By Rob Nichols
This is Rob Nichols third and most assured album. It's comprised of relaxed and natural sounding arrangements of ten fine new songs. There's a healthy crowd of contributors. As far as I can make it out there's Alex Easton and Dave Newsome on guitars; Tom Fowler and Simon McGrath playing bass; Carl Banks, Paul Hawker and Paul Buckby on drums; Jonathan Thwaite with some nice piano and Dan Schofield on backing vocals. Between them they give good company and sustained musical strength. Additional instrumentation and one or two adventurous sonic adjustments are sprinkled in by Rob Nichols as required.
Rob's music derives from a compulsion to chronicle his own life. In the process it nails the quietly serious anxieties of aesthetically sensitive young men everywhere. It can be reached and valued by humans anywhere.
A special instance is "There's a Light", standing out at track 9. It's as fine a song as you will hear anywhere this year. Gracefully ascending chords, the simplest of jangling guitars and a rich confiding voice give off the heartbreak, nostalgia and regret that chill all our lives from time to time. Lines like "I am prone to misery, a servant of my memory" give us Rob's story. But more tellingly, they plunge us into our own.
The musical and lyrical palette is derived from the rich and inexhaustible hinterlands of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. This particular album's opening immediately took me back to the Basement Tapes period. "Genuine" has a wry sequence of verses, with a nonsensical world surging around our bemused hero as he shakes his head at each disappointed promise. "I don't ask questions. Each time I think she's genuine". And between each verse there's that Robbie Robertson guitar lick from the 1966 tour version of Maggie's Farm. A joy.
Each song sets up a fresh canvas. Travelling, watching the day, moving on, connecting and (mostly) disconnecting. And it is by no means all the troubadour rag tag guitar and harmonica that the Nichols reputation has been built on. "I was Always Wrong" is a big song with piano and harmony singing across a great melody.
"Interlude" is a charming sample and crackles moment that gets shoved aside by countrified guitars in a totally different tempo. A moment to smile. The song "13th Lullaby" has verses full of real life and a great chorus "we all shine on ... we all shine on a better place". This is Nichols at his people and places best. Each verse is a forlorn vignette from an alienated sharply observed life. It's one of those songs that could work in any genre. Big rock candy stadium filler, acoustic night special or (as here) small group perfection.
"Indigo Line" is a strange one. Is this the Leeds Metro bus route? Or something more romantic from Boston Massachusetts? Or could it be Nichols' reference to his own hand written lyric in that fussily chosen fountain pen ink? We don't need to know. The point is to use Nichols story fragments to stimulate and recharge our own imaginative lives. That's what poetry is all about. The emotional tug of a melody and the stimulus of a rhythm make it all the richer.
"Fuchkead" isn't a pretty title but "all the friends I ever had have gone" is too dismal a line to grace the sleeve as well as the chorus. The song itself roars along in country punk tempo with sparkles of poetry in versefuls of social disaster and personal misery. Structurally it's agreeably reminiscent of Dylan's "Shelter From the Storm".
The album can be bought on-line from www.sandsong.co.uk or in Leeds from the CD Centre. A video and some live tacks on a separate CD are bundled with it.
Northern Pop in the tradition of Badly Drawn Boy, Longpigs, Elbow and The Smiths