Back in the late 70s, Phil Riley and Neil Mercer fronted a band called Kites. They signed to Polydor, released a single and got ready to record an album. However, when the single failed to take off, the label scrapped the plans and dropped them. After another failed stab at the charts as a member of The Dots, Riley dropped out of music, while Mercer pursued an academic career to become a Professor of Education at Cambridge University.
However, in 2006, Riley resurfaced and, in 2015, released his third solo album, Dragon Tails, featuring occasional contributions from Mercer. Now, 40 years on from the original plans, the pair have got back together to finish what they started, the latter adding mandolin, mandola, pipes and percussion to the twin guitars. Although there is a fingerpicked and pipes version of Safari Hat, the B-side to the one and only Kites release, this isn’t a case of dusting off and tinkering with old tapes. Some of the songs may have seen the passing of the years, but these are all new recordings.
It’s fair to say though that it harks back to earlier musical years, very much part of the late 60s/early 70s folk sound and the likes of Ralph McTell, Harvey Andrews, Richard Digance, the Seekers and so forth. Which is not to say it doesn’t feel fresh or comes with the smell of mothballs. One of three tracks to feature Andy Cutting on melodeon, along with some gently rippling mandolin, previously featured on an earlier solo album, the opening track, Sinner’s Song, is particularly catchy with a slight calypso feel. By contrast, After The Storm is a moodier piece that calls to mind Pete Seeger, but also has a medieval troubadour trad folk feel to the guitar and melody. While, evoking Harvey Andrews, Mercer’s mandolin-accompanied, close harmony Just A Song is a lovely number about the tug between love and the call of the road.
Elsewhere, echoing the generally downcast nature of the lyrics, Riley’s steady strummed regrets-stained One Hour has darker shades as he sings “Where is the God who’ll mend what I’ve done?” A similar theme percolates the tumbling chorus friendly Oliver (“It’s no good crying all night or walking in the rain or watering flowers that died the day before”). Cherry Tree (written by a school friend contemporary of Riley when he was just 16) muses on the changes time has wrought in a returning childhood friend (“He said the stakes were high. He couldn’t play the game”) and, bathed in further medieval colours, flute haunts the Mercer-penned lament for a life spent struggling against the tide, The Garden’s Overgrown. Things may not stray far from their genre comfort zone, but, to underscore the variety within that, Lucky Man is a lazing jazzy ragtime number about counting your blessings.
There are a couple of covers. Rising star singer-songwriter Gren Bartley’s Porcelain Hand gets a strum along arrangement, losing the piano, adding banjo and framing it with Irish whistle to give a Gaelic meets Appalachia feel. Led by mandolin, and featuring Neil Campbell on piano accordion, the dreamily sung Rebel, written by Bromyard-based folkie Roger Pugh, shares its sentiments with Lennon’s Imagine.
The album ends on a sort of shuffling Texicana guitar melody with Can’t Feel The Sunshine which, referencing the nursery rhyme Sing A Song of Sixpence, deals with the loss of childhood innocence and the disillusionment of love, a final downbeat note to an album that’s suffused with melancholia, wistful reflection and things lost to time. Thankfully, despite the delay in its arrival, this album wasn’t one of them.
Lost Legions is out now.
Available via www.philriley.org.uk