By Aidan Smith
'A trip through London, Paris and the Nag's Head' is what I was promised when I first looked at the promotional blurb on the front of the CD. Interesting... was my first thought. Closely followed by what the hell have I got into here?! But nonetheless I started listening with a clear mind... and have been very pleasantly surprised with what I have heard.
Within 6 seconds of the opener 'Morning Was Your Picnic' you hear a burst of brass. Brass instruments are not to everyone's taste, but as a former brass player myself it did bring a smile to my face. And the opener was a bright sprightly start to the album which left me intrigued to hear more. But the song that followed couldn't be any more different. 'Pockets' is only Smith and a piano and is the first hint of opulence on the album. It sounds as if Smith is playing to a packed concert hall full of music fans in dinner suits. It wouldn't even sound out of place in a musical, which I suppose is not surprising as storytelling is a big part of Smith's work.
The aforementioned 'Pockets' tells of the contents of an old coat... but the music is a lot more inspiring than the subject matter would seem! There is poignancy in the voice of Smith as he lists contents such a bag of boiled sweets and a ticket for the Huddersfield line. 'Lament Of A Victorian Prostitute, London 1865' is another insight into the creativity of Smith and how open his mind is. I don't know of any other albums you will listen to this year with a song about being a maid in old time London! Or an almost anti establishment song about living on an allotment as in 'Living In Allotments' which is sung with real passion. I assume this is a metaphor... although the stories told on this album seem so real and heartfelt the line between fiction and reality really is blurred.
But it still makes for a charming listen. It is clear that Smith draws influences from many places. Tales from his everyday life pop up, but a line in the piano led 'Note to Barbette, an Acrobat, Paris 1824' shows his influences also lie in other arts than music. He talks of drinking in the 'bar of the museum' and 'coffee in the arthouse cinema' and the album wouldn't seem out of place played in either of these places. 'Note to Barbette...' could be playing in any arthouse in Paris and 'Drapes of Black' also has the French influence.
You could be forgiven for asking what the hell is this album all about, and a review like this can't really do 'Allotments' justice. The songs are sung with such charm that it is impossible to dislike this album. There are many instruments employed on this album from Glockenspiels to French Horns but Smith's voice is his most important asset. He can sing beautifully as shown in 'Pockets' but his vocals, especially in the cheery 'One Bedroom Flat' add another level to his songs. He is just as confident with only the piano backing him as he is with a brass section. And he is not afraid to let the instruments take centre stage either. 'Snakes and Ladders' is another French influenced song with no vocals only the instruments for two minutes of relaxing laid back music.
There are two standout tracks on this album for me however. The previously mentioned 'Drapes of Black' is perhaps the most accessible track on the whole album. It wouldn't sound out of place in the Disney film The Aristocats... but being my favourite Disney film as a kid that's actually a compliment! Murder Ballad is my favourite track. Lyrically and musically it comes together brilliantly. A male chorus in the background (imagine a male version of the female trio in Little Shop Of Horrors!) sing along with Smith in an almost Doo-Wop style in what sounds like a jolly showtune. But a closer listen to the lyrics reveals something far more sinister. It is actually a song about Smith and a group of friends on a night out.
They talk to some 'student bird... sluts' before going to the chippy then mugging a guy behind the 'Nag's Head' and being turned in by his mum the next morning! The contrast between the music and the lyrics is genius and is a brilliant listen.
This is definitely an album that is worth discovering, and pretty unique. Smith is clearly under no pressure from anybody to make a record solely to sell. This is obviously a very personal record for Smith and he really makes a connection with the listener. It's a record with a lot of charm and with the majority of the songs coming in at about 3 minutes it just seems to fly by. Don't be put off by the mention of showtunes and musicals; this is an album that is sheer joy to listen to. It's not the type of thing I would normally listen to, but it is a refreshing change and highly recommended.