Brian Stone releasing his debut album is definitely a good reason to dust the cobwebs off the blog again – I was really chuffed when he got in touch to ask if I was still reviewing stuff. Admittedly I’m doing so much less fervently these days – so getting a download link and getting everything synced across to my phone felt quite exciting – I could get a few listens in before getting to grips with writing up a review. Also that residual nervousness, it’s a mate’s blood sweat and tears you’re being expected to somehow do justice to in words. Well, I’ll give it a go!
I was reflecting when I first got to know Brian, I think it was at a Gaz Brookfield gig in Oakham, Rutland when we first got talking a good few years ago now – about three and half years ago he and Karen kindly provided me a bed for the night after Ferocious Dog played Cambridge. After that gig he casually picked up his guitar apologetically before playing through some FD, Gaz Brookfield and Leatherat songs – always one to play down his talents – which quickly became a fixture around campfires and then of course stages over quite a short timespan really if you think about it!
What I particularly love about this album is the assemblage of lots of friends to add their instrumentation to the songs – it’s a risky prospect, we’re used to Brian in solo acoustic guise – but this is done really well, some songs have a full band sound, which don’t detract from the underlying tune, some remain stripped back – it’s all done very well (I was terrified to see Maty Tustian listed on backing vocals, for example!). The combination of Brian’s songwriting, the artists’ interpretations of that and the predictably awesome production Joel Howe lends to proceedings gives a polished but authentic collection of songs.
Bravely there’s no tracks from the EP from a couple of years ago reprised here – a couple from the live EP that followed last year do appear here, and rightly so – they are both well deserving of the studio treatment!
Title track Jack of all Trades opens proceedings – guitar and stomp box is classic Brian, an autobiographical reflection on a varied career and lifetime, and a desire for variety. Some clever rhymes in here (although there are lots of ation words I guess!). In his sleeve notes he asks whether his (in his view!) failure to excel at any of his past vocations casts doubt on a claim to be a musician now – I think he definitely is! As the tune develops some bass, drums (courtesy of Joel) and electric guitar beef up the finalé.
I’m Not might lead you to thinking there’s going to be a lot of self-depreciation going on here, but this is a fun tune – it references Nick Parker right at the start, and you can see there’s a bit of his influence here, I could imagine him tackling a song like this (and he’s also a master of self-depreciation and clever wordplay). Again there’s an underpinning of bass and drums from Joel, and now layered beautifully over the top is some fiddle from Jono Watts of Leatherat fame, with a beautiful instrumental. I think it is a love song, of sorts!
No Truck kicks in with some lovely lovely lovely finger-picked guitar – which is kind of a false start as it kicks in with a barnstorming stomp, charting the uprising in Wales against paying staff by means they could only spend on goods from the company rather than actual cash. As ever, when I compare I’m not suggesting plaigerism and maybe it’s the socialist underpinning too (and the spoken word section) brought Parson’s Lot to mind – although vocally Brian is a very different beast to Jethro! Again Joel adds bass and drums – you’ve got a proper moshable song!
When I saw the title Put a Sock in it! I wondered if it might be inspired by a young fella who will be familiar to lots of my festival friends, especially Pasta, but I think it’s just a happy coincidence! Again we start with finger-picked guitar – and again it kicks in to a livelier beat with drums and bass, with lyrics highlighting the need for us to pay stuff back and actually help rather than just offer empty platitudes – which I guess with the rise of social media we can all be guilty of at times. Jonny Wallis appears here too on backing vocals. Be the best that we can be – it’s not a bad mantra is it? I suspect this is inspired by the refugee crisis in Europe where I know Brian spent time volunteering.
It’s Down to Us has been making live appearances for a while – the title and chorus refrain is borrowed from Brian Haw. This is punchy from the off – with bass, drums and bodhran as well as a veritable choir of backing singers. There’s a cunning singalong device in there too where the instrumentation is stripped back over a clapping-track – there’s a few excellent potential crowd participation devices scattered around this album. It’s an absolutely irresistible foot-tapper and singalong number, I’ve thought that since I first heard it live to be fair – it really stands up well in the studio with the added layers.
Upon this Shore starts with some absolutely gorgeous guitar work – I love it, delicate picking, you can hear the fingers sliding up and down the fret board. Gentle vocals kick in and it’s a tribute to the wisdom of Brian’s father, gleaned I’m sure from a lifetime but particularly during time spent with him in his final few years. It’s absolutely beautiful in melody and sentiment – a wonderful tribute to a man who was clearly a huge influence – and a gentle reminder of the limited time we have on this crazy planet.
Perhaps necessarily the pace is picked right up for Give it Up with a full on drums and pass from Joel and bodhran from Maty along with Brian’s guitar. It’s a compelling argument for accepting some things you can’t control and things always change, and it’s pretty futile to resist it. Musically I can detect Leatherat-like vibes in there, then when the pre-chorus kicks in there’s a Leylines type of feeling too – all woven together neatly in a Brian Stone package who vocally is very different to either Pete or Steve. Awesome song.
Far from Home is a prequel to when Brian and Karen finally took perhaps the inevitable plunge and made their home on wheels so they were home whereever they went! It’s got an initial guitar riff reminiscent of a certain Mr Brookfield song, the percussion drops in gently along with bass and mandolin courtesy of Joel. Every troubadour needs an ‘on the road’ song – and ideally it needs to be a singalong one – and this delivers on that front in spades, it’s jolly and inspiring – travelling is more about the journey and the people than the destination in most cases. Much like life!
We’re back on the slow pace – Did She Know? is another slower track, and a tribute to Brian’s mother – another touchingly lovely dedication charting her life right through from childhood to its end. Clearly a strong and influential lady who was dealt some bloody tough cards early in life – as the song builds so do the layers, we have some bass and backing vocals which really add to the passion without taking away the personal sentiment – it must have been really tough to know whether they’d added ‘too much’ here – for my money they got it spot on, another beautiful tribute.
Interestingly the notes for Under the Sun suggest the chord progression sounds like a Gaz song – I’m not sure I can pin point which one, but certainly the observations in there that the sentiment is similar to his song Frank and Sam are apt. There’s only so many chords after all, but we’ve got a bit of clever picky bits in between – it might be true that all the best songs have already been written, but there’s always room for a few more. I quite liked that when he sings “I’ll sing my song, like an old song..” then drops a ‘ba-da ba bada ba!” in there which may or may not be a conscious reference back to Quiet Anarchist from the EP.
Sold Short starts with just guitar chords which almost sound like Gaz Brookfield’s Land Pirate’s Life, but then we get electric guitar stabs and bass and drums that take it somewhere else and pacy lyrics. It’s a damning appraisal of career politicians – now this is definitely a moshable song, I’d go so far as to say if you added a fiddle layer on here then you’d have a credible sequel to Ferocious Dog’s Spin here – not as in a soundalike, but a nice progression on the narrative and a very bouncy punky song. This is one of my favourites on here – so I’m glad he persisted with an ‘old song’ that didn’t make it onto his EPs according to the sleeve notes.
We draw to the end with a swashbuckling shanty – a full on sound with Maty on bodhran, Stevie Simpson on mandolin, Joel with mandolin, bass and drums and a big cast of backing vocal pirates – Another Rum Song isn’t exactly a sequel to Why is all the Rum Gone? but a continuation of the rum theme, which any self-professed pirate must life by – it charts an imaginary pirate voyage and name-checks many many English pubs along the journey. I was going to attempt to count them – and gave up. I also manage to feature on this track as I along with lots of other folks sent Brian an ‘arrr!’ recording!
And there we have it – twelve songs giving a rollercoaster of pace, sentiment and complexity – Brian showcases here that there’s more to his craft than a solo acoustic guy, there’s band arrangements in here, and it works brilliantly. And it’s wonderful that the folk who contributed these extra flourishes are all from the said same festival scene we’ve all come to love so much, including the excellent accompanying artwork created by Pete at Non Profit Print. This is a project I’ve been looking forward to the fruition of for ages, and it was well worth the wait – if you’ve not already pre-ordered then you’re going to want to get yourself a copy.
Jack of all Trades Master of None is out NOW and available from here. I’m sure that the usual digital outlets will follow in good time. Photos pinched from Brian’s website, and taken by Pete Connor, Chris Rollason and Naomi @ Bang to Rights.