NewMusicMondays – 28 September 2020

David Mitchell spoke, in interviews surrounding the launch of Utopia Avenue, of how a novel has no loudspeaker; and of just how hard it was to write lyrics for non-existent songs that ‘Utopia Avenue’ might actually sing in which he was, as my review noted, only partially successful. For those wondering just how a band made up of guitar, bass, drums and keyboards might actually have sounded, at least in acoustic session and without Jasper’s frenetic fret work, Chris Small has an idea:

Small is a singer-songwriter from Perth, and a multi-instrumentalist specialising (not here) on the trombone. ‘Money Can’t Buy’ is a bluesy groove about love and loss and is a live lockdown track recorded in his backyard and part of an EP whose songs are being released in a regular series over the next few weeks. Chris, also a regular member of Perth Americana band Red Pine Timber Company, comments that the song ‘tries to encapsulate the raw power found on a lot of those late 60’s r’n’b/rock songs, where distortion was really starting to become the backbone of popular music’ – thus, fits very much within the ‘Utopia Avenue’ vein and era.

You can download ‘Money Can’t Buy’ – and the rest of the EP – via Chris’s bandcamp.

I’ve seen Chris at the Twa Tams in Perth with Red Pine Timber Company on a couple of occasions as part of Perth’s Southern Fried music festival which, before taking a break in 2019 and, indeed, 2020 had brought a range of terrific Americana artists to Perth since starting up in 2008. My second track this week is also one from a regular at Southern Fried, appearing in both 2014 and 2018 – the unclassifiable Steve Earle.

I’ve linked to a lot of artists’ bandcamps in this series of posts, but this is not to forget the contribution of independent record stores in keeping us sane in these times, such as 101 Collector’s Records in Farnham. Record Store Day 2 took place this weekend before a third drop next month, but Earle’s ‘Times Like This’ was released specifically for the first (major) RSD drop this year – and my copy came from a very early morning queue outside 101 (thank you, Tracy!). ‘Times Like This’ is a protest song with the singer seeking inspiration from the dynamics of liberation events in the past to revive sagging spirits in these times; but I’m going here with the ‘B’ side: ‘The Devil Put the Coal in the Ground’, a foot-stomping, driving howl of a song with Earle’s banjo providing a banshee scream of hellish protest:

The title is not a description of the climate change impact of burning fossil fuels, nor a reflection on the Polish government’s eventual, and problematic, agreement with the Polish coal unions to phase out production by 2049 (!). Taken from Earle’s current album Ghosts of West Virginia, released in June, it is a tribute to the coal miners of that state and inspired by the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010 that killed 29 workers. The album is essentially the soundtrack to Coal Country, a play written about the disaster and featuring Earle, himself a West Virginian, and explores the historical role of coal in mining communities seeking to generate an understanding of the ‘texture of their lives, the realities that provide significance to their days’ as a means of generating communication and dialogue with miners.

Thus the album fits in very well with the work of Pete Seeger, touched on earlier in this series, as well as with Dick Gaughan, whose 1984 album True and Bold, issued via the STUC to raise funds for striking miners, was probably my first contact with trade unions (yes – I still have my copy). Sadly, Gaughan remains unwell following a stroke in 2016. Must dig out my tapes from those Andy Kershaw sessions – I can recall one cracking session from Gaughan in particular (the 1991 one, I think) though I live in hope that someone at the BBC will, one day, do it for me.

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