Vagrant Stanzas: CD by Martin Simpson

[Review originally published on my personal site.]

I recently wrote my first music review in decades: the CD in that instance, by Michael Raven and Joan Mills, was quite a few years old, but it caught my eye because of an ongoing project relating to Shropshire in general and Housman’s Shropshire Lad in particular, and I was impressed enough by the album to want to share my impressions. Nevertheless, I had no particular ambitions to revive my career as a music critic, such as it was (reviews were always peripheral to my own musical activities). However, my wife, to whom I’ve mentioned my liking for Martin Simpson’s early work, surprised me with two of his CDs for my birthday. One was 2011’s Purpose and Grace (which I enjoyed immensely, but probably doesn’t need another, belated review). The other, however, was a pre-order of his latest CD, Vagrant Stanzas. This arrived just before I went on holiday, so I’ve had some time to get to know it in the last couple of weeks. It seems a shame not to take the opportunity to introduce the album to a slightly wider audience.

Unlike the earlier album, which features an impressive supporting cast of other musicians, this is very much a solo effort with Martin playing all the acoustic, electric and slide guitars and five-string banjo, with sparing use of overdubs, so is, I guess, much closer in spirit to one of his solo gigs. Well, I haven’t been to a Simpson gig in decades, but he clearly hasn’t lost his touch.

It’s no surprise to me to hear accomplished guitar and banjo playing on this album: having lost touch with his music for so long, though, I was slightly surprised by the way he has developed into a fine songwriter. Jackie and Murphy is well in the spirit of the 70s/80s, when the likes of Bill Caddick and Peter Bond were writing classy, very English songs of social and historical commentary that outgrew the gaucherie of some of the better-known ‘protest’ songs of the 60s. Delta Dreams is a classic road song that reminded me slightly (lyrically) of Phil Ochs’ HIlls of West Virginia or Mary Chapin Carpenter’s I am a Town, with just a hint of Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning in the chorus, but is very much its own song. The Bell is a chilling sidebar to the Berlin Olympics of 1936: a little of the subsequent history of the Berlin Olympic Bell is recounted here.

Other modern songs include two by Dylan: North Country Blues, in my opinion one of his best songs ever and beautifully performed, and Blind Willie McTell, one of those slightly awkward pairings of an oblique lyric and a traditional tune (St. James Infirmary) so characteristic of Dylan. I’m not exactly in love with the song, but the arrangement with acoustic guitar and subtle electric slide is a joy. Strangely enough, Leonard Cohen’s Stranger Song strikes me as slightly similar, with a characteristic Cohen lyric and a tune somewhat reminiscent of John Hardy. Certainly a song worth reviving, and a classic Simpson performance. Martin’s use of slide guitar has never been restricted to blues recreations and re-interpretations, and Leon Rosselson’s Palaces of Gold and Chris Wood’s ‘atheist spiritual’ (maybe more humanist than atheist) Come Down Jehovah both benefit from his lyrical acoustic glissandi, as does an instrumental version of Arieb Azhar’s Kaga re. The Child ballad Waly Waly is beautifully played with slide matching the vocal almost note for note.

Other traditional (loosely) British treats include Fair Annie, The Death of Queen Jane (essentially the same melody that old-timers will remember recorded by Joan Baez in the 60s but with words from the Penguin Book of English Folksongs and a gutsier delivery), and The Green Linnet. All benefit from typically fluent guitar accompaniment: unusually, The Green LInnet is played on solo electric guitar. I’ve always enjoyed the very different dynamics that electric guitar, amplified acoustic, and raw acoustic guitar can lend to the same arrangement, but mileage may vary for purists (if there are any left out there). Blue Eyed Boston Boy and Shepherd’s Rejoice are both performed as instrumentals on solo electric guitar.

For those who prefer their tradition more Americanized, there are two banjo-based versions of Diamond Joe with overdubbed guitar, and a very Hedy West-influenced version of The Wife of Usher’s Well (here called Lady Gay). A number of other songs from both sides of the Atlantic are played as guitar solos, including Old Paint, Lorena, and the Copper’s Wedding Song, as well as a delightful self-written guitar piece called Molly as She Swings.

If you’re a Simpson fan, I guess you’ll know what to expect: fluent guitar and banjo, a wide range of material, and Martin’s distinctive vocals. If you’re not, but you like this kind of music, it’s well worth a listen. I’ll certainly be continuing to spend time with it.

No lyrics or details of tunings in the copy I have, but some photographs and information on the songs themselves are included in a booklet, and Martin’s own site suggests that tuning info is included in the signed copies that can be ordered there. It doesn’t mention the bonus CD included with my early copy (the Deluxe 2 CD set), though. Topic TXCD589. 22 tracks including the bonus CD.

David Harley 
Small Blue-Green World

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