Monday, November 02, 2015

Heart meets sleeve: Guy Garvey's Courting The Squall

​Some people just can't catch a break. Take Phil Collins (and I already know the punchline to that proposition): last week he informed Rolling Stone that he will be coming out of retirement, prompting an instant spew of predictably ill-informed invective, much of it from people who, loving a bandwagon, have probably never stopped to think of why they dislike him so.

Of course, there was a time, in the mid-1980s, when his ubiquity was such that familiarity bred understandable contempt. Collins was everywhere - Top Of The Pops, your local arena, Live Aid (twice), your local cinema (both acting and singing), even an episode of Miami Vice. He even grew tired of himself, and it showed with the increasingly self-derivative nature of his solo musical output into the decade that followed.

To the mainstream media he was the rock star who'd forged his solo career out of one divorce, and fuelled it via the next two. The net effect is that he became regarded as a fey, middle-of-the-road Cliff Richard hate figure, loved by grannies and bland local radio stations in equal measure.

Which is a shame, as he is - or at least was, before a crippling spinal condition - one of rock’s most gifted drummers and stage performers, a highly underrated producer and, some of his schmaltz not withstanding, a brilliant pop songwriter. He has even been feted by the hip-hop community, which has often cited Face Value for its multiple influences on their sound.

I only attempt this defence of the near-indefensible because of Collins' predilection for intimate, heart-on-sleeve-honest lyrics, an attribute he shares with Guy Garvey. I'm not, by the way, making a direct musical comparison between the two, although at risk of being tenuous, they do have a common denominator in Peter Gabriel. Collins, of course, drummed behind Gabriel in Genesis, then took over as lead singer, worked with him on solo albums, and was even best man at his wedding. Garvey, on the other hand, has been a lifelong Gabriel fan, and even recorded with Elbow at Gabriel’s Real World Studios. As I said, no apologies for being tenuous.

There is, though, a more tangible link between Gabriel's idiosyncrasies and the way Garvey has gone about Courting The Squall, his brilliantly engaging new side project. Because it’s an album that weaves in and out of different textures in a varying topography of soundscaping and tempo. To one ear it's conventional pop, luxuriated by Garvey's vocals, sung in a register not that dissimilar to Gabriel's. To another, its a wonderful exploration of jazz-like avoidance of linear pop, all without signing up fully to the avant garde of music’s awkward squad.

Elbow have, on occasion, courted the same lighters-ahoy arena space that Coldplay still dominate, somewhat bafflingly, but here Garvey seems to be having the time of his life dipping into a much broader palette and being seemingly unrestrained as to what goes on the canvas. This may come from his collaborators, Pete Jobson from I Am Kloot and The Whip’s Nathan Sudders. As so often is the case with side projects - or even full-blown solo debuts - the protagonist will often appear refreshed from working with different faces.

As you will find on I Am Kloot and The Whip's records, and those of New Order, Doves, Johnny Marr - the list goes on - there is something about the music of Greater Manchester that is present here on Bury-born Garvey's record. It's a slight coldness, a grey-skied, slightly damp ambience. On Courting The Squall - Garvey, usually described by journalists as a lovable bear of a fella, adds the emotional warmth that has made Elbow so popular, amongst critics and the music-buying public, something lacking in Collins' relationship with his detractors.

The album’s lead-in single and first track, Angela’s Eyes, sets the quirky tone, bouncing like Tom Waits at his most vaudeville with retro guitars and a blasting synth solo, releasing a pent-up tension, perhaps from the ending of Garvey's relationship with writer Emma Jane Unsworth, which informs much of the album. "I'm a believer in a perfect girl in a world of brazen lies," he opines, later on concluding "In a house full of robbers and thieves, no sign from the zodiac. No. And I want my fucking money back - yeah!".

Two songs later, and Harder Edges continues this liberation, albeit with more bluesier brass. It's not quite the typical breakup album - far from it (but then again, Collins always maintains that Face Value had more to do with his new relationship that the first wife who'd run off with the decorator), as Unwind demonstrates with its delicate, smokey ambience and the plaintive question: "Can we find the trust we need just to unwind?".

English songwriters have often been accused of avoiding matters of the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, to quote WB Yeats. For Garvey, it's never been a problem. Thus, Belly Of The Whale, with its bonkers brass accompaniment, and narrative about a house, of all things, is as personal and as confessional as it is possible to be, but still doesn't resort to the maudlin and melancholic, like Harder Edges, using its funk-brass almost sub-consciously to make the personal nature of its words standout.

Further confession appears with Yesterday - a bold choice of song title for anyone coming out of the English north-west - in which Garvey's Bury accent coats a noirish Tom Waits-style of misbehaviour during the night before, followed by a hint of Catholic regret in the morning, a contemplation of the push and pull of romance.

There is little - if anything - to find wrong in Courting The Squall. If there is one misfire, it's Electricity. David Gilmour's recent Rattle That Lock album contained a cod lounge jazz number that, while earnest in its intention, just didn't seem right for the singer or the project. Similarly, Electricity- in which Garvey duets with American jazz/folk/blues singer Jolie Holland, faithfully recreates the bourbon-drenched atmosphere of a backstreet speakeasy, but doesn't seem to fit the rest of the album's enjoyable unevenness.

Where Garvey does venture successfully for the downbeat mood, it is Juggernaut, with its shimmering piano chords and the sense of a Sunday morning yet to fully come to life...perhaps before those windows are thrown wide. Moreover, it's a song, slap-bang in the middle of this ten-track album which anchors Garvey's emotion while providing flight from a relationship that just wasn't working.

We Brits aren't meant to wear our hearts on our sleeves, least of all big, burly Mancunians. Another burly Brit, my musical hero John Martyn, wore his to the extent that his ex-wife Beverley once said that he'd put so much emotion into his songwriting that there was nothing left for her.

Martyn and, yes, Phil Collins spent the denuement of their respective first marriages wallowing in drink and songwriting, leveraging emotional turmoil to produce some of their best work. Garvey, with Courting The Squall, has perhaps followed a similar course. The key difference is that this is an album that messes with your expectations. It is not one of whiney "I miss you ballads" or saxophone-encrusted slow dances. It is peculiarly English, particularly Mancunian, and a liberating joy.

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