Jackie Leven – Straight Outta Caledonia: Album Review

First ever “Greatest Hits” collection of a great, yet overlooked, talent in the form of Jackie Leven.

Release Date:  23rd July 2021

Label: Night School (School Daze)

Formats: CD / Vinyl / Limited Edition clear vinyl

Well here it is – and not a day too soon, if you ask me…

Jackie Leven is one of those talents loved by those “in the know,” yet unjustly and widely ignored by the vast swathe of the population who, quite frankly, can’t be bothered to find out what they’ve been missing.  Well they’ve been missing a huge treat and the release of Straight Outta Caledonia, a ten-track compilation of highlights from Jackie’s extensive career, is the perfect opportunity to catch up with and enjoy his unique, well written and well crafted songs.

As author Ian Rankin says, “I think he is one of the most astonishing lyricists Scotland has ever produced, and in his latter years he was a true troubadour, a balladeer of sad, unsettling and uplifting songs, songs that blossom and bear fruit as you listen to them.  Here then is Jackie Leven in all his ripe majesty.”  That’s a summary with which I fully concur and, on Straight Outta Caledonia, there’s a whole lotta that fruit that appears as you listen.

If you’ve never come across Jackie Leven, you’ve missed the pleasure of hearing one of the richest, most sonorous and most versatile voices that you’ll ever come across.  His songs cover a whole range of genres from traditional folk to eighties pop to white soul, and Ian’s voice worked with them all and his songs will appeal to a broad church of listeners – perhaps most to anyone with a liking for the quality end of eighties pop, Warren Zevon, early Fairport or Hall and Oates.  His appeal really is that broad.

Jackie began his career in the late 1960s, making psychedelic, progressive music under the name John St. Field.  He formed Doll by Doll in 1977 with Jo Shaw, Robin Spreafico and David Mackintosh and went on to record four albums with that celebrated outfit begore they folded.  In 1984, he suffered an horrific assault which left him unable to speak for two years and during that traumatic period, he developed an addiction to heroin.  His fortunes started to turn in 1988 when he recorded and released the acclaimed single Big Tears with former Doll by Doll members and ex-Sex Pistol Glenn Matlock, a long-term and still active admirer, and, with his wife’s help, he overcame his heroin addiction and rebooted his career as a solo artist.  By the time of his tragic death from cancer in 2011, he had released more than 25 solo albums and EPs, without ever achieving the mainstream success that Straight Outta Caledonia demonstrates, unequivocally, was his due.

With such a vast and varied back catalogue to draw from, it’s no surprise that Straight Outta Caledonia is indeed a marvelous collection.  Listeners with a yearning for the sounds of the 80s will be satisfied by opening track The Sexual Loneliness of Jesus Christ, a song that re-tells the life of its protagonist, not as a pure, sinless messiah but as a sexually frustrated solitary human being – all to a backing of hard-edged percussion and synthesized orchestral effects.  The eighties theme is carried on by the selection’s title track – a bright and poppy ode to Jackie’s beloved homeland – and Snow in Central Park, a song that manages to seamlessly merge a traditional folk theme with Tomita-like synth flushes to paint a picture that has already been described as “Cinematic.”

Those who prefer their folk less adulterated are catered for with Heartsick Land – another dedication to Jackie’s Scotland, this time in the form of poetic ballad backed by mandolin, harp and acoustic guitar to achieve an effect that recalls Fairport’s Reynardine – Dagenham Dream, a simply structured, flawlessly delivered acoustic folk song – and, best of all, the superlative Poortoun a fingerpicked acoustic folk song with lyrics that confront the effects of poverty, including homelessness, street crime and drug abuse.

Jangly guitars and lush bass help give the soulful Irresistible Romance a Hall and Oates feel, at least until after a section in which Jackie namechecks a list of his (and my) favourite European Cities (Vienna, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Oslo all merit a mention) when he brings the tour home to Dundee and the band bursts into a rendition of Scotland the Brave.

And we’re not finished yet!  Lovers of soft ballads with a twist will want to hear the Zevon-like Live or Die and closing track Single Father over and over, and the timeless Some Ancient Misty Morning will appeal to anyone with an ounce of musicality.  And the best thing is that all these songs are delivered in that tremendous voice – a voice that has been described as: “The most exciting, jaw-droppingly effective tool at Leven’s disposal… A multi-octave instrument that, though damaged during [that] savage assault, he used with flair… A baritone that could flit up through the register – always touched by his gentle Kircaldy accent – it’s the prime delivery method for his songs.”  I couldn’t put it any better.

Watch the video to Poortoun from Jackie Leven, a track from the album, below.

Jackie Leven Online: Website / Facebook / Twitter

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