When Dan Webster’s The Tin Man dropped through my letterbox amidst a number of CDs vying for my attention, I slipped it from its jiffy bag and spent a good five minutes just looking at it. Wow! The cover features a drawing of Dan the troubadour in, as the title suggests, Tin Man guise, beautifully done and an immediate attention grabber. Opening it up there was more, a city or town (York as it turns out), with Dan depicted on a small boat in the thick of stormy waters. Having opened it up, it seemed only fair to extract the CD and give it a spin and I found myself more than impressed with that too. Mixing folk, country and even a little rock ‘n’ roll, all delivered with a clear, distinctive voice, some great playing and an immaculate sound, it stopped me in my tracks. I had to know more.
The attendant press release with the CD offered a couple of clues and I was much taken with a quote from Dan. Explaining the stylistic variety of his output he says, “It’s just about the music, there’s no plan when I’m writing, there doesn’t need to be. Writing is about honesty, we connect with real experiences and real emotions in music.” I categorically agree with the sense that slipping genres is unimportant, the song and performance are what matters. In the broader sense I also think there’s a large degree of truth in that, as even when we can’t define a specific narrative or meaning, performance can hook us in and we connect in a personal way with an artist. It’s like being given a key to a door and told to go and explore what lies beyond.
In setting out to explore The Tin Man, there’s the other clue in the press release, which asserts, “This album is a conceptual look at life journeys both metaphorically and direct.” It gives the album its overarching theme, but that is handled in a subtle way and individually the songs stand up for themselves, with their own stories to tell. That feeling is enhanced with some interesting choices from the tradition, which you could very well describe as key to setting the range for this album. In truth, however you choose to take these 11 songs, it’s Dan’s performance his voice, his arrangements and production that are the unifying factors.
I spoke to Dan briefly and he explained the gap of roughly five years between his last album and this new one telling me, “I wanted to take a step back to learn how to get better as an artist and songwriter.” He added, “I’ve continued to play gigs, doing some good support slots and a few festivals, so I didn’t stop making music completely.” A lot of the time was also taken up with a degree course in Music Production, which naturally enough has also fed into this project, which he has produced himself. Dan acknowledges that one of the pit falls of that is that you can get too close to the project, but feels that that is countered by a greater emotional involvement that runs through the writing, but continues right through the recording process to the final mixing and mastering.
He’s recruited a number of locals and is enthusiastic in singing the praise of all of them, although special mention should probably be made of Rachel Brown, Dan’s wife, who’s a professional musician in her own right and contributes cello, plus piano to two of the songs.
Rachel is indeed a feature of the opening bars of Dancers the first track on the album. It’s a hauntingly beautiful, bittersweet slow burn of a song that captures that frisson of loves first bite and the knife-edge of emotion therein. As well as Rachel’s elegant cello riff, Dan’s voice is strong and clear and immediately striking, he’s a fine singer for sure. The arrangement is superb too, with the sound crisp as you like and a natural looseness to the gentle skittering drums, while the bass accentuates the harmonies. Lyrically too it does a lot with a little, being economical yet heartfelt with Dan’s phrasing and fine melody ensuring they hit their mark.
The mood changes totally for Elvis, a perky rock ‘n’ roller with some tasty guitar licks provided by Lloyd Massingham, who Dan reveres as a legendary player amongst those that know. It’s a sly summary of the pub circuit, populated with indifferent audiences and inappropriate requests for unsuitable songs. In the end it seems that Dan is not a man to be deterred.
The next two drop the tempo again and there’s a nostalgic air to Number 17, with reminiscence of romance on the bus and the loss of a loved one in the war. Gold And Tin, is more oblique, but with the simple refrain of, “You can’t lose something you never had,” and a whiff of regret in “All the things I know I should have said.” Both are lovely, lovely pieces and again Dan’s voice really does make the most of the emotional weight of his songs. By contrast What It’s For, is brightly busy with crisp guitar lines and a patter of percussion, which sounds like a cajon. Here Dan’s voice has a little grit and once again the cello creates a subtle undertow, while some subtle vocal layering adds another fine detail to the mix.
In looking for a comparison, Boo Hewerdine comes to mind, but more for the elegant melodies and neat song structures than any direct suggestion of sound-alike. Boo, however, doesn’t have much, at least in his solo capacity with the folk tradition and British Man Of War is the first of three arrangements from Dan, which starts with sublime and mournful cello. There’s some lovely guitar work as the song and the rasp in Dan’s voice is once again apparent, especially as it’s contrasted with the sweeter tones of Grace Hawkins who sings harmony. The song of promises made on the advent of sailing to war are poignant, picking up on the fears realised in Number 17.
One To Remember was a vérité feel and to some extent is the flipside of Elvis. Here the on-the-road encounter isn’t with an indifferent audience, but with someone with a story of their own to tell. There’s a linking theme too, as the man reveals he’s travelled the world, suggestive of a merchant seaman, with a “girl in every bar.” The lesson here though is to value what you have, or risk living with regret. It bridges to Spanish Ladies, another song from the tradition picking up the nautical theme, but this time with more of the jolly-tar roister-doister swagger. Dan takes the first verse a cappella, but there’s also some lovely violin work from Pip Joplin, which combines wonderfully with the cello, while once again the bass does more than simply drive the rhythm. There’s a very clever segue via a merry jig into Johnny Comes Marching Home, which picks up the tempo, but carries a twist in the tail.
The album too caries a twist, with first the wistful tones of Old Friends, where people and guitar chords are mixed up in memories and the elegiac Goodbye, with its clever reference to Somewhere Over The Rainbow both in the cello line and lyrically, that considers our final parting, building a sweetly played melancholy. Gin, therefore leaps out of the blocks in startling style giving us the second out-and-out rocker and finishing things off with panache, albeit with a slightly pickled outlook.
The album provides the ideal, varied diet of musical nutrition and Dan Webster’s time learning the producer’s art and refining his own song craft has paid off handsomely, as the stories of the album add up to a cohesive, yet nuanced whole. He’s clearly surrounded himself with some great players, who flesh out these finely detailed arrangements with considerable skill. Most importantly, Dan’s a very good singer with a distinctive voice that has that hint of rasp to balance the sweet tones and is the glue that binds these songs together. His delivery is passionate, stirring and despite The Tin Man makeover, this album boasts a big, big heart.
Review by: Simon Holland
The Tin Man is released 9th February 2015. Order direct from the artist here: www.danwebstermusic.com