Cheerful pessimism and wry acceptance duel here, in a triumph of, mostly, melancholia, to uplift and aerate the soul. Altogether quietly superb.
Release date: 10th February 2023
Label: 4 AD
Format: CD / vinyl / digital
When 4 AD picks up a little-known artist, world famous only in Cornwall, it sorta says he might be worth a listen. Which is much how this came to my ears. Soubriquets like “Truro’s Leonard Cohen” add also grist to the mill of curiosity, so who could resist? The brainchild and baby of one Ben Woods, rocking the Falmouth delta scene since the early midteens of this century, is also resident in South London, he writes and sings. Intelligent songs with that sort of wholesome feel that only golden voices like Cohen and Bill Callahan can gift a song. He has one such golden voice, his songs expanded by the Dregs, an anything up to seven-piece combo, handy on all things stringed or bashable, with occasional brass.
Woods lost his day job in 2020, and had to move back in with his parents, picking up meaningful in the only way made available, shovelling, if not shit, certainly mud, on a desolate building site in Truro, in the depth of the Cornish winter. Citing the American writer Raymond Carver as an influence might give an idea of the mindset and mood, as he toiled through the sludge and rain, mulling on the loss of innocence and inferiority. Or possibly how to grow up in Cornwall, where holiday lets outnumber the residents, and most jobs are seasonal, forced out by the economies of disadvantage. To set the scenario, the cover depicts a fictional Cornish village; Polgras. Commissioned by him and built by a local model maker, Edie Lawrence, the 8×4 ft model captures each of the settings exposed in the songs. To be fair, it looks pretty typical of many a settlement in his home county.
The sort of piano that graces Neil Young, when in an introspective minor chord mood, opens with Intro, a half minute of desperation, before the track proper, American Airlines, kicks off. The piano now clearer, Wood’s voice is in his boots, as electronic percussion slots in behind him. Massed vocals croon behind him, to give a sort of chorus, Woods sticking to the main theme. Vibraphone, a juddering bass and a quiet chug of guitar fill out the whole, before some sax parps in triumphantly. And it closes, having gone nowhere and everywhere. Keeping to that mood of mournful melancholy, How It Starts has the percussive nature of slowly digging soil, spade in, dirt out, with piano adding melody and structure, electronic burbles flickering around. Already this is special, with the brass returning to give a ceremonial feel, however much the lyrics suggest there being little to celebrate: “rows and rows of houses, brick and mortar graves..…”
Before We Fell From Grace has discordant piano and funereal organ to complement more lugubrious, in a good way, musings on the pointlessness of, probably, it all. A gloriously just not quite cheesy sax solo, the player Woods’ sister Hannah, lifts the mood, as the date described goes sour, and I’m getting flavours of both Stuart Staples (Tindersticks) and John Grant. “I never was quite built for entertainment, as I may rise, but I’m glued to the pavement.” As with Staples, the vocals are mixed fairly low in the mix, meaning sometimes a struggle to catch them, but, again like Staples, that is part the charm. Not Even The Rain starts with Twin Peaks-y guitar and no sudden surge of optimism, but, as the ensemble backing builds, there is a Redruth Motown vibe, and the fact that not even the rain “can put the fire out,” makes me sure this is a glass half full sentiment. Am I right? This tale of unloved souls connecting seems so. Suitably cheered, Eulogy might suggest further gloom, and, if it is, it is dynamic gloom, and possibly is for the protagonist of the last song. There is a chapel feel, fittingly, with more of that organ, slowly pacing bass notes and that o so solemn voice, before the chorale returns to swell behind him. Splendid stuff, in the way that only dirges can be, with a bizarre brainstorm, possibly the wake, unfolding briefly as it ends.
Josephine actually is quite jolly. OK, only by comparison, but it lurches along with the resigned woebegone acceptance of a failed relationship. Quite beautiful, really, with heart-melting words. I am thinking these songs are probably all related if I am not quite able to find all the connecting dots. But it is fun to try and find them. Vista really is upbeat, almost a jig of joy, Ferry-esque now, as Woods hops, skips and jumps in the relief of having survived. The jittery rhythms, especially as the backing vocals come back in, are wonderful. I won’t deny, I’m glad he’s glad, the contrast beginning to be needed.
The chirpier mood continues into Sundown Lake with more of those jittery rhythms and enthusiastic sax and then trumpet joining in and, shock horror, you could dance to this one. I can only hope that the more cautious listener will have made it this far, should there still be any adherence to the tyranny of running order. I’m old, it is my reflex, so, however much I find appeal in threnody, it was still a lift to receive these more carefree, musically at least, tracks. Beyond Reasonable Doubt, as a title, perhaps augurs ill for it being three in a row, but, you know, it is. Sort of. A slow beat witnesses a song of contemplation, positive contemplation, which sums up all of the varied influences I hear here, distilling them into a hymn for self-esteem. Unless I have got this all wrong. The closing lines of “hope that you won’t let me die without your blessing; you can do anything you want to do, just don’t keep me guessing’ might have me wondering, but whatever. My problem and certainly not Woods, who has crafted here a terrific piece of work, and one that will guarantee my return in those long dark evenings of the soul.
Here’s Before We Fell From Grace: