Usually found playing bagpipes and saxophone as an integral part of the seven-strong line-up of Blowzabella, Paul James says, ‘It’s daunting making an album on your own!’ And you may expect a ‘solo’ album to be a more stripped-down affair – especially since Paul conceived the collection ‘The Drowned Lover and Other Dark Tales’ to be ‘as home-made as possible’.
The result, in contrast, is a bit of an epic with Paul on vocals, multiple instruments samples and programming, ably supported by 18(!) guest musicians. Not only do the multifarious performers make this a mammoth enterprise, the range and scope of the music is also prodigious.
The core of the album is a series of traditional English narrative songs – chosen by Paul for their contemporary relevance – but the soundscape spirals far beyond the shores of Albion to incorporate Western and Eastern European folk, Middle Eastern and Asian textures. It’s genre-defying too, ranging from folk/world to hard rock, classical, jazz and experimental and most points in-between (often in the same track).
For that reason it’s an eminently repeatable album, constantly surprising – an audio adventure that is as an enjoyable experienced on headphones picking out all the instruments, as it is on full volume driving down the motorway.
The album consists of five songs and four instrumentals. Paul steps up as lead singer admirably, his voice is a welcome contrast to the purity that often purveys current folk performers. What he lacks in pitch-perfection, Paul more than makes up for in passion – fuelling the songs with an unflinching commitment.
The one cover on the album, Big Corn (In The Fields), is a particular highlight. Written by Paul’s good friend Des Simmons who sadly died suddenly of a heart attack in 2013. Paul describes Big Corn as, ‘A song about selling out and disappointment’, and he sings it with a driving fervency – a fitting tribute to a well-loved performer. It’s the most musically straightforward track on the album, a folk-rock arrangement that recalls Oysterband and The Levellers.
In fact, there’s quite an 80s vibe about this album (one track, Falco e Colomba, even fades out at the end). But before you start to visualise Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet, I’m thinking more 80s folk, than what troubled Top of the Pops that decade. You may have heard the Radio 2 Folk Show’s 80s folk special about a month ago, and it certainly reminded me what a fertile time it was between the 60s and 90s folk revivals.
With Blowzabella, Paul James was at the forefront of the underground (and overlooked) folk scene in the 1980s, and he continues to break new ground with this collection. There are so many great, often startling moments – the hurdy-gurdy interludes being a particular delight for me. Where else will you find an album with two guest hurdy-gurdy players? Of the supporting cast, Victor Nicholls deserves particular mention for his robust electric guitar on the instrumental Once There Was a Lone Wolf, which summons up the decaying corpse of 80s Jethro Tull and drags it into uncharted experimental territory…
As the year comes to a close and the inevitable ‘best of’ lists appear, it’s gratifying to find another album that demands attention. But The Drowned Lover and Other Dark Tales doesn’t permit you to wallow in the past; Paul is a performer who continues to push himself and all those willing to listen.
Paul James in interview with Victor Nicholls:
The Drowned Lover and Other Dark Tales is out now.
More details here: pauljames.eu/new-album