To some, the story behind this album may not be new, but it’s worth telling again. Ever since he was a young boy, Andy John Bradford, singer/songwriter, wanted to record his own version of the sea shanty Mingulay Boat Song. At some point, he assembled a five piece band, and just did it. With a twist: what started as a single song turned into a complete album. An album that I’ve been playing on and off for a few months now, and that contains some tunes that keep returning to my mind – making me play it again.
It’s hard to explain what makes this album so special and addictive. First of all, Andy John Bradford is not exactly a progressive rock god (or cod, according to some), and those who know him might expect a folky album. Nothing is farther from the truth. Yes, the album does contain two traditionals and one song based on a 20th century English poem, but this is by no means a folk album. By adding the melodic style of electric guitar playing of Colin Tench, and the keyboard layers put underneath by Marco Chiappini, to the acoustic guitar and vocals of Andy himself changes it all into relaxed and quite easily accessible progressive folk rock style. No rock without a rhythm section of course, so Vic Tassone and Stef Flaming are on board to keep everything in marching order.
That starts with the opening track, Mingulay Boatsong, which is actually split in three. The first part is a take on drunken sailor, then a traditional first part of the original song by Andy followed by the full blown Oceans5 version of that shanty. From here on, the vocals and electric guitar play a well executed of challenge-response game, where the guitar takes up gradually more space. The song never looses it’s folk roots though, except when the keyboards and guitar build a noisy interleave near the end, probably marking the rough landing of the rowing boats on Mingulay beach. Rowing boats, released from the blue and yellow ship on the cover, a piece of painstaking handy work by Sonia Mota.
After we arrive on Mingulay, we meet with the Whitby Smugglers, the second traditinal on the album. This one starts with acoustic guitar, with a few electric surprise chords underneath. Eric XaosLord and Brett Lloyd add an additional set of guitars (rhythm and southern rock guitar respectively) to this one, making it into a sort of southern folk rock track – pumped forward by Stef Flamings bass. At some point one of the guitars actually tries to play bag pipe here. Colin Tench has some fun on this one – can you spot the Yellow Submarine? – before the closing note is left to Chiappini’s organ
After this, two tracks follow that are rooted lyrically in folk tradition, describing modern everyday situations, written by Bradford himself. The first, Empty Hands, is a slightly heavier track than the first two, about a homeless woman selling the Big Issue, and being ignored by everyone but the singer. The 5 o’clock line is similar, in that it describes the story of a man taking the same train every day and meeting his beloved there, traveling alone later, when after she dies. He too gets ignored by the selfish people around him, which is perfectly expressed by the melancholic guitar and keyboard playing. The guitar expresses the hidden anger inside the singer, as well as the troubled mind of the man he sings about, as the song builds up a slightly rockier structure near the end. The closing statement here is for Stef Flamings bass, and a bunch of ducks that ended up in the recording for reasons unclear to all but him.
Invictus – The Captain of my soul, is build up in a well though out manner. The versus are based on a poem by William Ernest Henley, with choruses added by Andy John Bradford. The track starts with acoustic guitar and them some drums/percussion that make it into a song that could’ve been played at the harbour side (replace drums by barrels and you’re there). The keyboards support the vocals further, as folk violins almost. Only halfway, in a very subtle way, the electric guitar joins in, but the power of the song remains with the percussion. Different from the other tracks, a little gem.
Sails off the bay starts with a Spanish guitar intro, and as the lyrics tell the thoughts and dreams of a man, or a boy, wanting to go sailing, the electric guitars of Colin Tench and Stef Flaming gradually help building it up into a powerful folk rock track. That guitar work continues into Dancing with the Rhythm of the Shore, which starts as a mix of folk guitar with an 80s pop rhythm underneath. That ends quickly, as the vocals get layered in a surprising way, and the verses appear to contain unexpected stops – mimicking the waves breaking on the shore perhaps? A track that is not catchy, and that can either make you return to try and grasp it, or skip it if you get annoyed by it (I choose the former). It is the only track that has a real rock ending, with rolling drums and everything, and a single bass note at the end.
With that, we come to what may have been intended to be the best track on the album. And even if not, it succeeded in becoming that. For 6000 friends, the band is extended with Andres Guazzelli, who took care of orchestration, making everything sound perfectly integrated musically (he’s an expert on film music, and it shows), and Lorelei McBroom (the high vocal from The Great Gig In the Sky) on guest vocals. Again a song that tells of modern frustrations: a man with a 6000 online friends and a woman attending every party she can with her friends, both finding out that none of their friend are real, and there is no real love in their lives. Especially the way Lorelei sings the second verse, the story of the woman, can make ones eyes water – either because of the lyrics, or the wonderful voice.
After that, it is almost impossible to not listen to closing track Fly Away, which starts with acoustic guitar and piano, which only after 4 minutes are joined by the rest of the band, building into a slow, electric folk rock song. The guitar leads, but never too overpowering and leaves room near the end for the keyboards to put down an almost symphonic ending.
I love progressive rock, but I also love good lyrics, and music that expresses emotions other then fun. This album gives me just that – and that is why I keep playing it. I hope the descriptions above have given the reader some insight into this wonderful album, as well as into the mind of this humble reviewer and music lover.