Five years in the making, a chrysalis of hope from Ren Lawton.
Release date: 23rd February 2022
Label: Via Bandcamp
Format: Digital/ Vinyl (pre-order)
Ren Newton? No, me neither, nor indeed do any Mrs and Mrs Lawton of wheresoever, Ren being the idea of singer-songwriter Conor Owen, proving to be an enticing and intriguing rebranding operation. Conor Owen was a troubadour eking a crust as an itinerant in the French Alps après-ski circuit, who had a damascene crisis, appreciating there was more to him than jaded ski-bunnies were necessarily up to appreciate. Drawing on the repertoire and attitude of a host of archetypal influences, this reinvention offers a range of options. And for when he is quite decided who he is, in the meantime, he can be giving us all the enjoyment of his unfolding metamorphosis.
His PR covers most bases, stating for fans of Dylan, Nick Drake, Foy Vance and Mick Flannery. I confess, try as I might, I can’t hear them, but can get distinct flashbacks of Andy White, of David Gray and of even, here and there, a less frantic and gentler Mike Scott. In fact, the more I listen, the more I am minded of Sweet Thursday, the short-lived 1970’s band of pre-Yusuf Cat Steven’s right-hand guitar man, Alun Davies and the Stones’ piano peripheral, Nicky Hopkins. No bad thing at all, which makes for a pleasantly breezy melancholic ride.
It has, seemingly, taken five years for this album to come to fruition, Newton having introduced his new name first on an EP in 2017. A multi-instrumentalist, adept on guitar, keys and trumpet, this is the result of his dedication, largely living in his yellow van, Penelope, to help make all the ends meet, if the travelling entailed allowed also for a steady input of ideas. Now it’s our turn to enjoy the outcome.
It opens with the title track, voice barely louder than a whisper over strummed acoustic, yet clear enough to make out every word, as piano and an insistent drumbeat propel it forward, a stream of consciousness that continues to build, brass swelling in the background. With Love By Night there is, I concede, a hit of BotT era Dylan, as much in the guitar and bass interplay, as the declamatory lyric, which explores a covert love affair, conducted in his van in the Norwegian wintry midday moon. Some gloriously bendy twang of electric introduces Thinking About You, which is where my Andy White references are the most pronounced, and I can guarantee it would be a cracking live favourite.
Willow is more mellow, some nifty picked guitar and his still gentle voice, double-tracked to good effect. Some strings sweep in for the instrumental middle eight, a brief reverie of some additional guitar. A wistful and thoughtful song, the construction slowly adds further symphonics that drift the song to a pleasing conclusion. The stately repeated piano chords of Come All You Mourners breaks that dream, and is perhaps the most sombre song here, elegiacally effective, especially, again, as the percussion and horns join the procession. A haunting number that lingers, maybe the first to get an instant replay from this listener. Blue Hounds switches the mood again, a piece of Donovanesque whimsy, with a glorious flurry of guitar licks billowing around the later verses.
“Now I can’t be your rock no more,” starts off The Writer, a well-trodden tale of ending a relationship. Probably falsely, I just wonder whether the song is from Ren to Conor, as he moves on from that past. Possibly fanciful on my behalf, but I like that idea. I also like the stonking finale, where the band kick in, a harmonica taking up the main delivery. Tapping into the same well of nostalgic stout that creates Irish bars worldwide, O’Kelly’s Song is about such a place, possibly more myth than Murphy’s, the lyrics a little trite, but it’s a pleasant enough gambol, the ambience akin to the sort of thing Ronnie Lane could write in his sleep. Spencer Street is a homecoming narrative, lifted by a rippling guitar solo, leaving the closer, Moral Mercenary, to set out Lawton’s stall, a world view most have sympathy with, possibly, a little less faith. If the message sits a little thinly, the trumpet is a delight.