Blair Dunlop – Notes from an Island
Gilded Wings Records – 18 May 2018
Way back in May 2011 I first saw a young, raw Blair Dunlop support Cara Dillon in Sevenoaks. The next evening I witnessed him play a stunning version of Canadee-I-O at the ‘In Search Of Nic Jones‘ tribute concert held at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. He impressed greatly on both occasions and I admit to having followed his musical career since then with great interest; and what an upward trajectory that career has taken.
Having taken over the reins of The Albion Band in 2011, with whom he released three albums, he folded the band to concentrate on his solo work, a strategy that proved successful, as evidenced by his winning the Horizon Award at the 2013 BBC Radio 2 Awards. Critically acclaimed releases with Rooksmere Records included 2011 E.P. Bags Outside The Door together with the debut and sophomore releases Blight and Blossom and House of Jacks, before 2016 saw him boldly setting up his own record label, Gilded Wing Records, for his third album Gilded.
The debut album displayed his obvious talents both as a guitarist and singer and hinted at his song-writer potential. With the second album, a concerted effort was made to fulfil this promise, with all but one tracks being self-composed. Gilded pushed the envelope even further as a discernable shift away from his folk roots was apparent, songs were more personal, elements of social critique evident and new spheres of musicality entertained.
What then of latest release Notes From An Island? Well it’s obvious that in all respects there has been a further development and that Blair’s creative journey continues to evolve at a pace, and whilst the release might not have severed completely the ‘folk’ ties, it certainly could be considered be a game changer in respect of, whether by design or accident, being likely to appeal to more, dare the words be uttered, ‘commercial’ media outlets. That is not to imply a criticism, in fact, the opposite, it is a testament to his on-going personal challenge for self-betterment and fulfilment.
Put simply, it is his most accomplished album so far.
‘Islands are metaphors of the heart’ asserted Jeanette Winterson in Sexing the Cherry. Here, in addition to a clever use of the word ‘notes’, the ‘island’ in the album’s title serves not only as a literal statement, referencing current pre-Brexit Britain and political isolationism but also as a metaphor for aspects of his personal life. The twelve songs presented cover themes such as love, both as an affirmative and negative experience, explorations and commentaries of a socio-political nature, together with ample helpings of his trademark guitar wizardry. Ably supported by Blair Dunlop Trio band-members Jacob JJ Stoney and Fred Claridge, the release also sees contributions from Gita Langley and Dave Burns, both of whom appeared on Gilded, the latter of whom receives two co-writing credits here. Production of the album, together with credits for bass, is by Gita’s husband, Ed Harcourt, and mighty fine it sounds too.
Opening track Spices From The East is truly sumptuous. On the surface it appears to be a song in which a couple are cooking a meal together, but scratch the surface, investigate the lyrics closely and much more is revealed; shady, unscrupulous and often violent episodes of our colonial past are revealed, and all over an exquisitely textured musical arrangement that begs for repeated plays.
The witty, Sweet On You, is the current single taken from the album. A more light-hearted love song, which, in addition to referencing early Americana influences on his musical upbringing, is also apparently based on personal experience. Lyrically it not only reflects on the skin-deep qualities of a previous girlfriend but also the coy admission that her mother held a greater attraction…’If I had the choice between you and your mother, I know which one I’d choose.’
Other offerings, however, point to more painful experiences, as the complexities of relationships are dissected and laid bare with a maturity which belies his years. The melancholic tone of Feng Shui may allude to the forlorn re-positioning of furniture in order to help preserve a relationship, but the underlying message appears to be one of futility…’Installing fixtures that were never meant to fit. There are scars from when we threw things across the room.’
Whilst Threadbare may hint at optimism ‘I don’t know what love is but I know it’s out there’ on the sparsely delivered I Do¸ with its plaintive ‘I will never find anyone fit to hold a candle to you I love you, I still love you. I do. I do’ the anguish is palpable, leaving not only the singer but also the listener emotionally drained.
The ability to move, both sonically and lyrically, from light to shade, and even darkness, is a great strength and is well exemplified on this recording. From the majesty of One And the Same, which utilises the supporting musicians to the full, to Green Liquor addressing the situation existing in London whereby premises sit vacant whilst homeless seek refuge, through Cobalt Blue which reflects upon his increasing affinity for, and popularity in, Australia, (as denoted in part of the album art), to Pallet and Brush, which is a beautifully conceived and performed song showcasing what a fine guitarist Blair is, the music and lyrics, including some outstanding rhymes, are of the highest quality throughout.
Over the course of writing this review, I have now listened to the CD in its entirety no less than nine times, and each listening has been a revelation – it really is the musical equivalent of the proverbial onion – peel away one layer and some new treasure is revealed on the next.
Always presented as an intelligent, deeply thoughtful artist and performer. This shift to more introspective material merely confirms not only his latent talent but also that, with Notes From An Island, his journey as one of our foremost singer-songwriters continues to be in the ascendancy.
Notes from an Island is released on 18 May via Gilded Wing Records http://smarturl.it/blairdunlopalbum
For details of upcoming tour dates and more visit: http://blairdunlop.com/