First a confession. Despite being a Blur mentalist and regarding Graham Coxon’s You’re So Great and Coffee and TV as respective lo-fi and pop masterpieces I have barely followed his solo career. I have excuses. The early albums on his Transcopic label crept out without fanfare, I inexplicably lost my copy of Love Travels at Illegal Speeds on the day I got it without ever having heard the thing and when trying to purchase Happiness in Magazines had one of those frustrating online purchase cock ups that ended with me resolving never to purchase anything on the net ever again. I never did get the album, though have since revoked my promise.
So, sorry Graham, it’s my loss of that I have no doubt.
The Spinning Top is Graham’s seventh solo album, one more than he’s made with Blur. I consider Think Tank a product of a Graham-less trio and is (coincidentally?) my least favourite.
Though electric guitar has not been totally jettisoned Coxon claims “I wanted to show how exciting acoustic instruments can be, how dynamic and rich and heart-thumpingly raw they can sound at a time when acoustic music seems either too cute or too soppy. Obvious influences here are the amazing Martin Carthy, the late, great Davey Graham and the late, great John Martyn”.
Well, the influences are very apparent, and you can add Bert Jansch into the pot, though I don’t hear so much of Nick Drake as claimed by certain other reviewers. Whatever the source of inspiration, Coxon is too big a talent to not carve something all of his own. What he has produced here is something that would have once been heralded as a ‘concept album’. The fifteen songs trace a man’s life from birth to death, though that is not entirely apparent to this listener, who is notoriously useless at absorbing lyrics and the meaning of their poetry.
Concept or not, the album holds together wonderfully well. Yes, its songs prefer the shelter of the shade, but there are also moments of jollity, of Barrettesque whimsy and psychedelia, if not quite total wig-out. Although all are based around an acoustic guitar (except the final track November, which is acordion or harmonium), a full band is also used, including (though I couldn’t tell you on which songs) the ‘counter-attack guitar’ of Robyn Hitchcock.
The album starts with Look into the Light. Naturally, this sets a tone. Delicate and rather beautiful, I guess this is from where the Drake comparisons stem. Come to think of it, this would be rather delicious as a Bryter Layter bonus track.
I suppose Grahams’ fragile, vulnerable, occasionally off-key vocals will not be to everyone’s taste. They are very much to mine, however, and are rather perfect for these songs.
The beautiful psychedelic dreaminess of If You Want Me could easily have graced Blur’s Thirteen. It is followed by Perfect Love, the album’s jolly song. This is like one of those songs that were always played to us whenever we were treated to a radio or television broadcast at primary school. A chap with a guitar singing “Out of the sea, into the tree, flew your perfect love, flew your perfect love. I met you and you met me, we sing in perfect harmony”. A couple of verses of this happy refrain is followed by a jazzy break of clarinet or alto sax that sounds like a bunch of monkeys. It’s a lovely jolly song. I don’t, however, have a youngster to cast judgement. I’d be interested to know if they dig this song. I do. Perhaps 4-year-olds prefer Beyonce these days?
Now, there’s a career path for our Graham ~ stick him in a pair of dungarees and the current generation would grow up loving him as we loved Derek Griffiths!
Dead Bees is another in the Thirteen mode, like a slightly uptempo cross between Trimm Trabb and Mellow Song.
Sorrow’s Army, is the new single, with echoes of the 60s British Blues Boom of Davey Graham or Peter Green, though to my ear, it’s one of the weakest on the album. Perhaps instead call it one of my least favourite tracks. See below Graham recorded by the NME at SXSW.
Caspian Sea is the album’s strange psychedelic track. Is he really singing ‘Caspian Sea’ I wondered before checking the track list? He is, though I’m none too sure how this fits with his character’s lifeline.
Home was the first song that I heard as this was played on a Marc Riley BBC6 session three weeks ago. Just lo-fi Graham and his guitar, with his voice at it’s most reedy and fragile, it blew me away. I listened to it a dozen times on that BBC i-Player before it disappeared forever and resolved that I must get the album. So, I went straight to track 10 and my initial reaction was one of great disappointment. Home had been arranged and produced.
As a Blur fan I totally acknowledge Stephen Street’s contribution to the band, but I so wish Graham had gone round his mate Billy Childish’s house and recorded the song in Billy’s kitchen on an old Revox tape machine. My initial reaction was that the magic of the song that I heard on Riley had been erased.
Five days later my view has softened. I have now heard the produced version a dozen times and have forgotten the fragile beauty of the BBC session. I like it, but would still like to hear a copy of these songs stripped to the bone.
Humble Man reminds me strongly of something else, but I can’t put my finger on what. It’s very good though. Credit where it’s due, Street’s captured a tasty bass guitar sound. Actually, is it too cheeky to suggest it reminds me of something from The Good, The Bad & The Queen?
The final three tracks strike a mournful tone as I suppose, to fit the concept, they are meant to. I particularly like November, which lays to rest our unnamed protagonist.
Though I tend to only write about stuff I like on these pages, and do so with great enthusiasm, I sincerely try to monitor my use of the G word. Scott Walker is undoubtedly a genius. Ray Davies is, or was, Elvis, Mark E Smith. The title should mean something. I’ll shy away from lumbering Graham with that tag, but he is undoubtedly a Gentleman, a Good Egg and a Great guitarist, songwriter and singer (in my book most definitely) who has made a Great, and certainly neither cute nor soppy, album.
The true test will be if it gets played in weeks, months or years hence. Like Blur’s Thirteen for instance? I have a strong feeling that it will.