So, where do we start with Scott Wainwright? I’ve read that he’s an enigma of sorts. I’ve also read that his musical style embraces Gospel, Blues, Hip Hop and Folk and blends them into a bizarre new sound, which Scott himself describes as ‘Rural Underground Music’. Finally, I’ve heard it said that he’s like an amalgam of Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits.
Bloody hell – where do we start?
Well, it started in Wah Wah Records in Wakefield for me, when the proprietor and lover of all-things vinyl, Alan Nutton, insisted on playing me this very album. Alan dropped the needle in the middle of track two, which instantly made me suspicious and got me to thinking, “Track one must be well dodgy!”
I needn’t have worried. The album is a joy from beginning to end. In fact, the vinyl package itself is a thing of real beauty. Lavishly packaged in a stylish gatefold sleeve with photography and artwork courtesy of Laura Murray, it oozes quality, with thanks largely due to Alan Clark at Kralk Audio of Wakefield, who commissioned the limited release so he could use Scott’s music to woo potential customers into buying his high-end hi-fi speaker systems. With a liberal sprinkling of northern contrariness that may or may not be Scott’s own doing, the album plays at 45rpm. As a lover of the wonderful idiosyncratic habits of the much-mourned Factory Records in the 1980’s, this instantly resulted in a thumbs up from me.
The album was initially released on cd and download formats in 2010, having been composed and recorded in the preceding two years, so it’s fair to say it’s not a new album and many of the songs have been extensively toured by Scott throughout this period. For new listeners like me though, it serves as an ideal introduction into Scott’s extensive back catalogue and it’s as good a place as any to begin to explore his unique musical talents.
Side A opens with Down the Line, which hangs itself on a spare repetitive arrangement that builds incrementally with drums, bass, harmonica and spoken voice, before morphing into some muted beatboxing as the song peters out and ends rather smartly. It’s a short song, never seeking to overstay its welcome, and it serves rather neatly as a musical amuse bouche for what follows.
Deal Me Another Hand follows as the tempo picks up rather nicely. Drums, tuba and guitar form the initial musical backdrop to the delightful vocal interplay that takes place between Scott and Rae Stennett – who performs the role of Scott’s muse – as he lurches into full-on Waits-mode with whooping and hollering aplenty. That said, you get the sense at this stage that Scott is still warming to his task and there’s loads more fun yet to come. In fact, a quick glance at the credits in the sleevenotes indicates that Scott’s daughter, Eleanor is credited with providing the giggles on Nothing to lose blues, so you know it’s gonna involve some mirth at pretty regular intervals.
Change of Heart is next up, maintaining the same rhythmic pace. Rae remains on hand to engage us with some more delectable lyrical jousting. For me, it’s a song that you can’t help but tap your foot along to. It’s an everyman rite of passage set to music, if you will, with our author reminding us that there’s ‘no looking back’, as he makes his way into a metaphorical tomorrow. The song then careers downhill, stutters to a halt and segues into Whispers From the Undergrowth, which is the first of two atmospheric musical interludes placed to marvellous effect by Scott. This track is hauntingly evocative, conjuring up grainy images of the front porches of Midwest America with a soundtrack of rain and distant thunder providing the darkness as light seeps through into the listener’s consciousness courtesy of some gently plucked banjo and ponderous melodica.
The emerging theme for me at this early stage is fun – it really is a fun record. Celebratory even! That’s not to say it doesn’t have its serious moments though. We’re dealing with big themes here. ‘The songs are about important matters,’ Scott told me when we spoke recently, ‘like the Cosmos, travel, love, staying loyal, friendship, God and shoes.’ Shoes eh? I’ll deal with them shortly.
I have to assert though that this is an album to be enjoyed – maybe even sang along to – with family and friends. I purposely discussed the importance of support from family and friends with Scott. He told me, “At this level, grassroots level, the support of those close to you is so important.” He explained how the album was recorded in a church-cum-community centre in South Elmsall called Urban Recording Studios and described a convivial affair with open recording sessions, where the vast majority of the people assisting him were close friends.
It was at this stage that Scott kindly shared with me his own ‘Life On Mars?’ moment and the inclusion of giggles at the end of Nothing to Lose Blues.
‘My wife Susan and daughter Eleanor popped by to see how we were doing,’ he recalled, ‘I didn’t know they were there, Eleanor was surprised when I came out of the vocal room and she laughed. The engineer still had the tape rolling so he caught the laugh. When we mixed the album I left it in.’ It’s a serendipitous golden moment on a joyous record that says a great deal about the man that made it.
It’s the ambience of a dusty smoke-filled tap room that Scott summons up during the next track No Shoes Blues – as he serves up his authentic White Rose take on the blues with a tale about um… no shoes. Or is it?
It’s simple, straightforward, catchy stuff and, from what I’ve managed to glean from my research, a favourite in the Wainwright live canon. It comprises Scott’s neatly double-tracked gravelly vocal tones backed by strummed guitar and lolloping percussion laced – pun intended – with some glorious harmonica and random horns placed to the front of the mix. This is a real delight on the ears that says much more than the sum of its parts. Literal or not, lyrical interpretation is the privilege of the listener. As Scott challenged me when I asked him, “What do you feel they mean? I hear things. Conversations drift through the air. I think on things, read books.” Well, I think I get where he’s coming from and if no shoes keeps this man that little bit more grounded then we should all rejoice in his deficiency.
Side A ends pretty much as it began, bookended as it were, by a short, seemingly throwaway effort comprising a brief Waitsian tale about a Fire in the Barn backed by a simple tribal drumbeat.
Kiss Like They do in France begins Side B. It’s another simple acoustic number that again employs Scott’s own brand of playful lolloping percussion, this time augmented with some neat handclaps. The sequencing on the album is really coherent throughout, but significantly so from this point onwards in my opinion, as Scott increases the tempo again and gives us Out into the Open proclaiming ‘life’s for the living’. The song initially retains the same sparse charm as the rest of the album, but there’s far more going on here with keyboards and a delightful burst of Johnny Marr-style harmonica (even though he doesn’t cite him amongst the 30 albums listed as influences upon the album’s eventual sound). The song positively ebbs and flows throughout its duration and builds majestically into the choruses as Scott moves away from his semi-spoken vocal delivery to reveal a rich soulful singing style.
Nothing to Lose Blues is next up. Rae Stennett joins the fray once more to accompany Scott as he lurches back into his full-on howling and hollering preacher mode employing his glorious range of growls and whoops before Marc Ribot appears to gatecrash the party as Scott throws in some chaotic guitar and the whole shebang stammers to a halt with Eleanor’s giggles.Here for You follows a more conventional path, at least to begin with. The song opens in a regular twelve bar blues style not unlike the more commercial offerings by The Black Keys before the end of each verse breaks down and Rae Stennett provides the lyrical refrain, whilst Scott (presumably) chucks in a whole host of sounds including what appears to be a bicycle bell. It shouldn’t work – if were talking convention – but we’re talking Scott Wainwright and convention would only rein him in and stifle his invention, so… sod convention!
Side B and the album closes in a wistful yet hopeful manner with There will be Praise. It is a simply beautiful piece of unaccompanied piano suffused with an elegiac quality. Rather than listen to me rabbit on, I thought I’d leave it to Scott to talk about this track himself.
Before beginning this review I was so struck with the poignancy of the track that I asked Scott to explain its significance to me. ‘There are a few reasons for this song and for its placing on the album,’ he began, ‘one of them is that I am a music maniac, I love loads of genres, which is reflected on the album. The idea to start with was to try anything and everything, musically speaking, I could think of. This particular song came from three sources. Erik Satie; Brian Eno’s Music for Airports; and the fact that Tom Waits finished his mid-period master work Swordfishtrombones with the piano/glass harmonica instrumental Rainbirds. I wanted the album to have moments of challenging abrasion and moments of reflective and spiritual peace. The title is reference to the idea that no good deed will go unnoticed or be without its reward in the end… hopefully.’
In summary then, this is a wonderfully diverse and rewarding listen. It may be a few blocks away from where Scott Wainwright currently finds himself, but as an introduction to his body of work, it’s an essential purchase – in my eyes at least. Scott’s next planned offering is an 11 track album recorded in 2014. It is scheduled to be released in a limited form in April and is entitled The Future of Primitivism, which he describes as being decidedly lo-fi and reminiscent of early Beck. This will be very much a stopgap as he is then planning to return to the studio to record his next release. Scott is currently to be found in the midst of his “It will all work out in the end” tour and the extensive local dates are available on his facebook page.
Words by Paul Dickinson.
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