Cult Classics Album Breakdown 28

Van Morrison – Moondance (1970)

In unusual fashion for a largely positive review, I’m going to begin by bashing the artist involved.

Van Morrison is one selfish mother-fucker.

There you go. Now I’ve got you wondering, haven’t I? Well, let me take you back to 1999. I was sixteen years old, heavily into music, and about to venture into booking my first ever gig. There was an advert in my local paper claiming that Van Morrison was coming to town – the genius Irish songwriter who had penned the likes of Brown Eyed Girl, Moondance, and Gloria. I called my friend Sarah, we agreed to go, and I booked the tickets. He came on stage for forty minutes, played none of the above – in fact, played only one recognisable song in the whole gig (Have I Told You Lately That I Love You) – and strutted off without returning for an encore.

At the time, of course, I had no idea that this was unusual practice. Only later did I realise how arrogant, selfish and impersonal this had been. The highlight of the gig had, in fact, been the support act, Lonnie Donnegan, who, with hindsight, blew Van off the stage. He was brilliant, and I got to meet him afterwards – he even signed an album for me. I had no idea at the time how important in the whole scheme of things this man was. A night of no ideas (LOL)! An inspiration for The Beatles, even. He put a smile on my face did Lonnie that night though – that’s how I remember him.

So, wind the clock forward a few years. 2002 to be precise. I decided to give Van Morrison another chance – the venue: Sheffield City Hall. Yet again a horrendously selfish set of obscure stuff that very few in the audience knew or wanted to know. They were looking round in bemusement, like mere-cats. For the first half an hour he hung in the shadows playing saxophone instrumentals. Nobody was there to see that. And, yet again, he kept his hits under lock and key.

The man plays what he wants, when he wants, and how he wants with no consideration for his fans. The man is very self-centered, and has little if no consideration for the audience. You wouldn’t pay for a ticket to watch a dog and feel thrilled when the cat walks on. “Will you shut the fuck up and listen?” Van Morrison famously asked a crowd of over-excited teenyboppers gathered at L.A’s Whisky A Go Go in February 1969. They didn’t respond – just kept on talking. Maybe he’s never recovered from that.

It was essential I got that off my chest. The anecdotes are done for now. Onto the album. There’s better news coming.

Van Morrison is an awesome talent, there’s no questioning that. That’s demonstrated in no better form than his third solo album, and subsequent Grammy Hall Of Fame inductee, Moondance. Astral Weeks, the prequel to Moondance, is often cited as Morrison’s masterpiece. I’ve bought and returned that album three times in an attempt to see what the fuss is all about. In my opinion it doesn’t touch Moondance – an absolute triumph from beginning to end.

And It Stoned Me – the singer’s true recollection of an afternoon in his childhood – is a heartfelt, rural epic. The beginning of Van’s new direction, where his songs were informed by dreams and visions. The title track, Moondance, is one of those timeless jazz intros that never ever gets even a millimetre less thrilling, even on listen ten-thousand. With inspired lyrics, it has become one of the most recognisable brain-worms ever written: “Well it’s a marvellous night for a moondance / With the stars up above in your eyes / A fantabulous night to make romance / ‘Neath the cover of October skies.” Majestic.

Crazy Love, the album highlight, is a sensual, intimate love song that bleeds soul and warmth. Some sort of divine inspiration is surely needed to write a song like this – and it simply can’t be imitated. It’s a command of one’s craft that I don’t think Van has ever topped. Caravan marks the beginning of Morrison’s fascination with Gypsies – a theme that still runs through his work today. The caravan may be “painted red & white“, but the song is painted with the authenticity of Morrison’s spirit.

The ethereal Into The Mystic is the sort of songwriting that operates within new dimensions – musically and lyrically. This is not Brown Eyed Girl territory. It’s far superior, deeper, vast, beautiful. The same beauty filters into the eternal happiness of Come Running, and These Dreams Of You is a Dylan-esque wander through the random thoughts and feelings of a slightly troubled, often melancholy, brilliant mind.

Brand New Day is a gallant, optimistic song, and Everyone a message of hope in a time of unrest (1969 had seen civil war break out in Belfast). Van is absolutely magnetic on this record, and I simply couldn’t imagine life without it on my shelf. Throughout the record his vocal is impeccable, and the horn-soaked Glad Tidings, another tune infused with love and optimism, wraps up one of the most unlikely and strangely uplifting albums you may ever hear. For such a miserable bastard to write such stuff is remarkable. A very soothing record in times of trouble or pain

I’ll never forget Andy Fairweather-Low, during his own magnificent gig in Southport a few years back, running through tunes from the list of artist that he had worked with down the years. I’m talking the likes of Clapton, George Harrison, Roger Waters – when he got to Van, he said:” the less said about him the better.” It tickled me because I just knew. Regardless of the man, Moondance is outstanding, and merits all the plaudits it has accrued over the last 50+ years, and I’m happy to say that we’ve buried the hatchet. I saw him live for a third time a couple of years ago at a jazz festival in Ghent, Belgium, where he finally got the hits out. Any you know what? He seemed happy…so I left happy too.

Thanks for the music, Van.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Moondance

Crazy Love

Into The Mystic


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 27

JJ Cale – Shades (1981)

In my hometown of Southport, near Liverpool, there is a wonderful independent record store called Quicksilver Music. It was in there, about ten years ago, that I happened to wander when Shades by JJ Cale was pulsing over the speakers. I knew instantly that I had to have it. It just had something about it that kept me in the shop for well over half an hour. Made Quicksilver Music seem cooler than ever, which is no mean feat. The owner, Dave, a lovely guy with a fountain of music knowledge, often spots me coming to this day and puts something on that he thinks I’ll like (LOL!). Then he leaves the case on the counter – bait, so to speak, for the vulnerable record collector.

Needless to say, Shades got swallowed whole, and praise the Lord.

A lot made sense once I’d got my hands on this record. I started to understand what the likes of Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton and John Mayer had been listening to whilst homing their own craft. It started to make sense too, having read into it more, why Clapton particularly has always acknowledged and championed this man more than most. And, when reading the sleeve notes, it’s hardly a surprise, all considered, that JJ could call upon such stellar backing musicians for Shades – pianist Bill Payne, drummers Jim Keltner and Russ Kunkel, and legendary former-Elvis guitarist, James Burton, to name a few.

So, to the highlights. If I’m honest there are no low lights. This is a remarkably consistent record. It opens with the groovy Carry On, demonstrating Cale’s insistence on understated vocals left way back in the soup, and limb-tingling shuffle rhythm. It’s a killer hook, leading into the equally hypnotising Deep Dark Dungeon – another characteristically short but captivating novella of a song. JJ Cale doesn’t do the prog thing; he strikes a chord, delivers, then gets the hell out of there within three minutes.

Wish I Had Not Said That is a lighter shuffle with a particularly stripped back sound – it feels like you’re in the studio watching it being recorded, in fact. Pack My Jack is stereotypical JJ – smoky-bar, post-midnight Blues; both simple and sturdy. This is the gift of Cale – his tunes feel like they’ve been around forever. If You Leave Her is somewhat funky – a wah-wah infused jaunt, demonstrating JJ’s ability to slightly alter the goalposts. Friendly and inviting, it’s a sound that reels you in like a greedy Carp.

Mama Don’t, one of the album highlights, is an infectious, mischievous lyric riding over a jilted twelve-bar blues: “Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ round here / No Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ round here / I don’t care what Mama don’t allow / Gonna play my guitar anyhow/No Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ in here.” And quite right – who cares what Mama don’t want, right? Get that amp turned up to 11…

Runaround is Jazz soaked Blues in which Cale’s lyrics, about a woman giving him the ‘runaround’, hark back to traditional blues themes of old. What Do You Expect is lively bop-rock, Love Has Been Gone a nod to Cale’s Country influences, and the album’s final track, Cloudy Day, a moody but adorable instrumental in which guitar and saxophone duel beautifully – similarities could be drawn with Peter Green’s famed Albatross. A staggering end to a great record without a single stray note or unnecessary decorative filigree.

JJ Cale – a lifelong snubber of limelight and conscious avoider of Rock-star ‘celebrity’ – is now a cult hero. Heralded as the creator of the Tulsa Sound, Cale single-handedly pioneered a genre that fused Country, Blues, Rockabilly and Jazz. Clapton is chiefly responsible for Cale’s cult status, having made two of Cale’s songs – Cocaine and After Midnight – huge hits for himself in the 70’s. Admirers of the man also include Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Brian Ferry – what a collection of references! His laid-back, horizontal sound is compelling, and I feel there is no better example than this stunning album, Shades.

In 2005 JJ Cale released a DVD called To Tulsa And Back – a career spanning documentary that gives a great insight into this reclusive legend and his wonderful musical achievements. He was Leon Russell’s studio technician before being nudged towards making his own records, and never lost that sense of humility. His back catalogue is a must for any guitar lover – and there’s no better way to start than with this album, Shades.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Carry On

Mama Don’t

Cloudy Day


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 26

The Verve – Urban Hymns (1997)

When you’re short of a record that you know everybody will like, Urban Hymns is always a great choice – triumphant and upstanding in any company, and spanning a wealth of musical genres.

This now legendary record is a landmark in 90’s popular culture, and in my opinion, shits all over anything Oasis ever did. A genuine British masterpiece. Bitter Sweet Symphony – to this day The Verve’s most successful single – was a seminal release in British music history. Fusing classical chamber music with contemporary indie-rock is no mean feat. Performed by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra, and written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the score to this track stood untouched for years before Richard Ashcroft got his creative mitts on it and wrote a lyric. The finished product is definitely a contender for single of the 90’s.

If that wasn’t enough of a revolutionary opening, the album rolls into Sonnet, another of the four big singles off Urban Hymns, and one of the outstanding examples of Ashcroft’s urban songwriting. It’s also extremely difficult to get melancholy to soar; though Ashcroft seems to find it easy. The Rolling People is Zeppy in its eye-closing heaviness and oblique escapism, perhaps with a splash of U2’s Achtung Baby era. “I just can’t make it alone” sums up the core of the record. And, if U2 meets Zep isn’t enough of a mesh-comparison to wet the lips, I suggest you take up crown green bowls. 

The Drugs Don’t Work is a necessary sombre; utterly sincere and affected from former junkie, Ashcroft. An endearing message to younger people about the perils of addiction. The mass of fans who flocked to buy Urban Hymns (over eight million in the UK alone) were people with kids and problems and real-life worries – these very human songs rang a huge collective bell. It’s the relate-ability of Ashcroft’s craft that makes this so compelling and accessible. Four songs in and you know you’ve definitely got a serious record on your hands.

Catching The Butterfly is, again, reminiscent of the industrial sounds used on U2’s Achtung Baby, and Neon Wilderness an immersing, spacial jam written by guitarist Nick McCabe. Ashcroft was quoted in the early 90’s saying ‘history has a place for us. It may take three albums but we will be there’ – turns out he wasn’t far off the mark. These songs are now fabled – take Space And Time for example – an atmospheric, wistful ballad that marked the hangover of Britpop. Just superb, as one might say on a Sunday afternoon nursing a pint. Suberb.

Weeping Willow is deeply and emotive. Comparisons have been drawn to Radiohead here, and why not. It’s a  groove that leads brilliantly into the album highlight, Lucky Man. I was fifteen years old when I became obsessed with this amazing single. I vividly remember being immersed in some History coursework on Native Americans when I first heard it, and it quite simply opened up another dimension in my mind. That intro is just mesmeric. And so very, very simple. A magical achievement, both from a songwriting and recording perspective. I’ve performed this song myself hundreds, if not thousands of times for live audiences, and it never fails to be one of the best received of all live tracks – simply because of its stature. A song that defined an era, not just in my own life, but the lives of many. A song that, long after The Verve are forgotten, will still be an enduring part of the woodwork. And let’s face it, how many amongst us can consider themselves a lucky man?

Just when you’re wondering where this record can possibly go after that audible hurricanethis band pull out another piece of musical treasure. One Day, a sublime, experimental ballad shows the delicacy and poetics involved in Ashcroft’s craft: “One day baby we will dance again under fiery skies/One day maybe you will love again, love that never dies.” Immense depth of feeling from such a young musician, and justification for their often touted Space Rock / Shoegaze hybrid label.

Ashcroft’s memorable and everlasting tunesmithery bleeds and swoons and crashes and howls. Urban Hymns has far outlived the band, and many of its contemporaries. It’s also worth mentioning that the rest of the band need equal affirmation since Ashcroft often swamps the limelight: Simon Jones (bass), Peter Salisbury (drums), Nick McCabe (lead guitar), and Simon Tong (guitar/keyboards). I hope that Urban Hymns sits snugly on every music lovers’ shelf, and is dusted off occasionally as a reminder that there was something worth caring about in the 1990’s.

It was, of course, Liam that snarled: “Is it my imagination or have we finally found something worth living for?” The answer, back in 1997, was yes: Urban Hymns.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

© Roger Sargent / Shutterstock

Top track trio:

Lucky Man

One Day

Velvet Morning


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 25

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

Radiohead, as a concept, is a tectonic plate – constantly shifting, constantly tense, constantly threatening to explode. They are so far out on the edge, still, after all these years, that they’re gripping our reality by a thread. I’ve learned to love that about them.

every time they bring out a new record you literally have no idea what to expect. You’ve got AC/DC, who write the same song over and over again (brilliantly, I might add), and at the other end of the spectrum there’s Radiohead, who you wouldn’t waste a single pound on by making a prediction. They almost intuitively reject their last project in the next one – distance themselves, you could say, like an ex-lover. i’ll never forget the first time I slipped A Moon Shaped Pool into the CD player and heard Burn The Witch. My God. In fact, I think that’s pretty much all I could come up with. It was weeks later, after multiple listens, that I realised how weighty and epochal and downright bloody great it was.

The once slightly weird and maybe even unhinged 90’s indie band aren’t young men anymore. And I’d encourage you to ignore that rather laborious description I’ve just presented of this band since they are so much more than that, and then some. They are the Pink Floyd of their own generation, in fact. Massive statement, I know. I’m not making direct comparisons – just analysing the gravitas of this music and their body of work. Thom Yorke is the paranoid android come to fill our alternative ears with joy. And on this record, Radiohead’s ninth studio outing, he, along with other founder members Colin Greenwood, Jonny greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Phil Segway, certainly do that.

Good luck trying to decode the likes of Decks Dark and Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief, but if you’ve got a decent pair of headphones, the swell of ambience pouring into the ears is majestic regardless. I love Desert Island Disk; a moody, art-rock masterpiece that hides much more than it dares to show. Ful Stop is surely a snippet of futurism – neurotic and slippery – it’s almost incomprehensible when wondering how you’d write something like that. Dazzling, and almost pretty, which would possibly make a Radiohead purist puke. Sorry.

Of course, a Radiohead record wouldn’t be complete without some sort of monstrous foreboding or suffocating gloom – and neither would we want it to be. Identikit is an unsettling lyric that employs the influence of classical chamber music. It leaves you wondering if Thom is a closet bubbly bloke or as melancholy as some of his music is. Most. In a good way. This is a band still travelling without moving, and long may they feel the itch if they keep making records like this.

The Numbers is shit-hot, groovy, borrowing-from-early-70’s dimly lit cult Funk and Soul curvature. I’ve read that back, but I’m not changing it. Listen to bass and tell me you’re not enchanted. And so we have a record here that is Art-Rock at its finest. Some mistake Art-Rock for pretentiousness, but I prefer to consider it imagination. This is a band that seem to be as imaginative as ever thirty years into their career, so don’t expect hit singles any time soon.

The charts, are you listening? MEOW.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Burn The Witch

Desert Island Disk

The Numbers


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 24

Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)

It was initially a joke that prompted a mate of mine to give me this album. He was convinced that I was so anti-hip-hop I wouldn’t even take it off him, let alone listen to it. Forever willing to be challenged, I took it and put it straight in the CD player when I got home. After that I never looked back. Hip-hop became a ‘thing’ in my musical dictionary.

I think the thing that grabs me most about this record is the power in which Ms Hill delivers her no bullshit stand against dickhead men who can’t stop hurting the women that adore them. It’s a record that bellows liberation from the rooftops, and bellows it LOUD. It’s a self-serving, self-healing album that just so happens to connect with millions. I’m not at all surprised that, moving into 23 years later, there still hasn’t been a follow-up. I mean, what do you say after this – when, as an artist, you’ve basically exercised your soul in one almighty blast? And, while we’re on the subject, the other thing that grabs me is the fact that I instantly imagined the likes of Roberta Flack, Aretha, Bob Marley, Donny Hathaway, and a whole host of Motown artists. That’s the point; this record has got serious Soul.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill won a record five Grammy Awards from 10 nominations – there’s your retirement pot right there. It also reiterates how important this was as a cross-over record. I, for example, had never cared that much for or listened to hip-hop before this album slapped me round the chops. Hip-hop is at the core of Hill’s work, just as it was in her previous incantation, The Fugees, but it’s her ability here to garnish the record with bonafide Soul, elements of Reggae, splashes of Funk and some startlingly powerful Gospel that smashes the doors wide open to a huge audience. Ex-Factor, my favourite song on the album, is one of the great cross-over tracks I’ve ever heard, meandering between genres and blowing your musical mind skywards. Intensely personal, it’s one of those songs that never leaves the brain-worm jukebox.

The album is about the many manifestations of love. The emotions communicated here are complex and varied. I Used To Love Him is drenched in pain, though Nothing Even Matters is quite the opposite – a realisation laced with joy. It’s fascinating that both Superstar and Forgive Them Father could even be interpreted as attacks on Hill’s former bandmates, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel – relations declined rapidly after they both claimed Hill needed psychiatric help.

The astuteness of To Zion is staggering, and the beautiful optimism in Can’t Take My Eyes Off You really endearing. Having not been a broad consumer of hip-hop, there are a few tracks on here I still find testing, but generally the artistry and sensitivity pervading these songs completely submerge me. Lauryn Hill is a poet, and a damn good one. She’s also got a voice that, at times outspoken, commands your ear.

The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill is self-indulgent without being self-obsessed – and though that may seem like the biggest oxymoron ever, I know what I mean (LOL!). It’s an incredible skill to bare your soul whilst remaining universal. It’s a profound album that was forward-thinking at the time in its reaching for the new millenium, and displays the songwriting craft of the likes of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon to name a few – yes, Lauryn Hill has climbed the ladder into that bracket of greatness as a result of this one record. I got to see her 20th anniversary performance of this album in Manchester, and though she strolled on stage typically late, it had all the traits of a cultural event, not just a gig.

I never thought I’d be writing this review, but here I am. I’m saying it out loud – hip-hop has made my classic cult album blog. I didn’t think I’d ever go to North Korea or jump off the world’s highest bungee either. Isn’t life strange?!

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

© Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

Top track trio:

Ex-Factor

Doo Wap (That Thing)

Can’t Take My Eyes Off You


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 23

Black Sabbath – Paranoid (1970)

Let us all, for just ten minutes, try to forget what our old friend Ozzy Osborne has become. Let us try to forget that this Hard-Rock music pioneer and cult legend has reduced himself to a reality-TV cartoon character complaining about poodle-poo. Yeah, it’s funny – but it’s not Rock’n’Roll. I couldn’t see the cameras in Robert Plant’s house divulging all his day-today secrets.

Let us forget that Ozzy has shit all over his own career so badly that records such as the one in question, Paranoid, is barely even associated with his past. The kids know Ozzy, for sure – but not for the great music he contributed to back in the late 60’s/early 70’s. What a terrible shame. I want to hark back to a time when Ozzy’s band Black Sabbath were right out on the edge, writing and recording serious and revolutionary Rock music with depth and meaning. In order to do that you have to get your Living With The Osbornes DVD’s series and find the bin, and re-ignite the record player. Paranoid, after all, became the only Black Sabbath album to top the British charts for the next four decades – that’s where Ozzy’s legend lies.

1970 was the year Black Sabbath released Paranoid, their second studio album, during a year of great political and social unrest. It is, to this day, Black Sabbath’s classic album. As I have explained before, I’m not adverse to any genre of music as long as it connects with me in some way. Early Sabbath stuff such as this record is deemed to be heavy – whether that be Metal or Rock, although I would dispute that somewhat. To me this record is an exercise in great guitar playing and great songwriting, not just a thrashing blur of sound. The fact that they recorded the song Paranoid in a 20 minutes – the fulfilment of a legal obligation – is astonishing.

The record opens with the politically fuelled War Pigs – a fantastic, doom-laden rant about those in positions of power. Ok, so we know that Ozzy isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, so we’ll forgive him for his opening rhyming couplet: “Generals gather in their masses/Just like witches at black masses.” The record was initially to be called War Pigs until the record company stepped in; would the themes have been understood more had it been that way? Maybe. The critics initially panned Sabbath, with one notable magazine in the US calling them the “worst band in the world.” Not sure what prompted that – they weren’t listening to the same record as me.

Planet Caravan, the album’s highlight, is a dreamy experimental jam with Ozzy’s voice routed through a whirling Leslie speaker. It delivers images of romantic escapism and some sort of apocalyptic foreboding. It could be off a Doves record – it’s still that fresh. My favourite Black Sabbath moment ever, it must be said. Iron Man, the second single off the album, is thumping Sabbath and surely the birth of Metal. Intense, unstoppable, ageless and devastatingly dark.

Electric Funeral is built around a searing, distorted guitar riff as Ozzy gets crushingly sinister; it’s wonderfully, weirdly dark. Hand Of Doom is another bluesy, bass-led groove from Geezer Butler that builds up into a thrilling crescendo. Inspired by the drug-ravaged horror stories of US soldiers returning from the Vietnam war, it’s nightmarish and compelling in equal measure. Rat Salad is a Led Zep-ish, lead guitar masterpiece. It’s songs like this that push guitarist Tony Iommi into the upper leagues of legendary guitar virtuosos. Fiery, spiralling riffage by a largely unsung guitar hero. As for the title – had Ozzy not been involved you’d dismiss it as fiction.

The record closes with the intense Fairies Wear Boots – another anthemic exercise in excellence from a taught-tight 3-piece musical backbone. It’s got something seriously sea-monster about this track, and the production pulverises the ears. “Smokin’ and trippin’ is all that you do!” Ozzy boasts; his finest vocal performance on the record, and one that leaves you smirking whilst melting with the whole metal of it all. The fact that Ozzy is alive to tell the tale is beyond miraculous. He’d have been in a surefire group of rock’n’rollers almost certain NOT to get into their 70’s.

My roots are in the acoustic scene, and always have been. However, I’m so pleased that I got my hands on this record as a teen. It changed my entire perspective, and opened me up to an entire new world of music.

An absolute classic album, Paranoid has its heavy moments, but also wanders through melancholy Blues, Soft Rock, and in some parts even Jazz. But remember: it needs to be played LOUD.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Paranoid

Planet Caravan

Rat Salad


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 22

Paolo Nutini – These Streets (2006)

When I cam out of university I used to work at a rather shitty little shampoo wholesalers, ironically enough, delivering hair and beauty products to salons in a little white van. I’m the most unlikely white van man ever, and my hair and beauty speaks for itself. Despite totalitarian, small-town jobsworth bosses, the job wasn’t all bad. It didn’t last long, and I got to work with a mate of mine, Shaun, who was into music. During this period we used to go to an awful lot of gigs, and he came into work one morning rather upset because he had two tickets to watch Paolo Nuitini at Manchester’s Apollo Theatre but nobody to go with. Being the stubborn little sod that he can be, he’d refused to ask me before that morning in case I berated him for his venture into ‘Pop’ music. Regardless, he swallowed his pride and asked me, and never being one for missing an opportunity to watch a live gig, I agreed. The deal was that if I’d drive he’d pays for the tickets. All of a sudden a boring Tuesday had become quite an adventure.

I had obviously heard some of Nutini’s singles – at the time Last RequestRewind, and Jenny Don’t Be Hasty were all over the radio stations. I actually quite liked him on first listen – particularly Last Request, which is a swooning, deeply-felt ballad about wanting one last moment with a lost love. By the time I’d heard These Streets, a mature autobiographical song by Nutini, I’d decided that I really liked the sound of this young fella. Of course, the aforementioned singles made up a sizeable chunk of the album These Streets – his emphatic debut album. So, on the quiet, I was quite happy to be going.

The gig that night, at The Apollo Theatre in Manchester, was a hoot. A great atmosphere with a really excitable young crowd. I left very impressed indeed – Paolo was a nervous but energetic performer, and his band were superb. It occurred to me that he had a bit of Van Morrison and Rod Stewart about him; maybe even John Martyn, or Ray Charles. I vowed to pick up a copy of the album, which I did the very next day, and found myself, for the first time in a very long time, hooked on a Pop record.

Any album written about a relationship breakdown usually gives me cause for concern – especially when written by a 19-year-old. However, there’s a believeability that stems from a complete honesty in the songwriting, and a passionate, soulful delivery from this great young singer. Uncut Magazine said “a major talent has hit the ground running“; The Herald claimed these were “tunes that sound like classics.” Metro deemed the album “mesmerising,” The Sun said it was “assured and timeless,” and The Evening Standard declared Paolo Nutini “a gifted songwriter.” This was no dirge laden, all-been-done-before, cry-baby teen lament. This was a serious collection songs worthy of a serious ear.

Million Faces, the album highlight for me, is the song that first demonstrated the potential that Nutini has gone on to show. It’s his heady mix of personal reflection and social commentary that makes such tunes so engaging, and this in particular is a gorgeous love song. New Shoes is a real feel-good rocker led by Paolo’s husky, soulful delicacy, and White Lies is an adorable acoustic number with cunning chord changes. Loving You rang my Motown bells, which can’t possibly be anything short of great, and features some nicely-executed falsetto.

Autumn is another lovely, piano-based ballad, which made me think of John Mayer, but also back to the folk-rock and singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 70s. There are definitely classic influences penetrating this record – he’s a singer-songwriter with conscience and taste.  

After five days of being rained on non-stop by torrential down pours at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival, I was thoroughly depressed. It was a great hour-long set on the Sunday lunch time as the sun finally broke through the clouds by Paolo Nutini that pretty much saved my festival. I was finally in the right frame of mind after that to go on and enjoy the rest of the final day – or, drink copious amounts of cider and go crazy to The Who, which is what really happened.

Thanks for that, at least, Paolo.

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

Top track trio:

Last Request

These Streets

New Shoes


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 21

Tom Russell – Hotwalker (2005)

So, what’s a hotwalker? Well, it’s a person (usually a stable-hand) who walks a hot, sweaty horse after a workout, or a sprint on the racetrack. Tom Russell has an interest in people for a start; much of his music is observational, or tributary, or reflective. But he also has an interest in exceptional people too, and this, the second part of his Americana trilogy, certainly features many of those. In fact, it’s a very unique listening experience which intersperses snippets of free speech (from the likes of Lenny Bruce, Charles Bukowski, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, hobo composer Harry Partch, Edward Abbey, Jack Kerouac and Little Jack Horton) with musical interludes. It’s a record – if you can call it that – that requires lamplight and your full attention. It’s useless without both.

Russell is an exceptional artist. He’s as earthy a singer-songwriter as you’ll ever hear who writes about the land and towns and cities and smog and people and words and poetry and music – basically a fascinating mix of the most organic parts of life, and then the the inevitable emergence of skid row. His music is a melting pot of many traditional genres, such as folk, country, folk-rock, and most poignantly, cowboy music of the American West. He has a particular fascination for the Mexico border, and paints landscapes with words in the most vivid way. His music has been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, Joe Ely, k.d lang, Nanci Griffith and many others of repute. He’s prolific too – he writes albums for fun and paints the most wonderful avant-garde canvasses. A bone-deep artist through and through.

This very original concept behind Hotwalker is a depiction of post-war Beat landscape, where drunks and roamers and lost poets and outsiders star in Russell’s journey into the soul of “the old America, where the big guilt, political correctness and chainstores hadn’t sunk in so deep”. Russell acts as narrator, and the soliloquies of Little Jack Horton, a carnival circus midget who hung out drinking with Charles Bukowski, are particularly fascinating. That high-pitched voice is clearly from a time gone by – and now, it is. He died shortly after these recordings were made. His tale about stealing a train with Bukowski after a heavy drinking session would seem certain to be fiction had it not been Bukowski that was involved.

The record is a sweeping, chug-along journey through rough-ass country talk, squawking jazz, stripped back and chiselled folky-blues, spooked parlour songs, hypnotic carousel waltzes and americana drama. There’s a nod to the Pope of Greenwich Village, Dave Van Ronk, (Van Ronk) delivered in Russell’s neatly emphatic baritone, and I just love Border Lights for it’s deep-dive into “that delicious dark-eyed myth” of 1950’s Mexico where folk got high on cheap dreams and rum. There are countless Okies “hopped up on moonshine and amphetamines” in Bakersfield – turns out its yet another nod, this time to Gram Parsons and Buck Owens. Russell is such a wide-eyed writer with a love of recognising his own heroes and influences.

To some this may be a tough listen. At times it’s tuneless as recitations are made, but for me the whole package is an experience rarely found on record. Russell is a born storyteller, and this, essentially, is at the core of Hotwalker. It’s brave, but I wouldn’t think Tom gives a fuck. He pursues his art, and Hotwalker is certainly art. Live, this man is compelling too. A wonderful, cult discovery!

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

Top track trio:

Border Lights

Honky Jazz

Bukowski 2 “on the hustle”



The Impact of no Live Music on Mental Health

I want to begin by referring to a study carried out by Behavioral Scientist, Professor Patrick Fagan, who, with the backing of wireless company O2, found that music improves our emotional wellbeing by more than 20%. Music is also likely to help us live longer. Yes, that’s right. He’s saying that popping down the pub and watching that solo acoustic singer for the evening whilst nursing a beer could do your mental health so much good, you’ll live longer.

I’m in. You?

So, throwing yourself into a mosh-pit at a Metal gig, swaying away to the Blues singer, tapping your foot along to the Jazz band or dancing in the isles at a Pop concert could genuinely extend your life. A prescription of live music, suggested at least once a fortnight by Fagan, has every chance of improving your health, happiness and wellbeing. That, of course, is on the understanding that we don’t get absolutely spannered every time we go, which could be an issue for one or two amongst us. However, what positive news! I mean, it’s not rocket science that music and dopamine are clearly in cahoots.

This though, of course, is why many of us are really struggling right now.

On the evening of the 13th March 2020 I was at Phase One, an incredibly cool Liverpool gig venue for upcoming, emerging artists. Myself and co-radio presenter, Cameron Maerevoet, had been given guest-list passes to watch fast-rising Liverpool indie outfit, Seprona, supported by Portsmouth band, Flowvers. It would be the last gig I would attend until….well, that conundrum is yet to be resolved. And let’s face it – it doesn’t look like I’ll be going to any soon.

Seprona, Phase One, Liverpool (13th March 2020)
© Dirty Rock N Roller Photography

I’ve spent a lifetime tucked away in little venues watching bands, having a bevvie and thoroughly enjoying myself. The bands that night in Liverpool were great – both Seprona and Flowvers have bright futures. But there was something else going on in the room that night. A nervy, unsettling tension. This ‘virus’ that the news had been banging on about had taken the UK by the scruff of the neck and was starting to push us up against the wall. Covid-19 wasn’t just a rumour, or a news story in another country anymore. It was real, it was here, and people were anxious and confused about what was happening. There was even talk of places closing as a precaution. Yes, closing.

“Could be the last night we open,” the barman told me as I got the beers in.

“Really?” I asked, skeptical.

Really.”

He clearly knew something that I didn’t. Just days later the country was in lockdown – the likes of which most of us never thought we’d experience in our lifetime. I remember remarking to friends that we were literally living in a science fiction novel. The bars were shut, the pubs and nightclubs shut, the shops shut, our liberties strangled. It all felt weird and frightening and completely….new. The stack of so-far-unused concert tickets on my shelf caught my eye every morning from that day on. Needless to say, none of those gigs went ahead in 2020. Not one.

I lost a fair few quid on concert tickets, since ticket operators and venues either went into liquidation or disappeared in a rather dodgy haze of silence. The worst loss was £90 at Southport Theatre – now shut indefinitely – on two tickets for Englebert Humperdink. Some may say I deserve it for ever entertaining such a show, but I like him, and that’s that. The 85-year-old probably won’t return to these shores now. That bird has almost certainly flown. And to be honest, who is in a position these days to lose £90? Another slap on the wrist for not keeping up with the modern world – I paid cash, and therefore couldn’t claim any credit-card compensation. You know, sometimes I feel like an alien on my own planet.

And so, to the issue. We’ve all endured nearly a year of on-and-off lockdown. I managed to play one gig in August when things were slightly relaxed, but I’ve still not seen any live music since March. It’s absolutely devastating to watch close friends struggling who are dependent on music for their income. There’s no sign of live music returning, especially since the latest wave of Covid-19 is more serious than ever. I can’t hide my frustrations – I’m fuming about the government response to the tragic situation the arts in this country finds itself in. One of the fundamental reasons that our country is globally admired is because of our art – our literature, our film industry, but our music in particular. The consequence of this pandemic could be absolutely catastrophic for live venues, theatres, arenas and festivals – the government haven’t done enough, in my opinion, to ensure that our sacred arts scene will still be there for us all, and the world, to enjoy when this is over.

As for Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, suggesting that those in the arts should retrain….what a bellend. With over 80,000 British people dead in this country because of the ineptitude of this government, maybe it’s our ‘leaders’ that aught to be retraining?!

Anyway, let’s not get too political.

The point of this article is to highlight the importance of live music in our lives. And it’s not just the actual music itself; it’s everything that goes along with it. Live music encourages us to socialise, gives us something to look forward to and get excited about, puts happy targets in our diaries, and often gets us to travel or book ourselves into a hotel in a different town or city, which is both stimulating and invigorating. During concerts we have life defining moments, tick off bucket-list hopes & dreams, get to see our heroes in the flesh, and justify the soundtracks to our lives. It’s rare that you don’t leave a concert feeling exhilarated, unless its Oasis or (if he’s in a strop – which is reasonably often) Van Morrison.

Live music is part of the fabric of our existence.

It’s beyond disappointing to walk past empty pubs, derelict bars and moulding nightclubs. Not a peep has been heard from the arenas for what seems like a lifetime. From the biggest acts in the world to local pub performers, the whole industry sits and waits. For some, the wait has already been too long. The financial consequences have been fatal. Venues have closed their doors for the last time, theatres gone into administration, and performers forced to find other work.

For enthusiastic gig-goers, the wait has been unbearable. Our mental health is suffering because of this, and future months, at least for now, look bleak. Studies that associate emotional health with longer life expectancy are no more relevant than now – the age of the pandemic. I’ve started to dig out some old concert tickets (i’ve never lost one), since fond memories are often a recipe for healing. I’ve been very lucky over the years. I’ve seen pretty much everyone you can possibly think of left alive that has any sort of importance in music during my lifetime of love for live music. A lot of great times have been had, but that’s for future stories.

For now, our priority is to survive. Dramatic, maybe, but that’s the reality.

Too many families have lost loved ones for us to think this is someone else’s problem. The hospitals are at bursting point and the NHS on its knees. Somehow it feels a little inappropriate to be so concerned with the live music industry when people are dying, but we need to take the bigger picture into account too or the after effects of this destructive virus will go on for decades. We have to preserve our culture, or we’ll lose a major part of our identity.

Stay safe, folks. Support musicians if you can during this awful time. Watch their livestreams and donate if you’re able, or better still, buy their records.

That is, if you want them to be there ready to play for you when the world comes back.


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 20

Beth Rowley – Little Dreamer (2007)

Born to missionary parents in Lima, Beth Rowley is a woman of the world who has paid her dues. She started at the very bottom, navigating the Bristol music scene, playing in pubs and clubs to those who don’t necessarily want to listen. She also studied under Soul singer, Carleen Anderson (who spent years in Paul Weller’s band) and also, as a schoolgirl, provided backing vocals for Ronan Keating and Enrique Iglesias. Excuse my cynicism, but if that isn’t paying your dues, I’m not sure what is.

The point being this – Rowley has a thickened skin because she’s not one of those artists who sang karaoke on The X Factor then became a star. She’s roamed the open-mic nights, packed her own gear into the boot, played the job-gigs and used such experiences to work out who she is and what she does. She’s also soaked up a wealth of musical and cultural influences on her passage to this record – primarily Blues, Soul, Gospel and singer-songwriters such as Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Jamie Cullum. You can tell – and some would hold this against her – that she has swallowed the posthumous Eva Cassidy output too, though this makes the whole concept more charming for me.

Some of the highlights include Rowley’s take on Nobody’s Fault But Mine, a song first recorded by Gospel Blues artist Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. There is a sincere warmth in her voice, and it feels like she means it when she sings “And if I should die / And my soul becomes lost / Then I know it’s / Nobody’s fault but mine”. It’s pretty damn convincing, and the music doesn’t intrude. The other cover, Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released borders on a little giddy for the thematic nature of the song, but it’s still charming with its reggae slant.

The main issue here is the safe production. Some of these tracks could really soar at the risk of making some Radio 2 listeners spill their tea, and it’s a shame that the production team decided not to gamble. It doesn’t take much away from the song-craft though, or how well Rowley and Ben Castle (yes, son of Roy) have put their influences in a blender and spilt them all over this lovely record. It’s certainly refreshing to see a young artist realise such a traditional, authentic sound. Beth Rowley is certainly a great Soul singer – not at all an impersonator or imposter.

The two stormers on the record are Sweet Hours & Oh My Life. You can tell that she’s the daughter of missionaries by the fervour in her voice, and her vocal performance is no better across the record than on these two tracks. I’ve read reviews that criticise Rowley’s menace when singing these deeply spiritual songs, but for me her pitch is where it needs to be – somewhere between lost in music and gentle thunder. Again, I must touch on the fact that the production is so safe that it almost prevents Rowley from striding out of the shadows of her influences and assuming her own identity. I fear that this will forever be a bargain bin purchase for middle-of-the-road oh isn’t that lovely music (un)listeners, and it’s so much better than that.

Or, certainly it should be.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

7/10

Top track trio:

Nobody’s Fault But Mine

Sweet Hours

Oh My Life