Living for six months among the otherworldly occupants of a reputedly haunted house might not be everyone’s idea of a good time but it was precisely that experience that inspired the songs on Apparitions, Chris Cleverley’s first full-length album. Whether or not Chris really believes in the shadowy manifestations that populate his haunting tales isn’t revealed but the work is dedicated: ‘In recognition of the ghosts – both real and imagined.’
Raised on British and American folk music traditions, Chris’ roots are planted firmly in the Midlands singer/songwriter scene. There, he has built a following by singing his tales of ghostly women, lonesome clock towers, lovelorn sailors and hospital beds, accompanied by guitar playing shaped by the complex fingerstyle techniques of the likes of Nic Jones, John Renbourn and Martin Simpson. The songs on Apparitions are not all stories of spirits from beyond the grave. Rather, they are personal reflections on events that have recurred during centuries of human experience.
Chris plucks an appropriately haunting, lonely guitar over a backing of sweeping strings and shimmering cymbals in the brief instrumental Transience, which sets the scene for the album like an ominous soundtrack to a film’s opening credits. The Dawn before the Day sees a mariner recalling a brief, lost love affair as he is visited by a spirit on a weathered quay. Although the song’s subject matter suggests a setting close to home, it is lent a distinct Americana feel by the combination of Chris’ delicate guitar solo, Anit Dattani’s slide guitar and rasping fiddle from Meet on the Ledge’s Marion Fleetwood, who is credited here as Marion Morgan.
Most of us can probably identify at least a little with Missing Persons: the overwhelming yearning to travel to a faraway place and disappear from the view of friends and loved ones, becoming ‘a missing person for now’, while we attempt to reconcile thoughts that won’t leave us alone. A stirring strings and percussion arrangement fits perfectly with softly picked guitar and a soothing vocal to produce a wholly satisfying song of reflection and longing.
While the majority of the songs on Apparitions are Chris’ own compositions, a couple of traditional pieces are also included, both of which originated in America. The first, I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground was famously recorded in 1928 by Bascom Lamar Lunsford for the Kentucky-based Brunswick label and can now be found on the Smithsonian Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music. While there are a few recordings of the song being accompanied on guitar, Chris sticks to Lunsford’s version and plays it on banjo but the similarity ends there: with Steph Gabb sharing the lead vocal, this song of escaping life takes on a new, contemporary identity, while its campfire connections can still be heard through Rich Harris’ harmonica.
As might be expected, the album’s title track has an eerie quality. Sandwiched between reversed Hammond organ notes, Chris and Steph share the short lyrics, relating a ghostly encounter that may or may not have occurred. Early 19th century American folk song O Shenandoah, which is sometimes known as Across the Wide Missouri, has been recorded countless times in various arrangements. Chris’ version is sung in his now familiar gentle vocal style to a rhythm guitar backing with an intricately picked lead melody.
With an expansive cinematic sound, The Rafters tells of a forlorn bell-ringing figure who is cursed to roam the parapets like Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, while he imagines the lives that he cannot live. The decidedly subdued I’m Not Long for this World is sung over a sparse banjo and harmonica and proves to be a fitting close to a collection that for the most part explores aspects of the workings of the human mind.
With a gentle singing voice in the vein of Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, Chris Cleverley has infused Apparitions with thought-provoking, searching and often poignant songs of introspection, fleshed out with his own intricate playing and full band arrangements to produce an entirely satisfying and impressive debut.
Review by: Roy Spencer
Out Now via Chris Cleverley Music
Photo Credit: Rich Spencer Photography