Everyone knows Jon Boden, right? He’s Bellowhead’s head bellower – that tall guy in the shiny suit, exhorting the multitudes to jumps up and down and sing their heads off to to ecstatic, big band renderings of bawdy ballads and sea shanties – that’s him. For all Bellowhead’s considerable achievements, he’s more than that, of course. He’s a been the musical director of numerous theatre productions, a member of Eliza Carthy’s Ratcatchers, and half of a dearly beloved folk club duo with melodeon guru John Spiers. Inextricably associated with traditional song (in 2010, he memorably recorded and uploaded ‘A Folk Song A Day’ for an entire year!)
As a singer-songwriter, most of the attention has focussed on his second solo release, 2009’s futuristic concept album Songs From The Floodplain – which the BBC Music website hailed as: “a beautifully profound and dramatic record that has all the makings of a future classic.” Years before that, however, Boden self-released Painted Lady – an understated collection of original songs dealing with doomed romances in “metaphoric landscapes of cigarettes and broken hearts.”
When, on Mayday of this year, Bellowhead performed for the last time, a veritable legion of wet-cheeked Jon Boden fans consoled themselves with the thought that their hero would doubtless soon return to the arena brandishing a spanking new long player of fantastic toe-tappers. What he’s actually returned with is an expanded version of that first solo album Painted Lady, re-released by Navigator Records to mark its tenth anniversary. Produced with Ben Ivitski, the twelve songs feature Boden playing every instrument (fiddle, concertina, banjo, guitars, double bass, drums, Indian harmonium, glockenspiel, electric piano, Moog synthesiser and drum machine) himself. It reveals an artist perhaps still tentative about his own writing, while fearlessly confident in his musicianship.
Get A Little Something’s big beats, telephone-line vocals and clanking banjo make for an effective opening statement, redolent of Boden’s enduring hero Tom Waits. Blue Dress – a waltz-time tale of trysts “down behind the graveyard,” somehow manages to evoke both Fairport Convention and The Velvet Underground in equal measures. “Bring your cigarettes, wear your leather boots, go down where the rushes grow.” Crikey. Josephine is a much lighter affair, laden with chiming, Bangles-era pop hooks, while Pocketful Of Mud is all jagged rhythms and disorienting squalls of wah-wah guitar, with the vocals placed low in the mix.
Traditional music is (unsurprisingly) referenced all over the place. Drunken Princess borrows the lines from Sleep On Beloved/I Bid You Goodnight, in an arrangement featuring the kind of dynamic contrasts usually deployed in arms-aloft festival anthems by the likes of Coldplay, whereas Lemany merely borrows it’s title from the Copper Family songbook.
Win Some Lose Some Sally finds our hero wrapping his tonsils round all the high notes before the contrasting True Love, a song that combines a straight-ahead country melody with a lyrical simplicity (“in Summer she’s the song the song bird sings…” “when evening comes, my true love comes to me.”) that mark it as one for anyone (this writer included) who’s ever harboured any affection for the works of John Denver. Broken Things, accompanied solely by a gorgeously understated concertina, is truly striking, as is the extraordinary, stand-out title track.
Jon Boden is regarded as a quintessential English folk singer and (bonus track) Old Brown’s Daughter positions him in apostolic succession with Walter Pardon and Peter Bellamy. The other two bonus tracks – an affecting version of Whitney Houston hit I Want To Dance With Somebody and All Hang Down (see video premiere below) are the work of a man unashamedly in thrall to 1980s pop music. The latter (a re-worked version of sea shanty Roll The Old Chariot) is so 80s-tastic, it could, conceivably, have been sourced from some alternative reality, wherein Beverley Hills Cop was set in Beverley, East Yorkshire.
Boden’s schooling in musical theatre is evident throughout Painted Lady – both in the structures of the songs and in the dramatic, bordering-on-histrionic vocal style later honed to maximum effect in the all-conquering context of Bellowhead. The youthful love songs are sweetly delivered, whilst his cast of wanton, dissolute and tragic female characters are storied with compassion rather than cruelty (he is, of course, as likeable a fellow as one could ever possibly hope to meet.)
Jon Boden is (one suspects) going to need a little time to process and reflects on his extraordinary Bellowhead experience. There are questions that his fans will want him to answer, and even more that he’s probably asking of himself. How (for example) does it feel to be both the solo artist who wrote Songs From The Floodplain (a concept album about everyday life in a post-oil dystopia) whilst frontman of the favourite band of Chris ‘petrolhead’ Evans and his CarFest audience? How does it feel to consider performing one’s earliest songs of romantic angst as a long-settled family man?
Unfairly derided in some quarters on its initial release for its unabashed romanticism and youthful naivety, Painted Lady is a record that’s certainly deserving of re-appraisal, and its tenth anniversary is probably as good a time as any to do it. His next album will undoubtedly be heralded as something of “an event,” but ‘til then, this one serves as a timely reminder of just how far he’s come and is still a thoroughly enjoyable record.
Painted Lady is released on 30th September by Navigator Records. Available as a CD, 180gm vinyl LP and a download with previously unavailable bonus tracks. Those pre-ordering from propermusic.com will also receive a limited edition signed A5 art card (while stocks last) and MP3 of an additional previously unreleased track. Jon Boden is on tour throughout the UK in November, performing entirely solo with voice, fiddle, guitar, concertina and stomp box. He’ll be playing a variety of traditional material (including a few Bellowhead favourites) alongside his own songs from Painted Lady and Songs from the Floodplain.
The single, ‘All Hang Down (Radio Edit)’ out now: Download via iTunes