One of the great joys of music is its seemingly limitless capacity to surprise and delight. Those surprises can come in all sorts of ways, but a particular pleasure is being introduced to a new act that for some reason has eluded you, prompting the question, “Why did I not know about this before?” The latest case for these ears is Paul Armfield, for whom Up Here is his fifth studio album in a career spanning a decade, but is the first that I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.
The recent show at London’s Slaughtered Lamb confirmed the exceptional quality of Up Here, but also underlined the feeling that I’ve been missing out, as songs from his back catalogue, many played to please a partisan crowd, proved to be every bit the equal of the new material. But then I guess you can’t hope to know about everything. Besides, despite attracting considerable critical acclaim in the UK and hailing from the Isle Of Wight, Paul is currently probably better known in Germany. Hopefully Up Here will change that for a wider audience, in the way that it has done for me, with a legion of other converts finding themselves grateful for the chance to catch up at last.
In the annals of music history, The Isle Of Wight is almost certainly best known for its festivals. In 69 and 70 the event drew massive crowds on the back of bills that featured a newly recovered Bob Dylan, who chose it over his local Woodstock to play his first gig since the motorcycle accident that had threatened to finish his career. The following year, the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Miles Davis assured its place in history with huge numbers gathering. Such was the perceived threat of the counter culture that a law was passed that would ultimately stop the festival from happening again until 2002. But of Murray Lerner film, although tied up in legal wrangles for many years, A Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Rock Festival eventually saw cinematic release in 1996. It has been followed by a string of films capturing the full performances of some of its superstar headline names ensuring the legend lives on.
The picture that Paul can paint of the island’s music scene is, however, much more commonplace and in keeping with communities the length and breadth of the UK, with a vibrant and largely self sustaining local music scene. Very few will ever have the chance to rise above it all and achieve the status of the above mentioned festival bill toppers. That two of those are dead and the others pensionable, yet all are more famous than a considerable contingent of a current musical Who’s Who, speaks volumes. But a lack of outright fame doesn’t preclude good music being made on the Isle of Wight and elsewhere, with careers, quite successful on their own musical terms taking root and flourishing well beyond the confines of the local pubs and clubs.
For Paul, a turning point was when Groove Attack picked up his debut album, Songs Without Words for release in Germany in 2003. To that date, the label had dealt exclusively with Hip Hop and the surprise of the sudden change to Paul’s mellow, acoustic based music created considerable interest. Spex magazine capitalised on the hubbub with a five page feature and Paul’s reputation in Germany has built from that.
[pullquote]For many years he’s held down a day job as the manager of a bookshop. It’s easy to imagine that the position suited him well as there’s an obvious literary streak to his music.[/pullquote]Despite his European success and a bold foray to Czechoslovakia in search of revolution at the start of the 90s, with two years living in Bratislava, Paul has remained on the Isle Of Wight. For many years he’s held down a day job as the manager of a bookshop. It’s easy to imagine that the position suited him well as there’s an obvious literary streak to his music. Although its ultimate expression is probably the Tennyson album, that preceded the new release by a couple of years, setting the poet’s words to music, each of the songs here will stand up to close inspection on lyrical merits alone. But then add some beautiful music and the result is truly transcendent.
For his debut release Paul put together a band of local like minded souls christened The Four Good Reasons. Of those, guitarist and mandolin player J.C. Grimshaw remains committed to the cause, while Jake Rodriguez and Barklay McKay (albeit on only one track), are also present on Up Here. The multi-instrumental – and by that I mean extremely versatile – talents of Paul Butler and Dave Godby are deployed on everything from sitar and kora, to pedal steel, oud and hammer dulcimer and other instruments too numerous to list. With Rafe Spencer on bass duties on all but one track Paul adds a little acoustic guitar as well as his voice to proceedings, with Rupert Brown taking the drummers stool. Musically they mix elements of classic singer songwriter style, with folk and world music influence, Americana a soupcon of Chanson even a sugar cube of psychedelia.
The opener SHHH was conceived as a live set opener and is Paul appeal to everyone to turn off their phones, forget distractions and just listen, but turned into a meditation on the constant noise of the world that we live in. With ripples of sitar and kora and the most subtle of swells from a pedal steel, the promise of the instrumental mix is delivered. Paul’s voice seductively wraps itself around the rhythms of a cascade of words. His invitation is well worth following, as much of what is to follow is softly done and your attention will be required, but any effort is repaid many times over.
As enticing as the opener is, The Morning After The Storm, demonstrates Paul’s way with a gorgeous melody. The soft tremor of his voice makes the most of the aftermath of a storm, both real and metaphorical, with the celebration of its passing and the promise of the dawning of a new day. Migration follows suit in all respects with a bittersweet yearning for travel, dropping into the margins of the map and leaving, the deceivers and the disappointments behind. It’s the first track to feature strings arranged by Mari Persen, which in tandem with pedal steel are heaven bound. You Will Be Loved Again is jauntily optimistic and contains the brilliant, comic line, “You can be sure that madam Misery has knitted jumpers for us all.”
[pullquote]If there is a theme running through this album it’s perhaps that the glass is half full.[/pullquote]If there is a theme running through this album it’s perhaps that the glass is half full. The First spotlights childlike wonder, life to be lived and the future unknown, This Photograph Is My Proof takes a snapshot as evidence of love and The Bell Ringers Hands plucks one of life’s little details from those margins and imagines peels of bells in celebration down the ages and across the land.
Implicit in all of this is the passage of time and that theme bubbles to the top in the second half of the CD, but even in songs like Dust/Rust/Trust, which uses a cat’s trophy kill as a launch pad for guilty meditations, manages to find forgiveness and redemption. My Apology actually starts with metronomic ticking to emphasise that dreadful, sleepless state when ghosts of the past come visiting. In this case Paul is seeking the forgiveness of past lovers spurned or mistreated. Passed meanwhile, offers a reflective pause at the fulcrum of life’s passage.
Best of all though is The Speed Of Clouds, which borrows just a little of the psychedelic oofle-dust of The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows, but contains some wonderful imagery of Paul’s own devising. And then there’s the title track that finishes with a gospel-blues march and the promise of rising up above it all, as problems dissolve in the infinite perspective of the universe. It’s a big thought to end the album, but this is a work that matches its ambitions and positively demands a big finish.
Everything about Up Here is exceptional, the sound, the arrangements, the playing, the singing, the words and above all the songs. It works its magic quietly, subtly but persuasively urging us to scale the highest of musical heights. And if you do, I can promise you, the view from Up Here is simply breathtaking.
Review by: Simon Holland
Paul performing ‘Shhh’ Live
Up Here is due for release through PIAS distribution in early January 2014
Photo Credit: Julian Winslow