Best kept secret aims for the heart of his erstwhile nation, in a gorgeous merging of gossamer Americana, and soul, weaved through with dub tropes. From Wales.
Release date: 11th November 2022
Label: On-U Sound
Format: CD / vinyl / digital
Dang it, I’d already handed in my top 5 of the year, finding this late contender, yes, reviewed late, my bad, should only grab my attention now, such a beauty it is. So, take note, take notes and listen to what I say. Or better, to the album, and I’ll wager it’ll capture the hardest of hearts. As a stranger to hyperbole, I insist on this.
Jeb Loy Nichols is quite a name and quite a guy. Originally from Wyoming, his voice oozes dustbowl agronomics, a warm mix of honey and bourbon, a Townes van Zandt without the self-destruct button. Yet it is 40-odd years since he left his homeland, coming first to London in 1981. And, in perhaps some explanation of this record and its gestation, he there hooked up there, in a squat, with Adrian Sherwood, the On-U Sound System man, Ari Up and Neneh Cherry, despite seeming to have little in common. His bag was and has always been, that rural US blend of country and soul, southern soul, if you will, with his first solo recordings coming in 1996, having been responsible, in the interim, for curating the seminal Country Got Soul compilations (working with the great Dan Penn).
After expunging the lure of London from his system, he spent time touring Europe until eventually putting down roots, literally, in West Wales, where he has a small holding. From there, as well as writing books and painting, he has put out a succession of well-crafted and well-aimed musical potshots. This his 10th such, and best, seeing him reunite with Sherwood, here for his sterling production duties. The attraction of Nichols for Sherwood was always his “complete disregard of genre purity”, and never has that been so purely presented. Where else could you expect to hear sweetly strummed acoustic guitars and tinkling electric pianos alongside skanking trombones and dub machinations? And not in any clumsy meld, either, with the contrasts as natural and elegant as if were they meant for each other.
So it is with those gloriously warming horns that Monsters On The Hill opens, a reeking rich blend of molasses and dark rum. Which hill? You need hardly guess, a diatribe against Capitol Hill, gently eviscerating the state of play, with Nichols’ voice quietly admonishing the establishment in a hoarse and mellow croon, a gentle rhythm section accompanying his strum. And those horns! A middle section of staccato stabs of sound proves, lest there be any doubt, Sherwood’s masterful genre disregard. Simply wonderful. Big Trouble Comes Through A Small Door takes this mood and expands it, a controlled swell of backing orchestration embedding his smoky voice. The cello, from Ivan ‘Celloman’ Hussey, a veteran of sessions as varied as Marc Almond and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, is magnificent, he also supplying the deep bass rumbles. The lyrical message of this last song seems to be to get off-grid and asap. Much, or near abouts, as has Nichols himself done. Fold Me Up reprises the strings, a steamy swamper of a song, Muscle Shoals via Dolgellau, with a touch of downtown Kingston in the bass and slinky organ. On keyboards duty, one Martin Duffy, from Primal Scream. Good, innit?
Over some simple picked guitar, Nichols intones I Hate The Capitalist System, for as timely and topical a piece of songwriting as you might expect this dark year. That is, ahead of realising it was written in 1965, by Sarah Ogun Gunning, a contemporary of Woody Guthrie and a plangent civil rights and union activist in her own right. The lyrics ring ever true, with smooth bvs from Ghetto Priest adding a touch, bizarrely, of the chapel. No Hiding Place now ramps up a slow and sleazy acoustic reggae feel, the clipped guitar and paired piano and organ just the ticket. Gently ushered in by that, What Does A Man Do All Day now goes for the full bluebeat, the horns sashaying and reverbing wondrously. Prescient lyrics, once more, comparing the actions of man as compared to nobler beasts of the animal kingdom. Backtracking the mood for the title track, suddenly we are into prime Curtis Mayfield territory, or maybe even Terry Callier, both comparisons deserved. We need more flute like this, I see my notes have commented, if not forgetting more of that mellow cello.
More flute? I’m Just A Visitor has both that and some dreamy trumpet, the mood stripping further back toward midnight, the vocals, and lyrics, drifting ever more into reverie. It is remarkable how well the songs and the instrumentation have been crafted together, Sherwood is surely an alchemist. A Dylanesque hue inhabits the mood of I’ve Enjoyed As Much Of This Good Life (As I Can Take), a Not Dark Yet for these days. Thoughtful and thankful words express this ode to a simple life. Which is just the moment to throw in the googly of, him again, Woody Guthrie’s Deportees, quite the best version I have yet heard. Played sweetly straight, it is only as you concentrate that the genius in the production room makes his presence felt. If I can’t shoehorn this into the CoverMeSongs cover of the year list, I’m a jackass. (Addendum: I’m a jackass, it seems, even if I am right!)
Reverbed melodica? Old hat, everyone knows that. Reverbed country campfire harmonica? Well, that’s something different and something I have certainly never encountered. And it’s great! It is all over Looking For Some Rain, and it must be the peak of the Nichols/Sherwood amalgam. Closing with Satisfied Mind, the third and final non-original, the version by Johnny Cash may be the best remembered. Well, it sounds nothing like that, transformed into the electric piano blue-eyed soul of FAME studios, Alabama, where Dan Penn first made his mark. The backing vocals, in an eerie echo delay, add some contemporary contrast, and it becomes the perfect way to epitomise this enthralling release; songs without frontiers, with boundless passion for the possibilities.
Here’s the second track in, with more than full marks for the tremendous video, by Jackson Mount.