Sunday, 25 May 2014

Albums of 2014: Blair Dunlop - House Of Jacks

At the beginning of 2013, I heard an album that I believed could be the best debut album I'd ever heard.

It was by a young male artist. And his name was Blair Dunlop.

The album was Blight & Blossom. And it was one of my favourite albums of 2013.

Then, at the end of 2013 I got to see Blair live for the first time. And he was as good live as he was on record.

Blair & Macwood

Before the show I managed to have a decent chat with the man and we discussed how the follow up to Blight & Blossom was coming along. He played 3 songs that would appear on the album that night. They were Song Of Two Bridges, The Station and 50 Shades Of Blue. And they were ALL excellent.

I also asked him how the new album differed from Blight & Blossom. He said that the new one was more electric and that his Telecaster had been dusted off and given a bit more action for the new album.

Well, I have waited patiently (well, not really patiently) and finally it is with us. 

And the album is House Of Jacks.

So, has House Of Jacks lived up to the promise of Blight & Blossom. You bet your life it has. And more.

Where Blight & Blossom was a delicate, beautiful, poetic work, House Of Jacks is a much tougher and dynamic proposition. Anyone who has heard Blair's work with the institution that is The Albion Band, will know that there's more to the man than just delicate finger picking.

With some beautiful artwork and photography by the talented Elly Lucas and production by Mark Hutchinson at Rooksmere, House Of Jacks opens up with the first single Something's Gonna Give Way, which sets the tougher tone of the album. It's a contemporary song about a boy who is being bullied at school and leads to some dark places. And indeed, Blair DOES get the Telecaster out.

It would be a disservice to call House Of Jacks a folk album. Yes, it has Blair's folk roots in terms of instrumentation and approach, in that a lot of the songs tell a story but it is SO much more than a folk album.

Next up is the first of two tracks which come at the beginning and end of the album called 45s (69) & (14), which are two songs that relate to the clubbing scene in Soho in 1969 & 2014.

45s (c'69) is a quietly rocking song that showcases Blair's electric playing and is almost Americana in feel. Blair has been working on his lyrics and this track, together with it's companion 45s c14, show he's investigating more interesting ideas than your normal singer/songwriter fare.
'And I've never been to Heaven but there's Rickenbackers there'

I orginally heard the next track 50 Shades of Blue when I saw him live in Swansea and it's lost none of it's beauty in it's transfer to the album.

 The title track of House Of Jacks starts off with some lovely organ work and finds Blair revealing a doomed love affair, again with some very nice electric guitar work and a lovely fiddle break.

But I can happily reveal that Blair has not ditched his acoustic Takamine and he uses it to great affect on the next track, Chain By Design which almost sounds like a Country ballad. It's a really beautiful song and reveals Blair's growing confidence and maturity as a vocalist. The last two years on the road has certainly strengthend his voice. 

I've been looking forward to hearing House Of Jacks so much, there's always a small doubt in the back of my mind whether Blair could match Blight & Blossom and more to the point how he would move his music forward. The next track answered my question and is currently my favourite track on the album. 

Different Schools starts off with a lovely electric guitar riff and swirling organ before it is joined by mandolin picking. It is almost Prog rock in feel and has echoes (?) of, dare I say, Pink Floyd, with lovely harmonies and Blair's falsetto, before being joined by a fiddle layer. Very far removed from what could be perceived as folk, and totally brilliant. It reminds me of  Jeff Buckley in his Sin E days.

I don't know whether it was by design, or just to highlight his background, but the next track is Viola's Reverie and it is very much a folk instrumental which shows just what an accomplished guitar player Blair is and he's joined on melodeon by Simon Carre. And with the fabulous Nic Jones as one of his heroes and influences, he's getting better by the hour.

For House Of Jacks, Blair is ably supported by vocalist Rebecca Lovell & multi instrumentalist Guy Fletcher who also appeared on his debut and Angharad Jenkins on violin & Jacob Stoney on Keyboards who are the other parts of the recent Blair Dunlop Trio, together with Tim Harries on Bass.

Anyone who has followed Blair will know of his love of Italian football (and Spurs) so it's not surprising he's found a way of slipping it into the album. He does this with The Ballad Of Enzo Laviano. It's a story song about an Italian footballer and I'll leave you to discover the story yourself. But it's based on an a Bluesy electric guitar driven tune with some nice backing vocals by Rebecca Lovell and producer Mark Hutchinson.

If any track on House Of Jacks could have fitted easily onto the debut it is the next track, The Station. And it's an absolute gem. With sublime backing vocals from Rebecca. It's an acoustic guitar driven beauty of a song with Blair again in sensitive mode - with some brilliant lyrics from the young man, 'I bet Nietzche didn't let his hair down like I do, but ideas, he had one or two.'

The second part of 45s comes next with the Club in question now in 2014. The track is also an electric guitar based rock track which describes the Club in it's 2014 incarnation. Let's just say it's not as attractive as it was in the 60s - 'It's easy to find a girl to occupy'. And it's a long way from Blair's folk roots. 

It's great to see Blair branching out into new territory and not being afraid to seek out new inspiration and I just love this new rockier Blair, as he still has his sense of poetry and melody, but electric.

I've been trying to avoid mentioning Blair's well known dad as I think he has firmly stepped out of his shadow but Ashley Hutchings has written the last song, together with Ken Nicol, the beautiful Song Of Two Bridges.

It's another track very much in the feel of the Blight & Blossom album. Blair singing at his most crystalline and accompanied by his solo acoustic guitar. A touching and delicate song and a perfect ending to the album.

photo courtesy of Songs From The Shed

I feel I must give producer Mark Hutchinson a mention for his beautifully sympathetic production which lifts the album above the average folk album. And it's no flash in the pan as he's done a similar job with just voice and guitar for labelmate Fabian Holland.
There are more colours and textures on House Of Jacks than Blight & Blossom and Mark has used the extra instrumentation and wider pallete to work his magic.

House Of Jacks is a worthy successor to Blight & Blossom and shows Blair's progress as a songwriter and performer of note. It's a move away from his folk roots and shows that Blair can seek out new sounds and experiences to move his art forward. Apparently, he's already thinking of album number 3 - I would whisper just two words in his ear - Different Schools. Oh, and if I might suggest Blair, get a copy of Live At Sine E and Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk.

Twitter - @BlairDunlop

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