Tom McRae – Did I Sleep And Miss The Border

This is not just a return to a full band sound from Tom McRae but a real sit-up-and-shake-the-cobwebs attempt at reinvention.

McRae’s previous release, From The Lowlands, distilled his introspection down to 48% proof; both lyrically and musically pared to the bone and at times painfully raw. It also felt like part of a slow spiral away from the mainstream that seemed in danger of ending in an album of the singer busking in an underpass.

Refreshingly this new release is a big, percussive, even – dare I say it? – commercial album. Certainly the raft of 4 star reviews from the mainstream music press might stir some hope. There’s plenty of angst here, and darkness, but it’s largely directed outwards rather than inwards, into fables of soaring despair, futile hope, and richly crashing instruments. There’s a sense of McRae (and band) experimenting musically and vocally. The opening track, “The High Life”, is almost off-puttingly delivered in an Old West leer that sets a mood of ominous americana. The rest of the album wisely sees McRae’s pure voice used more traditionally, but there remains a ragged quality at times that suits the emotion. These are tales of people driven to the edge of existence; when he wails “I am lost now” over and over in “The Dogs Never Sleep” it’s hard to disbelieve him.

That’s not to say the album doesn’t deliver variety. From the ballad of “Christmas Eve, 1943” to the spare “Let Me Grow Old With You” to the propulsive pop protest of “We Are The Mark” it’s a diverse and rewarding set of songs.

It’s also far from a complete departure for McRae, with seeds of americana and musical experimentation evident in ‘The Alphabet of Hurricanes’ and ‘Just Like Blood’, but there’s an energy and purpose here that belies the apocalyptic themes.

At only nine tracks the album could perhaps use one more killer tune. A tune, perhaps, like the thundering single “What A Way To Win A War” or the joyous “The Breeze Blows Cold”, both relegated to the companion disk ‘The Buzzard Tree Sessions’. Artistically they might be at odds with the feel of the album, but in terms of quality they’re every bit its equal.

From the Lowlands – Tom McRae

“We come from the lowlands / Dream of high ground.”

On first impressions From the Lowlands (‘Being the second part of The Alphabet of Hurricanes’) feels like a perplexingly spare, small record. An EP with ideas above its station. Certainly not the same kind of diverse, confident affair as its predecessor.

It’s not long before those first impressions are confounded. Ruthlessly stripped-back tracks such as the opener, ‘Lately’s All I Know’, worm their way into your brain with melodic hooks that belie the starkness of the production (or indeed its subject of bereavement). The cover of ‘Sloop John B’ counterpoints a melancholy take with rich harmonies, the beautiful title track blooms into a choir of voices, and when ‘The Alphabet of Hurricanes’ finally makes itself known as a song rather than an album, it’s as an epic 8 minute affair heralded by lush string arrangements. Lyrically it’s also one of the strongest compositions on a collection of sincere songwriting that’s almost painfully confessional, even for Tom McRae. Two tracks, the perky ‘Fuck you, Prometheus’ and the maudlin ‘All That’s Gone’, confront failure to achieve success: “time has worn a hole in me /the place I keep my dreams”. Another two tracks, the opener and the lovely ‘Ship of Blue and Green’ contemplate death and loss. And yet the overwhelming impression is not of gloom but of melancholy beauty.

It’s not the most commercial of offerings; as an introduction to Tom’s music it’s unlikely to convert the unfaithful. The closest thing to a single here is ‘Belly of a Whale’ which is very agreeable but never quite soars, or the sprawling closer. The actual single, or at least the one with the online video, is the low key ‘Nothing on the Dry Land’, my nomination for the least remarkable song on the album.

Ultimately this album has an intimacy that means it never quite escapes the feeling of a maxi-sized EP, but with a full-band album already recorded for release next year maybe that’s exactly what this wants to be. It’s certainly a more addictive experience than it may first appear.

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Tom McRae – Gateshead, 15th October

On Friday we went to the beautiful and impressive Sage in Gateshead (i.e. South Newcastle but don’t let them hear you say that) to see Tom McRae supported by Brian Wright. It’s by far the nicest venue we’ve ever been to, all glass and aluminium and polished wood and airy spaces. Maybe we’ve been going to the wrong gigs.

Steven Moffatt describes Doctor who star Matt Smith as an “elegant shambles”. That pretty much describes this gig. Almost from the word go the bassist had problems with his amp, and Tom was forced to extemporise with a version of I Ain’t Scared Of Lightning (read from his own tea towel merchandise) while Things were done, none of which appeared to make much noticeable difference. Then it turns out cellist Oli Kraus had been urgently recalled to the US where his wife was having a baby, resulting in a large cardboard standee of Captain Jack Sparrow acting as hilarious stand-in for the whole gig (ably supported by the stylings of Brian Wright on his slide guitar). And just generally there was a spirit of fun, constant messing about: trying to get the drummer to crack up when the entire band was singing close harmonies; Brian whistling cheerfully during Still Love You; seguing from Still Love You into a version of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” (“Tombrella”). Tom was in a chatty mood and it was a hugely enjoyable, relaxed occasion, and the bad were so tight and well-rehearsed they rose above every disruption.

I’m terrible at remembering the order of a setlist, but the songs were:

Mermaid Blues
Me and Stetson
I Ain’t Scared Of Lightning
Walking 2 Hawaii
Dose Me Up (End Of The World News)
Summer Of John Wayne
Streetlight
Please (up tempo version)
Still Love You (plus ‘Tombrella’)
Karaoke Soul
Silent Boulevard

(encore)
Draw Down the Stars (The Girl Who Falls Downstairs)
Bloodless
Boy With The Bubblegun

Given that we saw the opening gig of the Alphabet of Hurricanes tour, it’s both remarkable and pleasing how much variation there was between the two shows. I got to hear a number of personal favourites, including Mermaid Blues, Walking 2 Hawaii, Bloodless, Karaoke Soul and Summer of John Wayne. There was also a lot of variety. Mermaid Blues was a stunning ‘cold open’; pure A Capella, just Tom’s soaring voice in a silent room for the entire song. Really great. Streetlight used the whole band in close harmony for the chorus. Draw Down the Stars was sung solo but with looped backing harmonies and lyrics from The Girl Who Falls Down Stairs near the end. Bloodless was sung entirely acoustic and off-mike, resulting in the audience spontaneously singing along to almost the entire song (something I don’t normally like as the crowd invariably expect the album version note for note, but which really worked here).

Brian Wright provided some superb and at times frenetic guitaring, and sweet backing vocals. He opened the gig with a solo acoustic selection of some of his own fine songs, including one of my favourites, Radar, plus Former Queen of Spain, Striking Matches, and War on Wilcox and a newer song I liked but can’t name.

If I’ve a complaint about the evening, it’s that the room could have taken many more people, and those missing people really missed out on some good music. But the sound system was perfect, the view was perfect, and the audience were appreciative. A great experience, warm and inclusive, in a stunning venue.

I also picked up ‘The Streetlight Collection’ containing 18 of Tom’s b-sides & rarities, only about seven of which I’d heard previously. ‘Out of This’ is outstanding and should definitely have found its way onto an album.

So, Mr McRae, we meet again

We went to see what turned out to be the inaugural date of Tom McRae’s Alphabet of Hurricanes tour last night, in the reasonably tiny upstairs room of the O2 Academy2, Newcastle. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, although the fact that the doors opened half an hour late did result in moderate hypothermia. Sadly no-one has yet invented Warm Mulled Guinness1 so I was forced to warm myself on regular Guinness. You can’t beat the taste of beer out of plastic2.

Brian Wright provided a really fine support act with a stripped down one-man-and-guitar (and-beard) performance. It’s also possible he was stoned. Although I’m allergic to country I can generally suppress my immune reaction if it’s blended with healthy doses of blues, rock and folk, and it helps that he’s a deceptively intelligent writer. Of the new material I think Queen Junk (or whatever it’s called) is borderline genius. Great to hear Radar too.

Wright also provided guitar, harmonica, backing vocals and the occasional banjo for Tom’s six-piece band, the largest group he’s ever toured with and one that kicked out a lot of good noise. Tom played for about an hour and a half and delivered some powerful singing and his usual self-deprecating banter between the tracks. As near as I can remember it the setlist (in approximate order) was:

an alphabet of hurricanes can't blow this drifter homeAlphabet of Hurricanes
Me & Stetson
Summer of John Wayne
End of the World News
A&B Song
Please
Walking2Hawaii
American Spirit
One Mississippi
Still Love You
Silent Boulevard

(encore)
My Vampire Heart
Draw Down the Stars
Boy with the Bubblegun

I can’t begin to imagine why Alphabet of Hurricanes is not on the album which bears its name. It’s a lovely song and if it’s worthy of starting the new tour it’s surely worth a place on the record. I was surprised that the new material didn’t dominate more, although the choices were undeniably the right ones. Summer of John Wayne is one of my favourites from the new album and Please was the superior downtempo version from the Recorded at Gunpoint EP, while Still Love You‘s spare charm was boosted by a bigger finish and plenty of audience participation, plus a valiant attempt to get the venue’s mirrorball working.

The benefit of the bigger band was really felt on the pacier tracks. Me & Stetson really rocked with a six-piece band behind it, as did End of the World News, A&B Song, Silent Boulevard and Boy With the Bubblegun. Brian Wright knows his way around an electric guitar. The sound was comparable to the Tom McRae Live album with a couple of notches more oomph and the benefit of an actual drummer.

The other tracks were a mix of familiar standbys but nonetheless I was very glad to hear One Mississippi, Walking2Hawaii and My Vampire Heart. Draw Down the Stars was an absolutely beautiful interpretation with some great harmonies.

We had a really fun night. Janet picked up a couple of t-shirts (the McRae one bearing a quote from that title track that’s not on the album3), and I picked up Brian Wright’s new one House on Fire which is setting off my country allergies but has some interesting material when I can stop sneezing.

As for the album, I had the benefit of Amazon’s snafu when they briefly released it on 1st Feb so I’ve lived with it a while. I really like it. Economical, bleak and uplifting it’s a throwback to McRae’s debut sound but also absorbs some americana to surprising effect. One moment he’s croaking along to plucked strings, the next delivering a soaring ballad, then singing the blues by way of The White Stripes. It feels like a moonlit walk after the expansive highway of King of Cards. Although it slowly reveals itself to be less sombre than it first appears, it’s as uncommercial as anything he’s ever done. It’s good, but it’s tough to see this being his breakout success.

1 And by ‘sadly’ I mean ‘mercifully’.

2 And by ‘can’t beat’ I mean ‘should never willingly experience’.

3 Okay, I’ll let it go.

Tom McRae Live

Hurray! My Tom McRae Live 2007 album arrived yesterday. Just listening to it now, and it sounds every bit as sharp and powerful as you’d expect.

Track list:
1. Walking2Hawaii, La Cigale, Paris
2. For The Restless, The Limelight, Belfast
3. A&B Song, La Cigale, Paris
4. Ghost Of A Shark, La Cigale, Paris
5. End of The World News (Dose Me Up), The Limelight, Belfast
6. Got A Suitcase, Got Regrets, Folken, Stavanger
7. One Mississippi, La Cigale, Paris
8. On And On, La Laiterie, Strasbourg
9. Deliver Me, Shepherds Bush Empire, London
10. Only Thing I Know, Debaser, Stockholm
11. Silent Boulevard, The Limelight, Belfast
12. Boy With The Bubblegun, The Limelight, Belfast

I could obviously suggest many other songs I’d like to hear, but this is a decent spread from his four albums with some material like ‘Ghost of a Shark’ that I’ve not personally heard very often (contrasting with songs like ‘Got a Suitcase…’ that I seem to hear all the time). The interpretations tend towards acoustic but if anything less quiet and sparse than you’d expect from the albums, with rich backing instruments from Olli Cunningham and Oli Kraus and a rounded sound. Tom is in strong voice and belts out some of the more up tempo material like ‘A&B Song’ and ‘End of the World News’ and there’s some electric guitar in there.

If you’ve seen him live you’ll know what to expect. This brings back memories for me, though I have to say we made a far livelier audience on ‘End of the World News’ than the shambolic lot on the album.

It has a fairly cheap cardboard sleeve, but since this is a direct release from Mr McRae unmediated by a record contract I assume it means more money gets to the artist. Go buy it! Other than that there’s nothing to quibble about. Very pleasing.

Lipstick

That Tom McRae single I mentioned, “Lipstick”, is out now. It’s one of those “featuring Tom McRae” arrangements where the original artist ‘Wills and the Willing’ supplied the backing track and a bit of rap and he wrote and performed the rest.

I have to say I absolutely love all of the Tom McRae bits – it’s the best thing he’s done in quite a while, especially when he gets to rock out a bit towards the end. Sadly, although I’m not normally averse to a bit of rock/rap fusion, the rap bits just don’t work for me.

Still, I’ve bought it on iTunes. You can also hear it on his myspace account (although the contrast with the downloaded version from iTunes only serves to remind me how much streaming audio changes the mix and sound of a song.)

Tom McRae / Hotel Cafe

On Thursday we drove up to Edinburgh to see the Hotel Cafe tour headlined by Tom McRae. We went to the Hotel Cafe tour in Newcastle in 2006 and we saw him solo in Edinburgh last year so this fused the two experiences. The Hotel Cafe concept is a fantastic idea which manages to highlight artists you may (or may not) like while never staying still for long enough that you get bored with any one singer.

Cut for length