Reading between the lines, Merrymouth started out as a solo project for Simon Fowler the front man and one of the principal songwriters of Ocean Colour Scene. If it started as an outlet for Simon’s softer side in conjunction with band-mate Dan Sealey, running in parallel with OCS, it’s actually blossomed into something a little more special. Indeed Wenlock Hill, their delightful second full length CD, is a rare and most elegant blooming of quality song craft.
Whilst it might be fair to say that Ocean Colour Scene’s star has been on the wane from the commercial chart-topping peak, they clearly still retain a loyal following and can still pull a crowd. OCS were readily identified with Brit Pop, a label that is once again in the headlines, albeit on a wave of nostalgia. As artificial a creation as that scene was, it had the effect of concentrating the media in the UK on home-grown talent and OCS were obvious beneficiaries, albeit after a false start with a regular place in the singles charts and a couple of massive albums, even knocking Oasis off the top spot at one point.
Of course, being lumped into a scene can also prove something of a millstone, once the Brit Pop brouhaha started to fade, the attendant media had had its fill the focus shifted. Yet OCS are one of survivors and the punning title of their first proper album, Moseley Shoals, probably points to wider horizons anyway. Something that you’ll pick up if you fish around is that amongst the b-sides and album tracks, that the band created, there was always a gentler side, as Simon started to push his songwriting.
Sometimes in doing research and scene setting, it’s instructive to read the comments people have left on Amazon. Admittedly you have to pick through some rubbish, but amongst the chaff are often a few gems from genuine fans who have actually taken the time to have their say. The debut, billed as Simon Fowler’s Merrymouth, being a case in point. It hasn’t attracted a mass of comments, but all of those that it has are positive and suggest that this is a worthwhile extension of Simon’s canon that other fans of OCS are encouraged to explore.
The original Merrymouth line up was Simon, Dan and Mike McNamara and the debut also features both John McCusker and Andy Cutting, upping the folk credentials significantly. I’ve read elsewhere that Simon was after a determinedly English sound and had the likes of Fairport Convention as a template. This second album finds, keyboard maestro Adam Barry seconded in place of Nick and although John McCusker again appears, the new recruit knocks out the need for Andy Cutting’s melodeon. But there are other guests including the bass and drums of Nick Lyndon and Ted Atkinson, with strings, brass, clarinet and Chas Hodges adding additional piano to one song.
While the debut may have been noted by Simon’s fans, Wenlock Hill deserves wider acclaim. It has something of the hallmark stamp of classic early to mid seventies era Island Records about it, a time when albums by Fairport Covention, Richard and Linda Thompson, Sandy Denny and even Ronnie Lane were staples of the roster. There are moments of Beatle-esque physchedelia, with sitar drones and eastern percussion and even a touch of Kinks’ like vaudeville.
The opener is the glorious title track and sets off simply enough, with acoustic guitar, a cymbal splash and piano, as Simon sings, “I vow my heart, before a change in the wind before it chills and get bent out of shape.” The song swells with the clever use of different keyboard sounds, classic organ tones and electric piano, with John McCusker’s violin also adding a subtle tug to the yearning drama. It’s a song that wouldn’t be out of place on the current Oysterband album.
Salt Breeze by contrast is a bit of a light-hearted romp that starts with suitably nautical sound effects. It barrels along with Chas Hodges piano and a nice fiddle line from John McCusker and Simon’s voice is supported by some neat harmonies and it’s just great fun, with it’s storybook lyrics involving a rat and a mole, a skeleton key, Captain Kidd and more.
The mood changes again for Blink Of An Eye and love is once more on the agenda, with a beautiful cello line and a notable tremor in Simon’s voice, again supported with some nice harmonies. The swell of strings gives the middle eight a Beatles feel and this could be a Rubber Soul era classic. The lovelorn theme is carried through into Without You, which none the less picks up the pace with driving guitars and the organ floating atop a rattling snare.
The first of three cleverly reworked cover versions is up next. We’ve already brought you a pre-release taste of the Stone Roses classic, I Am The Resurrection, a strikingly different version that works surprisingly well. Shorn of the epic guitar work and stripped back to it’s rather bitter core, the vocal harmonies come into play again with piano and cello giving a gravitas to what is essentially a put down.
The other covers are a neat version of the Stranglers Duchess, always a bit of an oddity coming from the men in black, it’s something of a paean to working class roots and a favoured matriarch. He Was A Friend Of Mine is a reworking of a traditional folk song, originally collected by Alan Lomax and sometimes known as Shorty George. The Byrds reworked it as a eulogy to John F. Kennedy, but here it’s relocated to New York and the assassination of John Lennon. It proves a moving and fine tribute in the spirit of Roger McGuin although it’s piano and cello rather than chiming guitar arpeggios, changing the instrumental focus again.
Betwixt and between is That Man, with it’s psychedelic styling and psychotic drama, it’s an ominous and menacing tale about the ordinary man who is not what he seems to be. It’s a cracking track if a somewhat uncomfortable listen. The mood, however is lightened by Teashop Serenade, which is where the brass and clarinet come into their own, with a bit of whimsy as Simon asks, “Where would we be at quarter to three if we’re not taking tea?”
The album comes to it’s climax with the classic folk rock of If You Follow and the slightly odd The Ragged Spiral. While the former again brings Oysterband to mind the latter is another of slightly out of kilter moments, with a woozy sixties feel, although the tinkling piano line is soothing, but the end is curious indeed and leaves you with a question mark in the way that some great albums do.
It’s a terrific and varied set of songs, made the more interesting with a fairly constant change of pace and mood. Much as the unusual and highly successful re-working of the Stone Roses classic might grab the easy headlines, there is more to Wenlock Hill than a crafty cover version or two and there is a really nice flow to the album. It’s been put together with thought and care and is much more than just a side project. As suggested above it has a classic feel, immediately redolent of an era when great music seemed to be ripe for discovery. Wenlock Hill manages to balance a nostalgic yearning with a sound that is also very of the here and now, which in my book is a damn near perfect combination.
Review by: Simon Holland
Album Stream via Deezer
08 – The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen
09 – Rothes Hall, Glenrothes
10 – Tolbooth, Stirling
15 – Fruit, Hull
16 – The Met, Bury
17 – The Mac, Birmingham
18 – The Glee Club, Nottingham
22 – Bakers, Clonmel, Ireland
23 – Danny Byrnes, Mullingar, Ireland.
24 – The Workmans Club, Dublin, Ireland
25 – The Spirit Store, Dundalk, Ireland
31 – The Brook, Southampton
01 – The Glee Club, Cardiff
02 – Kings Place, London
Wenlock Hill is out now released via Navigator Records