Amsterdam frontman Ian Prowse brings a message of hope – from out of the depths of despair
Release Date: 11th February 2022
Label: Kitchen Disco Records
First, came Pele – the band that Liverpudlian singer, songwriter and social commentator Ian Prowse put together way back in 1989. They had some success, released three albums and managed to hit the Number One spot in the South African singles’ chart with their Megalomania single. Then came Amsterdam, formed by union between Ian, his cousin Johnny Barlow and former Blow Monkey Tony Kiley – a band I first became aware of when I traced the origins of the track Does This Train Stop on Merseyside that Christy Moore included on his phenomenal Listen album in 2009. And, all the time, Ian Prowse was creating, adapting and ploughing a deep furrow that, along the way, drew in the influences of indie rock, gospel, soul and Celtic folk to add flavour to his unique, original, reflective and often challenging stable of songs.
And, on One Hand On The Starry Plough, Ian’s fourth solo album, that mélange of influences comes together delightfully to create a collection of songs that are joyful, hopeful and wonderfully entertaining, despite the despair that engulfed us all during the year in which the songs were created.
As Ian freely admits, One Hand On The Starry Plough sees light of day “… at the back of what has been an incredibly tough time – emotionally, physically and financially.” Ian continues the story of the album’s birth: “A lot of people took solace in the hope that the world would return to its original state [once the pandemic was over.] Instead, we emerged from that perpetual pandemic more confused, and riddled with more doubts that ever. It’s a world missing friends and family… a land ravaged by the [still] current effects of Brexit. A country ruled by the corrupt, and the spiteful. It’s a land where the darkest clouds of uncertainty and hopelessness are still gathering over the helpless.” But, as Ian is also keen to stress, One Hand On the Starry Plough is not a record of despair, it’s a message of hope.
And what an upbeat, joyful message that is. Resisting any temptation to lapse into justifiable polemic, Ian has brought us a collection of bright, powerful, often poppy songs that deal with subjects as diverse as love, loss, travel, football and adventure all deftly performed and with a lively production by Tony Kiley. All the old influences are here – the songs are drenched in gospel sounds and the Celtic influences of Ian’s occasional forays with the Irish Sea Sessions project are never far below the surface; there are also strong hints of the influence of Ian’s friend and collaborator, Elvis Costello, on several of the songs – particularly the in-your-face No Trial and the grunge/pop Swine. The instrumentation is mainly guitar-led, but swirls of organ and some sublime coatings of violin and flute add interest and depth to several of the songs. One Hand On The Starry Plough is not an album that allows the listener to become complacent, confident in the style of music that’s being served up.
A guitar lick reminiscent of the Eagles’ Take It Easy introduces current single and the album’s opening track, Battle. The dramatic, direct vocal, the clear, soaring guitars and the frenetic drumming all combine to deliver a clean, poppy, sound that provides the foundation for the gospel phrasings as the song reaches its conclusion. The song’s refrain – “A different battle every day” – sums up the challenges of the past year, but the upbeat tune delivers this reflection in the most positive way possible – a technique that is regularly revisited throughout the album.
The album takes its title from a line in Holy, Holy River, another song that takes those various musical influences and mixes them together in the most endearing of ways. Build around strummed acoustic guitars, it’s a great pop song, delivered with such joie-de-vivre that the listener cannot help but believe the refrain of “Anything is possible…”
With lines like: “You were crazy, crazy, crazy/ No-one ever did it like you, baby,” the magnificent Diego appears to pay tribute to the one-and-only Diego Maradona and, particularly, to the hope and freedom that his wayward genius gave to his followers. A piano ballad with reflections of The Carpenters’ Superstar, it’s a tune that is given an almost orchestral aura by an imaginative strings arrangement. In contrast, the distorted guitars and swirling organ riffs give the aforementioned No Trial a BIG, rocky sound, before things calm down again for the exquisite My Old Black Tie, one of several truly outstanding tracks on the album. Organ, twangy guitar and a soaring vocal are complemented by some beautiful violin and flute touches that reflect the sadness of the song’s lyrics.
The album’s most Elvis Costello-alike song is the fast-moving Swine. Grungy guitars and crowd noises provide the intro and a sublime sax solo provides the song’s real highlight. Unusually, the lyrics are hard to discern, but they sound interesting and I’d love to understand the identity of the Son of a swine/cop/goon that Ian is so clearly deriding. Is he a lying, self-serving, incompetent Prime Minister by any chance, or am I barking up the wrong tree completely?
Strings once again add richness and solemnity to Big Feelings, the closest thing on the album to a straight love song and Ian delivers a particularly vulnerable vocal. The raucous, punchy Dan is, I’m sure, certain to become a live favourite. The most overtly folky song on the album, it’s a true Irish rocker, with lashings of demonic violin and flute to make sure that no-one misses the point and the shuffling, infectious Go Livio, driven along by some well-considered percussion, continues the story-song theme. I particularly enjoyed the slightly left-field reference to Smokey Robinson’s Tracks of My Tears!
I’d perhaps describe the album’s closing track, He Sings I Cry, as a slice of psych/gospel. A call-and-respond song with a heavy/bass and drum backing, it builds and builds to become a full-on sensual assault, before calming back down until we reach the album’s closing line – the enigmatic: “You’re a lucky man, McIntyre – I haven’t seen the aurora since ’53.”
And that’s that! As Ian says: “One Hand On The Starry Plough is an album of music that reminds us to look up at the night sky and bear witness to billions of years of consistency shining down, helping us to navigate each and every lifeline. A collection of songs that acknowledges the bad times whilst reminding of the best times. An album that understands what it is to be human in all its wayward beauty with songs that tell us we’ll be alright – because we have each other.” And, in days of inconsistency and uncertainty, we can all use assurances like that!
Ian Prowse will be touring soon to promote One Hand On The Starry Plough. Find out more and buy tickets for a show near you here.
Watch the Official video to Battle – the album’s opening track and lead single – here: