Dave Cousins – The Boy In The Sailor Suit: Album Review

An expanded and remastered The Boy In The Sailor Suit from Strawbs man Dave Cousins features The Blue Angel Orchestra. A release from Cherry Red that’s a fitting supplement to a brilliant album.

Release Date: 24th July 2020

Label: Esoteric Recordings

Format: CD / DL

In 2007, Dave Cousins was enjoying a new lease of life.  He had emerged from his long, 20-year, sabbatical in radio presentation and production, and acoustic and electric reincarnations of Strawbs were once again gracing the UK, European and North American music scenes.  In the midst of this regeneration, DC was inspired to assemble The Blue Angel Orchestra and to record his second solo album, The Boy In The Sailor Suit.

Dave’s father, Joseph, was a sub-mariner and he was killed in 1945, allegedly when his submarine was sunk off the coast of Norway by a depth charge dropped from an allied aircraft. Dave was just 7 months old.  The title of this new album was inspired by a photograph of Joseph, in uniform, that hung in the family home.  As would be expected from the inspired album title, The Boy In The Sailor Suit is a collection of often highly personal and occasionally, extremely powerful songs, through which the ghosts of Dave’s parents and his life experiences pervade vividly.

This album comprises a truly delightful set of songs and Strawbs watchers will, without doubt, welcome its reappearance after a lengthy period of unavailability.  Whilst the overriding moods of the album are wistfulness and refection, there are also ample servings of joy and good humour within the grooves. There is little hesitation in cranking up the volume and the rock quotient when appropriate, as demonstrated on Mother Luck, Lonely Days Lonely Nights and Hellfire Blues, just three of the album’s standout tracks.

The quality of the overall sound is massively enhanced by Dave’s choice of musicians for the Blue Angel Orchestra lineup.  Miller Anderson on guitar, Chas Cronk on bass, Ian Cutler on fiddle and Chris Hunt on drums are supplemented by Chris Ball and Tony Attwood on keyboards and Elisabeth and Francis Tophill on backing vocals to deliver a sound that is tight, rich and wholly complementary to the songs.

The album kicks off with Never Take Sweets From A Stranger, a disturbing tale in the mould of Johnny Remember Me, in which the narrator spends the night with a beautiful, blonde, stranger, before discovering, the next morning that she had actually been killed in a hit and run incident the previous night.  It’s a great song, with some excellent guitar soloing from Miller Anderson although the lyrics are a little uncomfortable in places.  Next up is Mellow Moon which, unsurprisingly, is a mellow song about The Moon.  There are some nice violin touches and Hawaiian-sounding guitar and Dave’s vocal is exquisite.

The Smile You Left Behind is a highlight of the album.  It tells the story of the events leading to the death of Dave’s father and describes the details of the photograph that inspired the album’s title, over a subdued backing of finger-picked acoustic guitar.  The song is a moving tribute to the father that Dave never got to know.

Calling Out My Name is a pleasant, atmospheric song that strongly evokes its Mediterranean setting and Mother Luck, named after Dave’s maternal grandmother, is an ominous, loud rocker that namechecks Rules Restaurant (where, legend has it, the young Edward, Prince of Wales would ‘entertain’ Lily Langtry).  Wish You Were Here, a lovely song with a 1930s feel, complete with jazzy violin, was inspired by a collection of seaside postcards in Dave’s then local in Deal, Kent. The song’s lyrics are alternately sad, nostalgic and fatalistic, interspersed with amusing observations of the postcards’ subject matter, which get increasingly debauched as the song progresses.

Skip To My Lou is a raucous Irish air, reminiscent of Fairport’s Matty Groves,which immediately reveals its credentials as a live favourite and Lonely Days Lonely Nights is a pleasant shuffle of a song with some nice Gypsy fiddle work and a high-voltage, anthemic chorus that harks right back to Grave New World.

The album’s masterpiece is, to my mind, the hymnal Bringing In The Harvest which features a highly descriptive lyric that Dave considers to be amongst the best he ever wrote, and who am I to argue?  The lyric moves from pastoral descriptions of late summer fields, hedgerows and orchards to the altogether less comfortable environment of a stormy sea and, as well as highlighting the hazards faced by fishing fleets as they harvest the bounties of the ocean, also, perhaps, once more evokes the memory of Dave’s lost father.

The original album is wrapped up by the 12-bar Hellfire Blues, a story based in East Kent during the Battle of Britain (that area was nicknamed Hellfire Corner during the war, for pretty obvious reasons.)  It’s another thought-provoking song that manages to avoid the glorification that is unfortunately often associated with memories of that period and instead conveys an impression of the horrors faced by those that lived through it all.

This reissue of The Boy In The Sailor Suit includes three bonus tracks, live versions of the album’s most obvious live favourites – Never Take Sweets From A Stranger, Skip To My Lou and Hellfire Blues.  Never Take Sweets From A Stranger is an acoustic version, recorded in Milwaukee in 2008, which puts over the song’s intriguing story perhaps even more effectively that on the original version; Skip To My Lou and Hellfire Blues are both full band versions that were recorded at Strawbs’ 40th anniversary shows at Twickenham in 2009.

Esoteric Recordings have done a fantastic job of remastering and repackaging this excellent album.  The CD booklet contains a set of wonderfully insightful notes by Dave Cousins and the bonus tracks are a truly fitting supplement to an already brilliant album.  I have no hesitation in giving it my fullest recommendation.

Listen to Never Take Sweets From A Stranger here:

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