A welcome breath of positivity from the Braintree troubadour, Beans On Toast.
Release Date: 1st December 2021
Label: BOT Music
Formats: CD, Vinyl, Download, Stream
Survival Of The Friendliest is, quite possibly, the most positive album that it’s ever been my pleasure to hear. In a world where the daily headlines are dominated by COVID, government incompetence, migration crises and international one-upmanship, it’s hugely refreshing to not only hear songs that focus instead upon hope, optimism, peace, opportunity and the beauty and power of nature, but to be sufficiently inspired to believe those messages.
Beans On Toast is, as you may be aware, the stage name of prolific Essex-based folk troubadour Jay McAllister. Formerly the frontman of alt-rock outfit Jellicoe, he took the solo road back in 2005 and Survival Of The Friendliest is his 14th album of original material since his solo debut, Standing On A Chair, in 2009. Since then, he’s released at least one album every year, always on his birthday – 1st December – and he’s toured consistently and extensively in both the UK and USA, often with Frank Turner, who has appeared on or produced several of his albums. His writing and his material are invariably topical and he willingly confronts potentially controversial political, social and real-life issues.
The songs that comprise Survival Of The Friendliest were written with Beans’ old mates Blaine Harrison and Jack Flanagan of The Mystery Jets during the early months of 2021. A direct reaction against the dreariness of a locked-down winter the songs focus upon the “brighter sides and silver linings of life, [at] a time when [such things] seemed few and far between.” The album takes its title from the writings of Dutch Historian/Philosopher Rutger Bregman – specifically from a phrase in Bregman’s 2019 book, Humankind- A Hopeful History. The book examines the resilience, stoicism and positivity that humans are capable of when faced with genuine crisis and it is clear that the philosophies expressed in the book have vividly inspired the content of Survival of the Friendliest. These are songs that make the listener think, but which also provide real cause for encouragement in these darkest of times.
As for the music – well, that’s pleasantly enjoyable as well! The production is sparse with priority rightly given to those revelational lyrics, but the tunes are light and bright with some lovely dustings of violin, sax, subtle drums, guitar and harmony vocals from a cast of musicians that include Sarah Telman (backing vocals and strings), Rosie Bristow (accordion), Adriano Rossetti-Bonell (saxophone) and Graham Godfrey (drums) to complement Beans’ upfront vocals.
But, as I’ve already indicated, Survival of the Friendliest is an album that’s all about the lyrics, and that’s a theme that becomes evident right from the outset. Opening track, a Beautiful Place is packed with messages that encourage trust and interaction, with passages like “Survival of the friendliest, king for a day – maybe we got lost along the way. But our collaboration got us here and not the wars we have waged, and you have to agree it’s a beautiful place.” And that’s just in the first minute of the album!
Stones is a soft reflection of the permanence of things like the pebbles on a beach, or a single drop of water, whilst the Dixieland-flavoured Blow Volcano Blow considers the interconnectedness of nature and inevitability of fate. Both songs are rammed with life-affirming confirmations that, whilst our future is in our own hands, we’ve got the capability to ensure that, by embracing nature, we can get to where we want to be.
The bright, stompy, Not Everybody Thinks We’re Doomed is another refreshing slice of life-affirmation. The song’s opening line: “The world is full of wonderful people living meaningful lives, doing excellent things in order to survive” sets the tone, before the song goes on to point out that “You need a sense of humour and a sense of direction” then concludes that “Not everybody thinks we’re doomed, and that’s a great attitude.” Out of the context of the song, those lyrics may sound a little trite, but Beans sings them with such sincerity that I was almost convinced.
By way of slight contrast, the lovely Tree Of The Year laments the passing of an old, established tree that “…wanted for nothing and gave us the air we need for free” before it was felled, presumably in the name of “human progress.” Sarah Telman’s violin adds a real poignancy to the sad lyrics. The slow, county-ish Humans considers the insignificance of the human species in the general scale of things, whilst The Commons introduces a measure of invective that is generally absent from the rest of the album. The lyrics are a justifiable and well-considered swipe at the ancestral land grabs that created the privileged class that still dominate society today and, with lyrics like “When one man owns 15,000 acres, well, that doesn’t sound fair to the common folk of England” and “We just need a right to roam,” the song pulls no punches in its demand for access to land that, really, we all share. And it’s all done to a nice, folky guitar/drum shuffle with a (possibly significant) bluegrass banjo outro.
The joyous Let’s Get Married Again – laced with softly-tapped drums and some gorgeous violin – says exactly what you’d expect a song with such a title to say, before Apples returns to the subject of trees, and the benefits they bring to us all. The song includes a thought-provoking spoken section from guest Dizraeli and points out the things like food, shelter and even entertainment (“The guitar that I am playing and the stage where I am standing started their lives out as tiny seeds – easy to forget and hard to believe”) that trees give us, before warning that the future supply of such things is not guaranteed because “We cut them down quicker than we plant them…”
The reggae-fied Ready For Action is an observation of our “endless search for a better tomorrow” before this excellent album is brought to a conclusion with the elegiac Love Yourself. To a relentless drumbeat and yet more majestic violin the lyrics encourage us to each “know ourselves, believe in ourselves and be our own superhero” to establish our destiny, and to learn to be kind in order to be happy. It’s a wonderful ending to a truly life-affirming set of songs.
Personally, I really do want the best for our country, our planet and every living thing on it. However, I’m a cynical old sod and I usually believe that the things we’re doing to ourselves are generally making things worse by the day. Survival Of The Friendliest offers an alternative point of view and offers hope that survival and happiness remain in our own hands. Whether the messages it gives are feasible – I don’t know – but I do wish that those who purport to run our daily lives would take the time to listen to this album and ponder on those messages.
Watch the Official video to A Beautiful Place – the album’s opening track – here: