Friday, 14 March 2014

Album Review - Simon Godfrey: Motherland

Songs. Lovely, lovely songs. Do you like songs? Of course you do, what a silly question.

But hold on, maybe it isn't - do you insist that every song has to contain a guitar / keyboard / theremin solo for it to be any good? Do you think 'Wind and Wuthering' is the beginning of the end of Genesis because it has 'Your Own Special Way' on it? Do you listen to Radio 2 and tut at the playlist, and post things on Facebook about how 'complicated' music doesn't get the playtime you think it deserves (as if it ever did?)

Oh, ok, you don't. Good, come on in then, and settle down for something rather marvellous.

I reckon most people reading this will have a good idea of who Simon Godfrey is, if only because of me banging on about Tinyfish, the band he fronts, but he's been around on the circuit for *cough* years - as part of 80's progpop-supergroup-in-the-making Freefall, in folky-acoustic band Men Are Dead, under the ridiculously inventive electronic-rock guise of Shineback, and also as a regular at open mic night and acoustic slots, performing his catchy but deceptively complex songs around the pubs, clubs, and toilets of London.

It's this last persona that provides the best clue as to the content of 'Motherland', the first album to be released under his own name and by far the most personal thing he's put out to date - although it's certainly in the same postcode as the more straightforward moments of Tinyfish's output, like 'The June Jar', which also appears here in acoustic format, like an old familiar friend wearing a jaunty new hat.

It's one of 3 songs from Simon's other projects to be given a makeover, including opener 'Faultlines' - a powerful-but-painful highlight from last year's Shineback album, here given the stripped back treatment and a new, slightly folk-ish arrangement, and that's on top of the ambient noise-y intro which kicks off the album in expectation-buggering fashion.

Actually, let's chat about expectations - Simon's been very forthcoming about the genesis of this album right from the start, and here's an extract from the accompanying press release:

"This is a travel record, made between two countries on a laptop, some stringed instruments, a USB keyboard and one tiny microphone. This is NOT a production. It's personal, close, natural - and deliberately so."

This, and various bits about it being an acoustic album, to expect bum notes and to think of these as home demos, sets the bar of expectation pretty low - so much so that I was basically expecting an iPhone recording of him sitting on the sofa in front of 'Homes Under the Hammer', mumbling and playing the spoons. If these are also your fears (and, frankly, that does sound like the stuff of nightmares), then you'll be happy to hear that he's dramatically downplaying just how good this is. The scamp.

Yes, it's an acoustic album, but it's not sparse - there's a lovely full sound, with chiming acoustic guitars, the odd bit of percussion, some subtle keyboards, blues-y harmonica on 'Tearing Up The Room', and some wonderful multi-tracked and processed backing vocals here and there, such as the gorgeous "oooh, ooohs" which back up the gentle melody of 'The Inaccurate Man'. If this is not a production, I'd like to hear what he can do when he really goes for it. (Oh wait, I already did...)

But what about the songs, James, the songs? What are they like? Oh, ok, sorry. Well, they're like songs. With choruses, and verses, and middle eights. And lyrics - some of which are by longtime writing partner and Tinyfish spoken word maestro Rob Ramsay, but most of which are by Simon himself and deal with a theme that's extremely personal to him at the moment - moving on, loss, and leaving things behind. *sob* (Ok, you can stop feeling sorry for him now, he's buggering off to live in the US with his lovely, prog-fanatic fiancee.)

This is no 'Face Value'-esque angry and bitter divorce record, though - no, in fact the more subdued numbers like 'The Inaccurate Man', and 'Sally Won't Remember', are beautiful and uplifting in their own way, and are, oddly for me, some of my favourites after a few listens. And when the lyrics do contain a touch of the angry, such as on 'God Help Me If I'm Wrong', there's still a rollicking, toe tapping tune to go along with it.

Two tracks I'd like to single out here, though - firstly 'Dust and Wires', which is perhaps the catchiest "new" song here, and encapsulates everything there is to love about Simon's songwriting. And then the closing 'Motherland', which is a moody instrumental piece with a touch of the Matt Stevens about it - until Rob pops up to offer a brief spoken word interlude with some thoughts which neatly tie up the album's concept.

"With everything we've seen, and everything we've done placed before us one last time,
We are judged purely on what we leave behind."

If this is Simon's parting gift to the UK, as the barely audible strains of the National Anthem suggest, I put it to you that we judge him favourably. (Or 'favorably' as he'll probably have to start spelling it now.)

Rating: 4/5
Buy Immediately: Faultlines / Dust and Wires / Tearing Up The Room /The Inaccurate Man / Sally Won't Remember / Motherland
Listen to: Everything else - as one glorious whole.
Destroy: Your preconceptions before hitting 'Play'.

Motherland by Simon Godfrey is released by Bad Elephant Music today! Like, right now. Head over to the BEM Bandcamp site to listen, download, pre-order a CD, or preferably all three.