They used to talk about, “The difficult second album,” a scenario where the promise or hype surrounding an acts debut was not matched by the follow up. It undoubtedly holds a certain truth, with some artists perhaps feeling the time pressure of writing a follow up, the vagaries of record company politics, budgets and so forth or even the fickle hand of fashion creating an artistic void. Thankfully The Ballads Of Peckham Rye turns such conventions on their heads, as it takes everything that was good about the debut release from Blue Rose Code and does it better.
It may appear an obvious thing to say given the title of The Ballads Of Peckham Rye, but this second release from Ross Wilson a.k.a Blue Rose Code has a strong sense of geography about it. But contrary to what you might think, it’s not all south London centric and much of the territory mapped out is charting an inner journey, although it’s also one that takes a first step on England’s south coast and ends north of Hadrian’s Wall in a quest for redemption.
The title of course refers to the novel by Muriel Spark, in which a truculent, devious Scotsman, Dougal Douglas, who may be a devil or an evil spirit, brings conspiratorial carnage to the London Borough. Ross identified a parallel with his own alcoholism and the swathe of trouble that had followed him around. The title also refers to the genesis of this album, with much of it composed while jogging round his nearby Peckham common. In doing so it also brings the site of William Blake’s mystical visions into the frame, with the odd coincidence that Ross shares a birthday with the poet-artist.
One of the first assignments I undertook when starting to write for Folk Radio UK just over a year ago was to travel over to Brockley and interview Ross around the release of his excellent debut North Ten. It proved to be an extraordinary encounter on many levels, starting with an opportunist bicycle theft on the other side of the café window we were sat at and ending a couple of candid, confessional hours later with an upbeat story to be told. Ross proved a welcoming host as we had retreated back to his home to conclude the interview after the drama had disturbed us. He quickly assuaged my fears about needing to tread on eggshells and talked openly, frankly and eloquently about his then recent spell in rehab and the drinking problems that had led him there.
Unsurprisingly, given that this was a massively life changing event it figures large in these songs here. Two of the song titles make direct reference, there’s One Day At A Time and Step Eleven, presumably of the 12 step programme. The Right To Be Happy also resonates with the mental battles taking place. If that all seems a bit obvious, then the results are anything but, as the album meanders through many moods, finally reaffirming the sense that the healing has begun and that peace of mind is possible. Sure, there is some raw honesty amongst the lyrics, but Ross is far too good a writer for this to wallow in a mire of sickly sentiment or trite platitudes.
Musically it makes use of a considerable cast of players, although there is something of a core band within the extensive list. The enigmatically named MG Boulter on pedal steel and resonator, Steve Smith on banjo and guitars, Paul Reynolds on mandolin and electric bass, drummer Andy Grieve and Lizzie Ogle on Fiddle and vocals along with the voice of Samantha Whates and the unmistakable bass of Danny Thompson appear on most of the tracks, if not all.
Most of those names are familiar from the debut, but this time, there are other notable guests, as Karine Polwart, Kathryn Williams, Rachel Newton, Mattie Foulds, Aidan O’Rourke and John Wetton all add their talents to the album. More telling, however, is the contribution of Scottish jazz pianist Dave Milligan, who appears on half of the tracks, adding another musical dimension again. Alex Pilkington once more shares production duties and Mattie Foulds is responsible for the mix. It underlines the ambitions for this record and perhaps also says something of Ross’ rapidly rising stock amongst his peers.
Those who have seen Ross will know of his rejection by an over zealous folk club booker and how he has turned a song from his debut into This Is Not A Folk Song to make that point. There was a delicious irony to seeing him perform it alongside the Folk Singer Of The Year, Bella Hardy, as the two shared a stage at the Oval Tavern in Croydon. The two of them took turns to sing songs, sometimes offering a little accompaniment to the other and as Bella mostly stuck to her own, original material, rather than delving into the tradition, they matched each other extremely well.
Make of that what you will, but Ross’ music isn’t easy to define, he offers another humorous appraisal of just that on his website, claiming to be a crossover artist, who is unsure of where he’s crossing over from or to. If he borrows from classic singer songwriters such as John Martyn and Van Morrison, then he arranges the elements in a musical tableau that is all his own, without sounding directly like either. That said the latter does offer a meaningful comparison, just not in the most obvious way.
It’s there in the opener, Boscombe Armistice, which name checks the place where Ross’ journey of recovery began. There is something of Van that comes though in the vocal phrasing over the keening pedal steel and rippling banjo, albeit without the brassy orchestration that Morrison favours. There’s a drive from Danny’s bass and Ross sings with a notably Scottish inflection, especially in the line, “You’d cause war in an empty hoose.” But this is Ross acknowledging surrender and the backing vocals add a supporting chorus to first steps of a life beginning anew.
There’s also something in the cascading start to Silent Drums that recalls Astral Weeks. It’s over a minute before the bass figure picks up the first verse, there’s that jazzy lilt again, with a hint of a journey into Morrison’s mystic terrain, with a heartbeat that echoes from, “The corner of the Western Isles to the peak of the Antipodes.” A fiddle line from Lizzie Ogle creates a powerful emotional undertow as Ross let’s his poetic vision have free rein around the global connective tissues.
The emotional landscape that Ross covers is unsurprisingly littered with regrets and he sings of , “Howling at the moon, breaking myself in two” in Where the Westlin Winds Do Carry Me. In One Day At A Time, he sings of, “Being so sick and tired of being so sick and tired.” The first of those has a glorious intro featuring the piano and a trumpet line from Colin Steel and opens into an expansive meditation on fateful abandon, while the latter bustles along with a more upbeat trajectory and the possibility of, “Learning to love you one day at a time.”
I mentioned geography above and it’s there too in Edina, a redemptive love letter to the city of Edinburgh where Ross grew up, while Oh North, suggests Scotland is still his spiritual home. True Ways Of Knowing, sets the words of Edinburgh poet Norman MacCaig to music, with a most curious but highly effective mixture of claps and clicks as the rhythm bed that along with an almost chanted vocal counter point, create extra layers of intrigue to unpick and unravel in time spent with this record. Even The Right To Be Happy references Holyrood in a tumble of mixed emotions over a joyous, soaring slice of pedal steel fuelled Americana.
The closing Step Eleven, featuring the recorded voice of a 76-year-old yoga master finally finds Ross admitting, “All I’ve ever wanted was to let go of my fears.” It’s another expansive, beautiful and mystical piece of music, which follows a serene course, suggesting Ross may finally be able to achieve his aim.
This is a wonderful record, complex and multi-faceted, musically ambitious and a powerful and poetic statement of intent. As I said above it has the sense of a journey into the self, an awakening and a future beckoning that demands taking in the widest horizons. If anything deserves to pick up the baton of Van Morrison’s ‘Caledonian Soul’, then Blue Rose Code’s The Ballads Of Peckham Rye is the album to do it.
Review by: Simon Holland
True Ways Of Knowing
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The Ballads Of Peckham Rye is released 2 June 2014 via Ronachan Songs