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Direct Link To This Post Topic: New Stackridge album out 13 July
    Posted: June 16 2009 at 02:59

Stackridge – A Victory For Common Sense


I had the recent privilege of attending a playback session of the new 2009 Stackridge album, A Victory For Common Sense at producer Chris Hughes’ Ashley Manor studio, set in the rolling hills of Wiltshire. It was obvious from the first note, a howl of guitar feedback leading into a rocking rendition of the stage favourite Boots And Shoes, that this new Stackridge album was going to be different from any of the impressive string of releases that had preceded it. The general tone of the album is of a darker, heavier sound, dominated by Andy Davis’ underrated guitar skills, more of which later. The writing set-up also differs from past projects in that it is heavily collaborative, with all four main Stackridge writers; Andy Davis, James Warren, Mutter Slater and Crun Walter pitching in, aided and abetted by the considerable arranging skills of keyboard player, Glenn Tommey. This method of composition becomes particularly apparent on the second half of these recordings, in the form of more expansive, exploratory arrangements, contrasting with the compact compositions that grace the first half. The track programming bears some comparison with the band’s 1974 album, Extravaganza in this respect, in that it appears to have been created with a ‘vinyl’ mentality, the music clearly delineated into a side one/side two format of contrasting styles, although the music is, on the whole, much different from that seventies’ release.


The band’s guitar-dominated version of Boots And Shoes blows the old Korgis’ electropop version into a cocked bowler hat, showing how this tune always should have sounded, relentlessly driven by a kicking rhythm section featuring some priceless Crun bass runs pushing into the choruses. Chris Hughes has done an amazing job in the production department and Crun’s bass in particular sounds immense and mighty throughout the album. Although there is less emphasis on the lighter, more whimsical traits of the band on this release, some of the inevitable playfulness inherent in the Stackridge DNA surfaces on the lyrics of the second track, a Mutter Slater-led romp through one of the most perfect slices of pop/rock you could wish for entitled The Old Country. This is the first of three loosely-linked consecutive tracks, unofficially known as the ‘England Suite’. The Old Country is classic Stackridge all the way, as Mutter tells the tale of an ex-pat whose loyalties are split between the Antipodes and good old Blighty, set to a martial beat with chiming guitar work. Mutter’s vocals haven’t sounded this good on record since George Martin’s production of The Man In The Bowler Hat all those years ago, really strong and confident. The middle eight is a shining example of quality songwriting at its best and moves into one of those vintage Stackridge moments for the first flurry of Mutter’s beautifully recorded flute in a bridge section of pristine perfection, leading into the raucous final verse and a classic turnaround ending, recalling the pop genius of Raymond Douglas Davies at his peak. Some witty bass quotes from Crun on the fade-out (including an amusing feint to the nursery rhyme Polly, Put The Kettle On) complete a faultless performance.


The third track, (Waiting For You And) England To Return, opens with some gently picked acoustic guitar, accompanied by the plaintive voice of James Warren, recalling a fast-fading age of friendly bobbies on the beat, old Routemaster buses, village greens and English country life, set to a tune of such poignancy that any true Englishman (or woman for that matter) may well find themselves moist-eyed while listening to it. The lyrics cleverly combine the universal and the personal, as if the protagonist of the song has suffered a deep loss and that a return to the sadly vanishing values of England’s past could somehow ameliorate this bereavement. The song however, carries a far deeper resonance of loss and the passing of a golden age of England in this fast-shrinking modern world and a bitter-sweet pall of almost unbearable sadness and longing hangs over the choruses. The middle section is a work of true genius, as James’ piping vocals are replaced by the baritone richness of Andy’s voice, making for a marvelous contrast, then a clever variation sees them harmonize together, always a wonderful sound, before falling back to Andy’s voice alone, then….a roll of tympani and a truly tear-jerking return to the Gaelic sweep of the touching verse melody, taken up in all its glory by the violin, creating one of the most beautiful moments in the entire Stackridge canon.


The sound of birdsong leads into the third part of the ‘England’ trilogy, the emblematic Red Squirrel. Here we move from the sad resignation of the previous track to open defiance, as Andy relates the tale of the red squirrel’s battle for survival against the interloping grey variety. However, the lyrics also carry a deeper analogy for those of us who find the values we grew up with being withered away by cultural erosion, bolstered by a grey tide of political correctness and bureaucracy gone mad. Andy Davis’ feelings on this matter are piled into this anthemic, riff-driven song, with its cyclical guitar figure and great use of dynamics, generating a toweringly powerful wall of sound following the intense middle eight. Not usually known as one of the main providers of lyrics for Stackridge over the years, Andy stakes his claim here with an impressive libretto that even manages to add yet another geographical West Country reference to the Stackridge songbook in the shape of the quaintly named Somerset village, Nempnett Thrubwell. With an outburst of blazing guitar fireworks, he stokes up the tension towards the end of the track until it is finally released in an unexpected flurry of leaping piano figures on the coda, as the beat fades out underneath.


To close the ‘first half’, Mutter offers a kind of Mississippi delta waltz, in the form of North Street Grande. With great attention to light and shade, Mutter relates the story of a soldier in the trenches of a far-flung, war-torn outpost, approaching Christmas time and holding a picture of his loved one dancing at the mythical North Street Grande ballroom in Yeovil. Sounding amazingly like an English version of those Americana pioneers from the late sixties, The Band, Stackridge negotiate this tricky arrangement with the grace it deserves, building up to those oh-so-singalong choruses that mark this song out as a potential Christmas perennial, given it receives the exposure it deserves. After the first chorus, the violin-led instrumental interlude is delightful, sounding like a tipsy New Orleans funeral parade it’s one of those passages that could only be Stackridge. With a repeated chorus to take the song to its denouement, this is another peerless example of the band’s strength-in-depth as songwriters of extraordinary quality.


The ‘second half’ of the album kicks off with the atmospherically meandering Long Dark River, a solo offering from the pen of Crun Walter but very different from his other recent solo compositions for the band, which dealt with cars and vegetarianism. The subject of Long Dark River appears to be a musing on finality with its Stygian references and the remaining tracks on A Victory For Common Sense also chart darker waters than the band have previously sailed. Setting up a ‘drone’ atmosphere once heavily favoured by George Harrison, the meshing guitars and subterranean bass move this mid-tempo concoction along with a trance-like atmosphere that does indeed take the listener on a kind of ‘mood voyage’ with rich vocal harmonies in the chorus, buoyed up by Sarah Mitchell and James behind Andy’s lugubrious lead voice. The song part leads seamlessly into a repeated rising rock riff that strongly recalls late sixties bands like Cream and builds until it punches out more dramatically accompanied by splinters of blazing guitar from Andy, bringing the song to a climax after just over seven minutes.


Guitar arpeggios abound on this album and also open up the next track, Lost And Found which features a gorgeously stratospheric and sinuous vocal line from James. The lineage of this track can be traced as a progression from the experimental James Warren closing track from the Something For The Weekend album, It Must Be Time For Bed, as it shares a similarly convoluted chord structure to guide its impressive melody. Most of the band, however have chipped in compositionally on this track and the rhythm section is really punchy and tight and hits a fabulous groove that recalls eighties XTC in its sophistication. This taut and impressive track is initially my favourite of the more expansive numbers and has a cooking harmonica-tinged synthesizer solo that leads into some bluesy lead guitar from Andy that recalls Eric Clapton at his sixties best when he was deified by fans as ‘God’. With an almost psychedelic coda over that punchy groove, Mutter adds some Eastern-sounding flute as Andy’s guitar screams to the heavens sliding up the scale into infinity before a staccato ensemble figure brings the track to a juddering halt.


Cheese And Ham started off as a Davis/Warren song that the band chipped in on and is again exploratory in nature, with a dark lyrical overtone that paints a picture of child abuse. A ticking clock and fairground Wurlitzer open proceedings before the softer verses, representing the frightened child hiding in a cupboard under the stairs, are intoned by James and the harder-edged choruses, representing the father figure admonishing the child are sung by Andy. On one of James’ verses, there is a lyrical nod to Canterbury scene stalwarts, Caravan (“…in the land of pink and grey”) and the verse/chorus structure soon wanders off into more progressive rock influenced territory, including a Stravinsky-like orchestral passage reflecting perhaps the continuing and long-reaching influence of Frank Zappa on the Stackridge muse. Cheese And Ham is an interesting experiment that I’m sure will repay repeated listening.


The final track on A Victory For Common Sense originally sported the working title ‘Eric The Epic’ and runs for over eleven minutes, making it the second longest studio track ever recorded by the band, after the fourteen minute version of Slark on their debut album. The Day The World Stopped Turning resembles a kind of apocalyptic puzzle with three different sections bolted together, using some fluttering Mutter Slater flute to smooth the transitions. The first section is a long, slow build, opening with cool electric piano doodles, joined by a cooking organ passage before Andy lets rip with a slide guitar solo that could be mistaken for the Pink Floyd guitarist, Dave Gilmour and this passage appears to be a clear evolution from the ideas explored on Mutter’s Beating A Path To Your Door track from the Lemon 2002 mini-album. Never have Stackridge sounded so ‘Floydian’ as here though! Andy sings this section, with lyrics that suggest some disaster has occurred in the middle of the night and the track boasts atmosphere plus.


The second segment sees a slight rise in tempo as James’ vocals relate a search for identity invoking ‘square pegs in round holes’, the tone of the message seeming to be ‘adapt and survive’, perhaps in answer to the quandaries pondered earlier in the album? The standout section is the middle movement in which the tempo shifts up another gear, ostensibly for an extended Mutter Slater flute solo, as only he can provide and beautifully recorded by Chris Hughes and the team, capturing the elusive spirit of Mutter’s flute in pristine glory with just the right amounts of sonic spice and herbs in the reverb department. After a reprise of James’ section, Andy returns once more with that unsettling ‘middle-of-the-night’ feeling that something is terribly wrong and when Mutter flutters back in on flute on the fade out, you just want it to go on so you can drift away on his inspired improvisation. So ends A Victory For Common Sense, the first truly united album featuring the ‘core four’ of differing but complimentary Stackridge writers since The Man In The Bowler Hat in 1973. This 21st century version of Stackridge however, display a wisdom and maturity that can only be won by the passage of time and staying true to your musical beliefs through the good times and the bad. A shining diamond in the coal scuttle of what passes for modern culture, this remarkable album could be a significant step into a late-flowering autumnal career for one of the most underrated and brilliant bands of our lifetimes.


As Andy Davis sings on that emotive middle eight of Red Squirrel…”We won’t bow before the grey machine” – You’d better believe it!


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