In talking to Boo Hewerdine about My Name In The Brackets, he’s revealed that the songwriting bug hit him at an early age. As the title suggests the realisation that the name(s) in the brackets that followed the song title belonged to the composer(s) was enough to set him on his way. He also described a period before he had even learnt an instrument, when he would sing his songs unaccompanied to anyone who would listen, even persuading other bands to play them through his impromptu performance. In his own words, “Sheer force of will,” eventually saw him win his first recording contract as he entered his 20s. Although his earliest recording pretty much disappeared without trace (and aren’t included here), Boo was up and running and with a bit of perseverance started to achieve some success. Here he is 30 odd years later with a career spanning retrospective that is an object lesson in living the dream, 18 songs with his name in the brackets and 18 of the best songs you could wish for.
Whilst writing about music can never be exact or empirical and even totting up sales and radio plays are flawed measures of merit and worth, there are times where a consensus builds to a tipping point. True enough, when the bandwagon starts rolling, it can often be ugly and off-putting, especially when lacking the perspective of time’s passage. Much like the records you bought and played to death in a week or two, there can be a superficial gloss to an artist that once penetrated leaves little substance. Fickle fame and fashion are often as much a guarantee of built in obsolescence and a riches to rags trajectory as they are means to stardom. Critical laurels, easily given with one hand, have so often been binned by the other.
But then people like Boo Hewerdine buck the trend, by quietly going about their business and picking up a steady drip, drip, drip of acclaim. He’s a songwriter for whom the words, “One of the best,,,”, “Consistently accomplished…” and “Amongst the finest we have…”, are routinely used. It’s a fittingly quiet reverence, however, not a shout, but a steady dialogue that reverberates down the years and finds resonance amongst Boo’s peers and the many musicians who have worked with him, until it has a weight of wisdom that’s hard to refute.
The compilation takes us all the way back to the point in the 80s when the decade had ticked past the halfway point. A number of bands were delivering on their early promise. The Smiths were chart toppers and TOTP regulars, R.E.M. had moved on from intriguing mumbles to the masterful Lifes Rich Pageant, there were stirrings too from Prefab Sprout, The Blue Nile, Crowded House,10,000 Maniacs and more (insert your own choices here), while The Waterboys’ This Is The Sea was still echoing in the ether. All suggested a new strand of literate, properly interesting pop music. It was freshly minted, yet shot through with a classic gift for melody, hummable tunes, but with real depth to the lyrics, sweetness and substance. Against this backdrop, Boo’s band, The Bible, slotted right into place.
The first two tracks here come from their debut album Walking The Ghost Back Home, and Graceland and then Mahalia were also issued as singles. Neither seriously troubled the chart compilers, but then we’re back to niggling weights and measures again. Besides, what they did do, was to start to accumulate the kind of praise described above and also gather a reasonable and devoted audience for the band’s live shows. Fans included Nick Hornby, who some years later would include Glory Bound – also on that debut album, but not included here – in the English version of his book 31 Songs and invite Boo to work on movie soundtracks.
As an aside, no one could quite believe that Graceland hadn’t been a hit and it would be re-released twice over, eventually skimming the Top 50, third time still not so lucky. The song Honey Be Good, off the second album Eureka, also had the re-release treatment to follow the near miss of Graceland, but faired almost identically. It didn’t much matter, however, as soon after, the band called it a day and although they did reform in 94, with Dreamlife taken from an EP from that rekindled line up also included on this disc, Boo’s career had already started to move in another direction.
Boo fairly quickly fell into a solo career, whilst opportunities to write with and for other people started to readily appear, and given the way he had started, it was only natural that he grabbed them with both hands. It led directly to a very productive musical partnership with Eddi Reader, whose own first, post Fairground Attraction album had done OK, but not spectacularly. It was the self titled follow up, which featured two of Boo’s songs, plus three he shared the credits on that really kick started Eddi’s career as she walked away with the Best Female Singer award at the Brits off the back of it. Boo has since written for and with Eddi, produced a couple of her albums and also been a mainstay of her live band. It’s something which he professes to have enjoyed greatly as a sort of parallel career, although he has always maintained many other strings to his bow and on the sly is actually quite prolific.
To some degree this side of Boo’s career was covered by the Harmograph CD. Boo revisited the vast repertoire of material that he had written and co-written and never recorded himself, a body of work that ran into hundreds of songs. With the album’s producer Neil MacColl at his side the list was whittled down to 140 then to 80 before, realising the impossibility of it all, Boo took the more random approach of turning up at the studio and just playing the one he felt like playing.
One song from the preceding Anon and two from Harmograph prove the tipping point at the heart of this CD. It’s the sequence of Mapping The Human Heart into The Girl Who Fell In Love With The Moon and then Patience Of Angels, that struck like a thunderbolt leaving me in a cartoon-esque frazzle, with every cell alive with static charge, hairs triggered to stand proud and that overwhelming rush that the very best songs deliver. As I was on a crowded train when the emotional depth charge went off, I was caught between trying to hide the welling tears and the desire to shout out to everyone, “You’ve got to hear this, this is absolutely *$%^*&* brilliant.” Boo has remarked on the tendency for people to cry at his gigs, and yes the appearance at Kings Place got me too, but there’s something about the way his songs can speak directly to you that clearly means I’m not alone.
You could probably pick any other sequence, combination or individual track. Joke also recorded by Eddi, Last Cigarette covered by k d lang and The Birds Are Leaving, which came from the earlier albums Baptist Hospital and Thanksgiving, both of which were produced by John Wood, who recorded Nick Drake and John Martyn amongst others. There the more recent selection also Muddy Water and Geography, which both come from God Bless The Pretty Things and segue into the wonderful defiance of Blaze Of Glory. Everybody wants their Bonnie and Clyde moment, at least if someone else is singing it to you. Some may simply plump for Bell Book And Candle, a song that has been used in several big and small screen settings, notable an award winning funeral sequence in Emmerdale.
The disc also ends with three much newer works, Amazing Robot, Snowglobe and Last Shot On The Roll that refuse to let the standards slip. The middle one in particular throws a real curveball by suddenly dropping Patty Hearst into the narrative and was released as a single. What’s even more amazing is that the song that would have been consigned to the B side, where this an old style 7” is called Funny Bones. It doesn’t make the album, (but you can watch the video here) and it’s just as good as everything else that does. So, the really great news is of course that the journey isn’t over by any stretch and Tom at Reveal Records, who are putting this CD out, has confided that if the quality of songs alone was the selection criteria, it could easily have been a multi-disc boxed set.
At the recent gig, he actually played a cover version of a very old Bee Gees song originally released in 1968 called I Started A Joke, suggesting that his own passion and hunger for musical knowhow is undimmed. Although this tour was all about Boo’s name in the brackets, it was something that he just had to share. He also played Time Is A Magnet, his first ever composition and told droll, but very funny tales of his musical life, near misses and minor slights and disappointments. But you know what? As I sat there I could see, he’s living the life alright… It’s written all over his face.
Review by: Simon Holland
27/11 – Henry Tudor House – Shrewsbury
28/11 – Belmont Bull – Belmont
29/11 – Bollington Arts Centre – Bollington
30/11 – South Street with Eddi Reader – St Andrews
06/12 – with Eddi Reader – Skegness
13/12 – Acoustic Tearoom with Brooks Williams – Kirkby Stephen
16/12 – BOO HEWERDINE XMAS SHOW!!! – Ely
12/01 – Colchester Folk Club – Colchester
17/01 – Celtic Connections with Findlay Napier – Glasgow
29/01 – Rothbury Roots Rothbury
12/02 – with Eddi Reader – Kilkenny
13/02 – with Eddi Reader – Mullingar
14/02 – with Eddi Reader – Sligo
16/02 – with Eddi Reader – Belfast
17/02 – with Eddi Reader – Dundalk
19/02 – with Eddi Reader – Dublin
20/02 – with Eddi Reader – Limerick
21/02 – with Eddi Reader – Skibereen
22/02 – with Eddi Reader – Ballymaloe