Joe Tilston – Tightrope: Album Review

Songs of death and hope by Joe Tilston – another powerful offering from those musical Tilstons

Release Date:  8th November 2021

Label: Our Records

Formats: CD / Vinyl / Download / Streaming

It seems, at the moment, that the musical Tilston family are everywhere.  Hot on the heels of the splendid soundtrack album The Tape from sister Martha Tilston, brother Joe Tilston has come up with his second solo album, Tightrope – a collection of raw, direct songs of Death & Hope that definitely cut no corners.

We know lots about the Tilston family, of course.  Father Steve is a renowned singer/songwriter who, as well as producing his own extensive back catalogue has also provided numerous songs for the likes of Fairport Convention et al; mother, the late Maggie Boyle, was a highly influential singer and musician who, amongst her many accomplishments, performed with John Renbourn, Ralph McTell, Jez Lowe and many others and, as At The Barrier regulars will be aware, Joe’s sister Martha has a string of acclaimed albums to her name and, as of now, an intriguing feature movie.

Joe Tilston is also the holder of an enviable track record.  As the bassist in and a founder member of Yorkshire ska-punk outfit, Random Hand, he’s also got an impressive back catalogue of albums and, in 2013, he released his first solo effort, Embers, an album that made the world aware of the “other” side to his musical personality.  Because, although Joe is keen to admit that he is a “Punk Heart,” there’s always been a folkish presence lurking within – a presence that he’s carried around since his earliest days of seeing his parents performing in folk clubs up and down the country.  Tightrope is an album that builds upon the expressions of his folk roots that Joe first aired with Embers and offers a pleasing, sometimes exhilarating, blend of the intimate, the melodic and the apocryphal. 

Joe has certainly picked an impressive band to help him make his point.  Alongside Joe on acoustic guitar, vocals and cello, the album features Tia Kalmaru on vocals, flute and bass, Joe Dinsdale on bass, Sean Howe on drums, Luke Antonik-Yates on electric guitar and violin, Simon Dobson on trumpet and Andy Hawkins on piano, double bass and backing vocals.  Every single member of the band takes the opportunity to shine at some point during the course of the album and the sound is clean and pure throughout.

Tightrope is an album of contrasts.  A feature that struck me repeatedly as I listened was how many of the songs build.  Joe has a tendency to open his songs with a quiet acoustic passage that, as well as introducing the song and establishing the melody, provides an opportunity for him to demonstrate what a good guitarist he is.  It’s then usually the case that song will fill-out; sometimes gradually, sometimes dramatically until the full band are in play and the sound is rich and sonorous.  The contrasts don’t end there, either… Joe has a versatile voice that he’ll adapt to suit the song’s tone and subject matter. On Tightrope, he uses that adaptability to express, variously, weariness, anger, frustration, intimacy, and introspection.

A passage of wonderful acoustic fingerpicking introduces the world-weary A Love Song Too Late which kicks off the album.  Like many of the songs on Tightrope, this is a song that builds pleasingly to reach an all-out crescendo at its close.  Flowers is an enjoyable slice of power-pop, laced with jangly guitars and built upon a sharp drumbeat; the song’s coda either regrets the slow passage of time or urges us to disregard time’s passage and just get on with things… “Tic-toc – the clocks we are watching don’t move so fast; they don’t seem to move at all.”

I’m fascinated by the lyrics to Armistice Day, an angry, anguished rock song that is brought vividly to life by Simon Dobson’s trumpet passages.  The glorification of war, the corruption of the Remembrance tradition and the needless sacrifice of life all come under close scrutiny, as the song edges towards its “We said ’End all war’ “ coda.  The anger continues with Minutes to Midnight, the album’s current single, and another of the songs that starts as a gentle acoustic number before deciding that its message is more effective as a frenzied rocker.  The lyrics, capped by a refrain of “Why are we minutes to midnight?” question how, and why, we’ve managed to take the planet to the edge of the precipice on which it currently sits, as the backing flits effortlessly between acoustic introspection and thunderous widescreen despair.

The fingerpicked acoustic guitar and the harmonious call-and-response vocal duet between Joe and Tia for To Continue Press Start is an enjoyable interlude before things get heavy once more with the epic Eyes on the Road.  The song is an all-inclusive mix of heavy rock, jangly guitar pop, and tight vocal harmonies, broken up with acoustic guitar and soft organ interludes.  This really is a song with a bit of everything; a song that manages to be both dreamy and invigorating in equal measures.

Violin and pattering drums introduce the excellent Mirror Mirror, a song that, in its vocal delivery, its subject matter, its instrumentation and its sound – as deep and rich as at any other point on the album – reminds me of an Elbow number.  The engaging lyric, which warns against pretending to be something we aren’t, reaches its conclusion with the refrain, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, I think it’s time for you to fall.”

Rains is yet another song that starts life as an acoustic guitar and violin contemplation before transforming into a big ballad, made all the more dramatic by some fantastic drumming from Sean Howe before the album is brought to its close with the (relatively) restrained Walking on Walls, another song with an interesting lyric which, this time, comments on our reluctance to face up to the world and its challenges.

I like Tightrope.  Joe Tilston’s songs are well-considered, articulate and well played.  The album’s production is spot-on and, with its vast array of contrasts, it’s an album guaranteed to keep listeners on their toes.  Well worth checking out.

Watch the Official video to Flowers – a track from the album – here:

Joe Tilston Online: Website/ Facebook/ Bandcamp / Twitter

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