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”



Cult Classics Album Breakdown 19

Stephen Bishop – Careless (1976)

What a very special record this is.

I was gifted Careless by a fellow muso with twenty years worth of information gathering on my musical taste. It fell through the letter box one day with the kind of clink that makes you wince. Yes, the case was shattered, but the CD emerged like an untouched pearl. I put it straight in the record player and was instantly gripped. Like that moment when the music starts in a rowdy pub and it all goes quiet.

Stephen Bishop. The name had floated round in conversation for years, though any further investigation had never been undertook. Better late than never, as they say. When you think you’ve heard it all and then something this good appears it’s so exciting. It makes me feel like the search is endless – even if I live a hundred years (I’ll have to give the biscuits up, like) I think I’ll still be discovering amazing music I’ve never heard. Isn’t that great?

The album begins with the very intimate On and On, a delicate song with sublime production. It struck me that the audiophiles would be rampant with this record – it has that perfectionist element of Steely Dan about it. The irony about the following track, Never Letting Go, is that this is exactly how the song makes you feel. I find myself watching the seconds ticking down on the song and hating it when it reaches the end. Bishop’s voice is like silk mixed with hope mixed with bright white light and trust and a gorgeous, warm sunny day. Honestly, his voice – at times Paul Simon-esque, at other’s knocking on McCartney’s door – is just about as accessible and feel-good as I’ve ever heard.

Careless, the beautiful title track, features backing vocals from Art Garfunkel, and is probably my favourite on a stunning album. It’s very early, solo McCartney, with a totally unique melody. In fact, having mentioned Garfunkel, a host of familiar names feature on this album. Session regulars Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour are heavily involved, and there are even contributions by Andrew Gold, Chaka Khan and Eric Clapton. Quite a roster for a debut record. Maybe they knew something that everyone else didn’t.

It’s got lazy Sunday afternoon written all over this album. Sinking In An Ocean Of Tears has something distinctly Boz Scaggs about it, with those emphatic horns and slight infiltration of 70’s Soul. Madge could well have been lifted from James Taylor’s debut record, and Every Minute written on a balcony overlooking the California surf. Maybe it was. Bishop’s sound is very scenic, and very emotive. Great music does that to you – places you somewhere and makes you feel something strongly. This music makes me feel very relaxed, satisfied, mellow and content. Little Italy breaks the mould slightly, with its slightly chirpier tempo – maybe one for late afternoon when the drinks arrive.

The album can be, at times, deeply introspective and moody. One More Night is personal, but again soaked in melody. He appears not to take himself as seriously as say, Jackson Browne, but the instincts to penetrate are there. Save It For A Rainy Day feels like the Bee Gees and solo-career Paul Simon have met on the street corner and decided to collaborate – and I mean that in as complementary a fashion as possible. Clapton rips out a tantalising little solo too that pulls an otherwise inoffensive record into rockier territory.

Bishop goes on to declare “I’ll be your Rock and Roll slave / I’ll be your warm sunny day” in the penultimate track, and for this 35 plus minutes that’s exactly what he is – serving us magnificent soundscapes as we lie back and inhale. The Same Old Tears On A New Background closes the record with a poignancy – it’s light but heavy, if you get me. He sings this like it’s the last song he’ll ever sing. That’s an achievement in itself.

Bishop has never been a chart star, despite this album making number 11 on the Billboard Album Charts, though he has remained in hot demand by movie studios to write or record title themes for their films. Most of his contemporaries from the 70’s wouldn’t have dared. He’s respected by the very best, and this is an absolutely brilliant, soulful, honest, immaculately crafted cult classic.

Oh, by the way. I let the postman off.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

© Stephen Bishop

Top track trio:

On And On

Never Letting Go

Careless


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 17

John Parish & Polly Jean Harvey – Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996)

This is a record so thrillingly sinister it leaves Paranormal Activity firmly in the shade. It was copied for me by my mate Andy, who has a cunning ability to grip me with weird and wonderful new music. Not only do the guitars seep under your flesh, but PJ Harvey’s split personality exercise in trying voices on like hats prove totally compelling. I went out and bought the record immediately afterwards. And, I also have to say, that album cover is stunning. Organic, mysterious, gripping.

On the very first listen I was a little unsure about Dance Hall At Louse Point, simply because it was so left-field. It was a bit of a shock to the audio senses, to be honest. However, once I’d realised the importance of immersing myself in this deep, jet-black, eerie, rather hectic record, it all made sense. PJ Harvey is just about the most unique British songwriter there is. John Parish, on this occasion, forms the perfect Yin to her Yang. As an album it was panned by multiple major magazines – Rolling Stone being one – but we’ve all got a right to our opinions, right?

Now, I can’t butter this up – Dance Hall At Louse Point is extremely challenging musically as well as intellectually. Parish is a genius at writing demanding and inventive music, and PJ Harvey’s lyrical contribution stands up to meet it head on, baring her insides and whispering at shadows. I can only liken each song to two trains heading for one another on a beautiful smoky sunset. It’s not for everyone. It was certainly for me.

I was lucky enough to witness a very rare gig by John Parish and PJ Harvey in Birmingham Town Hall early in 2009, in which their second collaboration album, A Woman A Man Walked By, was the focus of their attention. However, they also revisited songs from Dance Hall At Louse Point with style – a magical night of cult entertainment, complete with shrill screams and flashing lights and art-rock wannabes everywhere and gothic imagery and moments of outstanding, frustrating, mesmerising, enigmatic weirdness. I seem to recall a stunning live version of the shimmering opening track to this album, Girl, in which you could have heard a pin drop.

PJ Harvey is somewhat of an enigma; a musical recluse and cult star, she has quantum-stepped in and out of the shadows during a stunning near twenty year career that started in 1992 with her debut record Dry. Her achievements since have been on her terms, which is why she is quite rightly one of the most respected female artists around today. Dance Hall At Louse Point is a major achievement in my eyes – a dazzling record that explores the unlocked rooms in music that most artists dare not dream of entering. Rope Bridge Crossing – a curious, confessional wronged-love song – takes the album closer to the cliff edge. That is a songwriting trait in which Harvey has become exceedingly proficient. 

City Of No Sun is a frenetic and intimidating thrasher with idyllic, serene moments, slicing into the charming, acoustic That Was My Veil – one of the album highlights. Urn With Dead Flowers In A Drained Pool is a mixed tempo, experimental collage with lots of Gothic imagery – Nick Cave clearly rubbed off on Polly Jean. Civil War Correspondent shows Parish’s extraordinary ability to tinker with sound to paint unusual and percussive soundscapes for Harvey to work with. Her vocals are, essentially, the key strength of the record, but could not assume their power without this highly cerebral music accompanying. 

Don’t let anyone tell you a record is too weird to listen to. That’s my motto these days.

Taut is an alarmingly intense, and in parts terrifying track of the likes I’ve never heard before. In fact, I’ve heard this particular tune described as ‘complete madness’ in one review. It’s rather difficult to disagree, though there’s a very fine line between madness and genius. It’s a somewhat industrial and confrontational. Overall a totally unique, if not bemusing piece of art school noise. You might describe it as fucking about, if you were more cynical.

Un Cercle Autour Du Soleil (Circle Around The Sun) is a sombre ballad, and Heela reminiscent of something off Jeff Buckley’s Grace, or at worst something by Floyd, and is interjected by a delightful passage of vocals by John Parish layering Harvey’s pleasurable drone. In fact, Parish’s voice makes you want to punch him and salute him in equal measure – and there it is, the penny has dropped. This is an album that gets on your tits so much it’s simply brilliant. Either that, or my trained ear is so untrained it’s untrue.

The only cover version on the album – a haunting and despairing Is That All There Is – kind of shakes the innocence out of the Hollywood Blockbuster. Nobody but Harvey could deliver this with such morbid sincerity. Title track Dance Hall At Louse Point is a cheeky and brazen instrumental, whilst the final track Lost Fun Zone is an uncharacteristic boogie infused by Harvey’s instruction: “Take me one more time.” I’m not sure where she wants me to take her, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’d want to go. I find myself so exhausted at the end of this record that I’m ready to watch Mr Tumble with some Ben & Jerry’s.

This is by no means an easy record to get into. In similar fashion to Dr John’s Gris Gris, it is challenging from the first note until the sound of that final click. Even PJ Harvey’s own record label condemned the album as “commercial suicide.” However, I am a massive fan – it does something to me that is very difficult to explain. It’s a middle finger to the industry, its ballsy, it’s unhinged, it’s bizarre.

Dance Hall At Louse Point demonstrates artistic bravery, originality, and conviction, and I applaud PJ Harvey and John Parish for making such organic music.

I’d applaud you more if you had the balls to give it a chance.

★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

© 2018 Condé Nast

Top track trio:

Girl

Rope Bridge Crossing

Heela


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 12

I’ll never forget the moment I first saw the video of Eva Cassidy playing Over The Rainbow on one of her few surviving live concerts, Live From Blues Alley. To this day, if anyone asks me my opinion on the greatest live performance ever, that’s the one. It doesn’t get any more compelling.

Eva Cassidy’s guitar playing was spectacularly subtle, and her majestic, angelic vocal inch perfect. What was even more endearing was the genuine fear on her face, which failed to pervade her unshakable professionalism. The nuances are astonishing, and the impact of hearing her sing, for me, was penetrating. I mean, she raised the bar in my opinion.

The world was robbed of a beautiful singer when Eva died of cancer, aged just 33, in 1996. Like all great artists and performers, she left her mark on this planet with the beautiful songs collected on Songbird – the finest of her posthumous releases. It’s just a terrible shame that she’s not here to reap the rewards of her success. Of course, the capitalist, big-wig record company execs have milked her success with numerous mediocre compilations since. However, as The Guardian noted upon its release in 1998, Songbird is simply “indispensable.”

The album opens with Eva’s pure rendition of Sting’s Fields Of Gold; a heartfelt, sentimental interpretation that brings a distinctly feminine dimension to this stunning Sting composition. The record slides effortlessly into a bluesy take on Wade In The Water – a song beautifully arranged to compliment Cassidy’s celestial vocal, before gliding into an immaculately spacious rendition of Autumn Leaves, a 1945 jazz standard penned by Joseph Kosma that Cassidy’s voice slips inside like a hand into a glove. It’s painful to reach the end.

Eva’s performances on these delicate slow numbers are tearfully unique. I don’t think anybody I’ve ever heard sings them with the same feeling and conviction. Wayfaring Stranger is a moody blues, Time Is A Healer a lovely declaration of longing with killer harmonies in the chorus, I Know You By Heart an angelic ballad with captive, melancholy violin from Dan Cassidy, and Oh, Had I A Golden Thread a jazzy, organ led smoky blues bar vibe.

The title track, Songbird, is a brilliant cover of Christine McVie’s Fleetwood Mac hit. Eva’s incredible interpretation does so much justice to the original. I’m sure McVie would have been honoured. Interestingly enough, Mick Fleetwood, legendary drummer of Fleetwood Mac, loved Eva so much that he used to sit in on drums for her whenever she played his club in Virginia.

People Get Ready has been covered by a multitude of great artists – most notably Rod Stewart and Aretha Franklin – though Cassidy’s version on this record stands up to them all. Curtis Mayfield’s timeless, faith-drenched song cries out for devotion, and Eva provides it – albeit to the song. The album closes with the incredible aforementioned Over The Rainbow, though there really are no words to describe it. You can check it out at the bottom of this review. I just urge you to sit back and listen. Lights off, candles on. Glass of wine. You know where I’m going.

I don’t usually warm to albums comprised of cover versions. Originality is the most appeasing thing to my musical ear. However, certain singers cannot be ignored. Eva was not a prolific songwriter, but her outstanding, powerful, emotive interpretations have breathed new life into some wonderful old songs.

Songbird really is an album that belongs in any serious music collection; an album to laugh to and to cry to in equal measure. A record that stands as a beautiful epitaph to a beautiful singer.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

© Andrew Clark

Top track trio:

Autumn Leaves

Songbird

Somewhere Over The Rainbow