Like Two Weeks Last Summer, The Boy In The Sailor Suit is an album of some gorgeous contrasts. As you'd expect from an album produced by Chris Tsangarides (whose list of credits includes Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest) there are some heavy rock treatments, but there are also some gentle romantic moments too. Dave has put together what he feels (and I agree) are some of the best songs he's written in years and has brought together a thoroughly sympathetic bunch of musicians to bring them to life.
As we all know, the Blue Angel Orchestra was formed as a band for a one-off show to close 2006's Deal Folk Festival, Cousins at the helm, with ace fiddle player Ian Cutler, guitarist Miller Anderson and rhythm section Chas Cronk and drummer Chris Hunt. Though the first show was, as Dave puts it "scary" owing the minimalist rehearsal schedule involved, they went down a storm on the night with a mixture of rarely heard Cousins material, including songs from Two Weeks Last Summer - their namesake song "Blue Angel" and some other songs, including DC's take on Marlene Dietrich and the delta blues, and showcases for Ian Cutler ("Orange Blossom Special") and Miller Anderson ("House Of The Rising Sun").
What was obvious that night was that they were all enjoying themselves hugely; that apparent enjoyment continued to be highly visible when they regrouped for the last Christmas Party, playing behind both DC and then DL for his finale rock and roll standards set. So, an obvious call therefore for DC, when considering who to use for his second solo album - Miller had played on his first; he and the rest of the band were definitely up for it.
Rehearsals over a few days in Teddington, then a tight recording schedule at Chris Tsangarides' studio just up the coast from Deal. The whole thing, recording and mixing, was done within a week, the band laying down tracks for the first three days, then DC recording the vocals on the fourth day. And, Dave says, that's not an insane "all-nighter" regime - they recorded from 10am-6pm and then settled down to enjoy each other's company in the relaxed environment that made Cousins fall in love with his new home town of Deal.
Most of the tracks were pretty much recorded live on the first or second take, a few overdubs here and there to thicken out the sound. The resulting spontaneity definitely comes through, yet the band's playing is tight and crisp, as you'd expect from a bunch this professional. The rhythm section sound as though they've been playing together for years, Chris playing in a variety of styles from hefty rock drums through light shuffle rhythms to gentle snare side hits as necessary. And we all know how good a bass player Chas is .....
The vocals are fairly prominent too, a very good thing in my view (the only failing IMHO of Two Weeks being that the vocals were often completely swallowed up). Mastered by Chas and sent off to the pressing plant a few days later, Boy is a highly accomplished album with which to celebrate Dave's 40th year of recording activity. Some touching poignant songs, some interesting personal references (on which he won't be drawn - think what you will) hidden beneath the surface of some polished lyrical work. And some rockers, as heavy if not more so than "The Actor" from Two Weeks. Whatever the style, some great instrumental interplay between his two solo players Ian and Miller, who trade off and work with each other as well as those Lambert/Willoughby Strawbs guitar duets of yesteryear.
Never Take Sweets From A Stranger - Starts with a little guitar and fiddle figure, this is a story song, with a twist in the end - a bit like a Roald Dahl story set to music. Won't spoil the story or ending. The closing instrumental section offers first a guitar workout for Miller and duetting fiddle/guitar.
Mellow Moon - One of Cousins' breathy romantic numbers, a little bit Tex-Mex, with Hawaiian slide guitar. Middle eight haunting fiddle break. Drumming very light, some nice little cymbal fills from time to time.
The Smile You Left Behind - Possibly my favourite - classic DC song structure - if you heard someone else do it, you'd still know it was written by him. DC guitar figure, in tuning. Very simple, DC vocal over guitar. Chorus introduces haunting fiddle. Reprise of intro figure before third verse. Some great lyrics - "Sailor boys were never ones to wait". A slight feel of "When You Were A Child" from Two Weeks in the vocal style.
Calling Out My Name - Written by DC, but with some late night inspiration from Ian. Some great backing vocals from two local Deal girl singers Frances and Elizabeth (could sound good with Strawbs backing vcls too). Some tasty guitar from Miller in the middle eight. Salvador Dali written into a love song.
Mother Luck - The first of the "heavy" ones, a driving riff, and some great interplay between guitar and fiddle, Cousins' spitting out the enigmatic lyrics, including references from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, including a mention of Rules' restaurant in Maiden Lane, where Edward VII and his mistress Lily Langtry canoodled in an upstairs room.
Wish You Were Here - Lilting fiddle intro, with some gentle guitar over a gentle shuffle rhythm, a lovely thirties seaside "naughty postcard" feel (there are some of these on display in the pub across from DC's house). Echoes of Deal - "a walk along the promenade, tinted pastel shades", "the kids were playing for pennies, in the kiss-me-quick arcades". A classic Cousins song model with a changing chorus section, developing the storyline.
Skip To My Lou - True folky start, with Ian on "folky" fiddle, with rhythm section coming in. Think the acoustic treatment of "Hero And Heroine" with added fiddle. Middle eight, screeching Miller solo, then fiddle picks up melody. Nice instrumental close, again with Ian carrying the melody on fiddle over a bodhran-stryle drum beat. On balance, the folk feel probably suits the song better than the treatment on its previous outing with Conny Conrad's band Dark Ocean.
Lonely Days, Lonely Nights - Some heavy fuzz guitar opens the track, sparring with Ian's effect-laden fiddle. (I was thinking Black Sabbath!) But the Sabbath riff gives way to a quiet bridge, the verse opening quietly and building to the noisy chorus. Lots of light and shade here, and some great lyrical touches: "a legacy of lemons and limes", "an orchestrated chorus of crimes" and "a recipe of riddles and rhymes".
Bringing In The Harvest - An acoustic guitar figure intertwined with fiddle opens the song, Miller supplying some tastefully muted noodlings. This is a stately, almost hymnal song, a feeling enhanced by churchy organ played by Witchwood Media director Tony Attwood, throughout, with a nice understated solo before the final verse. Started but not finished back in the 70s (we found a very short piano demo in the archives), this has been developed to celebrate the work of those in the Garden of England who harvest the crops.
Hellfire Blues - Those who've seen the BAO live will recognise this - Dave Cousins turns to the classic blues - a similar tune to "Backwater Blues", but with words written by DC. The tight rhythm section and Miller keep this truckin' along, Ian takes the first solo, the second is by Chris Bell, piano player and landlord from The Deal Hoy (who played at the first BAO gig). Miller's solo, the third is a tour de force, hard to believe it was recorded live in one go. The final playout is an opportunity for some more riffing amongst members of the band.
The BAO are very interested in doing some live shows - they're already working out how they're going to present some of the new songs in a live environment (given the live nature of the recording, should be pretty straightforward!). Whilst I was there, DC starting making arrangements for the BAO to play a Sunday lunchtime show in Deal in August (after the Strawbs activity earlier in the month). And they're fixed up for the Christmas Party - watch this space for more announcements about the BAO and some other possible sub-groupings. The fun starts here ......
Although it has some rocking parts, this more of a laid back effort. Some styles, melodies and song structures are familiar, but overall it doesn't sound like any other Strawbs album, and it's quite different from Dave's 'High Seas'. It's also puzzling I can hear some unusual influences (american folk, mediterranean feeling and even the already mentioned Knopfler playing by Miller Anderson). The production is quite good, and Dave's voice is again good and confident after the problems I had with 'Deja Fou'.
>Never Take Sweets from a Stranger: One of my favourites, most of you already know it. It's also the best song for the violin-guitar arrangements.
Mellow Moon: A pleasant little song. Not my favourite, as I really don't like the hawaiian influences. It's as if "Hard, Hard Winter" from Deep Cuts had been written about 'A Nice, Nice Summer'
The Smile You Left Behind: I agree with Dick Greener about this song. I usually enjoy more the epics and complex tracks, but this simple song is a highlight of the album. The lyrics and the singing are very good. Sorry to say it again, but the guitar lines remind me a Mark Knopfler instrumental from the 'Wag the Dog' soundtrack...
Calling Out My Name: Similar to "Mellow Moon", a mid-tempo song. It's pleasant, and it will probably grown on me after the expected 110th listening, but right now it's far from being a favourite.
Mother Luck: The rocking number. Not bad, but not very original, and it lacks the sense of melody of, say, "The Actor".
Wish You Were Here: Maybe my favourite of the 'laid back songs' triad (with "Mellow Moon" and "Calling Out...") After hawaiian and mediterranean sounds, this one sounds more like, as Dick said, '30's Seaside'. A nostalgic and uplifting song.
Skip To My Lou: The celtic song. And another of my favourites. The chorus is really catchy: my (almost) wife and I danced to it when it started playing.
Lonely Days, Lonely Nights: A puzzling song. The beginning of chorus reminds me the 'Yipee Kay Ye' section of "Raiders In The Sky"! But then it starts again in a more familiar Cousins territory. I still have to listen to it more...
"Bringing In The Harvest": Knopfler again in the guiter playing ("Why Worry") for a good song (nice melody and lyrics) which I think could have benefited from a bit of a build up at the end to match the anthemic lyrics.
Hellfire Blues: You guessed it, blues rock. I don't like blues, so...
Overall, a nice summer album that will probably grow on me. I may miss a bit of the drama of "The Call To Action" or the strings of "Two Weeks Last Summer", but I really wasn't expecting them in this record.
Very much echoing the sentiments of those who have already reviewed The Boy In The Sailor Suit, this album definitely does it for me. I consider the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts, although the parts themselves are all of a high standard and frequently excellent. Lyrically, many of the songs are highly intriguing and brim with nostalgia, romance, sleaze, religion, the afterlife and the peaks and troughs of love. Many will have read or heard that the album is deeply personal for Dave Cousins and involves references to family members and life histories; speculation about inspirations is bound to run and run though such conundrums may never be unravelled. No matter; the songs are all strong and capable of sparking emotional responses without revelation of "meanings" (though that didn't seem to hamper debate between Calli, Pete and me at the weekend!).
Several of the songs are musically reminiscent of sounds of the thirties or forties, reflecting the eras to which they refer. However, although this is a Dave Cousins solo album (stylishly aided and abetted by The Blue Angel Orchestra), as with Strawbs' albums I find the wide variety of genres, instruments, playing styles, and sentiments represented to be hugely appealing.
Ok then, a brief run through my own personal take on each track:
Never Take Sweets From A Stranger; the old adage is given a new and intriguing twist. Good storyline song with Ian Cutler's highly infectious electric fiddle; excellent bass and drums on this track too from Chas Cronk and Chris Hunt respectively.
Mellow Moon – mellow is here the perfect descriptor – the song is laid-back and dreamily "Hawaiian" sounding (and slightly "Titanic" for a split second). The song evokes notions of bygone eras of romance, though darker references provide some obscurity. Great guitar – not sure if pedal steel is used (it's not mentioned) but it sounds vaguely reminiscent of one of my local bands, The Kursaal Flyers, who used the pedal steel sound a lot. Dave Cousins sings the song beautifully and though it is so difficult and seems a bit unfair to keep picking out individual instruments for their particular contributions, I do again love the bass on this track.
Surely not many could fail to be touched by the sentiments of the third track, The Smile You Left Behind. The song is achingly beautiful and provokes reflection upon life's frequent unkindness where love and loss are concerned. Poignant lyrics, extremely touchingly sung, are enhanced by uncomplicated instrumentation.
Calling Out My Name is another fairly gentle song which again lyrically highlights the bitter-sweet nature of parted love. A very attractive song with lovely instrumentation and gorgeous harmonies.
Producer and engineer Chris Tsangarides' heavy metal background influences become more apparent on the next track, Mother Luck which has largely unfathomable (to me) lyrics to ponder. If I had to pick a least favourite track this would be it though I don't actually dislike the song – some great guitar, just not terribly appealing to me personally.
Wish You Were Here follows; some Django Reinhardt style guitar, lots more lyrical puzzles involving references to quaintly old-fashioned English seaside towns…propriety and sleaze…and could one of the ghosts which have reportedly been laid in this song even refer back to the "Never Take Sweets" storyline? Or not? Whatever - lovely bass once again.
Skip To My Lou involves more unashamedly infectious electric fiddle; I'd love to be in the middle of a big crowd jumping around to this somewhere. Predictability is nicely thrown out of kilter by some nice guitar. Interesting lyrically.
Lonely Days, Lonely Nights is a terrific, fairly rocky, song credited to Cousins/Conrad. The start slightly reminds me of Golden Earring, but the song very quickly veers off on its own multiple directions, again with some excellent guitar and lots of style changes. I like Dave's vocals on this a lot and the mix sounds perfect to me.
Bringing In The Harvest has a "kindly face of religion" feel thanks largely to reverential vocals and an old-fashioned church organ sound provided by Tony Attwood. However, bountiful Mother Nature lyrics shift to harsher realities and sacrificed lives. Could provide good material for children's choirs and God-slot television, methinks.
Finally, the album finishes with Hellfire Blues; I love the way Dave sings this, the rhythm section work together beautifully and, as ever, Miller Anderson has provided some immensely sympathetic guitar. Additionally, there is a great bluesy piano break from Chris Ball. I usually enjoy blues music but frequently consider the lyrical content to be rather boring and predictable; no such worries on this track with its powerful war imagery. Combined with top-class musicianship and distinctive vocals, I consider this song to be superb.
On this album the music frequently seems to conflict with lyrical content on several of the songs; this is not a criticism however, but seems to add a further twist to lyrical intrigue. The sound on the entire album is absolutely excellent, really even and smooth, and the cd is accompanied by a lovely little booklet with interesting artwork and some excellent photography from Geraldine Parkinson, together with all the lyrics. Top marks to Dave Cousins and all involved in the making of "The Boy In The Sailor Suit" for daring to be daring.
I'm at risk here of being accused of being sycophantic, but I promise that I would say if I didn't like anything about this album. There really is little bad that I could say about The Boy In The Sailor Suit, however. It truly is a beautiful record. There is a wide mixture of various styles. Something for every discerning taste.
The album should really have been called Ghosts, but unfortunately someone else had already used that title. Ghosts seem to feature heavily throughout the tracks.
The first few times that I listened to "Never Take Sweets From a Stranger" I thought that it was a simple ghost story that DC was telling, but then I started to think that it sounded very autobiographical, and so wondered whether the girl with the golden hair might be Sandy Denny, and the rather graphic lyrics might be a reverse euphemism for the beautiful music that he and Sandy made. The more I listen though, the more I doubt that the song is about Sandy. The song is in a major key, and the infectious violin riff is far too cheerful for the song to be about her passing..
The theme of Ghosts continues with "Mellow Moon". If you have listened to "Deep In The Darkest Night" on "High Seas" (and if you haven't I strongly urge you to do listen to it as soon as possible), you'll know that when Dave's brother died he thinks of him as now looking down from a distant star. The mellow moon is handcuffed to a chain of ghosts, our friends across the milky way, and now they shine more brightly every day. Every day more of our friends pass over and become ghostly stars shining in the sky. Very beautiful Hawaiian guitar on this track. My only complaint is that occasionally the tune reminds me of the song "Talula" from Bugsy Malone.
"The Smile You Left Behind" describes the death of Dave's father and it is deeply emotional. It is difficult to hold back the tears, particularly when he says, "I know, because I've seen it in his book". DC was too young at the time, and now most of his memories of his father are second hand from books or photographs. There are some creaks made by the sound of fingers scraping up the fretboard, which sound like someone choking back tears. Not an easy song to listen too, but exceptionally beautiful.
The "Her" who Dave can hear "Calling Out My Name", is a Mediterranean beach, presumably one where DC went on holiday once. The song has loads of references to Dali, so I would guess it is a beach in Catalonia, perhaps one captured in a Dali painting, still haunted by Dali and Gala.
"Mother Luck" is a heavy rocker. To date, the lyrics are far too cryptic for me to say what this song is about, but again there is a strong ghost theme here: "Peer into the shadows, you may see them in the gloom."
"Wish You Were Here" is perhaps my favourite song on this album. I feel that it would have been better if this had been the last track on the album, as it is about Dave having exorcised his ghosts and finally accepting his lot in life. Just as 1984 ends with Winston Smith finally reaching acceptance, this would have made a good ending to The Boy in The Sailor Suit. The song has to be heard in conjunction with "Down By The Sea". In the 70's Dave visited Deal and became aghast at the thought of all those thousands of people conforming in their little boxes, but now he too is one of them. There is something very Dylanesque about the lyrics, (maybe something like Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts), the way that the chorus uses the same characters, has the same rhymes, but is different each time.
Again, "Skip to My Lou" is too cryptic for me to be able to say what the song is about. Although I am no fan of Michael Flatley and wouldn't be seen dead at a ceilidh, this one might even tempt me to do-si-do at a barn dance. Musically, this is another very cheerful sound, but the lyrics again have a very sad feel about them. "Did you hear me my little one, calling you by the way of the moon?" Could this be another ghost handcuffed to a distant star? I love the lyric: "The speed of sand". Reminds me of "Till the Sun Comes Shining Through": - the hourglass sand that runs so free is rock that failed to halt the waves of time.
"Lonely Days and Lonely Nights" is credited to Cousins and Conrad. It's almost a rock anthem, starting like something from Deep Purple, but with some gentle soft violin breaks in between.
Close your eyes whilst the first few verses of "Bringing in the Harvest" is playing and you can see Ma Larkin's bounteous table, brimming with all manner of Kentish produce. Fruit, (including Strawberries), beer, (from the hops), and maybe the odd pheasant or two. As well as the harvest from the fields though, there is also the harvest from the sea. The lyrics get darker as the subject changes to storm tossed fishing vessels. This song could easily be used as a hymn at a Harvest Festival, but it is even more poignant with the line: "Where Shipwrecked Sailors Sleep". This song could be about Dave's father again.
I know I said that "Wish You Were Here" should have been the last track on the album, but I can see why "Hellfire Blues" is used as the closing number. It is a truly brilliant blues number, with a roaring bass line from Chas, and an inspired guitar solo from Miller Anderson. The ghost theme, so prevalent on this album, is here too. "I looked out to sea through the silent airman's eyes. God rest his soul for the ever open skies."
This album is a true masterpiece. Let's hope we don't have to wait another thirty years for Ghosts III.
We ordered our copy of DC's most recent offering via Witchwood, so got the couple of freebies - which was a treat, as freebies usually are. I will be honest and felt they were a bit of a shock! I love Two Weeks Last Summer , and I suppose expected more of the same - which they were not. This made me a bit apprehensive about what was going to land on our doorstep - maybe that influenced my eventual feelings of this album.
On first hearing, I concentrated on the words - again DC's poetry is always personal and maybe a little mischievous with its probable hidden meanings, which to someone as nosey as me, is intriguing and the hobby psychiatrist in me, starts working overtime. Once I had pulled myself together I started to hear it for what it is - a fabulous cycle ride through life - not just DC's but maybe bits of mine. I adore the way the style of each track changes, promoting new experiences, feelings and images everytime. The album is inspired and inspiring, from each piece of music, each piece of poetry, each vocal style, and the contribution of each inspirational musician.
I love Two Weeks Last Summer and this could maybe, just possibly, be a fraction better or maybe it just hit the spot at the moment - who knows, who cares, it is wonderful. Thanks DC, Chas Cronk, Ian Cutler, Miller Anderson, Chris Hunt, Chris Ball & Tony Attwood.