Having already wowed fans and critics alike with his debut and also delivered a rumbustious rebooting of folk-rock with the Albion Band, Blair Dunlop deals the ace up his sleeve with the new album House Of Jacks, due for release next Monday (26th May). Although folk music may be in his DNA, it takes more than a famous folk father to make records this good and this lyrically profound. With Mark Hutchinson once again producing, Blair has gathered a great band to expand his sound and delivered a sonic feast, so jammed full of ideas, it bellies his tender years. It surely trumps his debut.
Firstly, however, I must confess to being a little saddened when Blair Dunlop called time on The Albion Band I can’t pretend that I’ve followed every twist and turn in the life of what had become a folk-rock institution, but the last, wholesale generational shift seemed to have breathed new vigour into a well worked formula, with a star-studded and pleasingly youthful line up. In the process of rebooting, they delivered the rather wonderful album, Vice Of The People that positively crackled with the electricity of its creation.
Of course Blair explained the split by pointing out the difficulty in getting all the constituent, highly talented (and therefore much in demand), parts together, given their other engagements. One such distraction being the small matter of his own burgeoning solo career, which Blair quite naturally deemed needed his complete commitment. Naturally and wisely too, as his second album, House Of Jacks, knocks any lingering thought of what the Albion Band might have become into a cocked hat, with the immediacy of what simply is i.e. an astonishingly accomplished album.
You could say his Albion Band adventures have fed into this record. The sound is certainly a lot fuller than on Blair’s debut Blight And Blosssom, which featured his finger style acoustic prominently throughout. This time there is more of a band feel and while it might not have the massed chorus singing of Vice Of The People, Blair boasts a strong and distinctive voice of his own, which gets a little support with harmonies where needed. But rather than the Albion’s mix of traditional and original material, all bar one of the songs on the new album are Blair’s and it’s perhaps here that the album really triumphs. Producer Mark Hutchinson seems well attuned to Blair’s growing song craft, allowing him commodious accommodation to express his brilliant melodic and lyrical ideas.
The one non-original is co-written by Blair’s father Ashley Hutchings and Ken Nicol, further evidence of the dynastic pedigree in his DNA. After all it was his father who passed on the Albion Band baton, having originally formed the outfit in the early 70s. Ashley was of course also there at the inception of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, but if ‘the Guv’nor’ is obviously more famous, Blair bears his mother’s name and it’s worth noting that Judy Dunlop is also a singer of some renown. Jackie Oates, Lucy Ward and Hannah James all cite her as a major influence.
It’s also worth noting that Blair is only 22. While youth itself is not defining and the Albion Band is but one example proving a highly talented, like minded clutch of young players are driving the current folk scene, Blair displays a singular vision that sets him apart. It was at a similar age that Richard Thompson made the first steps of his solo career. Significantly Richard’s debut Henry The Human Fly more or less sank without trace at the time of its release, while Blight And Blosssom has attracted considerable acclaim. For one thing there were no Folk Awards back then, but Blair has already been recognised with Horizon Artist Award in 2013. I make the comparison, as Richard knows Blair and regards him highly enough to gift him an unreleased composition, Seven Brothers, which appeared on his debut.
It might be misleading to saddle Blair with ridiculous comparisons but equally wrong to underestimate his potential. It’s there for all to hear in the opening cut, Something’s Gonna Give Way, an unflinching look at bullying. It many ways it echoes classic Richard Thompson, with a circling guitar riff that locks in with Tim Harries bass guitar and the drums of Guy Fletcher, who also adds fiddle. There’s that strong and believable narrative thread too, which has been the backbone of Thompson’s career, little details that create a vivid picture as the spite at the heart of this tale, quite literally, reaches its pointed end.
The second song is one of two linked by a fictitious Soho club called 45s (c.69), which imagines the club in its heyday. While it once more boasts a nifty guitar riff and the minutiae, bell-bottom jeans, tie-dye and all, creates an almost cinematic realism, the song has a certain swagger that brings it to life as Blair sings, “You never really care if you’re loaded or you’re broke, prince and pauper co-exist like the rock ‘n’ rolling folk.” It name checks The Kinks, Mr. Zimmerman and even Jackson C Frank, in creating something of a nocturnal paradise revealed in the lines, “All the nights at 45s that I can now recall, not one holds the heartache that the daylight holds for all.” All good things come to an end, with the 4.00AM kick out.
To a riff that Lindsey Buckingham would be proud of, the updating of the story with 45s (c.14), adds a neat if somewhat cynical twist. The glamour has faded along with the 60’s dreams, as Blair picks up the story with, “The floor sticks to your brand new kicks and the sweat drips down the wall, the booths are trashed and unless you’re smashed then you won’t have fun at all.” At least there’s the prospect of, “Meet me at the entrance, bring your ego, we’ll be just fine, we’ll catch the VIP train and pass the people stood in line.”
In between these two takes on nightlife are some reflective ruminations peppered with a self awareness and willingness to tackle serious subject matter. If that creates a slightly melancholic air, then it’s not unwelcome and Blair manages to convey a broad emotional scope, understanding that he doesn’t have all of the answers yet and probably never will. Fifty Shades Of Blue is a nicely punning title that conveys a heady air of disappointment and denial, the House Of Jacks is looked down on by the houses of the queens and kings, a very clever idea exploring our experience of love that is hard to explain succinctly, while Chain By Design tackles determinism versus free will, although the jury’s still out on absolution.
As described above the sound is beefier than the debut and more electric, with Jacob Stoney adding some genre bending keyboard fills and organ swirls to the title track and also Different Schools, which delights in a the loping meter of classic Crazy Horse. Instrumental, Violas Reverie offers a complete change of mood and allows Blair to show off his acoustic guitar technique in some style. The Ballad Of Enzo Laviano, manages to weave the portents of a Spaghetti Western into the tale of a footballer on the brink of a big move, which will simultaneously uproot him from the home he knows and loves. It’s a potent mix, not taken lightly.
The Station and Song Of Two Bridges and both more acoustic in tone. The former is built on the poem by Robert J Hastings and a sprightly riff, which suggests both the quickening pace of a journey and the urgency of the need to grasp the fleeting scenery of each moment. The station at the end of the line will come too soon for us all. The latter is once again life’s passage, but from a slightly cooler perspective, with a resigned air, as Blair sings his father’s song, “The years and generations too I span, I’ve learnt to take the ever quickening pace that beats a rhythm like no drummer can, within my wise and otherworldly stride.”
Perhaps that album clincher displays a little of ‘like father like son’ contained in the complexity of the songs here. The fact remains however that no matter how deep and thoughtful his stories, ideas and lyrical themes, Blair’s songs make easy work of the telling. House Of Jacks isn’t easy listening, but it is very easy to listen to. It sounds superb and builds on the promise of the debut while staking claim to a distinctive sound that Blair can truly call his own. This particular house of cards stands strong.
Review by: Simon Holland
21 – The Basement, York
23 – St Cuthberts, Seahouses, Northumberland
24 – Fruit, Hull
25 – Bearded Theory Festival, South Derbyshire
25 – Thekla, Bristol
26 – Cambridge Junction, Cambridge
27 – Hare & Hounds, Birmingham
28 – The Greystones, Sheffield
29 – Bodega Social, Nottingham
30 – Band on the Wall, Manchester
31 – Cecil Sharp House, London
01 – St. Bartholomew’s Church, Newton Abbot
02 – The Convent Club, South Woodchester, Glos.
Released May 26, 2014 via Rooksmere Records