By The Durbervilles
The Durbervilles have returned to prominence with their radio show (Sundays 2pm, BBC Leeds) and with the release of their overdue third album Alternative Route To All Destinations - a phrase with meanings zipping about in it like a pinball, scoring points on Alt Country and a few more on Folk Roots, against a colourful background of the band's wanderings since their previous collection three years ago. They might have lost their Batley studio, but they've made extra friends along the way among audiences old and new and from the ranks of fellow musicians, two of whom - Ric Sanders of Fairport Convention and Jude Abbott of Chumbawamba - are found here visiting Durbervilles country as guest workers.
The Sanders fiddle contributes to five numbers and makes an early showing when he adds reach and decoration to the opening song 'I Don't Know Where and I Don't Know Why and I Don't Know How.' After a touch of pedal steel and some anticipation-inducing slow banjo, the lyrics contemplate pressures of modern existence, while all around instruments and backing vocals make the world feel like a pretty good to be in.
Contrast between music and subject matter is more intense in 'Silence After Midnight' where a beautiful melody carries a narrative of domestic violence. It's one of the best songs on the album and strengthens its point by an ending that's unresolved musically as well as socially, leaving unease in the air. This can be shaken off for a time by the small-town civic caperings in honour of 'The Queen's Train' which hurries on into the distance, making room for a love song inspired by the finding of '300 Letters'- a tenderly-handled memory of a soldier who didn't survive the First World War.
Melancholy recollections are chased away though, by an almost perfect little example of rock and roll 'Unguarded Moment', a tale of the underdog's triumph against outnumbering odds. Reaching further back into history is the early nineteenth century costume-drama feel of 'Corporal's Trousers / M'Lady's Moustache,' two conjoined tunes suggestive (surely) of gracious surroundings rather than any disgraceful behaviour if ever the twain should meet.
And then back to the everyday grim plainness of life on 'Randell Avenue', attached by its street-name title to the Penny Lane ethos and with an odd moment of familiarity in the tune. As life on the old street is recalled by a look into the sunless existence of its residents, it's clear we're back in the main mood of this CD where unsatisfactory situations are made palatable by the songwriting and the high standard of performance. Instrumental work throughout the album is impeccable, the finely balanced backing vocals stronger and sweeter than ever, and the excellence of Lee Walsh's voice gets proper representation in the recording.
But a large part of the game is played to the rules of country music, so don't expect too much strength and sweetness when it comes to relationships in the songs. 'No Good Around Here' tells it well, and once again fine playing and singing transform a bleak topic into a source of pleasure. A lighter more lively view of people not both wanting the same thing comes with 'No Not Tonight' where Jude Abbott takes a vocal role in the last hint of levity before we move into the weightier last quarter of the album.
Two of these three last songs return to the subject of bygone love : 'Rain Upon The Road' is another well-wrought piece, and is perhaps the last on the album with a truly familiar Durbervilles feel. It gives way to the uplift of words and music in the manner of a marching anthem, 'Glory to The Few', leading to the long, lush and heart-achey waltz song 'The Last One' where Durbervilles, Abbott, and Sanders blend in a sound that floats above its insistent rhythms, as Alternative Route approaches a conclusion signed off by a chameleon display from Gus Taylor's accordion in the guise of saxophone.