Tombola – 28 April 2017
Jason McNiff, a London-based songwriter of Polish and Irish descent, has been a hidden gem in the British indie-folk scene for the last fifteen years or so, quietly and confidently building up a large body of consistently outstanding work. Rain Dries Your Eyes is a comprehensive two-disc retrospective with songs taken from his five albums, plus some new and unreleased tracks.
The material is presented with aesthetics rather than chronology in mind, and the songs range from early work like 1999’s Hang On To Your Woman (one of the first songs he ever wrote) and Woody’s Annie Hall right through to a host of recordings made in 2016. That it is difficult at first to distinguish a difference in quality between the old and the new songs speaks volumes for the consistency of McNiff’s vision. There is a clarity of purpose here that is rarely found, let alone maintained throughout a decade or so of music making.
The first disc opens with Off The Rails, a perfect introduction to McNiff’s well-travelled, bluesy folk. His voice is both tender and rough, a time-worn instrument, located somewhere near the imaginary midpoint between Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt and Ralph McTell. The lyrics are, on the face of it, standard fare, dealing as they do with life on the road and a kind of dislocation that is both geographical and personal, but McNiff’s ear for a sharp turn of phrase, a catchy chorus and an idiosyncratic description elevates this – and all of his songs – are way above your average troubadour. He is backed with subtle skill by Andy ‘Hank Dog’ Allan (guitar) and George Spence (drums). Allan also provides the riff for another song, the lovely, bittersweet Woody’s Annie Hall, a song full of neat and often self-deprecating one-liners that the great director himself would be proud of. To think that McNiff went from being a busker doing covers of Dylan and Cohen to writing a song as complete and as accomplished as this in little more than a year is enough to make anyone envious. Here is a singer-songwriter in full control of his artistic drive.
What is even more enviable is that he maintains this level of control right through to his most recent songs. Sun Comes Up, a brand new track, provides one of the record’s most touching and accomplished moments, while re-recordings of older songs – the gentle Mediterranean pastoral Sicily, for example – or recent reappropriations of old ideas (the evocative slow burn of closing track, Cairo) prove he is never content to rest on his laurels.
In places – like on the 2000 track Southbound Train – McNiff approaches the melodic acoustic guitar style of Paul Simon, but the melancholy use of folk instruments (notably Simon Stewart’s violin in this case) is more like Leonard Cohen’s mid-1970s output. Elsewhere he reminds us of his former life as a flamenco guitarist in a Spanish restaurant or surprises us with a light dusting of downtempo sax (a new recording of In Our Time) or cornet (A Different Word, a song that implodes and reignites a couple of times before coasting to its conclusion on an impressive electric guitar solo). Primarily though, that acoustic guitar is his weapon of choice, and he possesses a deft fingerpicking style that allows for a fusion of folk, blues and pop.
McNiff never allows himself to be hurried, preferring to let his narratives unfold naturally. Bob Dylan is an obvious reference point. The near-seven minutes of I Remember You could almost be an outtake from Blood On The Tracks, except that it’s way too good to be an outtake. Full band efforts like Another Man and Hat steer closer to Blonde On Blonde (but without the Dylanic vitriol), thanks in no small part to Andy Drummond’s quavering Hammond organ sound, while the Hemingway-inspired Blow Up The Bridge nods to the exotic storytelling of Desire.
But to peg McNiff as just another Zimmerman acolyte is to do him a great disservice. He is clearly very much his own man. Many of these songs are rooted firmly in the British Isles: Summertime In Soho is closer to Ray Davies than to most folk or Americana songwriters, at least in terms of lyrics. Musically speaking, a flamenco style guitar adds a whole new dimension. Students Of Love transposes melancholy alt-country to rainy Yorkshire, Coming Back To Life references Dickens’ A Tale Of Two CIties, and All Around America nails the homesick longing of a Brit abroad.
Part of his winning formula is his judicious choice of musical collaborators, exemplified here by Nobody’s Son, on which Emma Tricca takes the lead vocal. The result is one of the collection’s most beautiful moments: a miniature pearl of a song that could almost be a lost classic of the first wave of late-1960s folk-pop. Other guests include London brothers Daniel and Julian Wilson, better known as Grand Drive, who act as a backing band on Weeping Willows Weep, an alt-country standout with a big chorus and a bigger heart. Basia Bartz adds sympathetic violin to a number of tracks, while Simon Alpin’s lap steel adds another layer of authenticity to Pilgrim Soul.
McNiff’s songwriting is always sincere but never veers into preachiness or gets stuck in a rut. Much of this is down to an obvious restlessness that makes itself known both lyrically and musically throughout this collection. It is no accident that a good proportion of the songs on Rain Dries Your Eyes are written explicitly about the places he has visited as a musician – Cairo, Rome, New York, Sicily. He shares this peripatetic lifestyle with the travelling bluesmen and itinerant folkies of old, and to his credit, he more than holds his own in such company. This sizeable and well-chosen anthology is a timely reminder of the talents of one of our most underappreciated musicians and singers, and, for the uninitiated, provides a perfect jumping-off point from which to explore his extensive and varied back catalogue.
Rain Dries Your Eyes is Released April 28th, via Tombola
Pre-Order it here: www.piccadillyrecords.com
Rain Dries Your Eyes Track Listing
01) Off The Rails
02) Woody’s Annie Hall
03) Southbound Train
04) I Remember You
05) Another Man
06) Blow Up The Bridge
07) Hang On To Your Woman
08) Kissing In The Wind
09) Summertime In Soho
10) Marry Him
11) Nobody’s Son *featuring Emma Tricca
12) Adieu To Lausanne
13) Students Of Love
14) New York
16) Journey Home
01) In Our Time
02) Hills Of Rome
04) A Different Word
05) All Around America
08) Sun Comes Up
09) Coming Back To Life
10) Game Over
11) Heart Of A Poet
12) Bus Of Tears
13) Pilgrim Soul
14) The Picture
16) Weeping Willows Weep
17) Cairo (Stuck In The Past)
Jason McNiff Tour Dates
22 Apr Union Music Store Lewes
22 Apr Music’s Not Dead Bexhill
28 Apr The Institute Kelvedon
02 May Servant Jazz Quarters London
07 May Hastings Folk Festival Hastings
20 May Wood Festival Oxford
11 Jun The Apple Tree London
Photo CreditL Benni Carol Photography