Walk Away, Walk Away by two of the leading lights of Britain’s alt-folk scene, Gill Sandell and Chris T-T, manages to cover two unexpected angles by dint of being an album of cover versions, by a duo. The PR notes explain that, having spent weeks on the road together in 2013 and 2014, touring in support of other bands and records, our intrepid duo dreamt up the idea for “a themed collection of classic and modern songs from across pop, rock and folk”. Those themes include “travel and absence; parting, separation and journey; ancient paths and empty roads” – a broad canvas which offered considerable room for manoeuvre: some favourites, for sure, but also some pleasantly surprising choices.
The opener ‘Time of the Preacher’, a Willie Nelson song from his 1975 Red Headed Stranger album, is certainly a favourite and Chris and Gill get things off to a good start by throwing out the country blues of the original in favour of a slowed down and stripped back reworking. Chris’s heartfelt vocals and Gill’s harmonium-esque accordion conjure up images of dusty roads in the heartland of a long-lost America, of remote timber churches filled with devout, if somewhat reactionary, congregations for whom certain loves were as forbidden as any metaphorical apple plucked from the pages of the Book of Genesis.
Kaiser Chiefs ‘Tomato In The Rain’ (from 2008’s Off With Their Heads) made great use of a 1960s style Farfisa organ sound, clanging guitar and thumping drums and Gill and Chris’s version keeps the spirit of the original while bringing a down-home charm to it. Gone are the manly multitracked vocals in favour of Gill’s quietly assured lead vocal, joined by Chris on the choruses; gone, too is the clangy guitar and the Farfisa, more than adequately replaced by a distorted rhythm guitar – but the touch of inspiration is in the addition of Gill’s impressively solid drums. Eat your heart out, Charlie Watts, this woman’s got a cowbell and she ain’t afraid to use it!
Neil Young’s ‘Birds’, from his 1970 CSNY-rebound album, After The Goldrush, is a surprising but entirely appropriate choice as it almost singlehandedly defines one of the album’s stated themes – and Gill and Chris’s version is simply gorgeous, one of the highlights of the record. Taken at an even slower pace than the original with Gill handling lead vocals, it’s an almost impossibly ethereal reworking; gauzy, luminous and heartbreakingly lovely.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs is one of those indie-rock bands of the 2000s that somehow passed me by at the time, so hearing Chris and Gill’s cover of ‘Runaway’ (from It’s Blitz) was something of a revelation. Deftly removing the dramatic strings, clattering drums and Karen O’s somewhat overwrought vocals and replacing them with a quietly strummed guitar behind Chris’s almost matter-of-fact singing and Gill’s soft accordion brushstrokes, the song builds gradually; piano and distant distorted rhythm guitar behind the duo’s harmonies, to a cliffhanger of an ending on another highlight of what turns out to be an album full of them.
I’m quite a fan of Joni Mitchell’s music so I approached Gill and Chris’s take on ‘Cactus Tree’ (from 1968’s Song To A Seagull) with my curiosity piqued and I’m happy to say their cover of it doesn’t disappoint. Lyrically, the song is about freedom, a theme that sits well within the remit Chris and Gill set for themselves and the result is almost unbearably delicate, sensitively arranged with a well-judged sense of airiness that is respectful of the original while bringing Gill and Chris’s own styles to it.
In the wake of the massive commercial success of Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen returned to a more rootsy sound and Chris and Gill’s cover of ‘If I Should Fall Behind’ reflects the sense of introspection which pervades 1992’s Lucky Town. Chris’s distinctive voice leads over distorted electric guitar and Gill’s harmonies and stretched-out accordion in a heartfelt cover which brilliantly captures the mood of road-weary optimism.
Although more interested in the visual arts these days, Brad Nack’s past reputation as a songwriter for Warner/Chappell Music remains largely intact, if less than well-known. Voice Of The Beehive recorded a relentlessly upbeat power-pop cover of his ‘I Walk The Earth’ on 1988’s Let It Bee album but Gill and Chris’s version reveals its precision-crafted structure in a more measured reworking with Chris’s vocals to the fore while Gill once again reveals her hidden talents as a singing drummer of whom Karen Carpenter would have been proud. Bonus points, too, for the tightness of the closing section!
The only original composition on the album, Gill’s own song ‘Autumn Seed’, is a sparse meditation on the pain of separation and travelling which would have sounded equally at home on Light The Boats, her most recent solo album, had it in fact been written at that time. Altogether a lovely song whose wistful sense of space and and understated but catchy melody is an ideal match for this themed collection.
‘500 Miles’ is generally credited to the American singer/songwriter Hedy West but it’s one of those evergreen standards which has seemingly been covered by the world and her sister since it came to prominence in the 1960s folk revival, although Peter, Paul & Mary’s 1962 version is perhaps the best known. Chris and Gill’s take is a little more uptempo than PP&M’s and the pair seem to have had some fun with their arrangement: lead vocals are swapped between verses, there’s a distinctly contemporary keyboard at the back of the mix and although the acoustic guitar is firmly in folk club territory, albeit, I suspect with tongue firmly in cheek, the whistling solo towards the end, well, it just had to be done!
The original of ‘Hit The Ground Running’ (written by Bill Callahan but recorded under the band name Smog on 1999’s Knock Knock) was another song which was new to me. A lengthy, midtempo, loping tune which vaguely reminds me of Lou Reed (although I’m not too sure where the chidrens’ choir fits into that), it’s given a thoroughly rock’n’roll shakedown here and is all the better for it. Gill again channels Charlie Watts’ immaculately minimal drumming (sans cowbell this time) while Chris adds a dollop of Mick Jagger’s lazy offhand drawl over an archetypal Richards/Taylor-style guitar swagger; the dropout at the bridge is sublime but it’s all set off perfectly by what must be one of the best lyrical couplets I’ve ever heard:
“I was raised in a pit of snakes
Blink your eyes, I was raised on cake”
Written by Carl Belew, Kenny Sowder and W.S. Stevenson, the most well-known version of ‘Lonely Street’ was recorded in 1959 by Andy Williams, although Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Bing Crosby and Patsy Cline have also released their own covers of it. Gill and Chris carefully remove the layers of sugary schmaltz that encrust Mr Williams’ arrangement to expose the song’s heartaching fragility with some windblown piano lines spiralling up and away above Gill’s sweetly uncluttered vocals and soft accordion, to bring the album to a gentle, if introspective conclusion.
Drawing on such a wide range of themes and sources might, in other hands, have resulted in an unfocused and self-indulgent sprawl; however in Walk Away, Walk Away, Gill Sandell and Chris T-T have kept their eyes on the road to produce an idiosyncratic and iconoclastic celebration of some overlooked musical treasures from the last fifty years. Pour me another cup of coffee and put another nickel in the jukebox.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Feb 20 – Kings Place, London (Album Launch)
Feb 22 – Tower of Song, Birmingham
Apr 10 – The Golden Fleece, Thirsk
Available via Bandcamp 23 March 2015: gillsandell.bandcamp.com/album/walk-away-walk-away