It’s a musical ‘all you can eat’ buffet; a long-time outsider’s view of American popular music exploring some of the high protein meat dishes, but meandering through some of the more delicately flavoured and textured dishes as well. To add to the complexity, it’s a set of songs created by a self-taught musician who also happens to have studied for a popular music degree. Sophistication and raw rock power are both on the menu for this musical feast. On his previous album, “Whatever You Wanted”, Bob Bradshaw saved the best (in my opinion) for last, closing the album with the wonderful road song, “The Long Ride Home”. On “American Echoes”, he opens with the lovely, acutely-observed “Exotic Dancers Wanted”; all of smalltown America is there as he melds Tom Waits with Bob Seger’s “Mainstreet” to create a quiet classic of a song about desperation, drugs, booze and pole-dancing. He even throws in a W.B. Yeats reference.

To keep the culinary metaphor on the boil, “American Echoes” is a smorgasbord of musical stylings, or a pick ‘n’ mix if prosaic is your preference. It ranges all the way from the out and out rocker “Weight of the World”, with its huge riff, two guitars and The Who stylings to the acoustic ballad “Stella” with a Chris Izaak guitar sound and a vocal that’s a dead ringer for Elvis Costello in lower-register ballad mode.

There’s a bit of lyrical invention as well, to match the musical melange. “My Double and I” is a modern take on the Jekyll and Hyde theme matched up with a laid-back New Orleans jazz groove (with a nod towards Steely Dan’s “East St Louis Toodle-oo”), while “Working on My Protest Song” combines the kind of rhythms Paul Simon discovered in Africa with a mildly sarcastic dig at musicians who opportunistically appropriate protest movements for their ends. And the list goes on.

The bottom line is that Bob Bradshaw has produced another very fine album indeed. “American Echoes” is packed with great lyrical and musical ideas and gets better with repeated plays.

“American Echoes” is released in the on UK Fluke Records on Friday October 20.

Matt Andersen ScrollerYou barely make it past the intro of the album’s opener, “Break Away”, before it hits you; Matt Andersen has a phenomenal voice. It’s a rich baritone from the same mould as the great Paul Carrack and it’s the perfect vehicle for this set of songs harking back to the glory days of Stax and Atlantic. Matt’s previous work has been filed under blues, but there’s no doubt at all that this is a soul album (with a few detours into reggae rhythms and a hint of seventies rock). The album has a lot in common with last year’s Southside Johnny classic “Soultime!” in that they’re both inspired by the glory days of sweet soul music; you can find little references to all sorts of artists and styles throughout the album, but it’s ultimately held together by that superb voice.

The album opens with the Hammond-led gentle reggae feel of “Break Away” which hints at “Graceland”-era Paul Simon and The Staples’ “Come Go with Me”, moves into the slow and subtle soul of “The Gift” with its beautiful cascading guitar before the title track throws a whole bunch of influences into the blender. “Honest Man” opens with a riff that’s not a million miles from “Crossroads”, develops with some Memphis Horns-style brass (including the trademark rasping baritone sax) and drops into a chorus with backing vocals which could have been inspired by Don Henley’s scathing “Dirty Laundry”.

So, you get the picture; the album pulls dozens of influences into the blend without ever sounding derivative. “All the Way”, with its hint of a reggae beat, languorous vocal and wah-wah guitar has a hint of seventies Clapton, “Last Surrender” has echoes of Sam Cooke and “Who Are You Listening To?” suggests late seventies Bob Seger, both musically and lyrically. It’s a celebration of some of the classic stylings from our musical history combined with a bunch of well-constructed contemporary songs.

There are a few political and social references, but the songs cover a variety of lyrical themes including love and friendship. “I’m Giving In” is a haunting piano ballad with an intimate, late night vocal while the album’s closer, “One Good Song”, describes the things that a songwriter would suffer to create the one song that makes an audience stop and listen. It’s fair to say that he’s done that a couple of times on this album with the title track and “Last Surrender”. “Honest Man” is a joyous piece of work placing a superb soul voice in settings which demonstrate its quality to perfect effect.

Honest Man” is released on True North Records (TND612) on April 1st.

 

Paul and Jacqui promoThe first and most striking thing on arriving at Stoke Victoria Hall is the stunning stage backdrop – very 1930s Russian, very tractor target 5 year plan, very Heatongrad. Very Beautiful North, if you will. No. Didn’t think you would. Anyway. This stage backdrop, a thing of not inconsiderable beauty, was created by a gentleman from Stoke – a Port Vale fan – who Mr Heaton astutely observed wasn’t in attendance as like most Port Vale fans he probably doesn’t like to leave the house much. And the point I make is that with every utterance, with every word, inflection and gesture, you get the idea that yer man Heaton, he understands. He understands the workings of the world, The System, the relationships which are forged in the long shadows of our Northern industrial past, and the implications these have for people living in the Now. And for years he’s been one of our leading chroniclers of these and as a consequence has created a body of work which is both artistically and commercially pretty much peerless.

Entry to Russianesque martial music, which, if there was a Heatongrad, would be permanently bleating from roof–mounted speakers on a drab–looking tram system, and we get “Wives 1, 2 and 3”, “Pretenders to the Throne” and “Man Is The Biggest Bitch Of All”, the latter being from their outstanding recent offering “Wisdom, Laughter and Lines”. They play seven tracks from the latest album and, whereas rather too often with artists with a considerable ‘heritage’ the ‘new ones’ are tolerated rather than enjoyed, the tunes from the new album were deftly worked into the set and were received with interest and enthusiasm. About a quarter of the way through the set the first Housemartins classic, “Five Get Over Excited” – thundered through with great aplomb and fizz by the four eye–wateringly excellent musicians accompanying the two main protagonists. You have to say, despite previous incarnations and previous line – ups being far from untidy, both Paul and Jacqui appeared to be absolutely revelling in the support of possibly the best musicians they’ve ever toured with. And through the set I kept hearing odd echoes – bit of Joe Meek there, bit of Motown there, bit of The Hollies almost out of nowhere. All the best writers are magpies.

In amongst the inter–song raps, a shortened version of the story of “Rotterdam” – where he thought he’d lost the notes for 20 songs including the aforementioned. Turned up in his hotel room. And how expensive a loss would that have been? At the time of “Rotterdam”, virtually everything the Beautiful South turned out became instant FM radio gold – and they’ve remained so ever since. Rarely has a writer and musician had his finger so securely on the pulse of The Sound Of Things That Win; the sound of a nation. And along with “Rotterdam” there were plenty of those airplay giants in this set – “Prettiest Eyes”, “I’ll Sail This Ship Alone”, “Old Red Eyes Is Back”, and “Good As Gold, (Stupid As Mud)” were all rammed home with conviction and were enthusiastically received, especially the latter, the life–affirming lyrics never sounding better – and I include the original recording in making that statement. And I haven’t so much as mentioned the voices yet.

If he was just an unnaturally-gifted songwriter that would be enough, but he’s also a phenomenally powerful and original voice as well. And talk about Hold A Note; he is sooo precise. The phrasing, the sustain, the use of the mic for distance etc etc., he is a massively accomplished performer, which is I suspect for many, expertly disguised by his ambling gait, shambolic appearance and diffident manner (and how does anybody manage to perform as he does in a plastic waterproof jacket? And why?)

Paul Heaton as a solo vocalist would be more than enough to carry it but oh my goodness, with the added textures and harmonies of long-time collaborator Jacqui Abbott, it is all just too irresistible. Only parallel I could attempt to draw is Paul Simon is a damn fine writer and vocalist and you’d love to go and see him any day of the week. And would we prefer that served with Art Garfunkel?

Thought so.

And throughout the set she proved herself a fine performer in her own right as well and she was presented with ample opportunity in a set which required both, then one, then the other, to take centre stage.

And as ever with these things, compiling a killer finale is an absolute must to send everyone home grinning themselves to death. So we enjoyed “DIY”, complete with the geeky dance moves from Mr H., an exuberant “Happy Hour”, which couldn’t help but roll back the years for so many of the assembled multitude (had been a sell-out gig for ages), a funked-up 70’s-style “Perfect 10”, followed by an uplifting and unifying “Caravan Of Love” – then a short break for the crowd to go bonkers before the band returned to storm through a sort of dub version of “A Little Time” which, I am convinced if it had been released in that form would have actually been an even bigger hit than it was, the sublimely naughty “Don’t Marry Her” – and then a final breather before returning to an avalanche of large orange ‘The Prisoner’ – style balls, an explosion of golden glitter – and a dash through a fave from the latest album, the previously-mentioned “Heatongrad” and finally “You Keep It All In”.

There’s nothing wrong with it. Buy “Wisdom, Laughter and Lines” – if you haven’t already – and go out and catch this tour. Off the top of my head I can’t think of many British songwriters and acts which have access to such a body of work, are still producing stuff which stands up to that body of work today, are earth-shatteringly brilliant live – and are willing and able to perform in venues where you don’t need to remortgage your house or buy high-powered binoculars in order to enjoy it.

Five stars with a bullet.