout tracks.
- The story told in ‘Close Shave’, in contrast with the orchestration of some of the other tracks, is carried only by Ralph’s ragtime-soaked guitar. Not a classic of the genre, perhaps, but pleasant.
- ‘When They Were Young’ features more accordion and strings against a meditation on age and first love. It’s actually rather charming.
- The waltz-time ‘Sometimes I Wish I Could Pray’ feels unnervingly like a country song. But it’s growing on me.
- The title track, ‘Hill Of Beans’, quotes heavily from the movie Casablanca while somehow telling a more personal-sounding story, apparently relating to his days of busking in Paris.
- ‘West 4th Street And Jones’ is a live performance, simply carried by Ralph’s guitar and harmonica. Somewhere recently, I saw this described as Dylan-ish. Well, for Ralph it would seems that for Ralph the early romance between Dylan and the late Suze Rotolo – as forever remembered on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – still permeates West 4th Street, but there’s a wistfulness to these words that is quintessentially McTell. If there’s a classic on this album to match ‘From Clare To Here’ or ‘Maginot Waltz’ or even ‘Streets Of London’, this is probably it.
What can you say about Ralph McTell? For many of us, he’s provided some of the soundtrack of our lives for many decades. His singing is never less than pleasant, and his guitar playing, rooted in blues and ragtime, is exemplary. But it’s his songwriting that is his greatest strength, broad in scope but somehow always true to himself. I suppose any song is in some sense a story, but there are few who can tell a story so well in song as Ralph McTell. Hill Of Beans is not (yet) my favourite McTell album but it’s certainly not a disappointment.
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‘West 4th Street And Jones’ – live on TV: