A song for everyone..
I feel a bit vindicated in taking a while to get this review out the blocks because I’ve waited for ages for Shanks’ Pony to get some of their songs recorded! I can’t remember exactly when I first saw them play, but I know it wasn’t long after I’d first got into Ferocious Dog, I have a vague memory of my first sight of a cajón in use at The Black Market Venue in the murky past – and ever since then I like many of you have had to make do with getting to see them live and not be able to listen in the comfort of our own homes.
But no longer! We knew an album was in progress and then suddenly a Facebook post announced we could order – so that’s what I did and greedily eyed the letterbox at home until it arrived – clad in a delightfully designed cover (courtesy of Kezia Parsons) depicting the band in a woodland scene. I eagerly grabbed the CD out of the case and got it ripped onto a device I could play loudly – whilst the technical stuff was happening I cast an eye down the track list – eight songs all familiar titles (and will help with me trying to translate their impossible set lists in future, haha!).
Top of the World is up first, kicking in with Bob’s distinctive drumming intro then layered in some staccato guitar strums from Paul and then the fiddle instrumental builds up for the vocals, I’m sure I remember this song documents an event at Harefield Hall (I know Dean has said more than once during a live airing that he was there!). You don’t really have to be familiar with the precise events chronicled though – lots of name-checking of now familiar artists – plus Edward Tudor-Pole in there too..
Never Kissed a Girl kicks in with guitar and fiddle, that fiddle refrain is lovely (and often picked up by Paul and the crowd as a singalong device in live performances), soon enough we’ve percussion then vocals painting a nostalgic and evocative picture of growing up in the 70s and 80s. It oozes the kind of innocence that the title implies, recalling largely the challenges but also the simple pleasures of the time that made such inconveniences tolerable. There’s some mandolin work in here from Paul too in the extended instrumental before a pace change for a middle eight – then back to the original pace. One of my favourites.
It’s great to hear Rollercoaster recorded – it’s properly anthemic, I remember Paul playing it round a campfire at Farmer Phil’s a few years ago now describing it as ‘a newish ‘un’ – just guitar and vocals to start, a desperate refrain of a patient man reaching breaking point, soon the cajón gently joins before kicking in properly for the first chorus, then a lifting fiddle instrumental helps to underline the optimistic lilt in the insistence that whilst there might be troubles in life, we must cherish those high times too – so ultimately you’re left with an optimistic feeling rather than a gloomy one you might’ve expected from the opening.
High Street Sell Out is a bit grumpier in tone – more muted vocals kick in over a beat with guitar, accompanied by some playful fiddle. Ultimately charting the decline of peripheral towns (Sutton in Paul’s case I think, but you could easily project the sentiment onto countless other small town high streets overwhelmed by charity shops and takeaways). It’s a lament to the loss of industry across the north, and the knock-on effects that this has had throughout these areas with communities eroding and pubs closing. There’s a great bit when the strings drop out just leaving vocals and a beat to really drive the point home.
You’re counted in to Final Breath then a guitar instrumental reminiscent of Levellers’ Come On starts and it’s a stand out song – it’s charting the death of Margaret Thatcher and reflects on the malign impact her legacy wrought on the kinds of place around areas of North Nottinghamshire. Even though this is undoubtedly accusatory Paul is still gracious enough to apologise for not shedding a tear at her demise – the instrumental driven by soaring fiddle gives some pace and lift, a final verse and then a return to that pacier jig – the whole song somehow more scathing in that it didn’t descend to anger or abuse. It’s almost like the dreaded ‘I’m not angry, I’m just really disappointed’ speech you might’ve experienced from a teacher or a parent!
Special Brew is one of two probably signature tunes for Shanks’, it starts with background chatter before the music kicks in. It’s one of the staple songs about the kinds of messes we get in at festivals from time to time. During a gig people go and claim a can from the stage when one of their moments of weakness is chronicled – I love the simplicity of this, vocals traded with fiddle refrains, all backed by a fairly constant guitar and cajón beat – it just leaves you mentally grinning particularly when it gets to the bit where Mark would normally head on over to claim his ill-gotten can!
Next up is Poacher’s Moon – often a set-starter, kicking in with a Big Bob beat, then some lone guitar strums before that twelve string of Paul’s kicks in properly, and is eventually joined by fiddle for a solid and foot-tapping minute of instrumental goodness before you’re back down to the drum beat and disparate strums, then the song kicks in proper – I started trying to count the references to so many songs I’ve come to know and love by bands like Levellers, Ferocious Dog (even one that’s gonna be on The Red Album too! See if you can identify that!), The Waterboys or Rev Hammer and countless other classics. It gives the album its title as well.
I’m sure I saw mention that there were 43 in there. It’s the one I always call Good Old English Folk Song when I cover live gigs, so there’s a lesson learned! If nothing else this is a testament to Paul’s ability to remember lyrics too. Finally you reach the end with Wild As She Grows – guitar opens and then the percussion kicks in – a gentle and melodic folk song with subtle fiddle backing before the instrumental section kicks in after a minute, it’s a lovely way to ease you to the end of the album. Nostalgic in feel again, it has a kind of sad refrain to it somehow, but without being grumpy – it’s infused with beauty and perhaps a tinge of sadness for what has passed (or maybe I’m reading too much into it!).
It’s definitely been worth the wait – my one and only complaint is half alluded to further up, I mentioned that Special Brew is one of two signature tunes for Shanks’ Pony, so I must admit I’m surprised at the absence of their other one – the inimitable Moshpit Waltz. Maybe that’s being saved up for what will hopefully be the next album! It’s a relatively small complaint though – Joff Spittlehurst has done a great job at producing something that sounds polished but authentic to the kind of sound the band produce live (which is generally pretty polished, to be fair!). All that’s missing is the bunch of nutters dancing about at the front.
But you can soon remedy that by dancing about in your lounge. If you’ve not got this already, then why on earth not? You’ve had ages! Huge well done to Paul, Helen and Big Bob for such a splendid collection of songs.