The lovingly crafted debut album from deft-fingered songsmith, Nathan Ball has certainly been a long time coming (for many reasons, not least breaking his collar-bone the day before the original recording sessions were scheduled back in 2010), and is well worth the wait.
Featuring eleven of Nathan’s intricately woven songs and an extensive lyric book, replete with pastoral photography and some rather fantastic bullocks, (that’s steers to our American friends) it tends toward a minor mood, but offers many a poignant stanza, from the political to the personal to the downright poetic, and stands up to repeated listening, revealing its depths gradually.
Ball’s idiosyncratic and often virtuosic finger-picking is delicate and precise, though sometimes slightly swamped in producer Steve Fearnley’s arrangements. This delicacy and precision is reflected not just in his lyrics, but in the pacing of their delivery and his keen eye for an image, showcased beautifully in Tangled Threads, “Hearts like fruits are prone to bruising”, the tiny but perfectly formed (1 minute 29 to be precise) Hear Me Feel Me and Hideaway Snowflakes with its memorable image of lying back with ears submerged in the bath, listening to one’s own heartbeat.
In counterpoint to this precision, I was struck by the often quite radical differences between the lyrics as written in the booklet, and those sung on the recordings, presumably refined by a few years of performance, but providing very viable alternative touches to several verses.
Nathan is a fine singer, with a voice both subtly powerful and beautiful in tone, and despite displaying shades of the trans-Atlantic accent so prevalent in British popular music, which normally finds me having to physically restrain myself from heckling “Where did you get that accent?” to anyone except perhaps John Martyn (and that’s just because he’s dead), I find the discrepancy between this accent and his estuary pronunciation of “th”, rather endearing and not at all put on.
Nathan’s songwriting, though varied in style and groove, is often characterised by a synthesis of quiet, incandescent anger with a deeply positive, nurturing and above all compassionate political message, as anyone familiar with his 2009 Footprints EP will surely know, producing an effect to make “non-violent-communication” practitioners and conflict resolution experts jealous. It’s available on itunes and well-worth a look.
In this mould, the title track, Stand Up is fashioned into verse from the perhaps unlikely source of Winston Churchill’s May 2nd, 1935 speech to the House of Commons questioning the tardiness of international response to German re-armament, and resulting proliferation of arms across the world. It’s a finely crafted speech, if a little procedural, but this passage, taken in a more contemporary context, and coupled with Nathan’s emphatic chorus, creates a profound effect.
“It does fall into that long and dismal catalogue of fruitlessness
In the confirmed unteachability of mankind through experience
Want of foresight and no care to act when action would be simple
Lack of clear affective thinking by a confused council until
Emergency inevitably summons up its song
Until self preservation rises up to strike it’s jarring gong
These are the features that do constitute, our endless repetition
Throughout his… story
Stand up, eyes open, ears down to the ground
Their power lies in our obedience
So we must disobey
Instead of settling for convenience
To then look, the other way ”
The song has a solid and pervasive swing, despite some slightly pedestrian drumming, building into quite an anthem, with a rousing chorus of Nathan, Natasha England and brothers Donal and Connor Scullion (electric guitar and Rhodes piano respectively) on backing vocals.
The aforementioned anger quietly bubbles at the centre of the barbed, cleverly titled One More Song. Written in a week, for the final of a song-writing contest for a major magazine (which I’ll leave unnamed) for which he was surprised to find himself shortlisted for his classic song McDonalds for the Mind, having absent-mindedly applied some months earlier, it’s a thrillingly crafted song.
“So if you had just one song to prove you had the voice,
What would you base it on? How would you make the choice?
I’ve spent the past three weeks pulling my songs apart,
Trying to find the one, that shows that I’m built to last,
For ten years I’ve done my rounds, the pubs of this circus town,
Played to full and to empty rooms, I’ve written all kinds of tunes,
Because I’m not a two song wonder, pop chart topper,
These are just sound bites, shrouded in hype and lights”
Culminating in a chorus which obliquely and almost sarcastically references each of the organisations behind the four judges, along with the sponsors of the event, it’s so sharp, post-modern, honest and filled with cool-eyed rage, that I’m not at all surprised that it didn’t win a mainstream song-writing competition. They likely weren’t looking for a songwriter to weave rhetoric on demand, so much as someone to write the new Baby Baby Shake Your Love Thing and hawk some over-priced whisky.
In fact, the upshot of the whole experience; Nathan’s first brush with what they still call “the industry” left him feeling “used and dirty”, to quote his liner notes, and he took a long break from music to begin training as a guitar maker, which now makes him the bulk of his living. Consequently this debut album took a bit longer than expected and was slightly disjointed in its production, which I’d have to say is my only real problem with the album, leaving some tracks slightly cluttered with musicians which can obscure the detail of the guitar (made by Nathan himself, naturally) and the distinctive groove and understated funk of his live performance, which anyone who’s seen him on tour with Martha Tilston will know well.
Stand Up will thrill those who love good songwriting. It’s a slow burn, and slightly sombre at times, but deeply satisfying and filled with depths of humanity. If, like me, you’re yearning to hear Nathan in a slightly more stripped-back setting, he assures me that there’s another album in the works, until then you’ll just have to see him live. You won’t regret it. As he states so sweetly in the closer, Lily’s Song,
“I’m on the rise,
And one by one,
We will stand,
Become strong again…”
Review by: Jez Hellard
Stand Up is out now following a successful funding campaign via Indiegogo. You can order it here.