Michael Weston King – The Struggle: Album Review

Golden voiced alt-country troubadour, Michael Weston King, makes hay in rare escape from the Wife.

Release date: 1st April 2022

Label: Cherry Red Records

Format: CD

Forgive the tongue in cheek blurb, but, honestly, these days one could forget that King, one half of the majestic country duets team, My Darling Clementine, has had and has another, parallel, life, as a purveyor of first-class American roots music, call it what you will, in his own right.

Older readers will no doubt look wistfully back to his times as the lynchpin of early UK Americana icons, the Good Sons, who not only sold their coals to Nashville but came under the radar and wing of the late great Townes Van Zandt, with whose songwriting King shows an estimable comparison.

As a slightly younger reader, I came a little later to his game, with the release of his solo disc, 2003’s A Decent Man, which, courtesy his then residency in Birmingham, meant I caught him playing live a couple of times. I had been intrigued by the idea of this Mancunian cowboy grifter who had hooked up with the already world-famous in Birmingham, Lou Dalgleish, now the other half of Clemmie, and Mrs King to boot, plus the fact that that record had been produced by my hero, Jackie Leven. With that company, I guessed he wouldn’t be half bad, and he was proven to be much more than not half good on investigation.

Fast forward and My Darling Clementine are the toast of all those who enjoy honky-tonk heartbreaks and bitter-sweet songs of contrition, with three discs of their own material behind them, together with one of Elvis Costello country covers, the latter featuring Mr Nieve from Costello’s band. All are excellent and commended. But King has not entirely put his solo muse on hold; there have been intermittent concerts he has squeezed into the already busy MDC schedule, at least pre-pandemic, a notable pair of gigs being in celebration of the two aforementioned friends and contemporaries, Van Zandt and Leven, both now deceased.

Now he has found the moment to showcase an album’s worth of new material, the material deemed to be more applicable to his solo persona. Which does not, of course, deny Dalgleish a presence on the record, nor that of their daughter, Mabel. Much more, however, than just a family affair, the cast also includes the US exile in Wales singer, Jeb Loy Nichols, some more of Steve Nieve and the production and playing of wunderkind studio man Clovis Phillips, adept on anything with strings, keys or both. And the minute it opens, with King’s sturdy vocal tones, coffee and molasses in equal measure, you know you are in the safest of hands.

Opening with Weight Of The World, which has the melody of an old as the Appalachians weepy, yet is a story song, blessed with an astute and concise depiction of quite how Trump managed to seduce and hoodwink blue collar America into voting him in. Over a consummate guitars and piano backing, slowly seeps in the reality, through the eyes of a NY cop. With a glorious twangy guitar middle eight, the ironies of the unfolding debacle are tapped into with aplomb. Duelling guitar and mandolin then beckon in Sugar, a co-write with Peter Case, the product of a songwriting convention, which breathes new life into the sugar and addiction metaphoric cliche, mainly by sounding so ageless and world-weary. I don’t think King has ever sung better. With more glorious accompaniment, on bottleneck, from Phillips, the song is as much a hook as the subject.

If these two topics aren’t lifting your spirits, then clearly the next song won’t either, The Hardest Thing Of All being a wistful ode to depressive procrastination. What, pray is that hardest thing? Just getting out of bed, it seems, the whole song a cautionary reminder as to the defeats that can be delivered in depression. It isn’t, despite all that, depressing in the least, offering hope, possibly tomorrow, with pointers towards admittance and acceptance, together with the importance of sharing the information with loved ones. It’s good advice and a great song, with a buoyant swirl of organ towards the end.

Another Dying Day touches, arguably, on a similar landscape, an elegiac song with strings that manage to lift away any bleakness or self-pity, as the pitfalls of being alone are embraced in their planned rejection. An unspeakably sad song, with echoes of the finest Glen Campbell singing Jimmy Webb; think Wichita Lineman crossed with Galveston. This is then followed by a familiar song, The Final Reel, at least to those, like me, still in the thrall of Jackie Leven. First appearing as (part of) King’s contribution to last year’s Leven tribute album, The Wanderer, the reprise here is far from superfluous, the song lighter now then it seemed then, the lyrics a hymn, spelling out the bond between them and the baffling, counter-intuitive mystique of the man. Mabel King-Dalgleish plays recorder and reminds just what a beautiful sound that instrument can emit. A beautiful, beautiful song.

The Old Soft Shoe is the only song that doesn’t quite do it for me, being a little overly conscious of that late 40s feel, better evoked by Richard Thompson’s Al Bowlly’s In Heaven. Having said that, the production is superlative, courtesy the additional deskwork of Colin Elliott, who also provides extra piano across the whole disc, and, here, a tremulously soaring trombone solo, care of Barnaby Dickinson. Valerie’s Coming Home, is in a similar narrative vein , another song of regret and loss, this time pertaining to his mother in law and her passing, but has a more sympathetic structure, an adult song in every sense, a situation that comes to us all, the burying of our parents, skilfully penned and strangely more upsetting than any cliched fictional love story. Lightening the mood comes the gentle story of Me and Frank, casting back a lyrical nod to a childhood friend who, ultimately, crosses the tracks into a life of crime. Very reminiscent of a more battered Robert Earl Keen, with echoes of the old west, I loved it.

Back into big Jackie territory, penultimate track is one that failed the cut for The Wanderer, some orphaned lyrics by the Fife giant, added to a King tune, Dalgleish’s voice an instantly recognisable keen alongside her husband. Entitled Theory of Truthmakers, it’s a terrific song, but stands somewhat apart the rest of the fare here, diminished only by the changed mood offered. Which leaves only room for a reprise of Weight of the World, this time all-electric piano and added newsreel. An applicable and appropriate end to a largely fine album, one that can sit proudly alongside anything else by this classy writer, singer and undervalued treasure.

Here’s Sugar:

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