MG Boulter – Clifftown: Album Review

MG Boulter - Clifftown

Vivid evocations of Thames Estuary life from Southend-on-Sea’s folk/Americana troubadour MG Boulter.

Release Date:  23rd April 2021

Label: Hudson Records

Formats: CD / Vinyl / Download / Stream

Maybe it’s the impact of our ongoing lockdown, or maybe it’s that the songs on this new album from Southend-based singer/songwriter MG Boulter are just so damned evocative, that after hearing Clifftown, I found myself yearning to board a train at Fenchurch Street to travel along the Thames Estuary and experience the jaded idyll of Southend-on-Sea for myself.  Of course, Southend is a town that has, for years, punched mightily above its weight as a producer of fine music, as any fans of Dr Feelgood, Eddie and the Hot Rods, The Kursaal Flyers or Alison Moyet will enthusiastically remind you, and, with MG Boulter in this form, it seems that the punching is likely to go on for some time yet!

Clifftown is MG Boulter’s third solo album, his first since With The Wolves The Lamb Will Lie Down in 2016.  It’s a work that provides a repository for MG’s observational and (that word again) highly evocative songs about ordinary life in a suburban, seaside town.  Although MG is quick to point out that Clifftown is a fictional place, named – and even cartographically represented – for the sake of this album, it’s a place that resembles, in every detail, MG’s stamping ground of Southend-on-Sea.

MG first came to prominence as the singer/guitarist in Southend pub-rock outfit The Lucky Strikes (once described by Q Magazine as “The Waterboys on trucker pills”) and between 2012 to 2015 played lap steel and mandolin in the touring band of New Yorker Simon Felice.  On top of all that, he’s also collaborated with the likes of Blue Rose Code, Samantha Whates, BBC folk award winner Emily Portman, Lucy Farrell and Neil McSweeney.  He’s a highly accomplished songwriter with a clear, plaintive voice and his music suggests influences from James Taylor, Stephen Stills and Neil Young, whilst managing to retain a distinct Englishness.  And a very pleasant sound it is, too.

These songs have been in the can for quite a long time. The bulk of the album was recorded during a four-day session at Giant Wafer Studio in Radnorshire in May 2019 and it’s a collection that definitely deserves to see the light of day.   MG plays guitars, lap and pedal steel guitars and mandolin to accompany his crystal clear vocals and he’s ably assisted by Pete Flood on drums, percussion and glockenspiel, Lizzy O’Connor on mandolin, guitar, banjo and percussion (she also provides backing vocals), Paul Ambrose on bass guitar, double bass and synthesizer, Tom Lenthall on keyboards and Helen Bell on violin and viola.  Old friends Lucy Farrell and Neil McSweeney chip in on backing vocals and producer Andy Bell has achieved a subtle, laid-back sound that gives full prominence to MG’s voice and his lyrics.

The album is supported by an excellent set of sleevenotes that provides a fascinating background, not only to the subject matter and inspirations behind each of the songs but also to the various Southend landmarks and cultural icons referenced in the lyrics. They even include a short guide to features of the traditional Southend dialect!

Opening track Midnight Movies is a pleasant, atmospheric song, built around some nice acoustic guitar and subtle bass and drums.  Lines like “There are so many boys on the street, the rain flushes them out into this neon to feel the warmth” are typical of the song and of the album and, as I’ve indicated already, they make a run-down seafront in a semi-deserted seaside town seem impossibly exotic.  Soft White Belly is a smooth rocker with lovely references to an old lady pumping pennies into an arcade slot machine, the illuminated seafront casinos, the salty marine smells on the seafront and the silos on the Isle of Grain, visible across the Thames Estuary.  It’s another great song.

The vivid descriptions of Essex life are continued in Clifftown, the album’s title track.  The wistfulness of the lyrics which, this time include references to the vast army of commuters that travel to and from London each day and to the urges that prompt the younger elements of the population to leave town, is given extra emphasis and poignancy by some excellent violin/viola from Helen.  Nights At The Aquarium is a gentle acoustic song that focusses on places and experiences from MG’s youth that continue to resonate, as he recalls part-time work, visits to the local aquarium (every seaside town has one, as MG points out…) going out drinking on Fridays and sitting in the famous Three Shells Restaurant.

The Author Of All Things, She Speaks is a short, sweet and lively acoustic number and Icy Paw, another soft acoustic number with a distinct flavour of James Taylor takes its inspiration from the Canvey Island jetty made famous by Dr Feelgood. 

The Slow Decline is probably my favourite song on the album.  It’s fuller sounding than most of the other songs, includes some wonderful slide guitar work, and the song’s lyrics, characterized by the opening line: “She wanted to be an actress but ended up in entertainment – in a theme park instead – calling to the kids ‘Do you want to party?’” are the strongest on the album.  They perfectly capture an environment where life has moved on, leaving just memories along with the lives of those unable to keep up. 

Memories of Southend’s once buzzing live music scene are celebrated in Fan Of The Band, with the tune driven along by funky bass, pattering drums and chiming guitars, whilst Simon of Sudbury, a song with a bit of a Fleet Foxes feel to it, tells the story of the author’s search for the severed head of the former Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered by the rebels during the Peasant’s Revolt. 

Night Worker is another excellent song, this time dealing with the unique microcosm of life that inhabits late-night commuter trains.  The song’s imagery is vivid, with descriptions of security guards patrolling deserted city offices, drunk office workers removing their shoes, the shapes of passing buildings and the emerging riverscape as the commuter train escapes the city.  It’s a remarkably upbeat description of the world in its most exhausted state, all set to a tune in which acoustic guitar, piano and droning strings merge to deliver a noticeably Irish feel.

The penultimate song, Remnants, is another tune with a strong James Taylor feel, before things are brought to a close with Pilate, a rather sombre number with lyrics that ponder the growing conundrum of whether provincial towns (Southend – or Clifftown in this case, but it could apply to any provincial locality) are losing their soul and identity to the big cities.  It’s an interesting end to an excellent album. 

Watch MG Boulter perform Night Movies, the opening track on the Clifftown album, here:

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