AKA three wot I missed earlier from Ian McNabb, The Feedback File and Anthony Toner
The problem with this all 2023 malarkey, and of new year in general, is the sheer volume of end-of-year bests that greet you throughout the preceding December. The national media, heck, the international media, newspapers, TV, the music press, blogs, your old mate Archie on Facebook, they all collate lists of who, why, what and when, even down to the squabbles around the actual year an archived live show should be attributed to, or whether a download counts, when the physical release is still pending. (Yes, Neil Young and Wilco, I refer to you….). You’ll have seen ours, of course. But, however definitive, there is always someone, somewhere who picks a gem that so completely passed you by as to question any credibility or confidence in your being deemed competent to vote. These are a few, such that had me facepalming, in no particular order.
- Ian McNabb – Nabby Road (Fairfield Records):
McNabb has been around a fair old while now, and lightweight observers of his listings might presume he is just another old rocker trading on past glories; his last tour was to celebrate 40 years of The Icicle Works, which, however well worth celebrating that is, and it is, smacks a little of no new there to be offered. Which, if you know McNabb, has seldom, if ever, been the case, he a constant whirlwind of activity from his Manchester base.
Fairfield is his own home industry, and he has been pumping out material ceaselessly, the business team being he and his doughty Ma, Patricia. Some have been great, some less so, but it is always exciting, new ideas embraced and old ones polished. Pat died last year, and it hit him hard. Some even wondered if he could continue. I was probably one, so, when this slipped out, toward the end of the year, I note dedicated to “A New Star in the Sky,” I missed it. No, in truth I chose, fickle as I am, to miss it, so naff the title seemed. Which, to be fair, it is. But the content, my bad, is anything but, prime McNabb, up there, very nearly, with Truth and Beauty, Head Like A Rock and Merseybeast, his opening triple whammy of solo albums that so astounded back in the day. So sorry, Ian, and sorry, Pat, R.I.P.
From the beguiling opening of Sausalito, with lapping waves on the foreshore, and elegaic piano embedded in a sturdy and possibly electronic drumbeat, making you wait for the brief squall of trademark McNabb guitar: an instrumental, no less, to the anthemic Start Again, ten tracks later, with his strong vocal pleading for the right to do just that, and it is a triumph. Hell, that last track had me caught punching the air, a broad grin on my coupon. In between, he tackles a broad remit of styles, mainly just he and a rhythm section of Roy Corkhill, bass, and Ian Kilroe on drums. The guitars and keyboards, plus the myriad and presumably programmed “string”sethisers are all McNabb.
Highlights are many, from the initially acoustic and hymnal Holy to the electro meets the Walker Brothers Love Bombing. In between, we get the never-more Icicle-y Amazing, with an exhilaratingly typical McNabb guitar construction, that just has to make you smile. Lyrically, he hits paydirt with Gentlemen Dress For Dinner, possibly a different slant from those familiar with his autobiography, also called Merseybeast, possibly not. Elsewhere Film Star Noir offers a view of another direction he could have taken, if in his dreams, a whimsical song with evocative black and white imagery, all rainswept streets with blood on the kerb. Uncertain as to who provides the saxophone here, and sporadically elsewhere, but it’s great. He also provides a worth-remembering memo to the boss here, in Guest List, as in don’t ever ask him for a freebie. Duly noted, it is the lightest song here, but no less endearing.
All in all, this is a timely reminder about artists like McNabb, beavering away on kickstarter after kickstarter, tour after tour. As always, it his voice that remains the real star, a forthright instrument that soars and soothes, dependent on mood, an astonishing and, yes, amazing gift. Keep it coming, Ian.
2. The Feedback File – Summerland (self-released, DL only):
Perhaps, like me, you have been heartened by the news that Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn are again making music together, with new Everything But The Girl material due to drop this year. Well, if needing a sweetener to keep you going, you could do a lot worse than pay heed to this. The Feedback File is the nom de plume of one John Almond, and he has been making music, largely off the beaten track, off even the surprise turnings a love of music can take you, and this is his/their 5th release this century. As Almond says himself, his role is as “musical director and rely on better musicians than myself to help bring my songs to life,” which, given the quality of the playing, may well be true, but does his writing no small disservice. This is a lovely record and I am glad it was pointed my way.
As with so much of the art only now surfacing, the mood is of post-pandemic reflection, that time period having offered, at such a cost, the necessary time to filter it all into as near a focus as can be bearable. The sweet strumming of That’s What She Said kicks things off, Almond’s husky croon gradually joined by percussion, piano and the delicately voiced Sarah Vallence. Synthetic strings add further mood, over which a guitar motif gently ripples. From that lustrous start follow a further 10 songs, covering a variety of topics. With a large cast of participating musicians, Almond is as good as his word, even giving away vocal lead on one track, the gentle sway of Good Dreams, Bad Dreams, sung by Donna Canale in a Joni-esque timbre. The aforementioned Vallence also takes a lead for Nightfall, which has the feel of a country-tinged lullaby. The title track has a hypnotic ear worm embedded into it, made all the more memorable by the slide, the piano and percussion. Again, good use of BVs gives contrast to Almond, he here in a higher register. The brass effects add a mariachi shimmer over the flamenco style picking at the base of the song, and it is a joy. The incipient fragility in Almond’s voice becomes put to good effect for Jennifer, vibraphone always a pleasure to see included, alongside some double bass. What may or not be flute adds that little bit more, the whole a woozy tremolo of remembrance.
Lighter moments come courtesy of Fear Of Falling and Margaret’s Dancing, before some full-on high lonesome sound, pedal-steel and all, for a wistful country whimsy, Still On The Line. (And, with the steel player called Jacob Dillard, could he be one of the Dillard extended family?) The penultimate track is a wonderful blend of early Steely Dan and early Dire Straits; see if you spot the clues, even if the vocal is anything but reminiscent of either of those illustrious peers, Almond here showing a more confident foot forward with his more direct delivery.
To close comes another steel-drenched song, this time looking back in wonder, or shock. Or both. Strangely it put me in the mind of those much-maligned Kevin Rowland solo albums of his wilderness years, the one with that cover and the other one. Which in my book is no small praise, they each being brave and bold releases. Called Simple Things, this song is the high water mark here, the swell of faux-brass gorgeous, catching the glints from those tears accumulating in my cynical old eyes. A wonderful, and a masterful way to end this surprising release. True, nothing here to scare the horses or trouble the Quietus, but a lot for those who joy a simple sit down and a listen; headphones optional.
3. Anthony Toner – The Book of Absolution (Dozens of Cousins Records):
I confess I had never heard of this geezer until alerted by the N.I. based music writer and sleeve-notes compiler supreme, Colin Harper. No mean musician himself, Harper is an eager advocate for the unsung giants of his part of the world, world-famous in all the six counties, largely unheard of elsewhere.
Anthony Toner is one such, who has shared his songwriting with a career in journalism. With now, more time to his hand, he has put out a flurry on material, culminating in this massive 82-minute double disc, 27 songs that appeal and endear, none long enough to strain patience or credulity. With a soft and mellow vocal tone, reminiscent of a more melodious Andy White, most of the often autobiographical songs follow a semi-acoustic bent, with barely plugged-in guitars, organ or piano and rhythm section. From time to time a string quartet sweep in delightfully.
The album opens with Toner reciting rather than singing the words of The Protection Of The King, a waft of Van’s Coney Island wafting in on the accented tones. and, yes, wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time? Worry not, it is, and the pleasure of the acquaintance continues through the breezy Dignity Thief and thoughtful The One I Would Have Died For, with its captivating opening line: “Love is a religion, it helps if you believe.” Oo-ee-oo. As an experienced journo, his way with words is exquisite, necessitating close listening, even if the cadences of the tunes captivate in a more casual listen. Few could dedicate a song to The Penguin Book Of American Verse, but Toner does, and I dare say may even point a few listeners towards the Amazon book page. Going Home Blues has a distinct Paul Simon vibe, whereas The Man Who Died At A Funreal has a whiff of Dylan’s Hard Rain in construction, if not content, such name referencing a marker of the quality components here, rather than to suggest any lax pirating of style.
The title track, like many, was written under the auspices of covid, then losing both his parents, that mood of contemplation, loss and the big picture, if you will, with similar recurring themes; New Year’s Eve 2020 another particularly poignant vignette. And if you want a quiet weep, along with a wry smile, Wheelchair, 2014 can provide just that, with some evocative stand up bass to sweeten the swallow, strengthened, again, by the sensitive string arrangement. The list goes on, space not allowing the room to give all the credit due, intelligent songs with that transatlantic west coast flavour that Celts evince so effortlessly. Later highlights include Padlocks, with more spoken word, and the gaunt splendour of Paperbacks And Ashtrays, the penultimate track, a paean to his father, both parents actually, as strong a song in that vein as Martin Simpson’s Never Any Good, a history of his father through the books read. Lest this all sound a bit angsty and reverential, closing track, Row Me Home, is a livelier piece, banjo-led, which closes the set in the mode of Irish-gospel fusion. Lovely, and typical of an album well worth the punt.
If you can’t afford the £12 on Bandcamp, pitch him an offer on his website, anything above a tenner. And it is worth twice that. At least.
A final word of consideration for the fine folk of Bandcamp, increasingly my go-to for both research and purchase these days, the platform seemingly so supportive to artists at every rung of their career climbs, both up and down the slippery ladder. Plus, with their laudable Bandcamp Fridays, the first of each month, all fees are suspended for the organisation, instead going in whole to the artist concerned. Long may this beacon of worthiness thrive.