Rab Noakes and Brooks Williams – Should We Tell Him: Album Review

Two of our finest singer-songwriters channel the lesser-known works of Don Everly.  Rab Noakes’s final studio recordings 

Release Date:  25th August 2023

Label: Red Guitar Blue Music

Formats: CD, Download, Streaming  

Now – here’s an album with a lot to offer.  Firstly, it’s the latest in the series of collaborative efforts involving Statesboro, Georgia – via Cambridge UK – singer-songwriter, Brooks Williams.  It follows his hotly-recommended link-ups with virtuoso violinist Aaron Catlow – Ghost Owl (2021) and Ready For The Times (2022) and with banjo maestro Dan Walsh for last Autumn’s Fortune By Design.  Secondly, Should We Tell Him is a long-awaited – some would say ‘long overdue’ – collaboration between Brooks and Scottish legend Rab Noakes, a man for whom Brooks has long held a massive admiration.  And finally, it’s a collection of some of the lesser-known songs from the pen of the great Don Everly; songs that are treated with love and respect and are given new life by the vocal talents of Rab and Brooks and the invigorating instrumental skills of a small, hand-picked, bunch of supporting musicians.  

Brooks Williams is, of course, a regular presence on the pages of At The Barrier.  He has a knack of attracting high-profile collaborators and, as well as the partners already mentioned, he’s also worked with the likes of Boo Hewardine, Jim Henry and Steve Tilston.  

Rab Noakes is nothing less than a Scottish institution.  He was a stalwart of the Scottish folk scene from the late 1960s until his sad passing in late 2022 (shortly after the completion of the recording this album).  A founder-member of Stealers Wheel, he wrote for, performed with and inspired Lindisfarne and he has over 20 albums to his name in a career that started with his debut release, Do You See The Lights, back in 1970.  

As a Rab Noakes devotee, Brooks Williams regularly featured Rab’s songs in his live repertoire, but it wasn’t until 2018 that the pair finally got together, when Brooks invited Rab to sing on his album, Lucky Star.  It was during the sessions for that album that the pair discovered a mutual liking for the songs of The Everly Brothers and, particularly, for that duo’s more obscure offerings.  The seeds and the plans to record Should We Tell Him were sown then, but it took rather longer – five years, in fact – for those green shoots to reach full maturity.  

As Rab explained during the recording of Should We Tell Him: “I’ve long had a familiarity with the recordings of The Everly Brothers.  I’m not quite a completist, but close, and I’ve harboured an idea to record some of Don’s accomplished works for quite some time.  Although a number of The Everly Brothers’ big hits were written by Don (and others by acclaimed Nashville songwriters, especially Felice and Boudleaux Bryant), many others [of his compositions] were B-sides and album tracks.  There’s little doubt that he doesn’t get celebrated enough as a songwriter.” 

The project that was to yield Should We Tell Him finally got underway in 2022.  A spiral-bound mimeographed copy of the Songs by Don Everly songbook that had been given to Rab by Don’s publisher provided much of the source material for the album and allowed Rab and Brooks to avoid any of the big, well-known songs.   

Tunes selected, and acoustic guitars at the ready, Rab and Brooks chose the backing musicians that would add so much life to these wonderful songs.  Hilary Brooks (piano and accordion), Kevin McGuire (basses), Conor Smith (electric guitar and pedal steel) and Signy Jakobsdottir (drums) bring a massive dollop of magic to Should We Tell Him.  The sound is rich and full and, whilst no member of this small ensemble seeks to hog the spotlight, the contribution of every member comes over loud and clear, as I’ll be pointing out shortly…  

There’s a good variety of stuff to enjoy on Should We Tell Him.  If your idea of classic Everlys is defined by tight harmony singing, then that’s here a-plenty – in songs like It Only Costs a Dime, the country waltz I’ll Never Get Over You, the rockier Since You Broke My Heart and in I Wonder If I Care As Much, a soft, intimate song of unrequited love.  

Country rock is never far below the surface, and it breaks through in style in the Mex-flavoured Hello Amy, the gentle, reflective, Maybe Tomorrow and in the slow, haunting, That’s Just Too Much, a song in which Conor’s ghostly swoops of pedal steel turn the song into something very special indeed.   

Ah!  Conor’s pedal steel!  On an album packed with instrumental highlights, it’s perhaps that pedal steel that leaves the strongest impression.  It’s there right from the outset as it soars above opening track It Only Costs A Dime; Conor plays an awesome solo in I’ll Never Get Over You and, as a closing bonus, he provides the icing on the cake as closing track It’s All Over reaches its tearful conclusion.  

But Conor doesn’t completely hog the spotlight.  Hilary’s piano parts are often subtle, yet they’re tremendously effective and they enliven several of these songs – notably Sigh, Cry, Almost Die, Maybe Tomorrow and I Wonder If I Care As Much – Kevin’s bass is rock-solid throughout, and Signy provides a bedrock that never shows any sign of shifting.  And, just in case I’ve failed to get the message over clearly enough, Rab’s and Brooks’ vocal harmonies would do credit to the Everlys themselves.  

Every track on Should We Tell Him is excellent but, if pushed I’d select album opener, It Only Costs a Dime, chugging rocker I’m Not Angry and desolate closing number It’s All Over as my Top 3.  It Only Costs a Dime sets the template for the whole album – the sheer strength of the band and of Paul Savage’s production took this particular listener by very pleasant surprise and led me to conclude that THIS is my kind of music!  I’m Not Happy is gritty and rocky and the band are cooking, and Rab weaves arrogance and determination around his vocal chords as he delivers lines like: “I’m not angry, I’m just sad” and “I hope your records always break.” 

To cap it all, everything comes together for It’s All Over, the album’s stunning closing track.  The band provide a desolate backing for a desolate song.  The acoustic guitars are slow and purposeful, the drumbeat is slow and purposeful and the vocals are slow, and extra-purposeful.  Don Everly could always manage to say a lot in a song that, on the surface, says very little, and that skill is exercised to the full in It’s All Over.  

Sadly, Rab wasn’t around to complete the mastering of the album, but he trusted Brooks to see that task through, which he did, by taking the tapes to Abbey Road.  I’ll leave Brooks to complete the story: “…I like to imagine Rab getting a kick out of that [the Abbey Road mastering].  It is an honour to have worked with Rab on what turned out to be his final recording, and an honour to help that recording see the light of day and get out into the world.  It all fits.”

Watch the official video to Should We Tell Him – the album’s title track – here:

Brooks Williams online: WebsiteFacebookTwitterInstagramYouTube

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