“Shoulder to Shoulder” – Chris While & Julie Matthews

5 stars (out of 5)

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shoulder to shoulder scrollerIt can be easy to define an album by what it isn’t rather than what it is. “Shoulder to Shoulder” doesn’t push anything up to eleven, there aren’t any self-indulgent solos and there isn’t any autotune or electronic trickery to fool you into hearing substance where none exists. What this album has is eleven powerful and beautifully-crafted songs, superb vocal performances and arrangements that allow the quality and emotion of the songwriting to shine through. The album features the current single “Here It Comes Again”; it’s probably the most radio-friendly, but it’s not entirely representative of “Shoulder to Shoulder”.

The album is strongest when the songs deal with serious subjects. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the two Charlie Dore/Chris While co-writes “Slim to Nil” or “Nothing Yanks My Chain (Like You Do)”; they’re bouncy and full of clever wordplay and they offer a contrast to some of the more serious songs that define the overall mood.

“Pride” opens slowly with a gentle guitar intro and picks up momentum to become a full-on anthem to sexual tolerance and standing shoulder under the rainbow banner; it’s a cracking song with a potent message. “Are We Human” challenges insularity generally, and in particular our attitudes to the current refugee crisis and the haunting “Pinjarra Dreams” shines a light on the scandalous treatment of British children sent from homes and orphanages to Australia. The songs have a definite political edge, but they’re generally told from a human perspective.

“Leap of Faith”, the final While/Dore composition is the joyful and poignant story of a mother about to be reunited with her daughter after twenty-five years apart on opposite sides of the world, closing out beautifully when the two actually meet. Equally moving is Julie Matthews’ “Ordinary Day”, a bleakly tragic piece of the everyday pathos of bereavement (with a little hint of WH Auden). It’s not happy but it’s beautifully observed.

“Shoulder to Shoulder” is a hugely accomplished piece of work that reflects the talents and experience of Chris While and Julie Matthews. The songs are varied musically, moving with ease from gentle contemplation to pop inflections and even anthems, and the lyrics range from whimsical to profound. I don’t think you can ask for much more than that.

“Shoulder to Shoulder” is out on Friday September on Fat Cat Records via Circuit Music (FATCD 035).