Iain Matthews – Fake Tan: Album Review

Iain Matthews revisits his back catalogue and repolishes some gems.

Release Date:  12th February 2021

Label: Talking Elephant Records

Formats: CD, Vinyl

Iain Matthews has a remarkable CV.  From his formative days with “English surf outfit,” Pyramid, via Fairport Convention, Matthews’ Southern Comfort, Plainsong and an extensive solo career, he has ploughed diverse furrows that have seen him hailed as, amongst other accolades, the finest British exponent of the Americana genre.  Since 2000, Iain has been resident in The Netherlands and last came to our attention in mid-2020 when he released the fourth album by the revived Matthews’ Southern Comfort, the excellent The New Mine.

Now, Iain’s back with a new solo album that revisits his extensive back catalogue to give us a string of interesting, sometimes radical, reworks of a selection of old favourites.  The story goes that Iain had, for some time, been looking for a new musical direction, and a chance encounter with Norwegian promoter Tom Skjeklesaether resulted in Iain getting together with the renowned Norwegian backing band The Salmon Smokers to record and hopefully tour the rejigged songs.

Along with The Salmon Smokers – Eivind Kløverød on drums, Finn Tore Tokel on bass, Omar Østli on guitar and Freddy Holm on just about everything – Iain has recorded more than 20 tracks from his past archives, including favourites from his live sets, plus one completely new song.  Eleven songs have been selected from this marathon session to form Fake Tan, an intriguing and wonderfully enjoyable collection. 

Iain still sounds as fresh as ever and turns in some fantastic vocal performances. He’s lost the slight American twang that he acquired during his long sojourn in the USA and the boy from Lincolnshire is now clearly detectable in some of his vocal inflections, and that gives many of these songs a warm, comfortable feel.  The band is outstanding; the backing is never overcooked and the instrumentation knits together perfectly, regardless of the musical style chosen to embellish these reworkings. That’s quite a range, encompassing jazz, Doors-like rock, swamp-rock, country, soul and even a splash of reggae!  What these songs do have in common is a refreshing difference to their respective original versions. For Woodstock (the big hit, which topped the UK singles chart for three weeks back in 1970) we’re treated to tinkly guitars, a big chorus and a reggae-fied instrumental break in which the original pedal steel solo is replaced by distorted guitar and a soulful vocal from Iain.

Likewise, the new version of Battle Of Gruene Hall is a classy, jazzy, shuffle; 1998’s Something Mighty is reimagined as a folky, acoustic number that retains its punchy immediacy; Southern Wind (originally from the 1971 If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes album) is given a makeover that manages to retain its vivid Texan desert imagery and Iain’s soulful vocal treatment of Jules Shear’s epic Following Every Finger is backed by jangly mandolin and a lazy slide guitar.  If all that’s not enough, Dylan’s It Takes A Lot To Laugh is given a completely new disguise as a swampy, guitar-laden gumbo that would slip comfortably onto Dr John’s seminal Gris-Gris album.

Fake Tan is an excellent album from start to finish. For me though, there are four tracks that especially hit the spot.  The album’s sole new song, I Threw My Hat In, is an entertaining piece of abstract autobiography in which Iain recalls tribulations right through his journey from Muswell Hill and Fairport back in 1968 to Amsterdam in 2020.  Reno, Nevada, the Richard Fariña song that was a staple of the early Fairport live sets and which has become an Iain Matthews signature song is reworked with a ‘Riders On The Storm’ feel on which bass and piano combine marvelously and Iain delivers yet another top-notch vocal.  Iain excels similarly on If You Saw Through My Eyes, the title track of that 1971 album, and even more so on the CD bonus track, Keep On Sailing.  Previously conceived as a big ballad, here it’s presented as a soft, folky number with some terrific banjo and pedal steel work to back up that awesome vocal. A sublime end to a tremendous album.

Watch Iain Matthews and The Salmon Smokers perform Battle of Gruene Hall here:

Iain Matthews Online: Website/ YouTube

Matthews’ Southern Comfort Online: Facebook

The Salmon Smokers Online: Facebook

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