In 2008, Kirsty McGee and long term collaborator Mat Martin put together the core of The Hobo Collective, a fluid ensemble of anything from two to 10 members depending on the occasion. They made their debut on disc in 2010 with No 5, a live album recorded in Manchester, with plans to follow-up with a studio recording.
However, the following year was something of a bad time as growing depression and various personal matters culminated in a breakdown, leaving McGee physically and emotionally unable to sing, play or write. Recovering in Spain, she returned two years later, recharged and with a grittier edge to her voice, somewhere between Gilmore and Vega, that revealed itself on 2012’s largely solo Contraband album.
At the time of her breakdown, she was working with the Collective on a fuzzy blues project, and it’s interesting to speculate whether any of that has carried over to this new work ‘Those Old Demons‘. Certainly, there’s plenty of blues to be found, some in the vein of Tom Waits’ junkyard clatter, a comparison reinforced by the presence of guitarist Marc Ribot among the guest musicians. It also showcases McGee’s ongoing love affair with the hybrid of jazz, folk and Americana she refers to as hobopop, all strands woven together on the opening Running With The Blues, which, featuring Clive Mellow on harmonica, Nick Blacka on double bass and McGee playing flute, conjures 30s jazz cellar dives with her smoky, prowling vocals evoking thoughts of Eartha Kitt and Bessie Smith.
There’s no piano, but that jazz trio vibe is equally evident on the breathy, fingersnapping cat house shuffle of Salt, James Steel etching scratchy electric notes, but then the mood switches for To The Dogs, a melancholic slow waltzing folksy blues which, with its guitar and double bass, unearths past Janis Ian references.
A Plague marks the first trip to the junkyard, a spoken intro (‘seems like they only taught you curses when they taught you how to speak’) over metallic clanks giving way to the New Orleans carnival parade of trombone and waterphone, McGee declaring some ex as a plague on everything, from the houses to the bees, in a witchy hush as Howard Jacobs keeps the rhythm skittering.
The second visit comes with Pray, her unaccompanied gospel intro giving way to that same rhythmic snap with parping clarinet and trombone while the equally sassy, serpentine and often whispery Love’s Great Lie has sax, tuba and trombone bubbling away in the background and Ribot taking a steel-tipped guitar solo that sounds like something from a 40s crime noir soundtrack.
Elsewhere, she keeps the groove and mood shifting, lyrically sharp kiss off A Family Trait built on a similar fingersnap shuffle and snare rim shots, a slow march Those Old Demons heading into country hymnal territory with Barkley McKay on piano, Magnolia an early hours torch blues with cabaret undertones. On Sweet Talk, with its lyrics about some smooth talking devil, you get jazz swing rhythm and scat vocals that channels Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and maybe even Martha Tilton in way that Caro Emerald can only dream about while Survival, which sees Ribot on banjo and uke as well as guitar, sets moody desert twang against scurrying brushed drums jazz.
The album close on the plaintive love waits patiently ballad Your Main Man, McGee’s muted, almost cracked, whisper set against clarinet, tuba, flute and flugelhorn like some soul-soothing lullaby, a haunting end to what is, without question, not just the finest work she’s yet released, but one of the best albums of the year.
Review by: Mike Davies
Out Now on Hobopop